Libraries and museums have been closed in Tameside for the foreseeable future as the coronavirus crisis intensifies.
The council has made the ‘difficult’ decision to close its public facing services to protect both residents and the authority’s own staff.
This includes the customer services based out of Tameside One in Ashton-under-Lyne, which will now offer advice and information online and over the phone.
All the libraries in the borough closed down on Wednesday night, and museums such as Portland Basin and Astley Cheetham art gallery have also shut for ‘quite some time’.
Council leader Brenda Warrington said that the closures are taking place ‘regrettably but necessarily’ to safeguard people against the virus.
As of Thursday afternoon (March 19) there have now been 12 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the borough, and two deaths.
However Coun Warrington said that real figure was likely to be much higher as she called for more widespread testing of both healthcare workers and people displaying symptoms.
“We are in unprecedented times, we are dealing with a situation that none of us quite frankly have had to deal with in their lifetime before this,” Coun Warrington said.
“We have already got people who are self isolating and so we have to make sure that we can continue to operate in the best possible way.
“The kind of support that definitely will be needed in Tameside is financial support, not just for the council but for our businesses.
“We have already heard about some businesses that because of lack of custom aren’t able to continue in the immediate future.
“We have to try and help them to be resilient enough to be able to start again once we’re over this current crisis.”
(from left to right) Dr Ashwin Ramachandra, Council leader Brenda Warrington, Dr Asad Ali
She added: “We have a fabulous community in Tameside and they always rise up when are they are needed and I have no doubt they will do it on this occasion.”
Moving forward the town hall are preparing contingency plans in the event that staff shortages disrupt essential services like bin collections.
Town hall staff have already been redeployed from different departments to cover colleagues who are off work or self isolating.
Grounds maintenance staff are now working in waste and recycling, and library staff are working in the contact centre to deal with the increase in calls.
Chiefs say there have also been many staff who have given up annual leave to come back into work to support their colleagues.
And the council is working out alternative ways to offer its services, including stepping up its home library service to allow people to continue to borrow books.
Dukinfield Crematorium is offering to webcast funerals so people can still attend services from home.
And after community group Action Together launched a call for volunteers to support local groups and vulnerable people, nearly 50 people came forward in one day.
The council is also trying to take pressure of the hospital and health services, and has set up its own coronavirus hotline to offer residents advice and support.
“We know that the hospital is inundated and we want to help there,” Coun Warrington added.
“We would suggest there are probably a lot more people who have contracted the virus but the testing regime is not happening in the way that we would prefer it to.
“One of the things that we have raised with the government is the fact that we need to be able to test not just people that may go into hospital but every person who feels that they may have the disease.”
Dr Asad Ali and Dr Ashwin Ramachandra, co-chairs of the Tameside and Glossop CCG governing body, echoed the leader’s call for expansion of testing.
Dr Ali, who is also a GP in Denton, added: “There is massive, massive pressure on the NHS at the moment and our roles are to ensure that we can keep all the services that we can running as smoothly as possible.
“What we’re trying to do essentially is getting testing facilities for healthcare workers.
“That is a work in progress. I believe [in] Stockport there is a service which would have provided the setting up and we’re in conversations with our local health provider to see if it can be set up here for our staff to be tested.
“If we’ve got staff who need to isolate or if staff need to go to a care home we need to make sure they are not carrying the infection asymptomatically.”
He added: “I think there are challenges that lie ahead.
“If the IT system and the telephone systems go down that will be very difficult, how do our practices respond if a number of people who man the phones are unable to do that.
“We may have a situation where doctors and nurse practitioners are actually answering phones.
“I think it’s all hands to the deck in every part of the system, and all of us are going to do whatever role is needed to keep the healthcare system going.”
Dr Ramachandra, who works as a GP in Droylsden, added: “One of the main concerns is about the fact that across all those services we are reliant on the workforce and if the same workforce are unwell then that means we have less numbers of people looking after our population.
“At this point in time we do not have the facilities to test all these, especially the frontline staff in terms of knowing whether they are truly Covid-19 positive or it is a similar illness.
“The priority is that we ensure that we have these testing facilities in place as soon as possible in order to ensure that we have enough members of staff to look after our residents.”
He added that they were looking at how social workers and community frontline workers could be given personal protective equipment, such as face masks.
The government is aiming to be able to do 25,000 tests a day within four weeks, and wants to increase testing for healthcare workers, although it has not yet set out plans of how it intends to do so.
However Dr Ramachandra emphasised how ‘important and crucial’ it is for residents to keep washing their hands frequently to help stem the tide of the epidemic.
“Though it is the simplest thing to do, that is the one that will actually stop us spreading this virus to each other,” he said.
“Even if you’re not careful about yourself, think about people you love and care about.”
Keep up to date with all the latest local and national developments here: https://www.questmedianetwork.co.uk/news/daily-coronavirus-updates/.