Cllr Paul Mercer is a councillor on Charnwood Borough Council and is the Lead Member for Housing in the Cabinet. He is writing in a personal capacity.
Charnwood Borough Council has always emphasised planning for emergencies, although no amount of blue sky thinking could have prepared us for the challenge we are about to face with the coronavirus.
As it became apparent that this virus was going to have a significant impact, the council’s leader, and a newly-appointed chief executive, started to think through the many changes that would be required to ensure that our frontline services were maintained and the democratic structure continued to function.
Charnwood had previously developed rigorous business continuity plans designed to ensure that we could support our diverse communities. Communicating this message has been critical and, as well as using social media, a dedicated section of our website has been created, and we are also using our email alerts to 5,000 subscribers.
The message does appear to have been absorbed by older people and many of them have already taken precautions to protect themselves in what could be a long period in isolation. Locally, and I suspect nationally, there seems to be far less interest among younger people. Some of those that I have spoken to have described it as an ‘old person’s disease’ and have claimed – probably correctly – that the chances of them dying is negligible. Many seem disinterested in changing their behaviour. Transmission chains that begin in younger populations, where there is a low number of severe cases, can often go undetected for a long time. Many of the initial deaths in Washington state occurred at one location even though the virus’s genetic sequence suggested that it had been circulating for several weeks beforehand.
As part of Charnwood’s planning, a number of working groups were set up to look at issues such as workforce planning, health and safety, and community impact, all of which was led by the Business Continuity Group chaired by our chief executive. Charnwood has always worked closely with the other Leicestershire authorities and coordinating its activities at this level is carried out through the Local Resilience Forum. Throughout this process, care has been taken to conform to the guidance from Public Health England, the Government and the NHS.
Like many councils, Charnwood was in the process of going paperless and this coincided with the introduction of Office 365 which contains Microsoft Teams – a unified communication and collaboration platform. Although this had not been activated it was a relatively simple process which even some of our technophobic councillors have managed to grasp. For remote decision-making, it required a simple change in the law and not only can meetings be conducted with councillors remaining at home, or wherever, but the proceedings can be broadcast live over the Internet.
In order to encourage homeworking, Charnwood has issued a protocol to ensure that those staff in the high risk group move out of the offices as quickly as possible, although there are some functions which cannot be carried out off-site.
This crisis is most likely to affect older people both in terms of the health risk but also making it difficult for them to sustain themselves. A number of councillors have unilaterally set up networks to make contact with residents who might otherwise find the virus a challenge. In our own ward, we have been circulating a letter asking who needs help and you can offer it; two Conservative councillors in one of the villages, Birstall, have already created a support network; and both our sole Green councillor and Labour opposition have been doing likewise.
In parallel with these activities, local people have come together unilaterally to create an ad hoc grouping through social media calling itself Loughborough Community Volunteers. Similar groups are now appearing elsewhere in the borough. Charnwood has now launched a community campaign to support this effort.
Although as councillors we have been able to offer support and advice to our electors, some of us have been approached by local companies who seem unable to devise a response. Dentists, for instance, have received no information about how to protect themselves and their patients. Unlike medics, they have little protective equipment and have not been told how to deal with coronavirus positive patients who have extreme dental pain. It is outside our capabilities to give them any meaningful advice and yet many of our electors are likely to require their services in the coming months.
At this early stage, there are too many unknowns to anticipate what the ultimate impact of the virus will be. What is certain is that the spread of the virus is likely to continue and the number of cases, and later deaths, will rise exponentially, probably for the next month, before it starts to run out of new places to go.
It will inflict massive economic and social damage, not just in Charnwood but across the UK, and the way in which local councillors have come together and shown a determination to work in support of their officers may play a small role in helping to alleviate some of its worst effects.