Planning, Test and Trace, and VJ Day

The government’s proposals for changing the planning process to change the balance in favour of development has received a huge amount of attention this week.  Although we are not a planning authority in terms of housing, it is an area in which we have a strong interest, not least in providing the roads, schools etc. that developments require to make them sustainable communities.  The narrative from London is that councils are getting in the way of development, and I fear that local government’s response does not counter that view well.  We need to make the argument strongly that councils and councillors only reflect the wishes of their residents.  As a relatively recent arrival in local government, I would observe from my previous experience that difficult decisions become easier the further that you are from them; they are hardest to explain when looking the person that they affect in the eye.  I very much hope that we can retain the wishes and aspirations of residents in any new system. 

The national news on Test and Trace is that the system is developing and improving, which is encouraging, particularly as we prepare for the winter, and whatever that may bring.  There is a fear in the medical community that the combination of Covid-19 and a severe winter flu could overwhelm the health and care system, so we must prepare thoroughly.  From a local viewpoint, we have closed down the response to the outbreak at the Crown and Anchor pub in Stone after testing over 1,000 people and tracing 22 positive results, and we continue to manage the outbreak in Burton, which is thankfully experiencing reduced infection rates owing to our collective efforts.  I was told this week that Staffordshire leads the West Midlands in terms of testing rates, and our rapid responses to such outbreaks in Burton and Stone are being viewed as best practice. This early targeted response is much preferable to waiting for better information and having to impose localised lockdowns. 

I hope that you will forgive me for picking up on the 75th anniversary of VJ Day, the end of the Second World War in the Pacific, which falls on Saturday.  My late father was a Merchant Navy Officer in the Pacific in August 1945, and his view of humanity was shaped by the task of transporting starved former Prisoners of War back to Singapore after their release from Japanese captivity.  Whatever else we celebrate this week, let us renew our resolve to build that better world that their generation imagined in 1945. 

Outbreak control, and the county council’s new leader

The Burton-on-Trent Covid-19 outbreak continues to be our major focus in Test and Trace.  The key here has been to move early, adapt the tactics to suit the circumstances, and build and maintain consensus.  We have conducted testing in one of the mosques in Burton, which is a first, with over 360 people tested in one day.  We have also been engaging closely with the community; I am immensely grateful to Councillor Syed Hussein who has been pivotal in this effort, as well as to our other county council and borough council members, our Public Health team and NHS and East Staffordshire Borough Council partners.  I have said often that we are “learning by doing” in these activities, but it is pleasing to note that our assumption that building consensus is more important than powers issued by central government is being borne out in practice.    

More broadly on controlling outbreaks, the strategy of moving early and with confidence has been vindicated by the early shutting down of a potential outbreak at a Staffordshire farm late last week; the first case was identified on Tuesday; the team were on site to establish control and implement additional measures on the Wednesday; testing took place on the Thursday; and with results received on the Saturday, the outbreak was shut down.  Speaking this week to Clive Wright, the Regional Convenor for the Test and Trace programme, the difference between our outbreak and the Herefordshire vegetable farm where there are over 100 positive cases, and is still running, is about 48 hours. 

Away from Coronavirus, you will have seen the announcement that Staffordshire County Council has a new Leader in Councillor Alan White, who was voted in at a virtual Annual Council Meeting held on Microsoft Teams on Thursday.  This is another first in terms of our use of technology, and it went very well indeed; Members appeared to be enjoying the experience, and, from an interested observer’s viewpoint, the level of debate and engagement matched that which we see in the Council Chamber on a normal meeting.  We very much looking forward to working with Alan and his Cabinet on the recovery of Staffordshire’s economy and society from the Coronavirus pandemic. 

Helping schools and businesses to get back on track

The announcements this week that pubs will re-open on 4 July eclipsed all other news, it seems.  It is, of course, a hugely important signal that we are emerging from the lockdown of 3 months, and we are seeing a return to a form of normality that is encouraging.  Staffordshire schools have been welcoming eligible children back into their buildings since June 1, and their return has been made possible by our colleagues’ excellent efforts in building confidence in our parents, students and school staff.   The signals are that all children will return to school for the new school year in September, and we will continue our efforts as we have previously.

I was hugely encouraged by the positive reaction to a small scheme of offering PPE to Staffordshire microbusinesses.  Within the first 2 days, 300 of the 2000 small packs of gloves and masks had been dispatched.  Probably as useful as the “freebie” was that around 1,000 hits had been registered on our website to offer advice on where to get their own supplies and guidance on how and when to use it.  The prize is, rather like the efforts in our schools and care homes, to raise confidence in business owners and customers to get the economy going again.  It is in these relatively simple, but carefully thought-through measures, that we will serve the residents of Staffordshire most effectively.     

