Coronavirus – Council leader: 'This is a marathon, not a sprint'

John Halsall
Wokingham Borough Council leader Cllr John Halsall

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” says Wokingham Borough Council leader Cllr John Halsall of the problems caused to the world by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Government confirmed a fourth case of the virus in Wokingham borough today, and there has been increases in the number of cases in Reading borough and Bracknell Forest.

At the time of writing, there have been 797 confirmed cases, of which 207 were announced today.

But the council is calling on residents to follow the advice from the Government.

Cllr Halsall said: “We’re looking at a situation that could last for six months, but people need to ensure that life continues as normally as possible.

“Please don’t panic, follow the advice we are publishing on our website.

“Nothing can be gained by people panicking, please don’t hoard from the shops.”

He also said that the council had been testing its responses to various scenarios, ensuring that should council staff numbers be reduced by self-isolation, it can continue to function relatively normally. Although some non-essential services may see some reductions in capacity, the intent is to ensure that all core functions carry on as normal.

“Our position is to follow Public Health England and Government advice to the letter, we don’t have the expertise to question that advice,” Cllr Halsall said.

The council “has a duty of care to its staff”, and has been working to ensure that they could work from home if they had to self-isolate. This week, they had been testing “to check all the technology works”.

“We may have a situation where self-isolation means that some services will be depleted, but we’re working on how to make those services still function.”

And Cllr Charles Margetts, executive member for health and wellbeing at Wokingham Borough Council, added: “From our point of view, it’s how the council can operate (during self-isolation).

“We’ve carried out some big IT tests this week so we know staff can work if they have to self-isolate.”

Cllr Halsall said: “Our major concerns are twofold: schools and care homes and social services.

“With schools, we are following Government advice,” Cllr Halsall said. So far, only one school in the borough has been closed due to a depletion of staff due to self-isolation, and it is hoped that others will remain open, unless Public Health England advise otherwise.”

And Cllr Margetts said: “We’re asking schools to stay open as much as possible.”

“Also with care homes and adult social care, we are also following Government advice to the letter.”

“We provide a range of services, if we had to stop services, people would really suffer,” Cllr Halsall said. “We have an obligation to ensure that these keep going.                   

There could be changes to the way in which the council meetings – run by elected councillors – operate during the coronavirus pandemic stage. Cllr Halsall said that “the vast majority of councillors are over 65”.

“We have to allow council business to continue,” he added.

A range of measures are expected to be announced at Thursday’s full council meeting in an emergency statement which Cllr Halsall will make. They could include allowing councillors to ‘dial in’ to the meeting via the internet, so they don’t have to be present in the chamber.  

“We have to ensure that democracy carries on. If you were talking about two weeks (shutdown) we’d go home, but we’re talking possibly six months.”

Opposition leader Cllr Lindsay Ferris (Lib Dem) was broadly supportive of the proposals, which are still being worked on.

“This is a very unique and unusual situation,” he said. “These are not normal circumstances.

“We are both in agreement that councillors should only come in if they are well. If they are not well, they shouldn’t come in. There may be a councillor who wants to go to a meeting, but they’ve got to self-isolate, if they can’t go, they’re stuck.

“I’m not sure if a Skype-style solution will work, but it’s worth trying something.”

Cllr Margetts also urged residents to follow the government’s new advice on self-isolation: “If you have a cough or a high temperature, stay off for seven days.

“I thought the Prime Minister’s statement (yesterday) was very good and very clear.

“We have to stick together through this time of challenge. It will get trickier, but we have to get through this together.”

And this sticking together appears to be working at the council’s main offices, according to Cllr Margetts.

“I find Shute End (this week) to be very calm and very focused. The critical parts of the council are functioning well.

“Statutory services will keep running, we will keep them going.”

And he warned: “There will be more cases. We will continue to update people.”

If the situation deteriorates then “the council has a plan for care homes and schools,” Cllr Margetts pledged. “Let’s hope that it doesn’t, but if it does, we’re ready.”

And if any resident thinks they are coming down with the coronavirus or showing any symptoms, including a fever or a cough, they should “keep following government advice”.

Cllr Margetts added: “Keep yourself up-to-date, follow the council website for the latest advice.

“Don’t go to the doctor, chemist or hospital if you have a cough or a high temperature. Follow Government advice and stay at home for seven days.”

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Joan Smith
Joan Smith

Let’s hope a decade of Tory austerity and the Brexit-led hatred of EU staff doesn’t cause any problems for the NHS!