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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

Information for Businesses

Coronavirus: Questions and Answers

Coronavirus: stay alert to save lives graphic

Coronavirus Weeknotes #16

Written on: 10-7-2020

Since the lockdown was eased last month we have all been adjusting to a new way of life. What was once new to us all has quickly become an everyday reality - facemasks, screens in shops and social distancing are just some of the things we have had to become used to. As we adapt, we have this week seen some of the biggest changes since the lockdown ended.

Restaurants, pubs, hairdressers and hotels are some of the businesses now allowed to open, with community centres and playgrounds also reopening. The impact of Covid-19 continues to be felt, and the Government has announced more support for businesses and communities - ranging from an Eat Out to Help Out scheme which will benefit our hospitality industry to funding for culture, heritage and the arts which we hope will reach venues in our district.

There was good news for councils too with another £500 million to provide local authorities with reimbursement for lost income and to allow longer for business rates tax deficits to be repaid. With income making up a good proportion of the Council budget and areas such as car parking impacted by Covid-19 this is welcome news and will make things a little easier for us in the coming months.

For our part, we are working to reopen our libraries soon - although this will be on a phased basis and things won't return to normal immediately. Newbury, Hungerford and Thatcham Libraries will open from Monday (13th July) for book collections during limited opening hours and under a pilot 'order and collect' service. Our 'At Home' service continues to be provided for residents unable to travel to a library and is always well received by those who rely on it for their library loans.

As well as changes to what can open, things have moved on too for people who were being shielded. After months spent at home they are now able to meet in groups of up to six people and to form support bubbles if they wish. This is undoubtedly good news for the residents affected and we don't underestimate the impact this prolonged period at home will have had on them. As shielding is relaxed, and eventually phased out, our Community Support Hub stands ready to support them if they need help or if, through track and trace, they are asked to shield themselves again.

Covid-19 has impacted daily life for all of us here in West Berkshire and we were keen to ask residents about this so that we could understand what their individual experiences have been. We ran a survey recently and were pleased to have received almost 3,300 responses from local people.

Some of the things we've been told by residents are very positive, particularly around their appetite to volunteer, help others in the community and to support local businesses on the high street. Other responses are quite worrying, particularly with a third of those surveyed reporting a fall in household income. Through our recovery work, we will look at how we can get those who have been most affected back on their feet and will offer all the support we can.

We're also very aware that some groups who are particularly vulnerable to the impact of Covid-19, such as young people and those from the BAMER community, are under-represented among the respondents and we have employed a new Equality & Diversity Officer to look at how we can engage them more effectively. We'll be running the survey regularly to understand how the impact changes over time and, when the time comes, we hope that residents will once again give us their views.

In a week in which we have seen more of our high street businesses open up, we are of course very disappointed to hear of John Lewis' decision not to re-open its At Home store in Newbury. The store has been a key part of the Parkway development since it opened in 2011 and we will be sad to see it go. We have been in contact with Parkway Shopping, which houses the store, since the announcement was made and have offered our support to them.

The list of closures includes stores across the country, including in UK's second largest city, so we don't feel that this decision is a reflection on Newbury so much as on the national, and indeed global, picture in retail. That said, as part of the recovery work we are undertaking, we will be engaging with residents and businesses about the future of the town centre and considering how we can enhance the town's offer to include more experiential destinations alongside more traditional retail outlets.

Although this is undoubtedly a blow, there is reason to be optimistic. with 85% of Parkway's tenants having re-opened and those who have are trading well. Last weekend, footfall was at 80% of pre lockdown levels, which is well above the current national average of around 60%. Thank you to everyone who has been supporting our high streets and our local businesses over the past few weeks.


Coronavirus Weeknotes #15

Written on: 2-7-2020

This is the first of our updates to be written in July. We began writing to you in March to keep you up to date with our local response to Covid-19 and at that time we had no idea that three whole calendar months would pass before we would reach this phase of our recovery. This week marks both the publication of our Local Outbreak Control Plan (LOCP) as well as one of the biggest changes to normal life in recent weeks with the relaxation of lockdown guidance to allow us to safely visit others at home and with more businesses opening their doors, albeit whilst observing social distancing.

