Southwark Council leader column: ‘The council is stepping in where the government has failed to’

News Desk (23 November, 2020)

'The good news is that the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 in Southwark has stopped going up and is beginning to go down'

34358L: Tooley St HQ of Southwark Council; R: Cllr Kieron Williams

I hope that you and your family are keeping safe and well during this second period of national lockdown, writes Councillor Kieron Williams, leader of Southwark Council…

This is not where any of us would like to be. Instead of bonfire night, Diwali and Christmas shopping, we are all again having to cope with time apart from friends and family. The good news is thanks to everybody’s collective efforts, the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 in Southwark has stopped going up and is beginning to go down. Rates are still high, so it’s really important we all continue to stick to the rules. That way together we can get the virus under control, protect our families, friends and neighbours, and save lives.

In the council we’ve been working hard to play our part. Over the last few weeks we’ve rolled out local contact tracing. Whilst the government’s outsourced test and trace service has only been reaching 60 per cent of people who test positive, our council team has already got that up to over 85 per cent in Southwark. I’m also glad to say our two Southwark COVID testing sites, in Burgess Park and by Peckham leisure centre, now have lots of capacity, so if you have symptoms you can get a test locally quickly.

You may also have heard Southwark will soon be rolling out thousands of rapid ‘lateral flow tests’. The pilot for these tests in Liverpool is being supported by the army, yet so far there is no word from the Government on any support for Southwark. That’s disappointing. We already have a huge gap of £11 million between the cost to the council of responding to COVID and the funding we have received from Government to cover those costs. Given the billions of pounds they’ve dished out to big corporations during this pandemic, including for unusable PPE, failing services and to companies with close personal relationships with minsters, it really does not seem too much to ask that the Government fully fund councils for essentials like getting these tests to local people.

As well as rolling out more tests we are also preparing for one or more COVID vaccines. It is great news that these may be available as soon at December. In the first instance, this will just be for those people who needed them most. With the range of people who are eligible increasing over the course of next year. We’re working closely with the NHS to make sure we are ready to get these out to people as soon as they arrive.

Over the last month we have also had good news on holiday hunger. Prior to half term Southwark was one of the first councils in the country to step in to fund free school meals over the holiday, with councils across the country following us. We made the decision when the Government voted not to fund these meals, despite Marcus Rashford’s brilliant national campaign. Thankfully the government have now bowed to pressure and u-turned, so children won’t go hungry this Christmas. Though frankly it’s extraordinary that it took a campaign on this scale to get them to act.

Whilst COVID understandably continues to dominate the headlines it’s not the only emergency we face. Last year Southwark Council declared a Climate Emergency, committing to do all we can to make our borough carbon neutral by 2030. As part of Climate Action Week this week, we’ve announced further steps we are taking to meet that goal. This includes planting 10,000 new trees by 2022, closing more roads around schools to improve air quality and get more children walking and cycling, and creating new ‘parklets’ (micro-parks) by converting road and parking space. We’ve also launched a big consultation to seek local peoples’ views on our wider climate emergency strategy. I hope you will get involved, as this is a challenge we are all going to need to rise to together.

These commitments and many more are also set out in our new Borough Plan that we published this week. It sets out the bold action we will take over the next eighteen months to tackle COVID, reduce carbon emissions, build more homes our residents can afford, and ensure each of our neighbourhoods are thriving places, with everything that people need to flourish. It also sets out clearly our commitment to tackle inequality. I know that many people are struggling right now because of COVID, our updated plan sets out how we will continue to support you through these tough times.

Thank you for continuing to play your part in keeping Southwark safe.

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