West Berkshire Council

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Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Find information about community support and our services during the coronavirus pandemic, on our information for residents pages, our information for businesses pages, and our community support hub page which has guidance to help coordinate community organisations.

See a summary of our Local Outbreak Control Plan and read our frequently asked questions. 

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.

Our website also has sections on:

Information for Residents

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Coronavirus: stay alert to save lives graphic

Coronavirus Weeknotes #55

Written on: 1-4-2021

The sun is out, the Easter weekend beckons and there is a definite sense of optimism in the air as the Council, and our communities, continue to move on from what has been a turbulent year.

A morale boost was delivered this week with the easing of restrictions which has made it possible to now meet up to six people (or two households) outdoors. Already on social media we have seen photos of families and friends reunited in back gardens which has been heartening to see. It's also serves as a reminder of the sacrifices we have all made over the past year to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.

No doubt there will be countless visits going on across the district this weekend and we hope those of you with plans have an enjoyable time. Please remember that although visits are allowed, we still need to continue with social distancing for the time being.

Elsewhere we are working hard to get ready to open up more widely as restrictions gradually ease. We're investing more money into looking after our parks and open spaces as we know people will be flocking to these areas when it's possible to meet up in larger groups outdoors. We're already beginning to see the impact this will have with reports this week of full dog waste bins. Our contractors have also been hit by Covid-19, which hasn't helped, but staff worked additional hours last weekend and will do so again this weekend and we hope to be back to normal soon.

Town centres are another area which we are supporting now and throughout the summer. We will be receiving £138,000 from a national 'Welcome Back Fund' to help local businesses as they begin trading and to encourage people back into our town centres. This week we have decided to match this funding ourselves to specifically support our independent businesses across Newbury, Thatcham, Hungerford, Pangbourne and Theale.

The past year has been difficult for us all and our local businesses are no exception. Running a business is tough and doing so during a pandemic is all the more challenging. We have worked hard to support the local economy over the past year so that business owners know help is available. We all want to see our high streets thrive, and the district's economic recovery is something we are prioritising as we look to come out of the other side of coronavirus.

In further signs that things are moving forwards we are working towards reopening our libraries for limited browsing from 12th April, and the grounds of Shaw House will be open to local people to enjoy once again between 8am and 4pm on 6-9th April and 12th-16th April. Our culture team are busy working on a summer events programme and all being well we look forward to welcoming visitors back to Shaw House from 29th May.

We received news this week that legislation allowing virtual public meetings will not be extended when it ends on 7th May. Since we started livestreaming our meetings last year they have been well received by residents and have increased visibility of, and participation in local democracy, accountability and decision-making. The reason given for the decision is that there is not enough time for the necessary legislation to proceed through Parliament. It's a disappointing decision and along with other councils we're lobbying for it to be reversed. In the meantime, we have started looking at what this means for our arrangements and how we might keep these meetings as open and accessible as they currently are.

The good news is that we've been able to bring our Annual Council meeting forward to 4th May, allowing us to hold it virtually which is logistically easier for councillors and the public to attend.

The positive feeling is not confined to our Covid recovery and there is much more for us to reflect on with a great deal of pride. Three new wildflower verges have been created in the past week, a new energy switching scheme is helping residents get a good deal on their utility bills and the West Berkshire Lottery has just celebrated its second birthday. The lottery has already raised more than £124,000 for good causes in the district as well as paying out almost £40,000 in prizes. It's an initiative which is making a difference and making us proud - and if you're not already playing it's not too late to join!

So, the long weekend is almost here and with it the start of the school holidays. Our pupils deserve a well-earned break after a term of first working from home and then a return to the classroom, new rules and, for some, regular Covid tests. They have done fantastically well - as have our teaching staff and parents and carers of course. What we would ask is that parents remind their young people not to mix in school bubbles outside of school, and to be mindful of the 'rule of six' when they meet with friends during the holidays. We are almost there but cannot afford to drop our guard just yet.

We will get there though, and hopefully before too long. On Monday we expect to hear from the Prime Minister about the move to Step 2 on the recovery roadmap and the opening of hospitality. In the meantime, however you're spending the long weekend we hope you have a wonderful time.

