As our local council deals with the implications of Coronavirus we managed to ask Executive Leader of Tameside Council, Councillor Brenda Warrington, a few questions about how they have faced this situation.
The Coronavirus provided challenges pretty quickly for the council, how did you develop a strategy quickly to face it?
Our priorities as a Council are always to protect our residents and keep the vital services that many of them depend on running. Our strategy to respond to the coronavirus pandemic was developed with these in mind.
We have used our local knowledge to identify those who are most at risk from coronavirus, such as the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, and made sure that we are able to support them during the lockdown. This could be anything from making sure that they aren’t going without food or medicine, to giving them a friendly voice to talk to. By the Easter weekend we had delivered nearly 1,000 parcels of emergency supplies to these residents, and with the council, community groups, churches and taxi drivers all doing their bit we expect to deliver thousands more.
Wherever possible we’ve encouraged our staff to work from home, and residents to access our services through the phone or internet. However, there are obviously a number of vital services which must be kept running during the pandemic, including waste collection and adult social care. We have supported these as much as possible, and the workers in these areas have gone above and beyond the call of duty to do their jobs in very difficult circumstances.
Has your strong partnership with Tameside and Glossop Integrated Care NHS been essential?
It’s been absolutely vital.
I am receiving updates from the Council and the Tameside and Glossop Clinical Commissioning Group on the situation in the borough on a daily basis. By combining our resources and data we have been able to identify not just which residents and businesses are at the greatest risk of coronavirus, but also the wider impact of social distancing and other restrictions. This includes both the impact on their economic and financial situation, and emotional conditions such as mental health. Through close cooperation with our local NHS services and voluntary, community and social enterprise sector, we have also set up the Tameside Humanitarian Hub. This has been the nerve centre for handling the massive increase in demand for services, and providing support to self-isolating residents who cannot rely on family, friends or neighbours.
As well as services, it is so important that we provide residents with reliable and trusted information about coronavirus and the help available to them. Unnecessary panic and fake news are not things we wish to add to the mix at the moment. By working closely with the CCG and Hospital, we have crafted a joint message that ensures that our residents feel reassured and well informed.
You’ve had to deliver some council services differently, what has been the reaction from the public?
They’ve been absolutely fantastic. I know that it’s an incredibly difficult situation for us all, especially since many of the services and activities that we sometimes take for granted are not currently available. Some frustration would be understandable. However, not only have our residents shown patience, they’ve also gone out of their way to support our key workers and services wherever possible. We’ve seen this most clearly in the nationwide claps that have taken place every Thursday night for those at the very front lines of the struggle against the pandemic, and I know for a fact that the doctors and nurses at Tameside Hospital have left absolutely no stone unturned to help those who have shown up at their door with severe coronavirus symptoms.
I also want to highlight a less glamorous, but still absolutely vital, job. In the face of the coronavirus lockdown, our bin men have performed miracles to keep a full waste collection running. That’s why we’ve encouraged residents to #wavetoyourbincrew. We’ve been blown away by the response – with both children and older people waving and leaving notes and pictures showing their thanks and support. I think it’s been a great way to cast the spotlight on our unsung heroes.
Has this crisis brought out the best from the staff working within the council?
Just like our residents, our council officers have been absolutely fantastic as well. No matter what role they’re in, everybody has operated with the highest levels of professionalism and compassion for our residents.
I want to give a particular mention to our social care workers, who have been working 24 hours a day 7 days a week to make sure that many of the vital services needed by our most elderly and vulnerable residents remain available. This has taken the strain off our hospitals and allowed many of them to continue living in dignity and comfort in their own homes. I was glad to see that the government has recognised their contribution, and I sincerely hope that it is backed up with more funding when this pandemic is behind us. Our Bereavement Service has also been there for those who have lost loved ones, be it from coronavirus or other causes. At a time of, to put it frankly, increased need for their expertise they have continued to assist grieving families with the utmost professionalism and sensitivity.
There are also a great number of council officers who have seen their current jobs change significantly, or have even been moved into totally new roles to better support our response. I’m thinking of people like Alistair McCormack, who swapped his Highway Engineer job for driving a bin lorry. A number of our back office staff have also have also been getting in contact with residents identified as vulnerable to see if they need further help and support.
Inevitably there will be easing of restrictions, how ready will Tameside be to open up once again?
Unfortunately it’s difficult to properly answer that until we know what the strategy to exit the current lockdown is. I was concerned to hear reports that the government do not have a concrete plan in place for this, and I hope that this is addressed so that we can quickly and smoothly return to more normal life when it is safe to do so. That being said, there are a number of measures we are taking in Tameside.
Within the council, we are starting to look at the best ways for individual services to resume normal functions after the lockdown. There have definitely been some things that we’ve learned during this pandemic that we’d like to retain. Council officers have worked together in ways they wouldn’t normally have done to better deliver services, and the number of residents accessing our services online has increased dramatically.
Looking beyond our own organisation, it’s important that we do what we can to make sure as many of our residents and businesses as possible can hit the ground running when the lockdown ends. We have written to all businesses eligible for grants in the borough, with the intention of assisting as many of them as possible to keep trading and retain jobs until that day arrives. I have also written personally to the Chancellor about expanding and strengthening financial support for the self-employed.
One area that I think it is vitally important to address as well is mental health. The lockdown has wrenched all of us out of our usual comfortable routines, and many residents are also facing serious financial worries. Under these conditions the risk of developing or worsening mental health problems is very real. We have been working to make sure that support is in place for those who need it during this difficult time.
Thank you Councillor and TMBC for your work during this lockdown period.