LOCAL GOVERNMENT ASSOCIATION – LATEST COVID-19 UPDATE

Set out below is the latest update from the Local Government Association.

Stay at home, save lives

You will have seen coverage of our response to Robert Jenrick after he issued new guidance for councils not to close parks unless it is impossible to maintain social distancing in them. It follows reports from across the country where people ignored the guidelines over the weekend.

We all know that parks are a lifeline for residents needing to get some exercise and fresh air and are great for physical and mental wellbeing. We reiterated how councils want to keep all parks open, but people need to follow the social distancing advice, otherwise councils will be reluctantly forced to close them as a last resort to help prevent the spread of infection.

With more warm weather expected over the next few days it is also worth noting that the RLNI have postponed their usual rollout of lifeguard services in line with government advice around social distancing. Guidance for beach owners, including safety advice for the public, is on the RLNI’s website. 

Vulnerable people and access to food

With many of you already providing support to vulnerable people in your areas who are not in the shielded group, we continue to discuss with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) how collectively we can help those who are struggling to access food during the lockdown.

As I mentioned on Friday, the Government is keen to provide clearer information to these people on where they can get assistance ahead of the Easter weekend. This is likely to mean that those not in the shielded group, and stuck at home without food, but who do not have friends, family, or a trusted neighbour to help or access to another form of support are directed to their council.

Going forward, the Government’s intention is that the on-line information pages on where vulnerable people can seek help will become more sophisticated, allowing key data about these individuals to be captured, which will assist in developing support with food retailers and the supermarkets to enable people in this group to be prioritised for delivery and ‘click and collect’ services. As part of this development we anticipate councils will be asked for details of the helplines people should call, or the URL addresses of the specific webpages on their websites where people can find details of how they can seek support.

Any publicity this week about the support councils can provide to those vulnerable people not in the shielded group will almost certainly put additional pressures on call centres and local support mechanisms over the Easter weekend.

Volunteers

On Friday Robert Jenrick wrote to all council chief executives in England, with the letter copied to all council leaders, about the NHS volunteer responders. As you will be aware over 750,000 people have now signed up to the programme. Mr Jenrick confirmed that the volunteer resource is available to local authorities to complement our work to support the medically “shielded” as well as the wider group of vulnerable people. The letter outlined examples of tasks which volunteers might help with, such as collecting shopping and supplies or providing short-term telephone support to those at risk of loneliness.

Social Work Together

The Department for Education, the Department of Health and Social Care, Social Work England and the LGA have launched a ‘Social Work Together’ campaign. This campaign is designed to support former social workers return to practice so they can help communities through the COVID-19 pandemic. Councils who get involved in the campaign will have access to an online tool where they can find and engage with returning social workers in their areas. 

Symptoms, testing and clinical trials

On Saturday a new Coronavirus Status Checker, to help the NHS coordinate its response and build up additional data on the COVID-19 outbreak, launched. People with potential COVID-19 symptoms are being asked to complete the status checker and answer a short series of questions which will tell the NHS about their experience, no matter how mild.

The Government has published a policy paper setting how it intends to scale up testing programmes to provide a test to anyone who needs one.

Meanwhile, the Government have announced that the largest randomised clinical trial of potential COVID-19 treatments is underway.

Children and education

As I mentioned briefly in my bulletin on Friday, the Department for Education has published guidance for children’s social care services. The guidance is intended to support councils in determining how best to support families and protect vulnerable children during the COVID-19 outbreak. It is underpinned by a set of principles which should inform local decision-making and day to day practice with children and families. We are also raising with DfE the need for urgent clarity on where flexibility will be introduced in regulations to support councils to focus on the most pressing safeguarding issues through this period, to make sure that children are kept safe.

We have welcomed the announcement by Michael Gove at Saturday’s Number 10 Press Conference that free school meal vouchers will be made available over the Easter holidays to support household incomes. This is something councils and the LGA have called for.

Welfare support

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Department for Work and Pensions has temporarily paused the recovery of benefit overpayments, for three months. Deductions for the recovery of Universal Credit and legacy benefit overpayments, Social Fund loans and Tax Credit debts will be paused although the recovery of advances by deduction from Universal Credit payments will continue. The majority of deductions will be suspended automatically, however if residents currently make repayments through a Bank Standing Order, Bank Giro Credit or through online banking, they are advised to contact their bank to cancel their arrangement.

Release of prisoners

The Ministry of Justice has confirmed that prisoners nearing the end of their sentences will be released in stages on temporary licence, to allow prisons to continue to safely manage vulnerable but higher-risk offenders within the estate. The Government have said this action is being taken to avoid thousands of prisoners becoming infected, which would overwhelm local NHS services.

Prisoners who pass the stringent criteria for release will be subject to strict conditions, and will be electronically monitored, including with GPS tags, to enforce the requirement to stay at home. They can be immediately recalled to prison for breaching these conditions or committing further offences.

