Jess Phillips’s Diary: My mother died nine years ago but she still got a shielding letter from the government

I have been able to take a walk with some of my girlfriends, which has been a precious relief. 

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Embarking on writing a diary column – in the only place where my children do not endlessly bother me, on the left-hand side of my bed, sitting firmly in the groove I have sat in for weeks – is a little daunting. My diary is not spilling over with exciting events. The easing of lockdown has caused little in the way of easements in my own life. I suppose I could go Bridget Jones-style and write down my weight, which is certainly not a constant (in lockdown, what else is there to do but eat?).

I only have one parent now, so at least I didn’t have to make them undertake an It’s A Knockout-esque tournament for my attention. My mother died nine years ago, though she did recently receive a shielding letter from the government. Worry not, she is already shielded by her urn. Sadly, my father is quite elderly, has blood cancer and is himself in the shielding group – so we won’t be hanging out in the park any time soon.

I have been able to take a walk with some of my girlfriends, which, after weeks with only men and boys for company, has been a precious relief. We had bumped into each other before we knew we had to be “alert”, and were frankly terrified that by being together – even by happenstance – we would suffer the eye-rolling of passers-by. 

I also went to Homebase, where I was bombarded by shoppers wanting to know when schools would reopen and when we could expect a vaccine. I have as much knowledge about this as I have about the plants I was buying, which will inevitably wither within the month. 

My children’s schools have been in touch asking if I want them to go back, though. I am lucky they are in school years that may return soon: my husband and I are due back at work and only have shielding grandparents for childcare. As a working parent, I don’t see an alternative. Let’s hope this has been better thought through than the non-existent plan to protect care homes. 

A long time coming, a long way to go

While I sit in my bed-groove, damning my spine to a lifetime of curvature, I have been working on the endless amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill. The legislation previously killed off by two elections and a prorogation is back and, unlike those it aims to serve, seemingly unaffected by the virus. 

The virus has shown the country, in vibrant technicolour, what it is like to feel unsafe in your home. It has allowed people to recognise that for some, home is a prison – and if you couldn’t leave it, you would be at risk of severe harm and even death. The increasing number of domestic homicides in this time and the enormously overstretched refuges and support services in this country have, once again, put a spotlight on the struggle of those who live in fear.

The bill as it stands is not ground-breaking: at present it is just a shifting of the soil. Currently, it doesn’t help migrant victims, it largely ignores children’s experiences and doesn’t go far enough to improve our civil and family courts. I sit here, safe in my home and surrounded by kind men who do household chores and bring me cups of tea, trying to create legislation that will actually break ground for those who are not so fortunate. 

Vandals for justice

At the moment I am out and about, on the telly and in parliament, talking about violent perpetrators of abuse (spoiler alert: they are often men). This means that this week, some idiots thought that the way to prove me wrong was to perpetrate aggressive abuse towards me. Slow hand clap. I know what comes of speaking up; I literally wrote a book about speaking truth to power. Yet it never fails to surprise me how aggressively people will try to silence me.

This week I have been treated to fake pornographic images of myself, an online group writing stories about the abuse and murder of my sons, and people claiming that they have attempted to break into my home, following an actual attempted break-in and the vandalism of my office, which was daubed with “F4J” – standing not for Fred loves Jess, but Fathers 4 Justice. Nothing screams justice quite like non-essential criminal vandalism.

I do not hate fathers; I really like my own and wish I could see his face. I am pretty partial to the father of my own children, too, and nearly every father I come across who doesn’t abuse their family. Call me picky, but aggressively attacking me and my family kind of proves my point. 

The heroism of healthcare workers

This week was my eldest son’s 15th birthday. I shall pause while you gasp at how someone so young could have a child so old who is now three inches taller than her. I have been given pause for thought myself over the past week about the birth of my son, because of the death from Covid-19 of a midwife who worked at the hospital where he was born. Safaa Alam was 30 years old. Her father had died only weeks earlier, and now her family have to face this loss. 

My son, Harry, was born with the umbilical cord wound around his neck. He did not cry when he finally emerged into the strip lighting of Birmingham Women’s Hospital. He was what they describe as “flat and blue”. I remember it vividly. The Lamar song “If There’s Any Justice” was playing in the theatre. A young porter was singing along, swigging from a can of Diet Coke and keeping me chuckling while the midwives rushed my baby off to a capsule to breathe life into his lungs. After what seemed like a lifetime, it became Harry’s lifetime: I heard him cry. The air of calm that all the healthcare workers had created stopped me, a 22-year-old lying cold and paralysed on a slab, from losing my mind – and my son.

While I sing “Happy Birthday” to a frankly unresponsive and embarrassed teen this week, I shall wish that calm, professional preparation for the worst had been afforded to our healthcare workers, many of whom will never see their children’s 15th birthdays. Thank you. Clapping is not enough.

Jess Phillips is MP (Labour) for Birmingham Yardley. She is the author of Everywoman: One Woman’s Truth About Speaking the Truth (Windmill)

This article appears in the 22 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show

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