It’s been said before but it’s worth saying again: local government has been, and continues to be, at the heart of the pandemic response – and it will play an incredibly vital role in the nation’s recovery too.
But in order for the sector to keep our most vulnerable residents safe, save lives and prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed – as well as keeping our local economies running throughout lockdown so they are in a position to successfully emerge from it – we need to protect the very people who are integral to achieving all of those aims.
So while it is positive that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s (JCVI) advice has earmarked frontline health and social care workers to be among the very first to be offered the vaccine, it is equally important that we think about frontline care in the broadest sense. This should not just be about staff in care homes for the elderly; we should be seeking to provide protection for domiciliary and unpaid carers too, as well as those who look after our most vulnerable children. They are all playing a huge part in helping to save lives and support the NHS.
But in addition to the important mission of keeping our health and care systems functioning over the coming weeks and months, we need to ensure other vital public services are able to continue delivering for our communities too – and that we as a society are better prepared for a time when restrictions are relaxed.
With many schools now closed, or operating at a limited capacity, the latest lockdown presents an opportunity to think about offering vaccinations to schools staff. Doing so would enable children to return to the classroom more quickly and create a much safer environment for staff and students in the long run. And as the Prime Minister said in his address to the nation this week: ‘we know how important each day in education is to children’s life chances.’
But councils are about more than just social care and schools. Among local government’s many strengths is its agility and, over the last nine months, councils across the country have adapted and redeployed their workforces in myriad ways in order to meet the many challenges the coronavirus crisis has thrown at our communities. Some staff whose traditional job descriptions don’t normally intuitively match the ‘key worker’ criteria have rapidly become ones having found themselves thrust on to the frontline, whether that be sorting and delivering food parcels, assisting waste and recycling collections, helping out in crematoriums, answering phone calls from the public, or processing grants for businesses. An outbreak of the virus causing high sickness or isolation levels in the wider council workforce would bring our response quickly to its knees and put pressure straight back onto the NHS and our local communities.
The coronavirus crisis has had a major impact on our nation’s health and wealth so far, but we should seek to minimise the long-term effects as much as possible by thinking in the round about our vital public services and the crucial roles they each have to play not just in the short term but the future too.
Just as no single response to the pandemic in any area is the same, our services and the size and demographic make-up of our workforces who deliver them are all different too. And so, as we collectively seek to navigate the coming weeks, local authorities should be given the freedoms and flexibilities to determine which parts of their workforce should be prioritised for vaccination so that we can ensure the services that matter the most are equipped with the resilience to get our communities and economies back on their feet as quickly as possible.
There’s a saying that ‘not all heroes wear capes’ and, as we have seen throughout this pandemic, that is absolutely true of the whole workforce, whether they fit the official definition of a ‘key worker’ or not. We must look after all of them so they can continue to look after all of us.
Paul Najsarek is Solace spokesperson for Health & Social Care, and chief executive of Ealing LBC