 


Coronavirus Weeknotes #54

Written on: 26-3-2021

On the anniversary of the country entering the first lockdown our thoughts have been with those who have died over the past year, as well as those who are grieving.

The national day of reflection on Tuesday was a chance for us to pause and remember those who died, and the family and friends left behind. To lose a loved one is difficult at the best of times, but for many of us coronavirus took away the chance to grieve properly. We know some people are already looking ahead to the easing of restrictions, ready to plan memorial events and begin to move on from a difficult year.

We are currently working on plans to create a lasting memorial to those who have died. This is at an early stage but we are keen to involve our communities in the memorial to ensure that we create something which will resonate with residents across the district.   

Community safety has been another issue which has been at the forefront of our minds this week. The tragic murder of Sarah Everard has created a national conversation around safety when you're walking alone, and street harassment too. In West Berkshire we have a low rate of violent and sexual crime - it is under both the national and regional average. Crime rates are low but we also want people to feel safe, as well as be safe, when they go out. To help with this the Executive yesterday agreed to create a Safer Streets Champion.

The champion will work with communities to understand their concerns about street harassment and how this can be addressed. They will also work with partners, including Thames Valley Police and our MPs, to raise awareness of the issue within our communities and to ensure that the police use all appropriate powers to enable them to take action on relevant crime. We'll also be looking at funding opportunities to help us deliver safer street initiatives. We're pleased to be taking a proactive approach to this and look forward to appointing the champion at Annual Council in May.  

There is work that can start right away though, and next week the Council will be participating in a round-table event with Laura Farris MP and Thames Valley Police to listen to local views on the matter.

Continuing the community safety theme, yesterday the Executive also approved the creation of a West Berkshire Domestic Abuse Board. Home should be a safe place for everyone, but domestic abuse is hidden behind closed doors. It's an area we've been working in for some time along with A2Dominion and other partners. New duties will soon be placed on local authorities through a new Domestic Abuse Bill currently going through Parliament, and we are in a good position to meet our new obligations. Much of what is being introduced we are doing already but the new law will standardise the approach taken by local authorities.

There is some more work for us to do, and our existing Domestic Abuse Strategy Group will be adapted to become a formal board, and conduct a needs assessment to make sure this work is focused in the right places. We'll receive £250,000 of additional funding to deliver this work which we will be using both for some administrative support for our domestic abuse activity and to commission new services where there are gaps in services and the provision of safe accommodation. One of our six Council priorities is to protect the most vulnerable residents and the funding and the new changes it will enable will help us to continue delivering on that commitment.

Looking ahead to next week we see a slight easing of the lockdown restrictions. From Monday up to six people, or two households, will be able to meet outdoors making it easier for friends and families to meet up. Coming ahead of the Easter holidays and the end of term for schools this is something to lift the spirits. Outdoor sports facilities such as tennis and basketball courts will also be opening up, providing more opportunities to come together, play games and socialise. Remember, though, that rules such as social distancing and the use of face coverings remain for the time being.

However you plan to take advantage of these new rules and the increasingly sunnier weather we hope you have a great time, and stay safe.


Coronavirus Weeknotes #53

Written on: 19-3-2021

Headlines have been dominated this week by the vaccination programme, with the good progress being made delivering the jabs tempered by concerns about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The positive news is that the vaccine programme continues to go well with around 25m people across the UK now having had their first vaccination - including 57,412 people in West Berkshire. The progress made has been staggering, and the country remains on track to offer a first dose to all adults by the end of July. Of course, this is important for keeping us safe and, in time, paving the way for the further easing of the restrictions that are currently in place.

To give ourselves the best possible chance of this, we need people to feel confident in the vaccine programme and, of course, the vaccines themselves. Providing reassurance about the vaccine is something which has been a focus for all the organisations involved in the programme. In recent days, however, you may have read reports suggesting a link between the AstraZeneca vaccine and a risk of blood clots. However, there is no cause for concern.

In fact, there is plenty of evidence to support the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine and it continues to have the confidence of both the UK's Medicines and Health Products Regulation Agency, and the European Medicines Agency. The reality is that blood clots occur naturally and are not uncommon, so there is no reason to be concerned. If you receive an invitation for a vaccination please do take it to protect yourself, and others from coronavirus.

