COVID-19: 1,500 volunteers answer local call to help people affected

We talk to Mark, a local Healthwatch manager, to find out how his community has responded to the coronavirus crisis
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Across the country, local Healthwatch services have been helping people get accurate and reliable information about coronavirus (COVID-19), and in many places, they've been actively part of supporting their community's response to the pandemic. 

However, at Healthwatch Bracknell Forest, they have gone above and beyond. Before the Government launched their campaign for an NHS volunteer army, they realised that Bracknell Forest needed a collaborative community effort to ensure everyone could get the help they need. They started by contacting their local council and community organisations and, in just two weeks, managed to bring together a team of 1,500 volunteers. 

To find out more, we caught up with Mark, Project Manager at Healthwatch Bracknell Forest.

How it all started

“We first noticed the need for a strong volunteer group through social media. It was evident that there were several ‘help your neighbour’ type activities going on, which was great to see.

"However, it was clear that the community would benefit from a more coordinated effort, both in helping more people, but also in keeping everyone in the community safe and informed - this was our motivation. 

"We contacted the local authority with a proposal on the same day and they gave us the go-ahead to start something up. By Monday, we started putting our plan into action.

"Working with the local authority and voluntary community organisations, we set up a helpline to help identify the most vulnerable members of the community. Using social media and posters, we raised awareness of the helpline along with a call out for volunteers.

"In under two weeks, we’ve set up 14 different areas across the borough with DBS checked local coordinators and trusted members of the community such as local councillors, about four or five in each one. They are all local to the area so know it well. Their role is to assign the volunteers in their patch to the different requests that come through. We now have around 1500 volunteers in total."

Providing our community with clear guidance

“It’s important to know that not all calls need action. Most of the calls that are coming through are people asking for more information - they don’t know what self-isolation or social distancing means in practice. For example, should they be self-isolating or are they able to go to the shop? We estimate that of all the calls that we’ve had since we opened, only 12% need volunteers allocated to them.

"Our triage teams take the calls and assess their need. A large part of the day-to-day work of Healthwatch is to provide people with advice and information, and so we have really been able to use these skills."

How our volunteers help the most vulnerable

“Our volunteers provide support in several ways. For example, they help collect people’s shopping or their medication. We've also set up a 'buddy' scheme for those who have been identified as most at risk, by pairing them up with our DBS checked volunteers on a one-to-one basis. This is so our volunteers can provide comfort and help over the phone, and identify any further needs they might have.

"It fits in with the NHS scheme quite nicely and we’re working with the local council to make it as effective as it can be."

Support from our local MP

“Today we had our local MP, James Sunderland, come in to chat about the work we’ve been doing. He was very grateful and impressed in what local people have achieved in a short space of time and he’s even coming in next week to make some phone calls. If he has time, he’s going to be supporting the scheme for 2-3 hours a week from home, triaging the calls and passing on the jobs that require volunteers."

There is a real family feeling because we know we’re in this together.
— Mark, Project Manager at Healthwatch Bracknell Forest

Hard work – but we do it because we care

"We don’t get paid any extra for what we’re doing at the moment, and the team are working round the clock – the helpline is open from 8 am to 10 pm. We’re only a small service but we feel we have achieved a great deal.

"It couldn’t be done without the joint effort of the council and organisations that we work with. There is a real family feeling because we know we’re in this together.

"That being said, we are creating a contingency plan should one or more of us fall ill! It’s important to realise too that things change every day, we have to continuously change and improve along with the situation.

"Like lots of people, here at Healthwatch we wanted to do something to help. By helping to coordinate the individual efforts of volunteers, providing advice and a consistent service we are playing our small part in keeping people safe."

The community spirit in Bracknell Forest is wonderful and it has really come alive in the past few weeks.
— Cllr Paul Bettison OBE, Leader of Bracknell Forest Council

Cllr Paul Bettison OBE, Leader of Bracknell Forest Council, said:

“The community spirit in Bracknell Forest is wonderful and it has really come alive in the past few weeks. I’m truly humbled by the huge number of people who have volunteered to help those in need.

“The Bracknell Forest Community Response Hub is an important part of the work the council is doing to shield the vulnerable and extremely vulnerable from the risk of contracting coronavirus. I’d like to thank our partners, Involve Community Services and Healthwatch Bracknell Forest, as well as the Town and Parish councils and local businesses, for their support in making this happen.”

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