Cllr Peter Fox is the Leader of Monmouthshire Council.
A month ago, most of us wouldn’t have thought Coronavirus was something that would really get to the UK, let alone to a Welsh rural county like Monmouthshire. But it has come to our area with vengeance, indeed our local Health Board area has become a hotspot for COVID 19 in Wales.
Council life has to go on, albeit very differently. The way we work now has changed so much. My kitchen has become my office and Microsoft Teams has become our County Hall.
Twice a week, all Welsh Council Leaders have virtual meetings, together with Welsh Government Ministers. I also have weekly conference calls with the Health Board Chair to keep ahead of the fast moving situation. Our multi agency relations are strong here with all partners, including the voluntary sector, pulling as one to fight this silent killer.
Our Authority is still reeling from the terrible flooding following Storms Ciara and Dennis. Straight off the back of this local disaster, all hands are back on the decks, but resources are scarce and staffing reduced. As I write this, we are a couple of hundred key staff down due to self-isolation or illness – and this number is growing by the day.
The scale and nature of the pandemic means that the council has taken every possible measure, including the redeployment of staff and intense planning, to support all residents, especially the most vulnerable in the county. It is an unprecedented situation and unchartered territory but our emergency planning and continuity function is strong.
Pretty well overnight, we had to start up school based hubs offering childcare to children of key workers, many of whom work in our local hospitals. Our social care staff are brilliant, pulling all stops out against real anxieties about the shortage of PPE for Council front lines and, until recently, the absence of social care staff coronavirus testing.
Recycling and waste collections have continued as normal although it’s been challenging with reduced staff. Meanwhile, lack of staff has also led to suspending garden waste collection and the closure of household waste recycling centres across the county. Reducing non-essential services has allowed us to continue to operate priority waste collections but this is getting tougher each week.
The council has created an inter-disciplinary Community Support Team to support the local response to the pandemic which has already received a huge amount of calls for support – with many additional calls from those wishing to volunteer and help their local community. We have been blown away by the hundreds of people who have come forward to help. Out of bad comes good and society has risen to the occasion. Our sincere thanks go to each and every one of them. We have circa 3,500 shielded individuals and are working closely with those without support networks; our volunteer networks are fundamental to the county effort.
Our environmental health food safety officers are spending a lot of time with many businesses looking to diversify or change operation while the coronavirus pandemic persists. They offer guidance, advice, and interpretation of government rules.
Business support is crucial here in Monmouthshire as everywhere. We have set up processes to make sure we can get money into eligible businesses within 48 to 72 hours from receiving applications. We are working around the clock to get businesses registered and accessing the support available. It’s fundamental to our economy to make sure they survive.
Highways Operations in the county is focusing efforts on urgent and emergency work only and no planned maintenance schemes will be undertaken. The team here will react to emergencies, such as road traffic collisions, fallen trees, emergency road sweeping, obstructions and hazards, as well as undertaking its normal winter service.
The county’s community hubs and libraries remain closed in line with government advice but staff are joining forces with other teams across the council to provide assistance where most needed. All community education services continue to be suspended.
Cemeteries in Monmouthshire remain open but in line with government regulations, funerals are restricted to just five mourners. This is so difficult and our hearts go out to those who have lost loved ones through these horrible times.
Communications with our public is crucial and we consistently feed information out on all platforms and focus hard on messaging to keep our residents safe – and supportive of the need to stay at home and save lives.
I have been humbled by the fantastic efforts of our local NHS staff and the many hundreds of key workers across the county who are involved in the fight against coronavirus. These people are truly inspirational and our thanks and prayers go out to them all. Monmouthshire is a wonderful place and is blessed with fantastic people. I am so proud to lead our county council and look forward to better times again. Things will be different for sure and hopefully society will be stronger, more caring, and focused on the things in life that really matter.