For those paying close attention to the COVID-19 crisis – alas, not everyone is – the actions and advice of national government are of almost hourly interest. But local government responses are vital too. It is comforting to know that London’s 33 local authorities have been quietly preparing for the growing storm for weeks, working individually and collectively to make sure they act in concert and to best effect ever since news of the new coronavirus and its spread began to emerge from China.
Councils across the country are required under the Civil Contingencies Act (2004) to make plans for maintaining vital services during “civil emergencies” and, in the words of 2018 government good practice guidance, to “protect, advise and provide humanitarian assistance” to residents and “play a major role in community leadership and recovery, going beyond the usual hours of work”.
The 32 London boroughs and the City of London Corporation each have a number of such plans, covering challenges ranging from terror attacks to floods. London Councils is the body that represents all 33 authorities, and this includes being a crucial part of the London-wide London Resilience Forum (LRF), the capital’s cross-agency panel which also includes the police, fire service, NHS, Transport for London, Public Health England and the utility companies.
Representatives of national government can also become involved in resilience forum business: for example, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had input into its planning for the impacts of a no-deal Brexit. Fiona Twycross, the London Assembly Member and deputy mayor for fire and resilience who has chaired the LRF on the Mayor’s behalf since 2016, said at Mayor’s Question Time last week that lessons learned from those preparations were now coming in useful, as the COVID-19 impacts could be long-term as a no-deal Brexit’s were expected to be.
The relevant elements of all local authority emergency planning are now being put into effect. When any emergency situation or major “disruptive incident” arises affecting London as a whole, a Strategic Co-ordination Group (SCG) is formed from the LRF line-up. It is a decision-making body with the job of co-ordinating and mobilising the efforts of all the many organisations involved, including by empowering a nominated “gold” local authority chief executive to be a point of contact for all the others.
A coronavirus SCG was formed six or seven weeks ago, initially led by the City’s town clerk and chief executive John Barradell and Southwark’s chief executive Eleanor Kelly. It has seven sub groups, including one for health oversight, which takes in social care, and another, rather gloomily, to ensure that in the event of “excess deaths” dignified and respectful standards are maintained. Twycross, who now co-chairs the SCG, will be its link to Sadiq Khan, helping him in his wider mayoral role as a spokesperson for London and public source of authoritative information for Londoners. Barradell is the other co-chair and day-to-day driving force. Kelly has taken up the “gold” role.
There has been much focus on the most effective activation of two types of plan every London council will have already drawn up. One fundamental duty of local authorities in situations like the current one is to ensure their “business continuity”, which means making sure the most essential services are maintained, adapting and prioritising them as necessary. These services fundamentally comprise looking after vulnerable older people and children, and keeping the streets clean.
With this new coronavirus, which can spread so virulently, an overarching consideration is the likelihood of many members of staff being unable to work because they have fallen ill due to the virus or because they have to self-isolate due to someone else in their household doing so. Making provision for this has been helped by the prior existence of shared plans for coping with other pandemics, notably influenza.
COVID-19 is, of course, different from and more dangerous than flu, but the plans for mitigating serious disruptions caused by flu care being drawn on to address it. They include implementing special measures for staff welfare, for large scale absences and for the rapid training of colleagues to discharge the duties of colleagues while they are indisposed. With the potential for that type of disruption in mind, Kensington & Chelsea, to mention just one borough, has dropped its bulk waste collection service, seeing this as a luxury when it might become necessary to concentrate human resources on its basic waste collection services.
Amid all the anxiety, one possible source of comfort is that although recent threats to London from Swine Flu, Bird Flu and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) did not materialise, the city’s local authorities had made ready for them. There have at least been some sorts of rehearsals for the sort of health emergency now being caused by COVID-19.
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