Crispin Acton, Wanstead resident and public health activist, writes:
Debates on Covid-19 have highlighted how the present government instinctively prefers a centralised approach. It is unwilling to share information and to share power.
The 2012 restructuring of health services, among other things, took public health functions away from the NHS to give them to local government. Public Health England was to provide support to local government. Local Directors of Public Health and their staff have expertise and experience on matters such as infection control, tracking and tracing outbreaks. It has been estimated that across England about 5,000 staff in local government have skills relevant to contact tracing, a resource that – at the time of writing (19 June) – has been little called on by Ministers, who see local government as playing a subsidiary role.
Difficulties for care homes, which are mainly financed by local government social services, in working with NHS hospitals have been widely reported during the COVID-19 outbreak. Social care being treated as a “poor relation” by the NHS is not new and the vulnerability of frail older people in care homes to COVID-19 was highlighted by the Government’s own Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, at the start of the outbreak.
Local government in general – and Redbridge Council in particular – have been hard hit financially by COVID-19, with revenues down and much higher spending on social care, the homeless, and many other pressing needs. The Minister for Housing Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, said on 16 March 2020 that the government “stands ready to do whatever is necessary to support councils in their response to the coronavirus”. Unfortunately, Government has since appeared to row back on that statement, as it now speaks of “sharing the costs”.
Whether this is a cynical approach that seeks to use the crisis to centralise power within Whitehall, or merely the instinct of the second-rate ideologues currently in power, Liberal Democrats will argue that centralisation has run its course. As we face the enormous challenge of recovering from the crisis in the coming months, our country needs to harness the energies and knowledge of local communities in order to rebuild and they must be given the powers and resources they need.