SIRF cancelled as Council Leader urges caution amid "rocketing" COVID rates
Update on Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council's response to Coronavirus (COVID-19) from the Council's Leader, Councillor Bob Cook.
The Government has confirmed it will go ahead with taking the next step on the roadmap out of lockdown, with most restrictions set to be lifted on Monday (July 19).
But this comes at a time when the number of infections recorded in our Borough has soared to its highest level since the start of the pandemic.
The third wave is here, and it is hitting the North East particularly hard.
Our rates now are nearly 25 times higher than they were a month ago.
And like a lot of large organisations, we are currently under serious pressure from the sheer number of staff that are currently having to self-isolate.
Despite this, we will be able to get most of our services back to normal from Monday.
But in light of the spiralling rates and the huge pressure on other public services, we have also had to take the very difficult decision to cancel this year's SIRF.
What are the rates?
At the end of Wednesday, we'd had 1,800 new COVID-19 cases in the last week, a rate of 921.1 per 100,000 population.
On Tuesday alone, we had 333 new cases. That's the highest number of new cases we've recorded in a single day since the start of the pandemic.
This kind of rampant spread is happening across the North East, and rates here are about two and a half times higher than the national average.
It's not yet clear what impact this will have on hospitalisations but we do know hospital admissions are on the rise.
There are now over 100 people in hospital in North Tees and James Cook, and there were reports of 30 people being admitted to hospital in a 48-hour period this week.
What can people do to help?
Against this kind of backdrop, it's clear we need to go into this next phase of the national roadmap with a degree of caution as we learn to live with the virus.
We've all worked together to stop the spread before, and we're going to need to show that same willingness to protect each other if we are to get infections down again.
Wearing a face covering on public transport and in busy indoor spaces like supermarkets will help.
So will choosing to meet people outdoors wherever possible, for the time being at least, having regular tests, and ventilating indoor spaces.
And if there's one piece of simple public health advice that's come out of this whole situation, it's the value of washing your hands regularly.
There is still the risk that people - especially those who have not been vaccinated -will become ill.
That's why we're supporting the NHS calls for as many people as possible to come forward for both doses of a vaccine.
It's the best way of protecting yourself.
There are walk-in vaccination sessions throughout the region, including in Billingham and Wellington Square.
I'm incredibly grateful for the sacrifices people have made and the last thing we want is to let our guard down now and throw all that away.
So, that's why we have taken the incredibly hard decision to cancel this year's SIRF, which was due to take place in Stockton from July 29 to August 1.
We were really looking forward to bringing SIRF back and in early May when we confirmed our intention to go ahead, rates had fallen to 21.8 per 100,000 population.
But now rates are rocketing towards 1,000 per 100,000 population.
Staging a major event like SIRF is a huge undertaking involving public and private organisations as well as volunteers.
We have taken this decision after consulting with partners and considering the strains that are evident across the many services that we rely on to help us deliver the festival.
We're very conscious that police, health, and fire colleagues are all experiencing staffing pressures. We do not want to add to that pressure.
If SIRF had been a few weeks away, we might have held off making this decision at this point.
Unfortunately, it's just 13 days away and faced with this huge rise in infections I don't see how we can, with any conscience, call on many thousands of people to come together at this time.
If you've been to SIRF you'll know that performances are typically enjoyed by crowds of people standing and sitting shoulder to shoulder.
In light of the very high levels of infection in our communities we just aren't prepared to put people at increased risk.
And it's not just about protecting festival goers, it's also about protecting staff and volunteers from all the other agencies we rely on to stage SIRF.
They range from emergency services and technical support staff through to our Visitor Experience volunteers, who are predominantly young people.
Changes to Council services
Despite the sad news about SIRF, I am pleased that we are able to step up a number of Council services from Monday (July 19) in line with Step 4 of the national roadmap.
But we must sound our own note of caution in this respect as we are currently under heavy pressure from the sheer number of staff that are currently having to self-isolate.
And if this results in further disruption to any of our services, we will of course let people know.
