East London council leaders in nation’s worst-hit Covid areas seek stronger government measures

East London council leaders in nation’s worst-hit Covid areas seek stronger government measures

The leader of the local authority with the highest rates of coronavirus in London and the UK has called for a “proper lockdown that will keep people safe”, with click and collect shopping services suspended, all places of worship closed and nurseries kept open only for vulnerable toddlers and the children of key workers.

Barking & Dagenham leader Darren Rodwell, who is also vice chair of the capital’s local government representative body London Councils, describes the current situation as “lockdown in name but not in action”, with anti-Covid restrictions undermined by mixed messages and too-late policy changes from Downing Street. He also urges the government to put in place an income support scheme for low-paid employees, and priority vaccination for all frontline workers.

An estimated 1 in 16 Barking & Dagenham residents currently have the virus. Before New Year, ambulances were filmed lined up outside Queen’s Hospital in Romford, which serves the area, with patients reportedly being treated inside the vehicles because of lack of beds. 

Rodwell says the virus has also hit the council’s ability to deliver services to residents, with 40% of borough employees working in housing repairs and 35% of its refuse collectors currently off sick or self-isolating, along with a high proportion of those working in social care. Last week, London Mayor Sadiq Khan declared a “major incident” across London in relation to the virus, meaning that basic services across the capital are struggling to meet the demands placed on them by it. 

The number of applications by Barking & Dagenham residents for Universal Credit has more than tripled from 14,000 at the beginning of the outbreak to 50,000 at the start of this year, Rodwell adds. Faced with levying a projected 5% increase in Council Tax in 2021/22 in order to keep a balanced budget, Rodwell says, “The government has got to realise that there’s only so much burden local government can take. We knit everything together – if we can’t [deliver services], the NHS has a bigger problem than Covid, and it won’t cope”.

In neighbouring Redbridge, the second most badly affected local authority, council leader Jas Athwal implores people to abide by the regulations and says he fears the local NHS Trust will reach capacity this week. He tells On London he is ready to offer many more council-operated buildings for vaccination than the current three, but “we can’t because there aren’t the vaccines available”.

“People are still being stupid” he said. “I know police went straight away to Valentine’s Park on Saturday morning, where kids were playing in an organised football match or training session. It’s extraordinary they are so selfish, putting everyone at risk. The whole area [of North-East London and Thurrock] is the epicentre. People need to stay at home.”

Rodwell believes most people locally are complying with regulations and thanks them for their efforts, but suggests infection rates grew so high in his borough because of the government’s message of “reprieve over Christmas: go and shop and socialise.” He thinks this led to many local people visit nearby retail destinations, such as Romford in neighbouring Havering, the Lakeside shopping centre or Westfield in Stratford, all high-infection areas. 

In October, an official from the department for business, enterprise and industrial strategy told the council to refrain from further action when it issued warnings to Sainsbury’s, Lidl, Morrisons and B&M homeware stores for not enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing. In a letter to business secretary Alok Sharma, Rodwell wrote: “I am shocked that you appear to be taking the side of business interests over the health of our residents when they are clearly making no effort to comply with the very guidelines you introduced.” It emerged that a Cabinet Office official working in the national resilience hub had, by contrast, praised the council for its work on controlling the virus.

Barking & Dagenham is one of the ten most deprived local authority areas in England as measured by the government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation, making it more vulnerable to the impact of the pandemic. Pointing to the Conservative Party’s manifesto agenda of reducing regional inequality, Rodwell argues it would be “proper levelling up” if in the post-Covid environment, government came in behind major developments in his borough, such as the forthcoming Eastbrook film studios complex and a University College London research laboratory, and large-scale house-building. “If the private sector wants to invest here, the government should too,” Rodwell says.

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