By Local Democracy Reporter Ciaran Duggan
Calls have been made to reopen all of Kent’s 99 libraries to provide internet services for families struggling without WiFi amid the pandemic.
Boris Johnson’s Government said libraries can remain open in the third national lockdown, announced on January 4, in order to give people access to “vital” digital services, if they do not have the facilities at home.
However Kent County Council (KCC) has shut its 99 libraries, only allowing click-and-collect services at 27 sites, because of the potential health risk to staff and customers posed by the coronavirus.
Maidstone County Hall opposition leader, Cllr Dara Farrell (Lab), lobbied for an urgent rethink of the decision during a virtual meeting earlier today.
The Ashford South member said some residents rely on the internet to access financial schemes, such as universal credit, a monthly government payment to help people with their living costs.
Calling for their reopening, Cllr Farrell told a panel of councillors: “I appreciate there are many Kent library staff that will be worried about introducing this.
“That being said, what steps are being taken to engage with staff to ensure people can access vital services such as IT?”
Libraries were shut in Kent for nearly four months when the first wave of the coronavirus struck the UK last March. A staggered reopening took place of 12 libraries in July, allowing people to book slots, in advance, to use the internet.
More libraries reopened in August, with additional safety measures put in place, including hand sanitiser stations, one way routes while face coverings were made mandatory.
But KCC has decided to fully close Kent’s 99 libraries to the public during the latest national lockdown amid fears from staff about their safety.
KCC’s head of libraries, James Pearson, told the County Hall panel that his department is seeking to make the buildings more Covid-secure, but warned councillors about a difficult “balance” to strike with the health risk.
In December, one in 100 Medway residents had the virus, while areas such as Thanet and Swale were among the worst Covid hotspots in the UK. But the infection rate has started to fall in all 12 districts since January 4.
Defending the decision to keep the libraries closed, Mr Pearson told the panel: “Given the state of the pandemic we are not encouraging people to visit our buildings.
“This is why we have essentially pulled libraries back to our collect and select style.”
Several councils in London, Scotland and the Isle of Wight have also reluctantly shut their libraries to customers over the last two weeks.
Mr Pearson added: “We recognise the important role internet access plays, but safety of our staff and customers must come first.”
Conservative county Cllr Jeremy Kite said KCC had to consider the “sensibilities” of the workforce, adding: “I think it is absolutely crucial that we put our staff first and ensure they are protected. If they feel nervous about it, then we must accept that.”
KCC’s cabinet member for communities, Cllr Mike Hill (Con), would not commit to a firm date for library services reopening.