Unlocked: local stories from a global pandemic

A year ago next week the UK entered the first lock down and that was perhaps the moment when we realised that life was going to completely change, at least for a while. It’s been a year unlike any other and for hundreds of thousands of people there has been unimaginable loss and trauma: lost lives, lost livelihoods, lost education and lost time.

NHS staff and social care workers have been rightly lauded for their work at the sharp end of this health crisis. Less talked about is the role of local government in helping to keep communities going during a time of almost unprecedented social, economic and personal hardship for many.

Few people imagined that we would be mapping our way out of a third lockdown a year on. We’re not at the end of the crisis by any means, but it does seem an appropriate moment to reflect. So this week (15th – 19th March) we are looking back at the past year with articles, briefings, poetry and videos – from the UK and elsewhere, including Ireland, Australia and Europe – which consider some of the myriad of different experiences from this quite unique year in all our lives.

This page will be updated daily with new stories – the local threads that make up the horrendous tapestry of this global pandemic.

Monday 15th March

We begin our week with a poem, With Love From Lockdown, written by renowned poet Sue Burge during the first lockdown.

Janet Sillett, LGIU’s Head of Briefings reflects on what for many, particularly in local government, has been the key story of the past year – the worsening picture in terms of equality and asks is it still possible to build back better or has that moment been lost?

And we hear from Ella Henry; last year was her A level year and she blogged for us about the effect of lockdown for her generation. Today she updates us on starting University during a pandemic and the situation as she sees it for Gen-Zs going forward.

Unlocked in lockdown: parks and public spaces

We are collecting pictures of those precious, precious public green spaces and parks that have become a lifeline for so many of us over the past 12 months – so please send us yours for the gallery. Tweet us @LGIU or email images to [email protected] 

Poet Sue Burge. Her second collection of poems will be published soon.
Signpost, N. Norfolk, S Burge
North Norfolk country late (S Burge)

With Love from Lockdown, by Sue Burge

I think I may grow to love this place
like a groupie with Stockholm Syndrome.
See how our pond thickens with spawn,
how the frogs’ roiling orgy creates
the slow TV of full-stop to comma.

Maybe the spiders will multiply now
surprised by our sudden stillness
wanting to fill our cleaned corners
with their mysteries.

I think there are underground movements
we have yet to discover
sly mobs waiting to rise
and scooter around our naivety.

Perhaps I will make nettle soup,
catch them young, it will last
for days, coating my cold
redundant tongue.

I think all the dogs are twitching
through anxiety dreams
where they wake up and there’s no-one
to throw their spitty balls.

It seems the stars can see us again
or rather, we can see them,
or so we think, long-dead blinks
in the newly night sky.

I think the road markings will be next to go,
that the verges have always known how to creep
blade by blade;

maybe one day I’ll breathe easy again,
step out and part the air like Moses.

© Sue Burge, 2021

Community solidarity, economic division: the story of a year

In many ways communities and individuals have shown extraordinary resilience over the past year, but, writes Janet Sillett, the key story has been the brutal exposure and exacerbation of a myriad of social and economic inequalities. Where do we go from here? Read this.

More words from a Gen-Z

A year ago Ella Henry blogged about being an A level student during the pandemic. Now at university she writes for us about the uncertainty and disruption that the past year has brought to the lives of young people – there are worries for the future of course, but also optimism and a real desire among the Gen-Zs to drive change. Read this.

Covid-19 and its impact on structures of Irish government one year on

As we pass the one year anniversary of the first reported Irish Covid-19 cases it is perhaps appropriate to reflect on the changes the pandemic has wrought on government systems in the last 12 months. This briefing looks at the Republic and a briefing later in the week will examine Northern Ireland. Read this.

Tuesday 16th March

Our poem for today, Galway Kids in Covid, is a collaboration between poet Anne Irwin and Norah, Elliot and Sam – three of her grandchildren – a snapshot of lockdown as a child.

We are grateful to the Health Foundation for allowing us to use their very moving short film, Surviving Covid: How is Covid-19 affecting young people?, as part of our ‘Unlocked’ week.

