The Highland Council Coronavirus Update

There has been a huge amount of activity in responding to the national Coronavirus Covid19 Emergency and preparing for the impact of this on the Highlands. Our social work staff, out third sector welfare staff and our welfare teams experienced huge trauma across Highland families last week and we know this will continue to escalate in the weeks ahead. We have been working closely with our partners in the NHS and this partnership is going to be vital as we work together to support vulnerable people at home. 

The majority of the calls to our new helpline have been about supporting businesses and employment related issues. Our Business Gateway website provides information for businesses and ACAS and CAB can also help with employee questions and concerns. 

This week our major focus will be on the opening of our Humanitarian Assistance Centres which we have called ‘Local Community Hubs’ (LCHs) and the ‘bringing together’ of the Volunteer movement across the Highlands. We have 10 LCHs based in locations around Highland and one virtual LCH which combines the requests for help with the offers of assistance before routing them to a specific LCH.  We have had a tremendous response from people and groups wishing to volunteer in their communities. Over 240 groups have registered so far. Please see the national guidance for community groups who wish to help out. 

There will be an allocation of a Hardship Fund to Wards as well as a central application fund based on welfare criteria. We expect to get the total allocation of £2.3 M to those families who need it most as a matter of urgency. We will also be sending out briefings about the Food Welfare Fund and a strategy for helping with food poverty. 

Adjustments to Service ‘Business as Usual’ arrangements

  • All traffic enforcement has been stood down.  The Council will not be collecting income for the next three weeks as a start and Rose Street Car Park barriers have been raised so there is no need for any customer interaction.
  • Waste collection:  Due to staff shortages the waste collection service has already been reduced and we are monitoring what other changes may be needed.  In addition, new measures are being put in place to ensure social distancing for refuse collection staff.  As part of the communication about the changes in service, guidance will be provided on how communities can help in managing their refuse to reduce the amount going in the bin and to collection points.
  • Council Tax: The Council will not be offering a payment holiday because of the major impact this would have on the Council’s finances at a time when most other sources of Council income are being badly impacted and costs in response to the emergency situation are spiralling.  Late payments and arrears will not be actively pursued at this time and there will be an even stronger focus on using our advice lines to provide money advice.
  • Free School Meals: A voucher system has been established.  Engagement is underway with key retail chains like Scotmid, Co-op, Lidl, Aldi and Farmfoods to ensure the vouchers are widely accepted.  
  • Social Work: Social work and health staff are adapting their normal duties to prevent over exposure to the virus which will still include direct and remote ways of keeping in contact in order to support families. This means that along with national guidance the following will continue: child health assessments (some will be amended), immunisations, family nurse partnership, breastfeeding support, speech therapy, OT and other specialised support. Staffing to out of hours has been increased as calls and people in crisis will increase.
  • This week, letters have been sent out to parents of children on the child protection register, to children and parents of looked after children to explain how we will keep in touch including some visits to family homes and to children in care.  Staff are working a rota out in the areas in an attempt to keep our workforce as health as possible. 
  • Criminal Justice: some adaptations have been put in place and offices will be kept open to see adults on CJ orders. Courts have changed and we are liaising on local arrangements. 
  • Planning, Building Standards and Environment: Working remotely, no site visits being carried out but work is continuing.  
  • Project Design Unit/Flood Team: Sites have been closed down so site supervision is no longer required.  Design work will continue wherever possible with home working being used.  Similarly for flood team – working from home.
  • Roads and Transport: Harbours and Corran Ferry will continue to operate as per staff availability – there may need to be amendments to timetables etc.
  • Essential road repairs (i.e. emergency or danger to life) and emergency lighting replacements (e.g. traffic signals) will continue but generally the workforce have been sent home – roads operatives may be required for waste management duties or for other humanitarian tasks such as driving deliveries etc.
  • All housing building sites have been shut, housing development prep work will continue with working from home. 
  • Economy and Regeneration team fully occupied with assessing and distributing the SG support for business grants – all being done remotely, collaborating with finance teams and business support. 
  • Complaints/FOIs/SARs: customers are being advised that any non-emergency or non-Covid related requests will not be responded to.  
  • Committees/Boards/Working Groups: all formal and informal Member meetings at HQ have been postponed.  Ward Business Meetings will be carried out using virtual means.

