THE borough council were preparing for over 1,000 coronavirus deaths had the government persevered with its herd immunity strategy, the council's opposition leader has said.

Cllr Andy McCormick (Labour, Brighton Hill South) revealed that Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council were looking at "a repeat of the 1918 [Spanish flu] levels of death" in March - which would have meant over one thousand fatalities in the borough.

Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that there have been 132 deaths directly related to Covid-19 in the borough, up until the end of June.

The revelation came as part of a debate of the Scrutiny committee on the emergency decisions taken by council during the pandemic, including the suspension of weekly bin collections.

Cllr McCormick, who was privy to the information as the leader of the council's largest opposition group, said that the decisions, in the context of the "very scary" information that was not made public at the time, "were very sound".

"It was very scary back in March with cases rising, other countries were donning masks and going into lockdown, and we were behind that.

"The council at the time, there was this sense of grim foreboding. Many councillors were kept in the dark about what I picked up on, and I had greater visibility as a group leader, was that some of the things that were being discussed were very scary to be released in the public domain.

"Had herd immunity been pursued, 75 per cent of public caught the virus, that would have been a repeat of the 1918 levels of death and that would have meant over a thousand deaths in the borough.

"Set against this backdrop, there was this rush to protect the NHS, to prevent it being overwhelmed, to prevent any grim scenes of burying coffins with excavators like we are seeing in places like New York, closing things down, scaling up health operations, ensuring council employees and members of the public were kept safe, as well as trying to mitigate the economic damage of businesses closing and losing revenue.

"In that context, all the emergency decisions at the time were very sound."

The meeting heard that there were six urgent decisions made by senior councillors, including:

  • Suspension of non-core waste related services (made by Cllr Hayley Eachus, March 20)
  • Emergency grant support of £200,000 for Basingstoke Voluntary Action (made by Cllr Ken Rhatigan, April 3)
  • Applying £1.02 million in council tax relief, and moving payment free period to April and May (made by Cllr Hannah Golding, April 6)
  • Applying business rate discounts to hospitality and leisure properties (made by Cllr Hannah Golding, April 1)
  • Support tenants in the council's investment portfolio by providing a rent holiday (made by Cllr Ken Rhatigan, April 3)
  • Provide £1.8 million per year for grants to the voluntary sector (made by Cllr Simon Bound, April 6)
  • Suspend weekly waste collections (made by Cllr Ken Rhatigan, April 8)
  • Approve additional funding of the Small Business Discretionary Grant scheme (made by Cllr Hannah Golding)

Additionally, power was also granted to the chief executive, Mel Barrett, to make urgent decisions. These powers have not been used, but remain in place in case of a second peak and subsequent national lockdown.

Mr Barrett will leave his post at the end of August, to be replaced in the interim by current deputy chief executive, Ian Boll. There is no set end date for the end of the powers.

One of the most controversial decisions discussed by councillors was the decision to suspend weekly waste collections. It has received criticism from councillors and members of the public.

Cllr McCormick contended that the reasons for the reduction in collection frequency - a staff shortage - had disappeared, whilst Cllr David Potter (Basingstoke and Deane Independents Group, Popley East) said that the committee should ask the cabinet to report back with when the collections will be restored.

"It is a constant irritant to the majority of our residents," Cllr Potter said. Since the meeting, it has been confirmed that weekly bin collections will resume on August 17.

Meanwhile, Cllr Kerri Carruthers (Conservative, Tadley South) added: "The way that we responded as a council has been brilliant.

"The powers that needed to be given were given and we made the decisions that we had to make at a time when we had to make them to enable services to adapt and changing in line with what was happening around us.

"But I think that what is really important to remember is that we are still in the middle of this pandemic, this is still happening.

"We are on a precipice at the moment and we don't know where this is going to go."

However, Cllr Ian Tilbury, leader of the BDI Group (Overton, Laverstoke and Steventon), was critical of the decision to grant emergency decision making powers to the chief executive, saying that there was already a chain of command in place - should the leader fall ill, power lies on the deputy leader, and if he was incapacitated, it would be up to the cabinet.

He quipped: "I can understand why he wouldn't want to delegate power to his cabinet, I probably wouldn't either.

"But this is the law of the land. Either we have rules or we don't.

"To create our own way around this because the leader would rather given power to the chief executive is frankly bizarre."