Tomorrow – May 17th – we reach the next major milestone in the easing of Covid restrictions. We will be able to meet with friends and family indoors, larger numbers will be able to attend weddings and funerals, and many indoor entertainment venues – cinemas, play areas and the like – will re-open.
And if everything keeps heading in the right direction, in 5 weeks’ time – June 21st – all restrictions will end. But as we have seen over the past 14 months, 5 weeks is a long time in a pandemic, and a lot could happen between now and then.
As I am writing this, I am listening to Yvette Cooper MP on the Andrew Marr Show. Not surprisingly, she has a lot to say about what the Government – with the benefit of hindsight – could have done differently. At the same time, she is hedging her bets as to what should be done over the coming weeks to ensure we get to the end of June safely and without a further outbreak.
This has been the story of the Covid pandemic. The Government had to take action based on best guesses. Often facing incomplete or conflicting evidence, and differing demands – from healthcare professionals, economists, social scientists to name just three – they had to plot a course through the pandemic. Along the way they have to change course – even make complete U-turns – as events overtook them.
I am not going to say the Government got it right. But I am not going to say they got it wrong either. I do however believe they have done as well as anyone could have done faced with the same challenge. Maybe a Labour Government would have done some things differently, and possibly some things would have worked out better. And some things would have worked out not so well. No doubt the inquiry next year will draw conclusions, and history will judge if the Government’s handling of the pandemic was, on balance, a success or failure.
And the same is true locally. The actions taken by both CBC and LLTC have all been done with the best intentions and based on conflicting demands.
The temporary pedestrianisation of Leighton Buzzard High Street was introduced to allow the market to operate safely with social distancing and to support local shops and businesses. But the scheme has also been criticised for discouraging visitors due to the re-routing of the buses and the loss of short-term parking. Like most of my colleagues, I can see both sides of the argument here – neither is completely wrong or completely right. And over the coming weeks and months we will be reviewing this scheme to consider the longer term.
Very early in the pandemic both Councils moved to online meetings, with Councillors, Officers and members of the public able to meet remotely, and Council business continued uninterrupted. Unfortunately, the Government legislation that allowed business to be conducted in this way has now expired, and despite extensive lobbying from Parish Councils and Local Authorities, individual members (see email below) and the Local Government Association, the Government has so far refused to introduce the necessary legislation to allow remote meetings to continue. It is notable however that Parliament is still operating with MPs joining debates remotely …
Some will ask why Councils should continue to meet remotely, particularly when many people – health workers, teachers, retail workers and more – have continued to work in risky conditions throughout the past year.
For me, the most compelling argument for the continuation of remote meetings is that it improves accessibility. Throughout the pandemic, the attendance and engagement by members of the public has been significantly higher, and to take this away seems a backward step.
I also believe it opens up the possibility for many more people to put themselves forward for election. People who might be put off due to work or family commitments may find it easier to be a local Councillor if they can attend meetings remotely rather than having to drive all the way to Chicksands for a 2 hour meeting in the middle of the working day!
I think remote working, where it is possible – whether it be for local Councillors or anyone else – is one of the positive things to have come out of this pandemic. For years society has been looking at how we can improve the ‘work-life balance’, how we can reduce our carbon footprint, how we can open up opportunities to those who might feel excluded. Remote working – including online Council meetings – ticks all these boxes and benefits everyone.
As we look forward to a restriction free summer, there will I am sure continue to be many conflicting opinions on just how far and how fast we should go. Some will want to see a return to complete normality – to pre-pandemic conditions. And others will be more restrained and will want to exercise caution long after June.
Wherever you stand on this, we have to respect those who have a different opinion and approach to the easing of restrictions. Personally, I tend to er on the side of caution. I am particularly risk-adverse, and I won’t be rushing to the nearest restaurant tomorrow evening for a meal out.
But there will be those who will have booked their tables already and will be counting down the hours. They are not wrong to do this, and I genuinely hope they have a great time.
Cllr Amanda Dodwell