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Committee focuses on Covid-19 actions taken in Caithness

6th July 2020

The Caithness Committee met virtual today for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic and it's agenda focused on the actions taken by the Council and the third sector to deal with the effects of Coronavirus in Caithness.

The Executive Chief Officer for Education and Learning, Paul Senior, gave members an update on the plans and preparations underway to prepare for the return of pupils and staff to Caithness schools in August. This follows an announcement by the Deputy First Minister that the Scottish Government is aiming for the full return of children and young people, subject to ongoing COVID-19 scientific and health advice.

Paul was able to confirm with Councillors that council services and Caithness schools are working towards a new Plan A - C scenario-based criterion, with Plan Plan A - 100% return with no social distancing measures and this is the key focus for 12th August. Plans B and C will remain as a contingency to be implemented should the scientific and health advice indicate that it would not be safe to proceed with a full reopening.

Members were able to ask questions and discuss in more detail issues surrounding specific challenges such as providing school transport, especially in terms of shared public transport services across the area. Paul gave the reassurance that a transport sub-group is specifically looking at the issue and working closely with all local transport providers to evaluate all options. He also highlighted that a webpage has been created which includes frequently asked questions (FAQs) for parents and children and this site will be continually updated as new information becomes available.

Chair of the Committee, Cllr Nicola Sinclair thanked Paul for the update and praised the work of school staff and all they have done to adapt so quickly under difficult circumstances. She said: "It is heartening to see the commitment, flexibility and excellent work our teachers and education officers have done over the last four months. They have been under an enormous strain to not only find new ways to support parents and pupils, but to also plan for the safe reopening of our schools in August. We really appreciate the huge amount of work they have done and will do all we can to assist them."

The Caithness Ward Manager Alex Macmanus, who has been managing the Wick Covid-19 Support Hub then provided Members with an update on the humanitarian response to the pandemic in Caithness.

The Wick Hub, one of 10 regional hubs, has been open five days a week to provide support targeting the most vulnerable individuals and groups across Caithness communities. Of the 260 cases referred to the hub since the middle of April, 90% of these referrals have been passed on to local community groups who were praised for stepping up at such an unprecedented time, and for taking on such a vital and proactive role.

Allan Tait from Caithness Voluntary Group then give Councillors an update on the response to date on behalf of the Third Sector across the far north.

A total of 29 groups in Caithness have been providing support including providing and distributing food, social isolation support, shopping, collecting and delivering prescriptions, dog walking and undertaking the distribution of hand sanitisers.

He spoke very highly of all the groups and all the volunteers who have rallied together and ended by explaining that the focus of the groups is starting to turn to recovery and preparing for future challenges such as furlough ending in October. They will also be looking at developing capacity to provide much needed mental health support.

Members were unanimous in their praise and thanks to the Council officers and third sector volunteers for their commitment and hard work during the coronavirus pandemic. In recognition of their efforts, Caithness councillors unanimously passed the following motion of thanks:

‘Caithness Area Committee wishes to formally acknowledge the astonishing community and voluntary response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has been both inspirational and humbling. Local members - on behalf of the Highland Council – thank the community of Caithness and will work together to agree a formal, lasting tribute to the many people who have come together to get us through these difficult times'

Local members highlighted the importance of following these efforts with tangible actions, and agreed several action points, including to follow up on ongoing discussions with local funders, contribute to the Council review of covid services to ensure Caithness needs are met, and look to ensure closer partnership working going forward between Council, stakeholders, community groups and individual volunteers, to help rebuild a sustainable community post-covid. To that end, Allan Tait will be invited back to the next meeting of CAC and members will engage in discussions in the months ahead to offer full support to the resilience effort. Mental health services were also noted as a key concern and area of focus, and members noted the importance of driving progress in local support services.

Councillors also noted the positive news from Police Scotland that compliance to the current restrictions had been very good in Caithness with only 2 breaches being reported.

The meeting ended with Councillor Bremner submitting the following motion, which was unanimously supported: "Caithness Committee recognises the ongoing challenges in Caithness in respect of void housing stock. It also recognises the commitment made from the new chair of the Housing and Property Committee to meet the challenge by reviewing and implementing necessary action to reduce the impact that void housing has on the housing performance of Highland Council. The Caithness Committee supports and recognises the excellent work of the local housing team in achieving the level of service they are currently delivering."

Cllr Bremner said: "Since I was elected, we have had report after report from the local housing team with the same issue highlighted and it is clear that our area committee needs to strengthen the resolve to our void housing issue here in Caithness. The housing team are doing what they can. Following a recent meeting, I am confident that we will bring a new collective focus to this issue. Bringing this motion to the area committee will now affirm our local commitment to this and I look forward to working proactively with all parties to seeking a better outcome to our void housing stock issue."

Summarising the meeting, Chair Cllr Nicola Sinclair said: ‘This meeting was really dynamic and constructive, with a number of action points adopted and two successful motions brought forward. I think we all feel a sense of renewed enthusiasm to work together and make progress, and I look forward to working with colleagues in the months ahead.’


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