Hampshire County Council pushes for more virtual meetings as Covid-19 infection rates increase

RISING Covid-19 infection rates mean councils should reconsider going back to virtual meetings, a top councillor has said.

Hampshire County Council's full council meeting yesterday had roughly half a dozen councillors absent.

It comes as Covid-19 rates are rising through the summer as more gatherings such as festivals and public events are being held.

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According to Liberal Democrat Cllr David Harrison, some had sent their apologies due to catching Covid.

He called on the county council to reconsider holding more virtual meetings, instead of hosting them in person.

'I do think there’s an issue with whether it's really necessary for us to be meeting in person as much as we are,' he said.

'We know Covid-19 is still very much prevalent in the community and we have members who aren't able to participate because they either have Covid or are at risk of spreading it to other people.

'We have proven that it's possible to conduct our business virtually – I wonder if the leader of the council agrees that we need to renew our call to government to have the ability to meet virtually, if it seems appropriate to do so.'

The county council hosts its decision day meetings and informal meetings virtually – but there is no leeway in government legislation for more meetings to be held virtually.

For councils to go back to virtual meetings, legislation would need to be changed back to how it was during the pandemic.

Council leader Cllr Rob Humby agreed to keep an eye on the situation.

He said: 'It is something we do constantly need to keep under review – I do agree that it needs to be monitored.

'Other local authorities are doing the same and I am happy to discuss the matter with them and with government ministers.'

Chairman of the LGA, Councillor James Jamieson, urged the government to act ‘quickly’.

He said: ‘Addressing the issue of remote and hybrid meetings is a priority for councils up and down the country. The pandemic proved that using virtual meeting options can help councils work more effectively and efficiently and can in fact increase engagement from both councillors and residents, which is a vital part of local democracy.

‘Last year, the High Court confirmed that following the lapsing of Coronavirus Act power allowing councils to meet virtually, council meetings must be held in person. The government would, therefore, have to prioritise primary legislation giving councils new powers if councils need to meet and make decisions virtually again.

‘Giving councils the flexibility to offer hybrid and virtual meetings enables them to work in the most accessible and resilient way possible, especially in times of emergency such as when there is adverse weather or to simply support efforts to reduce transmission of coronavirus or the winter flu to vulnerable councillors, officers and members of the public.

‘We urge the government to act quickly and take the next steps to introduce legislation that would empower local authorities to make the most suitable choice for their organisation and communities.’