Stepping up to help our most vulnerable

As I write this blog entry on Sunday morning, the UK death toll from Coronavirus has passed the 1000 mark; the success of the Government’s excellent concept to shield the most vulnerable 1.5 million, 22,000 of whom live in Staffordshire, will be key to keeping the final toll down.  I am not aware of any other country that has adopted this approach, but it is inspired; this is a mild illness for most people – we see the Prime Minister continuing to operate digitally in self-isolation while he recovers from it – but for others, particularly those with underlying conditions and frailty, it is deadly.  We forget that flus and colds take many people’s lives in a normal year, and the key to containing this outbreak to those levels is for those most vulnerable to be isolated from the illness until well after the peak subsides.   We estimate that there are another 130,000 Staffordshire residents who are vulnerable because of their age or conditions, but lie outside the shielded group, a proportion of whom will require our support to remain safely in their homes.  The majority of our efforts this week have been in operationalising this strategy. 

The I Count Campaign has achieved an enormous 700 of our colleagues volunteering to change roles in support of the current crisis, as well as 80 students from Staffordshire and Keele Universities.  The most immediate problem is adding capacity and capability to the adult social care workforce, particularly at the top end of the spectrum in personal care – helping people living in their own homes to wash, dress and prepare meals.  This is to avoid the metaphorical “jaws of the vice” closing on us, with increased demand as the hospitals seek to discharge more patients to care for Covid-19 sufferers, and the workforce reducing as staff contract the illness.  We have already conducted our first 2 training sessions for colleagues this week – a day for each – which demonstrates the urgency of the situation, and we will be gearing up this week to recruit, brief, train and deploy more through our in-house care provider, Nexxus Care.  If you can help, please do.

The I Care Campaign has also launched, aimed at external individuals, partners and organisations to join the Adult Social Care workforce.  We are being deliberately broad in our reach and doing our best to solve the issues surrounding this complex and ambitious scheme before they occur, but with the peak of the outbreak predicted some time in April, we need to act now, and we’ll work out any issues that we’ve missed later. 

Lastly, I’m hugely impressed by the way in which Staffordshire’s schools have “turned to” and looked after vulnerable children and the children of key workers.  We have been quite clear that every Staffordshire County Council employee is a key worker, and, although many of us can work from home, there will be some, and I include myself in that cohort, who must go to the office at least some of the time.  Managers and leaders in the County Council are limiting those to the absolute minimum, but if you are needed for essential work in your workplace, please take the necessary precautions around hand-washing and social distancing and come to the office.  We all must do our bit if we are to get through what will be a very testing time in the weeks ahead.          

Coronavirus update: The county council’s response

This week has seen a change in pace in the response to Covid-19, or coronavirus.  I’m enormously impressed with the readiness of our colleagues and our elected members to get involved, either in their own roles, or if they have spare capacity owning to other projects being paused, by switching to other duties.  We’ve had an excellent response to our “I Count” campaign; within the first 24 hours, 320 colleagues volunteered to switch roles into supporting social care and other priorities, as well as 80 students from Staffordshire University and Keele University.  We’re now up to 550 colleagues. We’re also in discussions with Entrust over switching their capacity into supporting schools as they change roles to look after the children of critical workers.  I think uniquely for a council (for the moment – I’m hoping others will follow), we are working with employers in the hospitality sector to move capability and capacity into supporting social care, primarily in the first instance the 25,000 vulnerable people who will be shielded from Covid-19 for the next 12 weeks.  This means delivering food and anything else that means that they can remain out of contact with the rest of the population.

In the Secretary of State’s words, there are 2 priorities for the week ahead; getting the schools into their new role, and getting the shielding measures in place by the end of the week.    In Staffordshire, we are taking a broad interpretation of the key worker definition, which we will implement robustly.  If you work for Staffordshire County Council, you are a key worker; I need your expertise and energy in the weeks ahead, and I need you to be freed up from worrying about childcare while you are doing it. 

There is some inspirational work going on, with our colleagues coming up not only with good ideas, but then implementing them at pace.  There are many examples, and space does not allow me to mention them all, but I would highlight the converging lines of effort going on in preparing for the shielding operation.  We’ve procured 40,000 ration packs which contain the basics for one person for a week, and we’re identifying the people and arranging the distribution network. 

