Australia, England & Wales, Global, Ireland, Scotland Communities and society, Health and social care

Coronavirus: What can councillors do?

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While the nation and the world grapples with implications of and response to the fast-moving Covid-19 crisis, many councillors are asking how they can help their communities stay safe. There are no easy answers and the situation is of course changing rapidly, but councils have years of experience coordinating responses to disasters and will have comprehensive resilience plans which they will be rolling out and updating.

For elected members, as well as supporting and directing the officer actions, a crucial role in this period will be community engagement. This will be a worrysome time for many people, not only because of the immediate risk to their health and the health of their loved ones, but also because of the consequential pressure on other aspects of their lives including accessing food and provisions, job security, and navigating the benefits and sick pay processes. These conditions may also exacerbate existing issues such as abusive domestic settings, social isolation, mental health issues and safety.

Councillors have a key role in sharing information and advice to prepare communities and prevent panic. We have brought together a few tips that may help elected members to shape your local response and protect your residents.

Shape the council’s response

Councillors have an essential role in directing and scrutinising the decisions the council is taking to tackle the outbreak, often at short notice and with limited information. Staying informed about the national advice and working closely with officers who have specialist knowledge will help you make the best possible judgments about the local response. Councillors should ensure that the council’s existing resilience plans are robust and, as the response evolves, make sure new decisions on service prioritisation do not have unintended consequences for residents.

You should liaise with the local health service, police, parliamentarians, neighbouring councils and government departments on an ongoing basis. Equally important is maintaining an open dialogue with residents about their personal concerns and the impact of both national and local decisions on their lives to identify and respond to any emerging issues quickly.

Communication in person may soon become more limited so make sure your council and your local partners have laid the groundwork for continuing vital collaboration virtually using secure phones and online platforms.

Support vulnerable residents

This is an area of major concern for many, and rightly so. The early indications are that the virus impacts more heavily upon the elderly and those with other health conditions, and as we know, existing systems of adult social care are not very robust. Additional pressure in the form of higher illness rates, lack of equipment, staff shortages and the limitations imposed by self-isolation or wider lock-down measures, will certainly exacerbate the pre-existing capacity issues.

Identifying and making contact with vulnerable residents (by phone or online if there are contamination concerns) is a good start – let them know you are available to speak to if they are worried or have any practical issues such as a lack of food or heating. Ask other residents to contact you if they have concerns about neighbours, friends or family. Speak to any unpaid carers about their needs in terms of respite cover during any self-isolation period or lockdown and try to organise this in advance.

If lockdown, school shutdown or working from home measures are imposed, families at risk of violence may find their situation exacerbated by the stress and close confinement. Try and check in on those you know are at risk, and liaise with your social services officers to do the same. Work with officers and the police to put rigorous plans in place to respond to domestic abuse or child safety concerns even if staff shortages and civil unrest take hold, and communicate to residents how they can get help during this period. Similarly, those with mental health issues, or those caring for them, will need reassurance that any emergencies will be dealt with as a priority.

For those waiting for social housing, those who are currently homeless and those who are worried the virus outbreak will mean they will fall into rent arrears, this is a particularly concerning time. Work with your officers to ensure residents know how to claim housing benefit if they need to, and to ensure council accommodation will continue to be provided and allocated during this period.

Stay abreast of the changes to the social security eligibility and processes as they emerge (see our Budget briefing for recent changes to the UK system) and support residents through these processes to ensure they know their rights and can claim quickly so they don’t end up in financial trouble. This will be especially important for groups such as asylum seekers who do not speak the language or may not know what they are entitled to.

Discuss contingency plans with local care providers, nurseries, schools, refuges, food banks, soup kitchens, homeless shelters and other community organisations and feed their concerns back into council decision-making.

We recommend coordinating your casework load with your ward or other councillor colleagues wherever possible so it doesn’t feel too overwhelming.

Coordinate the community response

Many people are concerned about their community and are willing to help, but don’t know how. Consider setting up a volunteer register for people to sign up to, to build a pool or resource to draw upon if conditions worsen (see Croydon MP).

Talk to local voluntary and community groups about what they need in order to continue delivering vital services – whether that’s money, food donations, equipment or volunteers – and relay that back to the community. Similarly, make sure the council is speaking with local shops about their supply levels and elevate your concerns to national government if you need to.

As a councillor, you have a trusted role as an information source which can be especially useful when disseminating public health advice and when fielding specific questions from residents. Make a point of finding and sharing the most up to date information via your communication channels (social media, emails etc). Crucially, make sure you check the source of the information before you share it – there have been numerous reports of false information being circulated which is harmful and spreads unnecessary panic.

It may well be that you have to cancel in-person surgeries for the time being – if this is the case, try to offer an alternative option for people such as an online Q&A session, phone calls or social media chat functions.

Stay alert to other issues

Although there are concerns about systemic weaknesses, be alive to other issues which may be less widespread and may be more personal, but which may still require your intervention. For example, many people are stranded in other countries or have family or friends abroad in affected areas that they cannot visit – they may need practical or emotional support. If someone has a new health concern, is pregnant or is managing a serious condition, they may also need help and reassurance. And in the (hopefully unlikely) eventuality that civil unrest occurs or virus-related hate crime rises, councillors will need to respond robustly alongside the police.

Councillors have a tough job ahead and LGIU is committed to supporting local government with the information, advice and ideas it needs over the coming days, weeks and months. We will be publishing a detailed briefing on the topic next week so make sure you’re signed up to receive our briefings. We are making all briefings on this topic open to non-members in recognition of the importance of the sector being informed – you’ll need to be registered on the website as a Follower.

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