Skip to content

Agenda item

Coronavirus (Covid-19) Update

To receive updates on Covid-19 related matters affecting the city, including from the Director of Public Health, followed by questions from Members of the Council.

 

 

(NOTE: The above item of business is expected to commence at approximately 4.00 p.m.).

 

 

Minutes:

7.1

Greg Fell, the Director of Public Health, provided an update on the latest position in relation to the Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, including the latest epidemiology and key metrics, which indicated that the number of cases of Covid-19 was high and fluctuating, with a falling rate of infections. Transmission of Covid-19 was still principally in households and there was concern about the number of cases of the virus in the east of Sheffield. The average age of a case was falling but was stable in the age group 12-17 and the rate was stable or decreasing in all age bands. Incidence in the elderly had reduced to below a threshold of 150 cases per 100,000 population. The rate of positivity of those tested was 8.5 percent. Hospital activity related to Covid-19 was also falling, albeit slowly and hospitals were very busy.

 

 

7.2

Mr Fell outlined the effect of the local restrictions and the national lockdown on movement and in reducing the R (reproduction) number below 1. He set out the strategy and the arrangements and responsibilities for the City’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic and its operational response as delivered through a range of services. An outbreak control plan was in place and matters were added to the plan as appropriate, such as asymptomatic testing and the vaccine.

 

 

7.3

Finally, he set out upcoming issues including a mid-December government review of which tier Sheffield was to be placed in; activity relating to testing, with testing of those with symptoms being most important; preparation for the vaccine; maintaining the fundamentals of people keeping a distance, washing hands and wearing face coverings and limiting the number of people with whom they had contact and protecting the community and vulnerable people by keeping community transmission low.

 

 

7.4

Greg Fell’s presentation was followed by an opportunity for Members of the Council to ask questions and a summary of the questions and responses was as follows: 

 

 

7.5

Questions were asked about lateral flow testing of students leaving and returning over Christmas and in the new year; with regard to the use of lateral flow testing for people visiting older people in care homes; the proportion of the population having had a vaccination to achieve herd immunity; and what could elected Members do to help to encourage people to have a vaccine.

 

 

7.6

Mr Fell explained that the DfE (Department for Education) had told Universities that students would have to receive lateral flow tests before leaving university to return home. It was not yet clear as to whether there would be the same requirement before students returned to universities, although it was a strong possibility. Whilst lateral flow tests provided tests quickly and with a good population coverage, there were limitations in accuracy and the possibility of false negatives. He said that the tests reduced the risks but did not remove them and therefore he was in favour of lateral flow tests albeit done very carefully.

 

 

7.7

Certain things needed to be in place before lateral flow tests were applied to care homes, including the standard operating protocol, training on how to manage results, clinical governance and risk management frameworks. It was likely that the necessary protocols would be in place by or before late December. Staff were tested through tests which were processed in a lab and that had made a significant difference in care homes. Lateral flow tests reduced some of the risk, but other measures were more important, such as people not visiting a care home if they had Covid-19 symptoms, wearing personal protective equipment and effective hand hygiene etc. Due to the limited accuracy of lateral flow tests, false negatives may arise and which could give false reassurance to people and which might create risk and so it was also important to risk manage the problems associated with lateral flow testing.

 

 

7.8

Greg Fell stated that the matter of herd immunity was complicated and depended upon the efficacy of the vaccine and the coverage of the vaccine in the population and the estimates were that between 60 and 70 percent of the eligible population needed to have been vaccinated before herd immunity was achieved. Positive communications about vaccination and saving lives were important.

 

 

7.9

He said that he believed that the two universities had acted very responsibly in relation to the pandemic. It was likely that there would be a staggered start for universities in the new year, probably with testing prior to them coming back and it was a case of managing the risks associated with a large number of students returning to the City.

 

 

7.10

Questions were asked about the role of the Director of Public Health in influencing the two universities; testing capacity over the Christmas period; how the Council could assist in preparing for the vaccination; testing of hard to reach groups and support for schools where there had been two or more positive tests leading to pupils and teaching staff needing to isolate. Further questions were asked about the likely timescale of a return to normality; reassurance to people who might be anxious about vaccination; and how to improve awareness of the need to practice good hygiene and social distancing in the home.

 

 

7.11

Mr Fell responded to the questions and said that the public health team was in regular contact with both universities with regard to relevant processes, strategy and protocol etc and concerning managing cases and secure teaching environments. He also occasionally spoke directly with the two University Vice Chancellors. There was also a Director of Public Health representative on the DfE University working group, which provided the opportunity to influence policy.

 

 

7.12

He said that there were six testing sites in the city which would all be open, except for Christmas Day and he would make sure that appropriate communications were produced with regard to testing during that period.

 

 

7.13

Mr Fell explained that NHS England was responsible for the vaccination programme and the Council offered support to NHS England both in South Yorkshire and the Clinical Commissioning Group in Sheffield on such matters as suitability of sites and logistics. Importantly, Councillors and officers had good links to communities and the Council could help to reinforce positive messages in communities.

