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Suffolk County Council scrutiny committee discusses lessons learned from the Covid pandemic

Guidance from central government was not communicated quickly enough to local leaders in Suffolk at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a council committee has heard.

Suffolk County Council’s scrutiny committee on Wednesday morning discussed the early lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic when it hit the UK in March last year, and measures which could be used for emergency planning in future years.

Emergency planning leaders at the council said that government guidance had not been quick enough at the start of the pandemic.

Cabinet member for the environment and public protection, Richard Rout. (44362480)
Cabinet member for the environment and public protection, Richard Rout. (44362480)

However, volunteers across the county were praised for their efforts in supporting communities.

Neal Evans, deputy head of emergency planning, said: “When this crisis first developed, we were engaging with central government way back very much at the beginning of the year, but a lot of people were just seeing brief outlines of information about what was happening in China.

“Certainly for the first three months between January and March, that was very much the government’s approach. They were looking at developing a strategy which we came to see had four phases – contain, delay, research and mitigate.

“In those early stages, without being overly critical, they were extremely slow about disseminating information about what we should be doing and how we should be supporting and looking towards the national strategy. Quite often information was lagging behind press conferences.”

Mr Evans said the council and partners in the Suffolk Resilience Forum continued their planning efforts despite that, partly based on the flu pandemic plan.

However, the council’s report to scrutiny revealed that an influenza outbreak plan “did not envision national lockdowns”, meaning many of the challenges were new entirely.

Cabinet member for the environment and public protection, Richard Rout, added: “With the gift of hindsight, which we all wish we had, at the early stages we were led by Public Health England and central government advice and guidance.

“I think we can all say now that advice at the time was usually preceded by press statements and announcements, and it wasn’t perhaps as timely as would have been the case with the gift of hindsight.”

Despite those problems, the work of volunteers in their communities – either existing groups or new pop-up support networks – had been invaluable, carrying out tasks such as checking in on neighbours or getting shopping or medication for those who were shielding.

That happened despite some people who signed up to the Tribe app or NHS volunteering network not being contacted after registering their services.

Councillor Sarah Adams said: “The community resilience has been phenomenal, and our overall response to the pandemic has been first class,” while Jonathan Harwood from British Red Cross added: “My experience of speaking to people across Suffolk in various communities is that they have been well served by their own voluntary groups that have been established.

“That has happened across the country and it is really pleasing to see that local communities have come together to support those in crisis”.

The council’s scrutiny committee has made a number of recommendations to help with future emergency planning, including having streamlined communication channels for town and parish councils on the ground to feed back information above, a mechanism for local organisations in the community to report vulnerable adults who may not be known by the adult care sector, and roles for vulnerable people who wanted to volunteer, such as phone check-ins with others.