Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Here in the Midlands, we find ourselves the second largest hotspot of the UK’s coronavirus outbreak.
Each morning, the latest figures make grim reading, and serve as a reminder of the risks our brave NHS and care staff are taking for us on the frontline. Yet it is vital that we also recognise the incredible spirit that is being shown as we face this health crisis. As Mayor of the West Midlands, I have been privileged to see how all facets of our community have come together, and in this column I want to acknowledge their efforts.
From the thousands who stood on their doorsteps to applaud NHS and care workers to the hand-drawn rainbows that decorate windows across the region, we are seeing a level of unity that is nothing short of inspirational.
The way that local people have tackled the lockdown also speaks volumes about their nature. It’s easy to fixate on a handful of national stories about those who flout the rules, but the fact is that West Midlands people are doing their best to help stop the spread of this virus, by staying indoors and away from their family and friends.
In a place that usually bustles with diversity and industry, the lockdown has hit hard. However, we are working to put in place the support that people need to get through the crisis.
Thousands of proud business owners – the people who have made the West Midlands the economic powerhouse that it is – have been forced to shut up shop. I’m pleased to say the money provided by Government to support businesses is already reaching those who need it. Our seven boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton are distributing £551 million to the 50,000 small businesses who qualify. These councils are busting all conventions to get this money out as quickly as possible, supported by the private sector.
As Mayor, I have been hosting the West Midlands Economic Impact Group, which brings together business and community leaders to ensure the best use of Government help, while providing feedback directly to ministers. However, while central Government is pumping unprecedented financial support into the system, I believe it is also the job of the regions to take care of the most important part of our economy – our people.
We have never experienced a lockdown of this nature before. The impact on the wellbeing of our citizens is an unknown. As Government works with us to immunise the economy from the side effects of the virus, The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has rolled out a series of measures that aim to support individuals.
First of all, businesses are being offered practical advice and support on how to keep staff who work from home mentally and physically fit during the lockdown. So many people are thinking about how to change their work to reflect social distancing. Even our homeless outreach charities face a different challenge now rough sleepers have been offered accommodation.
A WMCA guide, called Thrive at Home, provides bosses with useful information on maintaining staff wellbeing as they adapt to new working practices. Topics covered by the guide include helping staff deal with anxiety, especially those with existing mental health conditions, eat healthily and cope with financial uncertainty.
Through the members of the Mayor and Faith Conference, we are also addressing the spiritual life of the region. The government’s restrictions may have resulted in the cancellation of church services, suspension of prayers and daily activities at mosques, gurdwaras and prayer halls. However, faith groups are stepping up to the challenge of adapting practices. Some have mobilised hundreds of volunteers and are working to get aid to the most vulnerable in a safe and secure way. They are all working out how religious occasions can be celebrated virtually.
That ‘virtual’ world has never seemed so important. With everyone staying indoors, online platforms are the best way to reach people. Two new websites launched here provide valuable connectivity – one establishes an interactive Community Hub where they can access support such as food banks, while another helps people develop new skills as they work from home. They may be online, but these new resources illustrate the proliferation of voluntary groups stepping up to support the community, from volunteers reaching out to rough sleepers to the dozens of restaurants offering deals to NHS heroes.
We are also continuing to support local colleges during the coronavirus outbreak. The WMCA is responsible for the region’s £126m adult education budget (AEB), which equips local people with the skills they need to get new and better jobs. These payments to colleges are continuing throughout the crisis.
But perhaps the most obvious way in which we are keeping the economy moving – literally – is the flexible approach being applied to public transport. Passenger numbers, of course, have plummeted during the lockdown but there remains a vital need to provide transport for key workers and the vulnerable.
Transport for West Midlands (TfWM), which oversees public transport and operates the Midland Metro, is focusing all its attention on keeping services running for those that rely on them. That means that while timetables have been cut back, vital services are still running. With supermarkets opening early for the elderly and vulnerable, we have lifted the traditional rush-hour restrictions on concessionary bus passes. Simple, small things like this can have a huge beneficial effect.
We have also seen changes that ensure our transport networks support the dedicated NHS and care workers who are on the front line of the fight against COVID-19. The drivers of the region’s fleet of Ring and Ride buses, who usually help the elderly and vulnerable get about, suggested that they be used to ferry key NHS workers from car parks to hospitals during the lockdown.
Finally, NHS staff will get free travel on all buses and trams in the West Midlands as they go to work to battle the coronavirus pandemic – simply by showing their NHS pass. Again, this was an idea suggested by the bus companies themselves.
However, if you really want to see how the West Midlands is pulling together to tackle coronavirus, the best example is taking shape now at the NEC, outside Birmingham.
Thousands of skilled contractors have converged on the site to create our region’s own NHS Nightingale Hospital, which will be fully operational on April 12. To hit this deadline will take an immense team effort, but the public sector, the military and private companies are working round the clock to make it happen.
The hospital will initially have a 500-bed capacity, which can be scaled up by 1,500 to reach 2,000 beds. The speed with which this remarkable facility is being built is testament to the expertise of the tradespeople behind it. It also reflects the determination felt here as we prepare for the outbreak to reach its peak.
These are unprecedented times, but the people of the West Midlands are showing that they have the strength and collective endeavour to beat this virus.