‘This is war’ says Southwark Council leader as he stays on to battle coronavirus crisis

Josh Salisbury (18 March, 2020) Politics Health

“This is war, it’s as simple as that. We have never experienced anything like it in our lifetimes."

35496Council leader Peter John

Southwark Council’s top boss has warned that the fight against coronavirus is “war” – and recovery will be long and hard.

Speaking to the News on Tuesday afternoon, leader of the council Peter John likened the epidemic to the stuff of disaster movies, and urged the community to come together to look after the borough’s most vulnerable.

He urged council tenants who are struggling to pay their rent or those who may be unable to pay their council tax to contact the town hall “immediately.”

In the interview, Cllr John:

  • Deferred his resignation to deal with the crisis
  • Said leisure centres and libraries are remaining open for the time being
  • Announced the creation of a ‘hub’ to co-ordinate the outpouring of volunteering efforts around coronavirus
  • Committed to supporting businesses affected with the Government’s hardship fund
  • Warned council services will have to change to deal with staff shortages
  • Came out against closing schools at the current time

“This is war, it’s as simple as that,” he starkly warned. “We have never experienced anything like it in our lifetimes. The fact that people can’t socialise… this is unprecedented.

“It’s awful, it’s like something out of a disaster movie. It’s a whole system breakdown.”

The council’s offices on Tooley Street

Changes in Government guidance this week have meant that all “non-essential” social contact should be avoided, particularly in London, the epicentre of the coronavirus crisis.

LIVE UPDATES: Coronavirus in Southwark rolling blog – read here for all the latest updates throughout the day

Southwark has 58 confirmed cases at the time of writing, among the highest in the country. One patient at St Thomas’ Hospital is confirmed to have been one of the 71 deaths nationally from the virus so far.

“I know some people have been frustrated with us,” he said, of criticism that the council has not maintained a high-profile role over coronavirus in the days before the extraordinary guidance change on Monday.

“But that will change going forward. Hopefully you will get bored of us going forward – that’s a position I would much rather be in.”

Cllr John had been due to stand down from his post this month after ten years at the helm at Tooley Street.

But in response to the “unprecedented crisis,” he now says he will stay on to lead council efforts until the worst of the epidemic is over.

“This crisis is moving at such a rapid scale,” he told the News.

“I want to ensure that my successor has a system that’s working and we have got through the peak.

“I think it would have been irresponsible for me to leave during this unprecedented crisis and I hope it gives some reassurance to residents.”

Most at risk from COVID-19 are the over-seventies, and those who have underlying health conditions.

The council is in discussions with care providers over staffing levels so that they can continue to provide services to those who need it, he said.

At the time of writing, council libraries and leisure centres remained open, but this is being kept under review by officials and may yet close if this is the guidance given from government.

The borough’s pubs and restaurants have been particularly hard hit by the change in policy this week, as their customers are being told to avoid them.

Hardship payments will be available for businesses struggling during the crisis.

“We’ve been given our share of the business rate support included in the budget last week. I think that’s around £3,000 per business, but I anticipate the chancellor will include a much more significant package,” he said.

But in a sign of the fast moving events around coronavirus, only an hour after Cllr John had spoken to this paper, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a mammoth £330bn support package to help keep the economy afloat during the outbreak.

Image of the coronavirus

“The government is incredibly anxious that this money gets out the door as quickly as possible, this isn’t going to be a system cooped up in red tape,” added Cllr John.

Residents worried about paying their council tax or council tenants struggling with their rent as they take time off work in Government guidance should also contact the council.

“What I would say to anyone facing financial difficulties in terms of their relationship with the council – contact us immediately,” he urged.

Schools, too, remain open, despite a score of schools in the borough sending kids home because of staffing shortages.

The council’s top boss told this paper he did not support closing schools at the current time, with concern over who would care for children at home.

He also declined to comment in detail on the Government’s handling of the crisis, saying that they were “incredibly difficult judgements” and that he was not in a position to “second-guess” the advice of the chief medical and scientific officers.

In a new Blitz spirit, thousands of residents from all over Southwark have joined community groups and volunteering efforts to make sure their neighbours get the help they need during isolation.

Southwark Council leader Peter John

On Tuesday, the council launched an online ‘hub’, with phone number to follow, to help co-ordinate those initiatives with a single point of contact.

“I applaud everyone who is standing up for their community but my plea to everyone is follow guidance, stay safe and stay well and look after your loved ones,” he said.

A key issue for the council is how to deliver services while expecting 20 per cent of its own workforce to be off at any given time and also avoiding face to face contact with residents where possible.

“Rather than curtailing services it’s the way that we’re providing services that’s going to be the challenge,” Cllr John said.

Southwark is in it for the long haul, he warned: “The recovery stage is going to be long and it’s going to be hard.

“Who knows what the damage will be to our communities, our businesses and the mental health of our residents.

“We have got to look out for each other as best we can.”

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