Unprecedented. I know. We have all heard that word an awful lot recently - but it does simply sum up the new and strange world we all suddenly found ourselves in.
A pandemic of this nature was ‘unprecedented’ and unplanned for and it hit us all for six. I am very proud to be the longest-serving woman council Leader in London. I have been a Councillor for 22 years and yet the scale and pace of the challenge we suddenly faced back in March was beyond anything I had experienced before. The speed at which we had to shut down services while making sure our most vulnerable residents were still cared for was phenomenal.
One of the things we did as quickly as we could in Bexley was to make parking free for all our NHS staff, carers and volunteers. I am proud that we were one of the first councils in London to put this in place. We knew how important their work would be to our community and we were determined to make their job as easy as possible. Over 4,000 people signed up to the scheme.
In the same week we worked with our local Voluntary Service Council to set up a volunteer helpline. It was flooded with calls within the first couple of days from local people, all ready and willing to lend a hand to those in need.
Others mobilised themselves and a number of mutual aid groups were formed across the borough to offer help and support. One of these groups was even made up of some of our amazing young people and another had more than 800 volunteers. So many people wasted no time in showing how determined they were to help others where they could.
Our helpline was up and running on the first day of lockdown and we spread the word on how anyone without their usual network of support could give us a call and get help using every available channel. Before long we were receiving 100’s of calls a day and staff and volunteers were soon delivering food, prescriptions and equipment across the borough from early morning and into the night.
We set up business grants schemes for local businesses that we knew would need all the help they could get following the government's announcements. Now that many of them are open we are doing all we can to encourage local people to shop local and shop safe.
Any challenge brings an opportunity. Although Covid-19 has been a challenge like no other, we have learnt from it.
We had equipped almost all our staff for mobile working well before lockdown, but people were generally content to work as they always had. Our ways of working have now changed. Instead of having to spend our work time travelling to meetings we are making those same connections online and having just as many productive conversations and taking decisions online. Even our Mayor-making ceremony this year was virtual and the Mayor started his year going out meeting people ‘virtually’.
The other challenges have been financial. We have all taken a hit and like many councils we have started to consult on the first of many significant savings proposals. The difference this time is that we have been able to look at some of the services that have been out of action during lockdown and consider how we could do things differently and still give local residents what they need.
Our residents have been amazing during this crisis. We are now ramping up our engagement around local prevention and control and we are expecting a similar positive response from local people, who we know will want to keep Bexley safe.
This has been unprecedented. We are not out of the woods yet and there is a way to go – but our staff, partners and local people, have risen to the challenge. My job going forward is to take that challenge and continue to find opportunities to build an even better Bexley in the new times in which we all find ourselves.
Leader of Bexley Council
Cllr Teresa O’Neill OBE