The number of scrutiny meetings Lewisham Council plans to hold during the coronavirus outbreak will be more like “watching the history channel” than scrutiny, according to a councillor.

The council plans to hold one overview and scrutiny business panel meeting per month during the crisis.

The business panel met virtually on May 5, where the chief executive and head of services presented a report on the council’s scrutiny strategy and approach to the pandemic. 

The council plans to channel all formal scrutiny through the overview and scrutiny business panel, which will be provided with a COVID-19 update as a standing item on the agenda.  

The purpose of the update, according the report, will be to “provide members (and any members of the public observing the meeting virtually) with a high-level strategic overview of and assurance about the Council’s response to COVID-19”. 

“The COVID-19 item on each agenda should include a summary of the overall regional/local system response to COVID-19, any key developments since the last update, an overview and update on the council response in relation to critical services, cope for member input and community feedback to the operational response,” it states.  

Presenting the report, chief executive Kim Wright said the council was trying to “strike a balance” between allowing “well-scutinised decisions” to be made and “ensuring that resources within the council remain focused on still delivering those critical services”. 

But Cllr Liam Curran said meeting once a month was “insufficient” and would be more like “watching the history channel” than providing scrutiny. 

After passing on his thanks to all staff at the council for the work they are doing, he said: “Meeting once a month isn’t scrutiny, it’s more like watching the history channel, and I don’t think we can conduct effective scrutiny with such a long gap.  

“I hope that we corporately can address this very quickly because […] I agree that you have to achieve a balance but in my view it’s not achieved at the moment because it’s too long a gap.  

“So much has changed in the last month, the world has changed enormously and all we’re doing is getting a repeat of what’s happened.” 

Ms Wright said more than one meeting a month would put an “onerous burden on already very busy officers”.  

“We need to get the balance of providing opportunities for overview and scrutiny and appropriate challenges but we also […] need to be dealing with the response here and now as well. 

“Personally, I think anything other than the once a month will put an onerous burden on already very busy officers to service this panel and I really do think that would not be something that would enable us to do as well as we would like to do,” she said.   

Ralph Wilkinson, head of services, presented the panel with the slides on the council’s response strategy and objectives, which includes supporting people and businesses, providing leadership and reassurance, and facilitating a return to a “new normal”.  

The strategy also involved setting up a response structure, giving three groups responsibility for different types of services, critical, borough-wide, and recovery.   

Mr Wilkinson presented Lewisham’s response to date, which included 7,000 people being shielded, the delivery of more than £30 million in business grants, and 3,700 food packages being delivered through Lewisham Local.  

Scrutiny members asked a series of questions, which included queries on care home figures and deaths, what would happen with services post COVID-19, PPE, and asked for more figures to be discussed at the next meeting.  

Ms Wright said care homes were “coping well” and that the council had given them “a lot of support wherever we’ve been able to”.  

“What we can do for future meetings is provide up-to-date figures for our care homes in terms of their current capacity, their current death rate, and their [coping ability] at that moment in time when we present the report,” she said. 

She also quoted the latest data from the ONS on COVID-19 death rates in Lewisham, which is 106 per 100,000, putting it in the top ten.

Cllr Peter Bernards queried what would happen to people with no recourse to public funds after the crisis, raised concerns about the backlog of housing repairs that would emerge after lockdown, and issues with universal credit.  

Ms Wright said his questions would be addressed at “future meetings”. 

“It’s helpful to get a steer from members tonight of the kind of details that they’ll want to see in future reports,” she said.  

Cllr Bernards also asked what the council would do about the figures that show BAME people are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. 

See more: Lewisham Councillor raises concerns about lack of BAME representation in research

The chief executive announced that a joint review had been launched with Birmingham to look into BAME health inequalities, and she had been liasing with the regional director of Public Health England, which is conducting an enquiry into the figures.  

Cllr Coral Howard asked whether home carers were getting enough PPE, and Mr Wilkinson assured members they were.   

“There were certainly issues in the early days of the response in getting hold of PPE and supplies ran really low. 

“As a result of that London set up some emergency arrangements, and we’ve set up our local arrangements, so any worker that needs PPE in the care homes or care workers and they can’t supply their own PPE, their supply routes are broken or their waits are too long, then we step in and supply the PPE for them.  

“We have enough stock so there isn’t a situation where we would have a care worker going into someone’s home or working in a care home that hasn’t got PPE,” he said.  

He also said the pop-up testing centre, which was in Bellingham last weekend, would be coming back soon and that it might be in St Dunstan’s College in Catford.