OPINION: No mercy for the self-employed – a car finance disaster

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Chris Neophytou & Jobe Baker-Sullivan

Before lockdown, I drove a lot. Pubs, weddings, venues – life as a full-time musician requires you to pop up out of thin air for clients in far reaches of the country. It’s a magic trick, but it requires preparation. Most importantly, you need a car. A car to fill with instruments, speakers, bags of cables, two meals, an overnight bag, and space for a costume change or a nap between sets.

I recently got myself a dad-racer [like a boy-racer, but more practical] – not too ostentatious, but a step up from the ol’ banger I started with [and loved very dearly]. I got this through Personal Contract Purchase (PCP). I pay to hire the car every month.

The flexible PCP contract suited me – I’m self-employed and I’ve never had a ‘proper job’. I didn’t want to be tied down to a particular car. I wasn’t sure whether one day I’d go full on Scooby Doo Mystery Machine so I can fit in all the members of a wind quintet, or if I’d disappear off to Mongolia to learn the ways of traditional Tuvan throat singing. In Mongolia, one is better off with a horse.

Now I don’t drive at all, save for a big shopping trip. All my work has dried up. COVID-19 has left me with a big lump of metal outside to pay for every month and I can’t afford it.

I think it makes sense for me to get a month or three off paying, or at least a discount. I paid for this car in the trust that I would use it. Now there’s a literal pandemic, a literal lockdown, and I think it’s only fair that my fixed lease is extended.

I make my case via email to Far Sisters Motor Finance (fictitiously named, in the hope the real company doesn’t punish me further). I get a phone call a few days later from a lady I’m going to call Vera.

There’s nothing else we can do for you I’m afraid, everyone’s going through this.”

30 seconds of schtum. I’m shocked by Vera’s words. Everyone’s going through this? We’re all in this together? That neo-blitz spirit brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has nefarious consequences. “It’s bad we can’t help you, but remember, we’re all in this together!”  I feel defeated, put the phone down, and hear the Dam Busters March play on a rusty, old music box in my head.

But, like any business, Far Sisters need my money. They need it in order to pay staff members, like Vera Lynn whom I just spoke to, so they can continue to call up customers to tell them that they can’t have their money back. The money they’re spending to not drive their cars.

The best they could offer was “breathing space”, but what about the value of my car? It’s still three months of a car I can’t drive. In a way, this encourages me to drive more… gotta get those miles in I’ve paid for. Wasted petrol, C02 pollution galore!

It might seem relatively petty, and I can hear the scoffs already, “there are people worse off than you.”

But there are people, waaayyy better off than me. Like the bosses of these finance companies. And the housing rent companies that refuse to give rent holidays. They’re getting ‘Money for Nothing’ whilst we’re in Dire Straits. We self-employed people are squeezed in the middle. People don’t know quite what to do with us. People are saying sign up to Universal Credit (I have) and to sign onto this and that, but do I trust a government scheme any more than I do the good nature of my finance company?

Time will tell. But remember, we’re all in this together. Some are on the top, and some are on the bottom. I’m somewhere in the middle, and nobody wants to speak for us.

Jobe Baker-Sullivan is a local musician and community activist. You can keep up to date with him at www.facebook.com/jobesullivanmusic

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OPINION: Why the NHS should be awarded the George Cross

Words by Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands / Photography courtesy of Andy Street 

As we continue the fight against coronavirus, May 8th has taken on a new significance – as the next date on which the lockdown will be reviewed.  Yet there is other celebration connected to that date – VE Day – which resonates with so much that is going on now.

The 75th anniversary of VE Day may have been disrupted by a new enemy, but it links us to a past generation who faced another great national test.

It was during World War Two that the George Cross was created, to reflect the courage of civilians who showed extraordinary bravery. I believe we are seeing that courage again today. That’s why awarding our NHS staff the George Cross provides appropriate recognition for their incredible efforts.

Recently I was honoured to join HRH Prince William to help officially open the NHS Nightingale Hospital at the NEC. Just a few weeks ago, this was an empty space. Now it is a fully-operational hospital with 500 beds ready to join the fight with COVID-19. It stands as a testament to what we can achieve if we pull together as one. It also represents the respect and gratitude we all feel towards our NHS staff.

The ‘Nightingale’ name above the door also perfectly embodies the driving principles of those who are on the frontline on this crisis – they are saving lives whilst demonstrating care and compassion.

The NHS, from the doctors and nurses on the wards, to the ambulance crews and paramedics, and all support staff, represents the very best of our society.

This crisis has shown, more than ever, the vital importance of a health service that is free at the point of use. Look around the world, at the disjointed approach produced by countries where private healthcare is prevalent, and you can see the true value of our single, united health service.

The nation’s weekly doorstep appreciation of the NHS – where millions of people applaud in support – is proof of the debt of gratitude we all feel.

The NHS reflects so much of the best of British society. The NHS is truly democratic, treating everyone the same. The personal gratitude expressed by the Prime Minister to the nurses and staff who oversaw his recovery from COVID-19 illustrates how the NHS is there for all of us.

The NHS also reflects of the diversity of our modern society. In the crisis, we see the young caring for the old, and we also see retired doctors and nurses returning to join the fight. We see NHS staff from all backgrounds and from across the globe helping the people of the UK.

