It’s not an ordinary day in the office for anyone at the moment. Least not Cllr Graeme Miller, who pulls up to a deserted Civic Centre car park that is normally packed with office-based staff.

“We’re lucky to have an agile team at the council, and lots of our staff are able to work from home, so that’s what they’re doing to help minimise the risk of further spreading the Coronavirus,” explains Cllr Miller.

“With the best will in the world, for most organisations, it cannot be business as usual during unprecedented times like this, but we are determined to get council business done, and so far, that’s what we’ve been doing.”

It’s likely that the Labour Group leader will need to continue to make his way to the Civic Centre occasionally over the coming weeks, as meetings that are legally required continue to go ahead. This week already, Graeme has chaired a Cabinet Meeting with portfolio-holding councillors, to ensure that – as far as possible – decisions that need to be taken around council spend can be.  He has also run a Sunderland Labour Group meeting using Microsoft Teams – which allowed members to dial into a video conference and discuss key issues affecting the city.

“We’re keen to keep things moving as best as we can. We’re following guidance on social distancing, but we have to ensure that democracy is still in action, so that when the city comes through this – which it will, stronger and more resilient than ever – we are able to pick up with the same vigour and pace we had built before this crisis began to tighten its grip.”

Today [Wednesday, March 25], one of the more unusual Full Council meetings in decades will take place. Cross party agreement means that only 25 councillors will take to the council chamber – nine of whom are members from opposition parties, to proportionately represent the other parties that would normally have their voices heard – to take key decisions about the city.

“It’s quorate – that’s the key thing. And it’s the responsible thing to do, to go ahead with the meeting, but to do so in a way that is safe, but that ensures that residents are represented by their members. Political colours must be set aside during times like this – it’s about us working together for the greater good of the city,” says Cllr Miller.

It’s likely to be one of the shortest council meetings in living memory, with discussion set to be kept to a minimum to reduce the risk posed to members.

“The safety and wellbeing of everyone has to come first. Yes, we want to make sure that council business carries on and that the city is on the front foot when we come through this, but this is one of the greatest crises that the world has faced for generations, and the most important thing is that we take care of each other during this time.

“Democracy should happen in open quarters, and we want to make sure that we keep moving forward with the fantastic work we have got underway – on housing, on investment, on improving the city’s streets – but events like this COVID-19 pandemic remind us that there are things that are bigger than all of that, like health, family, kindness and compassion. And we absolutely have to put that above all else and come together to tackle this crisis as one collective.

“We are – as a community of councillors – still very much on hand to help our residents, and to support them through what we know is a very worrying time. I’d ask people to contact us if they need any advice and assistance during this period, and we will support with the same empathy, compassion and care that we always do. These are challenging times, and it’s incumbent on us all to work together, support one another and make a way through this awful event, so that we come out of this with a stronger community spirit than ever before.”