The Chief Executive introduced the report to the Panel, advising that staff were aware that Members had been appreciative of their efforts. She commended efforts by the Director of Public Service (Director of PS) and the Director of Public Health (Director of PH) for leading the Council’s Covid-19 response arrangements since the first lockdown announcement in March 2020.
The Panel was advised by the Chief Executive that the scale and pace in which the Council should respond had been heightened by the recent Government’s announcements about a second wave of lockdown restrictions, and arrangements that should be in place after the Christmas period. The Panel noted that as part of the announcements, work was underway to commence local testing, and Council officials had a series of logistical meetings with their colleagues in the National Health Service (NHS) to identify how to proceed with the rollout of the vaccination programme.
The Chief Executive also pointed out to the Panel that officers were aware of the impact on the role of scrutiny in terms of implementing its work programme. Notwithstanding that, input from scrutiny Members as an ongoing channel for suggestions and feedback would continue to be useful in the process. Thus, scrutiny remained integral to the Council’s Covid-19 response effort. It was stated that the combined efforts with scrutiny had enabled officers to balance the requirements of delivering in a transparent and democratic setting, whilst meeting the demands of the unprecedented challenges posed by the crisis.
In concluding her introductory remarks, the Chief Executive stated that the Director of PS would present further updates to the Panel.
The Director of PS stated that since the last report to the Panel, schools and colleges had remained opened. More shops were allowed to stay open. There would be no requirement to follow the formal shielding approach during the second wave of the Covid-19 lockdown. However, the Council would continue to support critical services. Staff assigned to the Covid-19 Action Team would be delivering non-critical services. Work was underway to distribute grants to businesses who were experiencing financial problems as a result of the crisis. There would be ongoing supply of personal protective equipment at a local level.
Commenting on the data-sets in the report, the Director of PS highlighted that the increase in the level of the 7-day infection rates was due to pre-lockdown gatherings into the second wave of the pandemic. However, infection rates were stabilising nationally. Although Lewisham had a lower number of infections in comparison to most London boroughs, plans were underway to minimise risks through efforts to set up a local test-booking system. It was stated that the Council would also follow national guidelines in test and trace applications once it becomes clear about the role of councils in the arrangements. Meanwhile, the Council would continue working with its NHS partners on how to identify people who had the virus without showing signs of having it. It was stated that those who show symptoms would be required to self-isolate, in order to prevent the spread of the virus.
In response to questions raised, the Director of PS advised the Panel that lessons learnt from the Liverpool approach was that it was not cost-effective to carry out tests for the whole population at the same time. Thus, should the test and trace pilot which the Council was participating in becomes successful, the rollout would be delivered in a targeted way in Lewisham, with a view to prevent onward transmission. As an indication, staff with nursing backgrounds working in local schools and care homes could be empowered to carry out targeted testing, thus reducing a strain on the Council’s resources.
The Panel also noted confirmation by the Director of PS that the Council was continuing its effort to contact clinically vulnerable people. Therefore, concerns about food supplies would likely be dealt with by staff providing information to on how to access the appropriate support service.
The Director of PH also responded to questions, advising the Panel that if the current test and trace pilot scheme becomes successful, and a rollout was required, the Council would likely follow national guidelines for symptomatic testing. Meanwhile, the Private Coronavirus (PCR) swab remained the ‘gold’ standard for symptomatic testing. Thus, the Council was directing residents who had symptoms to book tests via 111 telephone hot-line. Alternatively, residents could book via the Council’s on-line portal which contained information about local testing sites, or request a home testing kit.
In terms of the infection period, the Director of PH gave an assurance to the Panel that the work undertaken by public health colleagues in the test and trace pilot scheme were supported by evidence. It was stated that transmission of the virus could occur prior to someone becoming symptomatic. Therefore, as part of the local test and trace plans, staff had been trained to gather information about whom those with symptoms had been in contact with, as a means of tracing individuals who had been exposed to the virus. It was stated that those exposed to the virus would be advised to self-isolate in order to minimise and/or prevent further transmission.
The Director of PH also confirmed to the Panel that the Council was sharing information about infection risks with community champions. The Director of PH confirmed that her team had also met with the Young Mayor’s advisers, with a view to recruit young community champions to help convey appropriate messages about risks associated with the spread of the virus, and how to minimise transmission.
The Panel requested that officers should share data about the number of positive and negative test cases identified in Lewisham during the test and trace pilot. Officers should also share information on how long the pilot would last.
Action: PS & PH
The Panel also noted clarification from the Chief Executive that Lewisham applied to be in the test and trace pilot scheme independently, and not part of a consortium. It was stated that the learning, evaluation and insight from the pilot could help to shape future policy in reducing health inequalities that currently exist. The Chief Executive confirmed that the Council had started engaging with local inter-faith forums and the Black and Minority Ethnic community, with a view to understand barriers to people taking the vaccine, including the flu jab.
In light of a suggestion, the Chief Executive advised the Panel that the NHS was leading the rollout of the vaccination programme, and that a Vaccinations Committee had been set up to prioritise the work based on clinical needs. Thus, a vaccination update in an all-Member briefing could be effective if there was an NHS colleague present to lead the discussion. Notwithstanding that, considerations had been given to utilise General Practitioners’ surgeries, libraries, and pop-up vaccination centres in parks and other public spaces in the event of a decision to rollout the vaccines. The Chief Executive stated that the role of ward councillors would be vital in sending out appropriate messages to the community about the testing and vaccination programmes.
On behalf of the Panel, the Chair, Councillor Bill Brown, thanked the Officers for the introduction, presentation, and responses to questions. The Chair asked the Panel to note recognition by the Chief Executive about of the role of scrutiny in the decision-making process. The Chair welcomed appreciation by the Officers about the importance of the Panel’s contribution in supporting the work of the Council and its partners in response to the Covid-19 crisis.
RESOLVED that the report be noted.