Councils and the pandemic

Submitted by martin on 18 April, 2020 - 7:15 Author: A Lambeth council worker
Lambeth Town Hall

In Lambeth, our union, Unison, has been able to press the council on its response to the pandemic, and with results.

Early on, we won full isolation pay for all workers in the council, including agency workers and zero-hours workers.

The council has moved on other issues. Councils are demanding a "cast-iron public commitment that [the government] will provide additional funding to fully meet extra costs to councils and compensate for lost income" in the pandemic. Immediately, the government has paid out £1.6 billion to councils, allowed councils to postpone business rates payments to central government, and moved to pay care grants up front, so the councils' worry is more about a financial squeeze down the track than immediate cash-flow.

Shortages of qualified workers in some areas, thanks to cuts over many years, are not so easily fixed.

The government called on councils to "make sure that... people who are sleeping rough, and those who are in accommodation where it is difficult to self-isolate, such as shelters" have somewhere they can self-isolate, "ideally single room facilities". The government said that councils should "utilise alternative powers and funding to assist those with no recourse to public funds" (a restriction put on some migrants).

Lambeth council has told us that it's been housing all the homeless in hotels and similar. The Guardian reports migrants' rights groups saying "many destitute migrants continue to sleep on the streets either because councils have turned them away when they try to access emergency support or because, in the absence of clear government guidance, they do not know how to go about getting this support".

We're demanding that the council does what Salford council, for example, has done, and instruct all those employing care workers on council contracts that they must give full isolation pay. To follow up, the union is doing a survey of care workers on isolation pay and PPE.

The council now says that it will supply PPE free if contractors do not provide it, but that's only since the council itself received PPE, in the last week.

The council has restricted care visits, replacing as many as it can with phone calls. That is explained as reducing virus risk to care workers and those they might visit, but has clear downsides. We want to see more testing and more PPE so that more visits are done.

The council has set up a food hub in our leisure centre to provide food for the vulnerable people who are strictly self-isolating. The food is packed by volunteers, including council workers whose usual workplaces are shut, and delivered by redeployed council workers. The council has a list from the NHS of people sent letters classifying them as specially vulnerable, and individuals and mutual aid groups can add names to the list.

The council is stepping up provision for domestic violence victims. But access to domestic violence services is often through places which are now shut like schools, children's centres, libraries. I think the council should advertise helplines in supermarkets, too.

We've asked the council about provision for end-of-life care. There have been, and there will be, more people dying at home outside the scope of the NHS. The council's end-of-life provision will be stretched.

An underlying problem in this as many areas is not so much shortage of cash, at this point, as shortage of staff. Because the local government workforce has been cut back over many years, it is now an older and so not especially healthy workforce.

We'll be asking for training and support for new staff, and more testing and more PPE so that services can be extended.

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