Right now, the NHS is also hugely important to the health of our economy. As we try to protect business through the duration of the crisis, the NHS is a huge employer that simply keeps going.

Of course, as an institution, the NHS needs care and investment. Prior to the outbreak, the Government unveiled a huge programme of future investment, but now, as we fight this virus, our focus is rightly being placed on the here and now. Some areas are clearly not as good as we want – such as the continuing issue of PPE.

We see now, more than ever, how the NHS is the embodiment of British society. And it is the NHS staff, putting themselves at risk daily, who have become our modern heroes and heroines. That is why I believe the George Cross is an appropriate acknowledgment of the bravery we are seeing.

This is not a gimmick. These awards exist to allow us, as a society, to recognise those who have stepped forward in a time of need.

These are unprecedented times, but awarding this medal collectively, to thousands of people for their joint bravery, has been done before.

In 1942 The George Cross was awarded to the island of Malta by King George, so as to “bear witness to the heroism and devotion of its people” during the great siege they underwent in the early part of the Second World War.

Six years after Malta was awarded the George Cross, the NHS was born. Now, after seven decades of devoted service to the British people, our NHS staff now find themselves under siege too, from coronavirus. There is no doubt in my mind that this is their finest hour.

It is time to reflect the unique contribution to our society of the NHS, and the gallantry shown by its staff. The National Health Service has earned the George Cross.

Andy Street is the Mayor of the West Midlands. For more on Andy Street, visit www.wmca.org.uk/who-we-are/meet-the-mayor/

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OPINION: The Clap

Words by Keat Moore

On Thursday evenings families gather on their doorsteps, driveways and balconies and wait. Then, at precisely 8.00 pm the quiet, lockdown-muffled, streets erupt with the sound of applause, drums, fireworks, and the clash of pots and pans.

‘Clap for Carers’ was started in the UK by Annemarie Plas, a Dutch woman living in South London, when she took to social media to encourage her friends to emulate similar displays seen in the Netherlands, Spain and France. It soon went viral, and three weeks after Boris Johnson told the nation they must stay home, households have seized the opportunity to break the monotony. Clap for Carers has now become an almost ritualistic display of appreciation and gratitude for the continued efforts of our NHS workers in tackling the pandemic.

However, there’s something about the whole spectacle that makes me grimace.

Before the word coronavirus became part of the world’s lexicon, the NHS had been fighting a lonely battle against the Government. Starting in 2010 with George Osborne’s austerity measures the NHS saw a dramatic slow-down in funding and a real-terms budget cut, it had to dig deep to shield patients from the financial impact of the cuts, at the cost of frontline workers who bore the brunt through working harder and longer shifts.

In 2016, then Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt appeared to recognise the plight of the NHS: “Without its people, the NHS is just empty buildings… Fill it full of NHS staff, you’ve got something really special.”

He acknowledged the extraordinary work done by the NHS and its people, and for a moment there was hope that the NHS had finally won the battle, that this recognition of the commitment and dedication shown by staff would be rewarded. Mr Hunt then went on to announce that he’d be scrapping student nurse bursaries and introducing tuition fees.

The consequence was 900 fewer applications to study nursing as the country was facing a shortfall of 25,000 nurses. And it wasn’t just nurses who were subjected to this Annie Wilkes approach to appreciation, junior doctors were subjected to a 40% pay cut which resulted in industrial strike action from the BMA. The NHS had 6,000 unfilled doctor and GP positions at the time.

To compound the issue further, this happened around the time the UK had voted to leave the EU. EU/EEA nationals account for over 9% of the doctors and 6% of the nurses working within the NHS, respectively, let alone the almost 70,000 EU nationals working in adult social care –  that’s nearly 200,000 doctors, nurses and carers who’s future was, and still is, now uncertain.

The NHS has been battling on several fronts, for many years, against many governments, against many issues and against all odds – but now it faces a new threat, an unseen and lethal enemy, with the potential to decimate our health service.

Right now, they’re facing an impossible task which they are completely unprepared and unequipped for. In 2016, due to mounting concern that a pandemic would be the greatest threat likely to face the UK, the Government staged a nationwide pandemic preparedness drill codenamed Exercise Cygnus based on a fictional outbreak of ‘swan flu’.

The conclusions gathered from that exercise have never been released publicly, but local authorities who took part in the drill have noted that PPE supplies were an area of concern. It’s also worth mentioning that according to DHSC accounts, the value of the UK’s emergency stockpile (consisting of PPE, including respirator masks, gloves and aprons) had fallen by more than £200m between 2016 – 2019.

And now we’re witnessing the heart-breaking ramifications of those decisions.

It’s tragic that the true value of the NHS, if there was any doubt, only comes to the fore at the hour of our need, but it’s nothing new for the workers on the frontline. They have always been here, doing the extraordinary every day, and whilst the loss of life within the NHS is painful to bear we must try to keep in mind that the loss of life without the NHS would be unfathomable.

More needs to be done to ensure that the actions and gratitude displayed within the community marry up with the actions and decisions made in Whitehall; because when this fight is won, it will be hard-won by the brave and steadfast people of the NHS, and we will look to them when it’s time to nurse this nation and the community back to health.

I hope by then, that they will have earned much more than a standing ovation.

Keat Moore is editor of Erdington Local – you can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/_mr_moore

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