To consider a report by the Chief Executive.
Following consideration of a report at its meeting on 2 June 2020, the Committee considered another report by the Chief Executive which provided an update on the Council's continuing response to Covid-19.
Aided by visuals which demonstrated the support provided by Dorset Council, the Leader drew attention to the scale of work undertaken in a short space of time and paid tribute to the immense support provided by both members and officers. The results of the Committee's previous review had been well received and they were now asked to scrutinise the update report considered by Cabinet on 30 June 2020. Decisions had been taken quickly as the situation had warranted and it was acknowledged that they might have been different if there had been more time. The financial implications of Covid-19 and climate change would feature within the Council's budget for some time. Attention was drawn to the fact that there had been no Covid-19 deaths in Dorset for some time and of the cases there were, the majority were not acute. Dorset had done well compared to other areas and this was attributed to everyone playing their part to prevent spreading.
The Chief Executive reminded members that the declared major incident continued despite easing of lockdown. Many people in the community were still feeling the impact of the pandemic, remained vulnerable and concerned about going out or contracting Covid-19, whilst others were starting to enjoy life again. Going forward the Council would need to reshape its operations as it moved towards a new "normal". The day to day impact of Covid-19 had been less in the South West and he too acknowledged the public's contribution to this.
With regard to why Weymouth was chosen to house the homeless, it was explained that it was not the only placed used, but where the largest number were housed. One of the issues was that people in need of temporary accommodation had complex needs and the support agencies they needed access to were centred in Weymouth. This was not a long-term situation and the Portfolio Holder for Housing was addressing this.
One member referred to the £1.3m ‘test and trace’ funding the Council had received and asked what it was for. The Chief Executive explained the three tiers of the test and trace procedure. Data on any local outbreaks was received within 24 hours and the funding was so support local test and trace for any such local outbreaks.
Attention was drawn to a recent publication from the Institute for fiscal Studies on geographical areas and how they would be affected by Covid-19. The thesis was that the vulnerability of areas depended on the age of the population, the economy and the number of families living in poverty. Dorset featured in the bottom 9 in each of these categories. The Council's response to Covid-19 had been successful and although the infection rate was low and deaths had reduced Dorset was still vulnerable. In responding to any further outbreaks, it was suggested that particular consideration be given to these three areas. Whilst local test and trace was welcomed, whether resources were adequate for this was questioned, particularly if there was a second wave. Concern was also expressed about the possibility of a recurrence of the issues experienced as a result of discharges from hospital straight to care homes during the first wave.
In response the Chief Executive stated that the study disproved that the age of the population was the biggest determinant for Dorset. The economy and families living in poverty were the biggest and support had been provided for families during the summer in readiness for the return to school in September. There were currently three members of staff in Public Health trained to deal with outbreak control and there were additional officers in Environment Health who could be called upon. The Council was currently working with all care homes in Dorset on outbreak and infection control. Although there had been a slight increase in cases of Covid-19 as lockdown eased, it was possible that this was due to more testing being carried out. No deaths had occurred since June 2020 and there were no cases of Covid-19 in hospital currently.
The Leader added that a Local Outbreak Management Plan was now in place to deal with any new outbreaks in Dorset. The Executive Director for Corporate Development, as the Council's Gold Lead on the Local Resilience Forum (LRF), provided assurance that the Forum continued its multi-agency approach to Covid-19. They were currently planning for issues for the autumn and winter, including another wave of Covid-19, winter flue and Brexit.
Attention was drawn to feedback from local people about their difficulty in accessing GP services. The Executive Director for Corporate Development would refer this to the LRF as Dorset's Clinical Commissioning Group were represented there. It was also suggested that this topic be referred to health scrutiny.
With regard to how financially the Council was prepared for winter, the Chief Executive explained that the financial position was regularly monitored. There was a degree of uncertainly around Covid-19's impact on the Council's income and expenditure and although Government funding had been received this did not cover the costs incurred. There was also a potential for increased demand on services during winter. The financial position would depend on whether any further support was received from Government and the expected spending review. The Executive Director for Corporate Development added that the Cabinet report on 30 June 2020 showed a potential overspend for the year of approximately £35m and that reserves were being used to underpin this position. Different financial scenarios were being modelled for the current and following years so the Council was as prepared as possible.
Reference was made to the disbanding of Public Health England (PHE) and the local effect of this. The Chief Executive referred to an email he had received from the Director of Public Health which indicated that Dorset's Public Health Team were not affected by this change. The key message was that the ongoing health protection work would continue with priority being given to ensuring the local model worked for Dorset. Members would be kept updated on any local impact.
