Cllr Kim Forward resigned as leader of Hastings Borough Council (HBC) last week after two years in the role dominated by reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic. Her formal period of tenure started on 18 March 2020 when a full council meeting endorsed her selection the previous month as Labour leader. Five days later Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed national lockdown.

Under her watch HBC swiftly moved into crisis management. A Covid-19 Task Force led by the council’s Managing Director Jane Hartnell met daily to coordinate its response. In partnership with Hastings Voluntary Action and
East Sussex County Council a Community Hub was set up for the town. Council officers were reassigned to manage the hub and triage applications. People in need were either helped directly by the council or referred to other services such as Hastings Voluntary Action, East Sussex County Council, NHS Volunteers, Hastings Foodbank, HEART (Hastings Emergency Action Response Team), and the Community Pharmacy. It was a time of huge community effort.

Whether either the initial lockdown or successive subsequent periods of social and economic restrictions were appropriate governmental responses to the pandemic may be matters of future national and indeed global enquiry. Local councils of course had no choice but to implement them. It is fair to say, however, that in Hastings Cllr Forward was foremost throughout the two-year period in calling for maximum social distancing and mask-wearing, and for limiting any economic and social activity that might risk increased opportunities for the spread of infection. “Stay safe, stay home” was the maxim which she intoned at every opportunity.

“Hastings is closed”

In May 2020, when the initial lockdown was eased and people began to travel again for leisure purposes, she delivered a public message, maintained on a roadside hoarding on the edge of town, asking visitors to stay away – “Hastings is closed”. In her regular column in the Hastings Observer she wrote: “We do not want an influx of people, residents or tourists, in our open spaces making social distancing impossible and putting people at risk.” She justified the continued closure of public toilets around the town on this basis suggesting that it would
act as a deterrent.

A couple of weeks later she added: “When we look back at this time, I hope the council will be remembered for doing its job: for standing with its people and wrapping its arms around this town and holding it tight… I am aware of how difficult it has been for many of you and of the sacrifices that have been made. Thank you very much. Please continue to stay home and stay safe wherever possible”. 

That continued to be the mantra of Cllr Forward’s leadership over the summer of 2020 as the infection seemed to wane, and again into the autumn and winter of 2020/21 as Delta variant cases, now tested, tracked and traced with much more urgency across the country, took hold. Hastings had been near the bottom of the national scale of infection rates under the original Covid-18 strain, and remained comparatively low throughout
this second wave. Cllr Forward regularly claimed the credit for this, and many residents would endorse that.

“Imgoingforzero”

Was it a balanced response in a town that depends economically upon hospitality, cultural and leisure activities? Cllr Forward and her cabinet, following on the lead of the public health department of East Sussex County Council, maintained that the priority was to keep infection rates at the lowest levels possible. Indeed in March 2021 Hastings Borough Council joined enthusiastically in a campaign launched by the Community Hub under the hashtag #Imgoingforzero with the stated target of “zero cases” of Covid. The accompanying declaration that “it’s not time to ease up now” was repeated with gusto in council messaging.

That hardly went to plan despite the hopes engendered by the initial vaccine roll-out, and there was some opening up of hospitality venues last summer, though the council quashed Pirate Day support, entertainments at the Stade and any other initiatives for events that might invite mass social gatherings. But again last October, with the Omicron variant on the horizon, the council jumped ahead of central government in calling for the implementation of “Plan B” – the introduction of mandatory vaccine-only Covid-status cert-ification in certain settings, a return to compulsory mask-wearing in shops and workplaces and a general request for people to return to working from home if they could – a condition which the council itself had maintained for its own workforce throughout. Plan B was in due course adopted nationally.

Six months further on, with all formal Covid-19 restrictions lifted by central government, the borough of Hastings was recently identified as amongst local authority areas with the highest rather than lowest rates of infection. Does this justify or, on the contrary, cast doubt upon the council’s safety-first policy pursued under Cllr Forward leadership? It can no doubt be argued either way. Now there is a new national crisis – the cost of living – which she will no longer have the responsibility to address. She may be happy enough about that.

In her message of departure Cllr Forward said: “ It has been a very special responsibility to be leader of the Council throughout the pandemic. I have worked with others to try to ensure that our residents have been supported through this most difficult of times and that the NHS could support our town as effectively as possible. Thank you to everyone who has helped and been there for others including all our Hastings Borough Council officers. I know that Paul Barnett has the passion and commitment to continue to guide our town towards a brighter future.”


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