By Local Democracy Reporter Ciaran Duggan
Lockdowns will prove to be a “minefield” for Kent local authorities, councillors have warned.
The county’s 14 councils have been given new powers to close shops, cancel events and shut outdoor spaces to manage local coronavirus outbreaks.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the announcement three days ago as 343 councils across England largely welcomed the move.
Kent County Council’s (KCC) public health cabinet member, Cllr Clair Bell (Con), said: “The purpose of these powers is to enable councils to act more quickly in response to outbreaks where speed is paramount.”
Her comments came during a virtual cabinet meeting held by Maidstone County Hall’s Conservative administration earlier today, which lasted for 90 minutes.
Despite this, concerns have been raised by Maidstone County Hall’s main opposition parties, the Liberal Democrats and Labour, around the logistical challenges posed from enacting and enforcing lockdowns.
It is believed that the shutdowns will likely be implemented at district level rather than county-wide, but KCC main opposition leader Rob Bird (Lib Dem) warned of an “enormous challenge” for Kent local authorities.
In Maidstone, Cllr Bird said a shutdown of the town centre would be a “minefield” for the borough council, KCC and neighbouring authorities.
He questioned what would happen at Maidstone schools that closed but had pupils from neighbouring areas like Kings Hill, Malling and Medway.
On lockdown powers, Cllr Bird said: “The situation is getting better, but we are still not in a position where local authorities have sufficient information and control.
“Another problem we will have with the local lockdowns will be when the furlough scheme is being unwound.
“It will be very difficult to rely on people to stop working because they are seen to be doing the right thing.”
Nearly 70,000 people claimed for benefits across the county last month. Agency workers on zero hour contracts will find it “uneasy” to be forced to stop working amidst their financial hardship, Cllr Bird also warned.
Amid the Leicester lockdown, neighbours living just inches apart have spoken about their confusion as the city is split between those staying at home and those who are enjoying new freedoms from the national easing of shutdown.
Margate county councillor Barry Lewis described Whitehall’s decision to hand lockdown powers to Kent councils as a “cop out”.
He said: “The Government has failed with their lockdown in Leicester due to confusion of where the boundaries are and allowing sports fixtures, like football and horse racing, to go ahead.”
One Kent councillor has also compared the dividing line to Germany during the Cold War. Infamously, checkpoint Charlie was a crossing point which split the Soviet Union controlled East Berlin and the capital’s Western occupied zones.
Concluding, Cllr Bird said: “I do not think all local authorities can deal with these challenges without financial support from central Government.”