Councillor Eleanor Southwood, Cabinet Member for Housing and Welfare Reform at Brent Council blogs for us today about the effect that the pandemic has had on communities already buckling under poverty and how to build them back up.

We also have a briefing today about the Swedish approach to the pandemic – how did it contrast to the other Nordic countries and what has the impact been?

Norah, Sam and Elliot: Galway Kids in Covid

Galway Kids in Covid, by Norah, Elliot, Sam and Granny Anne Irwin

Corona is slimy and horrible
it can’t be easily seen
except under a powerful microscope.
then you see it’s lumpy green.

It’s like a deadly flu,
that kills the super old
the already-sick and frail
never mum, dad or you.

You can home school in your pyjamas
and pets can join your class
you can take a break when you’re tired
and nobody’ll think you’re weird.

In a bubble with your cousins
you can picnic
play Olympics on hay bales,
be Ireland’s Fittest Family.

You can Kayak with your dad
catch mackerel for your dinner,
play rugby on the beach
and cast with your new spinner

Road-trips are forbidden
no long journeys by car
trapped in a jail with no escape
the seat belt tight around you.

You can play with friends on Roblox
chat with them on zoom,
but no home visits now
no messing at breaks in school.

We wish it was all over
and no one was getting sick
instead of playing on our tabs
we could actually play with friends.

© Norah, Elliot, Sam and Granny Anne Irwin

Surviving Covid: How is Covid-19 affecting young people? (The Health Foundation)

Let local government help build a fairer future

Covid has ripped through some of the poorest places in the UK. Given the same opportunity local government here in the UK will show that it is without question, ready, willing, and able to be the reliable agent of positive change that local communities and economies so desperately need, writes Cllr Eleanor Southwood from Brent Council. Read this.

A Nordic approach to Covid-19: a year of learning

When reflecting on how the world has grappled with Covid-19, Sweden stands out as taking a different approach from the start, keeping its society and borders open. What exactly is the ‘Swedish Model’ and how does it contrast with other Nordic countries? How has it evolved over time and what role has local government played? Read this.

Wednesday 17th March

Today’s poem is from Khai El Baba Jones; it’s called From Fertile Soil and speaks of new growth and resilience – hope.

We catch up with Steve Palmer again. Steve tweets as @downs_dad_uk and during carers’ week last June he blogged for us about life in lockdown without the usual support available for his son Stanley who has learning disabilities. His blog today talks about the Jo Wiley’s campaign to have learning disabled people treated as priority for the vaccine and his hope that this will usher in a change in other aspects of life too.

Our video today is the “Paudcast” of positivity from Pádraig O’Callaghan from Co Limerick in Ireland. Ten-year-old Pádraig has Down syndrome and his weekly motivational ‘paudcasts’ -offering advice and tips on how to stay positive – have really helped his communication skills and confidence. Thanks to Eleanor Mannion and RTÉ for sharing the video with us.

We have two detailed briefings today. One looks at the impact of Covid-19 on the structures of government in Northern Ireland and the second covers the Women and Equalities Select Committee report on the experience of people living with disability in accessing services during the pandemic.

Khai El Baba Jones is an occasional optimist and writer of poetry who moved back to rural Clare in the west of Ireland at the start of lockdown. He didn’t intend to be there a year but he is thankful for the company of plants.


From Fertile Soil by Khai El Baba Jones

From fertile soil, and nourished, nurtured roots
that tap deep down in our collective ground,
can spring great canopies that once were shoots;

though frost and blight and pests would steal our fruits
from us, against their ends great forests we have found
can spring. Great canopies that once were shoots

that then would have been trod under their boots
and now, a thousand rallying cries resound
from. Fertile soil, and nourished, nurtured. Roots

put down against that method which pollutes
our means of life. And from that compost mound
can spring great canopies that once were. Shoots

that rise and put paid to those vain pursuits
of tallest or most regal. No, uncrowned,
from fertile soil and nourished, nurtured roots
can spring. Great canopies that once were shoots.

