I had planned to spend this week looking at different policy areas and outlining some of the ways in which local government has had to respond to the Covid-19 crisis. Having written earlier this week about adult social care, children’s services, and community support, I had intended to spend time in this piece setting out my initial thoughts on recovery and what we will need to do to ensure councils emerge from this crisis as robustly as possible so that we can continue moving our communities forward. Then Sunday happened.
At the start of the outbreak – like so many others – I wanted to be constructive, I really did. With the exception of a couple of gripes caused by the shambles that has been the national protective equipment situation, I largely kept my powder dry. In the last couple of weeks, however, my position has shifted significantly. It is increasingly clear that mistakes have been made: slow to test, slow to lockdown, slow on PPE, slow on responding to the crisis in care homes. Sunday’s fiasco was the icing on the cake, and it has serious ramifications for councils in terms of enforcement and message management.
There are a number of issues with the revised guidance: sending non-essential workers back to work before childcare provision can be assured is one example that has attracted attention, but it is one of many. The suggestion that schools will be ready to return on June 1st appears far-fetched, not least given the government expects five-year-olds to socially distance. But what made me most angry was the inequality that this revised guidance has further entrenched in government policy.
From the outset, crisis response has been underpinned by the incredible work of key workers, many of them low-paid. They have been required to put themselves at risk in a range of different roles: care staff, bin operatives, supermarket workers. Whilst it was deeply uncomfortable to see so many low-paid workers putting themselves at risk whilst those of us in more traditionally middle-class roles could work safely from home, it was understandable. They were needed. Yet the hasty return of manufacturing and construction workers – traditionally more working class professions – has reinforced my view of a growing inequality in Covid-19-related policy. Those in manual or low-paid professions are not receiving the same protection as the rest of society. It’s no wonder that deprivation is showing as a factor in Covid-19 related deaths, and it is increasingly unacceptable.
The return to work guidance wasn’t the only example of unfairness and inequality in the revised policy. The new exercise rules favour those in a financially stronger position. If you’re able to run a car, you can travel anywhere you like (in England). If you don’t have a car, you’re restricted by the advice that says you should avoid use of public transport. There is a deepening sense now that wealth dictates not only the extent to which you are kept safe by policy, but also the extent to which you can return to something like normal life.
For councils, this inequity – and the mixed and confusing guidance that Keir so ably ripped apart at PMQs yesterday – is a nightmare. Every day, I receive emails from residents asking me to act on alleged breaches of social distancing. The lack of clarity we now have to contend with is already making this more challenging. As ever, it falls to local authorities to unpick and interpret the shift in tone: it’s for council enforcement teams to remind people of their responsibilities and to advise businesses on how to ensure compliance, and the latest changes have caused chaos.
A muddled picture not only increases workload but makes the task at hand more difficult. The guidance our officers are asked to enforce isn’t credible – and residents know it. It is becoming a thankless task. This, at a time when the specialist expertise in our enforcement and regulatory services teams could be redeployed to support key projects, such as the track and trace efforts being pulled together across Greater Manchester.
The overwhelming majority of residents still want to do what’s right where they can, but they know that this latest shift in policy makes no sense. Sunday’s mixed messages have shaken public faith in the advice given, and that’s not surprising. Publicly stating that members of a family of 10 people could all individually meet with another 10 people, who all return to their families, seems to me a recipe for disaster – not least when several of those people may just have returned to busy workplaces.
All of this has meant my inbox has been overflowing with people who are scared and angry at what is rightly considered a premature move. The North West has consistently tracked a couple of weeks behind London and other parts of the country, and for us this is a move that has come too soon. As always seems to be the case with this government, the position in London has clearly dominated. Andy Burnham has consistently flagged this fact as the Mayor of Greater Manchester, and he has been right to do so.
It’s incredibly hard for councils to reassure residents, take enforcement action where needed, advise businesses on compliance, and take all other necessary steps when the advice has been so fluid and now so unclear. The message itself is poorly thought-out: ‘stay home’ was a clear instruction, whereas ‘stay aware’ is a vague suggestion that I really fear could contribute to a second spike.
At times of crisis, leaders must speak slowly, speak clearly, and offer reassurance. At present, the PM is failing to do that. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are right to stick with the original stay home message. Council comms are critical at present to ensure residents get the best guidance possible. That’s why until we receive clear messaging that constitutes a simple and sensible instruction the message in Trafford will remain as it was before: Stay Home, Save Lives.