 

 

7.14

As regards managing outbreaks in schools, he said that there was direct communication between the school and the Council’s public health team. A school’s situation was risk assessed in order to manage clusters and cases.

 

 

7.15

He said that with regard to a question concerning a timeframe for a return to normality, it was difficult to say with any certainty. It would not be until significant numbers had been vaccinated. The efficacy of the vaccines had been proven and safety was also largely proven. As with all vaccination programmes, there was a process of long-term monitoring and the science would continue to develop.

 

 

7.16

Greg Fell said that SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) had produced advice with regard to what might be done to minimise coronavirus transmission in the home, and the Council’s communications team was also doing some work on the issue of minimising risk in people’s homes.

 

 

7.17

He said that in relation to hard to reach groups, one of the uses of the outbreak management fund was a peripatetic swabbing and testing service, which was run by Primary Care Sheffield, including for homeless people and others of insecure housing and a similar approach would be taken with other hard to reach groups.

 

 

7.18

Questions were asked about certainty with regard to statistics about the number of cases; sustaining a reduction in the number of cases; the likelihood of transmission in people’s homes; and the long term effect on people’s mental health and the lasting consequences of Long Covid. Further questions were asked about the effect of the end of the recent lockdown and people undertaking activities such as Christmas shopping; and with regard to the eating of a substantial meal with alcohol in hospitality settings and the connection with transmission of the coronavirus.

 

 

7.19

Greg Fell responded that the testing and test positivity rates were monitored and the testing rate was broadly stable, whilst the case rate was falling. As to why there was a discrepancy between the Covid-symptom study app and the case data, he explained that test positivity was 8.5 percent and 91.5 percent of people had symptoms and no virus. In addition, there were more people with respiratory symptoms in the winter period and which would be reported. There was concern about people thinking that rates were reducing and then being less vigilant in their behaviours. Whilst the virus would be caught somewhere, transmission was mostly in households as they tended to be less Covid-secure as they were likely to be cleaned less and people might believe they were safe at home and may get closer to others.

 

 

7.20

Mr Fell said that the reproduction rate (R) was lower than 1, and the infection rate was falling and people did need to continue to take care. Rather than any physiological link between alcohol and Covid-19, it was thought that once someone had consumed alcohol, they may let their guard down and loose inhibitions. The hospitality trade had made huge efforts to make pubs Covid-secure, although there might have been some transmission in hospitality settings as in many other settings.

 

 

 

Support to Businesses in Sheffield

 

 

7.21

Edward Highfield, Director of City Growth and Alexis Krachai, Sheffield Chamber of Commerce and a representative of the Sheffield Business Recovery Group, provided a presentation on the work undertaken to support local businesses during the Coronavirus pandemic.  They were accompanied by Ben Morley, Head of Programmes and Accountable Body, City Growth Service. There was then an opportunity for Members of the Council to ask questions.

 

 

7.22

Edward Highfield outlined some of the things the Council was doing to support business, setting out the economic outlook, business impact, support the Council was providing to business and in respect of the Business Response Group and a Business Recovery Plan. Mr Highfield summarised the Office of Budget Responsibility’s three scenarios as to the economic and fiscal effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, based on different public health assumptions and relating to unemployment and the long-term effects on GDP (Gross Domestic Product). He said that the economic and social effects of the pandemic were unprecedented and that it would take years to recover from the consequences, including on inequalities in the City.

 

 

7.23

He set out the effects on businesses, which included reduced demand and sales and issues relating to managing cashflow and businesses seeking to minimise losses until they were able to trade again safely. Staff were working from home and adapting to different ways of working and social distancing measures and staff absences all presented significant challenges to businesses.  He also outlined the effect of the pandemic and related restrictions on the sales and bookings of businesses in various sectors and drew attention to those most affected such as in the areas of hospitality, hair and beauty, events, hotels, bars, restaurants and the night-time economy.

 

 

7.24

Mr Highfield summarised the types of critical support the Council had provided to businesses, including dealing with enquiries, appointments with specialist business advisors, virtual workshops to help businesses survive the pandemic; and supporting businesses to access government grant schemes. He outlined the support made available to larger businesses and those in the hospitality, accommodation and leisure sectors and assistance to ensure businesses opened up safely.

 

 

7.25

Edward Highfield briefly reflected on the continuing effect of uncertainty and the impact on demand of tiered restrictions introduced by the Government; the importance of Christmas trade to sales; the effect of reduced consumer confidence; issues relating to debt finance; the limitations of the grants available to business; and adaptation and recovery. He said that there had been some good strong partnerships and collaborations across the public and private sector and which would provide a platform for the city in future and in respect of recovery and addressing the longer term issues.