At this point, it is important for us to reflect once again on the sacrifices our community has had to make to get to this stage. We want to thank residents and businesses across West Berkshire for their continued efforts to ensure they stay safe and play their part in keeping Covid-19 infection rates to a minimum across the district. The strain this has put on you all is clear but the ongoing benefits are beginning to be felt.

West Berkshire Council is now required, as all local authorities are, to publish a LOCP to outline how a further local outbreak and potential future restrictions would be managed. Having done this on 30 June, we want to use this week's update to share this with you.

In recent weeks, officers from across the council have been working with partners outside of the organisation, including the NHS, to develop this plan, which will be a key document for all of us in the district in the event of an unexpected further spike in local Covid-19 cases. The plan summarises how we will aim to protect our residents and communities by minimising further spread or recurrence of Covid-19 across the district. It also details the roles and responsibilities in prevention and management of the virus and how we will recognise and respond to outbreaks to prevent the further spread and recurrence of infection. Integral to the success of the plan this will be ensuring that clear communications are delivered to our community and that awareness of what the plan contains is high. Details can be found below and we would urge you to familiarise yourself with it.

info.westberks.gov.uk/coronavirus-locp

We know from what has happened with the local outbreak in Kirklees and concerns about infection rates in some large towns, such as Leicester, that a fine balance must be struck to keep West Berkshire safe. We all have a part to play in controlling the spread of Covid-19 and in the unfortunate event that a further outbreak came to our district, we will also have a role in fighting it. The best way to do this will be to ensure you receive and follow all of the guidance you need to keep yourself and others safe. We would strongly suggest that you sign up to our e-bulletin to receive timely updates regarding the local Covid-19 response: you can sign up to our e-bulletin online

This is particularly important because of the major changes to guidance which come into force this weekend. We will now be allowed to spend time indoors or outside with another household, either at home or at a pub or restaurant. When outside, we may meet up to five people from more than two households so long as social distancing guidance is followed. Not only this; but pubs, cafes, hotels and hairdressers will begin welcoming customers back. We are so proud of the resilience and creativity so many of these businesses have shown since lockdown was announced and recently, since they were given a date from when they might resume operating. We welcome them back to our towns and villages and can assure them that we stand ready to support them to re-open safely and successfully.

Just as you all are, we're looking forward to seeing loved ones for the first time in months and to supporting the local businesses we've not been able to visit in months. Every week we have thanked you for your patience and for your support in helping to bring our district to this point. We would encourage you now to enjoy these new freedoms, which have been hard-earned, and to stay safe and look after each other as we enter this new phase.


Coronavirus Weeknotes #14

Written on: 26-6-2020

Over the past few days the local news has been dominated by the tragic events in Reading. Our thoughts are with the families and friends of those people who have been killed, and with our colleagues at Reading Borough Council during this difficult time. On Monday, West Berkshire Council joined in a minute's silence for those who have been affected by the tragedy.

Reading Borough Council have created a new #ReadingTogether website to provide information about events, memorials, condolences, information and victim support. You can find it at http://together.reading.gov.uk/

Across the Council this week we have been continuing to balance the dual-needs of the recovery from Covid-19 and the need to continue delivering the usual day-to-day business. This week our Corporate Parent Panel met to review how teams within the Children and Family Service have been offering support to our children in care - the importance of which cannot be overstated. Elsewhere in the service, some of our young carers featured on a Channel 4 News report on the impact Covid-19 has had on them. It was powerful to hear in their own voices the challenges they have faced and a reminder of the good work which is being done throughout the year to help children in the district caring for relatives.

Elsewhere, we are putting the finishing touches to our Environment Strategy, which goes before Executive next month, we are preparing to launch a new climate change bond, working to make our new ChatBot even smarter...across the Council we're busy both doing the 'day job' and helping the district recover from a difficult few months.

