Shaftesbury’s health and care workers should receive protective equipment funded by the Town Council. But today’s heated meeting heard one councillor accused of betraying NHS workers and another member was called ‘an idiot’ and ‘thick’.
At today’s meeting, a three-quarters majority of Shaftesbury town councillors authorised the town clerk to spend up to £20,000 on buying personal protection equipment (PPE) for health and social care workers in our town, without the need to call a committee meeting to gain approval. The money can be spent in one transaction or stages.
Two weeks ago, eleven town councillors supported similar authorisation, but the plans were put on hold after one councillor, Karen Tippins, who didn’t attend that online meeting, objected in the strongest terms, questioning the legality of supporting the NHS.
Cllrs Tim Cook and Andy Hollingshead tabled today’s proposal. “Two weeks ago, we wanted to give money to the town’s emergency workers to buy PPE to help save lives. We could not meet because of the coronavirus restrictions. But the town clerk had the emergency authority to make payments up to £5,000. We wanted to extend that up to £20,000,” Cllr Hollingshead explained as the Zoom webcam meeting started.
“While the majority of councillors made it clear they were in favour of doing this without being able to have a meeting, one councillor has instead attacked the councillors sponsoring the idea, sent abusive and threatening emails to the clerk and even complained to Dorset Healthcare, undermining the council, the clerk and the town. Here we are now, having lost two weeks when we could have had an order in for PPE,” added Cllr Hollingshead, before he challenged Cllr Tippins directly. “Why have you chosen to undermine the council, putting the lives of our NHS staff at risk and betraying the town in the middle of the coronavirus epidemic?” he asked Karen Tippins.
Throughout the meeting, she maintained her position that the council should not be funding protective equipment for the health service. She told councillors that local authorities should spend their emergency money on repairs and replacement. “The NHS has not asked Shaftesbury Town Council for help. And they never will,” said Cllr Tippins. “The problem with the PPE is nothing to do with money. It’s all been specified by central government.”
Cllr Julian Prichard, who also volunteers as chairman of the Friends of Westminster Memorial Hospital, corrected Cllr Tippins. He said that the request for the council to support health workers in Shaftesbury had come from him and not from the health service. “I asked the Town Council for money, not the NHS,” he stated.
“Julian, you are not allowed to ask the Town Council for money on behalf of the NHS when the NHS has not asked you to ask us” Cllr Tippins responded.
Cllr Prichard replied, “If you were at the meeting, you would have heard what was said rather than going by some pumped up ideas in your head.”
Cllr Tippins warned Cllr Prichard that he was going to get himself ‘in a lot of trouble’. And she said that the Town Council would be undermining Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, who had a strategy to purchase personal protection equipment centrally.
“Cllr Tippins has got the wrong end of the stick on this. The meeting that we had two weeks ago, that she was not at, was not specifically about the hospital,” said Julian. “It was about the whole community and all of those working in it who could do with protection, and the vulnerable people they would be protecting.”
Julian didn’t agree with Cllr Tippins’ argument that central government was doing everything, as she had claimed. “It’s true that central government would like to be doing everything, but they are hampered by Public Health England and the procurement process. It is very clear from the news, unless the news is wrong, that various health trusts across the country are doing their own thing and purchasing the equipment that they find appropriate to their needs. They are not waiting for that,” said Cllr Prichard.
He added that, if the personal protection equipment required was being supplied, then there wouldn’t be the calls from GPs and nursing homes for the safety gear. He also disagreed with Cllr Tippins’ assertion that the council would potentially be going against the NHS to secure supplies. “With the example of face marks, Dorset Healthcare are making their own decisions in the current emergency. Saying that we are taking vital equipment from the frontline workers is not correct because we’re not shopping in the same shops as Public Health England. We are buying stuff that is acceptable to the NHS trust that we are dealing with and for care homes and GPs who are willing to have something. It is better than nothing.” Julian said.
The discussion moved onto the type of equipment that would be purchased if councillors agreed the higher spending limit. Cllr Tippens wasn’t convinced by the benefits of face shield-type masks. “All face shields do is protect you from being spat at. It doesn’t protect you from being coughed (at),” she said. Karen added that central government had strict guidelines on equipment use and specification. She raised her concerns about whether those standards would be met by a council purchase. “Exactly what is to be worn and by who? If you don’t get it right, you’re going to get into the area of corporate manslaughter because we do not employ these people. You were talking about the NHS and Dorset Council,” said Cllr Tippins.
