The Leader began his statement by wishing a Happy New Year to all Members and officers. He said that he hoped this year everyone could meet in person, without people dropping out, or forgetting to mute.
The Leader commented that it was all still about the Covid-19 pandemic and since Council last met there had been two monumental developments; one bad and one good, and that it was now known that a new strain of the virus had led to an alarming increase in infection rates across the country. Health professionals said it was 50-70% more contagious and hospitals were under critical pressure, a pressure that would probably increase in the next week or so as the impact of the partial relaxation at Christmas fed through. He added that, at the same time, there had been progress made on vaccines, and that the sensible conclusion was to rigorously control the first until the latter could change the prospects of beating the virus.
Therefore, the decision to go for a total lockdown was inevitable and correct, and it was not the first abrupt change. Just before Christmas, the Government took Swale and the rest of Kent into Tier 4. The Leader said that this had caught them a little unaware, as the day before a mailshot had been despatched to households once again appealing for public compliance with the Tier 3 regulations and, as the announcement meant there was an error in the letter, further deliveries were withdrawn. He said he had received considerable thanks from recipients, who sensibly understood the provenance of the one error and he had signed a letter from Kent Leaders to the Chancellor of Exchequer, asking for special consideration for retailers who were impacted by this decision.
A side effect of the pandemic was the congestion around Dover over Christmas and the Leader acknowledged the distress caused for people in Dover, Thanet and Ashford and he said he was very aware of the pressure this imposed on people and Councillors in those districts. He said that Swale had also been under pressure. The media coverage of the period when Swale was the most infected borough in the country was inevitable but not always appropriate. He referred to a report in a national newspaper, which had arrived at a pre-conceived notion that the spread of the virus to London was the responsibility of Sheppey, and there was a point where some parts of the local media were fostering the idea that Swale was “pulling down” the rest of Kent.
Drawing attention to recent reports that suggested Swale now had the largest decline in infection rates across the country, the Leader said it was especially good to see the large fall in the rate for Sheppey East and that there had not been a queue of TV journalists asking us how we felt about that.
The Leader said that throughout the period of intensive focus on Swale, the new strain was not known about but now it was, the reason for Swale’s peak may have been that we had suffered an earlier visitation of the variant than other areas. He said that he had always thought in our culture, it was polite to sympathise with those suffering sicknesses, not to blame. The Leader made the point that if the improvement in Swale continued, we needed to sustain the effort on mask wearing, hand washing and above all, social distancing.
The Leader advised that each week, Kent Leaders met under the Chairmanship of Roger Gough and these meetings were attended by public health directors and the NHS. He said that there were current key questions about asymptomatic testing centres and local vaccinations, which were addressed in agenda item 8 of the Council Agenda. One coherent message to come out of these meetings was the public health view that infection had spread amongst the 11-18 age group, where social distancing had naturally lapsed outside school. The Leader said it was very important that the Government got its decision-making around schools correct and he found it hard to understand why teachers were not yet a priority for vaccinations.
Referring to education, the Leader had written to Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, to ask for students being assessed at GCSE and A level in Swale to receive consideration for the extra time they had lost. He said that it was appropriate that external examinations were not going to be employed this year.
The Leader said a key NHS officer was present at the leaders’ meeting which coincided with the service being much more open and descriptive about the pressures facing hospitals. He said that it was a good thing that they were being more open, as we worked to convince all residents of the need to be compliant with the public health requirements, and he noted that it seemed the voices of those actually fighting the pandemic might be more convincing than Council Leaders, who had largely fulfilled the plaintive role up to now. He added that it was a vivid revelation of where we were, when Covid-19 patients from Kent had been transferred to places like Bristol, Portsmouth, Plymouth and Southampton and it may be even more vivid for some residents when they hear a health professional say that those who break the rules would have “blood on their hands”. The Leader said that it was our responsibility to keep re-enforcing the public health message and that, at times, this lead to accusations that we were assigning blame but, it was vital that everyone understood that social distancing kept people safe and protected the NHS.
The Leader stressed that it was going to be a very tough time, which might continue into spring 2021 and he knew that some Members would be interested to know that at a Ministerial briefing the previous day, the favourite question from local councillors was whether the May 2021 elections would still be held. He said that they were advised that there were no plans to delay the elections, but he urged caution that plans could change abruptly.
Finally, the Leader said he had concentrated on the critical matter of the Covid-19 pandemic, and that at future meetings, he hoped he would have more of an opportunity to reflect on future plans, as we withdrew from this difficult time.
In response, the Leader of the opposition thanked the Leader for his update and acknowledged that it was a difficult time for residents, and he spoke of the complexity of vaccinating the population. He said that he hoped the Leader’s optimism was justified. The Leader of the opposition gave thanks to the Senior Management Team (SMT) for holding the leadership together during the former Chief Executive’s illness and during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Other Members raised points which included:
· Gave thanks to those that provided food and other facilities for the HGV drivers that were stranded in Kent during the recent border closure, but was critical of the Government’s lack of support;
· thanked and praised SMT for their support, particularly to newly-elected Members;
· hoped for a sharp decline in Covid-19 cases and gave an example of a local resident’s hospital transfer to a hospital nearly 100 miles away, due to lack of space in the local hospitals; and
· supported priority vaccination for educators but suggested consideration of Police officers and staff, and local Prison staff.
In his response, the Leader thanked and supported the appreciation for the hard work of SMT. He praised the support given to HGV drivers by the Sikh community and said that the vaccine provision in Swale had been frustrating. The Leader agreed that Police officers and staff, and local Prison staff should receive priority vaccinations.