Parish Council assistance for the local community Coronavirus volunteer group

The parish council received an enquiry about the extent of support being provided by the parish council to the local voluntary Coronavirus support group for residents.  As we felt that this information may be of interest to other members of the public, please find below details of the support that has been provided:

As background, the Covid-19 Mutual Support Group was set up by a group of local volunteers as a closed Facebook group to cover Pitstone, Ivinghoe and Cheddington. Initially, they operated by dropping notes door-to-door providing their personal telephone numbers for residents to call if they required assistance.  The Group can provide a variety of assistance from shopping, prescription collection and telephone calls to the isolated etc.  Ivinghoe & Cheddington have since dropped out, so the group now focuses on Pitstone.

Making the service accessible

The parish council received calls from residents who were keen to volunteer to help but didn’t know about the Facebook group as they don’t use Facebook.  Neither did they use WhatsApp.  They wanted a simple telephone number they could call, or email address.

We also received telephone calls from vulnerable residents, who were also trying to access a service.  These residents also don’t use Facebook or WhatsApp, some don’t have smartphones or internet access.  They needed a land line telephone number.  This request was echoed by other organisations that were trying to access help on behalf of vulnerable residents such as Age UK and VAHT.

The new Unitary Buckinghamshire Council are working with central government to co-ordinate the support network for vulnerable residents, they need a single local point to co-ordinate with.  As do the local primary healthcare trusts etc that send through advice and guidance for local community support groups.  None of these groups can communicate via a Facebook Group.  It is not practical to try and co-ordinate with a multitude of informal groups around the village, most of which the council is probably unaware of.

Safeguarding people and the service

Unfortunately, some unscrupulous individuals are trying to take advantage of the current situation to scam the vulnerable.  Vulnerable residents need a service they can trust as being genuine and are discouraged by the police to just reply to notes through doors from individuals.  Providing a personal telephone number also generates a potential risk to the vulnerable in that if that helper becomes unwell and can’t assist for a period, the vulnerable resident is left not knowing who to contact to access help.

Providing personal telephone numbers to large quantities of unknown people also opens the volunteers to potential safeguarding issues and residents are advised not to operate in this manner.  Some residents expressed concern about signing up as volunteers if it meant that they had to do this.  Some volunteers may only be able to help with certain aspects eg if they are isolating themselves, they may like to help with calls but not shopping.  Some volunteers can only help at certain times, as they are still working etc.  Therefore, it may be that no one individual can cater for all the needs of a specific vulnerable resident.

The council receives safeguarding advice and tips from a variety of external bodies to send on to community groups helping during the Covid-19 crisis, along with links to further sources of potential assistance, and we need a central point to issue these to, so that any dissemination can be co-ordinated.

It is impractical to assume that any one administrator/co-ordinator of a Covid-19 group can respond to requests for assistance from thousands of residents, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 3-6 months; plus co-ordinate lists of volunteers that can help with various aspects (who may also drop in and out of being able to help if they become unwell or need to isolate); and co-ordinate with all the external partners; via their own personal home telephone.  Operating in this manner would also create safeguarding issues for the service if/when that one individual was unavailable or unwell.

Solution

It is imperative that there is a community wide service that is accessible to all potential volunteers and all potential vulnerable or isolating residents, and that this service is sustainable for at least 3-6 months.  It is important that this group can work with outside bodies and agencies, adapting as the outbreak progresses, and that all those involved are safeguarded.  The parish council is most grateful to the Covid-19 Mutual Support Group volunteers for their assistance and all the hard work they are putting into operating this service.

The group administrators are:

  • Setting up a database of volunteers, so they can co-ordinate who may be able to assist with what, and when.
  • Setting up a database of vulnerable residents, what their needs are likely to be and for how long. This will mean that no individual vulnerable resident is left in the lurch if a regular helper is unavailable.
  • Keeping track of who has assisted which resident, with what and when, so that they can ensure continuity of service.
  • Calls to the helpline generate an email recording which can be accessed by the small group of administrators, which means no one individual must shoulder all the load and the service can be sustained.
  • Liaising with all the external bodies to ensure the service adapts to the changing needs of the community and government etc.
  • Providing a distribution point for information and safeguarding advice.
  • Keeping everyone’s data and personal information safe (volunteers and those needing help).
  • All the above is completely voluntary.

To support the group, the parish council has/is:

  • Set up a page on our website for volunteers to register through.
  • Set up a page on our website for vulnerable and/or isolating residents to request help through (which will become available shortly, once a viable number of volunteers had been recruited).
  • Set up a dedicated Coronavirus advice page on our website for residents to obtain local advice.
  • Provided a dedicated email address to allow all helper signups and requests to be handled by the group administrators away from their personal email addresses.
  • Linking third party agencies and other tiers of government to the Covid-19 group so that they can co-ordinate the relief efforts on behalf of our community whilst keeping all the individuals, service and data safeguarded.
  • There are no costs attached to the above.

We have also:

  • Provided the group with access to the same type of service we operate for the community car scheme, which has been proven to work well. Calls for help come into a central landline telephone number & generate an emailed recording of the call (so can be accessed by more than one administrator).  The administrator(s) can then put out a text (or email if the volunteer doesn’t have a mobile) via their computer to either an individual volunteer (eg the one that lives nearest, or the one that provides that type of help) or to all volunteers, asking if they can help.   They note who has agreed to fulfil that request.  They can also send out a message to volunteers to say that the request has been fulfilled, if necessary.   In an environment where administrators must operate from their own individual homes, but have access to the same information, this ensures continuity of care for those most vulnerable.
  • This entails:
    • £10 per month (inclusive of calls to landlines and mobiles) to rent a new landline telephone number for those requiring assistance to call.
    • £2.50 per month to rent a mobile telephone number for the text system to operate through.
    • £0.0225 per text message sent.
    • All the above are billed monthly and cancellable at any time, so there is no long-term commitment and only need to operate until the National Emergency is over.
    • £75 for a VOIP box and phone, which can be returned to the parish council following the pandemic.

The parish council believes that it is right and proper to provide a central voluntary group with the services they require to effectively operate a sustainable service to support our 4,000 residents over the coming months.   It is vital that barriers to signing-up as a volunteer were reduced to encourage more people to get involved, and imperative that barriers to vulnerable residents accessing the help that they needed were removed.   There is no profit being made by any individual or group.  The costs are very low and can be terminated once no longer needed.  It is impractical to expect voluntary administrators to have to meet these costs, which they would not have anticipated incurring, when they set up the Pitstone Facebook Group as part of the Nationwide Covid-19 Mutual Support Group initiative.

We are grateful to all residents who have signed-up to the group and would encourage residents who may already belong to informal WhatsApp/Facebook Groups etc to do the same, so that as many homes as possible can access they assistance they need.  It is also not possible for us, or the Buckinghamshire Council, to liaise with every individual group (many of which we are not even aware of), so updates/advice for volunteers etc need to be channelled through this central point.

The parish council is very grateful to everyone involved in the relief operation to support residents during this difficult time.

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