Matthew Hicks Full Council Speech
Published Thursday 9 July 2020
Today marks 110 days since Britain locked-down. 110 days in which our lives have changed in ways we could never have imagined. Coronavirus has affected each and every one of us – some with devastating effect. I would like to start today by expressing my deepest sympathies for those in Suffolk who have lost family and friends to this virus. My thoughts and heartfelt condolences are with you all.
Today, I want to focus on the work of Suffolk County Council and the part we have played – and continue to play – in our response to this pandemic.
I want to pay special thanks to all of our staff. I want to thank those at the top who have borne huge responsibility, all the way through to those who work on the frontline, and those who are behind the scenes, often unknown, but who keep the cogs of this authority turning.
Together you are working hard to ensure people stay well and safe from harm and to keep vital services going. I know I speak for every county councillor when I say we are exceptionally grateful.
My thanks extends to carers and social workers, who at the height of the pandemic faced exceptionally difficult working conditions, but who continued to deliver the same level of care and compassion despite the uncertainty. I also want to thank foster carers for doing all they could for children in their care during lockdown – I recognise that can’t have been an easy time.
I must also acknowledge those members of staff who have deployed into new roles and departments, or those staff who find themselves working remotely from their kitchen tables, spare rooms or newly converted office spaces – made possible by the skill of the IT department. And I mustn’t forget those who are working, whilst also home-schooling their children.
Your contributions in these unequalled times have not gone unnoticed.
It is incredible to think of all that has been achieved in a relatively short time – far too much to list today, but achievements I know we will fully acknowledge in the future. We have delivered a number of innovative and impactful measures with pace and urgency. Some of these include:
- helping elderly and disabled people to use their bus passes earlier in the day so that they could take advantage or priority shopping
- the speed and efficiency in which we established the online booking system for visits to our recycling centres – and for which we’ve been widely praised
- the fact we guaranteed funding to the care sector to ensure they were financially sustainable
- the mobilisation of the PPE cell, which so far has handed out 2.7million items of PPE since the start of the pandemic
It goes without saying that we have had to learn lessons quickly and not everything has gone to plan, but we have responded with hard work and compassion.
Moreover, the strong performance of Suffolk County Council hasn’t gone unnoticed elsewhere. The work of the County Council is highly regarded nationally, with Suffolk being used as an example of best practice. It is testament to all of the staff that we have been recognised in this way.
Sadly, we have a long way to go and further challenges to overcome, but I am confident that we will face these with the same spirit and commitment that has been seen over the past 110 days.
At the start of my leadership term in May 2018, I spoke of my commitment to working with partners to make sure we do the absolute best for Suffolk. The leadership challenge of Coronavirus has demanded we forge even closer relationships with partner organisations in Suffolk.
Galvanised by need, demand and necessity at the onset of the pandemic, Suffolk’s partnership response has exceeded all expectations in how it has stepped-up, adapted and now, delivers.
Partnership work is not a new concept in Suffolk. We already had very strong working partnerships between councils, health, front line services and voluntary, community and enterprise sectors.
However, this pandemic – the greatest challenge we will face – demands a united response. It cannot be tackled by a collection of individual bodies with individual aims and objectives. It demands a joined-up, united and resilient front. One of the areas of partnership work worth mentioning today is our role within communities to serve those who are most vulnerable, or who have been hardest hit by the pandemic.
Last week I learnt about Trudy.
Trudy is 88-years-old and lives alone in Suffolk. Her husband, who was her childhood sweetheart, died two years ago. Her 93-old-year brother contracted the virus and she’s been told there is not much hope. During the first few weeks of lockdown, Trudy said she found it very hard to stay at home all the time. She suffered with the isolation and loneliness, but said she kept busy by cleaning her house. She says she likes to have a clean house.
Thankfully, Trudy found comfort in the care and support of her neighbours who ensure her cupboards are fully stocked and her repeat prescriptions are delivered to her. She also has frequent conference calls with friends organised by a local charity, Re-engage, which she says is like going out on Sundays again.
The story of Trudy reminded me of my own mother.
She is 85 years-old and has been staying with us since mid-March. We decided that she’d be safer and well-cared for with us in Suffolk, rather than living alone.
She is frail, but mostly independent and enjoys her routine. We are fortunate enough to have the space for her to stay with us, but like Trudy, she is missing her old life and her friends terribly. She is also a little frightened of returning to some form of normal life – whatever, that new normal may look like.
Thankfully, examples of neighbourhood help, and care and support in communities, have become common place in Suffolk. More than 1,500 neighbourhood and community groups are now operating across the county. These groups provide invaluable help to Trudy and others – like collecting food and medicines, offering befriending services and book exchanges.
The sheer amount of people in Suffolk who have helped others in some way during the pandemic is incredible. I have been humbled by daily stories of those who have supported others in one way or another, or those that have been in desperate need of help and found it through the care of a neighbour, or a stranger.
The Home, But Not Alone phoneline manned by Suffolk council staff has taken in excess of 11,000 calls since it was set up, and more than 2,000 volunteers are signed up to the Tribe Volunteer app, willing to help those in need when asked.
At this present time, Suffolk is slowly transitioning from the response phase to recovery. We knew that this period would present its own challenges. The biggest being how do we re-open Suffolk’s economy while also keeping people safe. How do we get people back to work? How do we encourage people to spend money once again to kick-start Suffolk’s economic recovery?
But we must also ask, how do we maintain social distancing? How do we ask people to exercise caution and common sense as we start enjoying leisure and recreational activities again?
And above all, how do we prevent an increase in the number of those infected with Coronavirus and avoid the potential for a local lockdown?
Last week, we published our Local Outbreak Control Plan which will be triggered if an outbreak occurs in the county, as we have seen happen in Leicester.
This plan lists more than 30 scenarios in the most complex settings, such as schools and care homes, to set out how we would tackle an outbreak. Taking the decision to implement a lockdown is one of the last resort measures, but it is an option we may have to consider.
Another significant piece of work being undertaken at the moment is how Suffolk will recover. We are beginning to understand what the longer-term impact of Coronavirus will be, but fully appreciate it may be many months before we have the full picture.
Recovery work includes:
- the impact on Suffolk’s high streets and businesses
- the implications for the voluntary and charity sector, many of which have suffered massive losses
- how we continue to support those families who face unemployment and may be relying on foodbanks
- how we continue to help schools get children back to the classroom safely
- and how we make sure that people like Trudy continue to get the help they need.
This is just a small example of the extent of recovery work underway.
Like “response”, our recovery does not come with a tried and tested blueprint. We continue to do our best with the information and resources available to us. But please be assured that we will do all we can to make Suffolk as strong and as prosperous as possible, while helping to keep people safe.
So, I want to end by again recognising the excellent work at Suffolk CC. It would be remiss of me not to thank my Cabinet for putting in a huge effort over the last 3 months. You should all be very proud of what has been achieved, and I also want to thank all Members from my group , from all parties, who have also adapted and taken the approach of working together to do what we can for our residents.
Suffolk County Council has proved what we can achieve together, working with partners and I have no doubt we will continue to look out for one another as we go forward over the coming months.