The Leader said that it was nearly a full year since meetings were last held in Swale House when the General Purposes Committee and Cabinet met very briefly during urgent preparations to go into the first lockdown. He highlighted the human misery the Covid-19 pandemic had caused in Swale, the UK and across the world including:
· Over 100,000 people in the country had died according to the statistical analysis based on 28 days from a positive Covid-19 test;
· many others had died because of the suspension of other clinical care;
· widespread phenomenon of ‘long Covid’ with people suffering from persistent symptoms;
· people had endured severe isolation, cut off from families, isolated in care homes or incarcerated by the needs to shield;
· businesses in parts of the economy had been decimated;
· the impact on many people’s livelihoods was evidenced by the growing use of food banks;
· people of all ages were suffering a mental health crisis;
· domestic abuse was growing alarmingly;
· people were enduring frustrating restrictions on lifestyle and the capacity to enjoy life to the full; and
· children were having their childhood and their opportunities taken from them.
The Leader said there was now more cause for hope, with the successful administration of the vaccine programme and the fall in infection rates but hopes had to be tempered with reality. He said that we could not leap into an overoptimistic abyss, the virus had not retreated, and we would not return to a normal state as before March 2020.
The Leader said that the Council had responded admirably to the challenges of the last year and once again thanked senior officers who had taken the lead and all staff who had put in so much extra work. He extended his thanks to all Members of the Council who had looked out for their communities and the whole Borough during difficult times. The Leader said that in being actively involved in community support, Councillors had re-enforced the public health message appropriately and as things had begun to get better, had encouraged people to take a more optimistic view.
Referring to the first lockdown in the Spring and Summer of last year, the Leader said that the Council moved quickly to take up the targets set by the Government. Action had included:
· Rough sleepers were placed into safe accommodation;
· the Community hubs had brought extensive relief to many in the community; and
· business grants were issued to local businesses with a painfully limited staff resource.
The Leader said that the whole of local government, especially district councils, responded well to the extra demands made on them.
Referring to the second wave of the virus in late Autumn 2020, the Leader said that Swale had encountered a set of different challenges and as the Borough became the most infected in the country, a robust response had been needed in the face of public and media scrutiny, despite SBC not being either the NHS, nor the local Public Health Authority. He said that some of the scrutiny was unpleasant, with deranged messages from parts of the country blaming the people of Swale for growing infections and MP’s from other districts complaining that it was all Swale’s fault that infections were growing. The Leader advised that it was soon discovered that this was a shallow and ill-informed claim as the whole of Kent moved first into Tier 3 and then into Lockdown. He highlighted that during Lockdown, Swale’s infection rates had fallen to 97 in 1000, which was encouraging but still needed to come down further.
The Leader set out the following conclusions:
· It should now be apparent to Government that District Councils were the most efficient and cost-effective way of delivering very local services such as providing community hubs and supporting rough sleepers;
· that devolution of functions to local government worked better than centralised direction and it was clear that district councils such as SBC could and should manage more devolved responsibilities. District councils should be given an enhanced role in primary and acute care, the NHS was a brilliant national asset, but it was too top down, and its communication skills were limited and too fragmented. The Council had effectively helped out with the provision of sites for testing and for vaccinations and had been frustrated by the embargo on informing local people what was going on;
· districts councils should be at the centre of economic recovery.
· district councils had been effective because they were of a manageable size and in touch with real communities and larger unitary districts would not have been able to work so swiftly and effectively; and
· the pandemic had seen a greatly enhanced working relationship with Kent County Council (KCC) which might be a result of the circumstances or a leadership that was ready to work more closely with district leaders. All leaders in Kent had met weekly over recent months and irrespective of parties, mutual support had been good.
Finally, the Leader said that he hoped the Council would support his views and suggested that more operational duties should be devolved to Councils, especially to existing districts. He added that a great deal could be achieved through co-operation between districts and upper tiers but clarity over future funding was needed.
In response, the Leader of the opposition thanked the Leader for his update and highlighted the different impacts from Lockdown 1 to 3. He praised the NHS but agreed the bureaucracy behind it needed to be reformed. The Leader of the opposition agreed with and supported the Leader’s Statement.
Other Members raised points which included:
· Praised ordinary people helping others through the Covid-19 pandemic;
· highlighted and praised the work of refuse collectors, shopworkers, delivery drivers, post office staff and volunteers in foodbanks;
· the Covid-19 pandemic had brought the community together;
· SBC did well to continue to deliver services throughout the Covid-19 pandemic;
· suggested a cross-party working group to consider the way forward for Councillors to conduct Council business as restrictions were lifted;
· support for the Leader’s statement;
· praised the Housing team;
· concern for staff’s health and wellbeing working from home;
· should have considered more efficient and flexible ways of working sooner; and
· praised the way that SBC staff managed and delivered grants during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In response, the Leader praised the work of the NHS and stressed it was the management that needed reforming. He agreed that the Swale community should be proud at how they had responded to the Covid-19 pandemic and he highlighted the positive impact the lockdowns had had on the environment and on the exercise habits of residents. The Leader supported the praise given to the Economy and Community Services team in processing grants. Finally, the Leader gave his support to a cross-party group to consider how meetings were held in the future.