On Monday (22 June 2020), an update on Woking Borough Council’s business continuity arrangements and activities during the COVID-19 crisis was presented at the Council’s Executive Committee.
In his introduction, Cllr Bittleston, Leader of the Council, said: “It’s generally accepted that the response by officers has been truly amazing. What they’ve done and the way they’ve done it has been incredible. We’ve had our own version of COBRA in the boardroom that worked 24/7 for the first three or four weeks, staffed by two teams, and I’m personally very proud of what they achieved.”
Since the beginning of the outbreak, the Council has sought to operate as close to ‘business as usual’ as possible. In line with Government guidance, officers who could work from home were supported to do so, with some volunteering to undertake different duties to ensure that the most vulnerable in the community received the support they needed.
An emergency control centre was set up on 23 March at the Civic Offices to manage the Council’s response and link in with the wider Surrey Local Resilience Forum (SLRF) response effort. On rotation a team of dedicated officers disseminated information, lead daily briefings attended by Surrey Police and the Council’s senior management team, allocated PPE and worked with organisations like York Road Project to respond to new duties placed on communities and local government such as the accommodation of rough sleepers.
Ensuring the most vulnerable in the community received the support they needed during the crisis was central to the Council’s response. 2,275 existing service users were identified as vulnerable and contact was made with these residents to ensure that they were safe, and that they had sufficient support in place during lockdown. This activity was carried out by 120 staff, mostly in addition to their day job and where contact couldn’t be made, police and Freedom Leisure staff carried out home welfare checks, knocking on around 170 front doors.
Telephone calls were also made to the 1,800 residents advised by the Government or their GP to shield during the outbreak and a further 1,000 residents were identified through primary care networks as potentially needing support. While many were able to rely on family or friends, around 800 residents are still receiving weekly phone calls and benefitting from services such as Careline and community meals, which has seen the number of meals delivered weekly grow by 50% compared to the same period last year.
A team of redeployed staff was assembled to respond to the needs of the wider community, taking calls and dealing with requests from staff, partners and residents during the week and weekends. They delivered over 300 prescriptions to isolated residents across the borough and responded to 700 requests for food, medicine, information and guidance; utilising local community resources where possible.
Reflecting on this collaboration, Cllr Bittleston said: “The way the community and voluntary groups have stepped up has also been truly amazing and I would like to thank all those that have helped or expressed a desire to help.”
Mutually beneficial arrangements with local hotels, catering companies and cleaning services enabled the Council to support vulnerable residents in care homes and other settings, whilst providing local businesses with much needed income.
Following Government guidance, 642 businesses received £18.3m in expanded retail relief, while 12 businesses received £0.3m in nursery discount. Officers were quick to distribute the initial tranche of Government funding, which during April and May, saw 942 eligible businesses receive grants between £3,000 and £25,000, totalling £13.2m. Woking has since been allocated £671,750 to distribute to small businesses not covered by previous schemes.
In the March budget, the government announced it would establish a £500m hardship fund to support “economically vulnerable people and households” affected by COVID-19. Locally this means around 2,300 households in Woking, already receiving council tax support, could see their annual bill drop by a further £150. Around a 1,000 residents have also had their housing benefit increased.
Woking has received more than a million pounds in Government funding to help cover the costs of social care, homelessness and the needs of those at higher risk during the pandemic. This money is also intended to be used to cover pressures across other services. Whilst this is significant compensation, the sustainability of some public services will be dependent on the borough’s economic recovery and Woking has been allocated £89k from the European Regional Development Fund to support the re-opening of high streets, make public realm adjustments and develop an action plan for re-invigorating the local economy.
Cllr Bittleston concluded: “It’s too early to assess the impact of COVID-19 on our communities and way of life but it feels good to be in a position to start thinking about, and focussing resources on our recovery.
“One positive from this whole experience has been the way everyone has pulled together and that’s going to be even more important as we move forward. We must all continue to think and act locally, whether that’s continuing to use local shops and services, supporting family and friends, volunteering or staying in touch with elderly neighbours. Undoubtedly there are tough times ahead but as we have seen, communities that are strong, connected and well prepared, are capable of overcoming all sorts of challenges.”