© Khai El Baba Jones

“Paudcast” of positivity

Jo Whiley: The Marcus Rashford of the learning disability world

Jo Wiley’s campaign has made sure that people with learning disabilities are treated fairly and given priority for the Covid vaccine. Steve Palmer, whose son Stan has now received his first jab, hopes this can usher in new thinking about learning disability across all areas of life. Read this.

Coronavirus, disability and access to services – Women and Equalities Select Committee report

This briefing provides an overview of the inquiry report published by the Women and Equalities Select Committee in December 2020. The report considers disabled people’s broad experience of the pandemic, including access to services such as food, health and social care and education for children and young people. Read this.

Covid-19 in Northern Ireland and its impact on structures of government

As Ireland passes the one year anniversary of the first reported Covid-19 cases, it is perhaps an appropriate time to reflect on the changes the pandemic has wrought on government systems in the last 12 months – this time looking at Northern Ireland. Read this.

Thursday 18th March

There’s a quiet watchfulness about today’s poem, The Swifts Are Early, The Swallows Are Back by Irish poet Attracta Fahy; the pause of lockdown gave nature a chance, or at least it gave us a chance to notice it more.

And we have a short story for you as well. Karen Campbell spent five months as writer in residence at Dumfries and Galloway Council, hearing the stories of frontline workers and creating a lasting record of their service to their communities during the pandemic. We are delighted that she has allowed us to premiere one of the resulting stories – Stars in their Eyes. She also blogs about the whole project for us.

Aline Clayson a Rough Sleeping Navigator at Southend on Sea Borough Council writes about the monumental job that she and her colleagues had to undertake in the last year to protect some of the most vulnerable people from the pandemic.

The spectre of homelessness looms for many more and we have a detailed briefing on the rent arrears crisis created by the pandemic.

We also look to Europe today, with a briefing about the experience of one Spanish town over the past year.

Attracta Fahy is a prize-winning Irish poet. She lives in Co Galway and has a background in nursing/social care. Her debut collection Dinner in the Fields was published March 2020.

The Swifts Are Early, The Swallows Are Back by Attracta Fahy

I woke to a racket, as they renovate their nests
on my roof. Spring steals in, a stream of light
over my kitchen, the first morning I’ve not lit
the stove. Glass facets on suncatchers flash indigo,
yellow and orange rainbows across my wall.

Outside the tree sparrow sings, a wren gives it all, hops
about with a twig in its mouth, others in song, chirping
him on as he builds his home. I hear a thrush tweet as I peep
out the window, afraid to open my door, in case they fly.

Everyone is talking about the birds,
say they are louder. But it’s that they’re not competing
with noise anymore. This is how it was before all this,
before we’d forgotten. I hear sand martins have arrived
in the east, puffins back on the cliffs.

A grey wagtail, its yellow belly, blue tit, its soft lime down,
chaffinch, greenfinch, male, female move back and forth,
feeder to hawthorn. Birds have conflict too, a great tit pecks
at the glass door, fighting his own reflection.

Further down gulls have broadened their horizon,
moved up from the lake, two fields away a whole other
community of water birds negotiate territory. Herd immunity
here too – a magpie watches, I keep my eye,
just as with the plants; contain creepers, protect
march marigold, white wood anemone.

It’s all about pruning.
I taste the day, taste fear in the air, the earth has been begging
us to stop, now everything still, we have time to hear.
In my garden nothing new, except what I knew, Pluto,
Jupiter, Saturn, eclipsed the sun, astrologists say this is a Tower
moment, the return of light has begun.

We are all stretching our hands across borders, gasping for air.
Perhaps we will know something of what love is now,
as our fingers reach to sky, loved ones die in absence
of our tender care, buried without funeral, and we are forced
to store our dead in large refrigerators,
send them into mass graves to protect ourselves.


This is my home for today.

And the birds keep singing at my door.

Here is our story

Karen Campbell was writer in residence for five months last year at Dumfries and Galloway Council, hearing the stories of frontline workers and creating a lasting record of their service to their communities during the pandemic. Read this.

