Councils still blame Covid for service delays... 18 months after curbs were lifted

Sheffield council Covid England - Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Sheffield council Covid England - Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Councils are continuing to blame the pandemic for service delays despite lockdown restrictions ending more than 18 months ago.

Pre-emptive excuses provided by local authorities for possible delays to Freedom of Information (FOI) responses included the “current coronavirus outbreak” and staff being “redeployed to duties to support our response to the coronavirus emergency”.

One council took three months to provide information after the initial reply said it was suffering from backlogs held up by Covid.

Meanwhile, 10 councils responded to requests sent in by a Telegraph reporter last week, claiming there may be delays caused by “disruption to normal services” because of the pandemic. The local authorities said references to Covid were included in error.

Public bodies subject to FOI laws must respond “promptly” and no later than 20 working days.

The Information Commissioner’s Office said that while there were delays during the pandemic, “as time has passed and organisations should be working business as usual, they should correspond with individuals within the timeframes within the legislation we oversee”.

When asked about the delays, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former government efficiency minister, referenced a King James Bible proverb: “The message to councils still using Covid as an excuse for idleness should be ‘Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise’.”

Three-month wait for response

It came after a Telegraph investigation last year revealed that councils were allowing more than half of their office staff to work from home, with some residents complaining it was impacting services.

Sheffield City Council was asked for information relating to social services on Aug 26 2022. It responded at the time stating the “global Covid-19 pandemic has led to a reduction in resources across the council, meaning that we are currently dealing with a backlog of requests”.

The response was sent on Nov 29 2022 – more than three months later. Officials claimed the “hard truth” is that the pandemic “continues to have a significant impact”.

Responses to FOI requests received last week include Exeter City Council, which said: “Please be aware that there will be some delays.”

It added: “Due to the current coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, staff working at the council may become absent or deployed to other areas of work at short notice.”

An email from Brighton and Hove City Council said there could be delays as staff could “become absent or deployed to other areas of work at short notice” because of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Ipswich Borough Council said: “Please be aware that response may be delayed due to disruption caused by the coronavirus.”

‘Hard truth’ about Covid impact

Councillor Colin Ross, the chairman of Sheffield City Council’s audit and standards committee, said: “Unfortunately, it’s a hard truth that the pandemic continues to have a significant impact on the FOI backlog.”

But, he said, the council’s compliance rate was more than 94 per cent for Dec 2022, higher than pre-pandemic figures.

He added: “The audit committee has requested that steps are immediately put in place to make sure deadlines are met.”

Brighton and Hove City Council said that the response was sent in “error” and Covid is not the reason for any delays.

Ipswich officials said it “was an administrative error and we have now updated our automated systems for FOI responses”.

An Exeter City Council spokesman said: “Thank you for bringing this to our attention. This was an old message that has now been changed.

“At Exeter City Council, we have a very proud record of dealing with FOIs and coronavirus has never played a part in us providing a prompt and efficient service. In fact, all of our statistics are provided on our website.”