Local Powers are Needed to Tackle COVID-19

By Cllr Matthew Brown (Leader, Preston City Council)

Preston is entering a critical phase as Covid-19 cases rise to alarming levels with the additional prospect of a combination of Covid and winter flu over the next few months presenting the most serious public health challenge in generations.

The recent rise in cases is not just exclusive to Preston but part of a wider trend across Lancashire, which won’t be addressed unless we receive a properly resourced infrastructure to effectively tackle it.

At Preston City Council, we have left no stone unturned working with the community and local businesses to protect people against Covid-19. We’ve been engaging in genuine dialogue to ensure restrictions are enforced and guidance is followed, alongside a powerful community effort to support the vulnerable. However, if we continue to be denied resources and powers based on public health advice it will continue to be an uphill battle.

The government knew as early as January that Covid-19 would be a significant threat, but chose initially to adopt a policy of herd immunity with Prime Minister Boris Johnson appearing on national television suggesting we “take it on the chin”. By March it became obvious this strategy could see half a million deaths in the UK, and a decision was taken to lockdown without the preparation many other countries had introduced.

The last seven months have been devastating hearing reports of PPE arriving weeks late in care homes and hospital settings. Then how the virus had disproportionately affected our minority and less well off communities, and how a dysfunctional contact tracing system outsourced to unaccountable corporations with no experience in delivering public health was assessed as 54 per cent efficient. We heard other reports including one resident who booked into a Deloitte commissioned testing centre and chose to go home after queuing for an hour, only to receive a letter saying they had tested positive.

In contrast, the £10 billion of public money spent on test and trace could have employed the equivalent of 80 people in each of our 16 wards in Preston to support our councils and NHS to lead a local effort to tackle the pandemic. Communities Minister Robert Jenrick MP this week admitted councils are “bound to be better” at delivering the service. It is another example of a huge opportunity lost, and we have paid a high price.

Since the pandemic began, and especially since Preston became an “area of intervention” in August, my colleagues and I have worked with some amazing Public Health professionals to ask government to provide what we need to fight Covid-19. This has included a fully functioning test and trace system, clearer regulations, powers to ensure quicker and less bureaucratic enforcement, and incentives for education and working from home to prevent social mixing.

Despite the welcome but overdue £500 Covid-19 isolation grant, local leaders like myself lobbied for little of what we actually need has come our way. To add insult to injury Preston City Council was recently “handed” cases of individuals the national contact tracing system couldn’t contact with many up to eight days old, meaning the disease would in all likelihood have passed on to others in that time.

We are now encouraged by government to enter the “very high” Covid-19 tier in Lancashire. However, the parts of the economy they want to close like pubs will at best have a marginal effect in stopping the spread as it is concentrated elsewhere. This will not only make little material difference but put dozens of Preston’s hospitality workers often employed on the minimum wage into hardship with generous furlough pay ending and local businesses closing which won’t reopen. We may need to bite the bullet if we can negotiate an improved package, but it illustrates how government has handled the pandemic from the beginning.

My personal view is the only way we can tackle Covid-19 now is a two to three week national lockdown as outlined by Keir Starmer, with proper protections for workers and local business with a properly resourced test and tracing and accompanying infrastructure to bring the cases down.

The situation is critical and despite government failings we continue to lobby hard for the best deal for Preston. In the meantime we must double our efforts to follow the regulations, be vigilant and do everything we can to look after each other.

This piece was first published on the BlogPreston.co.uk website.