Lancashire county councillor condemns relaxation of Covid rules at County Hall

The decision to ditch social distancing, lateral flow testing and mask-wearing for the next full meeting of Lancashire County Council risks turning it into a Covid super-spreader event.

Friday, 1st October 2021, 10:59 am

That is the warning from one of the authority’s own members after councillors were told that the precautions taken since a return to in-person meetings at the authority back in May were no longer required.

County Cllr Lizzi Collinge, the opposition Labour group’s shadow cabinet member for health and wellbeing, blasted the abandonment of what she described as “really basic hygiene procedures” which she claimed was akin to “taking the sinks and the soap out of the toilets”.

However, the authority’s leader, Phillippa Williamson, said that the authority was simply “operating in line with the current government advice and guidance”.

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County Cllr Lizzi Collinge (standing) pictured in May during a debate at the first in-person full council meeting at Lancashire County Council in 15 months (image via Lancashire County Council webcast)

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Councillors have been advised that although taking a lateral flow test prior to travelling to County Hall and donning a mask upon arrival are not now mandatory, both continue to be “encouraged” because of their capacity to stem the spread of Covid.

But County Cllr Collinge says that bringing together 84 members from all corners of the county demands enforcement of the kind of measures that have now been made optional.

“People come from all over Lancashire for full council, from parts of the county with different infection rates – and still a high infection rate right across the board – and also with different vaccination rates.

Lancashire county councillors were required to be socially-distanced and masked when not speaking in the chamber at the authority's full council meeting in May - before the full lifting of lockdown (image via Lancashire County Council webcast)

“Why would you create a situation that is unhygienic and potentially dangerous when it costs you nothing not to create that situation?

“I do wonder whether this is an ideological issue where the Conservatives perhaps believe that people’s ‘freedom’ is more important than protecting public health.

“But we have got to get used to this new reality that part of basic hygiene is doing things like wearing masks, especially in the respiratory virus season.

“I think that we all have a responsibility to protect each other and especially to protect those who are still very vulnerable to Covid. If you can wear a mask and refuse to [do so] in a place where it’s going to be helpful, I think that’s a bit selfish,” County Cllr Collinge said.

A legal requirement for mask-wearing and social distancing in certain public places, such as shops and on public transport, came to an end with the fourth and final stage of the government’s road map out of lockdown on 19th July.

Government advice is now that people should cover their faces in crowded and enclosed spaces where they come into contact with people they do not normally meet.

“You should use your judgement in deciding where you should wear [a face covering],” the government’s guidance states.

Lancashire County Council has held two full council meetings since legislation permitting online council gatherings, introduced at the start of the pandemic, lapsed after the local elections in May – and before the so-called “freedom day” change to coronavirus legislation.

At both of those gatherings, members were socially distanced in the spacious chamber at County Hall and, at the first of them, masks were worn by members when they were not speaking. During the most recent meeting in July, face coverings were not required once councillors had taken their seats.

Cabinet and other committee meetings held in-person since May have taken place either in the largest committee room or the main chamber, enabling social distancing to be followed.

County Cllr Collinge, who represents Lancaster East on Lancashire County Council, said that the authority’s stance was setting a poor example to residents.

“Individuals shouldn’t have to be public health experts – they should be able to rely on good advice and good leadership from people in government, whether at a local or national level.

“I’m not seeing that from the county council – to me, the responsible thing to do would have been to say that although these measures are not a legal requirement any more, they are basic hygiene measures that most people can partake in and so we’re going to mandate that they continue.

“I don’t know many county councillors who would have had a problem with that.”

However, County Cllr Williamson rejected the charge that her administration was being reckless and stressed that non-political officers in the authority’s democratic services department, which makes arrangements for meetings, had taken the lead on the issue ahead of the next full council on 14th October.

“[The] general advice remains that mask-wearing and social distancing are encouraged. However, in line with government guidance, these are no longer mandated at County Hall.

“We aim to respect individual preferences and it was stressed in the original email [to councillors] that any member wishing to observe social distancing will be supported and assisted.

“In relation to mask-wearing, it is encouraged and supported, but not mandated. Individuals are free to make those decisions for themselves – and I am sure that all members are well aware of the benefits of face coverings.

“On testing, the requirement that is ending is the specific requirement to provide democratic services with evidence of a negative test ahead of full council.

“Again, in line with government guidance, the advice to everyone is to conduct lateral flow tests twice a week – and, of course, anyone who tests positive or has symptoms should not attend [the] full council [meeting] in person.

“The council continues to take the public health risks seriously and respect individual choices and concerns,” County Cllr Williamson said.

GETTING BACK TO FACE-TO-FACE DEBATE

Councils were put in a conundrum when the temporary permission granted to them to hold meetings online – introduced at the onset of the Covid crisis last year – was not renewed by the government in May.

Ministers said that there was insufficient parliamentary time to pass the necessary regulations, but, at that point, many Covid precautions were still mandatory.

The cavernous spaces in County Hall meant that the county council was able to adhere to the necessary measures with relative ease.

Elsewhere in Central Lancashire, Preston City Council’s committee and full council meetings have been taking place with plastic screens between members, but, of late, no requirement for them to be masked during the proceedings. People addressing the council’s planning committee are asked to wipe down the shared microphone and desk after their contribution has come to an end. For its first in-person full council meeting after the local elections, the authority decamped to the Guild Hall to aid social distancing.

Chorley Council’s tiny town hall chamber was deemed unsuitable for gatherings when face-to-face meetings first resumed – and members instead met in the more spacious Lancastrian suite in the building. However, the authority’s councillors have more recently returned to their traditional meeting space, where they sit in close quarters in concentric circles, with no requirement to wear masks.

South Ribble’s chamber at the Civic Centre in Leyland hosted hybrid meetings for much of the pandemic – an option also taken up by neighbouring Chorley – with some members physically present and others dialling in.

The return to in-person attendance at full council meetings in South Ribble has meant social distancing is no longer possible – while face coverings are a personal choice.

Hybrid meetings continue to be permitted, but members are unable to vote unless they are physically present in the room.