Birmingham City Council’s deputy leader Paul Tilsley explains the council’s strategy on dealing with swine flu.
We know from media reports and our own experiences here in Birmingham that in the last couple of weeks or so swine flu has now gained a significant proactive foothold into daily life.
In many respects this comes as no surprise. We have known for a number of years now that the possibility of an influenza pandemic posed a very serious risk to the people of Birmingham. All the indications suggested it would be linked to an outbreak connected to poultry; that it would be severe right from the start; that it would spread at a dramatic rate; that it would most likely affect young adults more so than any other group and so on.
However in the way that it has developed, this pandemic traced to an outbreak in Mexico has defied all the planning assumptions we were working to.
Its impact on the vast majority of people has so far been mild; it has a predilection to children; and its spread in the earlier stages of the outbreak was concentrated in particular hot-spots (areas of inner city Birmingham) rather than the anticipated uniform rate across the country.
To start with, I think most of us were baffled how it would pan out but fully knowing that whatever course it followed, we had the responsibility to get on top of it quickly and cut short its potential to develop into something more dangerous. And that is exactly what we have done.
But let me be clear, this is not something we started when swine flu first arrived in late April of this year.
Both within Birmingham City Council and in conjunction with our colleagues, particularly within the NHS and other emergency services, we have been preparing for the pandemic for a number of years now.
Response plans are in place not only to deal with the impact of a flu pandemic right across the council but also describe how the city council will work in collaboration with key agencies.
A number of exercises have been held involving council staff, colleagues from other key response agencies, private sector organisations such as funeral directors and independent social care providers and local community groups.
These exercises have put our plans to the test and they have been continually improved as a consequence.
The Civil Contingencies Act, which became law in 2004, places a duty on all responding agencies – including local authorities – to ensure that organisational arrangements are in place to ensure either business as normal, or in more extreme circumstances, the services that we deem as critical are sustained.
We call this business continuity planning and we have made sure that it has filtered down through every tier of council service delivery and arrangements apply to a range of emergency situations – a flu pandemic being just one.
In addition to this, local authorities have a duty to promote business continuity.
My message to people from such organisations would be that they can rest assured that the city council has been very active in doing this – a substantial Business Continuity focused Birmingham Post Supplement, set to run in October is an example of this.
As deputy leader, part of my portfolio includes responsibility for our emergency planning and business continuity service. As Birmingham is the largest single local authority in the UK, we have a suitably sized team able to lead and coordinate these matters within council, and beyond, on my behalf.
I am proud to say that this team – the Birmingham Resilience Team – is ground-breaking in its approach to the challenges that we face.
We promote the idea of resilience here in Birmingham and seek to embed it within our organisation, our dealings with partner agencies, and most especially, our various communities.
Whether as one big community or many smaller ones, our ability to work together to plan for, respond to and recover from any emergency or difficult situation is crucial. Bouncing back to normality as quickly as possible is what resilience is all about.
The team includes co-located officers from partner agencies including the NHS. The idea has been to improve joint working between the partners and this has been hugely successful.
The very fact that we have an NHS emergency planner seconded into the team has proven to be an exceptional advantage in facilitating our collaborative efforts to address the swine flu pandemic.
It goes without saying that I expect the same from my fellow councillors of all political persuasions. On behalf of the City Council this team has worked tirelessly to ensure that our approach to tackling swine flu is appropriate, well co-ordinated and effective.
The team moved very quickly to ensure that the council had its required response management structures in place. This includes a “gold” group of most senior officers to attend to any strategic decision making.
A silver group of tactical level officers to ensure day to day co-ordination of response across council has met throughout the duration of the pandemic on a weekly basis – solving quickly any problems should they arise.
The team – either through its own initiative, through the council silver group or through the multi-agency group has enabled very rapid solutions to such matters as:
n? The management of school outbreaks, closures and related matters to do with keeping the public informed.
n?Ensuring all council members received regular briefings (at one point up to three per week) keeping them fully informed of developments.
n?Setting up effective communication channels to assist the NHS in reaching the (diverse) Birmingham public.
n?Ensuring the communication of essential messages through internal means to keep council staff informed of developments.
n?Supporting the local NHS where necessary by providing extra translators; assisting in the identification of future anti-viral collection centres.
n?Supporting the national NHS in identifying and preparing council capacity to assist with the National Flu Line.
n?Supported the wider multi-agency response beyond Birmingham by providing secretarial support to multi-agency strategic co-ordination across the West Midlands conurbation.
The council has also been busy monitoring developments and ensuring that the response across the council and within the NHS has been running smoothly and effectively.
So far in Birmingham, much of our efforts regarding response have been concentrated on the issues of school closures, mostly because of the apparent preference of the virus to school children.
However, with summer holidays upon us, let me assure you that we are now focused on ensuring that our response to the virus affecting any group within the population will be effective. We are particularly aware of importance of having effective co-ordination between our health and social care providers.
We have built in potential high levels of staff absence into the long term planning that we have undertaken and I am confident that we can adjust our capability to meet any changes in the planning assumptions that the Government may make over the future impact of swine flu.
The Local Government Association will meet today to discuss the swine flu situation