The Chairman invited the Leader to give a factual briefing on the work that the Council had been doing as part of its response to the Coronavirus. As the speech would be longer than the five minute-limit, and in the interests of running an efficient meeting, the Chairman suspended the five-minute limit for this item only.
The Leader of the Council welcomed colleagues and officers across South Kesteven and members of the public who were joining the first virtual meeting of full Council. He referred to the last full council meeting held on 2 March 2020 where life had looked very different. The budget had been debated for the financial year and how the Council could progress work to grow the local economy. A variety of events were being looked forward to which celebrated the wonderful heritage of the District. This was before the impact of COVID-19 which swiftly changed how we lived and worked.
The Council had set out three clear priorities to guide it through the pandemic.
- To protect the health of the Council’s staff, Members and residents.
- To maintain critical services and;
- To support local businesses.
Every decision made supported these priorities and was centred on protecting lives and livelihoods. The Council was committed to putting people first which was being echoed in neighbourhoods and on the streets as people clapped for carers and NHS staff and waved at the waste collectors.
The Leader highlighted the importance of collective and individual action during the battle with COVID-19 and the Leader of the Council personally thanked everyone, Members, staff, community groups, key workers, volunteers and the business community for their efforts. He described it as a humbling show of strength and determination and kindness in adversity. Every act of compassion no matter how small, made a huge difference.
The Leader then gave a snapshot of work that had been undertaken by Officers and Members which included maintaining a full waste service, urgent housing repairs completed within 24 hours of notification and available staff working on void properties to ensure quick relets. Increased resources to support any rise in homelessness and emergency housing cases, this included all rough sleepers known to the Council being given assistance and accommodation.
Customer Service teams had been enabled to work remotely and were dealing with their own work and providing support for calls in relation to council tax, benefits and rents, this had enabled the revenues and benefits team to deliver direct specialist support to residents and businesses affected by hardship.
InvestSK had been realigned to focus on business continuity and resilience. SKDC was one of the top Councils in the country for delivering grant aid to eligible businesses. Nine hundred grants had been paid out to businesses within 24 hours of the Council receiving the money from Government. To date £25M had been paid out to 2,115 businesses of the £31.7m that had been received from Government. Business Rate Relief in the region of £17m had been given to 686 eligible businesses. The Government had announced a new discretionary fund to support businesses that did not fall into the previously announced schemes and the Council was committed to support businesses in line with the Government’s guidance.
The Leader then spoke about the introduction of the SK Community Hub which had been very successful. The Hub was operated by redeployed staff for 11 hours a day, seven days a week. It had taken more than 1,000 calls and had received 300 e-mails from people who needed or were offering help. The Hub worked in conjunction with the Lincolnshire Resilience Forum, providing help when and where it was needed to vulnerable residents. It co-ordinated the work of fifteen hundred volunteers across the district. A be-friending service had also been established, and a letter had been sent to 18,000 residents who were potentially vulnerable offering them support and regular contact during isolation. Nearly 300 vulnerable residents had responded to the letter and received weekly telephone calls.
Staff had seen an increase in working hours during the pandemic with little respite. Ninety staff had been redeployed to support critical services including the SK Community Hub and, the befriending service. Some staff members had also received training to work as waste collection loaders/drivers. An incident room had been established with two emergency planning teams with clear roles and responsibilities to provide a resilient central core, which was essential to the strong leadership and management in a crisis.
The Council’s Coronavirus webpage had received over 17,000 views and was frequently updated. Parish Councils were receiving a monthly newsletter from the Leader to keep them informed. Work was also on going with the local media to help keep local communities informed. The Council had compiled an information graphic which the Local Government Association had commended as a good example of how councils were keeping their residents informed. A special COVID-19 edition of SKToday had also been put together and was currently being distributed ; it contained information to help support residents during the crisis.
A comprehensive and quality service had been delivered seamlessly and he thanked officers and Members.
The Leader highlighted the Key Decisions that he had taken during the COVID-19 crisis; details of these were included in the report for agenda item 8 [ agenda item 8 ].
Members concerns about the impact of COVID19 on the Council’s finances were recognised by the Leader and he stated that due to the Council’s past and present prudence, it had gone into the crisis on a sound financial footing. He informed Members of the Council that a report on the financial impact of the crisis to date was going to the Finance, Economic Development and Corporate Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee on 26 May 2020. The report would provide an updated position on the Council’s financial position and how the Council was managing and responding to the crisis. The budget would need to be repositioned and updated for the financial year and the Cabinet would be working alongside all Committees to review spending plans for the year. The amended budget would be put before Council in September. The Leader stressed that it was not a new budget but a revision in light of COVID-19.
The country had reached the peak of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Leader stressed that Lincolnshire was two weeks behind the rest of the country. Currently there were 996 confirmed cases of Coronavirus in Lincolnshire, 15 care homes were in isolation, 19 care homes had been affected and there were 89 known cases. 186 people had lost their lives to the virus; 125 of these were in hospital and 61 in care homes. The Leader expressed condolences to those who had lost loved ones from the virus.
The Government was concerned about further potential waves in relation to the virus and mutation could not be ruled out. The Leader stated that, the impact of COVID-19 would be felt for some time.
The Council had been moving towards a more agile way of working and the impact of COVID-19, had seen an increase in staff working remotely. Within a few weeks the Council had increased from 40 staff working remotely, to 400, which the Leader considered a great achievement. The current way of working protected staff, Members, residents and businesses and there was currently no plan to change this as it conformed to the priorities previously mentioned. Work was on going with the Cabinet and colleagues across the county, region and the Lincolnshire Resilience Forum on the recovery phase. Local authorities would lead the recovery helping businesses and communities to emerge from the lockdown and it would require the support of all Members.