Lancashire in for Covid long haul, warns county chief

Local authorities in Lancashire will have to make tough choices between "the least worst options" by balancing their usual functions with the increasingly long-term prospect of dealing with the effects of coronavirus.

That was the message from Lancashire County Council’s chief executive Angie Ridgwell, who told a meeting of the authority’s internal scrutiny committee that she did not believe that councils would be reimbursed by central government for the true cost of Covid-19.

She said that local authorities could be in “response mode” to the crisis for at least 18 months – adding that predictions that the pandemic would be history this year had proved premature.

“[It] will be over by Christmas, just not this Christmas - and we don’t know which Christmas it will be.

Lancashire County Council chief executive Angie Ridgwell

“Are we prepared to take resources from business as usual [operations] and put them into our ongoing response – and what do we think is the right balance between providing our normal services, pushing forward the recovery and protecting the health and wellbeing of the residents of Lancashire?” Ms. Ridgwell asked.

She said that the £65m County Hall has so far received in Covid grants from Whitehall had “wiped its face” in terms of covering immediate expenditure – but did not take into account future costs such as a likely increase in frailty and mental health issues as a result of the crisis.

The meeting also heard that the county would have to decide whether it wanted to craft its Covid response on a hyperlocal level, across the county council area or Lancashire as a whole.

While localised actions such as partial lockdowns “minimise the wider impact” and allow targeted measures, they also lead to “confusion” over messages and were costly to implement, Ms. Ridgwell said.

“We need to weigh-up those trade-offs and decide what we want to do for Lancashire.

“We’re running 14 different test and trace scenarios and ‘contain’ scenarios – that takes extra resources, it stops us sharing limited expertise and it is inefficient. But it does enable local control and for things to be messaged as far as possible [to a local audience].

“We need to make these decisions about our responses quite quickly - they will require political oversight and guidance, but what do we do if the politicians simply can’t agree?” she asked.

However, committee member Erica Lewis condemned the lack of county councillor involvement in decisions during the early days of the pandemic, after the usual meetings were scrapped back in March and only routinely began to be held virtually from June.

“The idea that the appropriate way for Lancashire County Council to deal with this crisis was to just turn off democratic mechanisms is wrong.

“Lancaster City Council [which County Cllr Lewis leads] had its first all-councillor briefing on 19th March – that’s months before the county council offered a briefing where people could interact and ask questions; and when it did, it was very narrow.

“You cannot be a community leader if you have been excluded from vital information and from being able to ask questions,” she said.

The committee’s Conservative chair – and Tory group whip – David O’Toole said that councillors had been “involved in the scrutiny process right through” and that the update from Ms. Ridgwell was at County Cllr Lewis’ request.

Deputy county council leader Keith Iddon added: “[The authority] has performed in an exemplary manner and kept the people of Lancashire safe and done what has needed to be done.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Ridgwell praised County Hall staff - and those from the other agencies involved in Lancashire’s coronavirus response - for being “totally awesome” since the pandemic struck.