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West Berkshire Council joins criticism of government over pandemic

West Berkshire Council has joined criticism of the government and Public Health England for poor communication and direction during the pandemic.

Two hundred and fifty six people - including two council staffers - have died and more than 11,000 residents have had Covid to date.

The council’s Scrutiny and Management Committee heard that care homes were ‘a tragic disaster’ and of confusion caused by government announcements on business grants not being backed up by guidance for councils.

"There would be an announcement about these grants but it was two to three weeks before we had any clear guidance on what to do," council officer Joseph Holmes told the meeting.

"Businesses were knocking on our door asking for money, but we had no guidance."

Despite this, he said that West Berkshire was one of the best performing councils in distributing government business grants, adding that around £500k of fraudulent claims were prevented.

In excess of £100m of business rate relief and grants have been distributed.

Now the councils wants a deep dive in to lessons learned to inform next steps in the area’s post-pandemic recovery.

“There was poor information flow and poor strategic direction from central government and particularly from Public Health England and the NHS and what I didn’t see in the report was what was the impact here in West Berkshire of that?” said Alan Law (Con: Basildon).

Cllr Alan Law (52215480)
Cllr Alan Law (52215480)

The committee heard that the district managed to avert any PPE shortage, and credit was given to the council leadership for that.

But it was warned to 'be careful about how much patting on the back we do' by Owen Jeffrey (Lib Dem: Thatcham Central). “Our care homes were a tragic disaster. The appalling truth is West Berkshire had four care homes, now it has three as that many people passed away. They were sent untested to them from the NHS.

"There were some very sad cases. I cannot see how we could have improved as it was driven by government."

Cllr Owen Jeffrey (52215599)
Cllr Owen Jeffrey (52215599)

There has been a significant financial impact on the council due to the pandemic and longer term impacts are expected - although exact costs are as yet unclear.

Key among those are adult and children’s social care as demand returns to these service areas.

In the peak of take up for the furlough scheme, 17,900 people had their wages funded. That figure is now down to around 3,500.

The council's revenue took a big hit from the fall in parking charges, with officers predicting that parking will not get back to where it was pre-pandemic.

The report says car parking revenues have plummeted since pre pandemic months in 2019. Figures for June 2019 show £245k was raised compared to £149k in June this year.

Fly tipping steadily increased throughout 2021, peaking at 122 cases in April - 50 more than the previous year.

Forty eight wet-led (only serving drinks) pubs got a total of £95k between them as a Christmas support payment- amounting to £1k from the council matched to £1k from the government.

Approximately 90 community groups, representing 2,000 local volunteers, stood up to assist in the response in West Berkshire.

This included a number of pre-existing community groups as well as town and parish councils, which also responded to provide practical support for members of their community.

A number of mobile testing and vaccination sites were also established, providing ‘community collect’ and assisted testing.

This included the testing site at Newbury Showground, as well as the vaccination centre at Newbury Racecourse and quarantine hotels.

The district council said it wished to recognise the tremendous efforts of the community and other organisations in responding to the pandemic as well as recognising, and expressing its sympathy for, those who have died or who have seen such a significant change to their lives as a result of the pandemic.

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