To consider a report by the Chief Executive.
The Committee considered a report by the Chief Executive on Dorset Council's response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The matter had been referred to the Committee for scrutiny by the Cabinet on 5 May 2020. The Committee had also been provided with a summary of delegated decisions made during the pandemic and up to 20 April 2020.
The Leader of the Council introduced the report highlighting the important role scrutiny had in considering the Council's response to the pandemic, its achievements and identification of any lessons learned. The Chief Executive added that although the Council's response to the pandemic had been amazing, it was important to learn from this. He reminded members that the report related to the situation up until 20 April 2020 and that the circulated list of decisions taken should be considered in the context of the information available at the time they were taken.
Members generally agreed that the Council's response to the pandemic had been very outstanding. They were then given an opportunity to ask questions about the report and actions taken by the Council. These covered a number of areas with Cabinet Members and senior officers providing detailed responses.
Councillors were told that as a result of lockdown the Council had to make arrangements overnight for 2,500 members of staff to be able to work from home in order for the Council's business to continue. Following on from this IT had enabled decision making meetings to be held, members kept up to date by regular virtual meetings and for staff briefings.
With regard to media platforms available for virtual meetings, this had been considered the previous week by the Executive Advisory Panel for Digital and ICT. With 2,500 staff working from home currently, there was a need for any such platform to be secure. The Council was already using Teams, it was known to be secure and officers were familiar with its use so there was no need to change to a different platform where security was a greater risk.
Council meetings had taken place virtually from the end of April 2020 as soon as Government legislation allowed this. The first meetings were those of the Cabinet, Audit and Governance and Planning Committees. The next Council meeting was scheduled for 3 September 2020 and it was hoped that meetings would be fully re-introduced after this date, possibly in person, or by use of hybrid meetings. The Leader and Chief Executive were keen for meetings to be reintroduced as soon as possible.
It had been agreed that health scrutiny committee meetings not be held in order to not put additional pressures on staff. However, a joint meeting of Dorset's Health Scrutiny Committee and Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole's Health and Adult Social Care Committee was to be arranged to scrutinise the NHS response to the pandemic.
Local Resilience Forum (LRF)
The Executive Director - Corporate Development represented the Council on the multi-agency LRF Gold Network. This worked across Dorset during the pandemic, held regular meetings to consider information received and then issued instructions about actions that needed to be taken. The Silver Network met regularly and dealt with operational issues. Any issues arising at the Council's incident management team were referred to the Gold Network.
With regard to groups established by the LRF, it was explained that these groups were identified as part of Dorset's emergency response. As soon as the need for a group became evident, it was set up.
The LRF's Emergency Planning Team was taking stock of what had gone well and not so well so far and what could be done differently and were prepared for a second spike should it happen.
The Council had engaged with many organisations and people to deliver shielding.
During the first couple of weeks the Council had tried to respond appropriately and timely by using the data provided by Government and had asked people and groups to register to try to avoid duplication. Information about those who needed to be contacted was sent by primary care to Central Government who then forwarded this to local authorities but this resulted in delays.
Those shielding were not necessarily service users and needed to be identified which required additional resources and some people still needed to be identified. It was anticipated that this support would continue until the end of the year.
By 29 March a wide range of partners were involved in daily meetings and working at pace to set up hubs to ensure good deployment across the County. Highways staff delivered food parcels and it became evident that in some cases these needed to be tailored to individual needs.
Data Protection meant that personal information could not be shared without permission. This meant that local councillors who were trying to arrange and provide local support from the outset did not have access to information which would have helped them. This issue had been raised with Government on several occasions and would continue to be raised. Lessons had been learned about local member involvement and the need to listen to them to learn what could be done better in future.
The process was smoother now and local councillors could be involved more.
The Council had set up an internal skills agency so that staff whose service had been stopped could be redeployed.
Once the volunteer system was in place those who had volunteered were contacted but the response from communities had been overwhelming which meant that not every volunteer had been needed. Going forward there was a need to manage volunteers' expectations, particularly if they were not called upon to help. The volunteer system would continue to the end of year. There were lessons to be learned from this.
Communication between the Council, community groups and the voluntary sector were key.
Personal and Protective Equipment (PPE)
A Personal and protective equipment hub was set up quickly and Public Health and Clinical Commissioning Group guidance followed as to the various PPE available and what it was used for.
With regard to officers visiting clients, they were asked to call before visiting to ensure individuals did not have symptoms and no visits were made without PPE. If it was not possible to provide PPE then stocks were obtained from hospitals or rehab teams. The locality groups managed stocks of PPE which were picked up or delivered to those who needed it.
Hotels in Weymouth and Sherborne
The hotels in Weymouth and Sherborne had been used to provide live in care for those unable to return home from hospital without support. This meant that hospital beds were freed up to deal with Covid-19 cases. The hotels were under NHS control, had not been used to capacity but had been a means to increase capacity in the care market.
The Council's response to Covid-19 was approximately £60m and so far the Government had provided £21m. All expenditure was being tracked, as were income sources lost. A significant amount of money was being spent on supporting businesses and residents directly. Lobbying would continue and local MPs would be provided with data so they could also lobby on Dorset's behalf. Letters had also been sent to the relevant ministers. It was noted that all councils were in a similar position. For Dorset, the Council's reserves might be used to fill any funding gap.
Mental Health and Wellbeing
Older and more vulnerable residents would have been affected not just physically but also mentally by the lockdown and not seeing family and friends. Services were to be reviewed to take account of the significant increase in demand and how they had changed and developed during the pandemic.
