13 June 2023

What the Covid inquiry can learn from local government

What the Covid inquiry can learn from local government image
Image: Chansom Pantip / Shutterstock.com.

The role of local government in responding to the pandemic and meeting the needs of local citizens will undoubtedly be a focus of the evidence provided in the UK COVID-19 Inquiry, which is starting to take evidence on the UK’s preparedness and resilience for the pandemic.

I carried out research to understand the unique experiences of Nottingham City Council and to place these in the broader context of the national impact of COVID-19 on local government. My analysis draws on publicly available evidence from the Outbreak Control Engagement Board and an in depth interview with the then deputy leader of the authority.

The study focused on the initial impact of the pandemic and the ability of the authority to respond, the effectiveness of the actions taken and the longer-term lessons from the unprecedented public health crisis.

Four key themes emerged: central Government was too slow in responding to the crisis and communication with the local authority was problematic, the local authority moved in a swift and agile way to provide online services, despite huge financial pressures the local authority played a crucial role in supporting the most marginalised members of the community, and partnership work with external agencies was critical to achieving positive results.

The Government announced the first UK nationwide lockdown on 23 March 2020. The clear view of the elected member interviewed for this study was that we should have gone into lockdown sooner and that this would have saved lives. The challenges in making such a momentous decision are acknowledged, trying to balance personal freedoms and the protection of the wider public, but many professionals on the ground were expressing significant concerns that the Government was too slow in taking decisive action.

A decade long programme of public sector cuts also made the challenges of responding to the pandemic more acute. Daily leadership meetings were held to coordinate the local response to the pandemic, but these were made more challenging by poor communication, and often partial data, being provided by central Government. Delivering services in the community was complicated by a lack of clarity about funding and a lack of clear guidance.

The experience of this local authority is that the shift to online delivery of services necessitated by lockdown was managed in an efficient way. The transformation of the way in which local authority services function occurred at an unprecedented pace. Elected members, and more senior decision makers quickly moved to digital networking and online meetings. Front-line staff faced different challenges needing to maintain and often expand services to vulnerable residents without the ability to rely on face-to-face contact.

Digital systems were quickly put into place to maintain data security and to verify information (such as financial details). Telephone services were relied on more heavily, but a nuanced approach was needed to ensure that new systems did not exclude people with disabilities or those whose first language is not English. In the longer-term, hybrid working, and digital technologies have remained a permanent feature of local authority provision, but for this authority face-to-face services have returned in full.

The pandemic underscored the vital role that local authorities play in responding to the complex needs of the community. Statutory services needed to be maintained alongside a new set of responsibilities such as procuring and suppling personal protective equipment (PPE), supporting local businesses, providing medicine and food to residents who were shielding, and working with education providers to deliver online learning. This local authority provided a customer services COVID-19 ‘golden number’ to deal with urgent enquiries, telephoned 1,200 people who were shielding, and conduced in-person welfare checks on 2,500 residents who were not responding. The new practical and financial burdens came on the back of long-term funding pressures and central Government cuts.

Effective partnership work was vital for this local authority to deliver positive outcomes to citizens. This included effective joint working with internal partners (such as housing and public health) and external agencies (such as the NHS and universities). This study showed that positive relationships were forged and consolidated both internally and externally, although sometimes an extra level of compromise and dialogue was required with external partners. This partnership work was vital in delivering public health messaging, working with schools, moving rough sleepers into accommodation, and setting up vaccination centres.

Richard Machin is senior lecturer in Social Work and Health at Nottingham Trent University.

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