Winchcombe Town Council

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Statement from the Chairman of Winchcombe Town Council

On the 21 January 2020 the Chinese Authorities reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the outbreak of a novel Sars-like virus which was causing lung disease which in some cases was proving fatal. The new virus, which first emerged in Huwen in Hubei province, was being transmitted human-to-human and there appeared to be no natural immunity preventing the spread.

On the 11 February 2020 the WHO announced a name for the new coronavirus, COVID-19.

With no known natural immunity the virus spread rapidly worldwide and by the 11 March 2020 had spread to 114 countries and killed more than 4,000 people; the World Health Organisation announced that the viral disease was now officially a pandemic.

On the 31 January 2020 the UK confirmed its first case and has since been witnessing an increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths. The number of active cases, COVID-19 related deaths and the number of patients that have recovered in the UK [and worldwide], are posted on the internet daily along with advice and guidance from the Government, the NHS and Public Health England (PHE) as well as the daily Government briefings on television each evening.

Following the initial “wash your hands frequently” campaign on the 16 March 2020, due to rapidly increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases, additional measures including self-isolation were introduced. Then on the 23 March 2020 the UK was officially put into lockdown in an unprecedented step to attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, gave his address at 8.30pm and said the new measures were now active.

People were asked not to leave their homes unless for essential needs, and gatherings of more than two people were banned. All non-essential stores, places of worship, gyms, theatres, cinemas, restaurants, pubs, schools [except to the children of key workers], libraries and playgrounds etc. were to be closed. The Prime Minister also announced that the Police would have the power to disperse gatherings, enforce social distancing and fine people if they left their homes for any reason other than the following:

  • Shopping for basic necessities
  • One form of exercise a day - either alone or with members of your household
  • Medical need or to provide care or help to vulnerable people
  • Travel to work - but only if necessary and you cannot work from home

The Coronavirus Act 2020, as it was known, received Royal Assent on 25 March, having been fast-tracked through parliament and contained ‘emergency powers’ to enable public bodies to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Act has three main aims:

  • To give further powers to the government to slow the spread of the virus
  • To reduce the resourcing and administrative burden on public bodies
  • To limit the impact of potential staffing shortages on the delivery of public services.

Winchcombe Town Council recognises and agrees that no business, meeting, service provision or service delivery of the Council is of more importance than that of public and personal safety.

In accordance with the lockdown, the Town Council received advice from national bodies such as the National Association of Local Council (NALC) and locally the Gloucestershire Association of Parish and Town Councils (GAPTC) and Tewkesbury Borough Council and has followed the legislative measures, including social distancing and self-isolation.

  • As such all public meetings will be cancelled until further notice or as circumstances dictate, including the annual parish and annual council meetings
  • All play areas and the public toilets are closed until further notice
  • The Council Office is locked down to protect staff by preventing face-to-face meetings with the general public as staff are unable to work from home
  • First contact will be by telephone or email until further notice
  • The Council Office will remain contactable in order to assist the community response to the pandemic as part of the “Winchcombe Community Coronavirus Action Group” and to liaise with Gloucestershire County Council Community Help Hub and Tewkesbury Borough Council
  • The Council Office will remain open as the Burial Authority for this Parish
  • The Cemetery will remain open with cemetery staff being considered keyworkers and social distancing of at least 2 metres being observed at all times.

In recognition of the problem of holding and attending meetings NALC, along with other groups such as the Local Government Association (LGA) and the Society of Local Council Clerks (SLCC), had been lobbying the Government to relax the regulations to allow local Councils to hold meetings remotely thereby safeguarding the staff, council members and members of the public in accordance with the Coronavirus Act 2020.

On 4 April 2020, the Government brought into force the Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 which enabled all local authority meetings to be held remotely, including allowing remote access by members of the public, removed the requirement for annual Parish and council meetings and set new deadlines for the Annual Governance and Accountability Return to the external auditors.

However holding remote meetings is not without its conditions, which must be met, nor is it without its security risks of hacking or disruption by thoughtless members of the public.

The main areas of concern for the Town Council with respect to Covid-19 are:

  • Remaining an effective council
  • Remaining an active member of the Winchcombe Community Coronavirus Action Group giving advice and assisting with the Community Volunteer Response helping the vulnerable
  • Continue liaising and collaborating with other tiers of local authority namely Tewkesbury Borough Council
  • Continue effectively in the role as burial authority
  • Remaining transparent to its electors
  • Safety & Health of Councillors, Contractors, Staff, Volunteers and Members of Public

In terms of business continuity, in order to fulfil these ambitions and given the additional duties the Council has been asked to undertake during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Council has taken several steps by amending its Standing Orders and Financial Regulations (for a limited period and whilst retaining governance) to give the elected officers [Chair and Vice Chair] and the Clerk greater flexibility to conduct the day to day business.

The Council is also keen to keep business to essential matters and to a minimum by:

  • Only dealing with matters that are of an urgent nature or absolutely essential
  • Engage with the elected members through email where possible
  • Keeping remote meetings to a minimum
  • Keeping agendas item to a minimum and time limited

A standard operating procedure for conducting remote meetings will be issued and records of meetings, of actions and of decisions will be kept and placed in the Minute Book for ratification by the Town Council at the earliest and safest opportunity.

The minutes should include a narrative on how the business was conducted e.g. by email to committee members only and how the decision was reached e.g. comments and general consensus received by email.

Kevin Willett
Chairman Winchcombe Town Council
9 April 2020