As the UK moves into the ‘delay phase’ of the virus, the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland (PHA) has the lead and is the principal reference point for councils in relation to the latest advice and guidance. Government direction moves through Public Health England to the PHA, and council chief officers are in very frequent contact with them and the Chief Medical Officer for Northern Ireland as part of central-local civil contingencies efforts.
The primary focus for councils is the continuity of critical functions for the public, namely: waste collection and disposal, registration, and burials. Other statutory and non-statutory functions may be deferred for a period of time if required, and any associated impacts will be monitored. Core back office functions have some flexibility in their delivery, and localised, multi-site geographic nature of council facilities offers further resilience, with staff spread around locations to meet greatest need.
At some point, parental caring and home working, along with those ill and self-isolating, will significantly reduce the workforce and affect services. Councils are dynamically considering their approach to enabling parental leave in the event of schools’ closures.
This situation could continue for several months and has not yet peaked; therefore, council business continuity plans are being kept under review for all service areas, with a focus on pandemic and the risk of loss of staff inhibiting or preventing delivery of services. As a result, the maximum redeployment of staff into the critical functions is being considered as councils can affect those arrangements.
Measures are being put in place to limit large groupings of critical staff to reduce the chance of them all being temporarily prevented from working, for example minimising gatherings in depots at the start and finish of the day. There are also options to reprioritise refuse collection patterns.
Enhanced cleaning programmes are underway in council facilities, as well as scenario / rehearse responses if required. Councils can conduct decontamination as circumstances dictate.
Acknowledging the responsibility of local government to try to take as much risk out of the situation and help ease the growing burden on health services, councils are following PHA direction on indoor and outdoor events, advising staff to only travel and meet when it is important to do so. Maximum use of phone calls and technology in service delivery is now being encouraged, with protocols and facilities being honed to ensure effective remote working and integrated communication.
Similarly, councils are keeping under dynamic consideration their planned events programmes and public access to leisure and community facilities.
Chair of SOLACE, David Jackson said: “We are following the scientific evidence-based advice; currently it is considered that wide-scale closure of facilities would be more harmful than beneficial because this could lead to a subsequent spike of cases that overstretches health resources. There is also an aspect of building immunity that helps to mitigate a peak in the number of higher vulnerability cases. What we must do is follow the Government direction and PHA advice to help the Health Service to prioritise their care for more vulnerable people across Northern Ireland. If facilities do close, we will look to redeploy staff, including agency staff, into other service areas or facilities, subject to the virus risk assessment.”
Chief Executive of NILGA, Derek McCallan said: “The priority, as always in a civil contingency situation, is to reduce the threat to life for more vulnerable people. To that end council staff are being asked to minimise contact with those who are potentially more susceptible, providing service and advice by phone. Applying the key PHA message that excellent hand, sneeze and cough hygiene is our most important habit is vital and beyond this every aspect of service delivery and wellbeing is being diligently pursued to minimise risks.”
Councils are additionally conscious of the local economic impacts as a result of responses to the virus, hence the need to balance any reaction with a desire to maintain as much business as usual as is possible.
Councils will be taking evidence-based decisions within national and regional advice that are locally appropriate, taking account of local service, facility and community circumstances.
Council emergency management teams – locally and at group level – meet regularly, including online.