Report by Clair Bell, Kent County Council member for Ashford Rural East and Cabinet Member for Adult Social Care & Public Health, May 2020

Kent County Council has been in the forefront of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.  Inevitably, many council services are affected by lockdown but we’ve modified how services are delivered in order to continue “business as usual” wherever possible.  Libraries, for example, are currently closed to the public, but all residents are able to get instant access to a huge range of free digital books, newspapers, magazines and audio books by visiting https://www.kent.gov.uk/leisure-and-community/libraries,

Supporting the elderly and the vulnerable is always a top priority for KCC and those residents have been at the heart of our work since the start of the Covid-19 situation.  As we all know, PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) has been a major issue nationally and KCC officers have worked tirelessly to help social care providers procure the necessary PPE for their staff.  To date we have made over 1,300 deliveries of 2.4 million items of PPE across the county, free of charge to anyone having difficulty accessing supplies, including residential care homes, domiciliary care providers, GP surgeries and pharmacies. We keep in close contact with care homes providing social care to our clients and have been able to offer them substantial financial assistance to the tune of £13 million to help with their additional costs at this time.

Community providers such as Age UKs, Tenterden Social Hub and the Romney Marsh Day Centre have also benefited from extra grants (totalling £6.8 million) to enable them to continue their vital work such as delivering meals to those self-isolating.

For vulnerable people unable to access support from families or neighbours, KCC has launched a 24-hour helpline – Kent Together.  Depending on the type of assistance required, residents will be put in touch with Ashford Borough Council’s Response Depot or an appropriate local group or charity.  There is an online form at https://www.kent.gov.uk/social-care-and-health/health/coronavirus/kent-together or you can phone 03000 419292.  Deaf British Sign Language users can text the Sensory Services team on 07920 157315 for help making a request.

Our Community Wardens are playing a key role, linking in with the numerous volunteer groups which have sprung up to get food supplies, medicines etc to those unable to go out, and providing much-needed human contact at a time when social isolation and loneliness are more keenly felt than ever.

Remarkably, council officers have succeeded in organising the bulk of this support whilst working remotely at home, or redeployed into other parts of the organisation to cover staff absence. Front-line staff and partner agencies, observing social distancing and with appropriate PPE, have been able to carry out many council functions, albeit on a restricted basis, including social work, health visiting, addiction and mental health services, domestic abuse support, support for vulnerable children and young people with special educational needs and learning disabilities, children in care, advice and support for businesses and many other services.  Kent Highways, alongside our contractors, are making the most of the quiet roads to get on with essential maintenance and fixing potholes – over 3,200 potholes repaired and almost 12,000 square metres of surface patching completed so far this year in Ashford borough.

Key to our ability to deliver services has been modern technology.  Face to face visits are largely replaced with contact via phone, text messaging or online.  Everyone has quickly got used to video conferencing as a means of communication – even county councillors are becoming proficient at Microsoft Teams, holding a growing number of virtual meetings both internally and in public!  It is interesting to see how, in the midst of a crisis and of course, tragic circumstances for some, new ways of working are emerging, an element of which will hopefully be carried forward in future, to the benefit of residents, employees and the environment.

Planning for the recovery phase is well underway.  This week sees the re-opening of the Household Waste Recycling Centres, including Cobbs Wood in Ashford.  To protect the staff and avoid large queues, there will be a booking system and certain restrictions in place.  Details are available at https://www.kent.gov.uk/waste-planning-and-land/rubbish-and-recycling/visiting-a-hwrc-during-coronavirus

As elsewhere, the cost of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic is having an impact on the council’s finances.  KCC has received £66 million so far from central government to help with our additional expenditure. But the overall cost, taking into account loss of income, is estimated to be in excess of £130 million in the current financial year.  The Leader of KCC, Roger Gough, along with his counterparts in other county councils, keeps in regular contact with government ministers to ensure they are fully aware of the pressures on local authorities and to lobby for additional support.  But there are many calls on government during this challenging time and we shall have to look very carefully at how we manage our budget and shape our services in the future.

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