‘Even when measures get imposed don’t feel powerless’

Kersten England, Bradford Council

It was the night before Eid at the end of July when the bombshell dropped. Ministers announced that household mixing was to be banned under extra restrictions to curb the spread of coronavirus across the Bradford District.

Council chief executive Kersten England said: “We were not sighted on that. We had been asking for the further easing of restrictions to be paused, but ministers took the decision to go far beyond that, giving us no time in which to prepare either local agencies or our communities to respond. This was imposed from Westminster and led to considerable resentment among our communities.

“It was really damaging in terms of trust within the Muslim community and, if I’m honest, I’m not sure how many people followed it. It would have been better to do it after the festivities. Sometimes we need to think about the wider picture, what this did was to make the job of maintaining trust and compliance that much harder.

“We are beginning to struggle in terms of getting people to comply with restrictions and follow self-isolation guidance. Feedback on the ground tells us that people find the restrictions confusing and unfair and the pace at which national decisions are made simply adds to the confusion.” 

Over summer, Bradford lobbied government to relax the restrictions, but this only happened in some of the outer areas for a short period, which Ms England said “simply heightened the existing sense of confusion and unfairness”. This has now changed again with the whole of the district was classed as a tier two area in mid-October.

The introduction of restrictions in the summer was accompanied by visits from senior government officials, providing Ms England and others a chance to highlight extra support that was needed. This included more testing in and around care homes and investment in local contact tracing as well as setting out the challenges in raising awareness and securing compliance in a young and hugely diverse district.

“Some things are still not resolved, but we were at least able to have that dialogue.”

Despite these problems, Ms England said council leaders and chief executives should not feel powerless, pointing out there is plenty that local partners can do without government involvement.

She cited the creation of Bradford’s COVID Scientific Advisory Group in partnership with the university and hospital to provide “rich and timely data” on the spread of the virus as well as work with local communities to help curb transmission. 

Bradford has built a network of COVID ambassadors to promote the key hands, face, space messages and encourage people to get tested if they have symptoms.

These champions have been drawn from different parts of the district and include community wardens, youth volunteers and others from the voluntary and community sectors.

“As local leaders we are the ones with the deep understanding of our people and places. We have a long-standing track record of working closely with our communities.

“Even though restrictions have remained and infection rates have gone up, we have still seen the benefits. We have not seen the exponential growth seen elsewhere. At one point we had the second highest rates in the country and now we are in 28 or 29 position.”

But she also stressed it was important not to see high rates as a judgement on your ability to contain the virus. “You have to take into account the vulnerabilities and demographics of your population. There are certain areas that will always have higher rates.”

Shortly before the new national lockdown was introduced, Ms England was anticipating talks would start about moving to tier three. “We were working hard to make the case for the maximum possible support for the economy and businesses and employees that would be affected, for improved local test and trace and for keeping leisure centres open, recognising their importance to physical and mental health.

“We have a good relationship with those leading on contain and you have to have to keep on sharing your learning, keep on making your case and keep on believing in your ability as local leaders to know what works best for your place.”