Sheffield politics reporter on a year of reporting on Covid-19

When Sheffield’s Director of Public Health stood in the Town Hall and warned coronavirus would hit the city, no one realised it would be a historical moment.

Tuesday, 23rd March 2021, 7:00 am

Greg Fell’s prophetic speech at a full council meeting in March 2020 didn’t spark panic, more slight apprehension and curiosity as he outlined “ripples of cases” and an “ever changing situation”.

Questions ranged from whether mass events could still take place to whether there needed to be special yellow bin bags for clinical waste.

Even the then Council Leader Julie Dore later admitted she thought it would all be over by June.

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Director of Public Health at Sheffield Council, Greg Fell

At that meeting, there were 80-odd councillors, a busy public gallery and three journalists squeezed on to a press bench. Afterwards I caught a packed rush hour tram. The irony that I was tweeting about this easily spread virus, having spent hours in close proximity to more than 100 people, is glaring.

By chance, I had written a story with Greg about whether we should wear face masks to protect us from air pollution but at that time, there was no suggestion to wear them in relation to Covid or to socially distance.

A few days later I had a briefing with Coun Dore and Coun Jackie Drayton where we chatted about someone who was ill. We wondered if we had been seated near them at a recent meeting but didn’t dwell on it.

Events sped up rapidly within a couple of weeks. Sheffield had its first confirmed case, schools closed and Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown.

As all this exploded at work, I became ill myself with what I assumed was Covid but no tests were available.

Then, just three weeks after Greg’s presentation, Coun Pat Midgely died of Covid. Suddenly this global pandemic hit home. Pat had been a councillor for 33 years so was very well known and respected. People had seen her recently, but the virus worked swiftly.

From then on, Greg’s phone number went on my speed dial. If I’m not interviewing him, I’m watching him on video addressing a meeting. His voice is now so familiar, he could probably programme our Alexa.

He’s a self proclaimed “prophet of doom” and there have been times I’ve sat there silently praying he won’t deliver any more bad news, longing for the good old days when we just talked about quit smoking campaigns.

A seismic change at the council has been the switch to online meetings. It tooks years and endless lobbying for meetings to finally be webcast and they were barely underway, when the whole council had to rely on video for everything.

Online meetings are more accessible so may be better for democracy but I miss the buzz of being there in person, the lively debates, the questioning and challenging from members of the public and the colourful protests.

Politics is all about people and I hope one day we can return to that human contact in the Town Hall.

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In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Thanks to everyone who helps us ask the questions that matter by taking out a digital subscription or buying a paper. We stand together. Nancy Fielder, editor.