Furlough reflections

WhatsApp Image 2020-04-22 at 16.47.36Writing from the relative safety of a new job, the thoughts I’m about to share with you all seem like another world. However, from the end of April until the beginning of June, I was furloughed from my position with a large charity. We’ve all been cooped up in lockdown, but certain charities which rely on fundraising, successful shops and regular donations, have estimated that their income in this period will be slashed by millions.

All of this led the charity early on to decide to access the UK Government’s furlough scheme. I didn’t come here to discuss the rights and wrongs of being a part of this vital scheme, and really I should reflect that I was incredibly lucky, as the six weeks I was off, I also had my salary topped up by the charity, as furlough was only available for 80% of staff wages.

What I did come to speak about was the impact of this period on careers, likely missed opportunities, and most importantly, the ability of a public affairs professional to switch off.

In theory, the employee retention scheme requires staff not to do any work for their employer during the period they are furloughed. But is this possible for a public affairs professional? I am sure that any of you who have taken career breaks, maternity or any other such hiatus from your work will agree that the political arena being what it is, means that we have to stay switched on. In fact, in order to come back and be effective, you almost cannot do your future work unless you have stayed switched on.

In my first week of furlough, on the very good advice of my husband, I aimed to take a holiday. Get my thoughts in order, and see if I’d like to pick up on any of the long dormant creative projects I would largely rather be known for (reader, I did not manage this). However, on that Wednesday, during which I had started to feel a little down about being on furlough, my fellow PAC committee member Ben, alerted our WhatsApp group to the unfolding scandal about to ripple through the soon to be renamed Welsh Parliament. Vaughan Gething, unused to the Zoom format many of us are now so familiar with, swore, not remembering to mute himself.

Many of you will have spent the afternoon doing what I then did, tweeting and searching twitter for more hilarity, and getting involved in the best threads of which AM had the best reaction. For the record I still love Ken Skates’ face, who looks like the kid who would say ‘ummmmmm!’ and tell the teacher about his classmate’s misdemeanor.

Over the next few days, I had texts from friends in England who have little idea what the Senedd is and no clue about who Vaughan Gething is, as the news made the UK national media. This was not the last time that Vaughan unfortunately made the UK-wide press as he was later pictured eating chips on a park bench with his young son just a couple of weeks later. Luckily for him though, Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle soon made that slip off the front pages and FMQs’ critiques.

And so to Dominic Cummings’ press conference. The last week of May, a bank holiday in the sunshine, I sat inside, still on furlough, watching the BBC news channel as my new lockdown cat (don’t worry I’ll be keeping him forever, a cat is for life and all that) sat snoozing on my lap.

Prior to this, I registered for many of the amazing Hay Festival online sessions – the first of which was a session with the First Minister, Jane Davidson (former AM and architect of the Future Generations Act) and Sophie Howe, the future generations commissioner. A few days earlier, Jane actually replied to a tweet I had sent about the Future Generations Act having had little effect, saying the book explored how the Act needed effective drivers. On the day, I tried to listen to it in headphones whilst getting my stepson to do home-school PE. It was a basic fail but I tried. 

What is the point to any of this, you’re probably wondering, and indeed I wonder. There’s no doubt that the comings and goings of Cummings and the getting used to muting and unmuting oneself through our new found working environments and a bit of twitter banter and Welsh culture from Hay is not my day job. But it is at the heart of what makes me a good public affairs professional. Spending time knowing what happens in the bubble, keeping up to date with what is happening, especially during a pandemic and understanding the nuances of how political parties have adopted new policies, new lines during this period, especially less than a year away from an election is vital.

I watched as the debate took place during the Local Government and Elections Bill over whether any legislation should be passed during such a time, and a rather more ambitious programme for legislation was slashed. I read the article from Jonathan Morgan on the Centre for Welsh Studies website which seemed to signify the Conservative shift ahead of the election to put up defenses against the idea of a minimum basic income and the air quality measures which might be the outcome of this pandemic. I saw how Adam Price was forced to climb down from his rhetoric about the treatment of the Welsh by the English in light of the Black Lives Matter protests. And due to the death of George Floyd, there was a massive change in conversations throughout political discourse, and indeed when I returned to work, I found throughout most organisations’ discourse, was inherent and important and part of every new conversation.

Had I switched off completely (which may have been hard during this pandemic as news of it was hard to escape) I would be doing myself a disservice. The conclusion I make is that it would probably have been possible to catch up through monitoring reports and conversations with people in the health sector, but there is nothing that can replace the currentness of living through it. I thank Rishi Sunak for his support for the sector I have now left behind, but should I have to stop working again at any point in the future, I know I will stay switched on.