On the front line: How local charities are dealing with regional lockdowns

Some have been forming local partnerships to keep services running, finds Stephen Delahunty

Oldham town centre (Photograph: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)
Oldham town centre (Photograph: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)

Across the UK, cases of Covid-19 are once again ticking up – and in an effort to delay a second national lockdown, the government is imposing regional variations to social distancing rules.

With some regional leaders branding local lockdowns a “recipe for chaos,” charities have been finding ways to work in partnership, with limited funding, to reopen community spaces and premises, as eased restrictions prompt a surge in demand.

Since Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Manchester, questioned the “fairness” of measures to target and suppress flare-ups of the virus in specific communities.

Infection rates across every Greater Manchester borough except Trafford have shown an increase. Seven of the 10 boroughs in the region are now on 'red alert', meaning they have an infection rate above 50.

'Challenging and complicated' messaging and support

Liz Windsor-Welsh is the chief executive of Action Together, a community charity that has been co-ordinating emergency response teams in Oldham, Rochdale and Tameside and supporting individuals at the point of crisis.

Rochdale has recorded the most significant increase in cases, rising from an infection rate of 49.5 on Sunday to 59.8 on Monday.

“We have also been providing support to the voluntary sector, learning about the challenges facing the sector, communicating feedback and making sure communities have access to, and understand, the new rules,” said Windsor-Welsh.

She said there had been a fair amount of emergency funding, but it was often too directly related to Covid-19. 

“Those making social connections in the community are not always considered in crisis or eligible, but we’ve seen a lot of new collaborative work across the region that's been really positive.”

Elsewhere in the region, Bolton's rate of infection continues to soar and has reached 121.7 cases per 100,000 people.

A new raft of measures imposed by health secretary Matt Hancock yesterday  banned people from socialising with those outside their own household in any setting, including outdoors, and imposed fresh restrictions on the hospitality industry.  

Darren Knight, chief executive of Bolton Community and Voluntary Service, said there had been lots of partnership working with the local authority and public health organisations.

“We’re a very diverse community, so we have done targeted engagement work that enables the outreach work and support of BAME groups,” he said. 

“I think the government messaging is complicated and challenges how we work, so we try to make sure those changes don’t confuse anyone.”

Knight said there were about 1,500 charities in Bolton with an income of less than £10,000, many of which provided one-to-one support.

“Renewed local lockdown has been about how to keep shops, staff and volunteers safe,” he said. 

“We have had some success with funding, but the biggest challenge is the short-termism of it all. Will future generosity fund that lost income?”

For Knight, the pandemic has shone a light on the importance of smaller charities.

“The government narrative with charities is they see the big ones, but with Covid-19 we’ve seen it's the small ones that have made the difference,” he said. 

“We need both, but the smaller ones have the local knowledge and connections, and I think that narrative is lost at a national level.” 

Spiking pressure and planning ahead

Dipika Kaushal, chief executive of member organisation Voluntary Action Calderdale in Halifax, expressed her frustration with the national government, saying that the number of operational charities had been reduced by as much as half between March and September.

“Communities are really feeling the effect of poverty and unemployment, and we have also had a big focus on refugees,” she said. 

“There is still a thriving sector, but it is challenging for small charities. Local lockdown has been difficult, but organisations have come together to make sure public health comes first and help reduce Covid-19 cases.”

The infection rate in Calderdale stands 18.6 per 100,000 people.

Kevan Liles, chief executive at Voluntary Action LeicesterShire, said the government trusted business more than the charity sector, and that it had to get better at demonstrating how important the sector is to local and national economies.

He praised city and county council funding schemes, but added that money at a national level was taking too long to be distributed.

“We have had charities expected to conjure up financing from thin air, which is different to some of the Covid-related outsourcing work that has gone to companies like Serco,” said Liles.

The government was criticised for awarding Serco a £45m contract to run a Covid-19 test-and-trace scheme, despite a £1m fine just months earlier for poor performance on another government contract.

“It has cost us £110,000 to make sure the NHS and other areas of social care had enough volunteers, and we have had to deploy that money from other work we had on,” said Liles.  “How will we start up projects again?”

He warned that many charities were barely hanging on, and many would not survive the short- to medium-term impact of the pandemic. “Trusts may become liable because they haven't closed down properly – most will just slip away quietly.”

At Birmingham Voluntary Service Council, chief executive Brian Carr said that although the city was not in a local lockdown, Birmingham had introduced voluntary restrictions to help should it become necessary. 

“The key challenge for sector services in a regional or local lockdown is going to be the ability to manage consistent contact with the most vulnerable and isolated service users,” he said. “Mental health services are a case in point.”

BVSC has been advocating that any local lockdown restrictions include built-in exceptions for vulnerable groups, which will allow them to have access to essential face-to-face services carried out in Covid-secure ways.

“There was extremely high pressure on acute mental health beds as a result of people becoming mentally unwell during lockdown,” said Carr. 

“The pressures eased somewhat once lockdown ended – but if a local lockdown doesn't allow groups of four or more households to meet, that pressure is likely to spike again.”


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