West Berkshire Council

West Berkshire Council Coronavirus Weeknotes

Weekly updates from Lynne Doherty (Leader of the Council) and Nick Carter (Chief Executive) on how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting West Berkshire, and the council's response.

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Coronavirus Weeknotes #65

Written on: 23-7-2021

The restrictions may have eased this week, but the responsibility remains on us all to continue taking sensible steps to keep ourselves and others safe as the risk posed by the virus is very much still present in our community. It has been reassuring in the past few days to see the majority of people making a personal choice to wear a mask, and to keep their distance from others. The virus will continue to be here for some time, and we have to live with it whilst continuing to take steps to keep ourselves and others safe.

The vaccination programme continues to roll out and we are only a matter of weeks away from all adults having been offered the opportunity to have both doses of the vaccine. It's still our best defence against the virus so if you still haven't booked yours then please do so today.

Regular testing also remains really important and can be done at home or in one of our assisted testing centres. It's quick, delivers results quickly and helps to identify cases early and break the chain of transmission in our communities. We appreciate it's another thing to do, but it will give you peace of mind as you go about your day.

There has been much discussion in the media this week about the numbers of people needing to self-isolate - which is another reminder that Covid is still circulating. We've seen the impact this can cause with delays to our garden waste collections, but we would urge people to comply with any requirement to self-isolate to stop local rates increasing further. We appreciate it can be inconvenient but it will keep others safe, and is a small price to pay to reduce the impact of family or friends getting Covid, or long Covid.

From the feedback we have had from the community, we know that our weeknotes have been well-received and that it has been good for us to reflect on the impact of global and national events or decisions on us here in West Berkshire. Now that there is less of a need to focus exclusively on our local response to Covid, we've decided to continue with these updates in the form of a fortnightly blog in which we'll talk about issues that are important to our community and what we are doing to address them.

In light of this new focus, we want to use this fortnight's blog as an opportunity to talk about paving the way for those who come after us. One of the most important ways that we as a local authority do this is by developing our Local Plan, which is a long-term strategic document that local authorities use to plan for housing and commercial development in their respective areas. All local areas need an up-to-date Local Plan to prevent poor, speculative development happening in the wrong place. In it we must ensure that we have the necessary housing, land and infrastructure in place to meet the changing needs of our population.

This is no easy undertaking, particularly when competing priorities and conflicting views are evident within the community. For this reason, it is important that the approach we take is grounded firmly in evidence. As part of the process we have to consider a number of complex and inter-related factors:

  • Affordability - how do we deliver affordable housing for all residents?
  • Environment - how do we balance new housing with our carbon neutrality aspirations?
  • Transport - how do we put in place the walking and cycle paths, bus links, road and rail links needed for new developments?
  • Connectivity - how do we future-proof digital infrastructure across the district?
  • Access to services - how do we ensure people can access local schools, GP surgeries and other services close to their homes?
  • The Rural v Urban balance - where is the best location for new development?

Over the past few years, we have been collecting data about all of these and have engaged closely with our residents, stakeholders, businesses and parishes in order to plan where in the district is best to site new development. You can read more about how we have done this and also view a Facebook Live session we held on the topic back in March here.

Of course, any level of housing growth will have some impact on the community surrounding it and this cannot be avoided. What can be avoided, however, is poorly planned development without the necessary infrastructure and services which would then lead to ongoing negative implications for the community. When we go out to consultation on the Local Plan, our focus will therefore be on listening to the views of local people in order to deliver a final plan which properly plans for their needs and those of future generations.

As the parents of young people who will be hoping to get on to the housing ladder in the next decade, we are acutely aware - as many of you will be - that the dream of home ownership or of living somewhere as desirable as West Berkshire seems unachievable for many. As a council we have a responsibility to fully consider this so that those who follow us are able to access the opportunities that we have. Inevitably, the eventual outcome will be popular with some local people and less so with others. This will always be the case with any Local Plan. Here in West Berkshire, however, we are committed to creating a district fit for now and for the generations to come, which is exactly what our Local Plan will deliver.

  • Join Council Leader Lynne Doherty for a live update on the Covid-19 response and recovery locally. Lynne will be live on Facebook at 5pm on Monday 26 July talking about what the Council is doing and answering your questions. You can find more details and request a reminder when the live video starts here: https://fb.me/e/4d6sdknYD.

Coronavirus Weeknotes #64

Written on: 9-7-2021

"Personal responsibility" has been the buzz phrase in recent days with the announcement on Monday that the legislative elements of the coronavirus restrictions are likely to end on 19th July - subject to a final decision next week.

