Ipsden Village website, Ipsden Parish Council website John Howell
HENLEY MP John Howell is reserving judgement on claims that the Prime Minister's political strategist Dominic Cummings breached the coronavirus lockdown.

Mr Cummings, who lives in London, has been facing calls to resign after it emerged on Friday that he visited his parents in Durham in late March and early April, seemingly against Government rules in place at the time.

PM Boris Johnson's office has confirmed he did so despite showing symptoms of covid-19 but says he and his wife, who also appeared to have the disease, wanted to be near family in case they needed care for their son and they self-isolated in a nearby property.

Opponents say this went against official advice that people should not leave their homes to visit other family members and should instead seek help from neighbours or community support groups.

A number of Cabinet ministers have expressed support for Mr Cummings and say he did nothing wrong, including health secretary Matt Hancock and Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who accused opponents of “trying to score political points”. They say there were exceptions to the rules, one of which was emergency childcare.

But since then, eyewitnesses claim to have seen Mr Cummings in the north-east a second time although No 10 denies this. A number of Conservative MPs are now calling for his dismissal.

Mr Howell said he had received a small number of complaints from constituents on email and Twitter but would await further information before jumping to conclusions.

He said: “I fully understand why this is an issue which causes concern but it also raises a number of questions, particularly from the stories which have appeared in the Guardian and Daily Mirror.

“I don't know the full details of his visit to a location near his child's grandparents and, quite frankly, I don't intend to play judge, jury and executioner as many on social media are asking of me.

“I do not know whether his wife needed special medical attention, for example, nor anything else about his domestic life. There is advice which allows moving children in certain circumstances.

“Mr Cummings is not a prominent member of the Conservative Party but an assistant to the Prime Minister. A formal investigation into this matter would be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut but I'm confident the full details will emerge soon.”

25th May 2020
A Newsletter from John Howell MP
April 2020

I have set out below a number of issues on which I have been working in relation to Covid-19. There are many other issues that have arisen including benefits and repatriation to the UK. But in this newsletter, we do not have time to cover them. It highlights those areas on which I and my team are particularly active.

Boris Johnson
First, I am sure you would like to join me in wishing Boris Johnson an early recovery from his coronavirus and to offer him our thoughts and prayers.

Coronavirus and how my team and I are working
As we work together to fight COVID-19, I know that it is so very worrying for many people. I have been inundated with emails raising many different questions on the situation and, with the help of my dedicated team - all of whom are working remotely – we are trying to answer as best we are able. COVID-19 queries are dominating our work and due to the urgency of most of these we are giving them priority. If you have emailed on another issue, please bear with us. We are dealing first with urgent COVID-19 casework.

The Government is trying its best in a difficult and unprecedented situation to keep the country going and to keep the economy afloat. There is no perfect system that it can put in place and there will always be apparent gaps in what it is doing. But both it and I try hard to raise the issue of people caught in a gap when we come across them. You should also remember that the Government has done nothing that is not backed by the evidence put forward by the Chief Medical Officer, the Chief Science Officer, their teams and other leading international virologists and epidemiologists. We are working to a scientifically-led, step-by-step action plan–taking the right measures at the right time. We know this will not be a short battle, but we will come through this together.

In Westminster, Ministers have been working flat out to bring forward measures to try to keep us all safe and help people in so many different situations. If you still have a question please feel free to email me but please do look at the Government advice first (https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus) to see if your question has already been answered. This will help me and my team to respond as quickly as we can on outstanding concerns and individual problems.

Although Parliament is now in recess, mechanisms have been put in place for MPs to question the Government on COVID-19 issues and concerns on a daily basis and feedback is circulated. Along with everyone else we are also using social media to talk to colleagues.

