Coronavirus: What councils like mine are doing to help you – Tom Riordan

I’VE dealt with some pretty difficult and challenging situations in my career, from floods to banking crises and foot and mouth, and I’ve worked in the UN and Whitehall. But I’ve never experienced a crisis like this one.

Sunday, 22nd March 2020, 4:54 pm
The closure of schools is another coronavirus challenge for local authorities.

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It makes me admire the World War generations even more when faced with the suspension of the way we live our lives, the threat to life and the fear and uncertainty that everyone is feeling. They faced much worse challenges and odds than us, and they should be our inspiration.

The good news is that there is a well-developed emergency planning system in place across Yorkshire and the UK. We’ve suspended normal working and moved to a “Gold Command” system where councils, the NHS and emergency services work together under a single plan to deal with the transition to the “new normal”.

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Tom Riordan is chief executive of Leeds City Council.

Each council has taken quick and effective decisions to close non-essential venues to help encourage social distancing, move people who can to work from home, redeploy staff effectively to where they’re needed and focus efforts on keeping vital services like social care and bin collections going.

Although Chief Executives are being given emergency powers to make decisions quickly, this is done alongside our political leaders so that they are fully involved as elected decision makers. I can say that without exception the politicians I am working with during this crisis have been brilliantly supportive in seeking the best outcome for the people of Leeds. Their community leadership role will be vital in the coming weeks.

This crisis is the true test of the culture of workplaces where you can put every plan in place you like, but you are reliant on the goodwill and commitment of people to make it happen. The response of our staff has been amazing and it is a true privilege to work with people who go beyond the call of duty and are there when you need them.

Councils by their nature employ local residents who care deeply about their communities and are proud of their places, and this “DNA” of local government will be worth its weight in gold over the coming weeks and months.

Local authorities are working closely with the NHS and social carers over coronavirus.

The response of the community has been inspirational. In Leeds we have an excellent voluntary and charity sector and the city has a history of compassionate support for people symbolised by the millions raised for the Ark Royal during the war. Voluntary Action Leeds and the council have launched a city-wide volunteering programme to help care for people during the COVID-19 outbreak.

If you’re healthy, you can sign up to be a Community Care Volunteer at www.doinggoodleeds and we’ve already had well over two thousand people register in the first few days. Other similar initiatives can be accessed from your own council website.

We are lucky to have the NHS and its amazing staff and truly world class facilities in Leeds to work with our outstanding social care workers and carers. The biggest challenge is yet to come as we move towards the peak of the epidemic in the coming weeks. The more people who can live independently outside the hospital system the better placed we will be for those crucial few weeks.

We will need to work incredibly closely with the NHS, charities and local communities to make sure that those most vulnerable and at risk such as people with underlying health conditions and our over-70s remain connected through the period of self-isolation.

The economic impact for businesses is already huge with worries about cashflow, staff and uncertainty. The Government and Bank of England have put in place a series of measures to help and councils will be administering some of that through business rate relief and grants.

We are also actively trying to help by awarding relief without requiring an application, extending payment deadlines, paying our own bills quickly and we are pressing for more help for our city’s many freelancers, creatives and micro businesses, as well as looking at what we can collectively do to help them.

The main place for business advice is your Local Enterprise Partnership (for the Leeds city region this is 0113 348 1850).

The impact of schools closing is significant and we’ll be working closely with them to make sure that key workers’ children are cared for and fourteen thousand school meals are still delivered from twenty eight hubs to children who need them.

This situation also demands the closest partnership between central and local government. I lead on communication between Whitehall and the region’s councils and am involved in regular conference calls with Ministers, civil servants and the Local Government Association and we are all working in a very strong spirit of partnership in an incredibly fast moving situation. The mutual support and kindness between fellow Chief Executives within the region has been hugely valuable and much-needed! Whoever your peer or friendship group is then make sure people are checking in on one another.

Thank you to everyone across Yorkshire who is helping. Please look out for your neighbours, phone someone to check they’re ok, ignore the shameless online scammers, wash your hands regularly and shop responsibly so everyone can have access to what they need to live their lives. Stay at home if you can.

Avoiding unnecessary physically close contact is the biggest thing we can all do to stop the spread of this invisible enemy, as well as self-isolating if we have a high temperature or a persistent dry cough.

It’s also worth everyone thinking about how to stay mentally healthy in this new world. Reach out to those children whose last school year has been cut short. Register online with your local library where in Leeds you can download six e-books straight away. Connect with people through WhatsApp groups, Facebook forums, lunchtime check-ins and general random acts of kindness which can all make a difference.

And keep reminding everyone that the vast majority of people will have relatively mild or even no symptoms and will fully recover. A vaccine will be developed in time that will protect everyone in the future. This crisis will pass and we will beat it. By then, I’m certain we will appreciate even more the things we took for granted a fortnight ago, learn lessons so we build a more sustainable, fair and resilient world and make sure we value the difference other people make to our own lives.

Let’s use that unique combination of Yorkshire grit and warmth to get us through this.

Tom Riordan CBE is chief executive of Leeds City Council.