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Highland Council chief praises efforts of staff who have switched roles to tackle coronavirus crisis; Donna Manson: 'It has been humbling to see the efforts of our staff, who have been absolutely outstanding'

By Scott Maclennan

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Highland Council chief executive Donna Manson.
Highland Council chief executive Donna Manson.

COUNCIL workers across Ross-shire have been hailed for their flexibility in reacting to the coronavirus lockdown, often in new roles dictated by the demands of the unfolding public health crisis.

With the coronavirus pandemic putting greater pressure on Highland Council to deliver services across a vast and diverse area, the local authority has been forced to adapt quickly to changing needs.

Even with the majority of the region’s population under lockdown, the council has found itself having to make huge changes to the way it operates so that it can still fulfil its statutory obligations.

There is the added responsibility of having to develop new areas of service – such as its helpline to offer assistance or direct people to support – under severely trying circumstances.

To do this the staff have had to move between roles and responsibilities to take up the slack as some areas of employment become almost obsolete overnight due to the infection.

Highland Council chief executive Donna Manson praised the efforts of staff and how they have responded to the “unprecedented situation".

“Staff across the Council have adapted to change in many ways, changing their roles and changing the way they work and deliver services,” she said.

“We are dealing with immense change and challenge as the national and regional circumstances are rapidly developing and new guidance and policy is coming out on a daily basis. How we all react and respond to everything is critical and it has been humbling to see the efforts of our staff, who have been absolutely outstanding in the care, resilience and support they have collectively demonstrated in recent weeks.”

Anne Macdonald, animal health and welfare officer, Wick

Anne MacDonald
Anne MacDonald

Anne Macdonald went from caring for animals to caring for people when she moved from being the council’s animal health and welfare officer to the shielding helpline fielding calls from the most vulnerable people in the region.

Those who have received a shielding letter have been told that they must remain at home for 12 weeks but some are left completely alone and have difficulty accessing food or basic supplies.

Anne said: “I hope that in these very worrying times, for some folks I can be a friendly voice on the other end of the phone and help to coordinate the assistance they need to get through this safely.

“I have taken calls from all over the Highlands ranging from elderly callers to young families who are shielding to protect their children going through medical treatments.”

Philip Barron, parking enforcement supervisor, Inverness

Phillip Baron
Phillip Baron

The parking enforcement officers have handed in their tickets and taken up logistics in an effort to see communities across the north get what they need.

Parking supervisor Philip Barron is normally based at the Rose Street car park where he manages and directs the daily duties of 19 parking enforcement officers.

In the last few days the team has brought together 31 council vehicles from across the Highlands which will now be used to transport much-needed equipment and support local community hubs.

Team members have already driven vans equipped with refrigeration units from Inverness to the community hubs in Lochaber and Skye.

He said: “As a team we wanted to step forward to offer practical support. We are not carrying our usual enforcement role, so we have manpower and transport to assist our communities.

“The team, who are based in Inverness, Fort William, Skye and Caithness are now operating as drivers to work with local community hubs in providing food deliveries and support to people who need it the most.”

“As a team we are delighted to be able to provide this transport service. Pulling together the fleet at short notice was a challenge for multiple agencies but now we have vehicles where they are required, our staff are ready to drive and do deliveries wherever they are needed.”

Susan Webster, finance service IT and support, Inverness

Susan Webster
Susan Webster

Even the IT crowd have found new roles with fewer people working from the office by stepping in to assist the council’s Covid-19 response.

Normally Susan Webster deals with information technology and support in the local authorities finance service but when Covid-19 broke she moved to lead the council’s welfare team during what is a peak time for the organisation.

She is now managing a team of 11 who are supporting customers by responding to welfare issues on anything covering finances, benefit entitlements, free school meals, and food deliveries and applying for these benefits on their behalf via telephone and email.

A job not made any easier as her team is helping people in local communities across the Highland region while working and managing these very challenging roles from home.

Susan said: “It has been a privilege to be able to provide instant advice and assistance to people who literally overnight faced uncertainty and confusion in their daily life. It has been very mentally stimulating and I am very pleased to be able to help people which in turn has given me a great feeling of fulfilment that I am making a difference.”

To assist with the sustained emergency response to coronavirus Donna Sutherland moved from corporate audit manager to virtual team leader for the Covid-19 helpline.

Her main duty is to liaise with and support the staff and volunteers who are involved in manning the different parts of the helpline, which includes Eden Court volunteers, the Third Sector Interface and council workers.

She said: “This can involve tasks such as obtaining clarification on processes/where to go for further advice, updating scripts for the groups of staff who take the calls, dealing with any problems that come up, forwarding on offers of help and/or urgent requests for assistance.

“This has covered matters such as queries about assistance for businesses, offers of accommodation, requests for school places by key workers, queries about school meals, requests for assistance with Council Tax and details of individuals in need of assistance.

“This is a very different role to my day job and without trying to sound trite, I’m enjoying being part of something that is making a difference and helping people.

“I guess my role helps everyone – the staff and volunteers who need to know where to obtain information in order to help those in need. I’m also helping assist those in need by following through on any queries or requests for assistance, to ensure that they are directed to the correct officers and can be addressed.”

