Councils call for clarity on local lockdowns

By Dan Peters | 16 June 2020

Councils this week called for clarity on the legal powers they will have if they are forced to implement local coronavirus lockdowns.

A number of local authorities have called for specific powers to help them protect their communities.

Local areas have also pushed hard to receive vital person-level testing data to allow them to identify hotspots as part of a potential second peak.

Chair of Hackney LBC’s health scrutiny commission, Ben Hayhurst, said: ‘The most we can do at the moment is to offer guidance.

'If the Government wants us to be able to shut down local outbreaks they need to give us greater powers.

‘We also need more contact tracing data so we can support people through the isolation process.’

But giving evidence to the Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) Committee, Greg Fell, a member of the Association of Directors of Public Health board, said he was ‘not terribly hopeful’ detailed testing data would reach his colleagues.

There does not appear to be much appetite in Whitehall to give local authorities any new powers, with key figures suggesting that the role of councils will mostly be focused on engaging their communities.

It has yet to be decided whether decisions on local lockdowns will be made locally or imposed by Whitehall.

Public Health England has suggested that most actions needed to tackle individual local outbreaks will be taken through ‘existing local mechanisms, and largely by agreement and consent’.

There is an ongoing debate among ministers about what a local lockdown would involve and whether councils would be handed any enforcement powers.

Also giving evidence to the HCLG Committee, chief executive of Leeds City Council, Tom Riordan, who has been brought in to advise the Government on test and trace, pointed out councils already had some intervention powers.

He said: ‘The default always is to deal with things without having to force people.

'I think as we move into the phase maybe later in the summer and particularly looking to winter we do need to think about whether that balance of powers is right and whether people have the basket of measures that they need to deal with more of a community spread of the virus and that’s something that’s being actively looked at at the moment with ministers.

'There’s active conversations happening.

'I’m having those conversations with local government colleagues about what might be needed.’

Councils are currently developing local outbreak plans ahead of the end of June deadline, but a lack of national guidance is understood to be causing some frustration.

Local government minister Simon Clarke said: ‘All upper-tier local authorities have been asked to develop local outbreak control plans based on the existing statutory responsibilities of their directors of public health.

'The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, alongside other relevant departments, is considering whether further powers are required for local authorities to manage future outbreaks in line with these plans.’

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