A year after the first lockdown due to COVID-19, many people are looking back to reflect on what has happened during the last year and how they have dealt with the situation. As with all places of work, in an MPs office changes have had to be made. This article reflects the shared view of the team in the office of John Howell MP.
Working from home
Along with everyone else we have all had to adjust to working from home. Whilst this has some up-sides, such as no commuting, it does have several down sides. The lack of interaction between members of the team is among the most noticeable. We have, of course, been using online methods of communication and telephone but there has been much less general sharing of ideas and the general chat that cements relationships and builds the team. The feeling of remoteness and isolation is strong.
The team also commented that in addition to the isolation the scope of the work has narrowed to mainly involve responding to emails. In the period from the start of the first lockdown in March 2020 to March 2021 we received over 30,000 emails from constituents and a large number internally from within Parliament and other organisations such as the Council of Europe. This together with online meetings meant many more hours a day simply sat in front of a computer. From the early days we did our best to ensure that each member of the team had as good a working environment as possible and encouraged proper breaks during the day.
Building on from this, it feels like all of the days blur into one. There is little to distinguish one day from another or indeed one month from another. Our usual markers have gone, and our anchors are now simply pre or during COVID-19. In one sense it seems as if the year has passed quickly but on reflection this is a backward view based on lack of differentiation. Spring turned into summer and we all thought life would return to normal, but then summer turned to autumn and into winter and so it went on. Now at last with this Spring comes optimism.
Everyone was encouraged to take holiday; breaks are important. But holidays in lockdown do not bring the same level of refreshment that begin able to get away brings. It is almost as if we have become institutionalised; forced into a set pattern of life which is not our personal choice. We reflected on the tiny things that now bring excitement to life which may seem pathetic in normal times. The 29th March brought cheers that each could now have one friend to sit in their garden!
For those of us juggling childcare and work, the pressures increased. It is almost impossible to focus on work with young children in the same space. So finding permissible childcare was a challenge, and then having little respite between work and family responsibilities, has led to feelings of exhaustion.
Emails and the work of the House
All this is against a backdrop of a hugely increased workload, mostly but not exclusively, email traffic. We mentioned above the sheer number of emails. We calculated that prior to the first lockdown in March 2020 incoming emails that required action for constituents were averaging at around 1100 per week. This did not include emails relating to other aspects of work, simply that coming from constituents. In the year from the first lockdown to the lifting of the ‘stay at home’ order this workload more than doubled to an average of 2500 incoming constituent emails requiring action a week.
From an MP’s perspective the remote working both in relation to staff and to the work of the House was a challenge. Although through the excellent work of the House authorities and the Speaker’s Office a way of keeping Parliament in operation was quickly found it has not been the same. In some ways the democratic process has been stifled. The lack of Westminster Hall debates for a long time took away the opportunity for MPs to raise and discuss a whole range of issues. The remote operation of the Chamber reduced the number of speakers possible in any one debate and also removed the opportunity for quick exchanges, by way of interventions, which are an important part of the process of debate. As a result we saw a series of set pieces from those selected to speak in a debate rather than robust debate between MPs and the ability to challenge Ministers in quite the same way as usual greatly suppressed. Further, in the same way that staff missed the benefit of informal interaction with colleagues so too did MPs. The chats in the tea-room or when queuing to vote are always excellent opportunities to test the water on certain issues or as quick questions of one another. Such brief encounters cannot be underestimated in the way in which they keep the wheels rolling.
Going back to the volume of incoming work it is also important to look at the nature of the work which falls broadly into two categories.
Firstly, many emails raised concerns about personal issues and problems relating to COVID-19. Ministers too were under huge pressure to work out what their own Department needed to do, and MPs and their teams were clamouring for information to enable them to respond to constituents. As the world closed down and borders were shut one big issue arising early on was the repatriation for people who were abroad at the time. Every developed country was trying to deal with the same issues. The biggest problems were from places where it was necessary to have refuelling stops to get back as many countries were queuing up for slots to be permitted to land for that purpose. The Foreign Office took the lead on this and British Embassies across the world set up systems to get in touch with people who needed help, liaising with the Department of Transport on flight availability. Rightly the elderly and vulnerable were given flights first but this left many young travellers and their parents in a worrying situation. We did all that we could to help people, but the situation was much like the one we now have with the vaccination - there was a prescribed process and we were not in a position to help people jump the queue as some hoped we could.
