The number of new cases of coronavirus is falling and lockdown restrictions are being eased, but it remains crucial that everyone continues to follow public health advice. This is vital in this phase of the pandemic in order to keep the transmission rate, the ‘R number,’ below one. This includes maintaining good hand hygiene; practicing social distancing; and helping to protect other people by using a face covering when on public transport, entering a hospital or in other confined spaces
Public Health England communication materials (posters and social media images) are available for all partners and can be accessed at https://coronavirusresources.phe.gov.uk/.
Update on Durham County Council services
Countywide recovery – As you will be aware, non-essential shops have been able to reopen to the public from this week, following the latest changes to government guidance. We have been working closely with retailers and landlords to ensure that this can be done as safely as possible for businesses, shoppers and residents. We have taken a range of measures, including placing signs and posters in all of our town centres reminding people of the rules around social distancing and suspending on-street parking bays in order to create wider footpaths. Where this has included disabled parking bays, alternative arrangements have been put in place for Blue Badge holders. We are also encouraging businesses to follow government advice on safe working practices. All of this work is being supported by social media messaging. As we all know, the pandemic is not over and, as such, we will be monitoring and regularly reviewing the situation for as long as is necessary. Full details are available via the safer spaces page on our website. Please also remember that residents can continue to have their say on measures to encourage social distancing around the county via our street spaces consultation. Meanwhile, Durham city Park and Ride services will reopen to passengers later this month, with extra safety measures being put in place to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. From 29 June, services will resume from Belmont and Sniperley. The Howlands site will remain a Park and Stride site, operating solely as a car park. In order to accommodate social distancing guidelines, there will be a maximum of eight passengers per bus, while drivers will wear PPE and all passengers must wear a face mask. We’re also asking passengers to use contactless cards to pay for their tickets. Parking charges will also be reinstated in the council’s car parks and on-street pay and display bays from 29 June. However, we will continue to offer free parking to NHS and critical care workers. We will also be launching a mobile app to enable motorists to pay for parking online. For further details, visit www.durham.gov.uk/parking.
Restoration and recovery of services – We continue to take a measured approach to the reinstatement of council services and the reopening of our buildings, with staff and members asked to continue to work from home if they are able to do so until government guidance changes.
Essential services – You will be aware that we are planning to carry out significant repairs to New Elvet Bridge in the city centre, which will require the full closure of the bridge to traffic and pedestrians. These works, which will run for 14 months from 20 July, will inevitably cause some disruption to traffic so we are encouraging those who regularly travel through the city to start considering alternatives routes now. It is critical that the work takes place as planned in order to avoid a structural failure which could result in an unplanned, immediate closure requiring more extensive repairs.
Schools – Over the past few weeks, we have been supporting head teachers and governors in deciding when they are able to provide a safe enough learning environment in order to begin a phased reopening to pupils other than those who are the children of key workers. This week, primary schools across the county have extended their intake to offer a mix of places to children of key workers, vulnerable children, and those in reception, Year 1 and Year 6. All secondary schools in County Durham have been open to Year 10 pupils since Monday. Those with sixth forms have also invited Year 12 pupils to return. All pupils will access some teaching within these year groups as the numbers admitted are in line with the limits on pupil numbers defined by DfE guidance. All secondary schools have shared their plans with the council. You will be aware that the Government has now agreed to provide free school meals to eligible families during the summer holidays. More information is available on the government website at www.local.gov.uk/lga-responds-free-school-meals-announcement.
Adult social care – Support for care providers remains a key priority. Infection rates and staffing pressures in care homes continue to ease and our monitoring shows an improved picture across homes and other social care services. We are continuing to discuss coronavirus pressures at meetings with a range of stakeholders three times a week, offering support where required. Applications to the care academy continue to grow with a significant number of people now going through training. We are also working to improve digital access for care providers, including the roll-out of NHS email addresses to enable secure communication with professionals and we are assisting with mobile communications to help provide virtual assessments.
NHS Test and Trace – Following the official launch of the national NHS Test and Trace programme, we are working closely with local, regional and national partners ensuring we are ready to launch an effective local response to outbreaks identified through the national programme and our local intelligence. Work on the governance, structure, membership and protocols for local management continue under the coordination of the Local Health Protection Assurance Board and local plans will be completed by the end of June.
Financial support for businesses – We have now awarded £1.45 million through the Local Discretionary Grant Scheme to 207 organisations. This is from a total of £5 million in funding received from the government. This additional funding prioritises small businesses that were not eligible for support under the original scheme and allows us to offer awards of between £3,000 and £25,000. You may have seen media coverage earlier this week highlighting a Bed and Breakfast in Lanchester which has benefitted from this vital funding. We have also now provided more than 8,678 businesses with support totalling £96.98 million through the original scheme – the Small Business Grant Fund. Updated guidance on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (furlough), meanwhile, was published last week. Details are available via the business support pages on our website. The updated guidance includes details of how to check whether a business can claim support, who can be furloughed, how to calculate and claim for an employee’s wages and the steps you should take before doing so.
Funding announcements – The 100 locations selected for the government’s £3.6 billion Towns Fund will now be able to draw up their proposals for a multi-million pound investment. This includes Bishop Auckland. Further Towns Fund guidance, which sets out the key information local leaders need to prepare for a Town Deal and develop proposals in the form of a Town Investment Plan is now available.
AAP funding – We have now allocated well over half of the £1.5 million of additional funding made available through our AAPs to support community and voluntary groups during the pandemic. A total of 221 organisations have been told they will receive a share of what now stands at £852,741 in confirmed funding. A further 41 initiatives have been supported through members’ Neighbourhood Budgets, with grants totalling almost £213,343.
Community hub – Our virtual community hub has helped thousands of residents to access essential supplies during the coronavirus pandemic, particularly during the early stages of the crisis. And it is the fantastic support we have received from community organisations and volunteers that has enabled us to do this. However, with the easing of lockdown restrictions, demand for the service has reduced and, as a result, we have now stopped recruiting for volunteers. Some of our existing volunteers are now starting to return to their normal roles but we still have enough people to meet current demand. The community hub will continue to operate for as long as it is needed and we continue to support the recruitment of volunteers to support the many community organisations who are involved in the county’s response to the pandemic.
Remote meetings – We now have a full diary of remote meetings up until the end of July, including two planning meetings next week and two licensing committees. You can keep track of the full schedule by checking the meetings calendar on our website where you will also find links allowing you to watch meetings as they happen.
Next weekend marks Armed Forces Day. Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus pandemic, we are not able to mark the day in our usual way. However, we will still be raising the Armed Forces Flag on Monday at County Hall, as we do each year as a sign of our support for the armed forces and the #SaluteOurForces campaign.
We will continue to keep colleagues, members, key stakeholders, partners and residents up to date throughout these changing and challenging times. Information is available on the council’s website at www.durham.gov.uk and our social media channels www.facebook.com/DurhamCouncil and www.twitter.com/DurhamCouncil