Abena Oppong-Asare: Coping with a pandemic in your first year as an MP

Abena Oppong-Asare
Abena Oppong-Asare found that taking “baby steps” was the best way to learning how to cope with life at Westminster

Abena Oppong-Asare, the Labour MP for Erith & Thamesmead, has had a start to her parliamentary career unlike any other. SAM DAVIES spoke to her about a turbulent year.

“This sounds really cheesy and probably like a politician’s answer,” says Abena Oppong-Asare, asked why the plight of homeless people in her constituency is so important to her. “I think equality and fairness should be at the root of everything we’re doing.” She might think it’s a typical answer, but she’s far from a typical politician.

For one, she’s only been an MP since last December, elected as the representative for Erith & Thamesmead after her predecessor Teresa Pearce announced that she was stepping down. Two months ago, Oppong-Asare joined the Labour front bench as shadow exchequer secretary to the Treasury. Earlier this month, in recognition of her work for disadvantaged communities, she was jointly named newcomer MP of the year.

Unlike many more weathered politicians, Oppong-Asare has an earnestness about her. She answers questions on a Zoom call in a broad south London accent that almost makes her sound familiar. She was born in Croydon, but grew up in Belvedere. She and the Streatham MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy, also elected last December, are the first ever British-Ghanaian members of parliament.

Her first year in office has been pretty atypical too. The number of coronavirus cases in Bexley – the borough which makes up most of her constituency – is double the national average. And the devastation wrought by Covid-19 has affected Oppong-Asare personally. “I would say that the first few weeks of lockdown were quite difficult,” she says, trailing off. She’s lost loved ones to the virus. As she remembers them, she briefly becomes overwhelmed with emotion.

Abena Oppong Asare Christmas card
Oppong-Asare’s Christmas card features portraits of key workers drawn by local schoolchildren

“It’s really, really mad when you come in,” she says of her first few weeks in Westminster. “No one really tells you anything. You’re kind of left to your devices in terms of how to navigate your way through parliament, which can be really challenging.”

Nonetheless, there was a zeal in the way she took to her new role. “In the beginning I was just saying yes to everything,” she says. “I was getting haggard, doing seven days straight, then I realised actually I just need to focus more on little things, take baby steps. It’s going to take time before I’m able to achieve change.”

When Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown in March, a virtual parliament was introduced, with MPs asking questions over Zoom and voting online. But in May, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons stopped virtual voting, meaning MPs had to be in parliament to participate in debates. Anyone who was shielding or self-isolating had to apply for a proxy to vote.

“I think it’s a little bit ridiculous to be honest,” says Oppong-Asare. Last month she was forced to self-isolate after the NHS contact tracing app on her phone told her she’d come into contact with someone who had the virus.

Now she’s out of quarantine, she usually needs to be in parliament at least three days a week, travelling in alone as all her staff work from home. She tends to wake up around 5am, checking emails before starting her “proper working day” at 8. Often she’ll be in parliament until 11.30pm, finally getting to sleep around 1am. She takes one day off each weekend and tries to keep one evening to herself every week.

Due to social-distancing measures, the vast majority of her contact with constituents now happens by phone or email. She notes that people who are not digitally engaged — the elderly or disabled, for example — are largely cut off from their MP. Why has her area been so badly hit?

“It’s a really difficult one to say,” she says. “I think the messaging hasn’t been consistent. So there’ve been times when the prime minister’s done statements and people have emailed me for clarification on what it means.”

Abena Oppong-Asare
Oppong-Asare has been getting by on four hours’ sleep each night

Early on, Oppong-Asare was getting lots of emails from constituents who thought they had Covid-19 but were still going to work. “They were worried that if they stopped going to work it would affect them financially, because they needed the money,” she says. “There’s also been situations where people have been made to work in unsafe circumstances. They’re worried if they spoke out they would lose their job, because they weren’t in secure jobs.”

By May, 12,700 jobs had been furloughed in Erith & Thamesmead. In September, she published a report titled Leaving Nobody Behind in Erith & Thamesmead, examining the effect of the pandemic on disabled people, people from minority-ethnic backgrounds, women, people of low socio-economic status and young people.

“We are dealing with some cases where people have been evicted in the middle of a pandemic,” she says. “Which shouldn’t be allowed to happen.” For the first six months of lockdown, an eviction ban meant landlords were prohibited from kicking tenants out of accommodation. Yet in November, as reported by Inside Housing, the government failed to reinstate the ban. “Working on those cases is quite devastating,” adds Oppong-Asare.

She and her team have spent hours phoning constituents, giving advice to anyone threatened by homelessness. “One of the things that I’m particularly concerned about is if things go back to normality, what’s going to happen to those individuals that have been in hotels, or have been given support? Are they going to be left behind?”

She points out that the furlough scheme is due to end in April, leaving many people’s incomes at risk. “And it’s not just about putting a roof over people’s heads. There has to be wraparound support. With some individuals they could be suffering from all range of mental health issues and that needs to be taken into consideration as well.”

As for her own mental health, she emphasises the need to take time to look after herself. “Obviously I tell people to self-care,” she says. “I can’t really tell them that if I don’t practise it.”

If she’s able to stay positive after everything that’s been thrown at her this year, she looks set to be around for a while.

This is one of a series of stories we are running on how people in SE London have responded to the coronavirus pandemic.

SAM DAVIES is a journalist who has written for Dazed, DJ Mag, the Guardian, the i, Mixmag, Pitchfork, Readers Digest and Vice. He co-hosts the podcast Exit The 36 Chambers.

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