At this point in the meeting, Alison Swaddle indicated that the Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee had already discussed putting the Standards Committee process on to its work programme.
Leader of the Council, John Halsall (continued):
A question was raised by a member of the public, Philip Meadowcroft, as to whether the composition of its members was in conformance with 9.1.1 of the Constitution. He was correct. There was an anomaly. I have thanked him for raising it, and incidentally I have also apologised for dismissing him. Genuinely it was a surprise that the Committee had been so constituted for 21 months, spanning two Annual Councils. Neither had any member of the Committee, nor Officers, nor Member, nor the Press raised this previously. If there is a fault it is jointly several of all. Had I been aware of the clause I would not have proposed our appointments. Indeed, immediately on being aware I corrected the membership to the rule. I have apologised to Members and Officers for this anomaly. I thank the members of the Committee, the Officers supporting the Committee and the Independent Person for all the good work that has been undertaken. The Chief Executive has assured Members that although an inconsistency existed, the appointments were made by Full Council and therefore were constitutional. The Chief Executive has also pointed out that the composition and the operation of the Standards Committee are not statutory but local preference.
I would like to thank all those who have played a part in helping those who have suffered not just the effect of the virus but the problems that have accompanied with it. This includes all carers, doctors, health staff, social care staff, emergency services, health, Police, Fire Rescue, Ambulance, teachers, school staff, charities, in short everybody who has stepped up to the plate and made it possible for life to continue in these unspeakable times. So, thank you to all of you. I would like the Council to give a round of applause for these heroes of the community without whom the world would have been a darker place.
We are continuing to face coronavirus, initially we thought it would be short. This has not been the case, however there is light at the end of the very dark tunnel with a vaccine developed here in record time. Thank you to our brilliant scientists.
We in WBC have navigated with a steady hand through the emergency, changing the way we worked, supporting all our residents and ensuring that services ran as normally as possible. Whilst this was expensive financially, it was eminently doable in the short term. Much of that which we did during the crisis we shall need to continue to do for some time. We are faced with additional challenges, the biggest and most important of is the role out of vaccinations across the Borough, and at the same time ensuring continuity in all our essential services which our residents rely on.
To this end the Council are committing to a further investment in our community to help GPs in our Borough to administer the vaccine as quickly as possible to all our residents. The investment is only possible because of the well run and excellent control that the Conservative administration has exerted over the Council’s finances for many years. As such, I am pleased to announce an additional £1.2million to be made available during this financial year. The money will come from the Council’s General Reserves, built up over the years despite being the lowest funded unitary in the UK. These funds will be made available not only to help the roll out of the vaccination programme but to boost and support our flytipping and anti flytipping initiative, assisting preschools, keeping the homeless and rough sleepers off the streets, and supporting charities, whom along with preschools are very much part of the vital support structure of our community. Tonight, you will hear my Executive talk about how this might be channelled to the areas needed in the community, how it is designed to help Wokingham Borough get back on its feet, repair the damage done in the past 10 months, and ensure those things which have been put on hold during the pandemic, can start to fully function again as quickly as possible. As my Deputy Leader, Executive Member for Finance and Housing has said many times, during the pandemic, reserves are like fire extinguishers, you can use them in time of need. I am sure you would agree that this is one of those and thankfully, and such like our commitment to child hunger, poverty and homelessness, the Conservative controlled Council will not be found wanting in these times when residents need support.
Lastly, please follow the Government guidelines for physical hygiene, social distancing, cover your face when required to do so, and encourage others to do so as well.
UllaKarin Clark, Executive Member for Children’s Services:
I am pleased to announce that the Council is going to continue to cover the cost of free school meals during the school holidays in 2021. In respect of financial support for our schools, settings that claim their Early Years Education Grant have received 100% of this throughout the pandemic, regardless of whether the children on roll have attended or not. This continues, at least through this term. Where necessary the settings have made excellent use of the Covid Business Support Grant that our Council has made available. We recognise that in respect of private nurseries and preschools, some may be impacted by the loss of income from parents whose children are not attending due to the pandemic. To ensure that settings will still be in business once we come out of lockdown, we are therefore putting in place a new Wokingham Borough Council funded grant scheme to support such providers in their funding, and we will shortly be providing guidance on how to go about this.
As you will know, there is a Motion on tonight’s agenda regarding free school meals. There are three resolutions in that Motion, calling on action from the Council, and I would like to address those. As you are aware, we are using Government grants to cover free school meals during school holidays while the pandemic continues.
