THE first of our new weekly column by the town's MPs. Debbie Abrahams is the MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth.

This year has been an extremely challenging one for us all, with the outbreak of Covid-19 and additional restrictions across Oldham due to increased case numbers.

My thoughts are with the loved ones of those who have sadly died and with those who have contracted the virus.

Many of us have been separated from family and friends for many months, in order to try and halt the spread of the virus locally.

Alongside my fellow Oldham MPs, I have been in regular touch with Oldham Council, our director of public health, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and NHS colleagues as well as national government.

We pressed for enhanced monitoring and clearer messaging to make sure that everyone knows about and is following the local restrictions in place, so that we can prevent a Leicester-style lockdown by the government.

We spelt out to government advisers what we believed should happen as a matter of urgency: mass testing, rigorous contact tracing, and financial support for those who are having to self-isolate. No-one should lose out financially from doing the right thing to protect their family and community.

The government agreed to give us more time to get our infections rates down.

But we are not out of the woods yet, our infection rate is still one of the highest in the country, and although this is largely in people of working age, evidence from other countries shows without action, it will move to older people. So I implore everyone to play their part.

The government also agreed to provide financial support to people who are self-isolating but at £13 a day and one in five ineligible, it’s just not good enough.

I’m supporting Andy Burnham’s Time Out to Help Out campaign which argues that self-isolation is a civic duty and should be treated like jury service with you able to claim any loss of earnings.

We have seen a significant increase in both testing capacity which is vital to be able to identify, trace and then support isolate Covid positive people, but I have called for mass testing.

By testing large numbers we are able to understand the virus’ transmission routes and clamp down on these.

But as many of you have told me there are more than a few issues with the system including until very recently not having data from the national tracing system telling us who is testing positive.

We still don’t have occupational data on workplaces where transmission may be taking place; this must improve from government.

Our police and transport police have done a sterling job, but unenforceable ‘guidelines’ have made it very difficult with the power of persuasion not always working. The new national restrictions announced this week may help.

Oldham Council have been out in workplaces monitoring safe working practices. They have also been leading an army of volunteers, including myself, going door to door to explain the current restrictions and encourage higher take up of testing in harder hit areas. Local follow up of cases through the Council’s Public Health team is also now live; the national system has seen patchy results on contact tracing, but local teams with local knowledge are contacting more cases – we need the resources to trace their contacts too.

All this vital activity is putting Oldham Council under even more financial pressure.

At the beginning of the financial year the council was predicting a £20 million deficit, with Covid this has more than doubled.

I contacted both the Chancellor and the Health Secretary to ensure that they fulfilled their promise to do "whatever it takes" and to recompense the council. And this is being replicated across Greater Manchester. We can only combat the virus with this help. The ball is in the government’s court.

As always, the NHS and care workforce has demonstrated its determination to provide the best possible care even in such difficulties. Like many of you I was proud to stand and applaud them every Thursday.

I know how so many have been affected including paying the ultimate price in the selfless work they did.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus which I am vice-chair of, has heard some harrowing tales from medics, nurses and care staff up and down the country. We must not forget this in the coming months.

Covid-19 has exposed the ingrained inequalities in our society – people from poorer communities are twice as likely to be infected and die from Covid compared to those in wealthier communities. As the Oldham Fairness Commission has shown, Oldham has considerable structural inequalities, with a pre-pandemic life expectancy difference for men of nearly 12 years between the richest and poorest parts of the borough.

Is it any wonder when people have been working in high risk occupations, then come home to an overcrowded home where they don’t have a room to themselves, making it virtually impossible to self-isolate from the rest of the household, that the virus spreads so easily?

On a positive note, I want to thank the majority of people who have been doing the right thing and observing all the local restrictions. I also want to thank our fantastic local public health team and council workers for all they are doing to identify and support those who have tested positive to self-isolate.

If this outbreak teaches us anything, it should be to tackle inequalities across our society and bridge the gap between the least and most well-off. We all benefit when this happens

Do continue to look after yourself and each other. Stay safe.