What does living with COVID really mean for local government?

By Zina Etheridge | 08 December 2021

Twenty months on from the start of the pandemic, with the Omicron variant across the news, we’re truly living with COVID-19.

Local government is adept at dealing with crises, and although COVID has been a crisis like no other, we have achieved a tremendous amount over this time.

But, as the emergence of Omicron shows, we can’t afford to relax our vigilance, and so it’s a helpful point to reflect on what we have learnt from our response so far, and what this means for living with COVID in the months ahead.

We have learnt a lot since the first lockdown, including the benefits of a single mission for everyone to galvanise around, the vital importance of partnerships with our public and voluntary and community sector (VCS) partners and strengthened relationships and engagement with our residents. 

We have seen a lot more of our partners – one of the benefits of the explosion in the use of digital technology – and learnt much more about each other’s worlds and how we can work better together to support those who need it most.

The pandemic has really shown how hard people in the public sector have worked, how much passion we all have for our communities, and what can be achieved through working in partnership.

We also saw that policy is better when it’s designed with a strong understanding of the delivery context. Throughout the pandemic the Whitehall policy approaches that were worked up with local government were generally far more effective and had fewer unintended consequences. 

We have learnt much more about our communities too. We thought we knew a lot already, but understanding the reluctance of some residents to take up the vaccine, or speaking with local businesses about the support they need to stay afloat, has given us invaluable insight. We have needed to reach even deeper into our communities, learning and adapting what we do. We know more, and we know how to share this better with our partners.

So, what does living with COVID really mean for local government, and how can we make best use of what we’ve learnt so far?

We’re not just living with the virus itself, but with the knock-on effects too. The next few months for many will be dominated by winter pressures – not just the usual health and social care ones, but rising fuel costs, household finances, and living with the new COVID rules the Government recently announced. 

But COVID continues to have a much wider impact locally. In Haringey we see residents struggling to find new employment, and I am particularly worried about the effect on our residents’ mental health. One of my local VCS mental health organisations has seen a 56% increase in referrals in the last few months, as just one stark example.

The demand pressures on Children’s Services and Adult Social Care continues too, driven in part by the increases in mental ill-health and domestic violence. When we look at the workforce in particular, the structural issues we knew we faced across health and social care haven’t just been spotlighted, but exacerbated. There may be additional funding in the short term, but there are real questions about what we can achieve in the longer term when we’re faced with problems like competition between health and social care providers for staff, and where many retail jobs pay higher rates than care. And let’s not forget we’ve been battling COVID on the frontline for the best part of two years – our staff are exhausted.

These are the worries we must grapple with. But there is a huge amount to be optimistic about too. Strong partnerships and new found relationships will continue to help us find our way through. And the structures and methods we have used for problem solving at some of the greatest crisis points in the pandemic we can use again.

Local government has shown incredible pragmatism, flexibility and problem-solving skills, and we’ve seen what we can achieve when we work hand-in-hand with our residents. Our task ahead will be to not lose sight of this. We need to consciously lean into these ways of working, embracing the new skills and relationships we’ve made. The next few months will continue to be challenging I’m sure, but I’m confident that working in partnership, with our amazing staff, we can continue to make a significant impact on our residents’ lives.

Zina Etheridge is chief executive of Haringey LBC

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