Despite us doing all that we could, the reaction from constituents can perhaps be categorised in two extremes. There were those who really appreciated that we were doing all that we could and were grateful. There were also those who blamed us when their relative could not get a flight and who were aggressive towards us. For staff to be on the receiving end of those who literally shout down the phone was not easy.
This pattern of gratitude or aggression, with emotions pushed to more extreme expression, seems to have been one of the issues arising throughout the pandemic. As time went on we also realised that some with differing political views who have emailed over time took the opportunity to simply be incredibly rude and dismissive, another example of the way in which the pandemic has stretched emotions. Looking more widely we can see that it has also been reflected in our communities, for example, in the unselfish support systems that were set up and also in the more selfish stripping of supermarket shelves.
Personal loss and emotions
Personal loss has been one of the things that has characterised this period in our lives. The most obvious is the loss of life and for those who have been bereaved in this period life has changed for ever. There have been too many deaths from COVID-19 but deaths from many other causes too. The team has experienced the difficulty of knowing that a close relative is dying but not being able to be there as they might hope in such a situation. Bereavement with physical distancing, both with the dying and with relatives and friends, do not go well together.
But beyond the loss of life there have been many other losses; for many there has been financial loss and the resulting loss of security. Most would agree that the Chancellor did an excellent job in giving support to so many but as he himself said, it has not been possible to do everything for everybody.
We could not have even begun to second guess the issues that people would contact us on, seeking help and advice. We have had to learn about situations and assimilate large amounts of information very quickly. We have had to respond, as best we could, to the different emotions expressed to us. In phone calls the team has had to deal with constituents literally crying down the line to them. Whilst in normal times there is always some of this during this period it has increased. All this cannot but take its toll on the listener, the one trying to help. One member of the team tells of the nights she has laid awake at night worrying about individual constituents. This is beyond the call of normal working life.
Added to the burden that the situation itself brought we found that campaigning organisations quickly realised that people had time on their hands and were at home by their computers. The volume of campaign emails has been a large part of the increase in email traffic. With some campaigns we could literally watch the emails roll in. The campaigning organisation would count that a successful campaign without a second thought for the recipients, for whom it was just one of many. Most MPs are always happy to hear from constituents, to share views and perhaps to agree to disagree but constructive discussion is a key part of our democratic process. However, when the same email is received dozens of times over with exactly the same wording the message does ring hollow. It is quite amazing how many people woke up on Saturday 24th/Sunday 25th May last year feeling ‘incandescent with rage’.
These campaign emails are all the worse when the sender has not even bothered to fill in the missing parts – Dear [INSERT THE NAME OF YOUR MP HERE] and at the end [INSERT YOUR NAME HERE] left just as in the template. Maybe it is no surprise that such emails get the same reply and yet there are those who object most strongly at the thought that the reply to them may not have been individually crafted.
Campaigning organisations can do a very good job, but the plethora of such emails has made it more difficult to engage with any one campaign. Further the increased aggression in the tone of some of these emails is just not conducive to engagement. It is sometimes quite a shock at the people who are known to us who consent to putting their name to such communications, for example community and faith leaders.
Emotions do run high, but some people have seemed to think that MPs and their staff are immune from the personal side of the situation. Not so, we suffer it and feel it just the same. It has long been thus with ‘keyboard’ warriors’ where little or no consideration is given to the email recipient. However in this period the huge increase takes its toll, especially whilst the team are all dealing with many of the very same emotions as everyone else.
In a note the GMB, the trade union that represents many House and MPs staff, said: ‘Every day MPs’ staff are supporting vulnerable people; many with nowhere else to turn. Providing this increased level of service – whilst simultaneously adjusting to the challenges of remote working, of being apart from our colleagues and friends, of coping with the personal difficulties this pandemic has brought upon us all - has been immensely difficult and stressful for all MP staff members, and has taken a significant toll on mental health and wellbeing…. Every additional email that has to be processed and responded to means that there is a risk that important work supporting vulnerable people is delayed…’
The Prime Minister’s recovery route has helped give focus, something to look forward to and the vaccination programme has helped to see it as a reality. As we emerge from this situation some people will fall readily and happily into their old ways. But for many there will be hesitation, and some will never return to what was – by choice or through circumstances changed for ever.
The need for patience, care and tolerance for one another will not go away. We might like to think it will be there as a new normal. Whatever the longer term brings, as we emerge from lockdown and learn to live with COVID-19 there will be a need to rebuild our shared lives, to take from this period the best and properly deal with the worst. We doubt many people have escaped this time untouched and it will take time for us all to find a new level.