The Chairman ask the Portfolio Holder for Highways, Travel and Environment and Executive Director of Place to thank the Highways staff for how they had met the challenge of getting the job done during the easing of lockdown.
With regard to whether support packages were in place for staff working at home and when staff would move back to working in the office, the Chief Executive explained that Government guidance had indicated that everyone who could work from home should do so to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. As a result, 2,500 members of staff had moved to working from home and this would continue to be the case until at least the end of September. The responses from a recent staff survey about the impact of home working would be considered by the Senior Leadership Team in September when the short-term working arrangements would be reviewed. The long-term arrangements would need to reflect changes to the office estate as well as living with or post Covid-19. The Portfolio Holder for Corporate Development and Change added that members would have input into these decisions. He highlighted that whilst some staff liked working from home, others were keen to return to offices, and that staff would be consulted before any decisions were made about future working arrangements. The Reset EAP had highlighted the need for the Council to reduce its Carbon footprint, to use less office space but not disadvantage staff.
In response to what provision had been made for an individual's mental health needs, for anxiety or reduced social interaction, the Chief Executive explained that he was interested in his staff's mental health and wellbeing and recognised that long periods at home dealing with social and care issues could have an impact. He explained the various packages available to staff and how managers were encouraged to replicate normal office contacts virtually.
As to whether working at home had affected productivity across the organisation, the Chief Executive stated that this was difficult to answer. In his opinion the impact of working at home had been mainly positive and not impacted on productivity. There were areas where staff were going above and beyond what was expected in areas they had not been employed to carry out, customer satisfaction had improved, sickness absence figures were reduced, and pride in the organisation had increased. However, long term metrics were being developed and draft metrics had been considered by the Audit and Governance Committee recently.
One member suggested that Town and Parish Councils and other partners be approached to see how the Council was performing in areas other than the Covid-19 response. The Chief Executive explained that Executive Directors had been working with the 163 Town and Parish Councils across Dorset and this would continue.
The Chairman commented that increased pride in the organisation and a reduction in sickness absence were positive indicators that staff were enjoying their jobs and more likely to be productive. He then drew attention to the free advertising in the Dorset Echo and on Wessex FM aimed at helping local businesses and that this seemed to be centred around Dorchester and not in the east of the County. The Leader explained that three media partnerships had been formed as part of the Shop Local Campaign and the re-opening of the high street. The partners were the Dorset Echo, Wessex FM and Forest FM which was a local community radio station based in Verwood. 222 businesses had taken advantage of the free listings. Town and Parish Councils and Bids had helped the Council with the problems faced by businesses
With regard to measures put in place in towns to help with social distancing for the reopening of the high street, the Chairman asked the Leader for a commitment for these measures to remain in place until social distancing was no longer a Government requirement. The Leader could see no reason why the Council would not support communities and businesses to ensure people were safe and not feel at risk by using the high street.
A number of Dorset Councillors had submitted questions for the meeting. The questions and responses would be included in the published minutes.
In response to whether any risk analysis had been undertaken for the rough sleepers and homeless, the Chief Executive explained the difference between rough sleepers and the homeless. Of the rough sleepers brought in from the Weymouth area, each one was given a risk assessment but 11 or 12 of them remained as rough sleepers as there was no legal compulsion for them to be brought in. All homeless cases were assessed but the challenge was putting these people into close proximity when they were not used to this and this caused some unexpected issues. Equally the health benefits of bringing people in were far more beneficial. Thanks to the multi-agency partners working with individuals there were significant reductions in activities and anti-social behaviour. It was a challenging time, but the risk assessments were in place. Attention was drawn to the fact that risks in normal times were different to those in a pandemic.
With regard to the pedestrianisation of the Weymouth harbourside, it was noted that comments were still being received regarding its success. One member, who had been consulted about the pedestrianisation, had not been happy with the communications and consultation, but recognised that it was necessary to act quickly in difficult circumstances. It was working well now.
Given the detailed responses from Housing Officers to Councillors' questions, one member stated that this illustrated the care and attention shown by the Housing Team during the challenge of housing rough sleepers and the homeless. They had also continued working on the new housing allocations policy consultation at the same time. She thanked them for their work.
The Chairman thanked the Leader, Portfolio Holder for Highways, Travel and Environment and the Chief Executive for attending and responding to members' questions.