AN MP who grew up near Christchurch has described as “surreal” the experience of self-isolating after meeting a government minister who tested positive for the Covid-19 illness.
Rachael Maskell, a former Highcliffe School pupil who is now a Labour MP, carried on with her duties while confined to a single bedroom in her sister’s flat in London, using her Skype and phone to assist.
She self-isolated after meeting Conservative minister Nadine Dorries on 5th March to discuss mental health legislation. The Tory subsequently became the first MP to confirm she had the coronavirus.
Speaking to the A&T yesterday (Monday), Ms Maskell (47) said she was fit and well and had been “asymptomatic” during her period in self-isolation.
“It was a kind of surreal experience when you are confined to four walls,” she said, pointing out it is harder since you are barred from direct contact even with family members.
“Going through this experience has allowed me the chance to reflect a lot,” she continued, pointing out charities and voluntary groups that helped elderly and isolated people would be impacted.
She had been in talks with organisations about how they can address problems they will face and get help.
“We have got to be really clear with our messaging because this may go on for months. We need to make sure people are not isolated without their needs being met,” she said.
That extended, she went on, to warning people about accepting aid. By all means residents should “be good neighbours”, she said, but scammers had emerged and she recommended people prioritise accepting offers of help from “reputable agencies”.
As for advice on isolation, Ms Maskell said: “Make sure you have got something to keep you busy: books, contact with people [over the phone] and news and things.
“I think as a community we need to recognise people are going to have different needs in the community and a lot of provisions.
“Knowing New Milton and Christchurch, there are a lot of older people and we need to make sure they are safe and have access to things like food and money and whatever necessary, such as being able to get hold of prescriptions.”
It was vital people stuck to the policies of self-isolation or keeping social distance in order not to pass on any illness they had, Ms Maskell said.
“People have got to take the protections they need – that’s really important,” she stressed, especially since it was not known how long the ‘dormant period’ is of Covid-19. “We do not want people to continue to be a risk,” she said.
In her interview with the A&T, Ms Maskell supported the call by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for the government to order the suspension of rent payments.
“We are in extraordinary times and we must take extraordinary measures,” she said.
Her constituency of York is already being affected. “I know of businesses that are not able to keep open because visitors are not coming to York because it was the first place to record a positive case. The [visitor] numbers have gone down. Staff are being laid off.
“I think there will be a lot of people pushed very rapidly into hardship,” she continued.
Throughout her time off she continued to work, although not at her desk, on papers and conducted meetings over Skype and on the phone.
“I am carrying on my role as an MP but it is very changed,” she said.
“Instead of meeting I’m having to take things online and avoid meeting people one-to-one, and quite a number of changes have had to be put in place. We have to recognise normal life is disrupted and is different.
“As it functions parliament must continue and the government and opposition need to work together in terms of us thinking and doing everything possible.
“But whether we are going to cram into a confined pace [to meet in parliament] I don’t know that’s a necessary thing to do.”
Ms Maskell believed the government had been “quite reckless” in its strategy and criticised information put out, saying there was a “lack of clarity”.
She feared for the NHS, saying the stripping back of its service had left it ill-equipped to deal with a large-scale health crisis – highlighting the lack of ventilators.
She called on the government to pledge more financial aid to people, and said it should be extended to those on zero-hour contracts or those who are self-employed.
“There’s a lot of people along the south coast who work in the hospitality industries or who are self-employed and they will not have access to that sick pay; people have got to have comprehensive access to a statutory sick pay.”
As reported in the A&T Ms Maskell moved to Highcliffe when she was two, attended the local infant, junior and comprehensive schools. She went on to study physiotherapy at UEA, Norwich, before pursuing a career in the NHS as a physiotherapist.
Ms Maskell then became the hospital’s trade union representative, which led to jobs with the Unite union as an official and head of its health section.
She left that post to stand as Labour candidate for the York Central seat, a relatively new constituency having only been created in 2005.