Decisions during Lockdown
The Leader explained that decisions taken were operational not about policy. They were only taken after extensive consultation with towns and parish councils, police and other agencies. Often action had to be taken and implemented quickly following Government announcements. But this had still involved wide consultation. The health and wellbeing of Dorset's residents had been paramount in any decisions taken. The Chief Executive referred to the additional report on decisions taken during the pandemic and explained that these were based on the information available at the time. This report would form part of the lessons learned.
So far £93m had been paid out to Dorset businesses which was 97% of applications. The decision not to contact all Dorset businesses had been taken in consultation with the relevant Cabinet members as it was felt that sending letters to businesses during lockdown would not have been effective. But local and social media were used to publicise grants and business communities received a newsletter. Many thousands of applications were received on-line for the first three weeks. When those who had not responded had been identified they were written to. An additional discretionary scheme for a two-week period was launched the day before the meeting for those not able to apply for other grants so far.
Care Home and their Residents
Care home residents were by nature vulnerable and if they needed to be hospitalised they were. Many of these people were elderly, some had dementia and had multi-conditions. Many had advanced care plans which meant their families or staff did not wish them to receive hospital treatment as it was not necessarily in their best interests. Some had end of life care plans and taking them from their normal settings was potentially confusing for them and taking them away from the people they knew. It was also noted that not all deaths in care homes were Covid-19 related, but care home data was being analysed to gain a better understanding of their causes.
Care homes had been prioritised to ensure they had PPE and this was managed by a cell set up for this purpose. There had been some challenges with deliveries and at peak usage supplies were of concern but at the current time supplies were enough to meeting requirements.
Reopening of Household Recycling Centres (HRCs)
The Leader explained that a coordinated approach had been taken to re-opening HRCs, particularly where residents were using centres in other local authority areas. In Dorset queueing had been an issue but access to centres across local authority borders had been more problematic. There were fly tipping hotspots in Dorset. These had not increased although it was recognised that there had been an increase in fly tipping. Green waste collection had been reintroduced as soon as resources were available for this.
Accommodation of Homeless People
It was explained that the Council had reacted to Government instruction to accommodate rough sleepers and the homeless and this had been achieved with two or three days' notice. Three hotels in Weymouth were used to accommodate these and other people made homeless as a result of the pandemic. Of those accommodated, 72 had a connection to Weymouth and Portland, 38 to West Dorset, 12 to North Dorset, 7 to Purbeck and 17 to East Dorset. There was a severe shortage temporary accommodation and officers continued to try to find alternatives away from the Weymouth area. In an ideal situation accommodation would have been found nearer to support networks but this was the best solution at the time, given the constraints and the resources available. The Chief Executive added that the Housing Team had worked hard to accommodate these people and the Interim Executive Director for People - Adults and the Corporate Director for Housing were working on an exit strategy. This were soon to be published and local members kept up to date on progress.
During the pandemic the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) met daily to bring information together to understand what the Council needed to do to support its residents and help partner organisations and a social listening paper was considered at every meeting. Operational communication was key at this point when so many were people were working remotely and this needed to continue. There were regular press releases although there were no guarantees that the local press would use them. The next edition of the Dorset News would include information about what the Council had done in response to the pandemic.
The Communications Team had worked incredibly hard during the pandemic to keep people informed and its success was a credit to them. It was noted that the Leader had decided, after consultation, that it was better to have more press releases than be criticised for not communicating.
The Council's communications strategy was being evaluated to ensure it was robust going forward in the light of the pandemic and how communication with communities and vulnerable groups had changed. The increase in digital services was being tracked and there would be further discussion of how to reach Dorset residents who were not on-line.
Businesses were either supported by the Dorset Council's Revenues and Benefits Team or by the Stour Valley and Poole Partnership Team (SVPP). These teams had been dealing with processing and paying business grant applications. The SVVP Team had been responsible for processing and validating applications in the north and east of the county with payments for both areas being made through the Dorset Council payment system. Staff had worked at pace to get the grants validated and paid and this would be reviewed at some point. Staff were now concentrating on the next round of grants and issuing them as soon as possible.
With regard to whether there had been any delays in paying business grants, particularly in East and North Dorset, the Executive Director for Corporate Resources was not aware of any delay and welcomed any information about this so that this could be reviewed at a later date.
The Chairman of the SVPP's scrutiny committee suggested that this matter be referred to her Committee which would be meeting shortly. She would confirm the date as soon as it was known.
In summary the Chairman stated that he had been nothing but impressed with the speed and agility that the Council had reacted to the pandemic and hoped this could be maintained during the reset period. He also wished to thank staff and communities involved in the response to the pandemic. He welcomed the fact that the Council proactively wanted to learn from the pandemic and hoped the relationships built during the time would continue. He also did not want comments relating to communications to be lost with any learning taken forward. The Leader stated that as lead for communications, he would take comments away to ensure any lessons were learned.
1. That Dorset Council's staff and members of communities involved be thanked for their above and beyond response to the pandemic.
2. That a working group be established to scrutinise the payment of business grants with particular reference to any delays in payments involving the SVPP. Membership would be agreed outside of the meeting.
3. That questions raised by Councillor Jon Orrell be forwarded to the forthcoming joint meeting of the Dorset Health Scrutiny Committee and Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole's Health and Adult Social Care Committee.
4. That the minutes be used as a reference for lessons learned.