Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe told councillors last night that the borough’s most vulnerable residents were most at risk from a no-deal Brexit – and that detailed contingency plans will come into effect next month.
Speaking at a specially-convened meeting of the council at Woolwich Town Hall, Thorpe said he could not reassure residents about the effects of Britain suddenly dropping out of the European Union on 31 October – calling it “an existential threat to our borough”.
The most vulnerable residents could suffer “catastrophic” consequences from possible food price increases, he said. But Conservative opposition leader Matt Hartley, who supported Leave in the 2016 referendum, criticised “scaremongering” and said Thorpe was working from out of date figures.
Thorpe said he would begin meetings of a daily meetings of a “gold group” with the council and other organisations from 21 October to “assess any risks that appear as we navigate our way through the unknown”. Similar measures were used to deal with the borough’s hosting of events in the 2012 Olympics.
“No a single one of our residents voted to get poorer, to have reduced access to medicine, or for their children to grow up in a world with fewer opportunities than those of their parents,” Thorpe said.
“We will continue to do all we can to limit and mitigate the impact a no-deal scenario on our communities, but sadly we have no power to stop it. It is difficult to truly comprehend that with the facts laid out before us, that anyone elected to public office could truly believe such a course of action is in the best interests of the people they represent,” he said.
‘Significant, immediate, and negative impact’
As the threats from a no-deal exit were “escalating hour by hour and day by day”, he wanted to update councillors on “the measures we are taking in light of this existential threat to our borough”. (watch here)
“A no-deal Brexit would have a significant, immediate and negative impact on our borough. The effect on our most vulnerable residents could be catastrophic,” he continued, citing Bank of England worst-case projections that food prices could rise between six and 10 percent.
“There would only be one consequence of such an increase – more Greenwich families struggling with the cost of living, more Greenwich families living every day in crisis.”
The report also said that 50% of the fresh fruit and vegetables used in school meals in council-run schools came from the rest of the EU, and Thorpe warned that the “medicine and health consequences of a disorderly Brexit needed to be understood”.
“We have already had reports that some medicines within our borough have had supply issues,” he said, voicing fears that disruption in supplies to medical equipment such as hoists could lead to Queen Elizabeth Hospital being overwhelmed.
Hartley pointed to a line in the report saying that the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust “had not been made aware” of problems with drugs and equipment and singled out 853’s report last month which revealed that council officers had noted some medicine shortages.
“If there is any test of whether we are serious about reassuring residents, rather than scaremongering over the worst case scenarios, I think it is important the leader reassures residents that this is the council’s view, and the NHS partner’s current assessment,” he said.
The Conservative leader also criticised 853’s reporting that council officers were preparing to staff petrol stations if there was disruption to fuel supplies. While such measures are a standard aspect of emergency planning in Britain, Hartley claimed the story had been “leaked”.
“My understanding is that no such plans are in place and this is, at best, a wild exaggeration of the standard contingency plans that local authorities have and there is no suggestion of council officers taking over petrol stations in any of the internal documentation we have reviewed,” Hartley said.
“Can the leader confirm that no such specific plans are in place, and secondly, the leak itself is worrying, particularly as it is the kind of misinformation that can lead to panic-buying and fuel shortages in the first place.”
Hartley also complained that the report did not detail what the government was doing to secure a deal with the European Union – but his Conservative colleague, Matt Clare, who campaigned to stay in the EU, showed what he thought of that statement by raising his eyebrows and pulling a face (see video below).
Seizing on Hartley’s call for reassurance, Thorpe said: “You can’t turn around to residents and say it’ll be alright on the night, because it isn’t. The reason we’re doing this we are 70 miles from Dover, and eight miles from the greatest parliament in the world, that stands empty and shut down.”
“From a democratic point of view, I thought it was worthwhile assembling the council and explaining to residents what’s happening, and what those issues are. If our national parliamentarians are going to be stopped from doing so, then perhaps we have to step into the breach in that time.
“I would do all I could to reassure our residents that medicines won’t be affected, but the best answer is that we don’t know. There’s a comment in there from Lewisham and Greenwich trust but I’ll tell you this councillor Hartley, what we do know is that 80 per cent of radioactive isotopes used in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer are imported into this country. They cannot be stockpiled because they begin to decay as soon as they are produced.
“What is being done is that the NHS is working really hard with drug companies and GPs to ensure there is no stockpiling. If anyone is going to stand up and say there will be no problem with the supply of medicines, then good on them. I wouldn’t stand here and do that.”
Referring to potential fuel shortages, Thorpe said it was “absolutely” the case that council officers were looking at their responsibilities to manage rationing.
“That’s what happens when the national fuel emergency plan is enacted, I doubt very much whether prime minister Johnson wants to do that because we know the catastrophe that would involve. Those conversations are happening because the police are lacking in numbers – in Greenwich we are 90 police officers short,” he said.
“In terms of who takes responsibility for what, that was quite specifically transferred to local authorities after the last fuel incident,” he added, referring to the fuel protests in 2000.
Thorpe said all councils had been told to nominate an officer to take charge of preparations for a no-deal Brexit, and this had caused concern at a meeting of council leaders he had attended, fearing that it could be an attempt to attribute blame.
“Are we into the blame game? So when something goes wrong further down the line, we can say, well, this person should have sorted something out?”
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