Top priorities for leader as county takes steps to post Covid recovery
- Credit: Harry Rutter
May, 2021, and Cambridgeshire opted for change.
Lib Dem Lucy Nethsingha found herself leader of a rainbow alliance to run the county council.
“Absolutely top of my inbox is to try and get the council to be financially secure,” she says. No Covid recovery is possible without it.
"We have an unfunded deficit of £22m and although not directly Covid related, there are Covid issues in there,” she says.
“One of those is the huge amount of unmet need in terms of people who have not come forward.”
These, she says, cover older people’s care and those with disabilities who have been isolated for 18 months and going to need more support.
“And there is a huge pressure on mental health services for young people.
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Post Covid recovery also puts skills in the frame.
Lucy chairs the Combined Authority skills committee and is “very aware there are serious skill shortages in some sectors within Cambridgeshire.
“We really need to be doing better to try and make sure we have a workforce being trained to do things we need them to do.”
Her third priority is climate change.
“Tackling climate change is vital and part of that is transforming our transport system,” she says.
She says lockdown was “the most extraordinary of times” and for most of which she was leader of the opposition.
What impressed her was not only the coping mechanisms of council staff but the realisation of the strengths of individual communities.
“The level and scale of that is one of the things we can take as a small silver lining given how grim those 18 months of lockdown were,” she says.
She is keen the council learns lessons and finds way to take that resilience and community spirit forwards.
Like most of her council colleagues the emphasis switched during lockdown to their own communities.
“To some extent politicians needed to get out of the way and let the experts and staff get on with trying to support people,” she says.
It was a train of thought prompted by her father – now 86 and who lives in Cornwall where Lucy has recently had a short holiday.
“One of the things about my childhood in Cornwall was that my dad was a sailor of old boats.
“And it was from him I learnt that most times in a crisis, the best thing is to get out of the way.”
What she recalls most of Cambridgeshire's response to the pandemic was the degree of “coming together”.
It was not, she says, a time of “political mudslinging” and these are lessons she hopes will benefit all.
“We all got involved in collecting for food banks, knocking on doors to check on people: everyone got involved and it was amazing.
But now, as leader, she is looking at practical ways lessons from the pandemic can be used in practice.
“One of the things still frustrating me - and was slightly a surprise -are the problems with sharing data across health and the county council,” she says.
On vaccination she says “we as a county are very keen to try and understand what is holding people back; sometimes there is an understandable reason but we need to be able to have the conversation, to explain the risks.
“These are much lower if you are vaccinated.
“We can be enormously sympathetic to people’s fears but vaccination will make children safer still get difficult to get this data.”
Lucy is determined that changes in the way health care across Cambridgeshire improves.
“One of the positive things we have seen and need to continue is the smoother and better pathways for discharge from hospitals,” she says.
For the future Lucy is looking to what has happened in Scotland to see early issues with schools re opening with few Covid restrictions.
Numbers of Covid cases remain relatively high “even though the vaccine is clearly doing a great job”.
But hospital admissions are not going up at same rate "and we are worried about schools going back so we really do want to get the message out of being careful”
She adds: “There has been a feeling of ‘oh it's all over now go back to how things were before’ but my message is please remain careful
“Although vaccine is enormously effective it is not 100 per cent effective and we are still seeing 200 a day dying of Covid and we don’t want those numbers going up.”
Lucy has holidayed. Is refreshed. Has enjoyed live music again for the first time since lockdown began (Evensong at her husband’s Cambridge college where he is director of music).
And she is prepared for a rollercoaster of an adventure as she experiences leading the council for four more years.
Possibly reflecting too on Ronald Reagan’s definition of leadership.
“Not necessarily the one who does the greatest things but the one that gets the people to do the greatest things,” he said.