Councillor fears over Omicron spread in 'too small' meeting rooms, as Corby Cube remains closed

The Government abandoned virtual council meetings in May 2021 - despite their popularity with members of the public

Friday, 24th December 2021, 6:37 am
The Corby Cube is out of action / Cllr David Sims

Members at North Northamptonshire Council say they are worried about the spread of Covid at meetings after the Corby Cube was shut because of a leak in the roof.

The council headquarters has had historic issues with leaks from a flat roof directly into the council chamber and it has been out of use since September.

In the meantime, full NNC meetings and larger committees have had to be held at the former East Northants Council building in Thrapston.

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But many members are older or vulnerable and are concerned that 78 people in an enclosed space could mean an outbreak of Covid.

The last meeting saw apologies from 19 members - some of whom told the Northants Telegraph that they had not felt safe going along.

Now some members are calling for a return to virtual meetings because of the exceptional circumstances - but the authority says they are not legally allowed to hold meetings online because the relevant Government legislation expired in May.

Cllr David Sims said: "At the last meeting we were packed in and I wasn't really happy with it.

"I am really concerned for people's safety. I have a pacemaker myself and there are quite a lot of elderly councillors. I know some of the working groups have been able to meet virtually but the larger meetings all have to be in person."

It is not currently thought that the council chamber in the Cube will be ready before the February 1 meeting.

Cllr Sims added: "They said at the last meeting that everyone should wear masks but not everyone did so.

"The seating could not be socially distanced because there were so many people there.

"I think it's putting people's lives in danger.

"We know meetings have been held virtually in the past and I would like them to do so again.

"When we were meeting virtually last year we had much more public participation. It was good for transparency.

"If it's not possible because of legislation then I think the MPs should be intervening here."

Several other councillors from across the political spectrum have also raised their own worries with our reporters about the safety of meetings.

The move to virtual meetings during the pandemic saw numbers of public attendees increase and allowed members of the press to watch many more meetings than normal - increasing transparency.

A North Northamptonshire council spokesman said: "Legislation does not currently allow councils to go back to virtual meetings for full council, committees, and sub-committees.

“The Government introduced emergency legislation during the first Covid lockdown; this legislation expired in May 2021. Unless Government changes the rules, councils must work within the current guidance.

“Where it is lawful, North Northamptonshire Council will conduct meetings by virtual means. Some of its Executive Advisory Panels had been meeting on site and were open to the public to attend. All panels are now being held by virtual means and live streamed on to YouTube.

“Informal meetings such as chairman briefings and working groups are being held virtually.

“The authority regularly reminds councillors of the need to conduct lateral flow tests, particularly ahead of attending any on site meetings.

“Additionally, the council will continue to monitor capacity numbers in the public gallery. It is encouraging NNC officers only to attend meetings if necessary to do so.

“The council will utilise the full space provided at the various venues used, to try to enable as much social distancing as possible and encourage attendees to wear a face covering/mask.”

"Work is being carried out to make the Corby Cube available for council meetings as soon as is possible.

"While the Cube’s council chamber can accommodate all 78 councillors under normal circumstances it still faces a challenge to facilitate all Members if social distancing measures were legally introduced."