The Chair invited Mark Norris, Principal Policy Adviser, to introduce the update.
Mark updated the Board on the team’s activity since its last meeting in March and outlined the main areas where they had been working with councils and Government departments in relation to Covid-19. These were: emergency planning and Local Resilience Forums; supporting the shielded and vulnerable groups; the death management process (the subject of a separate report – item 5); regulation and licensing, particularly in relation to businesses closing and eventually reopening; providing support to domestic abuse victims; early release of prisoners; counter-extremism and community cohesion; and addressing beach safety.
Mark explained that several of the Covid-19 workstreams that the team were working on were now being wound down, as the immediate crisis passed. However, a number of them were likely to continue for the foreseeable future. In particular, he said that they were expecting Government announcements in the coming days about the future role of local authorities in supporting the shielded and vulnerable groups and the testing and tracing programme, with the potential for local lockdowns. Mark said that the reopening of local businesses on the high street and associated licensing and regulatory issues was also going to become increasingly important, and officers were having discussions with Government about the issues this would raise. Similarly, managing the increasing numbers of people who were accessing the coastline was going to be crucial as the summer progressed, and this was being looked at across several Government departments. Mark said it was a fine balance for many local authorities that relied upon income from tourists but also had a responsibility for people’s safety.
Following Mark’s introduction Members raised the following points:
· There was a lack of guidance from the Government about implementing Local Outbreak Management Plans. This could be very challenging for local authorities as there would be strong reactions from local residents. It was suggested that SSCB needed to think carefully about how best to manage this. The Chair stated that the legal advice he had received was that councils did not currently have the powers to enforce local lockdowns and so the Government would need to legislate for it. He added that it would be completely impractical and would take enormous amounts of police resources to enforce in an area such as Blackpool with a large beach. It was acknowledged that there couldn’t be a ‘one size fits all’ solution. Mark said that as far as he was aware, there were no plans by the Government to legislate and officers were having conversations with Government about the issues raised by members.
· It was stated that in Gloucestershire, 47% of deaths from Covid-19 were in care settings and there had been serious shortcomings around availability and use of PPE, lack of testing and use of agency staff. This raised question marks about the effectiveness of councils’ emergency plans and the LGA should look at how these could be improved for the future. The Chair agreed that Emergency Plans should be reviewed and approved on a regular basis but also how they were implemented. Members suggested that some Emergency Plans had been written with influenza in mind, rather than other possible pandemics, and that Government guidance on recovery appeared to focus on flooding events, not pandemics. Further confusion was caused by the additional powers introduced by the Government in the Coronavirus Act and whether these were expected to be discharged centrally or locally.
· Concern was raised about the safety and additional costs of reopening public toilets, particularly for areas that currently operated community toilet schemes.
· In order to aid economic recovery, many councils weren’t planning to charge businesses for street furniture licenses but this would have implications for income.
· It was suggested that the Prime Minister had not helped the water safety situation by encouraging people to swim in lakes, rivers and the sea. It was also queried whether local authorities would be able to enforce local lockdowns on beaches that they didn’t own. It was reported that Swim England were publishing guidance on safety in swimming pools for when they were allowed to reopen.
· It was stated that local government had generally responded well to the pandemic but there were some areas for improvement. How could the sector learn from its experiences, share best practice and recognise areas where things could have been done better? What could central Government and other national bodies have done differently that would have made it easier for local government to respond on the ground. The Chair responded that there would be a national Public Inquiry in due course which would look at the response by national bodies and institutions but a local review should be led by the LGA.
· Concern was expressed about inconsistent advice from schools around shielding, with some schools saying do send people in, others saying don’t.
· As the hospitality trade begins to reopen, there would be considerable pressure on the resources of licensing departments and committees.
· It was proposed that a new working group be formed at the LGA to review the impact of community groups on the Coronavirus response, to learn lessons and help develop a strategy for the future sustainability of this new resource. Members agreed that this would be helpful.
· The close cooperation between military and civilian authorities during the crisis had been fantastic and should be recognised as having great potential for the future.
Members of the Safer & Stronger Communities Board noted the update.
Officers to consider establishing a member-led working group to review the impact of the Community & Voluntary Sector during the Covid-19 crisis.