Agenda item

Middlesbrough Council's Response to COVID-19

The Chief Executive and Director of Public Health will be in attendance to provide the Board with an update in respect of the Council’s response to COVID-19.


The Chief Executive, the Director of Public Health and the Head of Revenues and Benefits were in attendance to provide information to the Board regarding the Council’s response to COVID-19. 


The Director of Public Health delivered a presentation to the Board.


Regarding the latest COVID-19 position and the rolling seven-day rate of cases per 100,000 of the Middlesbrough population, as at 12 January 2021: 72 new cases had been added to the system; 675 new cases had been diagnosed; 478.8 rate per 100,000 population; and 177.30 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 population, which reflected a predicted post-Christmas spike.  Increases were a result of the new variant that had been identified (between 65-70% of cases were of the new variant, which was more infectious) and also the extent of mixing on Christmas Day when the restrictions were relaxed.  Lockdown seemed to be having a positive effect, with numbers reducing significantly, but the peak was important when considering the impact on hospitals.


The number of people admitted to hospital with a COVID-19 diagnosis had increased from around 28/29 December 2020.  There was currently 185 in-patients (the figure did not include positive cases from within the community detailed previously); 28 of which were in Critical Care.  There were significant operational pressures for the hospital, which would get worse; current modelling was based on a potential peak of 300 beds occupied by people with COVID-19.  It was highlighted that figures would start to increase further as a result of those infected over the Christmas period, which was a significant concern for professionals across the system.


In terms of COVID-19-related deaths across Middlesbrough, the current statistics (as at week ending 1 January 2021) reflected the significant steps that had been taken to protect care homes and populations in general; whilst there had been an increase in cases in the community, the number of deaths had been significantly lower.  Protection activity had included additional testing; ensuring that people were not discharged with a positive diagnosis from hospital into care homes, or from the community into care homes; and additional support for vulnerable people in communities.  Unfortunately, however, it was anticipated that the increased activity at James Cook University Hospital, as described previously, would cause an increase in these figures over the coming weeks and months.


Regarding lockdown three response activities and the support provided to businesses and residents, details would be provided as part of the Head of Revenue and Benefits’ presentation to the Board.


It was indicated that all Council services had been reviewed to understand where provision would be impacted further by lockdown three restrictions.


Lockdown three guidance / regulation implications for those attending education settings, such as primary or secondary school would see Early Years (nurseries, etc.) registered child care and other supervised child care activities continued, and childcare bubbles were permitted.  Primary and secondary schools were now closed until at least 15 February 2021, but primary schools were open to vulnerable children and children of key workers.  The number of those children was higher than in comparison to previous lockdowns, with schools needing to support both this and the planned testing programme that would be initiated in schools.  Support in respect of the testing programmes had been provided by Public Health and Teesside University.  The aim of the testing was to minimise the impact of a positive case by reducing the number of bubbles that would be required to isolate.


Additional funding was expected to support schools to provide food parcels / meals to those eligible children. Where this was not possible, a national voucher scheme would be accessible for the duration of school closures.


For vulnerable children and adults, the guidance issued for lockdown two / tier four had been reviewed and would continue for lockdown three.

The Public Protection Service was monitoring compliance with business restrictions and responding to requests for advice and to complaints.  Mention was made of work that would be undertaken in relation to supermarkets (including the wearing of face coverings and the number of people allowed into retail space at any one time), which would commence shortly.


In terms of shielding support, this varied from that provided during the previous lockdown; Government direction was to encourage the Clinically Extremely Vulnerable to access existing channels of support i.e. registering for online shopping priority slots, rather than Local Authority provision of food parcels, etc.  Help Boro call handling demand during lockdown two was low, although longer term arrangements for Help Boro were being developed.


In terms of the vaccination programme, as at 6 January 2021, over 6,000 first vaccines had been administered to Middlesbrough residents and, to date, the North East had had the highest number of vaccines delivered.  The programme currently focused on Health and Social Care Workers and people aged over 80, but was now moving into the over-75s.  Vaccination sites in Middlesbrough comprised James Cook University Hospital, North Ormesby Health Village and Thorntree Surgery.  Mass roll-out sites within Middlesbrough were also currently being explored, which would significantly increase access to vaccines.


Regarding community testing, the target population for testing was approximately 10-20% of residents aged 11yrs+, and equated to 11,985 -23,971 of the Middlesbrough population. 


The proposed testing approaches would mitigate inequality, protect vulnerable people and reduce transmission in high risk settings.  These approaches included routine testing of key workers; and testing in large high risk work places with a larger proportion of low paid jobs (e.g. food processing plants), as employees were more likely to live locally in areas of greater deprivation and therefore more susceptible to COVID-19.