Once we move to Step 4, we are being asked to make the right choices for ourselves and those around us, and to accept that we now need to learn to live with the virus. Although the national approach is changing, we cannot drop our guard with cases rising nationally and locally - so what can we all do?

Most importantly, everyone needs to have their first and second dose of the Covid-19 vaccination when offered them, and this is something we will continue to be pushing locally. As well as running the existing vaccination centres, the NHS is operating a Health on the Move mobile vaccination service which will be in Thatcham and at Newbury College on Monday and Tuesday next week. There will be further dates for other locations announced soon.

There is growing evidence that the Covid-19 vaccine significantly reduces the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths but it does not eradicate it completely. Furthermore we need to stop the virus from mutating and spreading.

It is for these reasons that community testing continues to be important, with twice weekly testing encouraged to quickly identify cases in the community. To support this, we will be offering testing and home test kits for some time to come from our three community testing sites and Community Collect mobile van service. You can also collect free testing kits from your local pharmacy.

Our sites and van service also provide help to those people taking self-tests for the first time to ensure they are done properly.  For further information, please visit Community Testing in West Berkshire (Lateral Flow Testing - Rapid testing for Covid-19)

If you have a positive test, you experience Covid symptoms, or are told to do so by the NHS Test and Trace service, you must self-isolate to protect others.

Government guidance is expected on the use of face masks as we move into Step 4, but we are continuing to recommend that people wear face coverings in crowded or indoor spaces and if meeting people you don't see regularly. It comes down to personal choice, but communities in West Berkshire have shown consistently through the pandemic that they will do the right thing and we know that this time will be no different.

Opening up is not without risk but the restrictions are also not without cost, and living with the virus is the only way to reduce the economic and social restrictions which have been in place for the past 15 months.

The end of restrictions is good news for businesses and the end of social distancing will make it easier for many of them to operate. To support businesses in opening up we've been offering local businesses grants of up to £10,000 to help pay for temporary changes or host events to celebrate reopening after a very difficult time. Almost all of the £140,000 set aside for this has now been allocated, with the first grant to be awarded helping to bring the Little Yum Factory to Newbury Market tomorrow (10th July). It is a win-win - the business will reach new customers whilst shoppers will have even more choice at the market. If you are in Newbury on Saturday do pay a visit to the stand - it's open from 9am to 4pm.

Looking beyond the pandemic we are progressing with plans for the Council's own recovery over the coming years. This week we announce plans to move to adopt hybrid working on a permanent basis. Flexible working has been in place for some years, but staff will soon be able to work from home three days a week if they would like to do so. The past 15 months has shown that we can work remotely whilst delivering our services, and many staff have found the work-life balance to be better. It will mean we can move all staff into one building in Market Street - and with fewer town centre officers we will be reducing our energy bills and saving some money too. We'll also be introducing a new environmentally-focused travel policy with staff encouraged to walk, cycle or take public transport to work wherever possible.

We very much want to lead by example in terms of our work to protect our green district. Next week our Environment Strategy Delivery Plan goes to Executive and sets out how we will deliver on our commitment for a carbon-neutral district by 2030. It will be a document we update regularly so that communities can easily see how we are performing in an area we know is important to many of our residents.

We cannot do this by ourselves and a core part of our strategy is to support communities in working actively to make a difference in their own towns and villages. As an example, the Hungerford Environmental Action Team held an event last weekend to give residents a chance to look at a wide array of electric vehicles and to speak to their owners. It was a great event, and will have shown that switching to EVs is not the huge leap many think it to be.

For our part, we're in the process of installing charging points for electric vehicles and just this week have put new facilities in Thatcham and Pangbourne. Charge points are also going in at Lambourn, Hungerford and Newbury as part of a pilot project and from there we will assess how best to rollout charge points more widely.

There will soon be a new Chief Executive at the helm to work with the Executive and deliver on our ambitions for the Council, and our aspirations for the district in the coming years. Yesterday evening Council approved the appointment of the preferred candidate and we expect to be able to announce more details in the next few days. In the meantime, Susan Halliwell, one of our Executive Directors, will be acting as our Interim Chief Executive from 12th August and until the incoming candidate can begin. We wish Susan every success in this role.

Coronavirus Weeknotes #63

Written on: 25-6-2021

We had hoped that the next time we wrote to you we would have moved into Step 4 and seen the easing of most, perhaps even all, the remaining restrictions. As you will have heard, the increase in cases has caused the move to be paused until later next month if conditions allow it.