 

 

7.26

Alexis Krachai then outlined activity relating to the Sheffield COVID-19 Business Response Group, which had identified six priorities to help the business community bounce back from the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, as follows:

 

 

 

-        Stimulating demand in the local economy

 

 

 

-        Opening our city and district centres safely and securely

 

 

 

-        Helping to stimulate the conditions to encourage more start-ups in the city

 

 

 

-        Developing our skills base as a city to help communities get back to work

 

 

 

-        Stimulating investment in culture to help rebuild confidence and visitor numbers

 

 

 

-        Working with business leaders on a longer-term economic strategy for Sheffield

 

 

7.27

Mr. Krachai spoke about each of these priorities in turn and he also set out the phases of the recovery plan - firstly, relief and the short term actions needed to keep businesses solvent and trading during the severe restrictions on economic activity; secondly, recovery and help for businesses to adjust and adapt; and, thirdly, renewal to address the structural weaknesses in the economy and a more sustainable, fair economy.

 

 

7.28

Members asked questions and made comments and responses were provided, as summarised below:

 

 

7.29

Comment was made about how business leaders had come together with the Council at this time and in relation to hard work and dedication that had been shown and the investment in the business recovery plan for the city.

 

 

7.30

A question was asked about what was being done to improve engagement and communication with the small business sector and, in response, Members were informed that information had been disseminated on the radio and printed and social media and available networks, email and letter and through elected members. The communications strategy for businesses was considered very regularly. Nonetheless, there was a concern about only communicating with people who were already known, and it was acknowledged that things could be continually improved and there was a fundamental question as to where a small business person consumed information. If there were new ideas to help improve communication and engagement, these would be welcomed.

 

 

7.31

As regards a question about people starting to pursue an alternative business opportunity where an existing one may have failed in the pandemic, it was thought that timing was important in order that there was sufficient clarity, consumer confidence and demand for people to attempt to establish another business and for them to be encouraged and supported in that process. The £2 million recovery fund was for the delivery of projects early in 2021 and it was intended to identify with businesses the things that would make a difference to them in the community and in addition to existing support and services. Support was available for people with an idea for a business from business advisors and workshops which covered issues such as exporting, VAT or registration with Companies House.

 

 

7.32

Edward Highfield explained that there was potentially larger sums of money available through the Sheffield City Region, perhaps through the Growth Hub and such as was made available from the Business Investment Fund, which helped businesses such as with new plant and machinery. It was hoped that there would be further such support for businesses and to help with a new business idea or the refresh of an existing business. The City Region had a recovery plan, and it was hoped that larger scale support for businesses would also be available from the Government and though the City Region.

 

 

7.33

The city was working well with the City Region at an operational and a strategic level and whilst not duplicating, had aligned and mirrored the same three phases in the city’s recovery plan as were in the City Region’s plan. Sheffield had also identified areas of particular focus and drive, such as culture where it was considered there was a distinctive city element to recovery, and with regard to encouraging business start-ups.

 

 

7.34

Ben Morley explained that the City Region was allocated £30 million to make available through grants, including to support businesses which were not rate payers but did have property and other areas of need, such as the grant for taxi drivers resident in South Yorkshire. A scheme was also to be made available for businesses in a supply chain for hospitality, accommodation, entertainment and leisure. These would be for relatively small amounts of money and which reflected the funding the Government had made available. Other options were also being examined, within the money available. Work was underway in South Yorkshire to identify small and perhaps home-based businesses and other vulnerable sectors to see what support might be provided. However, there was high demand and limited funding and decisions were being made as to how best to use the available funding.

 

 

7.35

Mr Highfield said that in relation to a comment concerning what was meant by ‘culture’, and areas including sport, nature and heritage, and their potential to help enable other aspects of the economy, the Business Response Group had stressed that the recovery plan would need to remain flexible and ‘culture’ was not narrowly defined, but included heritage, the outdoor city and those other aspects. This would need to be considered further and as part of the recovery plan.

 

 

7.36

Edward Highfield explained that Business Rates grants worth £98 million had been allocated in Sheffield. £113 million was provided by the Government, based on assessment of the City’s rating list. However, there was not that number of rated businesses in Sheffield and some of the money provided by Government was unallocated. The Council wrote to the relevant Government Minister, identifying the gaps in the national schemes and asking whether some of the unspent money might be reallocated into the discretionary fund. The Minister refused that request and said that the money would be transferred back to Treasury and it was currently awaiting transfer to the Treasury.

 

 

7.37

In terms of businesses which had not been eligible for grants and whether they might benefit from subsequent support, that would depend on the reasons why they were ineligible to begin with. There were for example, some cases of fraudulent claims. However, if there was a chance that businesses were eligible for grants, the Council was following it up and would proactively contact people, to say that whilst they were not eligible for earlier grants, they might now be eligible for one.

 

 

7.38

Comment was made about the importance of culture and events in the City in stimulating demand and recovery.

 

 

7.39

The Council noted the information reported and thanked all of the presenters for attending the meeting and providing their updates and for answering Members’ questions.

 

 

 

(NOTE: During the above item of business, it was - RESOLVED: On the motion of The Lord Mayor (Councillor Tony Downing) and seconded by The Deputy Lord Mayor (Councillor Gail Smith), that the provisions of Council Procedure Rule 5.5 be suspended and the termination of the meeting be extended by a maximum of 30 minutes to provide time for Members’ questions to be asked and answered in relation to support to local businesses.)

 

 

 

Supporting documents: