I keep reading that the coronavirus crisis is unprecedented. The number of people dying from COVID 19 in this country and worldwide is so large it is hard to comprehend. We haven’t seen as many restrictions on civil liberty since the second world war.
This is all true. But surely our response to the crisis is also unprecedented. Without wanting to go into the rights or wrongs of the Government response, the measures that have been put in place – including the Job Retention Scheme and suspending reviews and reassessments for disability benefits for three months – will help many people survive the short-term impact of the pandemic.
Locally we have seen communities come together to ensure that those who cannot leave their homes have the food and medicines that they need. The ever-growing clap for the care workers on Thursdays is a strong symbol of our gratitude to those who are keeping society safe, cared for and functioning in these strange and difficult times.
At Citizens Advice East Herts we advise on any issue, signposting where clients can help themselves and providing fuller advice where needed. We work with other local organisations and community groups, referring people when they need additional help, for example to foodbanks, or specialist support on domestic abuse or mental health.
We are used to helping the most vulnerable people in our society. The clients we help include those most in need and often need long term support: around a third come from the 5 most deprived East Herts wards; 44% have a disability or long-term health condition; many report mental health issues.
As the Chief Executive of our predominantly volunteer run service, I am used to being in awe of the work, dedication and professionalism of our volunteers and our paid staff. I didn’t think that I could be prouder of our team. But I was wrong.
I have been amazed at the response from our volunteers and staff to our current crisis since we all had to isolate. Within one day we had a home-delivered advice service and now we have 30 volunteers advising at home via phone, email or webchat. This is even more of an achievement when we consider that historically we ran a mainly face to face service, that many of our volunteers were not IT confident and we had few pieces of mobile ITC equipment to distribute.
Our volunteers have embraced digital media and we have been fortunate to have been supported by many small local organisations and local councillors to help purchase laptops and phones. Our paid staff have been phenomenal, supporting our volunteers whilst simultaneously trying to get their heads around home working (and juggling home schooling and remote caring).
As an organisation we are moving out of crisis mode and into a new normal. We don’t know how long this phase will last for, or what the next phases will look like. I hope that we can capture some of the positives that have resulted from this crisis and take these with us.
We have existed for 80 years, offering practical support for people in our local community. Whatever the changing landscape will look like in the next few weeks, months, (years?), I know that we will continue to be here, whilst there is still a need for our services.