Certainly the signs are positive with the Prime Minister voicing his optimism ahead of the next review and with good progress being made here in West Berkshire. We can't shy away from an increase in cases recently and need to stay on top of the data to make sure we continue to do what's needed to keep the virus at bay. To add some context, however, we remain well below the national average, hospital admissions remain low, and the vaccination programme continues to go well. Vaccinations are now available to all adults and in the district with more than 78% having had at least one vaccination and more than half have had both doses.

The challenge now is to make it as easy as possible for those still waiting for their vaccinations to have them. Next week, a new Health on the Move bus, funded in part by the Council, will be in the area acting as a mobile vaccination centre for groups less able or willing to travel for their jab. It will be at Two Saints in Newbury with our homeless community in mind and in Lambourn to ensure that people working rurally in our racing community receive their vaccinations. These are for pre-booked appointments only, and we hope to open it up for drop-in appointments at more locations in the future.

Regular testing remains paramount while the vaccination programme continues. It will take time for everyone to have both doses and for full immunity to be reached so please continue with community and home testing for a while longer to keep yourself and others around you safe.

Now our focus is just as much on the future and our aspirations for a comprehensive and long-lasting recovery from the pandemic. The delay in the move to Step 4 means our support for the local economy is as important as ever. In the short term, our Welcome Back Fund will help smaller businesses to get back on their feet over the summer. Looking to the future, we are about to start the next phase of consultation on the future development of Newbury Town Centre.

Elsewhere there is more good news with our Holiday Food and Activities Programme on track for a bumper summer of support for those children who need it most. Open to pupils who receive Free School Meals, the programme provides a range of fun activities which provide enriching, physical and nutritional activities to promote wellbeing.

We ran a pilot programme during the Easter holidays and it was really well received. Such was its success that we've received additional funding from the Department for Education which will allow us to double our programme during the summer. There will now be 28 primary schools taking part and we have plans for community activities for children aged 12 and over too. Children receiving Free School Meals were amongst those most impacted during the pandemic so being able to provide these activities is something we're really pleased about. 

Our recovery strategy sets out an aspiration to seize the positives from the pandemic and undoubtedly one of these has been the work of our voluntary and community groups. It has been remarkable what has been achieved and we want to do more to support the groups that support our communities as we come out of the pandemic. This week we've launched a survey for all voluntary and community groups, which builds on previous work we've done and seeks to find what support these groups would benefit from in the future. These voices will be important in helping shape what we do next to give the groups what they need to flourish in future years.

You can find out more about the voluntary and community sector survey and take part here: https://www.westberks.gov.uk/voluntarysector

Coronavirus Weeknotes #62

Written on: 11-6-2021

Hasn't it been fantastic to finally have some sunny weather to put a spring in our step and lift the mood after what felt like a long winter?

It came at just the right time with the bank holiday and for many people the school holiday too. Our virtual watercooler moments have seen colleagues talking about time spent with family, of first trips away since lockdown ended and of the things to look forward to this summer. It's another reminder that little by little we are beginning to recover from the pandemic.

Of course we are not home and dry just yet, and in the past week we have seen neighbouring local authorities begin surge testing (which is extra Covid-19 testing) in response to an increase in cases driven by the Delta variant. We've been paying close attention to the data and at this stage surge testing is not something we need to undertake in our district. Cases of coronavirus locally are below the national and regional average, and lower than our Berkshire neighbours too. In addition, for the Covid-19 cases we do have, the Delta variant is not the prevalent strain.

We are not complacent though, because the time taken to sequence the data does create a delay in publication, and it's likely that in time the Delta variant will become the dominant strain. We've already developed plans for surge testing should it be required. For now we are supporting Reading and Wokingham Borough Councils where we need to. There are a small number of residents living close to the border of surge testing areas and some residents who go to work or school in those areas too. We are providing support to those residents where this is necessary, and there is more information about this on our respective council websites.

What this means for the anticipated move to Step 4 on 21st June remains to be seen, and we will be watching with interest on Monday as the Prime Minister announces what will happen next.

It's not just the weather which has been putting a spring in our step, but also some positive results from our work throughout the pandemic. Whilst we have focused on the the virus we've continued to perform well in other areas too. Prior to the pandemic we were working on a new ChatBot to answer enquiries on our website. Not only did we launch it in the midst of the lockdown last summer but also we were able to adapt it to answer the questions residents were asking about the help and support available. It was our contribution towards a wider project by the Thames Valley Berkshire Smart Cities Project which last week won an award from the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Places and Transport (ADEPT) Presidents' Awards. We were delighted to receive this national recognition for the work the partnership has done transforming service delivery across a number of areas.

