Last month the government announced that the current legislation allowing local councils to run virtual meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic will come to an end on May 7.
The secretary of state for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick MP, wrote to council leaders to confirm the government has considered the case for extending legislation very carefully and has concluded that it is not possible to bring forward emergency legislation on this issue at this time.
Therefore, from May 7 parish and town councils will be required to run face-to-face meetings for the first time since lockdown restrictions began last year.
With many local authorities raising objections to returning to face-to-face meetings, such as the lack of suitable premises to conduct socially distanced meetings, there is a court case underway to appeal the government’s decision and allow virtual meetings to continue.
However, to help prepare local councils for the prospect of face-to-face meetings in the future we have put together the below guide to holding COVID-safe council meetings. If you require any more specific risk management advice, please get in touch on email@example.com
Local elections and annual meetings
Local authorities that are subject to elections are legally required to hold their annual meeting within 21 days of the election, which this year will take place on May 6.
Due to the postponement of local elections in 2020, a greater number of local authorities will be subject to elections this year and therefore will have no choice but to hold their annual meeting after the current legislation expires.
However, for those authorities not subject to elections this year the option remains to hold their annual meeting before the May 7 deadline so that the meeting can be held virtually while the current regulations still apply.
If your council has to hold a physical, face-to-face annual meeting, then you should consider holding it after May 17, when it is anticipated that a greater range of indoor activity can resume in line with the government’s ‘Roadmap out of lockdown’.
Holding ‘COVID-safe’ council meetings
As per the government’s Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19) guidance, the key to holding safe physical meetings is to adhere to social distancing and hygiene (hand-washing and surface cleaning) guidelines.
If social distancing guidelines cannot be followed in full in relation to a particular meeting i.e. if a suitable location is not available, then councils should consider whether that meeting can be redesigned to maintain a 2m distance or 1m with risk mitigations where 2m is not viable.
Risk mitigations in this instance could include:
- Ensure hand sanitiser is available within the meeting room
- Increase the frequency of hand washing and surface cleaning
- Make sure the meeting room is well ventilated
- Keep the meeting time as short as possible
- Meetings should only be attended by participants who are absolutely necessary
- Use screens or barriers to separate participants from each other
- Avoid transmission during meetings, for example avoiding sharing pens, documents and other objects
- Adopt back-to-back or side-to-side seating (rather than face-to-face) whenever possible
- Optional use of face masks and other PPE (personal protective equipment)
- Use floor, wall and table signage to help people maintain social distancing in meeting rooms
Note: Social distancing guidelines apply to all parts of your council building, not just the area where elected members are meeting. This includes, entrances and exits, break rooms, canteens, toilets etc.
The above advice is also available to download as an actionable checklist to help you prepare for COVID-safe council meetings:
Continuing to provide remote access to the public
Despite the end of the legislation allowing councils to hold virtual meetings, local authorities still have a legal obligation to provide members of the public with access to most of their meetings. For physical meetings, the government are ‘actively encouraging’ local authorities to continue to provide remote access to meetings until June 21 – at which point all restrictions on indoor gatherings are expected to have been lifted.
If you require any help or further advice regarding holding council meetings, please get in touch with us on firstname.lastname@example.org
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