England & Wales Covid-19, Democracy, devolution and governance

Permission to shop – how’s it going?

Photo by Arturo Rey on Unsplash

That is, how has it been going for English local authorities, not shoppers. Because it is, as usual, councils that have had to deal with the impact of the recent lockdown relaxation measures. And as has been the case throughout the pandemic, it’s local government that has responded with alacrity and invention. Councils have been preparing high streets and shopping centres to make sure social distancing is maintained; marking out pavements; reshaping streets to maximise space for walkers and cyclists; increasing street cleaning; and providing wardens and stewards. Councils will have to enforce the rules.

Yes, the UK government did provide a £50 million high street safety fund for England, but some critics in the sector believe it is probably not enough. Some council leaders have complained of a lack of engagement by Robert Jenrick. None of these concerns are new – about the financial implications or the hurried or non-existent involvement of local government. I recently wrote about the failings of centralisation over Covid-19, such as the issues around care homes and track and trace – will the ongoing easing of the lockdown repeat the mistakes? Failing to engage with councils means that councils can’t fully involve local pople and businesses. They are in a perpetual no-win situation.

The government has, at least and at last, recognised the critical role of local government in managing the response to Covid-19. But has it given councils the powers and finance to fulfil that role effectively?

It was always going to be more difficult to ease the lockdown then bring it in. The science is more contested. The public’s trust has been eroded. There is an increasing urgency to stem the almost visual collapse of the economy. No-one can predict with any certainty whether relaxing specific measures might cause a new spike in infections.

What is perhaps clearer, however, is that it is unlikely that the government would impose a new national lockdown: local lockdowns could be the ‘new normal’. And it will be up to local authorities to enact them. But what exactly is a local lockdown? What would trigger one? What powers do councils have to enforce them? What would be the implications for local people suddenly caught up in one? So far, there has been no real clarification about existing powers, though some are clear enough – councils have been using them, for example, to close down premises that are a danger to public health. But can these powers cover an area or a neighbourhood? And how will any of this work if test, trace and isolate is not fully in place? Many epidemiologists have stressed that having a properly functioning test and trace system is critical in stopping a second wave.

Meanwhile, local government gets on with developing their local outbreak plans, working with partners, so that these can be in place by the end of this month, and that they will be effective, despite the uncertainties created by the centre. The sector is now (17 June) being told the government will be issuing guidance – better late than never I suppose.

The issue of trust may become more pressing. There has been a steady erosion of trust in the government’s handling of the pandemic. Could this be transferred to councils if they have to enforce localised lockdowns? Professor John Drury, a member of a subgroup to Sage, talking in Wednesday’s about recent surveys that showed adherence to lockdown measures in the UK is falling, particularly among younger adults, said this was unlikely to be down to selfishness:

“Public behaviour is key, but public behaviour is always mediated by government actions, government messaging and how people interpret those”.

The messages from the Prime Minister and senior ministers are strongly indicating that the two-metre rule will be reduced soon to one metre to open up the economy. Will this be done again with very little notice (and what about the £50 million just spent on preparing town centres for the opening of non-essential shops)?. The Times also reports (and it seems to have good sources for these stories) that there are new plans to ease the lockdown to be announced imminently, including relaxing planning controls to enable pubs, cafés and restaurants to use outside areas, allowing up to 10 people to attend weddings and funerals indoors from early July, and new legislation to permit outdoor weddings, currently limited to Jews and Quakers. Hairdressers may be allowed to reopen before July 4. Will local government and public health experts have a say in the reduction to one metre if they are worried about the rate of infection in their areas? Are new measures to relax the lockdown being discussed well in advance with local government?

What all this points to is a hole where there should be a strategy. There is a feeling of an ad hoc approach – as much determined by the politics as by the evidence. Commitments are made that aren’t able to be met, most noticeably around test and trace. There are sudden announcements and then U-turns. All councils want to see local economies being opened up and high streets reinvigorated – but it has to be done with local involvement and knowledge.

And the net result when there is inadequate consultation? local authorities are left to pick up the pieces.

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