Robert Halfon: How lockdown has changed me

The impact of lockdown on the lives of millions of schoolchildren has been a “disaster” that must not be repeated in the event of a second wave of coronavirus, the chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee said.

Robert Halfon’s own life was dramatically changed by the experience of the coronavirus lockdown, spending four months shielding at home.

The Harlow MP has chaired meetings of his select committee from his home office, but under the “ludicrous” rules for Commons proceedings was frozen out of a debate he had secured on education because he was unable to attend in person.

But despite the impact on his own life, Mr Halfon’s main concerns now are the mental health “epidemic” that lockdown will have exacerbated and the damage done to the education of children.

Mr Halfon has appreciated the ability to get out into his own garden to help cope with the lockdown – “of course you have up and down days, especially if you are stuck at home, even MPs” – and said efforts must be made to protect green spaces for all.

“I think we’re going to need to do masses as a country on mental health, have a radical rethink. And do masses on nature and the environment and trying to link the environment to people’s mental health,” he said.

Mr Halfon said the impact of school closures on young people’s lives was a “national disaster” and the response of the authorities had gone “badly wrong”.

He said: “We have allowed 2.3 million children not to have any – or virtually no – homework, according to academic studies.

“Something like 40% of children have very little contact with teachers.”

He questioned why some unions had opposed schools reopening and accused Ofsted of “semi hibernating” during the crisis, but acknowledged that it was easier to make decisions with the benefit of hindsight.

Mr Halfon said he was “not pointing the fingers at anyone or blaming anyone but the fact is this has happened and must never happen again”.

He added: “If there is a second wave, there needs to be a clear set of instructions – what does the DfE (Department for Education) expect, what is Ofsted going to do, what is the timetable for them, how are we going to make sure we get the Oak Academy – which is a brilliant initiative from the Government, to be fair to them – into every home from day one?

“Because we have allowed millions of children not to learn for six months, which is a huge amount of time in a young person’s life.”

Mr Halfon, who has a form of cerebral palsy and respiratory issues, admitted being “discombobulated” at first when he was told to shield.

But he soon settled into a routine – a 5.30am start, walks in his garden “Tom Moore style – but not as good as him” using just one stick instead of his usual two, and a broken chairlift also forced the MP to learn how to climb the stairs at his home.

Every morning, Mr Halfon dresses smartly and packs a briefcase to take with him to his office at home.

“This may sound completely insane – perhaps it is, but I thought that’s the only way I’m going to keep the discipline of working.”

Although Mr Halfon has been able to continue his duties as chairman of a select committee and, like other MPs, has been able to ask questions remotely in the Commons, the rules meant he was unable to open a debate on education.

“They have moved in a big way but it is incredibly ridiculous that I wasn’t allowed to participate in that debate,” he said.

Mr Halfon expects to be back in the Commons in September, returning to a Victorian-era Palace of Westminster which presents its own problems for disabled people.

Summer Budget 2015
Summer Budget 2015

It was “pretty appalling”, he said, that there are not enough ramps, lifts are unreliable and disabled toilets are often unavailable.

“If any other workplace in the world had that kind of lack of thought for people with disadvantage they would probably be closed down or suffer legal action,” he added.

The shielding guidance is expected to be paused from August 1 and Mr Halfon – who has spent the lockdown eating healthily and avoiding alcohol in the week – is looking forward to being a “free man”.

“I’m worried that I will either eat myself or drink myself into a stupor in some pub somewhere because I haven’t been out for so long,” he said.