Three targeted community testing sites had been identified initially: Newport Community Hub, North Ormesby Hub and Marton Sports Village.  It was explained that as there was only one pool of staff available, support for testing sites would be off set against support for vaccination sites, which was the more important endeavour within the programme.  Work was currently underway to address the staffing requirements which would, in the main, be met by Local Authority employees, i.e. casual staff and those able to be redeployed into alternative roles.  Key partners, including the Fire Brigade and local Voluntary Community Support organisations, had offered support in terms of assisting local people to access testing and understand the provision available should they be required to isolate.


Targeted community testing would be deployed over a six-week period from early February 2021 and would consider economically deprived areas, BAME communities and areas with high positivity (factors that tended to overlap), but which had low testing rates.  Circa. 500 tests per week were anticipated in those settings based on work undertaken in Grangetown, where just under 400 people had been tested in almost a one-week period.  Targeted community testing was also about holding conversation and building community capacity on what people could do to protect themselves and their families, and increase understanding of COVID-19.


The Head of Revenues and Benefits delivered a presentation to the Board.


Revenues and Benefits were privileged to have access to all Middlesbrough residents and businesses, which consisted of 65,000 Dwellings and 4,500 Businesses. 


Since the onset of COVID-19, the service had been a key player in delivering over £34.6m of financial support to both residents and businesses.  A further circa. £11.5m would be provided from 5 January 2021.  The Council had been both a key driver and player in ensuring the success of Middlesbrough’s business community over the course of the pandemic, and was very keen to work closely with the community.


The service was currently delivering / had delivered 16 initiatives (a further three to follow), which cut across a number of services.  These amounted to more than 12,000 additional hours of activity; providing financial support to partnering organisations to reduce food poverty.  Circa. 3000 businesses had been supported, with additional funds to support circa. 2000 businesses in January 2021 and over the coming months.  Circa. 40,000-plus residents had been provided with, or were due, additional financial assistance (e.g. a top-up to Council Tax reduction; funding for food hampers; free school meals, etc.); and provided funding to 12 partnering organisations to help them deliver solutions that underpinned what the community needed at the present time.


The service had paved the way in developing numerous policies, which were progressing at speed.  It was highlighted that in a number of instances, the service was the first in the Tees Valley to launch and pay schemes.  There had also been national recognition / press recognition for innovative ideas.  A number of policies and reports had been prepared that sought Executive approval, and the Council was being compared to City counterparts due to the efficiency and effectiveness of the processes being put in place.


Details of the various support schemes / initiatives provided to businesses and residents were outlined to Members, which included: Mandatory and discretionary business grants; Lockdown grants; Council Tax support payments to 16,000 residents; Free school meals (i.e. turning around a solution for circa. 7600 children in 48 hours, with excellent feedback being received from the local community); and Winter fund payments (aimed at over 12,500 children, this was currently on phase three after two very successful phases, which had been opened to further families as a consequence of responding to local feedback).  A seven stage scheme had also been devised to support couples and single individuals impacted financially by COVID-19, and 80 Community Support Crisis payments of £500.00 had been made.  Some of the schemes had been delivered, whereas others were currently open.  A process flow to assist businesses had been designed in order to facilitate their access to support.  It was indicated that three further support schemes / initiatives had commenced from 5 January 2021: ‘New Tier Four’; ‘New Closed Scheme’ (linked to tier four); and ‘New Lockdown Grant’.  With regards to the tier four grant, guidance had been issued on 13 January 2021, the Council went live with the solution yesterday, and made the first payment today, which was excellent.  To date, 150 applications had been received.


Revenues and Benefits had been working with partnering organisations to reduce food poverty and the strategy focused on initial, mid, and longer-term solutions.  A budget of £244,000 had been made available to fund a number of food / essentials programmes across the town, with such partner organisations as: Middlesbrough Foodbank; Together Middlesbrough; Middlesbrough Environment City; Echo Shops; and Cleveland Fire Brigade.  Examples of activities undertaken were provided to Members.

The Revenues and Benefits Service had held Customer Services Excellence for over 18 years.  On 7 and 8 January 2021, the service had been fully re-assessed for further three-year accreditation; the result was currently pending.


Following the presentations, the Chief Executive and the Mayor thanked all of the teams involved in the delivery of this work and commended the activity undertaken.


Members were afforded the opportunity to ask questions of the Chief Executive, the Director of Public Health, and the Head of Revenues and Benefits.


A Member made reference to the 80 crisis payments paid out and queried how many applications were made above the 80 that were given out.  In response, it was explained that if individuals did not qualify for a crisis payment, i.e. they did not meet the policy, those individuals were allocated to a separate funding stream, and therefore most of those payments were processed via another scheme.

A Member referred to the vaccine rollout and raised concerns in respect of harder-to-reach communities / individuals who were not registered with GPs, and who may not understand the process.  It was queried how all communities would be encompassed within the programme.  In response, the Director of Public Health advised that work was currently taking place in this regard, with consideration being given as to how access into those communities could be achieved and information / support provided.  It was critical that all communities were safe and highlighted that, should any Members have any concerns when vaccines were roll-outed to more general communities, to please raise them, as it was important to understand and address any potential barriers to vaccine take-up.

