Stay well – and act wisely

stay-well1IT’S BEEN no surprise to hear a throng of sneezing, coughing and hoarse throats back at work this week.

Like many others, I also fell victim to the ‘lurgy’ over the festive season but the numbers affected nationally – and the impact on our NHS – have been significant in recent weeks.

I’d like to personally thank all staff that worked so hard over the holidays with the pressures mounting at hospitals up and down the country.

And let’s not forget our own Oldham Council staff who have also gone the extra mile (literally!) in hazardous conditions ensuring roads were continuously gritted through a prolonged cold weather snap, plus our refuse collectors who also did a fantastic job picking up all that extra Yuletide waste.

Every winter sees several strains of flu doing the rounds and this year things seem to have been complicated further by so-called H3N2 – better known as ‘Aussie flu’.

Flu symptoms can come on very quickly but, for most of us, following the tried and trusted advice to drink lots of fluids, rest up in bed and take paracetamol/ibuprofen usually does the trick.

However for some people, especially the very old, very young or people with pre-existing conditions like heart disease, flu can be deadly and that’s why it’s more important now than ever that we all take the right decisions about what help we really need when we get ill.

Adults over 65, pregnant women or those with underlying health conditions are advised to get a free flu jab, and a free nasal spray is also available to children aged two to eight.

But with more people turning up at GP surgeries with symptoms or being admitted to hospital with flu, we must all try to act responsibly and avoid unnecessarily clogging surgeries and A&E departments to help the NHS prioritise those most in need of care.

staywell2At the first sign of illness, even just a cough or a cold, you should act quickly by talking to your local pharmacist for professional advice or visiting www.nhs.uk

Please also remember that 999 is for life-threatening emergencies only.

If you need medical help fast – but it’s not a 999 emergency – then call NHS 111 for clinical advice, assessment and signposting to the most appropriate treatment.

Please also do #yourbit if you have symptoms of flu by avoiding unnecessary contact with other people, washing your hands regularly with soap and warm water and cleaning surfaces regularly to stop the spread of flu. And, of course, check on any vulnerable neighbours or relatives that you have as temperatures plummet and risks rise.

newfoodbankAnother place that has also been busy over the holiday season has been Oldham Foodbank.

Their latest data paints a bleak picture of the struggles local people are continuing to experience.

From January 1, 2017 to New Year’s Eve in 2017, Oldham Foodbank provided 7,078 three-day emergency supplies to local people in crisis – a figure that is up substantially from 5,554 in 2016.

Of that number, 2,425 packages went to children and Oldham Foodbank say issues with benefit payments account for 70 per cent of all their referrals: well above the national average of 43 per cent.

The unpaid work done by volunteers at Oldham Foodbank is simply inspirational and their running costs each year are £6,000 for operating a van, picking up and distributing food, and overheads like electricity and insurance.

This really shouldn’t be necessary in 2018 – and in one of the richest economies of the world(!) – but please visit their website here if you can offer any help.

Just over one week into 2018 and it’s again palpably clear that this is a Government that needs to focus on the ‘day job’ more – not just Brexit.

We deserve a Cabinet and top team capable of tackling the real problems making life miserable for so many people – like the underfunding of our NHS and the distress caused by welfare reform policies – but I see nothing in this week’s reshuffle to give me hope that we’ll be seeing any significant change in approach.

kquinnFinally, I must mention the tragic death of Kieran Quinn, Tameside Council Leader, on Christmas Day.

This news came as such a huge shock to everyone involved in regional politics and my heart goes out to Susan, his wife, and his family and friends.

He was held in high regard across Greater Manchester by politicians of all parties, by fellow trade unionists, by his Tameside and GM political and officer colleagues and by the residents he served as a committed Council Leader and Ward Councillor.

He will be sorely missed.

Jean

The hidden costs of false economies…  

poundcoins2WE’VE ALL probably made false economies in our time – and it’s a life lesson we often learn the hard way.

In striving to make an apparent financial saving it can actually cost you more in the long run: like buying cheap batteries or shoes, or not servicing the boiler just to have it fail on the coldest night of the year.

The same can be said of the public sector pay freeze introduced by George Osbourne in 2010 – a seven-year squeeze that has hit workers, families and communities hard in the name of economic austerity.

What did it gain in the short-term? Well, attacking the public sector may have gained some populist headlines and made marginal savings on Treasury spreadsheets but the opportunity costs – what could have been achieved with that money instead – weren’t considered because of political dogmatism.

Real median household incomes today are just five per cent higher than in 2007 and the UK is now in the worst period of pay growth in 150 years, affecting both the public and private sector. Clearly, George’s marvellous medicine didn’t work.

Public sector incomes have fallen way behind inflation and as the cuts bit deeper it meant people working even harder for less money.

It hit the lowest-paid frontline workers in the most vital services – health, education, police and care – disproportionately hardest. And it has lowered morale, increasing the problems of staff retention at a time of rising demand, which can mean having fewer colleagues to share the work around.

Worried Senior Woman Sitting On Sofa Looking At Bills

The impact has been equally bad for household budgets. ‘In work’ poverty is now at the point where a recent TUC survey found that one in seven public sector workers were forced to skip meals this year and almost a quarter reported they would not be able to pay an unexpected bill of £500.

And there’s been a much wider impact on the local economy…

By significantly eroding the value of public sector pay through this freeze – with frontline staff earning around £2,000 less than if their pay had risen in line with inflation – it’s meant workers have cut back on their spending. That has hit local high streets hard to the tune of an estimated £48bn less spent in shops since 2010.

