All across the country, Districts, towns, villages and communities faced a unique challenge from the Corona virus 'lock down' mandated from central Government. How to respond to support residents, particularly the vulnerable, sick or elderly to which all of us have a moral duty of care, but particularly local councils who also have a statutory duty?
However, most councils' emergency contingency plans were conceived to handle more traditional emergencies such as flooding, oil spillages, radioactive contamination or even plane and train crashes. So they didn't quite fit a "lock down". But something else was different as well.
Everywhere there was a great and almost spontaneous up swelling of community spirit often coming together via social media groups on FaceBook or WhatsApp. Neighbours were offering to help other neighbours with simple day to day tasks such as shopping, medications or simply a cheer-up chat. But the lack of commonality, structure and experience inherent in this approach soon threw up a number of challenges and questions.
The first key issue to arise was how to ensure all streets and isolated houses were covered by one or more of these new neighbourhood "Street Champions". Next, it soon became apparent that tasks beyond simple shopping requests often raised issues of privacy, data protection, safe guarding, DBS checks and protection against scams and fraud. So, how to train some volunteers in these skills? How to pay for this? Finally there was the question of who to call for help?
The local councils (both District and Parish) have the necessary data protection registrations, and the statutory duty to account for all monies (both private and public) spent during the emergency. But, how best to link this formal structure to support the work and requirements of the Street Champions?
The conclusion was, some new structures and processes had to be put in place and quickly! In West Berkshire and South Oxford, the District Councils set up new community Support Hubs. In Streatley in late March, the Parish Council held one of the district's first on-line parish council meetings where it approved the setting up of a new Streatley Emergency Response Group (SERG) under the leadership of ex parish Councillor Nikki Swan, who as an experienced medical responder and emergency volunteer was ideally qualified to link with the new Street Champion teams and with neighbouring Goring Parish Council.
It was quickly realised a central point of contact was required. So, it was agreed a lock down HELPLINE was a priority. This turned out not to be a straightforward exercise to establish from scratch, requiring specific telecoms and software capabilities as well as DBS checked staff to take the calls. However based around an already existing local charity's system (Q1F) and another local business (The Capability Company) focused on training in the voluntary sector, the support and the necessary equipment, software and staff training were quickly put in place and the telephone helpline was operational from the middle of week two of lockdown. At peak it handled some 30 - 40 calls per day from Streatley and Goring residents.
One of the earliest and most frequent issues highlighted was the logistics of obtaining medicines from the local Chemist. Since lock down the volumes of prescriptions had increased and only 2 customers at a time were allowed into the shop. The result was lengthy queues and with Street Champions (SCs) often delivering and collecting several scripts at once, the normal turnaround time had also lengthened considerably. The need to occasionally stop and sanitise the shop further added to the elapsed time. As a result many folk were getting increasingly stressed and frustrated. SERG, quickly recognised the problem and in collaboration with the Pharmacy, the surgery, the Street Champions and the volunteers on the Helpline, they jointly came up with a solution to help streamline the process.
In essence this involves the Street Champion directing the request from the patient to the Helpline. All the Helpline volunteers are DBS checked and have safeguarding and confidentiality training. They process the request (be it a one-off or a repeat prescription) and at the end of afternoon a list of all requests are batched and delivered to the Pharmacist by the SERG co-ordinator. The pharmacist also informs SERG when specific patient's medicines will be available for SCs to pick up. Any urgent requests can also be prioritised for same day or next morning pick up. Any issues or queries are directed back to the patient via the Helpline.
The system has now been operational for over two months, is well received by everyone and has resulted in reduced waiting times, smaller queues and an increase in medicines being available for pick up at a specified time.
One of the challenging things has been to take a proactive approach and to be ahead of the curve, rather than being purely reactive, so that we have a variety of support available for our most vulnerable at the time they need itNikki Swan
Since the lockdown commenced, Streatley Parish Council has held its virtual meetings using Zoom, which ensures that Council business can continue to be conducted. SERG has also been meeting several times a week via Zoom, and this has enabled us to monitor and agree the activities necessary to support our local residents at this critical time.Jeremy Spring, Chairman Streatley Parish Council
Developing processes that work effectively across a grouping of independent volunteers, local residents and local Government statutory requirements is a unique challenge.Cllr Alan Law Basildon ward
The hard work of all those involved in the Helpline, is justified by the very positive comments from all the residents that I have spoken to during the course of my work on the HelplineRichard Roberts Volunteer
The helpline team are very supportive and it's extremely rewarding to be able to play a small part helping fellow villagers and supporting our local pharmacyJo Cammell, a Street Champion
For more information contact Nikki Swan on 07787 376156