I would predict that the effort in the weeks ahead will include keeping our care homes and domiciliary care operations running with the added load as the NHS discharge as many patients as they safely can.  That is where the majority of the “I Count” volunteers will be engaged. 

My final exhortation is to look after yourselves.  Stay fit, take the precautions of hand-washing and social distance, and make sure that you get enough rest.  This is going to be a long haul, and we need you to be there at the end, for yourselves, your family and for Staffordshire County Council.   

Coronavirus latest and I Count

In the last week we have seen the predicted move in the response to the Coronavirus from contain to delay. The Prime Minister, flanked by the Chief Scientific Advisor, himself a medical doctor and researcher, and the Chief Medical Officer, have addressed the country numerous times since then. I’m personally very reassured that we are taking a calm, considered science-led approach nationally, and we are doing exactly the same in Staffordshire. There are a number of voices calling for more to be done, but my sense is that they have struck a fine balance which will achieve the aim of delaying the peak until warmer weather when it will be less severe, and reducing it such that the NHS, and of course our adult social care system, will be able to cope.  We will still be fighting this in June, which means that it is very much a marathon rather than a sprint. 

The Incident Management Team (IMT) is up and running, and is handling the issues and challenges with exactly the right balance of caution and reassurance that I would expect and hope. Please look out for the advice and guidance as it is released. For many, this is an opportunity to capitalise on our Smart Working arrangements; having made this a priority over the past four years, we’re already ahead of most organisations in terms of culture and technology. Now would be the time to use those advantages. 

On a point of interest, this is the IMT’s fifth “outing” in 15 months: the collapse of Allied Healthcare, Castle House in Newcastle-under-Lyme, wildfires in the Staffordshire Moorlands, floods in Storm Dennis and now Coronavirus. In each case, our colleagues come together and plan their way through the challenges in an exemplary manner.  Given the long-term nature of Coronavirus, we will undoubtedly need to pace ourselves and I would encourage you to ask whether you can do your bit to support their efforts. The I Count campaign, which launched today is an opportunity for you to step up and help out in the areas where it is most needed

Coronavirus, and International Women’s Day

The coronavirus has understandably grabbed everybody’s attention this week, with more than 200 cases confirmed in the UK and 4 in Staffordshire as I write on Sunday morning. We are very much part of the Government’s strategy, which is still in the “contain” phase, but preparing for the “delay” phase, which will inevitably come. As Professor Whitty, the Government’s  Chief Medical Officer stated, we have a slim to nil chance of avoiding this becoming a widespread outbreak across the UK. We are fortunate in Staffordshire County Council in having Dr Richard Harling as our Director of Health and Care.  Richard is a cool-headed public health professional, and I listen intently to his advice. As he explains it, the aim is to delay the outbreak until the warmer weather when it will be less intense and damaging. It makes eminent sense – a summer cold is usually a sniffle compared with the full-blown chesty cough in winter. The potential issue, as with all flus and associated viral infections, is for those with underlying health conditions and the frail elderly. Richard and the Incident Management Team (IMT) are working through our strategy and tactics, and my advice is to use them as your first port of call for information – I certainly am.

More locally, we have switched the cleaning of our offices towards cleaning surfaces on a daily basis, and are ensuring that hand-washing facilities are kept hygienic and stocked. I was relieved and happy to hear that our consumption of liquid soap in the lavatories has risen markedly in recent days. There also is much that we can do across our lives to help, whether at home with our children, relatives and friends, travelling or at leisure. Until this passes, we should all be thinking consciously about what we are doing, including those things that come as second nature. I’m reminded of the public information posters from the Second World War, when the government were attempting successfully to change behaviours: one in particular, “Coughs and sneezes spread diseases,” springs to mind. Very little changes – we have faced previous issues, and, with the level-headed approach that we are taking, we’ll get through this one.    

On a more celebratory note, I am writing this blog entry on International Women’s Day. One of the undoubted strengths of Staffordshire County Council is that our workforce is 76% female.  I am reminded of an economic historian, David Landes, who wrote his seminal work “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations”, where he examined the seven leading human civilisations for reasons why they succeeded and ultimately failed. He stated that any society which excludes a proportion of its human capital is handicapping itself before it starts, and on that basis there are few dumber things to do than to do that on the basis of gender. My own experience in SCC, having spent much of my life in the Army which is 85% male, is that we get better-considered and more resilient decisions with greater diversity. I’m particularly proud that our Smart Working has been so well received across the organisation, and particularly by female colleagues.  My aspiration is that it, and other measures, result in a more empowered, confident and agile organisation, in which we see greater diversity at all levels.   