Conversations with the Chief Constable of the Thames Valley
More locally other public bodies have made provision to keep MPs updated on their work in relation to COVID-19 and to question them. I have had full discussions with the Royal Berks. I took part in a conference call between MPs and the Thames Valley Police Chief Constable, John Campbell, in which we were briefed on operational issues and were able to raise questions. From my emails I know that the police use of their new public health powers is a concern to some. The Chief Constable reassured MPs that the overriding approach was to use common sense. The powers will only be used by officers if someone fails to comply after the officer has engaged with them, explained the risks to public health and encouraged voluntary compliance.

The police are also concerned that some people are taking it upon themselves to report people who they believe are flouting the ‘stay at home’ rules. This is creating a large workload for the police as they have to triage all calls. Most of the reports are after the event and can simply hinder the police in their operations.

GP Surgeries
One of the main issues that has been raised is PPE (protective clothing) for medical and caring personnel. We have delivered a large amount of PPE to every single GP practice, dental practice, and community pharmacy has had a PPE delivery. I have been working with Oxford Health Trust to try to get deliveries for Oxfordshire. To find out the quantity and quality of what has been delivered here I have written to GP practices in the constituency to ask for their assessment. I am in the process of assessing the results and taken them back to Government.

Walking on farmland and taking exercise
In this area we are fortunate that we can get out into the countryside for our exercise. However, I am aware that farmers are very concerned at increased pedestrian traffic on footpaths across fields with livestock, especially when people have dogs off leads. People are also leaving gates open leaving it possible for animals to stray. If you are out walking please do spare a thought for our farmers and take care not to worry livestock and to shut gates. It is also appropriate to take gloves with you when you walk so that you can wear them to open and close gates.

On the question of still being able to take exercise as one of the reasons for leaving the house, I was pleased that last weekend Matt Hancock MP made it clear that "we're not planning any changes to those rules imminently. What we are doing is being absolutely clear that the current rules must be followed."

Local Enterprise Partnership
I am particularly concerned that some businesses appear to have fallen into a gap between the two major packages of assistance we have brought forward. I have spoken to the Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and agreed a common action plan. I have obviously raised this with Ministers and agreed that the LEP should raise it as well with Business Ministers with whom they are regularly in touch. I have also raised the actions of banks and the way they have been demanding excessive security for loans and have been trying to sell their own products over what the Government is offering.

Neighbourhood Plans
Neighbourhood Plans should still continue as best we can during this period. I recognise there will be delays in progressing these plans due to the social distancing measures currently in place. There is updated planning guidance on further advice on the implications for conducting publicity and consultation, and examinations. However, while this may be very frustrating the updated current planning guidance (current planning guidance) neighbourhood plans awaiting referendums can be given significant weight in decision-making. Grants and technical support will continue to be available during the next financial year, and Locality continues to operate as normal. At the moment, no referendums can take place until 6 May 2021. You may take windfall sites into consideration where they complete the number of houses to be built. For example, a housing requirement of 50 houses could be met through 2 sites allocated for 20 houses each with a windfall allowance of 10 houses.

Parliament after Recess
The House is scheduled to return on 21st April and a great deal of work is underway to allow it to continue to function should the Government advice that people remain at home where possible. The House can be a crowded place especially in the Chamber and the Lobbies. Indeed, we already have some Select Committee work being done using video conferencing and I have taken part in Justice Select Committee evidence sessions which have worked very well.

International work
Just as Parliament has quickly developed systems for remote working so too has the Council of Europe. As a co-rapporteur with Thomas Hammarberg from Sweden for the Monitoring of Turkey I recently took part in a session to review the situation in Turkish prisons where COVID-19 has given rise to an expected sanitary crisis in Turkish detention centre. We have urged the Turkish authorities to ensure that any early or conditional release of prisoners is non-discriminatory and does not exclude prisoners detained on political grounds. You can read more about this work on my website at the following link https://www.johnhowell.org.uk/news/council-europe-monitoring-turkish-prisons

I also raised the question of the work being done in a teleconference with Israel where I spoke to the local equivalent of the Red Cross. This includes gathering plasma from those who have had the virus to try to test for antigens. I was also able to see for myself what they are doing to test people in the country.
John Howell