As news broke around the world one could sense that COVID-19 was going to pose a serious challenge to the UK. In The Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames, consistent with many other areas I imagine, we had started to strengthen our business continuity arrangements, building on work we had done as a system to respond to Operation Yellowhammer.
On 11 March we heard that the health minister had contracted the virus - of all people right? And together with the sudden cut in interest rates, we knew that post-Budget, the crisis was going to take a new dramatic turn, quickly becoming the nation’s number one priority. London has unfortunately had numerous tragic incidents in recent history, which have required an emergency response. As a result, there has been much learning to draw on and being part of that community has been invaluable in helping us shape the response, attuned to our local context in Kingston.
On 16 March The Prime Minister delivered an address, which was a game-changer. The clear message was that people should continue to adhere to Public Health England guidance regarding thorough and frequent hand washing, those with symptoms are to self-isolate for seven days (14 days for household family members), promote home working and social distancing - no visits to pubs, clubs, restaurants, theatres etc. as part of a new phase, moving from ‘containment’ to ‘delay’. This is part of a national strategy, informed by leading experts to flatten the curve as quickly as possible, learning from the dramatic, exponential rise in positive cases in other parts of the world.
The following morning council leader, Liz Green joined our three-hour ‘senior management scrum’, which was also used as a launch-pad for our ‘Borough Emergency Command’ arrangements. Councillor Green’s presence was incredibly useful and we were grateful for her strong political steer to ensure the borough’s most vulnerable were prioritised, that we provided leadership in the coordination of a volunteer hub alongside our brilliant voluntary sector, emphasising the imperative to match skills with service gaps and design/ tailor training for a new wave of volunteers accordingly. In addition, the hub will ensure that Disclosure and Barring Service checks are used to reduce the risk to vulnerable citizens. The leader was also clear that we should ensure we do whatever we can to support our business sector and keep all our elected members and MPs abreast of developments dynamically.
Following careful consideration and in light of government guidance and expert advice from our director of public health, swift action was taken to close leisure centres, the adult education centre, music service, museum and history centre and reduce and adapt library, children's centre and youth service provision. We also issued clear guidance to staff and managers regarding the expectation that all staff should work from home wherever possible supported by our digital team, and agreed suspension of all committees to 11 May. To facilitate this we quickly invoked our emergency decision-making protocol. We have worked with our Business Improvement District and Chamber of Commerce, to ensure local businesses are well informed about the government’s package of support and the new volunteer hub is now live. And of course, as a key priority, we have worked closely with NHS colleagues and community providers, to help free up beds to make them available for the increasing number of those who urgently require treatment.
Our emerging approach in Kingston encompasses a number of principles. These include: ‘The Council does not have all the answers, there are many questions but often the answers lie within the communities we serve’; ‘individually we know quite a lot but collectively we know so much more’ and ‘transformation and innovation should not stop in a crisis - instead let’s double down on new approaches’. In the spirit of this we continue to look to other places to learn from better practice, play our part in collaborating with all local stakeholders and wider partners at a national, regional and sub-regional level and are in the midst of rolling out new services, such as virtual learning environments and 24/7 local government. The response reaffirms that without question, our staff are our biggest asset.
These are early days for COVID-19 and there is much more to do. New challenges are on the horizon, such as tackling augmented isolation of the very same people who benefit from social contact, impact of reduced access to some therapeutic interventions for citizens with social, emotional and mental health needs, and pretty quickly, we need to design new youth engagement and participation strategies, to replace the loss of a raft of traditional positive activities. This is before we even make a start on rebuilding our local economies in a post COVID-19 era.
To build our collective resilience let’s exchange ideas and continue to shine, in the way that local government has always done.
Ian Thomas is chief executive of the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames