As this is the festive season, let us be charitable about the Government as we look back over this extraordinary year. Ministers have been torn between trying to protect what is left of the economy and keep the rate of virus infections down. They ignored procurement rules in desperation to get their hands on personal protective equipment and ventilators. They thought a centralised response to test and trace would work better than a local one and bypassed local public health directors. They discharged elderly NHS patients into care homes without testing them first because they wanted to protect the NHS from collapse.
Ministers delayed the first lockdown, leading to soaring cases and deaths. They tried local lockdowns, picking a fight with mayors and alienating the very areas that had voted the Government into power in December 2019. They scrapped Public Health England because a scapegoat was needed.
The Government repeated the mistake of the national lockdown, delaying the second one till it was too late, then rowing back on London’s tier 2 status and, as The MJ goes to press, probably having to scrap the five-day Christmas relaxation as well. Despite schools being a hotbed of infection, the Government used the law to force councils to keep them open in the run-up to Christmas. Ministers wanted to help the economy while reducing virus cases and ended up with the worst of both worlds.
Even the Government’s most fervent supporters must admit its response to the pandemic has been muddled. In contrast, local government, despite mounting budget pressures and under-funded extra responsibilities, has risen to the challenge. Frontline workers from care staff to refuse collection teams have continued to deliver services in spite of the pandemic. Digital change, often so difficult pre-virus to enact with reluctant workforces, has accelerated while even councillors have abandoned their attachment to paper agendas.
Consistent messages from The MJ’s recent virtual round tables are that councils, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the way they have tackled the pandemic locally have seen relationships between them and their residents and businesses improve over the past year. In turn, staff are more flexible and ready to embrace culture change in a way they were not pre-pandemic.
Managing recovery will be hugely difficult but local government’s staff and managers should for the moment enjoy a well-deserved break.