This week we published a collection of our work on public health. From healthier living to disease prevention, public health – councils are at the forefront of keeping us healthy. But it hasn’t always been easy, we are facing some tough public health challenges and doing so in an era of austerity.
In this week’s podcast we talk to two cabinet members for health and social care – Melanie Hampton in Wandsworth and Paul Brant in Liverpool about dealing with contagious diseases. Melanie’s current campaign is about measles, there’s been an outbreak in the London Borough of Wandsworth (where I live). Melanie talks about long-running issues that councils – alongside their partners in health – are dealing with in terms of measles. There’s disinformation and there’s plain old human forgetfulness and disorganisation.
We also talked to Paul Brant, who like Melanie and many councillors across the country, is helping the council get ready for Covid-19. We can be grateful for the coordinating efforts of people like Paul and Melanie and all those who work across local public services in partnership, but it’s an uphill battle. Although councils are clearly doing an excellent job in promoting and amplifying Public Health England and other central government messages, there’s far more to do than that – particularly as councils hold the ring for local emergency planning and civil contingencies.
Councils have the challenges of dealing with a new and spreading virus, and they’re doing so after years of unparalleled cuts. Absolutely, local authorities have become leaner and by necessity more innovative and creative in many cases. However, there’s no redundancy in the system. Cllr Brant talked in his interview about the fact that Liverpool is facing the challenge of potentially having to cut back on public health positions right as they’re ramping up preparations. In the Liverpool Echo he is quoted as saying:
He said the fact the government hasn’t got round to allocating the budgets means Liverpool is going to be tackling the coronavirus emergency with an understaffed department.
He explained: “”We set the budget last night but in the unprecedented situation of not knowing what our allocated public health budget for the next year is.
“We would normally find out what our budget is in January so we can plan how to use that budget for the year ahead.
“But we haven’t had it – no councils have had it and quite frankly it is a scandal that smacks of chaos in the government.
“We currently have vacant posts in the public health department, we are not operating at full capacity – if we had been told what our funding allocation would be, we could have filled these with new recruits to help us fight the huge challenge of the coronavirus.
But councils do far more than public health. They provide so many important services. Some to the most vulnerable – like social care for the elderly. Councils are facing the potential of having to support social care providers as they may see a huge proportion of their staff off sick. Councils are also responsible for supporting providers who fail, and they may be doing so as their own staff are sick or self-isolating.
Councils also provide important universal services, from parks to playgrounds and environmental health to elections. All of these will be put under pressure. We heard from Laura Lock, Deputy Chief Executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators who talks about the challenges of planning elections when we’re reliant on an army of volunteers who may be reluctant to be in such a public facing role or the possibility of a massive influx of postal voting.
We have been making the case through our local finance task force that local authorities need better and more stable funding. Councils are already stretched, some to the breaking point, without Covid-19. If the spread of this virus leads to something more than the best case scenario, we will see many councils stretched much further without sufficient capacity to draw on. Of course, no one could have predicted that we’d have something like this now, in 2020, but that’s precisely the point. We rely on councils for so much of our everyday needs and we need to be able to rely on them when needs are extraordinary, too.