Opposition Business by Jane Birch

Lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic

The arrival of Covid-19 has made us all face unprecedented pressures, and changes to every aspect of our lives and families. Our generation has never had to face the challenges of an emergency such as this. Our working patterns, family routines, social and cultural activities have all been curtailed or greatly altered. It is unimaginable that things can go back to normal in the coming months or years when we are overshadowed by a virus which took fewer that 100 days to shut the world down.

So, what have we learnt? Our communities, neighbours and friends rallied round and set up support groups, neighbours were contacted and the elderly and vulnerable were identified and offered help. This was replicated at a higher level by the Community Resilience Hub. Over 600 volunteers in the town have come forward and local organisations have played their part, adapting their work to cater for the increased demands on their services.

We learned the value of our key workers, the health professionals, care workers, teachers, police, ambulance drivers, transport staff, environmental teams, postal workers, delivery drivers, supermarket staff. Often, they are undervalued, poorly paid, working on zero hours contracts, no job security. We must change this.

We learned that an overly centralised response is not what people want to hear. We want local decisions made at local level. Local councils working in partnership with local organisations know their communities best. We want messaging by trusted and familiar community leaders to cut through the confused and ambiguous national broadcasts. We need agile and swift responses to local needs and information directing people to local services such as testing and tracking facilities.

We learned the vital role played by digital connectivity; the need for reliable broadband, IT equipment available for home workers; lap tops for home schooling. With the closure of offices, virtual meetings such as this, are vital to maintain good governance and ensure access, engagement and accountability with decision makers.

We learned the effects of 10 years of austerity on families and council services. Local government funding has reduced year on year. Many services cut to the bone, with no resilience to fight back in an emergency. Council posts cut or unfilled, the non-essential supports reduced. Emergency supplies run down, local knowledge lost or out of date. Families with precarious finances, debts, insecure jobs and housing. Delays in welfare pay outs, real poverty, hunger, poor physical and mental health. We have learned that this pandemic has highlighted inequalities.

We learned that with government funding emergency accommodation for the homeless could be found. We learned that with government funding businesses could be helped, council tax to the most vulnerable could be subsidised, food boxes could be distributed, staff could be furloughed to preserve jobs and government financed sick pay for those experiencing Covid -19. Perhaps central government has woken up to the real consequences of their austerity cuts.

We have learned that as a consequence of the hopefully temporary collapse of the global economy, our environment is cleaner and fresher. People are walking and cycling, discovering and enjoying our wonderful parks and open spaces. We notice and appreciate wildlife and nature. We have learned that we can manage without using our cars as much. This is an opportunity to expand and invest in the green economy, to develop public transport, cycle lanes and pathways; NCC has a grant of £351,000 to do this

We have learned how important our schools, teachers and education, along with youth activities are to our children and young people. Six months out of school for the majority of children will result in a huge educational deficit. Some children are well supported with their home learning by teachers, parents and carers. Some will not have IT equipment to work with. Some will have to share a laptop with other members of the family or try to work from a phone. For some children it will take many months of catching up to return to the same levels and learning patterns. For some this will never happen and their life chances will be limited due to lack of qualifications and a good standard of education.

For some young people, school is a place of safety, away form scenes of domestic abuse, substance abuse and violence in their homes. The hidden harm, depression and anxiety will become apparent only when schools are fully open. The demands on safeguarding and child mental health provision will overwhelm an already stretched service. Young people will need support with jobs and skills training to prevent them becoming the ‘pandemic generation’. With the prospect of an economic recession and subsequent depression it is gloomy prospect for many.

Looking to the future, where could we go?

Covid-!9 has highlighted inequalities in our society. Inequalities in health, housing, jobs and opportunities, life expectancy, education, digital inclusion, poverty, hunger, debt. Older people are much more vulnerable to the virus. BAME groups are twice as likely to die from Covid -19. These groups must be offered greater protection if there is to be a second or third spike in infections.

Before Covid the greatest areas of growth nationally were the creative industries, leisure and tourism. Leisure and cultural activities are going to be essential to our wellbeing as we return to a more normalised society. We should value these more and support their return.

Work patterns will change. There will be more working from home. Meetings may be physical or remote. The need for vast office space may be reduced. Councillors and council staff will need a greater level of IT skill and support as this happens

The notion of a balanced budget may be a thing of the past. There will be debt and overspend. There has been 60% loss of income form commercial fees and charges, business rates, council tax and car parks. Overtime payments for staff to deal with the extra administration and extra expense for Covid related spending, extra costs for cleaning and social distancing arrangements.

The council will need to shape more inclusive local economies and create and maintain wealth within local areas through public sector procurement, supporting local enterprises and creating relationships with local suppliers. The cost of air freight has quadrupled and supplies form abroad will be subject to tariffs and fluctuating exchange rates. To identify reliable local supply chains should be a priority.

One of the most important things to come out of this pandemic is the strength of our local communities. We need to build on the goodwill of the hundreds of volunteers and lessons learnt from their involvement. Local hubs in each community would continue to build resilience in what will be difficult times ahead. Councillors’ knowledge of the community they represent should be to put to good use to shape and form these hubs which could respond to the very specific needs of the area. Provision of IT facilities, welfare and debt advice, health, wellbeing and youth activities and a point of contact for information being just some of the ways we can support our residents in a post Covid 19 world.

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