Council employees last week were offered a two-year pay increase of 2 per cent with more, rightly, for the lowest-paid such as staff in children’s centres, school support, parks, libraries and those who keep vulnerable children and elderly people safe.

But it’s a long way back and only the first step in any kind of serious attempt to tackle national issues around pay and productivity.

Crucially it also needs extra funding from Government to help local authorities deliver it, not just placing even more burden on our budgets and putting more services and jobs in peril.

Another part of the ‘austerity’ agenda has been cuts to welfare that have gone hand-in-hand with demonising some of our most vulnerable people.

UCREDITAs the cruel winter frost blew our way last weekend I found myself again fearing for those families facing hardship through Universal Credit (UC).

As the national rollout for the new benefit continues many thousands of families are still enduring the in-built six-week wait for help.

Yes, the Chancellor did reduce this wait to five weeks in the budget – a very small step in reducing the pain, in my view – but this does not start until February 2018.

Many others are also facing a difficult time because around 67,000 UC claimants are paid weekly and 25,000 might be affected over the festive season because of when their assessment periods fall.

That simply isn’t fair and it means Foodbanks – like the fantastic one in Oldham – will be strained to their limit again.

None of the above feels very festive, I know, but we can all do #ourbit by bearing in mind those less fortunate than ourselves at this time of year and also by ensuring our neighbours and relatives are safe during wintry weather.

This will be my last blog before the holidays but I will return with a New Year’s Blog on January 1 looking ahead to the opportunities, landmarks and challenges that lie ahead for 2018.

In the meantime I want to wish you all a happy Christmas blessed with great quality family time and memories.

Jean

Oldham Foodbank: Waste not, want not

oldhamfoodbankOLDHAM Foodbank are moving into their new town centre premises this week and planning to offer an even wider range of support.

I’ve been a keen supporter of their efforts for many years and cannot praise highly enough the volunteers behind it; and the generosity of local people, partners and businesses that enable them to help local people in crisis.

Yet that pride still never hides a sense of despair at how we got to a situation in 21st century Britain where people still struggle to put food on the table, and are making a choice between heating their homes and feeding their kids.

And at a time when we’re repeatedly told that the British economy is defying all expectations – that every major sector grew last year and that it is fundamentally strong and resilient – you are left wondering how on earth we got here?

It was the Rev David Hawthorn, the vicar of St Margaret’s and St Chad’s Church in Hollinwood who decided to set up Oldham Foodbank in 2012.

What prompted him to do it was that he noticed the growing numbers of people coming to his vicarage asking for help in crisis – and increasingly for food.

While many had been made redundant, had little savings, or had hit short-term financial problems, he was concerned that many of these people were also actually in work. The profile of those suffering was widening.

Oldham Foodbank gives people three days’ worth of non-perishable food as long as they have been referred by agencies, social services, GPs or charities. It’s run by local churches and am amazing army of volunteers who also direct people to other organisations for any additional help they need.

In 2011, the Trussell Trust which runs the largest foodbank network, including Oldham, gave out 129,000 food parcels. Last year that number had shot up to 1.1 million, of which Oldham Foodbank gave out 5,005 emergency food parcels to help 3,317 adults and 1,688 children (March 2015 to April 2016).

newfoodbank
NEW HOME: Oldham Foodbank’s new premises at the former Three Crowns pub

After four years at Clegg Street we’ve now finished repair works, agreed a lease and handed over the keys to Oldham Foodbank for the former Three Crowns pub in Manchester Street as their new permanent home.

This building is four times the size of their old premises and it means Andrew Barr, the manager, and his team can offer so much more.

As well as emergency food parcels, they aim to help people get out of poverty with access to other support services, free internet access for jobs searches and online applications, and free use of a telephone to contact agencies and employers. There is even a fuel bank scheme offering vouchers for foodbank users with pre-payment meters for gas or electricity to prevent them struggling with the ‘heat or eat’ dilemma.

They’ve also just had a massive success which, thanks to their campaigning and your generosity, means that new home will soon boast a new community kitchen.

Initially they had hoped to raise £13,850 to create a kitchen preparing hot and fresh meals using surplus food that supermarkets and producers would otherwise have thrown away.

Yet now – with exactly a week still left until fundraising closes – they have already reached £22,950 and are hoping to hit £26,000 by February 8.

Please visit the website at http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/oldham-food-bank-community-kitchen to find out more and donate before that closing date.

I still get asked what reasons drive people to use foodbanks and they are – of course – complex and different in every case, and often the subject of heated debate.

Interestingly, the Trussell Trust commissioned a study last year by the Oxford University to look into what is causing increased food bank use.

It tells us that since the start of Welfare Reform and the introduction of ‘benefits sanctions’ the use of foodbanks has rapidly accelerated.

They found that for every 10 extra benefit sanctions imposed between one three-month period and the next, five more emergency food parcels were given out. Food for thought, clearly.

If you are facing difficulties, Oldham Council has a team of dedicated Welfare Rights officers to help.

They can give you independent, impartial and free advice on benefit issues to ensure you are claiming what you are entitled to, assistance with forms and appeals and ways to save money. To get in touch, call 0161 770 6655 between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday or click here for more information.

livethelibraryFinally this week I want to mention our excellent new season of live@thelibrary which offers comedy, drama, new writing and storytelling.

Running until April this programme has become a central and much-loved part of our library offer.

Libraries don’t just lend you books, they can give you inspiration, entertainment and activities for everyone and our Performance Space at Oldham Library has become regionally recognised for its innovative arts and community work.

Please visit the website at www.oldham.gov.uk/liveatthelibrary to find out more and take advantage of what is on offer.

Jean