Chester under lockdown and delivering public service
Andrew Lewis (Economics, 1988)
Chief Executive of Cheshire West and Chester Council in the North West of England
Coronavirus has changed everything we do. We provide a wide range of public services to 340,000 people, and nothing and no-one remains unaffected.
Our initial focus as the virus started to take hold in the UK was to support the local NHS by helping as many vulnerable people as possible out of hospital and into the community, and we have succeeded in creating more space in hospitals for the inevitable explosion of demand for beds. Our network of social carers is under huge pressure, facing staff shortages, increased demand, a lack of protective equipment, and clients who are worried and ill. As the virus has taken hold in care homes, they have locked themselves in for the protection of their vulnerable residents; at great risk to the care workers themselves. They have responded with admirable resilience and a real commitment to public service.
Local government has a fine tradition of addressing the public health challenges of the day: from slum clearance and sewerage in the Victorian age, to mental health and wellbeing support today and this tradition has helped us build our own centre of expertise. Each council has a Director of Public Health with statutory powers who can translate national trends and models locally, to understand the pressure on our services and the appropriate local response. We can directly advise the public and translate the national public health messages with a local accent.
As a member of the Cheshire Resilience Forum, which brings together the leaders of the key public and emergency services, we declared a local emergency and activated our plans for our response. These were generally written with pandemic flu in mind. We shifted 2,000 of our own staff onto homeworking in one week, and began a programme of redeployment into our highest priority services. We closed down libraries, leisure centres, cultural venues and day centres, garden waste collection and parking enforcement. In closing schools, we retained support for vulnerable and at-risk children, and provided school access for the children of key workers. We implemented safe social distancing for our services, recognising that much of what we do has to involve direct contact with the public. We have one of the most effective waste systems in the country, characterised by smaller vehicles and kerb-side recycling, but we’re now working hard to sustain that with safe working practices for a declining number of staff.
While standing down some public services, we’ve created new ones. The NHS has advised over one million people with high-risk medical conditions to shield themselves from the virus by complete self-isolation. This is a huge challenge for them personally and they need support from their community and their council. Within two days we had a system of support in place, with delivery of food and medicines and, critically, social contact. Our contact centre is taking hundreds of calls a day from people concerned about access to the basics of life.
As the lock-down has taken effect, we have taken on draconian new powers to ensure shops and restaurants stay closed. Our own decision-making processes have been suspended, replaced by emergency provisions to take decisions without the democratic engagement we are normally so proud of. Our Councillors have reinforced their role as community leaders, supporting their constituents and galvanising a community response.
As the number of welfare claims increases to record levels, we have provided local financial support to our most vulnerable residents and tenants. Local businesses have faced the shock of the lock-down as the beautiful historic streets of Chester, normally thronged with tourists and shoppers, are empty. To deliver our part of an unprecedented injection of cash into business, we’ve delivered £70 million of support to local businesses. We’ve had to deal with restrictions on the construction industry impacting on the delivery of our key regeneration projects – likely to be so critical as we begin the recovery from what will inevitably be a deep recession.
Most sensitively, we take on important responsibilities for bereavement support, ensuring local hospitals, crematoria and funeral directors have the capacity needed for a significant additional number of deaths.
Above all, communication with the public has been critical; through a lively interaction with our residents via social media and a constant flow of information to the press and local community newsletters. Local government in England has much higher levels of trust than national government, so by reinforcing public health messages we can secure greater levels of safety and compliance.
There are lots of frustrations. England is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, and that’s made us too dependent on national initiatives which can be slow to translate to the front line. National stocks of personal protective equipment have been slow to deliver, and at times the Government’s response has been behind the curve.
But, in the midst of anxiety, hardship, and for some the pain of loss, there is a real community spirit shining through, including kids drawing up posters to thank the waste collectors as they pass by on their rounds and millions of people standing outside their homes at 8pm every Thursday to applaud health and care workers. 1,500 people in our borough answered our call for community volunteers, and 750,000 did the same through the NHS nationally.
This gives us hope that, out of this crisis may come a new community spirit, a respect for public services, and a greater recognition of who as a society we really rely on. That’s a hope to see us through this crisis.