Meetings, volunteers and MPs

As I’m sure that readers will agree, one gets weeks where it’s fairly inward-focussed, and then weeks when the focus is outwards – this last week has been one of the latter for me, but all of the events have striking relevance for what we are looking to achieve.  I spent Wednesday attending the Midlands Engine Executive Board, where our Council Leader, Philip Atkins is a member.  I was there because we are taking over from Nottingham City Council as the Accountable Body for the Midlands Engine.  It’s a fascinating time to be take on this role, with the Government signalling that this will be their route to “levelling up” for the Midlands.  We can therefore expect that the large projects which Midlands Engine undertakes will be being channelled through us.  It’s a big job, but we are ready for it.

The meeting took place at the National Rehabilitation Centre near Loughborough, a pioneering example of cooperation between the National Health Service and the Defence Medical Services.  The Defence Rehabilitation Centre has been running there for 2 years, since it moved from Headley Court in Surrey, undertaking the physical and mental rehabilitation of soldiers, sailors and airmen wounded and injured on operations, predominantly in Afghanistan, but also worldwide.  A huge amount has been learned from this complex and emotional mission, particularly in prosthetics and neurological care, and it was excellent to see that the learning will be applied to civilians who are injured and require similar rehabilitation.   

On a very different subject, I joined the Canals and Rivers Trust for their annual meeting in the Council Chamber on Thursday evening.  It became clear from listening to this passionate and energetic group of narrowboat enthusiasts that we both share many of their aims, but also that we can learn from them, particularly in terms of mobilising volunteers.  Clearly, the common love of canals and boats gives them an identity and ethos, but the scale of projects that they undertake in rebuilding and maintaining canals and footpaths is breath-taking.  I left feeling energised for our People Helping People programme and #DoingOurBit.

Lastly this week, we welcomed the newly-elected MPs to County Buildings on Friday afternoon; Theo Clarke MP from Stafford, Aaron Bell MP from Newcastle-under-Lyme, Kate Griffiths MP from Burton, Jonathan Gullis MP from Stoke North, and Jo Gideon MP from Stoke Central.  The discussions were wide-ranging and very positive; they share our ambitions for Staffordshire – see above for the “levelling up” agenda from Government – and we will work with them over the next 5 years to achieve them.  It is also impressive that our MPs identify as a group in this Parliament, which will help enormously in gaining the advantages that we seek for Staffordshire.  Their constituency workers accompanied them to meet Kate Bullivant and her team to ensure that we get off to the right start in ensuring that the MPs’ Enquiries are correctly addressed, and I have to say that I was impressed with the excellent level of conversation and engagement in both sessions.   

Storm Dennis, and the Integration of Health and Care

Having written last week’s blog entry during a lull in Storm Dennis, I probably should update readers on what happened next.  In short, it continued to rain.  By Monday afternoon, the River Trent in Burton was causing concern, and we activated the Incident Management Team, led by Becky Lee, our Health, Safety and Wellbeing Manager.  Burton had suffered from serious flooding in 2007, and significant barriers have been built since.  It shows the unprecedented times in which we are living that the river level peaked at 11.00pm only 4cm below the tops of the barriers.  The team, with John Tradewell, who was our duty director this week, worked through the night, planning a response to the flooding, taking in such diverse considerations as notifying householders, planning for the potential evacuation of care homes, moving sandbags to shore up defences, and assisting the Environment Agency and Fire and Rescue Service.  Becky Lee is in effect our Operations Officer, and it may surprise you to read that the IMT has been mobilised 4 times since the start of 2019: the collapse of Allied Healthcare; the wildfires on the Staffordshire Moorlands; a building response in Newcastle; and now Storm Dennis.  They are 4 very different scenarios, but the core team are up and running in an hour in Staffordshire Place 1, providing the communications and control that allows the subject matter experts to work effectively.  It’s a seriously impressive organisation. 

