Archive for March, 2020

Stepping up to help our most vulnerable

Monday, March 30th, 2020

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

Monday, March 23rd, 2020

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

Wednesday, March 18th, 2020

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

Tuesday, March 10th, 2020

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

Monday, March 2nd, 2020

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.