Dark times as council puts public buildings in lockdown

Dark times as council puts public buildings in lockdown

18 March 2020

NEWRY, Mourne and Down Council’s decision to lockdown all its public buildings came after Prime Minister Boris Johnston announced the most stringent change to the lives of people since the Second World War on Monday evening.

Local politicians were in the midst of debating a proposal to close all local authority leisure centres to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus when he made his announcement.

While some politicians had suggested closing all public buildings, others were initially focused on closing leisure centres in Downpatrick, Kilkeel and Newry.

But just over an hour into the debate, council chief executive Marie Ward called for an adjournment in the light of the Prime Minister’s statement in London which changed everything.

Mr Johnston — who had been under intense pressure to to ramp up the UK’s response to the spiralling coronavirus crisis — said people should now avoid all “non essential” contact, with the government’s dramatic new advice asking people not to go to pubs, restaurants and cinemas, avoid all travel and not engage in large gatherings.

People in a household where someone has displayed symptoms of the virus have been told to go into self-isolation as experts predicted the outbreak was entering a phase of “rapid acceleration” with the new restrictions being in place for up to three months.

The Prime Minister said it was time to take “radical action” to stop the NHS being swamped with patients.

Monday’s night’s emergency council meeting in Downpatrick was called by local authority chairman Charlie Casey, with politicians unanimously agreeing to close all public buildings including leisure centres, community centres, museums and arts centres for an initial two weeks and review the decision at the end of this month.

There will however be limited public access to the Downshire Civic Centre in Downpatrick to allow the public to submit planning and building control applications, register births, deaths and marriages. 

Staff at all the various public buildings are scheduled to remain in place and will continue to be paid.

In addition, all of the district’s household recycling centres remain open and bin collections will continue as normal as politicians highlighted the need for unity and to work collaboratively on the way forward in the interests of the district’s ratepayers.

Representatives from all the main parties spoke during the 90 minute meeting with councillors debating what they described as a “measured response” to the coronavirus crisis.

Local authority leisure centres were described as “high risk locations” as people are in close proximity to one another, with politicians insisting that their key priority is to protect the public and staff.

Sinn Fein councillor Willie Clarke said he imagined that the since the coronavirus crisis unfolded, the number of people using council leisure centres, pubs, hotels and restaurants would have reduced.

“What we are talking about is a measured response at a time when there is a great deal of confusion out there,” he continued. “We have been getting mixed messages from Stormont and there is disagreement on the way forward. I also think it is ludicrous that you only have schools and public buildings closed on one side of the border,” he said.

“I know that from talking to parents last weekend, especially those with vulnerable children, that they are really fearful about sending them to school and into public buildings. People are effectively voting with their feet and taking decisions themselves.”

Cllr Clarke said elected representatives had to listen to what the public was saying and that confusion had been fuelled by conflicting medical advice from across the globe.

He added: “We simply have to look at restrictions on public buildings and even perhaps how many people go into play parks. This council needs to send out a strong message that it is taking this issue seriously following. We have already cancelled of this week’s St Patrick’s Day parades. We have to start by getting our own house in order.”

The DUP’s Billy Walker — who initially said that his party would “reluctantly support” the closure of leisure centres — subsequently agreed that all council buildings should go into lockdown following the Prime Minister’s statement.

He said that in the interests of the public’s health and safety “this is the right thing to do”, even though Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer, Michael McBride, said that leisure centres could remain open if they were properly managed.

“All the political parties need to work together to make sure that the people out there are properly informed as there are mixed messages. To be honest, some have attempted to turn this issue into and Orange and Green situation and that is wrong,” declared Cllr Walker.

“The bottom line for us all is that we do not want any member of the public to get infected with this virus. We want to come out the far side of this crisis unscathed and prevent as many as people as possible from contracting coronavirus. We have to send out a united message.”

The UUP’s David Taylor said while politicians could “debate all day” about who was right and who was wrong in relation to conflicting medical advice, they had to approach the issue in a collective manner and give confidence to the community that they are united in their approach.

He added: “This is not a political issue. It is one that affects each and everyone of us. It is a very serious issue given the potential damage it could cause to people’s lives and we could actually lose some as a result of this. We need to take collective approach and act responsibly.

“I have serious concerns about the way the virus is impacting the business community and some of the stories I have heard are frightening, with some businesses down by as much as 80 percent and jobs at others at risk. We need the Assembly to provide a package of measures to help.”

SDLP councillor Pete Byrne said that at this time the public need clarity with the overwhelming majority of them of the view that acting early is better than acting too late.

“People want us to show leadership and while we are taking about closing leisure centres, we have an obligation to protect the interests and health of people and our staff,” he said.

“While I support the closure of leisure centres, we also need to look at community centres, many of which are visited by huge number of our senior citizens for a range of activities and programmes. We need to send out a clear message to people.”

Cllr Byrne said there also needed to be a focus on the criteria for reopening public buildings following their closure, suggesting that an alternative venue needs to be found for future council meetings to promote social distancing, suggesting the Down Leisure Centre as a possible location.

“When we close public facilities we are going to push people into parks but we must ensure that there is social distancing in these locations. We need staff there to assure people and perhaps we could redeploy those from our leisure centres to make sure are parks are up to scratch,” he added.

Cllr Henry Reilly highlighted the ”great deal of anguish” in the community, suggesting that a two-week closure smacked of “tokenism” as the coronavirus issue will not be over by the end of March.

He also highlighted the need to ensure that frontline staff, especially those who work in refuse collection and household recycling centres, are provided with appropriate protective equipment.

Cllr Jarlath Tinnelly urged the Public Health Agency to provide information leaflets on the coronavirus to every household in the country, while Alliance’s Andrew McMurray said his party supported the decision to close all council buildings, excluding those which deliver statutory functions.

He added: “Moving forward, it is imperative that we enact and support the decision made by the council. On the wider issue, I would ask all residents to follow the advice given by the Public Health Agency, to shop responsibility in order to avoid shortages and to look out for the most vulnerable in our communities.”

Other councillors who spoke at Monday night’s debate included Roisin Mulgrew, Michael Savage, Oonagh Hanlon and Harold McKee.