At this point in the meeting, Prue Bray reminded the meeting that in accordance with rule 4.2.23, the time for Executive Member statements should not exceed 20 minutes. The Mayor agreed that Councillor Clark could complete her statement, and one other Executive Member would be allowed to give their speech.
UllaKarin Clark, Executive Member for Children’s Services (continued):
We are also, and will continue to work with local organisations to make sure that no child in our Borough goes hungry. The Leader has joined me in writing to the Secretary of State for Education not just to ask for the expansion of our free school meals to be permanent for those with no recourse to public funds, but we are also going further in asking that consideration be given for an uplift in Universal Credit to make sure that no child goes without food. In addition to this we are asking that the free school meal provision for primary school children is permanently extended to include all primary school children and not just those in Reception and Year 1 and Year 2. Therefore, it would make sense for Councillor Bray to withdraw her Motion to make time for others, but if she insists on moving it, we will vote for it since we have already done everything in it. This Conservative administration will always be on the side of families and those in need.
Charles Margetts, Executive Member for Health, Wellbeing and Adult Services:
I wanted to take this opportunity to update Members on the latest situation with Covid and our efforts to support the community. You will have heard from my colleague Councillor Halsall that the Council is releasing £1.2million from its reserves to fund further steps across the Borough. I would like to detail some of these for you. This expenditure is only possible because we have managed to rebuild our reserves since the first lockdown, and it shows our commitment to follow through what we say, with what we do basically when it comes to Covid 19.
The vaccination programme which is run by the CCG has got off to a good start locally and has been underway in Wokingham since mid-December. Vaccinations are now underway in every part of the Borough. We estimate that 90% of care home residents and over 80’s have received their first dose, 54% of social care staff, and 35% of 75-79 year olds. Vaccinations have now started in some areas in the 70-74 age group. I would like to thank our GPs and their staff who are working incredibly hard for our benefit. WBC is supporting GPs by assisting with volunteers, traffic marshals and resources. I would also like to thank all the volunteers for their help with this programme as well as our partners at the Wokingham Volunteer Centre who have helped organise the programme. It is important that we are realistic, Members, going forward. Indications that we are receiving from the health service and PHE is that it is likely that the vaccination programme will continue for the next few years, and we are planning for this situation. It is key that we speed up the vaccination programme on a local and national level. WBC is committed to ensuring that all Wokingham residents are vaccinated as soon as possible, and is actively lobbying the CCG, and local MPs for more vaccines. However, there is currently a national issue with the level of supply of vaccine which is restricting the growth of the programme across some parts of the country. Our GPs have more than enough capacity to deliver the current level of vaccine that they are receiving, so it is important to build the capacity now for the day when vaccine supply is greater. WBC has secured several sites across the Borough and is ready to move them into action as soon as there is vaccine supply available to make that worthwhile. WBC is funding this plan alongside our colleagues in the NHS and will be providing staff to run it when a supply of vaccine is available. We are also under the understanding that national Government plans to open a large vaccination centre in Reading, which will be available to Wokingham residents at some point in the near future.
As you heard earlier, we are planning to launch a community based lateral flow programme. This will focus on essential workers who cannot work from home, are working, and have no choice but to come into contact with other people during this lockdown. The aim of this is to lower the risk of Covid and its transmission by identifying those who may have the infection but no symptoms, and therefore do not know that they have it. This will apply to people who are Wokingham residents and to those who work in Wokingham but live elsewhere. The priority of this programme is to restrict the spread of Covid 19. I detailed earlier that the test centres will be set up and that the Wokingham one is ready now. WBC is recruiting staff to run this programme and expects to create in excess of 40 new jobs within our community to support this. Anyone who is interested in applying for one of these positions can see the details on the website. We will have the capacity to give lateral flow tests to 800 people a day across our test centres, and will expand the operation if it comes close to capacity, but also offer a mobile targeted testing facility to support outbreaks and other Covid related testing needs in our community. I would reemphasise the point that I made earlier, that lateral flow tests only work if they are done ideally twice a week, and at least once a week. Therefore, the Council will insist that anyone who commits, come for testing every week. Details of how to obtain testing will be on the website shortly.
In conclusion, Mr Mayor, I would say that vaccinations provide a real hope for the future, however, we still have the difficult winter months to come for its effects to be felt. It is important that for the short period of time, everyone follows the full lockdown advice, maintains social distance, wear a mask when appropriate and continue to isolate properly if asked to. Case numbers are now starting to fall in Wokingham, but it is really important that we continue to work together, to ensure that that work continues, until the situation is better.