Every week, Express FM runs a live show dedicated to news about the Coronavirus in Portsmouth, as Robbie James interviews a range of local people, including politicians, experts, residents and businesses. On 29th April, Robbie spoke to Cllr Steve Pitt, Liberal Democrat, about PPE, care homes, Covid-19 testing and UK Government funding, and Express FM have given us permission to reproduce parts of that interview here.
RJ: This time last week Portsmouth City Council had written a letter to the Government asking for a further supply of PPE. Has there been a response?
SP: We haven’t had a response to the letter but – mainly through a huge amount of effort from the team within Portsmouth City Council working with our procurement officers – we’ve [made] sure we’ve got a supply chain to keep PPE coming in to the council, so that we can support where needed locally. [This is] mainly for our own [council] services but also when people are in desperately short supply, we can help from that, and we are [also] using the two drops we did get from the government.
I think the overall picture on PPE is still very tight. I can’t speak for QA Hospital because the NHS is supplied from the government separately, but I do think that we’ve probably got a couple of weeks supply, so we’re not under huge pressure compared to what you’re hearing from other parts of the country and some of the stuff we see on the news. But it’s not a comfortable position and it is something we are having to stay very vigilant about.
So your supply chain at the moment, you’re using an independent one. Is that right?
We’ve put out feelers to a whole range of different suppliers: many of whom approached us, many who came through other councillors, a couple through Penny Mordaunt, a couple from Councillor Donna Jones, some who have contacted myself and the leader. We’ve [also] been tracking down companies ourselves to get supplies.
So all of the [equipment] that the Government recommends through Public Health England as the correct PPE to use in different care settings, we currently have a supply. That means no one amongst our services is having to go without and we’re also regularly checking in every day with all 39 care homes in the city. Only a few are actually run directly by us, the rest are independently run but nevertheless, we’re checking with them every day to make sure that they are ok. And if they or other organisations who desperately need PPE need something as a stopgap while [the] government sorts them out, then we are filling that gap.
In terms of when you’ve been communicating with people in care homes, how do they seem mentally? How are they coping at the moment?
I think it’s fair to say everyone is under a huge amount of pressure. Imagine what it’s like for those frontline medical staff in hospitals losing patients and how stressful that is for them and how frustrating dealing with this unpredictable disease. But they don’t have personal relationships with those patients because they’ve arrived already sick and they’re treating them as a patient in a hospital.
For people in care home settings, some of the residents they are losing to this virus have been residents for a considerable period of time. They have personal relationships with them. Maybe they read to them, they certainly interact with them at different times of the day, the hellos and goodnights and [so on]. And for that to disappear in such awful circumstances must be incredibly stressful. So, I think the fact that they are coping, albeit under that level of pressure is truly remarkable and I think this country, and certainly this city, owes them all a huge debt of gratitude.
Absolutely, I agree. Are they going to get support when all this over [or sooner]? Are we likely to see support in the future for them, like counselling?
Certainly in the council-run care homes we’ve got support in there now. There’s a key point of contact around welfare in each of our homes, wellbeing advice and newsletters going out. They’re pointing to people where they can get help if they wish to do it on their own or a number they call if they wish to ask us to help them directly. So, we’re making sure that happens now.
We recognise how important it is but also, we need to make sure that we’re working with the voluntary community sector to see if they can supply similar levels of support for staff in private care homes because they’re definitely going to need it. We’re not talking about having an hour’s chat and everything’s going to be fine. I think we’re talking sort of PTSD levels with people being exposed to really traumatic circumstances, [such as] losing multiple residents in a home.
One of our own council group is a manager in a care home and I know how stressful it’s been for him in this situation and we’re hearing that across the city. So, nobody ever wants to lose anyone before the moment they are expected to. You accept people passing away from old age or from run of the mill diseases, but I think it’s the magnitude of this is just so stressful.
In terms of the care homes that you guys run in Portsmouth, there’s been a lot of talk about allowing visitors to these care homes to say their final goodbyes, is that something that goes on in them?
Yes, it all depends on the specific circumstances. If there’s an outbreak – for clarity an outbreak is when there’s two concurrent cases that have been tested as positive in a home – there’s a lot of limitations on comings and goings in those settings. But my understanding is that wherever possible people are being given the chance to say goodbye, albeit that they’re having to put on PPE and limit the number of contacts and the number of visits that are possible.
Last week we heard Portsmouth City Council wanted to try and develop a mobile testing facility for those working in care homes and [beyond]. How’s that come along in the last week? Are there any developments there?
The whole testing situation is quite fragmented nationally and a bit of a minefield to try and understand, but we understand that there are now testing kits being distributed to care homes on request. There will be the opportunity for people to do some personal testing, and there’s the testing centre that the government has set up through the Department of Health and Social Care on what’s called the W4 site off the M275.
[Editor’s note: the government announced 100 military-run mobile coronavirus testing units are being prepared to travel around the UK to increase access to testing for social care staff and other key workers. As of 26th April, eight had been mobilised].
For our own staff and network, the Council have 15 slots a day for testing at QA Hospital. It’s beginning to happen but it’s still not happening in a joined up way. And to an extent you can understand that because of the scale of what’s having to be put in place here, but nevertheless it is frustrating that we’re not yet seeing a completely clear picture as to how all this testing is going to unfold.
And would you want to take more responsibility for that as Portsmouth City Council or are you still wanting it to be treated on the national level?
We’re already taking responsibility for [Portsmouth] as much as we possibly can but obviously, we’re guided by the restrictions the Government put on who can be tested and when. The W4 site is appointment only so we’re still trying to get to grips with exactly what the prioritisation for testing is. There is some clarity still needed around that.
We’ll be the masters of our own destiny as much as we can be, but the Government is going to have to do more and be more directly involved, especially around getting those testing kits out, arranging their collection etc. We’re hearing anecdotally what’s going on but it’s quite difficult because we don’t know what’s going on in private care homes, other than what they tell us. There’s no obligation on them to report in to the council, only to the Department of Health.
I saw a headline that Portsmouth City Council is looking at an £18 million loss from this situation. Is that correct and if so, is it something that residents should be worried about?
I’ll very quickly summarize the picture. The £18 million is not correct, but I need to explain to you why.
When the government announced the first £1.6 billion [additional funding for councils], Portsmouth City Council’s share of that was just over £6 million. When they announced the second tranche of money, the second £1.6 billion at the end of last week, they didn’t tell us at the time how that was going to be distributed amongst local authorities. So, the [reported] £18 million was [estimated] before we had any clarity about how that was going to be distributed.
We do know today that [Portsmouth’s] share of the second £1.6 billion is £5.9 million, slightly less than before. That still leaves us with a current blackhole of around £12 million on our forecast. But that’s all predicated on the Office of Budget Responsibility and how they thought the end of lockdown might be phased.
If the government extends lockdown further or if we see a second wave of cases, then that figure will go up. So there is a huge amount of pressure on the council’s finances and obviously, for us lost income [from] reduced Council Tax receipts, reduced business rates, loss of parking, loss of planning fees, lack of rental income, [and so on]. All these things add up to a lot of money and all of that money goes to pay for frontline services.
This article was transcribed from Express FM’s weekly Coronavirus Special podcast, 29th April 2020, and has been edited for clarity and length.
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Image by Sarah Cheverton.