Business Grants

  • c5160 businesses are estimated to be eligible for the £10k grant and 522 eligible for the £25k grant. Total grant to be disbursed £64.6m approx.
  • Guidance is awaited from Scottish Government on eligibility of self-catering businesses. It is unclear to what degree this will impact on current Business Grants process or whether there will be a HMRC dimension.
  • Applications Received: By the end of Friday 27th March the Council had received 2160 applications. Applications are receiving an automated ‘thank you’ on receipt, but they still need to be checked as complete before they can be formally acknowledged (and 10 day target processing clock starts).
  • Automated response and acknowledgement email also contains guidance to business reiterating Council policy that we would never instigate a phone call to request bank details and that they should only send bank details to the generic COVID-19grants@highland.gov.uk email address.
  • Processes: The focus of our efforts has been to get our systems designed, established and tested with a small batch of applications. This work is currently ongoing with the aim that by Monday this first batch process will be effectively complete – with process refinements made across the various teams involved.
  • A national issue has been identified that actual payments to business now before 5 April may have adverse tax implications for individual businesses. National advice is awaited before we make any actual grant payments to business.
  • A key objective has been to design a grant admin/processing system that can be quickly scaled up but also one that is robust if any of the staff currently involved are absence due to illness. 

Key Worker Hubs

Key Worker hubs are intended for children where either both parents are key workers or for the children of a lone parent who is a key worker. The clear message from the Government is that, wherever possible, parents/carers are expected to exhaust all caring opportunities within small family or community settings to prevent the spread of the virus. Category 1 Key Worker applications have been prioritised but there are still hundreds of key workers without a childcare allocation due to the high level of demand – over 3,500 places have been requested. Despite this apparent high demand, very few of the 890 allocated childcare places were taken up last week, leaving our hubs over-staffed and under-utilised.  We have therefore contacted everyone who had previously submitted an application to ask for it to be withdrawn if it is no longer required so that we can reallocate to those who have greatest need and have a critical role in dealing with Covid-19.  

Humanitarian Assistance Centres (HACs) – Our Local Community Hubs (LCH) Update 

Our Local Community Hubs will connect requests for help from individuals with the offers of support from local community groups, and our and HLH staff.  Data on requests and offers are fed to each LCH by the virtual LCH.  Please note that these are not public caller buildings. The LCH will distribute supplies to people to their door. We are promoting their location because we do not want to attract attention to an centre that may be perceived to be storing food or medicines.

The Highland Council is responding to the Scottish Government’s communication last week on shielding people ‘at risk’ from coronavirus.  People with specific health conditions which put them at higher risk of harm from the virus will receive letters from the NHS advising them they must self-isolate for 12 weeks to protect themselves.  Anyone receiving a shielding letter can contact the Council for support during their period of self-isolation.  People in this position may need different types of support and they might change during the 12 weeks. Some people may need no assistance at all because they have family or friends who can help. Those seeking help are being asked to use the Council’s dedicated helpline at (01349) 886669 or complete a form online at www.highland.gov.uk/shielding to provide their contact details and the type of support they require. 

If any further groups want to offer support to help people self-isolate, please fill in the on-line form at https://www.covidhelp4highland.org/volunteering.html or call the Council’s new helpline at 0300 303 1362 and select the ‘want to offer support’ option.  The Council is working closely with the Highland Third Sector Interface (HTSI) in co-ordinating all offers of help.

Individuals interested in helping local groups can fill in a form to register their interest  here (https://www.covidhelp4highland.org/volunteering.html), or call the Council’s new helpline at 0300 303 1362 and select the ‘want to offer support’ option.     

Over time the group of people to support is likely to broaden to other groups who are self-isolating or need additional help. Anyone requiring support during self-isolation can call the Council’s new helpline at 0300 303 1362 and select the ‘need help with welfare’ option.  We will prioritise support for those with shielding letters but will also help other vulnerable people. 

Education Update 

The Council ‘s Education at home package last week received significant praise both locally and nationally with many of our innovative resources being used by other Councils. We have created a strong partnership with both HLH and Eden court who will support us in the next phase of virtual learning for our most vulnerable  young people. Virtual creative and aesthetic sessions will be piloted across the Highlands during the Easter break.

Wendy Mackay, Head Teacher Duncan Forbes– Teach at Home. 10am Numeracy, 11am Literacy, 2pm – something else! Practical, differentiated sessions for primary schools kiddies.

Literacy Session

 Kevin Raistreck, Head Teacher Dingwall Primary School

Morning assembly with the whole school

 Ruth Mackay, Holm Primary School and Holm ELC

Holm ELCC (@HolmElcc) tweeted at 3:05 pm on Thu, Mar 26, 2020:

Welcome to story time with Miss Smith and Miss Cowie, today it’s the gruffalo! Sign along if you can! #StoryTime #JuliaDonaldson #TheGruffalo https://t.co/JcrgJdJSQT
(https://twitter.com/HolmElcc/status/1243192417395920896?s=09)

 Muirtown Primary – Rainbows

 Stephen Stewart, Loachaber High Schools supporting the NHS

 A Scottish approach to ICT training, sharing knowledge and resources:

Park Primary sends rainbows:

 All Education staff have received daily briefings from the Education improvement team on key matters such as SQA, senior phase study support materials and key support for the safeguarding of all our young people.

Take care and keep safe, your support is invaluable in such challenging times.

Donna Manson

Chief Executive

The Highland Council

30th March 2020

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