Local governments around the country will have to keep important systems running during lockdown. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

A new unit solidifies the role councils will play in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic

Local government will help distribute food and medication to those most in need during the Covid-19 lockdown. 

Director of Civil Defence Emergency Management Sarah Stuart-Black announced the Society of Local Government Managers, Local Government New Zealand, the Department of Internal Affairs and the National Emergency Management Agency had established a combined Covid-19 Response Unit. 

Regionally-based Civil Defence Emergency Management groups would play a key part within the unit, including through the distribution of food aid.

Stuart-Black said they would “proactively” replenish the stock of local food banks and administer local health plans. 

“This is about local and central government coming together to literally deliver support to the doorstep of those who need it most,” Stuart-Black said. 

CDEMs are created in regional groupings and run by council representatives within the area. Sixteen of them exist across the country.

The organisations were more typically employed during earthquakes and floods. Stuart-Black said the Government had broadened the definition of whom CDEMs could serve.

“Previously this assistance was limited to people who were displaced following an emergency,” Stuart-Black said.

“Covid-19 presents the opposite challenge: people confined to their homes,” she said.

‘Unsung heroes’

Local government’s involvement in the Covid-19 response wasn’t just limited to emergency food aid, according to the coordinator of a key group that will represent the views of councils within the new unit.

Kevin Lavery, national coordinator of the Covid-19 Co-ordination Unit for SOLGM,  said council employees were “unsung heroes” who kept the most essential services going.

“I suppose when you think of essential services and Covid-19 you think about health and you think about police and fire and the national emergency operation that you hear in the briefings every day,” Lavery said.

“You probably don’t think of local government because we’re a bit out of sight and out of mind.”

Lavery was chief executive officer of Wellington City Council during the Kaikōura earthquake. 

He said local governments around the country would be responsible for keeping wastewater systems, rubbish collection, waste disposal, cemeteries, parts of the highway network, and crematoria operational. 

“They’re the sort of unsung heroes of Covid-19. Without those things we couldn’t operate in a normal way.”

Keeping the water flowing

The operation of the water and wastewater networks during Covid-19 threw up some of the biggest challenges for local councils.

Lavery said some aspects of water and wastewater treatment could be operated from home, but others required technicians on-site.  

He said if one or more of these technicians were infected by the virus, councils would be unable to operate their water networks unless they could find replacement staff.

“The main focus is around keeping safe and keeping as much isolation around specialist personnel. That’s the main focus,” Lavery said.

Lavery said local government was also having to prepare for the worst-case scenario of what might happen if some of those staff were infected by Covid-19.

His unit was debating creating “national flying squads” of water experts who might be able to fill those staffing gaps. More traditional solutions were also being considered: a hotline, along with training tools to allow new technicians to be taught how to operate them.

Councils were also trying to call some technicians out of retirement or get them back from other companies and divisions they might have moved to. 

Another major issue highlighted by both Lavery and Stuart-Black was the well-publicised impact ‘wet wipes’ were having on council sewerage systems. The wipes disinfect surfaces and hands. The large number being flushed down toilets was clogging up many wastewater networks. 

“They are a major problem for councils … as people rightly become more vigilant about hygiene, the use of wet wipes has increased markedly,” Stuart-Black said.

“The bottom line is, if you’ll beg my forgiveness, please always put wet wipes in the rubbish and not in the toilet,” she said.

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