Stars in their Eyes

This is one of Karen Campbell‘s short stories, written when she was writer in residence at Dumfries & Galloway Council. It’s a funny and touching glimpse at the role of frontline council workers and all their efforts to support their communities over the past year and of the community’s support for them. Read the story.

Keeping rough sleepers safe during the pandemic

A year ago the government ordered ‘Everyone in’ and accommodation had to be found for all rough sleepers. Aline Clayson, Rough Sleeping Navigator at Southend on Sea Borough Council takes up the story of the incredible task that she and her colleagues undertook. Read this.

Personal stories from a Spanish town

This briefing shares the experiences from local institutions in the Spanish town of Benifaió, which has wrestled with uncertainty and pressure during the pandemic. Read this.

Evictions and rent arrears: one year of the pandemic

A current ban on evictions cannot go on indefinitely: what are the prospects for tenants who have built up substantial rent arrears during the pandemic? Read this.

Friday 19th March

We’ve reached the final day of our look back over the momentous and heartbreaking past year.

To finish the week we have two poems: the first, Distance, is from Janet Sillett, the LGIU’s own head of briefings and we have a final poem from Sue Burge who we featured on Monday.

Jonathan Silver is the Head of Clinical Engineering at a major London teaching hospital trust and we are publishing some extracts from a personal account he is keeping of life in an ICU throughout the pandemic.

Local government has been a key partner in tackling the pandemic and helping communities to come through it. Alan Waters, Leader of Norwich City Council, looks back on the year and forward to the shape that recovery might take.

LGIU’s Alice Creasy interviewed Jacqueline Cassidy, Director of Place2Be for Scotland and Wales – a children’s mental health charity – about the impact of the pandemic and lockdown on her organisation and the children and families it works with.

And we hear from Australia today: the City of Canada Bay in New South Wales and the experience there of adapting services in response to Covid.

Distance by Janet Sillett (after Philip Larkin)

Shrouded in new strangeness
the ghost city where even the crows
have flown to the dry plains
where they caw chaotically
in each other’s faces

The swifts in the distance
abruptly turn back
The cat sprawled on the stubbled lawn
The birds’ memory raw, for an instant

Without touching
the lavender smells strongly of the past
I keep my distance
until I think it is safe to quietly brush its leaves

A distant memory
you left behind shadows
In this silent place

But it is not possible
to measure the distance of time
We are in days
which come and come again
the same over and over again.

Poet Sue Burge. Her second collection of poems will be published soon.

Glow by Sue Burge

Alexanders are legion in the hedgerow, girding my shrunken world with lime-green early sweetness; broken stalks leak tangy sap – Roman celery. The lacy heads are starting to seed, spikier now, and everything this shape – dandelion heads, thistles – anything that hooks and sticks, evokes our invisible enemy – magnified on every screen. An artist has cast the particle in glass, 200 million times actual size – so beautiful – the femme fatale of the virus world. Let’s re-think this. Look, the seedheads are like clusters of stars. Gaze upwards – the generosity of the bright night sky will show us how to navigate this fearful newness.

In the eye of the storm

Jonathan Silver is the Head of Clinical Engineering at a major London teaching hospital trust. These are extracts from a personal account he has been writing of his experiences in an intensive care unit throughout the pandemic. Read this.

You are on mute

Local government has been a key partner in tackling the pandemic, reflects Alan Waters, Leader of Norwich City Council. He looks back on a tumultuous  year and considers the direction that post-Covid recovery might take. Read this.

In conversation with Jacqueline Cassidy

LGIU’s Alice Creasy talks to Jacqueline Cassidy, Director of Place2Be for Scotland and Wales, a children’s mental health charity, about the effects of Covid on their work. Read this.

Canada Bay Connects

The City of Canada Bay in New South Wales takes us through some of the ways they adapted to the pandemic to maintain access to community services and keep citizens connected and supported. Read this.

LGIU Fortnightly: Unlocked: Local stories from a global pandemic

An audio exploration of our week of reflection. Interviews with Cllr Abi Brown, writer Karen Campbell, and LGIU staff. Hosted by Ingrid Koehler and Jonathan Carr-West. Listen in.