The encouraging rollout of the vaccine to date should be a genuine source of optimism for all of us. While there remains a long way to go, there is now, for the first time in almost 12 months, a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel, and with it a clearer exit strategy from the isolation and economic sclerosis of repeated lockdowns.
Both the Government and the NHS are to be congratulated on the success of this process so far, which has put us well in advance of many of our friends and neighbours. We should not be under any illusion that the coming months will be plain sailing. After all, it is widely accepted that at least a 75% take-up of the vaccine will be necessary to provide herd immunity. This appears to be an achievable target, but it is one that will be made all the much harder without enlisting the expertise of local authorities.
It has by now been repeated so many times that many of us are hoarse from saying it: local government, with its ingenuity, knowledge and contacts, must be made full use of.
At times, the relationship between councils and clinical commissioning groups hasn’t always been a frictionless one, but by and large both have worked hand in glove during the course of the pandemic to protect their residents.
A local, bottom-up approach has already shown itself to be the way forward in terms of test and trace, and central Government must now place its trust in local leaders to expedite the vaccine rollout and ensure its smooth and safe running.
Of course, that doesn’t mean meddling with the elements of this herculean task that are clearly working well, but looking at what local government can bring to the table, complementing wherever possible the good work already under way. Local officers have so much to offer.
On a practical level, that includes a knowledge of local buildings suitable as vaccine centres and a proven ability to mobilise community volunteers and redeploy staff to services under pressure.
On a day-to-day basis, local leaders, not Whitehall officials, will be better placed to iron out common teething problems, including organising community transport for elderly or vulnerable residents who may otherwise struggle to reach their local hub, as well as making available parking for those travelling alone.
Later on, following the successful vaccination of the first four priority groups, their knowledge of the local homeless population will help ensure no one is missed off the list, while their relationship with local faith leaders and ability to disseminate targeted communications will be invaluable in countering some of the factors – including misinformation, indifference, as well as genuine concerns on safety – which threaten that 75% target.
To do so, councils will need regularly updated granular data on the rollout, allowing them to identify any blind spots in distribution and take-up.
During the Prime Minister’s appearance before the House of Commons Liaison Committee a fortnight ago, he committed to just that. I hope, through greater openness and the sharing of data, local authorities and the NHS will now be able to work far more collaboratively going forward.
Councils remain at the heart of this fight and must be furnished with the information they need to best serve their residents. Making this as transparent a process as possible is not only good practice, but also the sensible thing to do to ensure we take people with us.
What I fear is a tendency toward central diktat and a reluctance to let go of the reins in fast-moving and changeable situations, led to a stalled start on contact tracing. I hope we will learn from our mistakes and now open our arms to local government.
Sir Bob Neill MP is a former local government minister and is chair of the Commons Justice Committee