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Leader of South Kesteven District Council Kelham Cooke apologises for breaking social distancing rules with friends in Dorset




The leader of South Kesteven District Council has apologised for ‘unintentionally’ breaking social distancing guidelines after being photographed with his arms around friends.

Kelham Cooke, the leader of South Kesteven District Council, posed for the pictures in Dorset just over a week ago.

The images were posted on social media, sparking outrage that he clearly broke social distancing rules, despite repeatedly calling on residents of South Kesteven to obey them.

Kelham Cooke, second from right, with friends at Bere Regis in Dorset on July 26, 2020. At the front of the picture is Luke Graystone, chief of staff to Andrea Leadsom MP
Kelham Cooke, second from right, with friends at Bere Regis in Dorset on July 26, 2020. At the front of the picture is Luke Graystone, chief of staff to Andrea Leadsom MP

In a ‘Leader Life’ column in the Rutland & Stamford Mercury on June 5, Coun Cooke wrote: “Social distancing is vitally important for everyone because it isn’t just about protecting ourselves from the virus, it is about protecting our friends, our families, and those who are supporting our communities... if we think about it, we will all know someone who is particularly vulnerable to Covid-19; it is our responsibility to protect them.”

A similar message appeared on the South Kesteven District Council website.

This week Coun Cooke, a Conservative who was elected to represent the villages of Barholm, Baston, Greatford, Langtoft, Stowe, Tallington and Uffington on the district council, admitted making a ‘mistake’.

Kelham Cooke, far right, in Dorset with friends in July 2020
Kelham Cooke, far right, in Dorset with friends in July 2020

His full statement said: “The Government’s guidelines have been designed to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus which I fully support, and I recognise the importance of us all adhering to this guidance.

“I have always sought to follow social distancing measures, however, on this occasion I unintentionally transgressed the guidelines. I sincerely apologise for this mistake.”

He was asked by the Mercury if he felt it affected his role as council leader, but declined to answer.

Coun Charmaine Morgan (Lab - Grantham)
Coun Charmaine Morgan (Lab - Grantham)

Coun Charmaine Morgan, leader of the South Kesteven Labour Group, said she believed stepping down was “the right thing” to do because Coun Cooke was sending “the wrong message”.

She said: “It is a critical time, when we are requiring people to wear masks in shops and seeing an increase in Covid-19. It is a hidden enemy so it is easy to get complacent and forget about it, but we can’t afford to do that.”

She added: “At the very least the incident brings into question Coun Cooke’s judgment.

“There were at least five different people potentially from five different parts of the country who all came together in one household and who were clearly breaking social distancing rules.

The Mercury's Leader Life column on June 5
The Mercury's Leader Life column on June 5

“We expect certain standards from everybody at a really critical time, and politicians should be setting an example to everybody else, and I would certainly be judgmental of anybody else who doesn’t follow the rules.

“It’s quite unacceptable for people to think they are above the law that has been laid down and, particularly with what we know about Covid-19, it would potentially be putting people’s lives at risk.”

Coun Jan Hansen (Ind - Folkingham) said: “Residents of South Kesteven certainly do deserve to be shown a higher standard of leadership from the hierarchy at the district council, which does not appear to have been demonstrated here.

Coun Jan Hansen (Ind - Folkingham)
Coun Jan Hansen (Ind - Folkingham)

“Sadly, it would seem that Coun Cooke’s position has become untenable as a result of his cavalier actions. I would expect that an urgent meeting for elected councillors will be arranged immediately, in order to debate how best to proceed regarding leadership
roles.

“I would like to add that if a vote is decided upon regarding Coun Cooke’s future, it is imperative that fellow councillors vote according to their own consciences, and not following the usual undemocratic whipping process normally exercised at council meetings.”

While leading the council is unpaid, the holder of the position can claim an allowance of more than £19,000 a year funded by taxpayers.

MP Gareth Davies (Con - Grantham and Stamford)
MP Gareth Davies (Con - Grantham and Stamford)

Coun Cooke also works for the Conservative MP for Grantham and Stamford Gareth Davies, as his constituency support officer.

Mr Davies said: “It is important that everybody seeks to adhere to the Government’s guidelines on social distancing in order to tackle the coronavirus.

“I have received a full written and unreserved apology from Kelham Cooke who has acknowledged that he made a mistake in not following the guidance in this instance.

“I have accepted his apology and his assurances that guidelines will be followed in the future.”

Coun Martin Hill (Con - Folkingham Rural), leader of Lincolnshire County Council
Coun Martin Hill (Con - Folkingham Rural), leader of Lincolnshire County Council

Similarly, Coun Martin Hill (Con - Folkingham Rural), leader of Lincolnshire County Council and vice president of the Grantham and Stamford Conservatives Association, did not suggest that Coun Cooke should step down from the association.

He said he had heard about the ‘full apology’ and said it was ‘important’ to follow the guidelines.

Martin Trollope-Bellew, chairman of the Stamford and Grantham Conservative Association, said he didn’t think the mistake Coun Cooke made was serious enough to warrant him stepping down from his part-time secretarial role with the association.

At the front of one of the photos, and apparently taking the ‘selfie’, is Luke Graystone, chief of staff to Andrea Leadsom MP (Con - South Northants) and a Conservative councillor on Northampton Borough Council.

Mrs Leadsom said she had accepted Mr Graystone’s “full and unreserved apology”.

What do you think? Should Coun Kelham Cooke step down as leader of South Kesteven District Council because of breaking social distancing guidelines? E-mail smeditor@stamfordmercury.co.uk



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