By Jackie Griffiths (District and Town Councillor for St Mary’s Ward, Swanley)

Here in the UK, we are now easing the restrictions of a third national lockdown. Therefore, it seems the appropriate time to reflect over the past year. With hindsight, alarm bells should have rung when we watched footage at Wuhan’s airport as thousands left the area to celebrate the Chinese New Year and avoid the lockdown that was about to happen. However, we were still complacent.  Tension built throughout Europe in the wake of cases occurring in Italy. People became scared.

As the debate raged in Britain as to whether to lockdown or not lessons were looked at from the 1918 Flu pandemic. A debate surrounding this time took place on television in early March 2020. When asked what the most crucial point was learned from that period, the answer was emphatically ‘The Importance of Good Leadership’. I wrote an article about this way back in March for the Sevenoaks Chronicle but as the pandemic unfolded the Labour Party was no longer required to contribute to this newspaper. Subsequently the article was printed on Swanley and District Labour Website. Again, with hindsight an extremely important warning from history. I leave the reader to assess how much or how little leadership has been shown nationally. However, I would like to pay tribute to a local example.

At the beginning of March, the Local Government Association for Labour issued guidelines to cope with the pandemic. This was as volunteers hastily set up groups to help. The LGA Labour Group advised extreme caution under the circumstances to prevent the disease from spreading rapidly from household to household.

Crockenhill Parish Council had a crisis plan, which was to be implemented in the event of a Lockdown whereby a list of vulnerable people could be linked to volunteers. Rachel Waterton, who is also the District Councillor, was the Head of the Emergency Plan and the Parish Council worked hard to implement it at the start of the first lockdown.  This prompted me, as your local and District Labour Councillor, to ask the then Swanley CEO Steve Nash at the time if we had a similar plan or indeed any plans to deal with the coming pandemic. Steve listened and was open to the suggestion as to what could be done for the town. He was prepared to implement strategies to cope safely with what he realised was inevitable. He appreciated the urgency and potential danger of the situation. He was prepared to put plans into operation immediately for the safety of the town.

Steve Nash
CEO Swanley at the start of the Pandemic | Prompt Action

A group of volunteers had formed on Facebook organised by Louise Cannon and Lesley Lamb (Swanley Community Group). This group was ready to roll with many of them already police checked. Steve Nash contacted this group and brought them under the umbrella of the Town Council, thus providing coordination for volunteers and a central hub for questions and concerns about the pandemic. Council staff linked the vulnerable with volunteers – residents at risk were directed to the Council website and subsequently signposted to essential services. Emergency boxes were filled and kept at the Council Offices for distribution to the needy in the town.

Steve Nash acted promptly and efficiently to orchestrate an enviable volunteer army of over 500.  A local Labour Parish Councillor from Crockenhill David Griffiths who was also a CDM Health and Safety Consultant provided risk assessments for these valiant recruits. Steve Nash acted promptly and efficiently to ensure the safety of the residents of Swanley. His British Army training was invaluable to making quick and effective decisions and defined his leadership at that time. He was also willing to listen to and heed advice.

This early prompt action mirrored that analysis following the 1918 Pandemic that good leadership ensures effective action that can be life saving. Because there was no clear way at that time of measuring success, we will never know how many lives were saved due to that early advice from LGA Labour and the quick reactions of Mr Nash and his army of volunteers which included   the Swanley Community Group.

Mr. Nash also prepared for quarantining should the need arise for people to leave their own residence for fear of infecting relatives. In other words, he foresaw the need to cover all eventualities.

He also backed us when we tried to push a local Care Home to allow their staff to wear PPE when dealing with their residents. We made some PPE for the staff at our GP surgery to use – visors from document pockets fitted on to a hair band. We gave one of these along with a spare mask that we had at the time to a friend who was working as a Carer and worried because she lacked PPE. The Care Home could not be persuaded to allow her to wear our makeshift cover. Their attitude being that they were following government guidelines, which at that time said that staff only needed to wear PPE when dealing with a Covid Patient. At that time there was no knowing how many Care Home residents had contracted Covid. Mr Nash was concerned that the managers of the home listen to us and use appropriate risk assessments.  As we now know there was a catastrophic death rate   within the Care Home Sector as a whole. Our friend was threatened with losing her job for talking to us. Mr Nash supported us.

Sadly, Steve Nash has moved on now to newer pastures but from the Labour Party we would like to say Thank you for caring about the residents of Swanley especially during the Pandemic.