Coronavirus: Libraries in Wigan could be repurposed into virtual schools or learning areas

Libraries in Wigan could be repurposed into virtual schools or learning areas when schools close due to the coronavirus, Wigan’s chief executive has said.
Leader David MolyneuxLeader David Molyneux
Leader David Molyneux

As stricter measures are put in place across the UK in a bid to tackle the spread of Covid-19, Wigan council has laid out its plans to keep town hall services ticking along in the coming months.

The chief executive and council leader told the Local Democracy Reporting Service in a briefing yesterday that they will make use of their network of volunteers as they try to keep services afloat – and ensure that the most vulnerable residents aren’t cut off from their communities.

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But they called for urgent clarity from the government on funding – warning that they are fearful about cash flow – as well as a release of protective equipment for social care staff, which leaders in Wigan say is being stockpiled.

Looking at their own plans, leaders said they could end up using libraries – which have been closed today – as makeshift virtual schools for children of key workers.

Speaking yesterday afternoon – ahead of Boris Johnson’s announcement that all schools in England would close from Monday, except to children of key workers – chief executive Alison McKenzie-Folan said that some council buildings could be repurposed.

She said: “Longer-term, depending on how this goes, it may be that we could repurpose those facilities for other things.

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“So if we need to look after young children because children can’t go back to school, and they’re the children of the NHS or emergency services or even some of our critical services and social care, there might be the ability to repurpose some of those facilities into virtual schools or virtual learning areas, or anything else that the community needs. So, that’s good that we’ve got the flexibility to do something else with that asset for the place.

“At the moment, we’re not saying ‘they’re all changing into something else’. But we would potentially think about a different use for that facility over time, if that happens,” she said.

Wigan announced today that while its libraries will close to the public, residents will still be able to access eMagazines online and no fines will be applied for unreturned books during this period. The Fire Within exhibition in the Galleries shopping centre is also closed.

Council advice services at Wigan and Leigh Life Centres will remain in operation. But council leader David Molyneux said that the VE celebrations in May are likely to be cancelled.

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Some councils across Greater Manchester have seen bin collections reduced since the coronavirus outbreak, but leaders said yesterday that there are no plans to do the same in Wigan – with the caveat that information and guidance from government is changing on a daily basis.

Instead, plans to roll out a ‘cleaner, greener’ package across the town – which would have seen new benches, new bin installations and deep cleans in the borough’s centres – have been put on hold, with resources redirected to maintaining the bin collection schedule.

Council leader David Molyneux said: “I want to make sure we’ve got the staff to deliver the frontline services – bin collection is obviously a big part of that.”

Some areas in Greater Manchester have stressed fears about staff shortages in the care sector. Wigan’s leaders said this isn’t an area that’s been flagged as a major concern for them – although funding in the sector has been a long-term concern for local councils nationally.

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But they did say they are concerned about protective equipment for those staff. Between 500 and 1000 people work in the sector in Wigan and while they currently have the equipment they need, council staff fear that this might not be the long-term case, if equipment isn’t released to local authorities soon.

Council leader Molyneux said: “The government have said they’ve got masses stockpiled – masks and other protective clothing which needs not to be stockpiled, it needs to be distributed to the frontline now. I think the closer you get to the predicted peak that the gov is talking about, you need to make sure that is available before we go into that.”

At the town hall itself, non-essential council meetings have been cancelled and staff are being told to work from home, when possible.

The borough has seen four confirmed cases of Covid-19 and a drive-thru test has been set up at Leigh Infirmary – although the NHS trust confirmed that it’s only being used in cases that are considered to be ‘clinically appropriate’.

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And as more people begin to self-isolate, town hall bosses said they would be turning to volunteers to make sure that their vulnerable populations aren’t left alone.

Through existing groups – such as the Wigan Borough Community Partnership – the council will be linking in with volunteers who can do shopping for those self-isolating, making telephone calls to make sure residents aren’t lonely.

The town hall is also preparing a communication plan for the most vulnerable residents to ensure they are getting the help they need.

Council leaders across the region will start a weekly phone call where ideas will be shared and the potential for joint working could be explored.

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And council leader Molyneux also suggested that local authorities could see additional support from blue light services in the coming weeks and months.

He said: “The fire brigade, for example, might be a resource where we come more into delivering services other than putting out fires… it’s something that we’re ready to coordinate.”

While there are a myriad services to think about in unprecedented times for local authorities across the country, town hall bosses said their biggest concern at the moment is funding.

In a statement earlier this week, councillor Molyneux said that, along with other Greater Manchester boroughs, the town hall is lobbying government for rapid implementation of Covid-19 budget decisions on business support and relaxation of a range of costs and requirements

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And in yesterday’s briefing, he said: “Local government has to play a major part in what is being delivered here and we’ve got to make sure we’ve got the finance and the back-up to do it. It’s not just about saying nice words, it’s about the delivery of it. I think that’s important to local authorities and to businesses alike.

“Because at the end of the day, we’ll come through this and we’ve got to make sure that when we come through, businesses still have the resilience to deliver what we need it to deliver”.

Chief executive McKenzie-Folan added: “Business rates, there’s a safety net to that figure but until that money comes to local authorities we’re unable to administer it. So it’d give us a cash flow problem – we could be talking significant numbers of millions of pounds of cash flow problems if that money doesn’t come fairly quickly.

“We get top-up grants monthly, if we don’t get those now upfront, again, it will cause some cash flow problems – and there’s already pressure on adult social care and children’s services nationally. It’s that on top of what’s hitting us now that’s a double whammy,” she said.