The global pandemic is unlike anything we have seen before in emergency response. Yet there are many clear parallels with national emergencies of the past, in particular the crucial role of a local response to the needs of local communities.
After the terrible events of 2017 – the bombings in Manchester and London, the Finsbury Park mosque attack and, of course, the fire at Grenfell – a group of charities came together to look at the lessons to be learned about how we respond to national incidents.
Around the table were national organisations such as the British Red Cross, the St John Ambulance and the Salvation Army, with their centuries of experience in responding to crisis, alongside umbrella bodies such as Navca, the NCVO and Muslim Aid. Some of the most powerful voices in that gathering came from local charities rooted in the Grenfell community.
They spoke about the failures to connect the national response to their understanding of local need. They described how, while others were still working out what to do, they were already setting up rest centres and support systems for the bereaved and traumatised. They demonstrated, by their lived experience, that a “national emergency” is played out in a local community and that that’s where the emergency response starts and finishes, no matter how much national support might be needed along the way.
Two initiatives arose from that meeting, the National Emergencies Trust and the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership, both active collaborations between national and local voluntary sector organisations with roles to play in emergency response.
Since the inception of the VCS Emergencies Partnership we have worked together to respond to local incidents, such as floods and fires. We’ve built meaningful working relationships by focusing on the practical human-centred support needed by communities both during and after a crisis. And now that work has come to fruition in a way none of us could have predicted.
The locally driven voluntary sector response to the coronavirus pandemic is the bedrock of our national response. But sometimes that local response needs extra support, especially when every part of the country tries to tackle the same emergency.
Any unmet need risks people going without essential help, whether that need is for additional volunteer capacity in a rural area where it takes longer to deliver food parcels than it does in a town centre, for better targeted communications for specific groups of people or for a blockage in the food supply chain to be unpicked at national level.
Through a unique national network of liaison leads drawn from local infrastructure organisations across England, the VCS Emergencies Partnership is gathering intelligence about problems that can’t be solved locally. By drawing on the expertise and resource within our partnership, and from others in our sector with specific knowledge and skills, we can find solutions.
Across the partnership we have pooled resources to deliver 40,000 food items to London food banks and, as the network expands across the rest of the country we are identifying other needs, such as mental health support for volunteers and specialist volunteer support for care settings, all of which might otherwise go unaddressed.
There are risks and challenges in any organisational partnership. We have to adapt to each other and we each have our own ways of working. Small organisations can be very agile and fast to respond, but don’t always see the potential for doing things at scale. Large ones can bring a depth and breadth of experience, expertise and resource, but inevitably move more slowly.
But one of the defining features of the VCS Emergencies Partnership for me is the deep, shared commitment to a common goal and, as a result, how remarkably little those issues ever get in the way.
After any major incident, survivors always hope that others will never suffer the way they have. The work our partnership is doing right now is a direct result of the experience of those who went through the devastation of Grenfell and the other terrible events of that year.
I hope they know that we learned the lessons they taught us and that we have acted on them.
Jane Ide is chief executive of Navca and co-chair of the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership. This is the first of a four-part series of blogs covering the VCS Emergencies Partnership response to Covid-19