COVID-19 continues to bear down on the UK, with more than 1,000 Sunderland residents having tested positive with the virus. And with many more days ahead in a changed world – as lockdown continues to be the country’s most effective defence against Coronavirus – Sunderland Labour Group and City Council leader, Councillor Graeme Miller, gives his take on how the city is faring in the face of the greatest global crisis since World War II.

“Each morning, we wake up to a new, much-altered reality. For the last six weeks, for most, life has been turned upside down. The routine that may have once seemed mundane has become something we greatly miss. The interactions with family once taken for granted now something we wish we appreciated more.

“Crises like this are – thankfully – very rare. World-changing events that fundamentally alter the way we live and interact with each other – the way that society works.

“For too many of our residents though, it has been a shattering six-weeks, in which some have lost those they love and – even more cruelly – have been unable to say goodbye in the way they would wish. As a Labour family, we lost a much-loved member in Margaret Beck – someone who served her community with all of her heart for many years, and who will be sorely missed by us and many, many others. Hers is just one story – too many have been taken too soon.

“COVID-19 is a merciless virus, and despite the challenge of life in lockdown, we must never lose sight of the danger the virus poses. Our residents have absolutely stepped up to the challenges that have come with living in lockdown – unselfishly forfeiting time with those they love in order to ensure they – and others – can enjoy a future beyond this virus. That we fend off the risk it poses by staying at home.

“However, we have been dismayed to see figures reveal that Sunderland is the hardest hit place in the England, based on the number of cases per population, and it is therefore more important than ever that our residents heed warnings and stay at home. We must protect each other.

“We know that Sunderland residents have historically made higher than average use of hospital resources per head, and this may in part contribute to the higher figures we are seeing, but we must also confront the fact that the city has faced significant health inequalities and deprivation that means we are more exposed than most parts of the country when it comes to a virus that targets vulnerable people. And, while we are doing everything we possibly can as a local authority to counter this, there can be little doubt that those who are suffering the most during this crisis are residents like ours. The same residents whose lives have been made more difficult over the last decade – living with years of austerity.

“Health and social inequality are unavoidable consequences of austerity. And – when crises hit – it is those already living with challenges that suffer the effects disproportionately. When we are through this pandemic, and the dust has settled, we must examine, as a nation, whether it is right that we live in a society in which the vulnerable suffer, and in which frontline workers are undervalued to the extent that they are confronted with the prospect of going to work without the right equipment to keep them safe and protected. We have to rebalance society to ensure that nowhere and nobody is left behind.

“Suddenly the nation has opened its eyes to the absolutely amazing job that frontline workers do. Those who have – in the past – been considered ‘unskilled’, are now seen for what they are – unsung heroes who keep our country moving. We must never overlook them again.”

Cllr Miller said the council is doing ‘everything in its power’ to ensure that it directs resources to those who need it most. Sunderland City Council officers have distributed hundreds of items of PPE – including items it had in its own supplies and equipment donated by people and businesses in the city – to frontline workers. The council has donated equipment to a number of the city’s care homes, as well as to undertakers, who require protective equipment to continue to work and ensure that those who lose their fight against the disease can get the dignified funeral they deserve.

“Sunderland is – above all else – a resilient city. One that is built on strong communities that work together to support each other. In the context of a global crisis like this, this fighting spirit has been crucial in the city’s battle against COVID-19 and it will be paramount too when we emerge from this, and begin to move into recovery mode.

“We all much support each other and we will do everything in our power as a council to ensure that we plug the gaps left by Government and work in a way that is absolutely focused on saving lives and protecting our residents.

“I want to thank residents in Sunderland who have done their bit by staying at home and protecting the NHS. I want to thank frontline workers, who are continuing to deliver essential services to keep the city moving. I want to express my wholehearted gratitude to health and care workers who are putting themselves in harm’s way to save the lives of those with COVID-19. We will forever be in your debt.

“This is a battle we must all fight – and I know that Sunderland will endure. We’re a gutsy, passionate city and we will beat this virus together and emerge from it fighting and more resilient – that will be the legacy of those we have lost along the way.”