COVID in numbers

Today marks three months since Boris Johnson announced that the UK was going into lockdown. For me, it both feels like yesterday, and also a lifetime ago.  That is not unusual when one is working at pace in a stressful environment.  If you’ve not seen it yet, the COVID in numbers infographic gives just a snapshot of the scale of our response to date. £30m spent supporting care for our elderly and vulnerable residents, 1,400,000 pieces of PPE provided to protect workers in health and care, over 3,000 emergency food parcels delivered… the list goes on.  We must remember that this is primarily a human tragedy – in the past 3 months, over 700 people have lost their lives in Staffordshire, but thanks to your hard work, we have seen the number of deaths in the county continually fall in recent weeks and we are now seeing fewer deaths than we would expect to see at this time of year. As a result, our focus is now shifting to local outbreak control and working with the NHS Test and Trace team/Public Health England to prevent the spread of infection. This is a new responsibility and we’ll be submitting our plans to Government this week. So far, we’re thankful that we have not seen any outbreaks in the county, but we are ready to act when we are needed.

It’s a unique feature of this emergency that we are working on response and recovery at the same time. Many of you are now working hard to support our recovery and early plans were considered at Cabinet for each part of the organisation last week. Already we have seen recycling centres and country park car parks reopen and our schools welcome a wider number of children back to education. We’ve also launched our economic recovery strategy and outlined what we will do to support Staffordshire to get back to business. I know how much hard work has gone into making this happen.

We expect an announcement this week that social distancing will reduce to 1m from 2m, along with a raft of other measures designed to allow life to return to a greater degree of normality while staying safe.  Philip Atkins, Mark Winnington and I met with representatives of the leisure and hospitality sector and a number of our MPs on Friday to clarify what was needed to get these sectors working again.  It was not surprising that the 1m social distancing makes a huge difference to occupancy, just as it does in our offices and schools, but also that they need notice of any changes to implement them in time (beer takes 2 weeks to brew, after all) and they want clarity.  Although it is easy to criticise, particularly when one bears no responsibility for the outcomes, these decisions will weigh heavily on ministers and scientist advising the Government.  There is no perfect answer, but it feels like we can take the next steps towards a return to normality.   

I’ll leave you with one final thought.  This has been something the like of which none of us has previously experienced; I only half-jokingly tell former military colleagues that it’s been an odd mixture of the last five years in Staffordshire County Council and the previous 30 in the Army. The challenges and opportunities presented to us have been exciting and exhausting. It is vitally important that you look after yourself so that we can continue to support our communities to the best of our ability as we go forward. Make use of the support available to you through your colleagues, through Thinkwell, Mindkind and iLearn.  In the coming days, you’ll be invited to share your experiences and views in a short survey so that we can learn from them and emerge from the crisis as a stronger organisation.

iLearn, and making our workplace Covid safe

We have launched our new digital learning library. iLearn offers bite-sized content on topics including leadership and strategy, managing people and teams, and personal skills.  It has been designed to enhance our colleague learning offer and allow people to take their development into their own hands.  Having spent a little time on it, it’s much more intuitive than the GO platform, which is welcome. At the moment the content is generic and can support all areas of our business– I spent a few minutes looking at the smart working section, and learned a few things.  I have to say it is very good and well-presented.

Platforms like this rely on our active engagement and our responsibility to drive our own learning.

On the recent Business Brief, there was a very good question about whether Continuous Professional Development (CPD) was on the platform.  What you will find is a number of resources to help you develop your own personal development plan and ‘playlists’ or learning journeys to help develop specific skills such as ‘project management’.   Within the next 12 months we are looking to replace GO entirely with a new ‘Learning Experience Platform’ (LXP) which will support the development of our own content to support continuous professional development within all our job roles.

I’m getting used to one staircase for up and another for down in Staffordshire Place 1, but still catching myself out if I’m concentrating on other things.  As well await the ruling on social distancing, we are following the guidance of 2m as you would expect, and at the moment, there is no problem with capacity in our buildings.  Thanks to your efforts, and the amazing achievements of the ICT staff in not only maintaining and protecting our network, but in building its capacity, the vast majority of us as working from home, and overcoming the challenges.  Meanwhile, the Lifting Lockdown working group is continuing to ensure our workplaces and practices are in line with Government guidance, for those who cannot work from home. Today, we are releasing a safe workplace video to give colleagues an idea of what we have implemented and how we are progressing.  It’s worth a brief watch if you haven’t already. 

Moving into recovery, and Test and Trace

As we pivot our efforts into recovery, while remaining engaged in the response against Covid-19, Staffordshire County Council has launched a number of practical measures intended to help businesses to restart and for the economy to get going again.  It is notable that the central government response has yet to get beyond discussions, but then, in their defence, they are looking at very big programmes that will involve huge sums of money for capital projects.  Our job is to roll up our sleeves and get on with the practical things that will make the difference between success and failure for many thousands of small and medium enterprises in Staffordshire.  While we will continue to be engaged in the conversations and the big ideas, concepts as the Small Business Grant Scheme and the Staffordshire Start-Up Programme, launched last week, are where we can really make a difference. 