Denise Walsh, P1/2 class teacher, Lybster Primary School, Caithness

Denise Walsh
Denise Walsh

Teachers have been at the heart of the response to coronavirus and they were among the first to be affected after the schools were closed overnight more than a month ago.

For P1/2 class teacher Denise Walsh that meant moving from a classroom at Lybster Primary School in Caithness to the online Google Classroom to check in with her pupils daily.

She uses a live feed every day and all of the children have joined in, she reads them a story or a poem and then sets them a “challenge” for the day which were designed to help their sense of being responsible citizens within their own households.

That includes encouraging the kids to tidy their rooms and make their beds while other challenges were designed to raise the stakes’ a bit such as “do something kind.”

Denise said: “Even for our youngest pupils, we are thinking very creatively about how to keep them engaged and developing their sense of social responsibility even though they are not with their classmates”.

Jo Murray, Manager, Victorian Market, Inverness

Jo Murray
Jo Murray

Inverness Victorian Market Manager Jo Murray has taken on a completely different role to respond to the coronavirus and she is now part of the welfare response team and has been working with the Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey resilience delivery team.

The team was set-up with the purpose of creating a food distribution hub in the Highland capital and the wider region. After assisting with the set-up of the Inverness Distribution Hub, Jo is working from home and responding to the calls received to the Helpline.

At first Jo found the role extremely challenging with many of the clients being vulnerable and understandably anxious but she said the team is forming “fantastic community links with voluntary groups” who are coming forward to offer assistance.

Jo said: “I assisted in the initial set up and continue to support the team. I am now calling our clients who phoned our Helpline for Inverness, establishing their needs and linking them with the relevant support.

“I’ve been able to reassure them that we can help and in a couple of instances we’ve been able to respond to some emergency situations. It’s very rewarding being able to help the community.”

“Although I am still dealing with Victorian Market matters in the background (which still continue) I am now focused on delivering support to those in our community who require assistance with food shopping and prescription pickups, amongst other things.”

Emma Blake, contract management, housing department, Dingwall

Emma Blake.
Emma Blake.

One of the features of the response to Covid-19 has been the number of specific challenges to some of the council’s most vulnerable homeless clients. Housing staff quickly identified that some people are not digitally connected in any way.

This means that during periods of isolation and social distancing, they are unable to even engage with their support workers, other key services or maintain their benefit claim.

Emma Blake, who normally oversees the contract management of support to these clients, rose to the challenge of providing a mobile phone to clients until the lockdown restrictions are lifted.

Working in collaboration with housing staff in Dingwall, Tesco stores in Dingwall and Inverness and housing support providers, Emma has successfully sourced and distributed a phone for every client that has needed one across the whole of the Highlands.

Emma’s innovative and proactive actions will be a welcome to clients who could otherwise very quickly become isolated and experience a deterioration in their health and wellbeing as a result of the current restrictions.

The Housing Service as a whole has pulled together to provide support. Emma Morris and her team of repairs co-ordinators and Laura MacDonald, a housing management assistant, have been working closely with the tenant participation team to carry out telephone welfare checks on elderly and vulnerable tenants.

Although Emma’s team and Laura are both in the habit of talking to tenants in their normal roles, they are finding this task particularly “inspiring and very rewarding.”

Rory Cross, active schools coordinator, High Life Highland, Dingwall

Rory Cross
Rory Cross

Rory Cross was employed as an active schools coordinator with High Life Highland and is now volunteering as team leader at the local community hub in Dingwall during the Covid-19 response.

The local community hub that Rory is working at in Dingwall is one of a series across the region with others at Nairn, Aviemore, Inverness, Fort William, Portree, Ullapool, Invergordon, Golspie and Wick.

There they coordinate activity to support people across the Highlands. They are not open to the public to ensure the Council complies with public health social distancing guidance.

Staff from the council and partner organisations are working alongside community groups to provide this local support.

The Dingwall Community Hub has been established to support vulnerable communities in Dingwall, Seaforth, Black Isle and Eastern portion of Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh with the provision of food and medicines.

Rory said: “My new role is firstly to work with the hub manager, Di Agnew to help get the hub operational, after that I will coordinate the team of volunteers with the receiving, processing and delivery of goods to vulnerable people.

“While I am based at the Hub in Dingwall and I also assist with the delivery of goods. We are working with many local community groups and volunteers who have mobilised to assist people in their communities who are in need of help and we are extremely grateful to them for their response in the local area.”

Roddy Dowell, planning, Highland Council, Inverness

Highland Council planner Roddy Dowell has switched his skills from dealing with planning applications to processing Covid-19 business grant applications.

As part of its response to the pandemic, the Scottish Government is making grants available for certain businesses and has asked the council to administer the scheme on its behalf within the Highland Council area.

The grant scheme, which now includes self-catering premises, will bring over £94m emergency funding to around 10,000 Highland businesses and those who have not applied are encouraged to go on the council website to determine whether they are eligible.

Normally based in the Inverness Town House, Roddy – like the rest of the business grants team – is now working from home.

He said: “As the demand for processing planning applications dropped off almost overnight I was more than happy to volunteer and was quickly earmarked a role with my skills set to help process the many business grant applications we are receiving.

“We are processing applications from across the Highland area as efficiently as possible to ensure that people get help when they need it most.”

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