Less than two weeks ago, the County Councils Network (CCN) was issuing its response to the chancellor’s Budget – touching on the Spending Review, ‘levelling-up’, and fair funding review. All of that seems a lifetime away, eclipsed by the response to tackling COVID-19.
If we in advocacy are struggling to get our heads around such a drastic change in the way we live, I cannot imagine how it must be to work on the frontline in local government. Major decisions are being taken on an hourly, let alone daily basis.
Whilst the impact on the NHS is occupying the minds of the public, ministers have placed councils at the heart of the response to coronavirus.
Councils’ role stretches well beyond their statutory functions in public health into every aspect of the national plan to combat the disease and keep the country moving: from slowing the spread to protect the NHS, preparing the social care system for extra demand, to supporting businesses through an unprecedented economic challenge.
CCN’s immediate priority has been to ensure that our member councils’ voices are represented in discussions with the government, while working with our leaders and chief executives to provide practical support.
An early focus of that support has been securing additional resources and assisting with development of the government’s ‘shielding’ plans. Last week CCN successfully made the case for the £1.6bn funding for councils to be focused on social care and distributed based on need, with flexibility to get additional resources to the frontline services that need it the most. The sector will need to work together to monitor how far these resources ultimately stretch.
Plans to shield over one million of the most vulnerable from COVID-19 had been under discussion between councils and government for several days and represents a major extension in the role of local authorities in caring for the vulnerable.
The government has placed upper-tier councils, working closely with district and boroughs, as the lead agency to coordinate local plans. Our members have sprung into action in acting as local convenors – bringing together key public sector partners in their local resilience forums to support, protect, and assist those who will need to self-isolate.
County and unitary authorities are now putting in place robust plans to respond to those who require direct support: setting up hubs and call centres to act as points of contact and to prioritise resources, developing logistical plans for the distribution of food packages, and supporting the supply of essential medicines.
Make no mistake, in large rural counties this will be a complex undertaking for all CCN member councils. In two-tier areas, it is vital counties and their district partners work together like never before, sharing resources and capabilities, working together on the Hardship Fund, and adhering to the structures established to provide shielding via hubs.
Essential to this will be the role of maximising community resources to ensure that those who need support will receive it. One of the most uplifting things we have seen is large swathes of the population offering to volunteer. But such an effort will require co-ordination to be most effective, and here county authorities will play a vital signposting role to marshal and then deploy this volunteer effort.
Of equal importance is the partnership between councils and the NHS, with £1.3bn announced to speed up discharge arrangements. Counties are already acting to assist the NHS, with discussions taking place about purchasing additional bed capacity and community care packages. Separately, we are seeing counties begin their efforts to ensure that local care markets are secure from collapse.
At the same time, every CCN member council is putting in place plans to adapt and protect their workforce, mobilising and reprioritising services in a way that was scarcely imaginable only a few weeks ago. We must remember that council staff are not immune from the disease and like every other citizen have families and loved ones they need to support. It is testament to their dedication that they will be willing to go the extra mile to adapt in such unprecedented circumstances.
In the coming weeks, difficult decisions over services will be needed to enforce adherence to social distancing guidance and keep the most essential services operating at capacity. Leisure, recreation facilities and parks have closed, waste collection service will change, and staff in non-essential services may need to be re-deployed elsewhere. Councils and the public sector will have to work together on these re-deployment plans alongside local NHS organisations.
The necessity to rapidly adapt also presents challenges. As the gravity of the situation intensifies increasingly stark warnings on the need to stay at home, and changes to services to support social distancing, will need to be delivered effectively to manage expectations, and most importantly, save lives.
I’m confident that we will see the very best of local councils during this time and local government will emerge with its reputation enhanced. Hopefully this leads to a change in their perception, both from the public and the government.
But for now, county authorities are doing what they have done in an understated way for so long – keeping the show running for their communities.
Simon Edwards is director of the County Councils Network