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

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.

At CAN we have been conducting research to assess the impact of COVID-19 on VCSE operations and service delivery. You can read about this here.   We are featuring here regular examples of how groups and organisations have adapted their particular services. This week we’re focussing on Norfolk Community Action Network. 

We’ve seen so much commitment from Norfolk’s VCSE sector in to adapting to new ways of working during COVID-19. Dealing with the impact of social isolation was a primary developmental driver for Aylsham & District Care Trust (ACT) and remains at the heart of their work today, reinforced by additional need triggered by the pandemic. 

CAN’s research into the state of the VCSE sector across Norfolk during the COVID-19 pandemic has been building a comprehensive analysis of information needed for future sector planning. It also reflects the resilience which many charities and voluntary organisations have shown in adapting to delivering their services at this time. Leeway, operating across all of Norfolk and part of Suffolk, is one such.

We are regularly reporting on the wonderful achievements of Good Neighbour Schemes and community support groups – many of which have been born in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  CAN’s Development Officers have been advising and supporting many of these enterprises.  Such a group is Sprowston Supporting Our Community Together, which has joined our Good Neighbour Scheme network. Their chosen title describes exactly what they do.