The cashiers' desks in our Customer Service centres will increase their opening hours from Monday (July 19).
In Stockton, they will be open Monday to Friday from 9.30am to 4pm and in Billingham and Thornaby they will be open Monday to Friday from 9.30am to 1pm and 1.30pm to 4pm.
You can also pay online or by calling 0330 555 6780.
Cremations and burials
In line with national advice, we are able to increase the capacity at cremation ceremonies at Stockton-on-Tees Crematorium from Monday (July 19).
This will increase the capacity to 120 people in the Maplewood Chapel and 50 people in the Bluebell Chapel.
In line with national advice, face coverings will not be mandatory but we do recommend they are worn.
Chapel waiting rooms will remain closed.
The 30 people limit on attendance at the graveside for burials will be removed.
Day centres and services
Community-based day options services at The Allensway Day Service, the Halcyon Centre and Lanark Close will be increased incrementally to provide support to everyone who used to attend prior to the pandemic. We are contacting service users and their families to look at individual requirements.
The LiveWell Dementia Hub is still closed but staff are working with partner agencies to look at reopening with small group sessions to begin with, and dementia advisors are continuing to offer individual support to people living with dementia and their families.
Holiday activities will take place across all Family Hubs.
Face to face baby massage and yoga will return in place of the virtual offer.
Sleep workshops will be offered both face to face and virtually.
Appointments will no longer be required for home safety advice and the collection of home safety equipment.
The Powerful Parents programmes will re-start in September.
Household waste and recycling collections
Regular household waste and recycling collections (and bulky waste collections) are continuing as normal but if anyone in your house has symptoms of COVID-19, we ask that you help protect our bin crews by bagging your waste and waiting 72 hours before putting it into your wheeled bin. Put your waste in a bag and tie it securely, then put it in another bag and tie that securely too before waiting 72 hours to put it in your bin. This is especially important if the waste includes things like tissues used by the person with symptoms. Make sure the bag is stored somewhere away from children. Please don't put bagged waste into your white bag or blue recycling box.
From Monday (July 19), Stockton Central, Thornaby Central, Billingham, Yarm, Norton and Ingleby Barwick libraries will be open Monday to Friday, from 9.30am to 5pm.
Saturday opening times will be 10am to 4pm at Stockton Central, Thornaby Central, Billingham and Ingleby Barwick libraries, and 10am to 1pm at Yarm and Norton libraries. Ingleby Barwick library will also be open on Sundays from 10am to 2pm.
Our smaller libraries - Roseworth, Fairfield and Thornaby Gilmour Street - will maintain their current opening times of 10am to 1pm and 2pm to 4.30pm, Monday to Friday.
Restrictions on social distancing, visit times and maximum numbers of customers will be lifted but we are strongly encouraging customers to respect others' space and to wear face coverings in crowded indoor situations.
The reference library, study spaces and ICT facilities at our main libraries will be fully open. ICT facilities will be available at Roseworth, Fairfield and Thornaby Gilmour Street libraries but will be limited due to lack of space.
The mobile library will return to its normal routes but will be subject to temporary changes to timings where necessary.
Preston Park Museum
The museum will no longer restrict visitor numbers but will continue to deliver more activities in outdoor spaces to help reduce risk.
Face coverings will no longer be compulsory for visitors but staff will continue to work behind screens and wear visors in public areas.
Hand sanitising stations and an increased cleaning regime will remain in place throughout the museum.
Family members and friends will be able to visit Rosedale residents from Monday (July 19). Current guidance will be followed regarding LFT testing and PPE but we are awaiting further Government guidance regarding care homes.
Street cleansing and grass cutting
Street cleansing and grass cutting services will resume in full.
Weddings and civil partnership ceremonies
In line with national guidance, the capacity for weddings and civil partnership ceremonies in The Nightingale Suite will be increased to 32 (the couple and up to 30 guests).
Advice should be sought directly from "approved premises" as guest numbers may vary at different wedding venues.