Elsewhere we had a busy Executive meeting yesterday evening and which considered a number of important reports. One such report, on our performance last year, showed we did well delivering the core services which are valued by local residents whilst also responding to the pandemic and progressing our priorities for improvement. Executive also heard how we were able to deliver a £4.6m underspend last year thanks to our financial stewardship over the past year and significant funding from Central Government whilst our Recovery and Renewal, and Economic Development strategies were refreshed to keep pace with the impact coronavirus has had on the district. It's nice to feel a sense of accomplishment for all that has been achieved over the past year, although we still need to get through the tail end of the pandemic and to move forward with our recovery plans.

We were quick to realise that the pandemic would have a lasting impact and require a significant effort to help the district to bounce back. Our first recovery strategy was approved last July but since then we have had two more lockdowns, more home schooling and more disruption to our local economy. It has also created inequality, with some residents more affected by others. Our latest strategy takes all of this into account and our priorities include health and social wellbeing across the district and to support local businesses recover. We also need to support young people in the area and our schools as we know they have been particularly affected through their learning and through isolation from their friends. Together with an increase in the pace of our environmental work, better customer service and engagement with residents, and remembering those we have lost, there is much to be done in the coming months but we are well placed to do it.

If you're interested in hearing more about this, you can join us next week for a live update on the Council's Recovery and Renewal Strategy and the chance to ask questions about the plans and share your experiences of the pandemic. The event takes place on Tuesday (15th June) at 5pm on the West Berkshire Council Facebook page.


Coronavirus Weeknotes #61

Written on: 28-5-2021

There has been much reporting in the news this week about the rise of a particularly concerning variant of coronavirus and its spread through the UK, and questions about what it means for West Berkshire.

The variant, which originated in India, may be more transmissible so we are remaining alert for this strain and are reassured that Public Health England has robust measures in place to monitor and react to this strain if and when it is required. So far we have had only a handful of cases of this strain of the virus in West Berkshire but it is moving throughout the country and it is inevitable we will see more in time.

What we have seen recently is an increase in positive cases of coronavirus more generally in the district. The latest data shows cases to be around 30 per 100,000 people which is above both the national and regional average. We had been doing well and seen a reduction in cases, but lately there has been an increase which is largely based around outbreaks in several of our schools. Data shows that a high proportion of our cases are in school-age children and those they live with. However, it is important to recognise that whilst our rates in this age group have increased, these are relatively small numbers when compared to the thousands of children attending our schools every day. Our schools are continuing to do a magnificent job in ensuring a safe learning environment and we wish both pupils and teaching staff a well-deserved break next week.

Whilst an increase in cases is unwelcome it provides some reassurance that the cause is known and can be addressed. Younger children are not tested at school and so it remains really important that families undertake regular testing at home. Positive results should be confirmed with a free PCR test - which can be booked online. It's vital because it is this test which kicks off the Test and Trace activities which will help to reduce community transmission, but also enable laboratories to sequence tests and identify variants.

The good news is that the data is showing positive cases to be almost non-existent in people over 60, and falling steadily amongst 45-59 year olds, so the vaccination programme is making a huge difference. Hospital admissions are now very low across the district which is further evidence that vaccinations and testing are reducing transmission in the community, and that the people getting the virus tend to feel the effects less.

We do know that coronavirus can mutate so whether it is this latest variant or a new one which comes along we will need to accept that the virus will be around for a long time. As with flu, we will have to live with it and through booster vaccinations or other measures do all we can to keep it at bay.

For now we are encouraging everyone to take up the vaccination when their turn comes, to continue with community testing and to be mindful of the advice around hands, face, space, fresh air and social distancing.

Looking ahead to next week Tuesday marks the start of National Volunteers Week and another chance for us to celebrate a thriving voluntary sector in West Berkshire and all it does for the district. We've seen first-hand over the past 15 months just what a difference volunteers made during the worst of the pandemic - the generosity of those able and willing to get involved and the appreciation from those who were helped.

Closer to home we also benefit directly from local volunteers in our libraries, at our museum and in Shaw House to name just a few places. We work with and support community groups too, from ramblers helping to keep our rights of way in a good condition to community transport groups working across the district to help residents get to medical appointments or to pick up groceries.  

We know there is a lot of goodwill in our communities and a desire to help those who need it and the Council wants to continue playing its part helping and building on the support already in place. Each year we make significant funding available for voluntary and community sector support across West Berkshire. Next month we will begin a phase of engagement which has been co-designed with sector colleagues to establish the support needs of voluntary organisations and community groups. We will then work with these to design solutions which meet their needs.

It's an exciting time and a natural next step as we seek to harness all the good we have seen being done in our communities this year and to explore how we can keep this going into the years ahead. To all those who play their part volunteering in the district we say, again, thank you for all you have done.