Things have moved extremely fast since Monday, when On London published an explainer about the resilience planning of the capital’s local authorities and their partnerships with other public bodies. As national government has ordered the shutdown of more places and spaces and turned up the volume of its social distancing advice, the London Strategic Co-ordination Group (SCG) formed to deal with the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis has scaled up and adapted its response. Until recently, the full SCG held two meeting a week. They are now convening three times a day.
The principal leader of the group remains John Barradell, chief executive of the City of London Corporation, but he now again has a joint chair in the form of Eleanor Kelly, the chief executive of Southwark. Kelly had moved to the role of local authority “gold”, with its particular responsibility for co-ordinating the work of the boroughs, but she has reverted to being joint chair in part to give the position its own resilience – if one of the joint chairs contracts the virus, there will be a well one to take on the whole job.
Kelly has been replaced as gold by her Waltham Forest counterpart Martin Esom, and he has five SCG deputies of equivalent rank from other boroughs, each with particular responsible for a sub-regional cluster of boroughs. They are Merton’s Ged Curran, Lewisham’s Kim Wright, Brent’s Carolyn Downs, Redbridge’s Andy Donald and Westminster’s Stuart Love.
Other borough chief executives have been brought in to oversee specific areas of responsibility. They are: policing and enforcement; the “shielding” and support of vulnerable people; mortality, which means the grim business of dealing with an unusually high number of people dying; adult social care; finance; and housing, which now includes meeting the government’s wish that all rough sleepers are under roofs by the weekend (felt by some to be impossible, by the way).
Esom has also been asking boroughs to seek out experienced officers who have recently retired or moved on to help with the the resilience effort. Local government chiefs are no less likely than Prime Ministers or health secretaries to contract the virus and added numbers also means added cover for sickness or self-isolation. Senior London government communications staff, including from the City and London Councils, are also now working full time for the SCG,
There is a huge amount of activity taking place, in concert with the Met, Transport for London, the NHS, the Fire Brigade and others, including national government. The latter’s involvement in London resilience planning is not new: for example, DEFRA played a part in anticipating the impacts of a possible no-deal Brexit. A letter to Barradell from housing, communities and local government secretary Robert Jenrick dated 24 March and detailing the formation of a “senior sub-group” of his department to “support” the SCG has raised some eyebrows, though maybe more for its manner than its substance.
The letter asks Barradell to “move beyond co-ordination and to actively direct the efforts of public authorities in London in response to the virus” and says “it is essential that all responder organisations in London recognise the centrality of the SCG in overseeing London’s response and your position as leader of the SCG, invested with overall responsibility for directing the response”.
Some have seen this as seeking by implication to undermine the authority of Sadiq Khan, but the Mayor remains London’s elected police and crime commissioner (it comes with the job) and chair of the TfL board, and Barradell was already doing what Jenrick asked him to as head of a multi-agency body that has always included TfL and the police as well as borough representatives and the Mayor’s deputy for fire and resilience.
Assessed in this light, the letter from Jenrick, still new in his job, is being seen as a rather pontifical pronouncement about things everyone involved already knew – including the Mayor, who is a member of Jenrick’s “senior sub-group”, as are Met commissioner Cressida Dick and members of the SCG – albeit of a piece with Matt Hancock’s surprising public contradiction of the Mayor’s approach to running Tube services, delivered on the same day Jenrick’s letter to Barradell was written.
For his part, the Mayor has been quick to send get well wishes via Twitter to the virus-hit PM today and thank him in the process for “everything your government is doing to help us fight this”. Politic, politics or both?
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