Cllr Holly Whitbread is the Housing and Property Services Portfolio Holder on Epping Forest District Council. She is also the Deputy Chairman Political of Conservative Young Women.
We are living through an unprecedented period. In a matter of days, the way we live our lives has completely changed at the hands of coronavirus. As the situation continues to evolve, we are not entirely sure what the coming days, weeks, and months will bring. The consequences of this global pandemic are far-reaching, affecting almost every aspect of day to day life.
Local authorities are on the front line, working to assist our communities through this difficult time. Whilst also ensuring some aspects of ordinary council business continue, particularly statutory services, from bin collections to housing. Whilst, larger councils have responsibility over adult social care, which will face an extremely challenging period and is vital at this time. Inevitably, unforeseen consequences of this surreal situation will arise. Local leaders must be reactive and innovative in addressing this challenge. Authorities have to look ahead to plan for all possible eventualities.
In Epping Forest, where I am a district councillor, our primary response has been to help to provide support and advice to residents and businesses. As a council we have now established a ‘COVID-19 Hotline’ and a ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ page with a team dedicated to answering questions or signposting people to where more information is available. This service is about helping to address the knock-on effects of the Coronavirus, from how to receive assistance whilst in self-isolation, particularly around deliveries of food or medicine, to addressing difficulties paying rents, council tax, or business rates.
The team at Epping Forest District Council have been brilliant. They have been flexible and willing to go the extra mile at this time of emergency. Luckily we have been able to utilise new technologies to enable staff to work remotely whilst operating this hotline, protecting themselves as far as possible, whilst supporting residents in the district. We envisage that this service will be a useful information point, particularly for those who contract the virus and are confined at home or people who wish to help those in isolation. Whilst we cannot provide health advice, we can point people in the right direction and assist within the framework of the council. As an organisation, we are mindful that new challenges will arise. Councillors and officers are in constant contact and will work to ensure we provide as much support and assistance as possible in the circumstances.
On the ground in our ‘people-facing’ facilities, such as sheltered housing, temporary accommodation, and leisure centres, we have to step up additional precautions. On the most basic level, we have put up public health notices, significantly increased our cleaning and disinfection processes, and written to all residents in our accommodation about the steps they should take to protect themselves and their families. Whilst, in our sheltered accommodation, which is populated by more vulnerable residents, we have minimised face to face contact, swapping daily visits for phone calls, and prevented unnecessary gatherings in communal spaces.
Partnership working is at the centre of the localised response. As a district council, we are collaborating with our colleagues at Essex County Council, Parish Councils, charities, organisations, and businesses. We are lucky to already have a strong network of community partnerships. Together we can provide the best possible response. Supporting one another where we can to deliver a better service and avoiding duplication.
On a county wide level, Essex Coronavirus Action is a collaboration between Essex County Council, The Essex Public Health Team, and local Facebook group administrators. This social media page specifically exists to assist the most vulnerable residents who may need help if they are self-isolating, through putting them and their carers or families in touch with individuals or agencies who can assist. This action group is also providing advice to ensure people do not participate in activities which may put them at risk. It is also trying to counter any misinformation and provide residents with the facts.
In my community, Whatsapp groups have emerged with people offering to run errands; a local news outlet has collated a bank of volunteers. Local food stores are accommodating those with the most need. People are also mindful of supporting independent restaurants by using and promoting newly formed take away services. Whilst local charities and organisations such as the foodbank are, thus far, receiving a great deal of support. Furthermore, people are acutely aware of the mental health implications of self-isolation and reaching out to neighbours, family, and friends in the appropriate ways.
On a note of positivity, this dreadful scenario has seen people come together (albeit metaphorically speaking – as we all social distance). People have adopted a wartime spirit, which has shown the very best of Britain, and indeed human nature!
As time develops and the situation unravels, local authorities must continue to be responsive. It is clear that councils have an important role in coordinating and mobilising the locality they cover. I have been impressed and encouraged by the strong reaction so far in Epping Forest and the wider Essex area. At this difficult time, everyone is stepping up and we must continue at a local level to play our part in the national battle.