England & Wales, Global Democracy, devolution and governance, Public health

The big lesson from the Covid-19 pandemic: local authorities are vital

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Photo by Xavi Cabrera on Unsplash

In this article, Richard Machin from Nottingham Trent University, argues that not everything about the Covid-19 pandemic was unprecedented. Instead, the situation demonstrated the vital role local authorities play in supporting the local community and we now need to value that even more going forward.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, we lived through the most extraordinary times. The pandemic hit us seemingly without warning (although the Covid-19 inquiry is rightly considering the level of preparedness) and delivered an unprecedented shock to our individual and collective systems. In the ‘post-pandemic world’ we are trying to make sense of what happened during those momentous months. The Covid-19 legacy is being considered through many different lenses including political, cultural, and educational. The unequal legacy has already been emphasised by evidence provided to the inquiry by Professor Clare Bambra and Professor Sir Michael Marmot which highlighted worsening inequalities linked to location, ethnicity, social-economic status, and being a member of socially excluded minority groups.

For many years, I worked in local government, managing advice services; I’m now a social policy academic at Nottingham Trent University. In my current role, the ‘big picture’ impact of social policy can never be ignored but my experience of working with fellow council officers, elected members and the public means my research always returns closer to home (literally), considering the impact on communities and local residents. When the dust settled on the pandemic my analysis looked no further than Nottingham and the experiences and challenges faced by Nottingham City Council in managing the pandemic. I interviewed the then-Deputy Leader of the authority and reviewed the minutes of the Outbreak Control Group and other publicly available documents. In many ways, the results of my analysis are not surprising, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be recognised, shared, and even celebrated – local authorities played a vital role in supporting local communities (particularly the most vulnerable citizens).

It was an amazing experience to read the interview transcripts from my research, of local authority staff adapting to new ways of working, taking on new roles and seeking new ways of reaching isolated communities and citizens. At the same time as maintaining statutory services, a wide range of new duties were introduced. These included:

  • The procurement and delivery of personal protective equipment (PPE) to frontline staff;
  • Supporting businesses;
  • The delivery of medicine and food to those who were self-isolating;
  • Supporting rough sleepers into accommodation;
  • And, working with education providers to support online learning and in-person teaching for the children of critical workers.

In Nottingham alone, over 1.9 million items of PPE were procured, 2,500 residents received in-person calls where there was not a response over the phone, telephone advice and advocacy were provided to 12,000 people who were shielding and 2000 food parcels were delivered.

Local communities need appropriately staffed and resourced local councils to meet the challenges faced in the post-pandemic landscape. It is my hope that as the Covid-19 inquiry progresses it will be an opportunity for the vital work undertaken by local authorities to be brought to a wider audience. In the most desperate days of the pandemic, we saw the best of what local government is and the inquiry should recognise this. As an LGIU member or reader, you already know this, but it is important that this message is heard beyond our networks as we soon head into a general election cycle.

Richard Machin is a senior lecturer in Social Work and Health at Nottingham Trent University. His full analysis of the experiences of Nottingham City Council during the Covid-19 pandemic is available in the Local Economy journal here.



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2 thoughts on “The big lesson from the Covid-19 pandemic: local authorities are vital

  1. Very valuable contribution which DOES, as you say, need wide circulation. I’ll do some twitter for a start.

    A question: the paragraph in the LGIU newsletter which linked to this article had a reference to the impending collapse of the housing market. That was intriguing, but you don’t deal with it here!

    You might enjoy the Community-sourced recovery plan for London, generated in Lockdown by groups in the London Just Space network. http://justspace.org.uk/recovery

    1. Very sorry, that was just a publication error which accidentally combined two article titles into one – you can find the article on the potential collapse of the housing market here.

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