By Andrew Topping, Local Democracy Reporter
Concerns over the Omicron Covid variant have led leaders of both opposition parties at Nottinghamshire County Council to call for an end to face-to-face council meetings.
Councillors Kate Foale (Lab) and Jason Zadrozny (Ash Ind) have urged the Government to rethink rules stopping councils from holding major meetings virtually.
Local authorities had moved all meetings online at the start of the Covid pandemic, and this continued until after the local elections last May, when face-to-face meetings were brought back by law.
However, a surge in cases of the new variant has caused infection rates to spike across Nottinghamshire – with some councillors now isolating and missing meetings.
Cllr Jason Zadrozny, who leads the Independent Alliance at County Hall, has written to Cllr Ben Bradley (Con) asking him to use his dual role of council leader and MP to urge the Government to bring forward new legislation.
It comes as one Independent councillor missed Tuesday’s health scrutiny committee after testing positive for Covid. Other councillors have also raised concerns about in-person meetings being unsafe.
Cllr Zadrozny says he will not force his councillors to attend smaller committee meetings and may consider not sending any members of his group to the 66-councillor full council meeting on January 20.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, he added: “The absurdity of holding face-to-face meetings has become even more apparent as Covid cases rise.
“We have councillors with serious underlying health concerns having sleepless nights about sitting in County Hall like sardines. The reality is we can still get the job done and protect council officers and staff alike.
“I have written to Ben Bradley asking him to use any influence he may have within Government to bring forward emergency legislation to stop the scandal of these super-spreading meetings.”
Cllr Zadrozny’s Ashfield District Council is also reviewing its meeting protocol and plans to hold all overview and scrutiny meetings virtually. Under current Government rules, this is illegal.
Cllr Kate Foale, leader of the Labour group at County Hall, also raised similar concerns.
She told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “The Government really ought to be revisiting the legislation, we shouldn’t be having face-to-face meetings in that chamber.
“When it’s full council there’s 66 of us plus a load of officers. Given the rates with Omicron, I think it’s unsafe and it’s not unreasonable to ask us to [go back to virtual meetings].
“There are members in our group looking after people with a disability or who are vulnerable. I’m not going to make them come into a meeting where they could quite easily pick up a virus and cause serious illness.”
All 14 meetings scheduled to be held at County Hall this month will take place face-to-face unless the Government moves to change legislation.
Cllr Ben Bradley MP (Con), leader of the council and Mansfield MP, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “The honest answer is it’s the Government who need to decide on this, not us.
“We’re legally obliged to have meetings in person and, until Government tell us otherwise, that’s our legal obligation.
“I will speak to the minister and try to get some clarity but it’s not a decision we can make.”
A council spokesperson added: “There are regular health and safety measures undertaken in the chamber and we update our guidance accordingly, but mandatory guidelines mean meetings must be in person.”
Current laws state councillors are unable to vote in meetings unless they attend in person and meetings should take place in council chambers. This can happen with a minimum of 17 people in attendance.
However, a Government spokesperson said there are a “range of options” for councils to take in order to make meetings Covid-safe.
They said: “We recognise there will be concerns about the risks of holding face-to-face meetings. It is for councils to apply the Covid-19 guidance and ensure meetings take place safely.
“The Government will work closely with councils and representatives to ensure they understand and are aware of the full range of options available to them to minimise risks and concerns.”