THE challenge of the coronavirus pandemic is “like nothing else” Cumbria County Council has faced, according to the authority’s leader.

While the council had significant experience of dealing with major incidents after the foot and mouth disease crisis and the devastating floods which ravaged the county, councillor Stewart Young believes the current situation has been even more difficult to respond to.

He said: “It is certainly the most challenging period I’ve had with the county council, and I was the leader when we went through the foot and mouth disease crisis back in 2001.

“Then we had major instances of flooding in 2005, 2009 and 2015.

“All of those were extremely challenging, but this is obviously like nothing else we’ve come across.

“The difference with this event to the others that I mentioned is that previously there was quite a clear transition from what is called the response phase, when lives are at risk and we have to deal with things right away.

“In emergency planning terms, the response is always led by the police and there’s a fairly clear point at which it moves into the recovery phase and we start dealing with the consequences and the responsibility is usually passed onto the council.

“We don’t know when the end is, and people are still dying, so we need to keep that response phase going.

“The problem is, we can’t wait 12 months before we start planning for the recovery because our economy is also being absolutely shot to bits.”

Mr Young believes the ramifications of the pandemic will be felt for a long time, with the council already facing a black hole of tens of millions of pounds in its finances according to an early estimate.

“Financially we’ve had £25million of help so far,” the leader of the council’s Labour group said. “Which we’re grateful for, but the very strong message is that we’re going to need more.

“In our first estimate of what this might cost us for the rest of this year it was something like £66million, so we’ve got a gap there of £41million and we’ve only got £15million in our reserves. It is very serious.”

As well as concerns about the financial impact of the pandemic on the county council and other authorities, Mr Young also expects there to be a number of issues which become clear once the country is not so confined to their homes.

“We have got the prospect of mass unemployment but you’re also going to have, as the lockdown lifts, a lot of hidden problems that will become apparent; we don’t really know what is going on behind closed doors,” he said.

“There will be people with mental health issues, there is domestic violence, among other things, so we’ve got to do that work to prepare now. We are trying to ride two horses at once; we’ve still got to focus on the response but at the same time we’ve got to be planning for the recovery.”