All of this has to take place while we are still responding to Covid-19.  As the infection rate reduces, there are some very finely-balanced decisions to be made, the most important of which is how to deal with isolated outbreaks.  The national Test and Trace has gone live, and in Staffordshire we have an Initial Operating Capability, which we will develop into a Full Operating Capability through June.  While it is easy to criticise aspects of this strategy, the truth is that nobody has done this before and we will be learning by doing, and from other countries which are ahead of us in the progress of the disease.  The key will be containing outbreaks with rapid testing, importantly with results getting to the individuals and decision-makers in a timely manner.  The really difficult part will come when localised lockdowns or quarantine are required, which will get harder as people get used to their new-found freedoms after long-term lockdown.  We will continue to refine this policy as we learn and as new techniques and technology become available.   

Lifting Lockdown, Microsoft Teams, and Online Coaching

I mentioned in my last entry that we had reached the peak of the outbreak, and were going to be running response and recovery concurrently for probably several months, which is an unusual approach in normal circumstances.  But as you will undoubtedly agree, we are not in normal circumstances, and we have to adapt to the situation around us.  I’ve been immensely impressed with the way that colleagues have stepped into the breach; my abiding memory from this episode will be the fortitude and energy that you have put into their roles, and the willingness that you have shown in adapting to new roles and realities.     

As we plan towards lifting lockdown, last week we sent initial guidance to WLT/OMT and to the wider workforce via The Knot, which is well worth a read.  The key thing is that we are not in a hurry to rush back to our offices; we’ve made our own luck, as an old friend and colleague used to put it, with our efforts in Smart Working, and we can afford to get it right.  You should continue with your current working arrangements until your manager gives you the information that you need; those of you who are working from home should keep doing so.

I take my hat off to the ICT team for their exceptional efforts in maintaining and protecting our network.  With my military background, you won’t be surprised of the importance that I attach to being able to communicate effectively as a means of effective leadership.  The impressive part is that Vic Falcus and his team have not only maintained and protected, but also improved, which is always a risk when engaged in a high intensity operation such as in which we are engaged.  We’ve implemented split tunnelling, which most will have missed, but you won’t have missed the effect that video conferencing got a lot clearer a few weeks ago.  You will however, notice the next change, as we try to move everybody out of Skype and into Teams.  This week, we’ll be starting to encourage colleagues to stop using Skype for Business and start using Microsoft Teams to stay connected. Teams is a much better tool in my opinion and is really easy to use. More info here if you are interested in this.

Lastly for this entry, we’re offering some online Coronavirus Coaching to colleagues to overcome challenges and be the best they can be – we’ve got a pool of internal coaches who are there to support. Coaching is a big part of us being ambitious, courageous and empowered in the workplace. A number of them have agreed to keep coaching remotely, as we continue to work through the coronavirus response and recovery. There are some brief details here, and we’ll be promoting the offer in the various internal updates this week.

Stay safe and well.

Dealing with the present, and planning for the future

It is a couple of weeks since I wrote a blog entry, mostly because I have been doing a number of video messages for The Knot, but in the spirit of planning for getting back to normal, here goes. Experts believe we are in the peak of the Coronavirus outbreak, and it is clear, that although the statistics of Covid-19 deaths are shocking, the NHS and Social Care Services are holding up well. Having done a brilliant job of constructing the temporary Nightingale Hospitals in London and Birmingham so quickly, it looks like they might now be used for other purposes, as the rate of illness has been kept within the Health and Care system’s ability to admit and treat. That is the strategy, and it seems to be working. The shielding operation whereby up to 1.5 million of the UK’s most vulnerable people are being supported as they self-isolate for 12 weeks, is, in my opinion, a piece of genius, and makes the most of the “N” in our NHS. To my knowledge, no other country is attempting this, as no other country has the level of personal health data at a national level to be able to achieve it. If it works, and I believe it will, it will reduce the death toll from this disease considerably. 

In Staffordshire, the care sector, in which we count Care and Nursing Homes as well as domiciliary care in people’s own homes, is holding up well so far. Starting our efforts to procure and supply Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) early in the emergency has paid huge dividends; we now have a stable and resilient supply chain with trusted suppliers, which has maintained the confidence of the users. That is absolutely key in a contingency operation where demand surges and ebbs, sometimes unpredictably. Having a reliable supply of PPE is a key factor in maintaining and bolstering the morale and effectiveness of the care workforce, and I would ascribe a good portion of the success to those efforts. Recruitment and training for our I Count and I Care volunteers continues, to create an emergency workforce that is able to fill-in where necessary in Care and Nursing Homes where staff are off work, self-isolating for Covid-19. 

Looking ahead, we are already planning to play a leading role in the recovery of Staffordshire’s economy and society. There will be a huge amount to do, and we will have to adopt a pragmatic approach. That said, there is much that come out of this terrible outbreak that is good; I would cite community spirit, the value of public service and a willingness to look at different ways of working to name but three. At Staffordshire County Council, we have cemented into practice the 4 years of cultural and digital changes that we achieved through our Smart Working programme; over 3,000 colleagues are successfully working from home, and we held our first Cabinet meeting over Skype last week. Many commentators are pointing out that things will never be the same again – we need to make sure that we choose the ones that we want.       

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.