A Member made reference to vulnerable children and key workers currently attending and working in Middlesbrough’s schools and queried the current position in terms of their progress and health.  In response, the Director of Public Health advised that he was not aware of any particular issues.  It was explained that teams based within Public Health and Education were supporting schools with the mitigation measures to be put in place around social distancing, wearing masks, etc., and assisting schools with local contact tracing details to minimise the size of bubbles when people needed to go home.  The Director of Public Health would liaise with the Director of Prevention and Partnerships to determine whether any specific issues had been raised in relation to this, and feedback further information as applicable.

Members commended the work undertaken by the Revenues and Benefits Service and congratulated all involved for the achievements made and recognition received.

A Member made reference to lockdown three guidance in respect of education, and queried whether there were now more primary school children in Middlesbrough being identified as essential workers’ children and vulnerable children.  In response, the Director of Public Health advised that specific figures could be obtained, although it was understood that the numbers were higher during this lockdown than in the original lockdown.  It was anticipated that there would be some national restriction implemented to address this.

A Member made reference to business grant funding and queried whether businesses were actively being contacted and advised as to the types of support available.  In response, the Head of Revenues and Benefits advised that an email account had been set-up for the majority of these customers; reference was made to an email that had been circulated earlier in the day to over 600 businesses.  Contact was also made via telephone and social media, with a very high success rate being achieved.  The approach had been tailored to meet the needs of the businesses, which was based on the feedback received from them.

A Member made reference to supermarkets and small stores and commented upon the enforcement of wearing face masks.  It was felt that support from the Police would be required to ensure compliance.  In response, the Director of Public Health advised that the Public Protection Team would be commencing visits to supermarkets to determine compliance and take action as appropriate.

In response to a query regarding the number of Council employees testing positive for COVID-19, the Chief Executive advised that of all sickness at present, 15% was COVID-19 related.  There had not been any major staffing issues arise as of yet; there had been some difficulties experienced in Adult Social Care and Children’s Social Care with COVID-19, but to date, there had been no operational problems encountered.

A Member made reference to Cleveland Police Officers and queried whether front-line Constables could be prioritised for the COVID-19 vaccination.  In response, the Chief Executive advised that a very clear national priority list was being worked through.  It was explained that within the staff groups, there was a group called ‘other’ - it was currently being looked at as to which roles this could include.  It was explained that a number of different occupational groups were putting cases forward, but the programme was NHS-led and therefore outside of the Local Authority’s control.  The current focus in terms of the priority list were Health and Social Care-based roles.  The Director of Public Health advised that the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations had a list of nine priority groups based on age and underlying health conditions; the only staff groups were Health and Social Care-based because they supported the vulnerable people.  There was a move to move to other key work areas, such as Police and Fire personnel, with a national advice document recently being released.  This would be reviewed to determine the level of influence that the Local Authority could bring.  The Director of Adult Social Care and Health Integration advised that one of the top four priority groups that the Government planned to work through by the end of February was frontline Health and Social Care workers; a current vaccination programme involving the Council’s Health and Social Care workers was currently underway at James Cook University Hospital.  In Middlesbrough, there were approximately 4500 Health and Social Care workers, with reference being made to the new booking system that had been established.

A Member made reference to testing and high risk workers and queried whether school staff would be included within this.  In response, the Director of Public Health advised that testing in schools was a national programme; school staff would be tested twice per week.  The programme was currently operating in secondary schools and would be rolled-out to primary schools shortly.  Mention was made of work undertaken with Teesside University in providing support to schools.

A Member made reference to schools and the ways in which the pandemic was being dealt with.  It was queried whether uniformed guidance / policies / practice should be provided to schools to provide operational consistency.  In response, the Director of Public Health advised that work was being undertaken with schools in order to share good practice; visits had also been undertaken to advise on mitigation measures and improve those as required.  Schools were independent, but officers were advising and assisting as much as possible.

A Member raised a query regarding the varying strains of the virus and the effectiveness of the vaccination.  In response, the Director of Public Health referred to the flu vaccination and the ways in which it targeted different strains of that virus.  In 2017/2018, the vaccination did not align with the strains presented in that year, and therefore the respective mortality rate was particularly high.  Vaccinations were developed on current strains and predictions made as to how they could mutate.  COVID-19 would continue to mutate in the same way as flu did.  It was understood that the vaccines currently available were as effective against the new variants that had emerged.  Consistent review of this was undertaken by Public Health England and pharmaceutical companies.

Following a request for clarification in respect of a five day business grant payment, the Head of Revenues and Benefits advised that this related to a tier four payment (classed as a closed scheme).  It was explained that when the Local Authority moved into tier four, there was a small amount of payment covered for that period.  This was followed by a further payment for the lockdown period, and then a further supplementary payment (therefore three payments linked to that one element).

The Chair thanked the Chief Executive, Director of Public Health and Head of Revenues and Benefits for their attendance and contributions to the meeting.

AGREED that the information provided be noted, and the agreed action be undertaken.