On a completely different tack this week, it might interest you to read about the integration of health and care that is progressing in Stoke and Staffordshire.  I had a very useful session with Dale Bywater, the Director of the National Health Service England and Improvement for the Midlands (known as NHS E and I in the vernacular).  This is a relatively newly combination of the commissioners (the CCGs) and the providers (the hospital and community trusts) which has provided some welcome clarity to the system.  Dale is very happy with our Long Term Plan, one of 5 out of the 11 in his region to be passed as good to go.  He is clear that the time has come for implementation, and I made it clear that the county council is very supportive of getting on with it.  It reminds me of 2 old military adages; no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and plans are useful, but planning is invaluable.  In short, the plan is not perfect, because it can never be perfect, but it is good enough to start us in the right direction.  The planning that we have done over the past months will give us the knowledge and confidence to adapt our thinking and actions as the situation develops.  The role of the county council is many-faceted; we are the single biggest commissioner of social care and therefore must align what we do with the plan, and we are also the largest democratic body in the county, with a role in ensuring that people of Staffordshire get the healthcare and social care that they need in the future. 

Climate Change and Storm Dennis

As I write this on Sunday morning, we are in a lull in Storm Dennis, our second named storm in a week.  Last weekend saw our Highways Department deal with 292 incidents of fallen trees or local flooding, about 7 times what we normally expect in a weekend.  Thankfully, we appear to have solved the issues fairly quickly, which comes down to a bit of luck, but also the preparation that we have undertaken, for example with the more targeted approach to gulley cleaning.  So far, Dennis appears to have been more rain than wind, but of course that comes on top of significant rain in Ciara last week, and a very wet autumn and winter.  We remain ready to respond and help Staffordshire’s residents who have been affected.

Following on from a 5 month drought in 2018 and a dry winter last year, it seems clear that we are seeing changing weather patterns, with lengthy periods of alternately hot and dry, followed by warm and wet.   It was therefore timely that I attended Engie’s Senior Managers’ Conference in Birmingham this week, to speak about our journey to zero carbon.  Engie is a French-owned energy company who ran the coal-fired power station in Rugeley, which closed a number of years ago.  They intend to redevelop the site themselves as a zero carbon settlement, with energy-efficient housing, solar panel farms and a zero carbon school serving the residents.  It is an ambitious scheme, the first of its kind in the country, and we are delighted to be working closely with them on it.  My part was speaking about our own journey, and I majored on reducing our carbon footprint in everything that we do, and across the county as opposed to just the county council.  Staffordshire County Council employs about 1% of the county’s workforce directly, and probably pays the salaries of another 7% in our commissioned operations; we also make up about 2% of the county’s carbon footprint.  We should clearly aim to reduce our internal carbon footprint, but the key will be in facilitating the wider county to reduce.  The target is huge, with about a third of energy consumed at home by heating and power, another third in transport, and about 18% in employment sites.  Helping our residents to make better choices in terms of insulation and heating in their homes, and in their personal transport, will be key.   

It’s not all about transport and housing though.  There are significant secondary benefits from such programmes as Superfast Broadband, allowing more people to work from home, reducing the traffic on our roads.  Our own Smart Working programme has taken an estimated 1 million miles off Staffordshire’s roads, which works out at 100 cars on an average annual mileage.  It doesn’t seem much perhaps, but if every employer in Staffordshire did the same, it would be 10,000 cars, and nationally it would be 500,000 cars.  Now we’re talking. 

Dignity in Care Awards

I was delighted with the response to the invitation to submit entries for the MJ Awards.  It was a change in tactics from previous years, where SLT selected entries, allowing you to shout directly about what you are doing.  I know of six entries, and the ones which were shared with me before submitting were all excellent, full of energy and justifiable pride.  Let’s see how we do in the judging, but I’m expecting a number to make it to the short list stage.  If and when that happens, we will give you every assistance in preparing for the face-to-face interviews, in order that you are lifting the trophies on the night. 

