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HEALTH RISK: Fear over ‘free for all’ covid-19 meeting arrangements

HEALTH RISK: Fear over ‘free for all’ covid-19 meeting arrangements

Redcar and Cleveland Council's headquarters, Image: Teesside Live

A councillor says a local authority’s “free for all” covid-19 arrangements for meetings are putting her health at risk.

Councillor Anne Watts said she had stayed away from some meetings at Redcar and Cleveland Council on her doctor’s advice and also claimed several council officers had been recently absent after catching the virus.

Last month the council held its first full council meeting in the council chamber following the relaxing of Government restrictions with members being told by managing director John Sampson that no social distancing was required, nor mask wearing.

Councillors had previously been advised to wear masks when standing or moving around, although they could be taken off when seated and speaking.

In July the council had held its borough-wide meeting at the sports hall in the leisure centre next to its pedestrian heart headquarters in Redcar, which was the largest building that could be found to provide adequate social distancing.

Cllr Watts, an independent who represents the Belmont ward in Guisborough, said she felt vulnerable having also recently been in a car crash, injuring her ankle, and claimed she had been criticised by two fellow councillors for continuing to wear a mask when she had been present.

She told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS): “There are other councillors, like myself, whose age and health problems make [the managing director’s] decision a very risky proposal for us to accept, hence I believe [it] is discriminatory.”

Cllr Watts said the council’s policy amounted to a “free for all ruling”, adding: “Staff are also very worried, but can say nothing.

“I have followed all guidelines throughout the last 19 months, but this complete abandonment of all rules leaves me and many others at risk.”

The councillor said she was further concerned about a ventilation system being used to blow fresh air into the council chamber, which she considered to be “increasing the risk of covid, not decreasing it”.

In an e-mail to Mr Sampson, seen by the LDRS, she said: “When the legal requirements for mask wearing and social distancing were removed, the Government said it was up to the people to take responsibility for their actions and to consider others.

“It did not say that we should dispense with safety measures.

“Covid remains a serious threat and cases are expected to rise as we approach the winter months with additional pressures from the flu virus.

“Also, the strength of early vaccinations is starting to wane which puts the vulnerable, who received the first vaccinations, more at risk.

“Shops and other public areas are retaining their pressure for people to wear masks and adhere to social distancing.

“The majority should be encouraged to wear masks, including when seated, to protect the minority who may be at risk.”

Cllr Watts said she was angry at the council’s stance, which “filled her with fear”, and said she should not have to be put in this position.

A spokesman for the council said a number of different measures had been retained to minimise the risk of covid transmission.

He said: “Members [have been] encouraged to continue to exercise personal judgement and responsibility to protect themselves and others.

“At the meeting [of the full council] there were facilities for councillors to take a temperature reading and sign in.

“If anyone’s temperature was above 37.5 Celsius, or they had any covid symptoms, they were asked not to attend the meeting.

“It was also recommended that members took a lateral flow test, which were also available in the building prior to the meeting.

“In line with Government guidance face masks can be worn as members consider appropriate, both when moving around and when seated, and hand sanitisers [are] available on desks and around the building.”

The spokesman said the council chamber was ventilated and air quality monitors were in place to ensure this remained at safe levels, while the sharing of documents and equipment was also being minimised.

Meetings and masks – a reporter’s view

Local councils should reflect what is going on in the outside world and understandably as the Government has relaxed coronavirus-related restrictions, councils have followed suit.

In again have come in-person physical meetings now mostly without face masks and gone are the virtual ones, like on Microsoft Teams or YouTube, although some might say the Government missed a trick in not legislating for these.

The Jackie Weaver ‘you have no authority here’ incident played out earlier this year at a parish council meeting in Cheshire, which became an internet sensation, showed how the public can be engaged with local democracy even if they can’t be physically present.

Arguably virtual meetings were also a more efficient way of conducting business, if not to everyone’s liking.

For the most part face masks are no longer seen at Redcar and Cleveland Council public meetings, although the odd hardy soul has been spotted clinging onto theirs.

I chose to wear a face mask when attending a meeting in the council chamber last month, but was very much the odd one out and so resolved not to bother next time.

The thing is there does not seem to be consistency in every council’s approach.

While mask wearing is deemed no longer necessary at Redcar and Cleveland, in Middlesbrough, when covering a hearing in the Town Hall, I found there was an expectation you wore a mask when getting up out of your seat and moving around the building.

Another factor perhaps when considering the virus – and we all know it’s likely to take hold again over the winter, even with the prospect of booster jabs – is the relative age of most councillors.

Undeniably a fair proportion are in the 60s/70s age category so most at risk from covid-19.

And of course you get a lot of hot air coming from mouths at council meetings – a bit tongue in cheek that one – but most journalists will know what I mean.

Maybe thought should be given to the length of some council meetings if we are considering the health of those present.

Being sat for several hours in rooms commonly without opening windows cannot be good for anyone’s health, coronavirus or no coronavirus.

More than once recently I’ve seen meetings in Redcar and Cleveland had to be stretched past the three hour mark because the business hasn’t been concluded, to the exasperation of some members and council officers.

One solution to make things more efficient might be not having officers regularly read out their reports for the members’ consideration.

Only problem is that would involve councillors actually reading the reports beforehand, I was told by one knowing council official when the suggestion was made.


Words: Stuart Arnold, Local Democracy Reporter

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