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Sun, 29 November 2020

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Here Are All The Problems With Boris Johnson's Covid Strategy - According To Local Government Leaders

Here Are All The Problems With Boris Johnson's Covid Strategy - According To Local Government Leaders
6 min read

The start of England's month-long national lockdown on Thursday marked the end of several weeks of uncertainty for local leaders - but not to the problems they continue to face as coronavirus cases rise.

Councillors up and down the country have raged against Westminster as their areas were placed under tough local restrictions with little warning, consultation or what they deemed adequate financial support. 

Among those worst hit were former 'red wall' northern constituencies, who withdrew their traditional Labour support in 2019 to back Boris Johnson, giving the PM his healthy 80-seat majority in Parliament. 

"A lot of those voters who switched to the Tories in 2019 are from working class communities we have been supporting heavily," a Labour councillor in Manchester told PoliticsHome.

"Why would they punish a new section of the electorate which has helped them gain power?"

The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils across the country, has been inundated with worried queries from community leaders who fear they will not be able to deliver proper public services as the economy groans under the weight of a second lockdown. 

Among the key issues are:

Test and trace

Councils want the government to provide the financial support needed to run local test and trace programmes, targeting small areas where infection hotspots are identified by public health teams.

Latest figures show the government's national test and trace system had tracked less than 60% of the close contacts of people diagnosed with coronavirus in the week leading up to October 28.

A local spike in Princes Park, Liverpool, during the summer was contained through a "stringent" plan of action by the city council - something many local leaders believe could be replicated elsewhere. 

Josh Fenton-Glynn, a councillor in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, said: "Our local test and trace system has picked up over 80% of those missed by the national system. We can do these things because we know our patch.

"But giving a small amount of cash for a specific project and expecting to be thanked, while not taking into the account the impact of staff self-isolating and massive revenue loss, shows ministers don’t even understand what we do."

The LGA says councils have "shown great leadership and delivered for their communities in very challenging circumstances", and wants the government to ensure they have the necessary powers, resources and authority to be able to lead responses locally and tackle outbreaks "swiftly and effectively".   

Communication

Many councils reported a sense of "being done to, rather than done with" as the government implemented its three-tier system to tackle rising cases.

"We've been told if we come out of national lockdown - which we don’t know if we will - and if we do, we don’t know which tier we’ll be in.  And we don’t know the criteria or thresholds for each tier in any case," said one senior Merseyside councillor. 

MPs also reported being summoned to virtual meetings with health secretary Matt Hancock to discuss local lockdowns in their constituencies with ten minutes' notice.

"There is an element of uncertainty in a pandemic of course, but briefing papers on weekends and leaving struggling businesses confused as to what is going on is not acceptable," said Jon Connor Lyons, a central Manchester councillor.

"The council has tried its best to support businesses, but we find out what is happening when they do."

On the announcement of a nationwide lockdown – which leaked via national newspapers last week – sources were furious. One insider told PoliticsHome: "Local government and regional comms teams [had] been working on the basis that we will need to communicate changes to tiers, backwards and forwards, and [we were] hung out to dry again, via yet another leak to a newspaper on a Friday night."

When asked for further comment, the source simply sent a row of clown emojis via a messaging app.

The LGA says government "should engage with councils at the earliest opportunity to make use of their expertise and local knowledge". When new measures are implemented, councils need to be given enough time to prepare, the organisation added.

Information sharing

Throughout May and June, councils reported having to argue for and justify why they should receive granular data on infection rates in their areas. 

When data did start to flow, the LGA said, access was hampered by multiple data sharing agreements and restricted access protocols and the tools and format the data were provided in were not always conducive to council's needs.

Meanwhile, council leaders in London were worried they were not getting the full picture of infection rates in the capital, as testing resources had been redeployed to areas with higher case numbers.

As England began its second lockdown on Thursday, increasing amounts of data were being supplied, but the LGA said it still had concerns around "timeliness, quality and format".

"Maybe we should have a national strategy we stick to for more than a matter of days," said one local government source. 

"Seems to work elsewhere in the world. And if the goalposts remain still, we might find we are a little more effective in hitting the targets."

Budgets

Before the pandemic hit, local authorities were already facing a multi-billion pound financial black hole.  The immediate financial impact of Covid-19, including extra costs, lost income and cash flow pressures has made the situation for many immeasurably worse. 

Cllr Lyons said: "The government promised to cover our emergency expenditure and they told councils to 'do what it takes' to support communities.

"We did, and and local authorities took action in setting up community hubs, offering help to the most vulnerable. Of course, government now gone back on this.  The support being offered to Manchester has been appalling given the levels of deprivation in Greater Manchester."

He added: "The government is decimating city economies through bad policy and ministers say they are listening to local councils, but do nothing about it when representations are made to them."

Several local government insiders also told PoliticsHome they had received no extra funding for shielding residents – who have been advised to follow social distancing guidelines "very carefully" by national government – homelessness, businesses or normal council services (shortly after this post went live, a £15m homelessness package was announced).

Nesil Caliskan, leader of Enfield Council in north London, said: "On top of the £193 million in savings Enfield Council has been forced to make since 2010 due to governent cuts and increasing pressures, we still face a £19.2 million gap in our budget this year alone because of the pressures and costs already incurred as a result of coronavirus - which the government is failing to cover."

The LGA estimates - taking into account government funding handed to councils so far, and assuming Chancellor Rishi Sunak's income guarantee scheme will compensate for around £1 billion of lost non-tax income - councils will still be short by around £1.1 billion in 2020/21.

"Given the continued impact of the pandemic, this could grow to £2.2 billion," a spokesperson said.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has been contacted for comment.

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