Julian confronted her, stating that he was very concerned by her actions. “You have wasted and delayed vital PPE equipment by two weeks, by your delaying tactics. You have wasted Dorset Healthcare’s valuable time during a national emergency to put in a complaint. And, more seriously potentially, you have risked the lives of the most vulnerable in our community – the lives of people who are doing something to fight this virus and the lives of our nurses and frontline staff. All I ask is, will you please explain why you seem to be playing games with people’s lives?” he asked of Cllr Tippins.
Cllr Peter Yeo was the second councillor opposing the rule change which would allow the town clerk to spend up to £20,000 on PPE equipment through delegated authority. He didn’t want to increase that spending limit. Instead, Cllr Yeo wanted a council meeting convened to approve any spending above £5,000. “This should not be supported at all. If we get any request, we can have a Zoom meeting and discuss it,” Cllr Yeo said.
Cllr Alex Chase advised that there would still be a time lag, because there has to be legal notice given before any council meeting can be called, whether that is a physical or online meeting. “I believe we would still have to give significant notice periods, which would reduce our speed of reaction,” Cllr Chase said.
Cllr Phil Proctor supported spending money on PPE equipment and the required rule change to increase the clerk’s spending. “This is a national crisis. When council regulations were put together, nobody anticipated this situation. We are having to think on our feet, and I think we need to help the people in the community who are helping,” he said.
Cllr George Hall agreed. “This is our life-defining moment for most of us and if I had my way, I would be spending virtually all of our money doing absolutely anything we can do to try and protect the lives of our citizens in Shaftesbury. Surely our aim here is to serve and protect? That’s what we must do. Going forward, we cannot play party politics. We have to put personal differences to one side to do the best for Shaftesbury.” George said.
Cllr John Lewer also agreed. “It is entirely right that we should be seen to be doing what we can to help out those people at the sharp end,” he said.
Joining the Zoom meeting by telephone, Cllr Piers Brown urged speedy action. “This life-saving PPE could be in use today. It could be saving lives here in Shaftesbury right now if it wasn’t for the actions of Councillor Tippins a week ago,” said Piers, adding, “Why would somebody betray our NHS, betray Shaftesbury, betray those key workers? How could somebody deny PPE to the very people who would selflessly care for you as you lay there with COVID 19? It is a responsibility of every councillor here today to support this motion and support our NHS, our community and our key workers and to right Councillor Tippins’ betrayal.”
But Cllr Peter Yeo disagreed. “It’s not a betrayal. You’re talking about giving the kit to the people who really need it. They are not in Shaftesbury. They are in the main hospitals.” said Cllr Yeo.
Mayor, Cllr Tim Cook, and Cllr Hollingshead tried to bring the discussion to a close. “I would like this to go to the vote and I would like to ask Councillor Tippins if she would drop her resistance to this motion to help save lives in Shaftesbury,” said Andy, but there was more debate before the councillors decided.
The original proposal had been to allow emergency money to fund PPE for health and social care workers. Cllr Phil Proctor wanted a wider range of PPE recipients considered. He reminded councillors that the town council’s business manager was helping coordinate volunteers supporting people who are self-isolating. He wanted them to have protective equipment too. “We have 250 volunteers assisting Brie (Logan). They haven’t got any protection and we should be providing protection,” he said.
At that point, Mrs Logan shared the advice given to agencies including Dorset Council. “The key message is not to use PPE in non-clinical settings,” she said.
Cllr Matt Welch also wanted shop workers and volunteers to be supported with the council’s purchase of PPE. “This equipment could save lives. People like me – and my brother, who is going to work at Tesco’s. He doesn’t have the right PPE. He comes home and my parents are quite fragile. They don’t have a good immune system. The fact that this is not going out is absolutely disgusting,” Matt said, in an impassioned response.
“The advice can come from Dorset, but we can also make our own decisions as an independent body. I don’t think we should limit ourselves to what Dorset Council are doing.” said Matt, before he was interrupted by an extraordinary outburst by Cllr Tippins.
“What an idiot. Welch, you’re an idiot. Councillor Welch, you’re an idiot. He’s absolutely thick,” she shouted. Mayor Tim Cook asked her to retract the comments but she refused.
The vote was taken. Nine of the twelve councillors supported increasing the spending authority of the town clerk to buy emergency items for health care workers. Cllrs Karen Tippens and Peter Yeo voted against it. Cllr Jeanne Loader abstained, saying she had become confused over what she was voting for.