It only seems like yesterday that students were breaking up from school for the summer. I was so pleased to see how well pupils did in their A-Levels and GCSEs last month. I know how difficult the past 18-months has been for them all. I hope that the autumn term gets off to a great start and wish students, parents and teachers the very best.
I have long campaigned for better maternity services so I was really concerned to hear last week that the rating for maternity services across the Hospital Trust has moved from good to requires improvement following an unannounced inspection from the Care Quality Commission. It is clear that the inspection of the service was focused in its approach, looking at the safety of the maternity service provided by the Trust across its three sites at the John Radcliffe, the Horton and in Chipping Norton.
There are clearly some key learning points and improvements to be made. I was really worried to learn that information about transfer times from community settings is not readily available. The safety of mothers and their babies has always been the top priority. While time of transfer has been raised time and again with the Trust and the local ambulance service, from whom we have sought assurances that adequate measures are in place, the CQC’s report makes it clear that more needs to be done immediately. I plan to meet the CQC to discuss the contents of their report in the weeks ahead, and have also written to the Chief Executive of the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Dr Bruno Holthof, to underline my concerns and offer my support, where appropriate.
The relationship between the Trust and those of us who support the Horton has not always been easy. However, in recent months we do seem to have turned a corner and are united in our desire for the Horton to get the funding it needs to improve its outdated facilities. After the 2019 General Election, the Government announced that it had set aside funding to go towards the creation of 40 new hospitals. The latest - and final - round of bids opened just before the summer and the Trust has been working hard on an Expression of Interest (EOI) for the Horton which was going in front of Board members on Wednesday 8 September. While still in its very early stages, the EOI sets out a vision for the hospital to improve its facilities, making them fit for purpose and capable of serving our growing population. We need to do all that we can in the months ahead to unite behind the vision, engage with the finer details and show our support for our hospital.
July flew by: we moved to Step 4 of the roadmap, marking the start of a new phase of caution, managing the risks as best we can. Lots of constituents contacted me about the lifting of restrictions, with some expressing concerns about a further opening up. Coronavirus isn’t going away, so we do need to learn to live with it. There is no optimum time to relax the restrictions, but with the natural break of the school holidays and the summer months, it does give us the opportunity to see how we can manage the disease ahead of the autumn and winter. I continue to receive regular briefings from our local public health officials and feed back to my Ministerial colleagues when necessary.
I enjoyed dropping in to some of our high street businesses this month, including Ruskin Bakery, Wildbean Café, David’s Flowers, and Nothing But Footprints Zero Waste. I am pleased to hear that business has returned to some normality and foot traffic along the high street has increased. The job market in Banbury is recovering too and it is encouraging to hear of so many opportunities in the area. It was great to visit the new temporary job centre in Castle Quay Shopping Centre to find out how everything has been going. I was impressed at how well equipped and welcoming the centre was: the Jobcentre team told me that the new modern look was intentional and has helped break down the barriers usually associated with jobcentres.
Other visits have also been memorable: I enjoyed visiting two of our magnificent, eighteenth-century Church’s, Hook Norton Baptist and St Mary’s Banbury. Both are in the midst of renovation and essential maintenance works to help preserve these listed buildings and modernise to improve accessibility. Earlier in the month, I had a useful meeting with Katharine House Hospice’s new Chief Executive Trevor Johnson. We discussed their new partnership with OUHFT and also spoke about their future plans, including how the Hospice are looking to develop services further and improve outreach.
I have been keeping up to date with negotiations at JDE and am pleased that associates voted overwhelmingly in favour of accepting the new proposals. It has not been an easy process for all those involved, but I am encouraged that progress has been made after the uncertainty associates have faced for months. Last week, I had a useful meeting with BEIS Minister, Paul Scully, to discuss fire and rehire practices and the Government's approach.
Finally, I was delighted to resume my Pub Tour which had had to be paused during the pandemic. It was lovely to see so many constituents at The Bell in Lower Heyford and to feel that some normality was returning. There were lots of questions on a range of issues from the climate change agenda to the Strategic Rail Freight Interchange proposal at Ardley. I look forward to future dates in September so do keep an eye out if you would like to pop along for a chat.
It is good to be back writing a regular column in the Banbury Guardian again. A lot has changed since I was last writing here: we have had a General Election and we have almost weathered the storm of a pandemic. The past year has not been easy for any of us. With our vaccination programme on track in North Oxfordshire, it does feel as though we are approaching the light at the end of the tunnel. I had my second dose a few weeks ago, and all those are now eligible for their vaccination. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the health services and all the volunteers who have been working tirelessly to ensure the rollout programme continues to go smoothly. Vaccination offers us the best possible line of defence against coronavirus; I hope all those eligible to book their appointments do so in the weeks ahead.
The gradual easing of restrictions has meant that I have been able to get out and about in the constituency more, resuming in-person visits with local businesses, schools and organisations. In recent weeks I was fortunate to join one of the UK’s oldest wig-making suppliers, Banbury Postiche, to celebrate their centenary and meet our local hero, Prabhu Natarajan to present him with the Prime Minister’s Points of Light Award he so deserved. I have also visited Banbury-based Dragonfly Lighting and the Mill Arts Centre, both of which were recipients of support from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund, a scheme designed to support our much-loved cultural organisations, heritage sites and businesses as they recover from the pandemic. Visits to local schools have resumed: staff and students have welcomed me to Sibford School and the Banbury campus of Banbury and Bicester College. It was a real privilege to join in Saturday’s Armed Forces Day celebrations in Banbury alongside our Town Mayor, the Lord Lieutenant and my predecessor and High Steward, Sir Tony Baldry.
Constituency emails have been at their highest level throughout the pandemic: my team and I have been working hard to support and signpost all those who have contacted my office. While lots of people have been getting in touch with me with coronavirus-related concerns, much of my time is also spent dealing with concerns about housing, health appointments and benefit claims. Local issues including the ongoing situation at the JDE facility in Ruscote Avenue and the Wroxton Motocross track have also been hot topics in recent months. Negotiations at JDE have now resumed. It is in everyone’s interests to keep the conversation open to find the best solution for all those yet to agree to the new terms and conditions offered to them. And of course, the Horton remains my top priority. We have a future vision which we now need to see become a reality. I contacted our new Health Secretary immediately about the Horton at the weekend and have since followed up with a formal letter. He knows the hospital well from his time as Chancellor of the Exchequer and understands how important it is to all of us that the Horton gets the funding it needs to make it a hospital that is truly fit for the future.