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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

The COVID-19 lockdown in in March triggered a fast and effective response from key community groups in and around the Wells area.  

We often feature articles about the inspiring initiatives happening in response to Covid-19. Except they don’t just happen – they’re the result of innovative, often spontaneous efforts by local individuals who see a need in their community.  Mattishall Volunteer Hub (MVH) began life in the very first week of the lockdown in response to the Coronavirus pandemic and is still going strong.

Citizens Advice Diss, Thetford and District has adapted its services during the pandemic to maintain public access to its advice and support. Caroline Mackinson, Project Coordinator, explains, preceded by a brief retrospective of how much the national network is valued.

Norfolk Scrubs was inspired by the ‘For Love of Scrubs’ Facebook group set up by a Lincolnshire A&E nurse. Launching on the 20th March they would mobilise 1,200 volunteers to manufacture scrubs, laundry bags, hats and masks. The first set of scrubs would reach front line workers on the 19tH April, going onto to distribute 3,000 items to care homes, GPs, opticians, dentists, individual hospital teams, the air ambulance, mental health trusts, ambulance trust and community health teams.

The Matthew Project would shut their offices on the 18th March, switching immediately to offer services remotely, through the phone, online groups, and doing door-step visits when a welfare concern was raised as the Police were unable to do this due to capacity limitations.

Wells Town Council, Wells Maltings, Heritage House, Wells Churches Together, Wells Community Hospital, the Holkham Estate and local community volunteers came together to offer a coordinated response to support the most vulnerable during the COVID-19 outbreak, in Wells-next-the-Sea and surrounding villages. Launching on the 25th March they would initially operate a seven day a week service, scaling this back to 6 then 5 days as needs were met, providing telephone befriending, collection and delivery of essential items and delivery of simple hot meals.

North Walsham Good Neighbour Scheme was already a well-established and successful group at the start of Covid-19.  From the 15th March to the end of April they would fulfil 595 support requests in addition to providing regular befriending and wellbeing calls to 70 individuals each week. North Walsham already provided these regular checks to some of the more vulnerable members of their community.

Norfolk Citizen’s Advice Bureau would normally conduct around 75% of their support face to face. Over three days they moved to 100% remote support model via phone, email and webchat.  

Creative Arts East’s normal activity with vulnerable people focuses on face to face arts, music and dance sessions. These events were unable to take place as a result of Covid-19. Some organisations took activities online. However, many of Creative Art East’s clients suffered from Dementia and online options were unlikely to be effective. Instead creative activity packs were developed with themes from Egyptian dance to creative writing. These could be sent out by post and provided a range of activities that could be done alone or with carers.

Yaxham Cares launched on the 20th March by distributing leaflets to every household offering assistance and asking for volunteers. A joint initiative of the village hall and parish council, they recruited 74 volunteers from a community of 330 households. Over the crisis period they would successfully respond to 37 requests for help.  Many of these focused on shopping and prescriptions. However, the group responded flexibly to needs as they arose.

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