Cllr Ian Courts is the Leader of Solihull Council
A week may well be a long time in politics, but what a week this has been. We have seen nothing like the Covid-19 crisis since the war – and its effect on health, lives, the economy, and delivery of public services is unprecedented. By the time anyone reads this article, the situation will have changed yet again, new measures will have been announced, local government and our community partners will be at the forefront of action being taken. The fact is that no one is able to forecast exactly how long this will last, and we are having to make preparations accordingly.
In common with other councils, Solihull Council has had to take dramatic action, like closing libraries, leisure centres, and suspension of a number of its services – and stopping public meetings. The council provides a range of different functions and is having to prioritise which services it continues to operate. Some at the frontline, such as waste collection, are vital. Staff resources are already savaged by the requirement for self-isolation and sickness, and many are having to be redeployed to meet new demands. Thankfully, our officer teams are responding wonderfully and are a real credit to the people they serve.
In the West Midlands, there has been extraordinary coordination between councils and essential services to deal with the emergency before us. Solihull Officers have been in the forefront of activity. My own officers at Solihull Council are doing their utmost, in trying circumstances, with many having to work from home, because they are at risk and regrettably some are reporting potential Covid-19 symptoms and therefore have to self-isolate.
The illness itself and the effect on individuals is tragic, but the other serious consequence of the pandemic is the economic havoc it is wreaking, with jobs and businesses being devastated. Thankfully, the government has ramped up its support and, in the West Midlands, Mayor Andy Street has taken the lead in bringing the stakeholders of business and the public sector together, getting feedback on the effect the crisis is having, measures taken, and what else might be needed from government.
Following the announcement of school closures, the focus for the coming days will be on the steps needed to be taken for those children who are vulnerable or whose parents are critical to the Covid-19 response. Plans will need to be put in place with partners to ensure the most vulnerable in our communities, especially those requiring specialist care, can be supported through this pandemic. This is a huge undertaking, but I am confident we can keep our people safe and well, with the support of our communities.
We must never forget that there are limits to what central and local government can do to support people through a crisis such as this. Ultimately, we all have to take responsibility and pull together to support one another at this difficult time. This can simply involve checking on vulnerable neighbours, family and friends.
In Solihull, we are blessed with strong communities across the borough, from our more urban north and west to our rural south. As the Coronavirus pandemic marches forward, our Council are thankful for our communities who are helping us support the vulnerable, and increasingly everyone who for health or work reasons may be self-isolating.
As I think we are all beginning to realise, it is now necessary to adjust to a new way of living and working. I have a fear that those who are self-isolating will, in a real sense, become” isolated”. At some point, I suspect boredom is likely to cause people to break their self-isolation and social distancing, which may be dangerous for themselves and others. If the experience of other countries is anything to go by, it will be some time before we can lead the lives we did, but a few short months ago.
One thing that I worry about is the issue of communications, which has changed massively in recent years, with local newspapers being less important in this digital age. I have had a veritable torrent of emails telling me what various organisations are doing to combat this invisible enemy. However, this crisis is most lethal for the seniors amongst us, who are often less digitally connected, and now must rely on the TV and radio. When we get through all this – and as the PM says – we will, we need to give much greater thought to elevating the importance of digital inclusion, lack of which is a major factor in loneliness and isolation.
One final point, sadly, there are people out there who already see Covid-19 as an opportunity to prey on the vulnerable. We all now need to pass on the message to take extra care with cyber-security; double-check that any unannounced visitors are really who they say they are: if they are legitimate, they will be happy to allow their credentials to be verified with their organisation.
I wish good health to all.