With the COVID-19 crisis still in full swing as we enter 2021, planning for elections in May seems increasingly facile.
Yet the Government is still insisting that local elections here in Craven and many other parts of the country will still go ahead.
The official line remains that the position is ‘under review’ – but councils need certainty, so that we don’t waste valuable resources planning for an event which many believe should not be happening.
Elections don’t just miraculously occur – they require a huge amount of planning over several months to ensure that they run efficiently.
If extra measures are needed to make them ‘COVID-secure’ this will take up even more resources, without any guarantee that they will be safe for staff and members of the public.
A decision needs to be taken now, to delay the local elections, and not just for a month or two, but until the autumn/winter of 2021, when it is more likely that the country may have returned to some level of normality.
Returning officers have many concerns about the safety of holding elections this spring; there are moral issues involved in putting people in extra danger. There are issues of liability, if staff or members of the public contracted COVID-19 while engaging in election activity. If core staff contract COVID-19, there will have capacity issues. If any election staff at all are affected, we will have staffing issues and would need an extensive pool of emergency staff to call upon.
We also have practical concerns about our ability to recruit staff. The elections workforce is typically older and therefore more vulnerable to COVID-19. They are more at risk; and they know it. In our survey sent to casual elections staff in November, only 54% of respondents said they would definitely work if the situation worsened, as it now has considerably.
We are aware that the Cabinet Office is considering making voting an exempt activity regardless of COVID status. This is a huge concern and would make it even harder to recruit staff. Voting itself could turn into a super-spreading event.
Polling stations are another key hotspot. Many venues are currently closed. Some are schools which are currently providing education to vulnerable children and children of critical workers. Some venues are being used as vaccination or testing centres. Some current polling stations could never be made COVID compliant. With distancing restrictions and multiple polls taking place at once, queues could build up outside polling stations.
Should we honestly be asking candidates to get those names on their nomination papers? In the case of the Police and Crime Commissioner this requires 100 signatures and as for electioneering that poses a whole host of potential risks.
Then there’s the problem of the election count. Complying with social distancing requirements will require a complete rethink of how counts are normally run. It would be virtually impossible to allow observers to scrutinise the count properly and safely, which could lead to challenges. Counts themselves could take several days. If there is a COVID-19 positive test among count staff then many more would have to self-isolate. And the risk of transmission from ballot papers is not fully understood. We’re told there will be ‘clear guidance’ about how to run these elections safely, based possibly on the by-elections in Scotland. A single by-election is a completely different animal to the beast of running multiple elections.
Council staff are already stretched to their limits. Many are being seconded to the vaccination programme, community testing and other frontline services. We need to focus on combating the pandemic and supporting our residents and businesses through these extraordinarily difficult times. Postponing the elections now would be the sensible, moral, safe thing to do.
Paul Shevlin is chief executive of Craven DC