Norfolk VCSE Covid-19 Story

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Voluntary Community and Social Enterprise organisations played a pivotal role in Norfolk’s Covid-19 response effort.

They responded rapidly and adapted quickly to the changing circumstances and needs of our communities. Collectively, they provided support to 1,000s of residents. They reached people and provided support to those that others didn’t or couldn’t. They prevented other services from being overwhelmed and saved lives.

On the 16th March Community Action Norfolk, Momentum (Norfolk), Norfolk Community Foundation and Voluntary Norfolk, as key infrastructure organisations agreed a joint statement and approach. This was followed by a broad meeting of VCSE leaders on the 17th March. By the end of the day a joint crisis fund, volunteer recruitment process and intelligence gathering approach had all been launched. They would work closely with public sector partners as the Norfolk Resilience Forum cells were established and provide a critical communications bridge with the wider VCSE sector.

This pace of response would be mirrored across the sector. Many new services would launch within days, others transformed overnight. By the time lockdown was announced on the 23rd March food boxes would already be delivered, wellbeing calls made, and volunteers mobilised.

Around two thirds of VCSE organisations operated throughout the crisis. For some this meant moving to a remote style of working and increasing use of digital technology. For others it required them to transform fundamentally what they did. In the example of Creative Arts East, what would normally be face to face arts, music and dance sessions for vulnerable people become bespoke creative activity packs that could be posted.

Wells Maltings, normally an arts venue and Wells Community Hospital, would work with the Town Council, Heritage House, Wells Churches Together and Holkham Hall to provide / offer a coordinated community response. Launching on the 25th March they would initially operate a seven day a week service providing telephone befriending, collection and delivery of essential items and delivery of simple hot meals. A similar example in Harleston would see local advice provider Harleston Information Plus, Town Council and many other local organisations and businesses join forces to create Harleston Kindness a town united, in their own words, to ensure “no-one is left wanting or waiting”.

A key feature of the pandemic would be VCSE organisations coming together and working with a wide variety of partners to facilitate support and collaborate effectively.

Many VCSE organisations pride themselves on having strong ongoing trusted relationship with their clients and communities. This enabled them to have hyper-local intelligence of the most vulnerable and those likely to be in need. Pro-active contact of known services users would be supplemented by simple but effective methods of going door to door identifying people who either could help, or, would like to request help.  

The strength of this grassroots intelligence would enable the sector to help those in need regardless of their background or profile.

Covid-19 continues to cost the VCSE sector significantly financially. Our local estimates indicate around £9 million per month in lost revenue to the sector, this matches similar estimates nationally with organisations seeing a fall of a third in their income. In Norfolk local authorities received £42.3 million in additional funding to support Covid-19 activity. Initially additional funding to the NHS nationally was £6.6 billion. After intensive lobbying, the Chancellor announced a national level support package for VCSE organisations of £750 million, across the 166,000 charities in the UK plus the many other VCSE organisations.

Whilst many businesses would receive automatic support through the small business grant fund or retail, hospitality and leisure grant most charities were excluded or required to justify the additional funding. Many faced a hard choice between furloughing workers closing or meeting the increased needs of their community.

No VCSE Covid-19 story would be complete without a particular mention to the work of the estimated 180 mutual support and local aide groups across the county. Our research suggests 80-90% of areas were covered by one or more mutual support schemes. On average they undertake 45 jobs a week and have 40 volunteers. They perhaps demonstrated best the generous and social -minded nature of our communities. In many places volunteers would outstrip demand.

During Covid-19, Good Neighbour Schemes on average handled around 30 support requests each a week, taking on around 22 new volunteers each over April. These tasks provided food, medicines, befriending, from dog walking to Easter egg delivery. Collectively in April that equated to over 1,500 packages of supports and the mobilisation of 308 new volunteers.

In April, Norwich Foodbank would deliver 1,500 parcels- a 104% increase on 2019. Foodbanks in general would report an 89% increase in the delivery of emergency food parcels. This activity is alongside the many mutual support and other newly formed groups that distributed food as well as warm meals to those in need.

The VCSE organisational and grassroots efforts meant that as our local authority colleagues made close to 20,000 calls to vulnerable residents, 93% of them would already have their basic needs met. The consequential impact would be the need to only distributed around 350 food boxes a week though the district Food Hubs.

Below are a few short stories to illustrate the thousands of others across the VCSE sector.

Norfolk VCSE Covid-19 Stories

Life has been exceptionally difficult for residents of care homes over the past year, with COVID-19 making visits from friends and family impossible. Only recently have we seen restrictions lifting enough such that visitors can once again be welcomed in. 

Inspired by the experience of shielding as the pandemic hit, the Rainbow Art Making Club was set up by two Thorpe St Andrew mums to help promote wellbeing, celebrate kindness and connect people in the community. 

Cromer & District Foodbank has been up and running since 2012, so dealing with people’s individual crises is not new to the team, and they were well-experienced and equipped to deal with Covid-19 when it hit.

Connecting Bowthorpe is a collective of community volunteers from several organisations within Bowthorpe, all with extensive experience of community work and a real vision for the area, and with a long-term commitment to the residents of Bowthorpe. 

Village and community halls everywhere have felt keenly the impact of COVID-19 on their ability to provide social and recreational events. For many the ongoing lack of income has presented a tangible financial crisis. How much more so then, for a brand-new community hall, whose planned launch coincided with the first pandemic lockdown in March 2020? 

The Feed is a not-for-profit social enterprise providing catering services, with a very clear mission to prevent poverty, hunger and homelessness in Norwich.  

We feature regular articles here about how VCSE organisations across Norfolk have been adapting to, and coping with, the demands and constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Many mutual aid groups and Good Neighbour Schemes are even more active in the final run-up to Christmas. Just one example is Thorpe Helping Hands, operating across south-east Norwich. 

The Benjamin Foundation is well known across Norfolk and Suffolk for its sterling work in bringing hope, opportunity, stability and independence to children, young people and families experiencing life’s challenges. This includes working to prevent youth homelessness, offering emotional wellbeing support and providing positive activities for young people with limited opportunities. 

Your Own Place CIC is a social enterprise that helps people towards living independently. CEO Rebecca White is passionate about helping young people and those facing barriers not of their own making. Rebecca shaes her thoughts on the need for collaboration, team wellbeing, and digital innovation in adapting to the Covid-19 pandemic.