Zoom council meetings set to end as pandemic restrictions ease

A Herts county council meeting with chairman Cllr Colette Wyatt-Lowe, leader Cllr David Williams, and Cllr Paul Mason.

A Herts county council meeting with chairman Cllr Colette Wyatt-Lowe, leader Cllr David Williams, and Cllr Paul Mason. - Credit: HCC

Virtual council meetings introduced as a response to the coronavirus pandemic will not continue beyond May 7, it has been revealed.

The government has confirmed it will not be seeking the legislative change that would enable virtual attendance to continue, and instead has issued updated guidance designed to ensure meetings operate safely and securely.

Herts county council leader Cllr David Williams – who is chair of the County Council Network (CCN) – says the decision is “deeply disappointing”.

He says it will pose a number of challenges for county authorities, and is illogical as indoor events cannot be organised until May 17 under the government's roadmap.

“We have concerns over whether face-to-face council meetings can be done safely at this present time,”  said Cllr Williams, speaking in his role as chair of the CCN.

“Some council chambers will not have enough room to sufficiently distance officers, councillors, members of the public, and journalists and in order to do so, councils will need to look at other venues.

“It also risks democratic participation at a time when interest in local matters is particularly high.”

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Council leaders were informed of the decision in a letter from local government minister Luke Hall on Thursday.

Mr Hall highlighted the progress of the vaccination programme and the roadmap for the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, as well as pressures on the legislative programme.

“Councils continue to play a vital role in our response to the pandemic and I am grateful for how they have used emergency powers introduced a year ago to continue to operate at a difficult time.

“As the vaccine roll-out continues and restrictions are lifted, councils holding face-to-face meetings from May 7 are being given the support and guidance they need to do so in a safe and secure way.

“I am keen to hear from councils and local residents about their experiences of virtual meetings so that we can properly consider whether to make these a permanent option.”

Herts county council is working with Lawyers in Local Government and the Association of Democratic Services Officers to seek a ruling in the High Court to allow meetings to continue virtually.