Hello… Steve here. I hope things are OK with you and your loved ones.
Welcome to this first issue of my newsletter, which is dropping into 110 inboxes.
To break us in gently, I thought I’d start with a quote.
I have found it is the small things. Everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love.
Gandalf – The Hobbit
I chose this on purpose as this past 7 days we’ve celebrated #VolunteersWeek. I’ve read research findings that suggests 19% of UK adults have volunteered during the COVID-19 crisis - 78% of whom plan to continue afterwards. A heartfelt ‘thank you’ to everyone in our community who - in a thousand different ways - have helped, and continue to support family, friends and neighbours.
All three recycling centres have now re-opened with an ‘odds and evens’ system in place. I’ve posted about how this all works, including opening times. New kerbside collection calendars are also now available to download and to attach to your noticeboard/wall/fridge.
The Council continues to administer the business grant schemes for the estimated 3,500 eligible businesses in North Somerset. The most recent figures I have are that the Council has processed 3,093 claims and paid out over £37.3m.
We are contacting 1,200 hospitality and leisure businesses this week to help them prepare for possible re-opening in July.
By any measure the human toll of the COVID-19 pandemic is devastating.
I am one of those who believe there are real risks to easing the lockdown before an effective test and trace system is in place. This service has spluttered into action but won’t be fully rolled out until, well… we’re not sure; some reports suggest September/October.
I also recognise the lifting of lockdown measures is a difficult balancing act, but I still feel that in our patch this is happening a little too fast. Yet the Government has determined our course. Writing in the FT, Robert Shrimsley said:
No one will admit it openly but there’s been a decisive shift in the government’s approach to coronavirus. In the minds of ministers the pandemic is no longer primarily a health crisis; it is now principally an economic crisis.
I felt it might be helpful if I tried to untangle some of what has been happening locally. It has all been moving at such a fast pace it’s probably easier if I try to summarise recent developments - loosely - on a timeline.
Monday 25th May
Following a spike in COVID-19 cases, news of the temporary closure of Weston General hospital spreads like wildfire - with even The New York Times covering the story.
At the same time, people interpret the relaxing of lockdown rules as an invitation to flock to beaches and beauty spots in the fine bank holiday weather. Google publish a set of Community Mobility Reports and the anonymised location data - explained very well in this Twitter thread - shows a clear increase in the number of people enjoying public spaces.
Thursday 28th May
The PM sets out the timeline for the further easing of the lockdown - despite thousands of new cases still emerging each day - and North Somerset being one of 18 areas that had probably not yet reached a peak in infections.
Friday 29th May
The first real mention of the possibility of local lockdowns. Weston’s MP, John Penrose is asked about this on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
We must be guided by the science, but frustratingly for councillors (and the wider public), it now takes ten days to get any kind of clarity on the hospital coronavirus outbreak.
While most primary schools in England re-open to some school years on 1st June (despite advice not to from their biggest teachers’ union), as a precautionary measure we join a number of other councils to advise schools against re-opening. Some commentators argue the evidence from Denmark is that sending kids back to school has not led to an increase in infections, but we did not want children, families or staff exposed to any increased risk of contracting the virus while the community impact of the hospital outbreak remained unknown.
Thursday 4th June
Councillors invite Robert Woolley - CEO at the recently formed University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust (UHBW) - to answer their questions at a meeting of the Health Overview Scrutiny Panel.
Mr Woolley says that UHBW had tested and retested all patients and staff since 25th May and approximately 6% of staff, whilst showing no symptoms, tested positive for the virus. He says this is “a significant finding” that would have implications for the whole NHS.
Cllr Mike Bell, deputy leader of the council and lead member for health tells councillors that those affected are being isolated and their work and other contacts traced and advised appropriately. The Council release a statement saying…
…analysis has shown there is no current evidence of increased risk in the local population connected to the coronavirus outbreak at Weston General Hospital.
Friday 5th June
A number of studies calculate that in the South West the much quoted R number might currently have a reproduction rate of one.
Matt Hancock confirms the Government is moving towards a more local - as opposed to national - approach to lockdown.
Cllr Mike Bell immediately takes to Facebook…
I've just listened to Matt Hancock at the government's daily COVID-19 briefing. Very disappointed by misleading answers on regional R numbers and local/regional lockdowns. He said that Weston had a "successful local lockdown", when what happened here was the hospital shut its doors. It has contained the hospital outbreak, but by no stretch was it a local lockdown. Government should also spell out what a local lockdown actually means so we can all plan and prepare for them should they be necessary. The truth is that local councils like North Somerset have received no guidance on local/regional R nor on local lockdowns. Together with the council leader, I've written to Ministers today to urge action.
Friday 5th June
Following the Scrutiny Panel session the previous day, the Council contacts all schools and nurseries in the area to advise them that they should consider re-opening to wider groups of children from Monday 8th June.
