The idea that some groups of people were so vulnerable to Covid-19 that they were advised to lock themselves away for at least three months – and not even open the door to greet those delivering essential supplies – was profoundly shocking.
The precise criteria for shielding seemed to struggle to enter the public consciousness – it was actually advised only for quite a tightly defined group of people with particular health conditions.
However, the boundaries soon became blurred with those who were being advised to follow the most stringent of social distancing measures, including the over 70s and people with a far broader range of medical complaints than anybody officially placed on the shielded list.
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Yet that confusion somehow perfectly encapsulated the inescapable fact that so many people were vulnerable to this virus, albeit to different degrees – and either in trying to avoid it or by having to live with the lockdown designed to bring it under control, significant numbers of people were going to be hit hard by Covid-19, even if they were fortunate enough never to actually contract it.
And that is where councils came in – called upon, with very little notice, to establish “community hubs” to provide the urgent help of which many of their residents were about to find themselves in need. While the government delivered food boxes directly to the doorsteps of the officially shielded, the hubs would be there to pick up any of their other needs – and help anyone else variously affected by the virus.
With shielding set to be ‘paused’ by the government on 1st August – having already been slightly relaxed in recent weeks – Central Lancashire’s councils are making it clear that neither they, nor the community-driven support networks that they have helped to develop over the past four months, will be going anywhere while they are still needed.
Here, they reflect on a tumultuous time and how they hope the “together” branding used by each of their hubs will endure in the form of a collective commitment to those whose lives continue to be affected by coronavirus.
At the height of the crisis, Chorley Council was dealing with hundreds of enquiries per day from people taking up the help offered by the authority at the start of lockdown.
Its central food hub worked with and supported existing food banks in the borough, as well as assisting with the development of another. However, the authority’s main challenge was ploughing through the sheer number of appeals for assistance – and what was subsequently discovered when staff scratched beneath the surface.
“We had to come up with a method which allowed us to prioritise people’s needs – so if somebody matched up with two or three of the indicators [of concern] that we drew up, they went to the top of the list,” explained Angela Barrago, Chorley Council’s service lead for communities.
“We had one team dealing specifically with the shielded group – and they knew everything that there was to know about that – while another was focused on all the other enquiries we were receiving.
“We were spending quite a bit of time on the phone getting information off people to find out exactly what they needed – and we weren’t signposting them elsewhere, we took everything on ourselves as a case.
“Sometimes it was quite straightforward, but in many instances we discovered people who already had quite a lot of pre-existing needs even before the pandemic – but they had been off the radar and not receiving help.
“Coronavirus drew out all kinds of other issues that we’d have never got to know about – and we stayed with those people until they got everything they needed either from ourselves or even adult social care services which they sometimes had to be referred to.”
The plan now is for the council to continue to facilitate the community work that has been so integral to the borough’s response to the pandemic. The authority has already contacted anybody on the shielded list to establish if they have any ongoing needs now that the national scheme is coming to an end.
Council leader Alistair Bradley said that he was proud of the work done by the Chorley Together partnership so far – and paid tribute to the staff and volunteers who had helped to deliver it.
“Even though the lockdown measures are lifting, there are now new struggles people can be facing. People may be suffering with their mental health, facing unemployment or coming to terms with coming out of shielding – and we’re making sure that the hub is equipped to support those suffering, with support from partner organisations.
“Our message is this – while things are changing, we are always there to support those who need it. Please get in touch with us if you’re struggling – don’t suffer in silence.”
As shielding comes to a stop, South Ribble Borough Council’s community involvement manager, Rebecca Heap, says that she has not yet been able to assess the magnitude of the support effort made over the past four months.
However, one of the things which struck her early on was the spread of need across the district.
“South Ribble is so diverse – and ordinarily you couldn’t possibly compare the needs of somebody in, say, to Samlesbury to somebody in urban Leyland.
“And in areas like Broadfield, Seven Stars, Bamber Bridge and Kingsfold, we have been regularly supporting 10 percent of the population. But we have also had cases of older people shielding in the western parishes, around Hoole and Walmer Bridge.
“People were so taken aback by this, that if you were on your own and didn’t have help in place, you would really have struggled,” Rebecca said.
She added that the existing food banks in the area had been vital in providing support and the council had now changed how it interacted with them and made referrals to their services, based on what had been learned so far during the pandemic.
However, the authority’s own community hub will remain in place in the event of having to react to any spike in infections.
“We would need to escalate very quickly in that case and if we had no function at all, that would be very difficult.
“Now it’s about being a bit smarter with our wraparound service – and how, if somebody comes to us with multiple needs, we can help them without having to send them to several different agencies,” Rebecca added.
Council leader Paul Foster said: “We are absolutely dedicated to being there for and helping those who need it – that’s what South Ribble Together is all about.
“It’s a scheme led by the council, but we can’t do it alone. This is why we are working to develop a network of organisations right across the borough who can help. If you call us and we can’t help you, we will put you on to someone who can.”
Preston City Council’s cabinet member for communities and social justice, Nweeda Khan, realised early on in the crisis that it was not just going to be the officially shielded who would be in need of help.
“It was clear that the pandemic was going to have a huge impact on various vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, who wouldn’t be able to access services. And then there were the difficulties which it was going to bring to children on free school meals, the furloughed and people already struggling on benefits,” Cllr Khan recalled.
It was for that reason, the authority was quick to turn the city’s long-established food programme, using it as a model for the new Covid community hubs. Outside school term time, there were already a dozen “holiday markets” in operation to offer families any extra assistance they may need while their children were out of class.
As the pandemic struck, these services swung into operation and their number swelled to 26 across the city. The surplus food redistribution charity FareShare provided supplies via donations from food producers and supermarkets, which were delivered by Preston-based Recycling Lives.
Meanwhile, the number of food banks in the city also more than doubled to 10.
For Cllr Khan, there was one common thread across the different approaches – community spirit.
“It has been humbling to see the generosity of everybody pulling together – especially our community and faith groups.
“The hubs were all volunteer-led and everybody worked as one to co-operate and avoid duplication. So if one hub or food bank had, say, bread left over, we’d put out a message to the other groups who may have been short.”
Cllr Khan said that the volunteer capacity of the early days of lockdown – when many more people were furloughed – had now reduced, but a core of hubs and food banks would remain for anybody in need of help.
Council leader Matthew Brown said that there had been a “flourishing of the co-operative spirit “ during the pandemic so far.
“So many people have started volunteering and we are very grateful for that.
“Councils have also been essential to everything through this – vital services like getting food out to vulnerable people, not just people on the shielded list, but also in poverty.”
9,000+ – number of people so far helped by South Ribble Together
8,000+ – number of people so far helped by Chorley Together
19,670 – number of food parcels delivered in Preston
WHO TO CONTACT
Anybody still requiring help can contact:
South Ribble Together – 01772 625 625 (weekdays); email: [email protected]
Chorley Together – 01257 515 151 (weekdays); email: [email protected]
Preston Together – 01772 906777 (weekdays); email [email protected]