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Plan to axe virtual meetings 'premature', say West Norfolk councillors

Councillors in West Norfolk have hit out at plans to force them back into face-to-face meetings, potentially as early next month.

The current guidance allowing authorities to meet virtually via platforms such as Zoom expires after the local elections on May 6 and the Government does not plan to extend it.

Members attending a meeting of West Norfolk Council’s corporate performance panel last night heard officers are currently working through revised guidance on the issue.

King's Court, Borough Council of West Norfolk.. (43755272)
King's Court, Borough Council of West Norfolk.. (43755272)

But councillors from across the political spectrum voiced unease at the proposed speed of the switch.

Labour group leader Charles Joyce said: “They haven’t really thought this through.

“People who haven’t been vaccinated are being expected to put themselves at risk with those who have been vaccinated.”

He argued the situation was not “clear cut”, because of reports suggesting that as many as 25 per cent of current positive Covid tests are among people who have been vaccinated and advice that a further “booster” jab may be needed this autumn.

Independent Alexandra Kemp said the move was “unnecessary” and called for the present arrangements to continue for another six months.

Last week, MPs overwhelmingly backed proposals to keep many of the emergency powers available to ministers during the pandemic open for a further six months.

And the council’s Conservative leader, Brian Long, said he had voiced his concerns about the new guidance to the North West Norfolk MP, James Wild.

Other members also highlighted the current hybrid system being used at Westminster to enable some MPs and peers to be in the chamber, while others access sittings remotely.

And Mr Long said: “I said to James when you’re all back in there shoulder to shoulder on the dates we’re expected to, I hope you’re all safe and you’ve had your two jabs because not everyone has.”

However, Independent Paul Beal said: “We can delay and delay and delay, but we’re going to have to start somewhere.”

A letter to councils signed by minister Luke Hall cites a number of reasons for ending the remote arrangements including the progress of the vaccination programme and the roadmap for loosening Covid restrictions.

He also claimed extending the remote system would require new legislation and there were measures available for councillors to reduce the potential risks to members, staff and the public.

But the Local Government Association has voiced its unease at the plan, while the meeting was told there is also a possibility of legal action in order to force a rethink.

Mr Long said the action was taking place because the plan had been brought forward "prematurely."

Panel chairman Jim Moriarty called for the council to follow the LGA’s lead and write to the government to express its concerns. He also proposed a special meeting to discuss potential ways in which meetings might be conducted.

The panel also heard a number of parish councils had voiced concerns about the plan because they are legally required to hold annual meetings, many of which take place in May.

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