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Liberal Democrats call for inquiry into Norfolk’s response to coronavirus pandemic

May 7, 2020 4:55 PM
Here is the transcript of the statement from today's press conference -
Good afternoon. I'm Steffan Aquarone, and I'm the leader of the Liberal Democrats in Norfolk. Thank you for joining me.

As talk of lifting the lockdown gathers pace, I'd like to start by thanking everyone in our county who has continued to carry out their duty to others throughout this pandemic. The people who work in our care homes and at home with members of our community are the biggest group of front line staff in our county, which is known and celebrated as a place where many older people can live in peace and security. And our hospitals have continued to cater to the medical needs of everyone in our community - births, chronic disease treatment, and injuries, as well as those suffering most acutely from covid 19. It is of course not just these vital front line workers who we have been rightly celebrating on Thursday evenings. Supermarket workers, bus drivers and postal workers are but three groups of people who have kept their unwritten promise, to keep essential services going, and whose routine reminds us that our lives will soon start to return to normal. In particular as we enter the unknown territory of relaxing lockdown restrictions, I'd like to thank them for what they will continue to do in putting themselves at risk for our sakes. Thank you, on behalf of all of us across the county.

We have learned a lot from this pandemic in Norfolk. Some people say you know who your true friends are in a crisis, but in fact it has been the kindness of strangers that has most moved me. In my division of Melton Constable, every single village has self-organised help for people who have been self-isolating. It is this degree of community resilience that reminds me of the job of politicians, which is to enable and not interfere. And in our case as liberals, to be steadfast and determined about what we are enabling, which is the chance for everyone to get on in life, regardless of the circumstances they're born in to.

There are times when party politics matter, like elections. And there are even times when the argey bargey of party political postering has its place. This is the time for neither of these things.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many local government officers and members of our emergency services who have worked tirelessly to cope with the additional pressures that has been placed on key services - in particular adult social care, where the Council is fighting to mitigate PPE shortage, and children's services whose main service users have been put at greater risk because of the lockdown.

As Liberal Democrats on the county council we have taken the position of being constructively critical at this time - doing what we can to support the County Council's public health messaging, but equally recognising that the decisions being made by all levels of government at this time are having a profound effect on people's lives and are therefore inescapably political.

We are at a point of relative stability in the crisis and an important point therefore for reflection.

As we enter into the next phase of tackling the virus, we will inevitably find ourselves repeating some of the decisions we faced in the early stages: decisions about what to close again, who needs the most support, and whether we have the resources people need to do their jobs.

When the spikes do cease then the challenge only increases: 'normal life' will return to different people at different speeds; there will be different levels and lengths of the ongoing effects of the virus on different groups in our society; and we must try to bank the new positive insights we have discovered, particular around the strengths of our communities, as we plan for the future.

Where we are right now offers an unique opportunity to reflect on the lessons learned in our county, before we begin the next phase.

Reflecting and appraising are components of good competent management anyway.

And there have been a great many agencies and organisations involved in Norfolk's response to coronavirus.

In order that we can tackle the next phase of disease in the most effective and socially just way possible, we are today calling for an independent local enquiry into Norfolk's response.

This enquiry is not the stuff associated with the big public enquiries set up in the wake of disasters. Instead it is intended to be constructive, and not to seek blame, but to be anchored in the future, centered on the people of Norfolk, not the needs or challenges being faced by any specific public sector body or other organisations, and specifically looking at Norfolk's response to the virus, which we know is evolving at a different rate to the rest of the country.

This isn't about critiquing the decisions made specifically, it's about ensuring that we are all better prepared for what comes next. Working out what worked and what didn't and why?

It should of course be led by someone unimpeachably non-political, and independent of any of the bodies in Norfolk that have worked together to respond to the crisis so far. This call is also not party political - the Liberal Democrats run one of the councils involved in shaping Norfolk's response, North Norfolk District Council, and I am making this call today with the support of the county group, including my colleague Sarah Butikofer, the leader of North Norfolk District Council.

As we approach the end of the beginning with hope, we must recognise that there are huge challenges to be overcome to get Norfolk back on its feet. The County Council is already facing a £20m shortfall in the few short months it has been dealing with this crisis, and a return to 'business as usual' will be unrealistic for all our public bodies in the short to medium term. There are also many opportunities to use what we have learned in the crisis, to support a green economic recovery, celebrate our beautiful environment, and build compassion and kindness into the so-called 'new normal'.

This enquiry needs to be set up immediately and to be completed quickly. If it is done in this way, it could have a big and positive effect on what happens next.

I hope you will join our call, and that the many different organisations from local councils to government agencies and health providers, will want to take part in making the most out of what we have learned so far, and reflecting on how the different agencies across Norfolk have worked together.

Thank you.
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