As the vaccination roll out continues we begin to look ahead from responding to the pandemic to recovering from it. Coronavirus cases are falling and yesterday the Government started writing to residents who are shielding to tell them that from April they no longer need to do this. It's yet another small step towards normal life, but our Community Support Hub will continue for a while longer so our most vulnerable residents have somewhere to turn if they need help.

It does feel that now we can look ahead with a degree of confidence about things slowly opening up again, and the planning we're doing is focused on supporting our communities and our local economy through this. Teams across the council are working together in preparation for the relaxing of restrictions - from our economy and highways teams to our health and public protection teams we're getting ready. The reopening of shops and hospitality, the resumption of amateur and grassroots sports and ability to hold events will each require a degree of support and coordination across the Council - and we're committed to doing what we can to help.

Our small businesses and high streets have been particularly badly hit and this is an area we are particularly looking at to make sure we have the right support in place. We're busy working on our plans to support our high streets and encourage residents back out to support local businesses and bring the buzz back to our high streets. If restrictions are relaxed as planned, we really hope it will be a summer to remember. 

Until then we continue to support local residents who have been particularly badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Recently we announced that we will continue to provide Free School Meal vouchers to eligible children during the Easter holidays. It follows on from the COVID Winter Grant Scheme which provided 660 vouchers during the Christmas and February school holidays and helped 1,750 people to buy food and pay for other essentials such as utilities. This support has made a difference until now, and it will continue to do so this Easter.

 


Coronavirus Weeknotes #52

Written on: 12-3-2021

Tomorrow marks a year since the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in West Berkshire.

It has been an incredible year in countless ways, but we've been glad this week to focus on the first step on the road to recovery and the chance to gradually begin moving on with our lives. For us this has primarily concentrated on fully opening schools and allowing visitors back into care homes.

The decision to close care homes to all but essential visitors was one of the first decisions we made in response to coronavirus last March. For a year care home residents have had to make do with socially distanced or virtual visits, without being able to hug or get close to their loved ones. We have now been able to put in place arrangements for a single named visitor for each resident - providing the opportunity for physical contact for the first time in a long time. As you'd expect the opportunity has been widely taken up by families and they have been happy to take the tests and wear the PPE while they are there. Most importantly, there have been lots of happy faces amongst residents and family members which has been great to see.

Schools have opened to all pupils again this week, having only been open to keyworker and vulnerable children throughout lockdown. This has allowed children who had been home-schooling to resume face-to-face teaching for the first time since the start of January. The importance of this for pupils' education and wellbeing cannot be underestimated and we've heard from parents about how excited they and their children have been about going back to school, getting back into a familiar routine and seeing their friends again.

As well as the immediate work to get schools back open again we are also planning for the future to ensure schools and pupils are supported in the years to come. We will be working with schools to look at how we can retain and grow digital learning skills and technologies over the coming years. Off the back of our winter hardship grant, thanks to funding from the Department for Education, we're preparing to launch a new food and activities scheme to support vulnerable pupils and their families during the school holidays. We'll tell you more about that soon.

Our latest budget, which we announced last week, sets out our commitments to education over the coming year. Looking specifically at our capital programme for the next three years we will be spending £32m on projects which will help us deliver on our priority to support everyone to reach their full potential. It's an exciting programme of work which includes:

  • Spending more than £2m to create additional provision for secondary-aged pupils with autism and social, emotional and mental health issues
  • Improving and increasing facilities at our schools, including remodelling and refurbishment at Parsons Down Partnership; expansion and refurbishment of the sports hall at The Downs School and a feasibility on the remodelling of the Calcot Schools
  • Providing aids and adaptions for children with special educational needs and disabilities, improvements to the Physical Disability Resourced Unit at Speenhamland Primary School and the conversion of caretaker accommodation to a therapeutic support base at Garland Junior School in Burghfield Common
  • Creating additional school places which will be required as new homes are built - including spending around £3.5m on primary education to meet the needs created by building new homes in North Newbury and expansion and remodelling at The Willink and Park House Schools.

As well as specific projects we will also be spending around £2m a year on rolling maintenance programme across our schools and other educational spaces. The capital programme will improve existing facilities and deliver new ones across the district and for pupils with a range of needs. With schools reopening we have much to look forward to in the months and years ahead.

