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Being an AM by video conference

May 1st 2020

Mike Hedges,  Assembly Member for Swansea East, reflects on the pluses and pitfalls of doing his job during the coronavirus outbreak.

My abiding  memory of the COVID-19 crisis and lockdown was that it happened so quickly. There was a full National Assembly Wales plenary meeting on Tuesday 17th March followed by a highly truncated meeting on the 18th, and that was the last meeting I attended in Cardiff.

My life has changed. I have driven only twice since 18th March and that was to collect food. That was also the last time I put petrol in the car. I walk to my office about a mile from my home and get the advantage of exercise and access to the full ICT facilities available.

The first thing I learnt was urgent has different meanings.  On 19th March it was urgent that the Climate change, Environment and Rural Affairs  Committee dealt with a Legislative Consent Motion. This still has not been done despite being told that was the last possible date. COVID 19 has created a new meaning to the word urgent. It is urgent now to stay home and meetings which had to occur haven’t – their urgency has disappeared.

There immediately became the problem of how to meet with groups of people and I discovered Zoom, used Skype for the first time since my daughter went to Canada with her aunt, uncle and cousin in 2013, and discovered Microsoft Teams.

It is amazing how quickly I have acclimatised to the new system. On Monday 20th April I attended five online meetings. If those had been held in February three would have been in Cardiff, one in Bridgend and one in Swansea. To attend all of them I would have driven to Cardiff, gone from Cardiff to Bridgend, missed the second Cardiff meeting, returned to Swansea and gone back to Cardiff returning to Swansea at 8pm.

That level of travel, which I considered normal and which could only have been achieved by car, now appears to be a waste of time, petrol and damaging to the environment. I have discovered how much easier, more efficient and less stressful it is to have a virtual meeting rather than travel across South wales. That said not being able to access a meeting because of technological problems has become the equivalent of being stuck in a traffic jam

In the twenty five years that I taught computing and then  ICT, I used to talk about the advantages of video conferencing and how this was the way meetings in the future would be carried out. But it has taken the COVID 19 outbreak and lockdown to get video conferencing to become the norm.

I do not believe at the end of lockdown that we will all need to travel the length and breadth of Wales for meetings when we can easily hold those meetings via Zoom, Skype or Microsoft Teams which we have now got used to using. This helps the environment, reduces traffic congestion and removes the wasted travel time.

Of course I miss meeting people and there is a role for groups of people to meet together in the same room. What I expect, and hope to happen, is that the first question when organising a meeting will be ‘can the meeting be held using video conferencing?’ and if not why do we all have to be in the one place?

Mike Hedges is Assembly Member for Swansea East

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