As we head into the last few months of this year and the nights start to draw in, it’s quite amazing to take stock of just how much has happened, how much has changed, and how much COVID-19 has dominated this past year.
And, whilst there seems to be positive news on the horizon about a vaccine, the present day reality is that we are currently living through another lockdown and, although rates appear to be slowly falling in Knowsley, there are still far too many people falling ill or dying with this virus.
We’ve all had to make big changes to our lives – this time last year, would any of us have imagined having to make such changes?
As a local authority, Knowsley Council looks very different to this time last year, too.
Many of our staff have been working from home, where possible, since March. Others are out and about each and every day helping to keep essential services going. Things changed almost overnight eight months ago. Some of the work which our Council staff would normally have been doing – like opening up the libraries, organising events, or welcoming residents to our One Stop Shops had to stop immediately. But, at the same time, a whole new set of challenges and responsibilities began. We had to get food, supplies, and medicines to the vulnerable. We had to devise from scratch a free school meal voucher system, get support to our care homes, procure massive amounts of PPE for frontline staff, and implement major business grants and loan schemes in a matter of days.
I’ve recently heard it said that the main difference between eight months ago and now is that staff are working from home, but at least they are doing the same jobs. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth – virtually all of our staff are doing completely different things (as well as doing things completely differently!) now than they were at the start of the year. They have coped amazingly well – in a matter of a couple of weeks, they dealt with the amount of change that they might usually encounter over a decade or so.
The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has remained a major part of the day job for all council staff and also our Elected Members. But the essential services – bin collections, grounds maintenance, social care, environmental health etc have also continued. We have responded so well to all the changes that some of the services which were paused during the first lockdown – like some registrar services, pest control, and bulky waste collections – are now able to continue even as we go through this second lockdown. I’m extremely proud that we’re also pushing ahead with our major developments such as the Shakespeare North Playhouse and the retail scheme in Kirkby Town Centre.
But, for the foreseeable future, there will be many major new services which this council will be delivering. We will continue to co-ordinate our Volunteer Hub for as long as there is need in our communities. We have taken on responsibility for Track and Trace. We are working with businesses to help them survive this incredibly tough time. We’re playing an integral part in the local testing programme – and will no doubt be on hand to support when the vaccination programme begins, too.
Of course, this puts an incredible strain on our resources, and not least on our staff. It’s simply impossible for this level of change not to have an impact.
So, yes, there are some noticeable differences in the way we, as a council, serve you, our residents.
You may need to wait longer for a replacement bin, for example. That’s because we’ve needed our operatives to focus on household waste collections. We’ve introduced three additional collection teams since March to help us keep on top of the huge increase in the amount of waste we’re producing as well as accommodate new social distancing measures which mean limits on the numbers of crew members in each wagon. In order to collect your bins, some of our crew members are having to travel independently in a car following the wagon, or be transported by minibus. It’s enabled us to keep on top of collections all through this pandemic – which I’m extremely proud of and a big thank you to our crews. But it does also mean less time to be out and about dropping off new bins, so that is taking longer – but I think we’ve got our priorities right.
Our Licensing team has asked people to allow a little longer for their applications to be processed – that’s because they are spending a large amount of time supporting businesses to open safely and ensuring that COVID-19 regulations are being adhered to. This is a completely new role on top of their “day jobs”. But, again – I’m proud to say – applications are still being processed in time.
Staff from our libraries, one stop shops and contact centre have all been kept extremely busy manning our Freephone telephone helpline, which has been a real source of support and practical help for our most vulnerable residents since this pandemic began – answering up to 350 calls per day. Our Business Team has assisted with more than 3,700 calls from businesses asking for help navigating Government guidance and accessing funding to support them. The team has been holding online webinars and sending our regular information to Knowsley companies so that they had all the information they needed about issues like furloughing staff and applying for grants.
And our schools – well, we all know just how much effort has gone in to allow them to reopen to pupils – but not only that – in developing remote learning arrangements for pupils and supporting parents in their home schooling efforts.
These are just some of the headline examples. All in all – it is a very different council to the one we had at the start of the year.
For an organisation of our size, with so many ingrained processes and structures, the ability of Knowsley Council and others like it to be so unbelievably flexible and adapt so quickly to the changing needs, is actually breath-taking.
And don’t forget, our staff are people too! All this has been done whilst they have been coping with their own personal impacts of this pandemic. Like all of us, they’ve shared the worries and anxieties about the health of themselves and their loved ones. They’ve had to adjust to working very differently, maybe working at home – often trying to home school or having to shield at the same time. Many have suffered bereavements or been ill themselves. And yet – we have achieved so much. I’m so very proud of each and every one.
Last Tuesday was declared “Councils Can” Day by the Local Government Association. It was a chance for them to highlight the work of local authorities up and down the land who, like us, have been on the frontline of the response to this crisis. I certainly want to add my own sincere thanks to all the public sector workers who have gone above and beyond this year.
There is still a long way to go before COVID-19 doesn’t dominate the workload and the thought processes of everyone at Knowsley Council. But, having seen what we’ve achieved in the past eight months, I feel confident that we have the fighting spirit and the commitment to be more than capable of handling whatever is thrown at us.