The return of schools has also meant that we have been continuing to work hard on delivering our community testing service. Secondary school pupils are now taking tests a couple of times a week but we know this will be a new process for many of them. Arrangements we've put in place mean parents who want support with this can come along to one of our community testing sites from Monday to get some help. These can be pre-booked but you can just drop in too.

Now that our community testing centres are in the swing of things we are opening up the service beyond the critical and keyworkers who were given early access to the programme. Any resident who wants to book a test can now do so online https://www.westberks.gov.uk/lft. Likewise, all businesses can now register for testing for employees - even if they have fewer than 50 - but need to do so by the end of the month. Businesses can register here.

As we continue through the roadmap to recovery we ask for your continued support for restrictions that remain in place. We've come a long way and together we will get through this. So let's make the most of the freedoms we gain as restrictions are relaxed over the next few months - but please don't get complacent and do follow the rules for just a little longer.


Coronavirus Weeknotes #51

Written on: 5-3-2021

It's back to school next week for pupils across the district, as the country takes its first step on the journey out of the coronavirus restrictions.

Many children will be eager to return to the classroom after a prolonged - but necessary - time spent learning from home. On Monday our Local Outbreak Engagement Board (LOEB) heard from one local head teacher, Alison Webster, about the work schools are doing to reopen safely. The plans in place are comprehensive and left us reassured about the work being done to protect pupils and staff from the virus.

It's clear that pupils will require a period of adjustment next week with wellbeing and socialisation a priority as they ease back into the school routine. There will be new routines around handwashing, bubbles, and restrictions on sharing desks and equipment, to name just a few things which have been planned. Schools are doing their bit and it's really important that outside of school we continue to follow the guidelines too. Refraining from playdates and being careful not to mix at school gates, for example, will help ensure the good work of our schools is not undone. We will be supporting our schools to drive this message home, and via schools we will be writing to parents with some advice about this. We have also arranged banners to provide a visible reminder at pick-up/drop-off points.

This is part of a wider package of support for schools, and teaching staff, and at Monday's LOEB it was great to hear our education team praised for the work they've done over the past year. Our thanks go to both the education team and our school communities - and to all the parents who have been helping with home schooling over the past year or so. We wish everyone the best of luck for Monday.

The fact that schools can reopen at all is thanks to an extremely efficient vaccination programme and easily-accessible community testing facilities. By the start of this week, 500,000 vaccinations had been completed across the Thames Valley region - of which 40,000 were in West Berkshire. From next week we hear there will be a significant increase in the number of vaccine doses available which will help drive the vaccination programme forward. There are also plans being developed by our local Clinical Commissioning Group to provide a mobile vaccination option to make it more accessible which, living in a largely rural area, has obvious benefits for our communities.

We've also had a lot of questions about community testing this week following the Government announcement that home testing kits will be available to families of school pupils. We're currently working on the arrangements for making these available locally and expect to be able to confirm our plans for this around 15th March.

Looking forward to the year ahead, this week has been one for budget setting - both ours and nationally as the Government set out its plans for next year. There is a lot to digest in the Chancellor's budget but we were pleased to see funding to help those sectors which have been badly hit by the pandemic. The extension of the furlough scheme until September, access to grants for self-employed workers and additional money for the arts will all help us to get through the remainder of the pandemic and to begin recovering from it.

On Tuesday evening the Council approved its budget for 2021/22 which will enable us to provide good local services whilst also supporting our communities through a period of economic uncertainty. There is much in the budget for us to feel positive about - with investment in schools, transport and other infrastructure projects, funding for a range of environmental initiatives and provision for protecting and caring for our most vulnerable residents.

We want to conclude this week by thanking all those who came along to the Facebook Live update on the coronavirus response yesterday evening. These events are always well received, and they are a great way for us to connect directly with our residents answering their questions and hearing their feedback on how we're doing. There will be another one next week to provide an update on the Local Plan and the proposal to build additional houses in Thatcham. If you are interested in finding out more please join us on Monday evening over on our Facebook page.

  • Cllr Hilary Cole and Bryan Lyttle (Planning Policy Manager) will provide an update on the proposed development of increased housing in North East Thatcham on Monday evening (8th March) at 6pm. You can pre-submit your questions to pr@westberks.gov.uk before 4pm on Monday, and watch the event at www.facebook.com/westberkshire