The coronavirus crisis is the gravest in our lifetimes. Local councils have a crucial role to play to keep essential services open, to relieve hardship in the community, and to keep their own staff safe and well.
In a fast-moving situation, frequent communication is vital but very challenging. As the councillor responsible for emergency response in Harrow, I wanted to set out the key elements of our current plan, as of Tuesday evening, to respond to the pandemic in our borough.
This plan has come together in a short space of time under incredible pressure. It is by no means comprehensive, but it is our best view of what can be practically achieved in the current circumstances. It is being continually updated based on changes in the scientific advice, government policy and funding, and our own assessment of impact.
Saving lives is our only priority
We will do what it takes and will work with whoever we can to save as many lives as we can. Our health partners are in the lead and we will help them do what they need to do. Our most valuable contribution is to minimise the collateral damage of the virus. This means continuing to meet the life-and-limb needs of our residents, relieving the hardship caused by social distancing, and keeping our own staff safe.
1. Keeping essential services open
We are ruthlessly prioritising the services that save lives and relieve hardship on a daily basis. That means adult social care, children’s social care, our homelessness service, and a range of other critical services that touch people most at risk from the virus.
While the focus has rightly been on the capacity of the NHS to manage additional patients, social care carries enormous risk. Not only do hospitals discharge many patients to care providers, but good community care keeps people out of hospital. And social care has a stretched and ageing workforce that are themselves at risk from contagion.
Equally, a spike in homeless caused by economic hardship would be incredibly damaging right now. The government needs to severely limit evictions and help people with rent and mortgage payments. Tonight’s announcements on targeted mortgage holidays is welcome.
Services that aren’t “life-and-limb” critical are still incredibly important community functions. If the bins aren’t collected, people will quickly start to suffer. Same goes for street cleaning and road repairs, skills training and planning. We will do everything in our power to deliver as many of these services as we can for as long as we can. But saving lives comes first.
2. Relieving hardship
In the last 48 hours, millions of jobs have been lost or put at risk. This is one of the most rapid and devastating economic catastrophes in a century. Councils have very limited resources, but can still play a major role in helping those worst affected.
The government has announced a £500m hardship fund for Local Authorities. There’s a raft of measures we can quickly take to provide relief for the worst-off families around Council Tax, rent arrears (for those in Council accommodation), and emergency cash. We are working through these ideas and many others and will say more as soon as we can. Our priority is initiatives that are targeted, simple, and quick to deliver.
We are also working to implement government relief for businesses as soon as we get the relevant information. We won’t delay in re-issuing business rates bills where these have been cut by government decree.
We know that many people in Harrow are already organising, whether independently or through charities and other voluntary organisations, to help their neighbours, friends, and the most vulnerable. One of the most advanced ideas is to coordinate volunteers to drive deliveries from food banks to people in isolation. Others have set up mutual aid groups. We’re talking to the voluntary sector daily and will work out how best we can help. Councillors will also play a role as community leaders, connecting people and finding ways to get out the message.
3. Keeping our staff safe and well
As an organisation employing nearly 2,000 people, we have a deep responsibility to help our teams get through this with the least possible impact on their and their families’ health. We also know that our staff play an unbelievably vital role in the community, taking care of those who need help most.
We have already suspended all relevant sickness monitoring policies; are committed to continuing to pay staff whether they are isolating for their own sickness or household sickness; have asked all staff in at-risk groups to stay at home; and are supporting everyone else to work from home as soon as possible.
This is what we do
This is a crisis of unfathomable proportions. And that’s why, from now on, responding to it is what Harrow Council does. That means everything that doesn’t save lives or relieve hardship or keep our people safe is going to take a back seat. If you aren’t directly affected by coronavirus, that’s going to feel very frustrating. But we will do it because it will save lives.
Because this is what we do. We are part of a community that is resilient, responsible, and ready to face this head on. It’s going to be very hard. But we will be here with you to see it through to the other side.