No high-risk offenders, including those convicted of violent or sexual offences, anyone of national security concern or a danger to children, will be considered for release, nor any prisoners who have not served at least half their custodial term. The releases will be phased over time.

This is further to last week’s announcement that pregnant women in custody who do not pose a high risk of harm to the public will also be temporarily released from prison.

We have received assurances that early releases will not be on a Friday or over the bank holiday weekend (although normal planned releases at the end of a prisoner’s sentence that have to be on a Friday will continue.) No prisoner will be released if they have symptoms of COVID-19, or without housing and health support being in place.  If you would like further information, please contact coronavirus.enquiries@local.gov.uk

Domestic abuse

Domestic abuse is an abhorrent crime which can have a devastating effect on individuals, families and communities. We know that the charity Refuge has reported the National Domestic Abuse helpline has seen a 25 per cent increase in calls and online requests for help since lockdown measures were put in place.

I know councils are doing everything they can to help tackle domestic abuse, working alongside our partners in the voluntary and community sector, the health services and the police.

In addition to the Government guidance on domestic abuse, I wanted to mention that Safe Lives has produced an excellent guide for victims and survivors of domestic abuse staying safe during COVID-19. The Employer’s Initiative on Domestic Abuse has also published help for employees when home is not a safe place. And if you haven’t already seen it, Respect has launched the #NoExcuseforAbuse campaign which calls on perpetrators of domestic abuse to get help to manage and change their behaviour, by calling the Respect phoneline. The LGA is supporting this campaign and has also called on neighbours to look out for each other and help to spot signs of domestic abuse during the lockdown.

We are also speaking regularly with the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, the Government and the domestic abuse sector to ensure we are doing all we can to tackle domestic abuse. If you have any concerns or questions relating to domestic abuse, please do email us on coronavirus.enquiries@local.gov.uk.

Parking

Following on from previous announcements that NHS workers, care workers and NHS volunteers on official duties won’t be charged for parking on council on-street and off-street parking, MHCLG has made available a parking pass which may be used by those who do not have access to other forms of evidence. They have published guidance and terms of use for the parking pass and concessions for health, care and volunteer workers.

It is important to stress that:

  • Parking teams are not expected to administer any part of the pass scheme and distribution will all be done via employer networks (including social care departments).
  • All parking teams need to do is ensure their frontline officers know what the pass looks like and how users have been told to use it.

The British Parking Association (BPA) are making the pass available to their local authority members

Buses

On Saturday the Department for Transport wrote to local transport officers regarding the COVID-19 Bus Services Support Grant, worth up to £167 million. The letter states that, where they wish to do so, local transport authorities (and Mayoral Combined Authorities) would have significant influence in terms of agreeing service patterns that meet the needs of local communities and people for whom journeys remain essential. Operators will be expected to be able to demonstrate that they have engaged effectively with local transport authorities and met their reasonable requests where there is capacity to do so. DfT will be sending further detailed guidance to councils in the next few days.

Funerals, burials and cremation

Registration of births

The General Register Office has confirmed that registration of births appointments should now be deferred until we are through the current pandemic period. New parents should be advised that they are now able to claim for child benefit or universal credit prior to the birth being registered where they have been unable to do so because of these measures. This came into effect on the 24 March 2020.

Economy

Version 4 of the guidance on the Small Business Scheme has been published along with the grant allocations per authority. The guidance now includes an updated annex C setting out sample paragraphs relating to State Aid that could be included in letters to grant recipients.

Competitions and Market Authority

As I have mentioned before, sadly some individuals and businesses may exploit this unprecedented situation to take advantage of people. We have used our national media work to highlight the risk to elderly and vulnerable residents that strangers and cold callers may pose as helpful neighbours in order to scam them.

Members of the public have also raised a huge number of complaints to the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) about a minority of exploitative businesses who are charging excessive prices or making misleading claims about their products. The CMA have set out their approach to monitoring this situation, and taking action where appropriate. They have forms that members of the public can fill in to report concerns about business practices, or to report a business cartel.

Pets 

Councils have extremely limited capacity to look after people’s pets themselves. We have therefore worked with the RSPCA who have provided councils with pet-related advice during the outbreak, which includes encouraging owners to make a plan for their pet to ensure animals get the care they need if owners need to self-isolate or go into hospital. They are also encouraging pet owners to display an emergency pet-care poster to alert people to the fact that a pet is inside someone’s home, should they find themselves in a position that they can no longer care for them.

Of course, caring for pets may be especially difficult for particularly vulnerable people and we have highlighted arranging caring for pets as an example of the practical support that councils and their partners may want to consider in supporting local vulnerable residents.

Workforce

The Government published further guidance on the Job Retention Scheme (furloughing) over the weekend. We have also published an explanatory briefing. The guidance contains some additional information on access to the scheme and what is covered but is not definitive on matters of eligibility.

The NHS has issued advice to skilled and experienced nurses and midwives about how they can return to work across health and care during the COVID-19 crisis, either in a clinical capacity or in a more supportive function. Training and support will be on offer to those returning.