When Ealing Council couldn’t make contact with residents shielding from Covid-19 across the borough, it turned to community transport charity Ealing Community Transport (ECT) to check they were okay
At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, the government wrote to more than 1.5 million people across the country whom it considered particularly vulnerable, and asked them to ‘shield’ in their homes for 12 weeks.
As part of this strategy, it told every local authority to get in touch with the ‘shielders’ in their area, to check they were okay and to make sure they had access to any support – such as food and medical supplies – that they required.
But it soon became apparent that there was an additional challenge for these local authorities: a significant minority of those on the shielding list were not responding to letters or picking up their phones. This meant that thousands of vulnerable people were unaccounted for and potentially at risk.
Nowhere was this more apparent, perhaps, than at Ealing Council, which was in the unenviable position of having the highest number of shielders of any London borough, at 22,000.
One of those leading the team tasked with solving this challenge was Adam Whalley. Normally assistant director for the council’s capital investment programme, with a day job working on major construction projects, as the lockdown began, Adam now found himself drafted in as ‘tactical lead’ co-ordinating logistics for the council’s community response to the Covid-19 crisis.
“We set up a customer management system and attempted to call everybody on the shielding list three times. When that didn’t get a result, we wrote to people and said please contact us,” Adam explains.
“But we ended up with a final cohort of people we weren’t able to get through to. We had a duty of care to these residents whom we were told were vulnerable and needed support; so the next step was to visit them at their address.
“We looked at the options but quite quickly came to the position that ECT were the best organisation for us to partner with. They had already been doing a really good job with the food deliveries around the borough and, as ever, they were keen to support us. We had a really great relationship with Anna Whitty, the CEO, and her team and they were pretty much immediately appointed as our delivery partner for the operation.”
The council agreed a short script that the ECT team would use, along with a checklist to establish residents’ needs and a letter to hand-deliver, asking residents to get in touch with the council for a more detailed chat on the phone.
“It sounds straightforward but there were quite a lot of risks involved, particularly given that these people were vulnerable and all the considerations about how we would talk to them at the doorstep,” says Adam. “There were various concerns around safeguarding, and we also had to consider the well-being of ECT staff.
“We rolled it out with ECT in batches of several hundred at a time. The ECT staff had a clip board with boxes to tick around what happened – was the person there, were they able to answer the questions – and in some cases they spoke to neighbours. ECT also collated all that information into spreadsheets and fed this data back to us.”
The first visits took place on Thursday, 30th April and continued until shielders were told restrictions had been lifted at the beginning of August.
Daniel Stringer, who normally works as a Dial-a-Ride driver for ECT, was a member of one of the two-person teams going out on the regular welfare visits. He says he really valued the experience and the responsibility that he was entrusted with.
“We were doing about 30 names on a list about three times a week, for several weeks, covering a wide range of properties, from big houses in north Ealing to tower blocks and much poorer areas in places like Southall,” Daniel says. “There was a real determination to do everything we could to find out if someone was living there and how they were.
“The approach had to be open, inquisitive, caring and we had to get that across really quickly because the wrong impression early on could close the whole thing down. If we knocked on the door and there was no answer, we needed to find neighbours, or ask people living across the road.”
There were several times which stand out in Daniel’s memory when he felt he made a real difference. On one occasion he called an ambulance on discovering that a woman who appeared not to be in had fallen over outside. On another, he gave a food package (carried on the minibus for such emergencies) to a woman who seemed fearful and low on supplies. Another time Daniel was able to offer some company and conversation to a lonely and isolated man who had lost his wife three years before.
Such incidents were also noted back at ECT headquarters, where CEO Anna Whitty was able to share them with Ealing Council’s support teams.
“It may seem like an odd and perhaps a selfish thing to say because this has been an awful time but I have kind of thrived on it,” says Daniel. “I have not had to furlough, I’ve not had to stop working or been ill. It’s almost like having had training for an event you could never imagine coming but then the event comes and we at ECT are really well placed to deal with it – working for people who are isolated, lack mobility, perhaps need food, need to use a safe transport system, we are so well placed to deal with it,” he explains.
“ECT has such a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience, and a really strategic approach to solving problems. Like the emergency services, ECT really cares about the people they are supporting but they deal with things in that stripped down, cool-headed way. I am part of that and have had that training.
“I’ve enjoyed my time at ECT and I’ve enjoyed what I’ve learned – but just recently it’s gone up a gear. We barely skipped a beat during these months; my appreciation of how the organisation works has increased and it’s made my enjoyment of ECT greater because I can see what a difference the organisation is able to make.”
All in all, says Ealing Council’s Adam Whalley, the welfare visits have proved to be “a highly successful exercise”. Some 1,567 visits were ‘attempted’ during the three months, and the latest data indicates that 73% of visits were successful, resulting in the needs of over 1,100 people being assessed and updated.
“ECT really embraced this initiative as another area they were able to help us with,” comments Adam. “They have been highly professional and very business-like – able to meet deadlines and produce all the data we needed. We had a lot of commitments to government to get data back to them and ECT were really able to cope with the rigour that was needed with that type of approach.
“When the more compassionate, softer skills were needed they were also really well placed to provide that to our residents.
“I think that’s partly why Anna [Whitty] and the whole organisation were so behind it all – like myself and colleagues in the council, we all knew the value in what we were doing and we were all really enthusiastic about wanting to help our residents. It really did feel like a team effort, not ‘Ealing Council and ECT’ but that we were all working towards a common goal.
“We already had a very strong and positive relationship based on ECT’s existing day job delivering accessible transport; but certainly they will have strengthened that relationship through this process.”