The final decision rests with each school’s leadership team and governors - not least because the Council now only maintain 15 primary schools (where funding and oversight is through the local authority); the rest are now run by academy trusts.
In accordance with health and safety legislation, the Lighthouse Schools Partnership (LCP) have carried out their own risk assessment to identify the specific steps needed to allow school staff to work safely.
The LCP release a statement which says:
Our schools have planned meticulously for this wider re-opening and have thorough risk assessments in place.
Yatton Schools inform parents with children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 that from Monday they can join the children of key workers and eligible vulnerable children and have also been advised of their “bubble groups” and start and finish times.
Sunday 7th June
On the Andrew Marr’s show, Matt Hancock says that "we are open to taking local action to crack down on a local outbreak" and Weston-super-Mare is "a model of how we can do this elsewhere."
He calls our Director of Public Health “brilliant” (stand up, Matt Lenny).
The Guardian pick up the story.
Mike is quite right to push back. The Council does not have powers to impose a local lockdown in Weston (or elsewhere) if it ever became necessary.
One talking point around the policy and guidance around schools re-opening has been the potential impact on older generations. There is still a great deal of uncertainty around the extent to which children have a role in the transmission of the virus, but I checked out out the data from the Office for National Statistics, which suggests that 87% of primary age children live in households where no one is over the age of 50; only 1.7% live with someone aged 70+.
Of course, those ‘shielding’ can be of any age and many parents remain concerned enough for (at a national level at least) over half (54%) with dependent children to indicate they are either ‘very’ or ‘quite unlikely’ to send their children back to school this month. Today and in the coming days, parents will take individual decisions appropriate for them.
No one can impose unity on a community, but as a councillor I am always mindful about any issue which could potentially affect community cohesion. New King’s College London analysis of an Ipsos MORI survey suggests that divisions are forming among the UK population as the lockdown is relaxed. I think we saw this in how people responded differently to the Dominic Cummings story.
It is down to all of us in the community and every person who visits our area to follow the national advice about how to prevent transmission of the virus. Personally, I hope the wearing of face coverings becomes the cultural norm here, as it is in many other countries. After all, we all have a second job in public health now.
Some other links…
Ministers target June 22 for reopening of England’s pubs and restaurants - Financial Times
…and a longread:
“Our communication is its transmission. Even a song isn’t safe anymore”
Monster or Machine? A Profile of the Coronavirus at 6 Months - The New York Times
Anyway, on a more positive note…
Building Back Better
Three weeks ago I drove to Town Hall - following the advice to avoid public transport - to lead a COVID-19 briefing with Jo Walker, the Council’s chief executive. Now that we are conducting all council business online, that was - and remains - my only trip to Weston since 18th March. It was a bit surreal, perched on the dias with Jo, with only a handful of senior officers present in the Council Chamber - all of us maintaining social distancing. Councillor colleagues and representatives from town and parish councils listened in online.
Jo led us through the emerging recovery timeline and I spoke about how we must build on the fantastic community response to the pandemic. Lots of conversations going on, which I’ll write more about next time. We must not waste the potential to re-imagine public services and genuinely work together with communities to tackle some of the most pressing issues of our generation - inequality, mental health issues (including social isolation and loneliness), the climate crisis, and of course… the next pandemic.
Re-connecting Yatton & Claverham to Clevedon by bus
This has been my absolute top priority for the past twelve months and I’ve had more meetings about this than anything else. Just before the lockdown we agreed that as a minimum we were going to go ahead with an hourly 6-day service from September. Unfortunately, the landscape has now changed entirely and last week - disappointingly - I had it confirmed the plan has been put on hold. Not cancelled, I hasten to add… but right now there are many urgent matters to consider - not least home to school transport. I will continue to work hard to find a solution. In due course, I would like to establish a bus ‘user group’ to ensure we get the take up when a new service is introduced.
I’m constantly reading but in truth have struggled with finding the time to read actual books - other than when I’m on holiday. A bit late to the game I bought a Kindle just after Christmas and have managed to read a book a month - so far getting through the epic Washington Black (Esi Edugyan), pastoral All Among the Barley (Melissa Harrison), gritty American Dirt (Jeanine Cummins) and wild West (Carys Davies). All highly recommended. I couldn’t get into The Island (Ana María Matute) but will get back to it.
I’m looking for some good summer reads… so very much open to recommendations.
That’s enough for now, I think. Thank you for making it this far down my new newsletter. How has it been?
This newsletter is landing a few days later than I’d planned. To be honest, it has been a struggle to write at all. On Thursday morning we lost Sasha, our family dog, in tragic circumstances. I realise many people are suffering with much greater pain and loss, but it is still very hard to process. We are heartbroken. There is an emptiness in our house… and a great sadness. We will be alright.
PS Apropos of what’s happening elsewhere right now…
The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters. - Antonio Gramsci