That said, we have to recognise that Covid-19 has had an impact on what we do, and will continue to do so for some time to come. We are looking at our future plans and working through how we may need to adapt them. Our Economic Development Strategy is a good example; our local economy has been affected by the need for social distancing and we will need to look at how we might need to flex in order to respond to the situation we find ourselves in. We're fortunate to have a strong and resilient local economy and this leaves us in a better position than others to bounce back.

Another focus for us this week has been developing the Local Outbreak Plan. The response to Covid-19 is changing with a more locally-focused approach and, like all local authorities, we're developing our plans in case there is an outbreak here in West Berkshire. We'll be telling you more about the plan next week, and we will then be moving to fortnightly updates through the longer-term recovery phase. 

Finally, we have been working with schools to make arrangements for the wider re-opening for pupils. To support them in planning for the remainder of this term, the summer holidays or September we are looking for overflow spaces we might use. This could be village or church halls or other venues near to the schools. They may not be needed, but our Education team are assessing what's available. If you know of a space which might be used, or of marquee and portaloo providers, please let the team know at educationassets@westberks.gov.uk.


Coronavirus Weeknotes #13

Written on: 19-6-2020

Open for Business.

This has been our mantra for a while now and is one of six priorities in our Council Strategy. This week it feels particularly apt as we see our town centres open for business again after being shut for some time. In recent weeks we've been busy supporting our centres to reopen - not only in Hungerford, Newbury and Thatcham but also in our smaller towns and villages. Local businesses are important to our economy here in West Berkshire but for many people they are part of the fabric of the community and have been sorely missed. It's great to see them opening their doors to customers again.

At the start of the crisis we worked hard distributing more than £26m in small business grants and funds to support our small businesses, and our retail, hospitality and leisure industries. More recently we have held a webinar and provided information packs and social distancing materials to help those that can reopen to do so. This week it has been non-essential retail and we look forward to hospitality and leisure beginning again soon - and not forgetting hairdressers too!

As much as it is welcome news that businesses are beginning to reopen, they continue to face some difficult months ahead. The situation remains uncertain with social distancing likely to be in place for some time and as we wait to see if, or how, consumer behaviour has changed. Tough though it has undoubtedly been for many businesses, we have also seen how resilient they have been throughout, and the proactive and responsible approach that has been taken towards putting in place the measures needed to open up safely. We are proud of the way our local businesses and shoppers have adapted and we continue to stand ready to support them in the coming months, and to make sure residents know our shops, and our district, is open for business.

We recently surveyed local residents about the impact of coronavirus and how it has changed their lifestyle - for better and worse. This included questions on the impact on our town centres. This week we started to analyse the results and we'll be talking more about this in a future blog. What is clear from the initial data is that people have been affected differently - some people have more money to spend while others have less, and some people are exercising more and others less so. These are just two examples. It's crucial that we know how people are affected and that we work hard to reduce the negative impacts of coronavirus. To do this properly we need to understand the impact on all our residents. It was clear from the survey that we need to do more to hear from 18-24-year-olds in the district, as well as our BAMER communities. We will be looking at ways to make sure all voices are heard and help to shape what we do, and how we do it.

Inequality is something which has been under the spotlight recently with a national conversation taking place about how we remember the past, and make sure society is fair for everyone today. At West Berkshire Council we are committed to equality, diversity and inclusion within our workplace and within our communities.

The different cultures and communities we have in West Berkshire make an important contribution to the district socially and economically, and help make the district a great place to live. We want to be clear that there is no place for racism in West Berkshire, and we will continue to play our part in making sure we have a fair, friendly and equal society.


Coronavirus Weeknotes #12

Written on: 12-6-2020

Yesterday the NHS released new figures from the first week of the new test and trace system. They show that 8,000 people tested positive coronavirus and led to 31,000 people they had been in close contact with being asked to self-isolate for 14 days. They managed to reach most of those people - 85 percent - within 24 hours.

