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Tales of Covid: Isolation Help Bexley

The Tales of Covid report is a study of how charities and community groups across all 32 boroughs of London worked tirelessly to keep the city alive during the pandemic. This is a story of one of those groups from the ‘Process’ section of the report.

Bexley

Bexley, sitting on the most south eastern corner of London, is one of those boroughs which most reminds us of the administrative changes of 1965. Previously half of what is now Bexley had been part of Kent and there is still a strong sense of this being part of the commuter belt: a largely green borough with good access to the centre of the city, with a population made up strongly of families seeking a quieter environment in which to raise children. It held the Parliamentary constituency of Edward Heath and today has one of the highest rates of home ownership in London.

The borough is not as affluent as some other London boroughs, and it contains the notorious Thamesmead housing project which was famously used by Stanley Kubrick as the backdrop to his apocalyptic film A Clockwork Orange. Overall, with a mixed voting record balanced fairly evenly between Conservative and Labour, it is a quiet borough made up of working people choosing to commute in order to live a more relaxed, green, suburban family life.

Bexley’s volunteers

Dave (name changed at his request) is a good example of a Bexley resident. With over thirty years in the Metropolitan Police, he has raised a family in the borough, taking the boys to football at the weekend, the odd meal out in a local restaurant. In March 2020, as the Covid storm was about to break, a friend pointed out to him the Next Door app. The local Next Door group for his street contained a suggestion from a well-meaning resident that those who would be unable to leave their homes to do shopping during lockdown owing to vulnerability could put a red sticker on their front window.

Dave’s police experience kicked in, and he joined the group discussion to persuade people not to pursue the idea, as it could literally have become a red rag to criminals seeking to exploit the vulnerable. During the online discussion, a couple of other residents suggested that a few of them get together to discuss how to help the more vulnerable members of the local community.

Many of the traditional volunteers in this area of Bexley were over 60 and as such, a fair proportion of them were being encouraged to stay at home; this was certainly an impact on the potential activities of Bexley Voluntary Service Council (BVSC), the traditional focus for voluntary work in the borough. Not being aware of the role or even existence of BVSC at this stage, Dave and his new online friends worked out a safe and sustainable way in which they could reach out to local residents who needed support.

One of the group was a software engineer, and almost overnight he built a programme to enable them to geographically plot those that needed help and those that wanted to help, overlay the two on a computerised mapping system and appropriately match the two categories. Another member of the team was a retired postman who managed IHB’s maildrop.

Organisation in Bexley

Over the next few weeks, with a gathering number of volunteers and the generosity of local businesses, Isolation Help Bexley managed to design and print and distribute 130,000 leaflets to homes in the borough. Over the next few months, Isolation Help Bexley had a thousand volunteers on its database, all willing and able to respond to requests from residents who had received a leaflet.

They went to supermarkets to buy food, they went to pharmacies to pick up medicines, they stood on one side of a front garden wall and chatted to people living on their own. One elderly resident told a volunteer that: “If you hadn’t put that leaflet through my door, I would have starved to death.” Looking back on it now, Dave is still amazed that in a prosperous London borough in the 21st century, individual residents could have potentially fallen through the gaps in the “system” so rapidly.

We have to remember how the relentless media reporting of deaths and sickness from the end of March so terrified so many people that the possibility of starving rather than going outdoors to shop was a genuine reality. Today, he still feels the shame of admitting to himself that, before the pandemic broke, he had no idea that an elderly woman lived on her own in the house across the street. The group encountered difficulties and problems along the way but, because they were a newly-formed collective of volunteers and as such had no formal constitution or rulebook to follow, they used their common sense wherever they could.

One of the most pressing problems was the fact that local supermarkets were on the whole unwilling to allow isolating residents to phone in to pay for the goods which one of the volunteers was picking up. On some occasions, volunteers established sufficiently strong relations with “clients” that they were able to pay for goods themselves and then get the client to refund them. Also, Bexley Council opened up a card scheme to pay for school meals to the group, which allowed some residents to upload money onto the card which could then be used by the volunteers in the supermarket.

Essentially, the group’s leaders risk-managed the actions their volunteers could take, and to their credit, they had no instances of fraud throughout. Within just a couple of months of COVID, IHB and BVSC were collaborating brilliantly. It has developed good practice systems and carries out full DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) checks on all volunteers engaged in higher risk roles. Despite there not being lockdowns in place, the group continues to work tirelessly for local residents, and at Christmas 2021 delivered Christmas meals to those not able to cook for themselves and also provided lateral flow tests to any residents needing them.

Conclusion

There are many fascinating elements to the story of Isolation Help Bexley, but what stands out most of all is how the group sprang into life as a result of just six residents who had never met before, communicating with each other back in March 2020 and deciding to take action. They did so without consultation with or support from any other organisation, nor were they responding to any “official” request for help. They received no funding and they operated entirely as an unpaid voluntary service. Had they not done what they did, it is difficult to see how many vulnerable Bexley residents in the early months of the first lockdown would have been able to continue living in their own homes safely.

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Thank you for reading. Check out the full Tales of Covid report for more stories.

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