Staying on the awards theme, we are delighted to present the 2020 Staffordshire Dignity in Care Awards, to promote, recognise and reward those people who treat others with dignity and whose actions make a real difference and serve as an example to others,. The awards are now in their 6th year and are organised by the Care Market Development Team. We welcome nominations from anyone who receives support and care in Staffordshire, their families, friends, and / or those who provide care and support to Staffordshire citizens.  I think that these awards are unique in that they recognise voluntary carers and professionals in the same event.  This is entirely in line with our strategy of Doing our Bit; we couldn’t work without the voluntary carers, and we also need a vibrant, valued and capable professional sector to look after our most vulnerable residents.  Find out how you can nominate someone for an award.Dignity

Learning from Gareth Southgate, and celebrating our achievements

I spent Wednesday in London at the National Leadership Centre event for the UK’s public sector leaders.  Apparently, there are about 1000 people spread across Government, the Civil Service, the NHS, universities, local authorities and the Armed Forces who have been identified, and the aim is to develop our leadership such that we achieve better outcomes for the country.  Being naturally optimistic but healthily sceptical, I went along with relatively modest expectations, but was delighted that the event exceeded my hopes. 

The workshops were probably the bit that were flattest and worked the least well, but I have to share two talks which really struck a chord with me – Gareth Southgate and Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller.  Eliza ran MI5 and is a redoubtable lady, but what was interesting was that behind the slightly brusque Establishment façade lies a very caring person who goes out of her way to nurture people whom she leads.  Gareth Southgate was excellent.  He always comes across as a very decent, slightly modest man, but his talk revealed a little more than one sees in television interviews.  He is modest, but he is more generous than modest; he invariably and quickly shares any credit with others, and equally quickly owns any criticism without deflecting it.  He also demonstrates a calmness that is remarkable given his role, along with a quiet and understated confidence.  Between them, they reminded me of a number of qualities and behaviours on which I will be working in the coming weeks and months.

Many thanks to everybody who submitted entries for the MJ Awards this week.  We took a slightly different approach this year, allowing individual managers to submit their entries rather than having a centralised mechanism through the SLT and the Communications Team.  Let’s see how it goes, but I was very impressed with the energy and passion in the entries that I saw, which was the aim of freeing you up to shout about what you are doing.  We are guilty in Staffordshire of sometimes underplaying our achievements, and I have noticed at several local government events that other authorities make large of things that we do rather better than them.  Only last week, Helen Riley noted that the Department of Education were off to visit a city authority who were doing something apparently very novel with their youth service, something that we have been doing for about 7 years!   There is of course a balance – back to Gareth Southgate – but we should probably be a little more confident in what we are doing for the residents of Staffordshire. 

Local Enterprise Partnership, and Holocaust Memorial Day

There is much happening in the Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent Local Enterprise Partnership (SSLEP) at the moment, and I thought that readers might wish to take a moment to familiarise yourselves with it.  A new Chair has been appointed in the shape of Alun Rogers, the Founder of risual, a software development company which some may be familiar with from their work with the Council to implement our digital programme.  Alun is a superb choice for Chair, a local business owner who is focussed on getting the very best for Staffordshire.  Even before his appointment, as Deputy Chair, he has been leading the work on forming the Local Industrial Strategy (LIS), a key document to ensure that the County’s economy continues to prosper and makes the most of the opportunities that business outside the European Union holds.  The LEP launched the consultation a couple of days ago and we’re aiming to submit a single response as a county council which employees have the opportunity to contribute to.  Any thoughts/views should be emailed to: matthew.shufflebotham@staffordshire.gov.uk by midnight on 5th February.

We had an excellent Members’ event at Beaconside on Tuesday in which we discussed the Strengths-based Approach for Adult Social Care and Restorative Practice in Child Protection Social Work.  These are hugely important changes for us an authority, and although they come with different terms and tactics, they share a common strategy – that of working closely with families and communities, focussing on what people can do for themselves, rather than on a deficit-based approach of what they can’t do.  Elected Members are enormously important in implementing these policies, and it was hugely encouraging to listen to the level of engagement and conversation around these concepts.  Lastly for this week, Monday 27 January is Holocaust Day, and this year it is particularly poignant as it marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp by the Soviet Army in 1945.  We’ve worked with the Holocaust Memorial Trust to produce some material to publicise this event; I would encourage you to browse through it if you have a chance.  Although this year is naturally focussed on the Nazi genocide of European Jews, the reason for having the day is to ensure that such things can never happen again.  Sadly, there are historic examples before and since which suggest that it was not an aberration, and the worrying thing for me was that otherwise and previously decent people convinced themselves and others that killing or denouncing their neighbours was not only all right, but was actually the only proper course of action. It must never happen again.