Once a month we offer a platform to the leaders of both Medway Council and the official opposition. Today, we have the latest column from Cllr Alan Jarrett, Conservative Leader of Medway Council.
What a time to be Leader of a council! Just when it seemed that the financial hand-cuffs where being slightly released, and we could start to see light at the end of a fiscally-constrained tunnel, something more sinister, more life-changingly deadly arrived.
Coronavirus – COVID-19 – swept from China, into Europe, and thence to the rest of the world and of course here in the UK. Few could have imagined the massive disruption to our lives, nor the way it would change our lifestyles and indeed our interpersonal relationships.
The deadly virus has been cutting a swath through our country and in that Medway has suffered too. Medway deaths have so far been mercifully modest. However, of course one additional death from this virus is one too many.
COVID-19 has it seemingly brought out the worst and thankfully the best in people. It has cemented community relations more than any other recent occurrences, and it has also brought out the best in our public services.
I am proud that Medway Council, as one of the First Responders, has been able to contribute so much to keeping people safe, whist retaining service delivery as near to normal as is possible under such trying circumstances.
At all times we have followed government guidance about essential travel and social distancing, but at the same time relying to some extent on the good-natured willingness of Medway people to do their bit. We have seen this in many forms: with legion examples of neighbour helping neighbour; people volunteering to collect and carry for others; united in the aim of helping Medway to get through this national crisis.
This has been so evident in the work being carried out by Medway Council staff. Flexibility has been the key requirement. Whether that be working from home; working in an unfamiliar office setting; helping others out when they have been under strain due to enforced staff absences; or being redeployed into unfamiliar work – all have played their part.
Throughout this crisis it has been my stated intention to maintain as close to ‘business as usual’ within the council. At times this has meant we have been ahead of the game; at times standing out by virtue of the services we have delivered.
Always our main concern has been to look after those most vulnerable. Whether this be children and families, or the older generation in difficulties due to not getting out as they would normally do, we have been there for them.
Social care staff have demonstrated what we already knew: they are highly motivated, and prioritise those who rely on them. Staffing levels in social care have remained high, as they need to be over the weeks ahead.
Our waste collection and disposal services have never been more important, and no praise is too high for the Medway Norse staff who continue to provide a stand-out service. They provide one of the best services in the whole country, with our weekly collection of residual waste, recyclate, and garden waste which includes food waste.
Our tips remained open longer than any in Kent, and were only closed when government decided we should close them, as a journey to a tip was deemed non-essential. Our bulky waste service continues as before, with the exception that our contractor can no longer take ‘white goods’ such as fridges and freezers.
I was fortunate enough to make two visits last week. Firstly to the council’s food packing facility, to find redeployed staff from Public Health and elsewhere running an impressive logistical operation packing food parcels, and delivering them at the rate of over 100 a day all across Medway.
I even managed to lend a modest hand for a few minutes (why is it four-wheel trolleys like supermarket trolleys will never go in a straight line?). Getting the whole packing list into the intended box is obviously a trick I have yet to master!
Then there are meals delivered to people. As of the end of last week the council has delivered over 35,000 meals to those that need them for one reason or another. A mammoth task carried out with care and good humour.
My second visit was to the Copper Rivet Distillery in Chatham. There the owners have put their alcohol to good use (nothing much wrong with the original use you might think!) buy making 10,000s of bottles of hand sanitizer, with orders coming in from not just around the country but further afield.
Businesses and jobs of course go hand-in-hand. Full marks for our Conservative government for preparing a massive cash injection just when it is needed. Medway has received over £39,000,000 in support funding for businesses, and by the end of last week had already paid out over £7,000,000.
That was why I used my Urgency Powers to enable the cash distribution to begin immediately, without having to wait to go through the usual democratic process with Cabinet subsequently approving the action.
The other major decision made at the same time was to allow free car parking for NHS and social care staff. This is the least we can do under the circumstances for those staff who have been performing heroically in order to keep people safe.
In terms of business as usual, car parking and associated enforcement was something to carefully consider. In the end we have decided to allow leeway, particularly in the CPZs where parking is invariably in short supply at the best of times.
Car parks will still be paid for and necessary enforcement needs to be carried out – not least for road safety reasons. As dreadful as Covid-19 is it is not a free pass for illegal or anti-social behaviour, and I know that most people understand and respect that.
This is a tough time for all. So long as we all pull together and support each other we will soon recover and continue to build Medway as even greater place than it already is. Stay safe!
Alan Jarrett is the leader of Medway Council, leader of the Medway Conservative group, and councillor for Lordswood and Capstone.