County councillors will be allowed to opt out of meetings if they are affected by Covid-19.

Currently any member of Hertfordshire County Council who fails to attend meetings of the council or its committees for a period of six months ceases to be a councillor – unless their absence is due to an approved reason.

And there had been concerns that some councillors may not be able – or feel able – to attend a meeting or meetings this year, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But on Tuesday (May 19), at the annual meeting of the county council, it was agreed that Covid-19 would be an acceptable reason for absence for the next year.

That means that any councillor who has the illness, is in self-isolation or has concerns that they may contract the virus will now be able to opt out of meetings, without the risk of losing their seat.

The change was initially due to be considered by a meeting of the county council on March 24, but that meeting was cancelled after the government brought in formal lock-down restrictions.

Since then legislation has been passed that allows councils to meet and to vote virtually – instead of having to meet in the same room.

On Tuesday, council leader Cllr David Williams said that the use of video-conferencing does mitigate the issue.

But he said it was still “appropriate” to have arrangements that meant  Covid-19 was a valid reason for failure to attend a meeting of the council, a committee  or a sub-committee.

Supporting the move, Liberal Democrat group leader Cllr Stephen Giles-Medhurst said there had already been a number of councillors across the country, who had been thrown-off councils for failure to attend during the pandemic.

And he said: “This now protects county councillors of all political persuasions  if they can’t attend a meeting  – and therefore our group will be fully supporting this proposal.”

The change was also supported by leader of the Labour group Cllr Judi Billing.

“I think flexibility  at this time is all-important,” she said.

“I’ve always thought that flexibility over these arrangements, where illness is involved, is important.”

At the same time, Cllr Billing welcomed changes to the annual timetable of meetings, from September 2020.

She suggested that the better spacing of meetings would mean it was no longer so easy for councillors to fall foul of the six month rule.

As part of the changes, the usual November council meeting would be moved to October – and there would be a further meeting in December.

In non-election years, it was said, the annual council meeting in May would also be used to consider additional business of the full council, if required.