Naturally, the challenges to be faced by the NHS due to coronavirus have been the focus of much attention. But the difficulties for local government are also considerable. The most obvious is the added pressure on social care. There is the question not only of coping with an increased number of vulnerable people who need help, but also the tricky question of how to balance providing help to those who are supposed to be in isolation.
One of the ways central Government can help is to ease requirements on the town halls to undertake other things. Postponing the local elections was seen in the context of reducing physical contact. That was an important consideration. But there is also pressure on the council staff time in running elections. I understand that those Council by-elections that have already been called will proceed but no Council by-elections will not be called for the time being.
Another way that usual standards of local democracy will be waived will be requirements for Council meetings and committee meetings. Council AGMs were due to take place in the early summer – when some expect the epidemic to be at its peak. They will now be postponed. This is less of an issue for Councils where a single party has a clear majority. But in some hung councils the leadership can shift at the AGMs. Though I would be surprised if there was much complaint over the delays.
Routine Care Quality Commission inspections will be temporarily suspended. Ofsted will “look very favourably” on any requests to defer inspections because of coronavirus. Councils will be able to use their discretion on deadlines for Freedom of Information requests. The deadline for local government financial audits will be extended to 30 September 2020.
Robert Jenrick, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary spoke to over 300 council leaders on a conference call this week. He says:
“As part of the national effort to keep the public safe and deliver essential public services, this government stands with local councils at this difficult time. My absolute priority is to ensure they are well placed to respond to coronavirus and protect vital services, including social care. Everyone needs to play their part to help the most vulnerable in society and support their local economy, and the government will do whatever is necessary to support these efforts.”
During the call, he also reiterated the practical measures introduced by the government which will give councils greater flexibility and allow them to further focus their resources on the response to coronavirus.
Another category is the relaxation of restrictions on supermarket deliveries. It hardly makes sense for councils to be devoting resources to enforcement of rules which disrupt supply chains.
The good news is that there is nothing like a crisis for bringing out the bulldog spirit. Across the country, there has been a surge in offers of vounteering. Sometimes they are being organised formally by such bodies as Age UK and the British Red Cross. Sometimes they are made by people contacting their local town halls and speaking to a “community officer”. They might be organised by local churches, residents groups, or by Parish Councils. Sometimes new initiatives have been set up – helped by using Facebook and other social media. Of course, a huge amount is informal, good neighbourliness.
Good neighbourliness is a principle that local authorities themselves adopt. Often adjoining councils are in contact with each other – as well as other public services – via local resilience forums. That means that if one local authority is under particular pressure, then others can rally round.
If some or all universities are temporarily shut down, then even more offers of help are likely from student volunteers.
Making full use of the volunteers will mean lifting some of the red tape around vetting and so forth. It is a matter of balancing the risks involved in a practical way.
Not all care workers are council employees, of course. Many of those with “care packages” are provided with funding to make their own arrangements. The difficulties will be the same. If, for instance, their regular carer is unwell and alternative help is needed.
The likely scenario is that volunteers will be asked to take on the straightforward, lower risk cases – such as those who have not contracted the virus. The obvious example is dropping off shopping – which can be done in a way that avoids close physical proximity. That could allow care workers to spend more time on other cases. They might need to wear PPE (“Personal Protective Equipment”) secure suits – that would mean their tasks take longer to complete.
There will be some variations in how councils respond. Mistakes and misjudgments are inevitable. But the general mood is for a flexible approach – of bureaucrats willing to overcome their jobsworth inclinations. They will find the British people will offer an army of volunteers to be at their disposal.