How Should Local Government Respond To COVID-19?|Opinion

Given the austerity measures which have been waged against local authorities over the course of the last decade, local government is historically unprepared for a crisis such as COVID-19. The buck therefore lies primarily with central government to provide support to its people as this crisis escalates. Of course, even with their limited financial and legislative capabilities, local authorities have a duty to respond with vigour to the COVID-19 pandemic. Locally, Labour Groups have been working with their controlling groups to achieve some of the following provisions:

  • 100% rate relief to businesses in the retail and leisure industry.
  • Assigning Council officers a COVID-19 emergency brief.
  • Stress testing IT systems with a view of allowing officers to work from home.
  • Temporarily amended restrictions on delivery vehicles to ensure that local shops continue to be stocked.
  • Including links to Public Health England’s COVID-19 advice on the Council’s website.
  • Closure of all libraries to stunt the spread of the virus and protect staff as well as library-users.

It’s important that we commend the efforts of local authorities across the county in the action they’ve already taken to combat COVID-19, particularly in the face of central government advice that evolved at an alarming rate. History will remember the almost immediate shift in rhetoric from ‘take [COVID-19] on the chin’ and ‘allow it to move through the population’, to ‘stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.’

‘Anything less than a solution on the scale of the crisis is a form of denial’

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Coupled with these measures, we should also be calling for:

  • Strict steps to be taken against businesses who refuse to adhere to the shutdown.
  • Extra support to safeguard essential workers.
  • Councils/trusts with a social-housing stock to, at the very least, pledge a hiatus on evictions and the implementation of ‘payment plans’ to residents who miss rent during the course of this crisis.
  • Establish one ‘support hub’ for the children of essential workers in each community, using, for example, a school premises to provide childcare while parents are at work.
  • Set-up a food distribution service within each community to provide for the vulnerable where the voluntary sector is currently short of supplies/volunteers and is therefore incapacitated and allow for the storage of supplies specifically for NHS and other key workers.
  • The inclusion of the primary and secondary sector (production) in the definition of ‘essential workers’
  • Taking account of the council’s role in terms of licencing and oversight of restaurants, provide an approved list of take-aways and home delivery services.
  • Franchise a safe ‘social-distanced’ bus service allowing for key workers across the district to obtain transport to and from work.

These steps should be viewed by our leaders as the bare minimum required to protect the population, particularly those key workers who are so bravely continuing to show up to work, risking their own health to ensure that life as we know it doesn’t completely disappear.

While I understand and sympathise with the argument that now is the time to unite and ‘put the politics aside’, this cannot simply be an excuse for inaction on the part of local authorities. The steps that have so far been taken to safeguard people across the county are the right ones, but we have to go further; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez famously said, when asked about the need to take action on climate breakdown: ‘Anything less than a solution on the scale of the crisis is a form of denial’.

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