Although the front line response is provided by the NHS, local authorities have a role to play and this has been a focus for us over the past week or two. At a national level, the NHS is responsible for testing people with suspected Covid-19 and, for positive tests, alerting close contacts so they too can self-isolate and keep others safe. Our role is to help with arrangements 'on the ground' here in West Berkshire.

Our Public Health team have been leading the charge in putting in place the local arrangements should test and trace identify a local outbreak. This is looking at a range of measures to help prevent outbreaks or manage them if they occur. This work has included mapping out areas of heightened risk and making sure they have appropriate measures in place. The work requires collaboration across the council - from public transport to care homes, and nurseries to leisure centres it requires collaboration to make sure we have the right measures in place to prevent an outbreak, and the right response ready should we need it. Much of this work is already underway, with social distancing advice and safety materials provided to local businesses, social distancing on council transport being worked through and care homes putting in place resilience plans to make sure they are as prepared as can be for whatever is around the corner.

Our Community Support Hub continues to play an important role, working hand in hand with the community and voluntary sector, to support our communities. Should the test and trace system identify vulnerable people who need to self-isolate we stand ready to support them if they need our help.

As a result of test and trace, some people will be asked to self-isolate - just as the social distancing guidelines are eased. With summer well and truly on its way, shops reopening and the sight of others out and about enjoying themselves (from two meters apart, remember!) some people might find it hard to stay at home. It is vital that we do so if we are asked to - it is the only way to keep each other safe. The last thing any of us want to do is become a contact and pass the virus on to someone else. Washing your hands thoroughly for 20 seconds and maintaining social distancing remain the most effective way of preventing the spread of infection.

Talking of safety, it's also important to be vigilant for scams as criminals will seek any opportunity to exploit people - sadly, this includes the Covid-19 pandemic. Please be vigilant, and remember that contact tracers will only call you from 0300 013 5000. They will never:

  • ask you to dial a premium rate number to speak to them (for example, those starting 09 or 087)
  • ask you to make any form of payment or purchase a product or any kind
  • ask for any details about your bank account
  • ask for your social media identities or login details, or those of your contacts
  • ask you for any passwords or PINs, or ask you to set up any passwords or PINs over the phone  
  • ask you to download any software to your PC or ask you to hand over control of your PC, smartphone or tablet to anyone else
  • ask you to access any website that does not belong to the government or NHS

For more information about test and trace - including how the system works and what to do if you have symptoms - visit the Gov.uk website

You can also sign up to receive our Covid-19 newsletter for future updates on Test and Trace.

Aside from test and trace we have been working with our businesses to reopen safely. Our high streets are important both to our residents, and to the health of our local economy. We've been busy posting out leaflets to more than 300 businesses, we held a webinar on Wednesday to offer advice and answer questions, and we've been listening to what high street businesses tell us they need to operate safely and doing our best to help. So, for example, we're looking at allowing additional outdoor seating giving businesses more space for customers and with it more room for social distancing. Our high streets are opening for business and we hope you will support them after what has been a difficult few months for them.

This week the council has been celebrating the role of carers. Like Volunteers Week last week, it is an annual fixture in our calendar but this year it is especially apt given everything that is going on right now. Looking after family or friends who are disabled, ill, older, or who otherwise need support is hard enough at the best of times. Through Covid-19 it has been even harder - people have needed more care while the need for social distancing has made it harder for them to get breaks.

We want to say thank you to all the carers across the district who have been looking after others not for recognition or reward but simply because they care. They probably don't realise the true impact their selfless work is having.

Carers week is also important to us because as a council we are lucky to have people working for us and with us who do a fantastic job caring for others. Staff in our residential homes do a wonderful job for the residents they care for and we know the past few months have been particularly tough. Our foster carers do an important job caring for children who need looking after, and we also work hard to support young carers - children who spend a great deal of their time looking after family members. To all carers in the district we say a heartfelt thank you for the care and compassion you show to others.