Mental health must be “paramount” to any recovery plan when the country begins to emerge from the coronavirus crisis, Hackney’s deputy mayor has said.
Cllr Anntoinette Bramble was speaking in one of two online meetings held by Hackney Council last night, in which both councillors and officers attempted to look to the future while still reckoning with the continuing impact of the global pandemic on local services.
Echoing condolences and tributes to those already lost to the virus paid by Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville, Cllr Bramble, who is also a senior member of the Local Government Association, underlined their focus on both the physical safety of frontline staff through adequate protective equipment and their mental wellbeing.
Cllr Bramble said: “We keep hearing that we’re in unprecedented times. One of the challenges around the pandemic is that when you have an earthquake, you have an aftershock, but it happens, it finishes and you begin to recover.
“The challenge here is that it happens, you start to recover and heal, but then it happens again, so it feels like we’re in a vicious circle.
“One of the big debates we’ve been having in the LGA is around the health and mental wellbeing of residents, us as elected members, and the staff that are having to deal with these very uncertain and challenging times and what that feels like.
“One of the things I’ve raised is the recovery plan, and we have to think about mental health and wellbeing in the plan. One of the things about trauma, loss and bereavement, is it manifests currently, but there can also be a delay. Mental health and wellbeing has to be paramount.”
Intensive care specialists warned earlier this month that both patients and staff are likely to need treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their experiences during the crisis.
Cllr Yvonne Maxwell, who advocates for older people through her role in Hackney Council’s cabinet, added that the Town Hall is keen to harness the outpouring of community spirit seen through the borough’s mutual aid groups following the crisis.
The council dementia champion added that the post-traumatic impact of residents losing partners and close friends to Covid would have to be considered, with one of the effects of lockdown potentially provoking empathy in the wider community for what isolation is like for older people.
Cllr Maxwell said: “The message before Covid was that a lot of older people want to be part of our community and we wanted to have good intergenerational work.
“The work we’re doing with the mutual aid groups, the voluntary sector and faith groups identifies even more that an ageing well strategy is what is needed.
“We’ve got a crisis at the moment where people can’t go out. What we don’t want is, when this is over, to have another crisis where the people that were already isolated are even more isolated.
“Older people don’t want to be isolated, and want to be part of their community and break down intergenerational barriers. This crisis has shone a light on that and that it is an issue, and has raised people’s awareness of older people in their neighbourhoods as they get to know their neighbours.”
The local authority is also preparing for other financial and structural impacts of the pandemic, with health boss Cllr Chris Kennedy predicting that the council will in the future have some part to play in contact-tracing and testing of the local population.
Cllr Kennedy confirmed that the Town Hall has so far spent £900,000 on personal protective equipment, which Cllr Sharman has said is an “indication of the incredible stretch” on council resources during the pandemic.
Group director of children, adults and community health Anne Canning said: “We have always adhered to the public health guidance. It’s difficult, because I can understand sometimes why colleagues are questioning why they don’t have X or Y [piece of equipment].
“Our services feel confident that they have the kit they need to deliver within their context as recommended by Public Health England, which may not be quite the same way that a care worker might feel going into a situation.
“We’re trying to do as much as we can to make sure that we match between what’s recommended PPE guidance to deliver a safe service, and also to make sure we keep our service delivery staff as safe as possible.”
The Citizen reported this week that the council remain tens of millions of pounds short of the government funding necessary to help it deal with the exceptional costs of coronavirus.
According to councillors in charge of financial scrutiny, the sheer scale of the challenge makes it unlikely that the government could plug every gap, with the council facing a estimated drop in its own income for the year of £37 million.
Audit committee chair Cllr Nick Sharman said: “Even if the government were to meet all of our extra costs, we are going to be hit hard in the medium term in terms of our income.
“In other words, we need to start really thinking about what the implications for our budget are and planning for that.”
A report outlining the financial impact on the local authority released this week confirmed that service investments committed to in last year’s budget may have to be reallocated, with council finance mandarin Ian Williams saying “there are obviously some [capital] schemes that are just not going to be able to happen as quickly as was anticipated”.
When quizzed by the Citizen on which services or council projects are likely to be reassessed in light of the pandemic, Mayor Glanville said that it was too early to confirm any formal decisions, adding that all council programmes, investments and manifesto commitments will be reviewed in the context of the crisis.
The council leader warned that business rate and commercial income will not “instantly snap back” after the crisis, necessitating in his view a long-term support package for Hackney.
He made an associated call for an end to “the existing austerity built into the system”, an austerity Williams’ report had warned is likely to continue as a result of the government emergency funds which have already been paid out.
Speaking last night, Mayor Glanville added: “I had an interesting discussion earlier today about whether we’re talking about the next phase or whether we’re talking about recovery. I think there are going to be elements of both, and it’s going to move into a new phase.
“We’re going to, over the course of the next month, look at the continued impact. We’ve done a three-month projection and a year projection and will be reporting back to cabinet on those issues. There are no early indications about what we will be specifically looking at beyond the ones that we’ve already looked at.
“Codesigning and redisigning services with their service users and residents at a moment of crisis is obviously really difficult. To do the types of innovation that you would expect that would deliver the savings that Hackney has a track record with is incredibly difficult.
“Any attempts to recommission services for the voluntary sector that is facing the challenges that we’ve seen is also a very hard thing as well.
“We had a £19m savings gap already. We clearly told the government aboout that on multiple occasions. Now would not be the time to further destabilise local government through further austerity policies and cuts.”