If you thought the telephone was an old-fashioned and outdated communications tool, then think again. In the hands of Jean Turnbull, dedicated ‘anchor-woman’ at the ECT in Cheshire office in Ellesmere Port, the phone has been a crucial tool to support vulnerable and lonely people get through the months of Covid-19 restrictions during 2020.
Jean has been making regular calls to around 50 people – ECT’s regular passengers before Covid hit – during the pandemic, speaking to some of them three or four times.
“In all honesty, I’ve just seen it as something to be done, to help in any way I can through lockdown,” she says. “It’s been important to speak to all of our passengers and just have a chat with them, make sure they are all ok.
“My thing is, where possible, reducing the loneliness for them because a lot of them are in their 70s and 80s and obviously they might not have been able to get out. It’s human contact – they are getting to talk to someone. Most of them have been very grateful for the call.”
When the first lockdown was announced in March, ECT’s General Manager for Cheshire Ian Dibbert was on annual leave, so Jean found herself in a crucial position of responsibility – and the key point of contact not just for passengers but also for the team of drivers, passenger assistants and casual staff.
“Ian was on holiday when everything started the week before the full lockdown came in,” Jean recalls. “I was trying to keep everyone constantly in the loop, then speaking to Ian when he came back and filling him in, and trying to make sure that staff were aware what was happening as well.
“Becky, our Deputy CEO, was constantly in communication, keeping me up-to-date if there were things I needed to let staff know, in particular the health and safety side – and I was ringing her with any questions about how it was going to work and how the various announcements were going to affect our services.
“It was almost like a snowball effect because the centres we provide transport for just started to close,” says Jean. “I got a call at about twenty to four on Friday letting us know a day centre was going to be closed from Monday – we had one lady who was due to start with us on the Monday so we had to ring and say that unfortunately the centre wasn’t going to be open, and we weren’t going to be able to provide transport.”
Although many public and social sector services for which ECT in Cheshire provided transport were forced to close, there was plenty of other important work to do.
Not only were there phone calls to ECT’s regular passengers who were shielding – there were also journeys to provide for people needing safe transport to pick up food supplies or attend essential health appointments.
“We had a few people who needed essential journeys to the shops,” says Jean. “They had no other option because they needed to get food and other supplies. We had other people who had to attend hospital, including one woman with a monthly appointment and because her treatment was essential she needed to be able to get there and come back.”
Halfway through lockdown one, Jean also found out about Chester and District Federation of the Blind. “They needed food parcels delivered and they weren’t sure about how it was going to be done – so I said, let me talk to my boss and I’ll get him in touch and see if we can help.”
Sure enough, ECT was able to step in and help, delivering food parcels and audio books to their members.
Throughout the lockdown period, Jean herself was on solo duty in the office, stopping only once to “breathe” for a few days’ holiday. Although General Manager Ian was very much leading the team, he was medically vulnerable so had to ‘shield’ by working from home.
“It pretty much was me here in the office on my own – the phones were ringing but not to the extent that they were as normal. It was very strange,” says Jean. “It was just about figuring out what I could do and what needed to be done so it could keep me occupied.
“Ian was always on the end of the phone if I or anyone needed him – and he, Becky and Anna [Anna Whitty, ECT’s CEO] have been so supportive throughout this,” says Jean. “I’ve always known that I can call any of them at any point if I wasn’t sure how something was going to work.”
Jean adds that ECT has been very clear about ensuring everyone’s safety – the office staff, the drivers, the passenger assistants as well as the passengers.
The high safety standards have also been particularly important following the end of the first lockdown, when many older and isolated people were desperate to get out of the house but nervous about using public transport.
In answer to this challenge, in August ECT launched a programme of day trips, running three or four each week with ‘Covid-secure’ standards. These included shopping trips to the popular Frodsham Market, and visits to destinations such as the Abbeywood Estate, which includes large gardens, an arboretum and a wildlife walk.
Garden centres have also been a popular choice for day trips, says Jean, since they are places both to shop and to socialise outside, with plenty of fresh air.
“The trips have been great for a lot of our clients. A lot of them are over the age of 70 or 80 and they have been massively affected by lockdown. These trips are the first time they have been able to get out of the house and see some of their friends for months,” reports Jean.
“Taking them somewhere local gets them out and about – and it’s door-to-door as well. They know our staff and they know it’s a safe haven for them to go out.”
Jean adds that on the bus, the driver will make sure everybody follows the rules on face coverings and distancing – but despite the restrictions, the sense of company and friendship shine through. “The driver will say, right you sit here and you sit there, then they sit down and turn to the next person, and it’s, ‘Oh hello, it’s so lovely to see you!’.”
Although Jean feels like she has had to “take each day as it came” during the past difficult months, and has also been concerned for her parents, who live near her in north Wales, she feels that through her work at ECT, she has been able to contribute something positive to the pandemic efforts.
“I do love my job and I do like dealing with passengers and staff,” she comments. “I’ve come from a retail background, working as a service advisor for Mercedes until the end of 2014, to coming here and working for a charity that helps vulnerable people – which to me is something that’s very worthwhile and rewarding.
“Community transport isn’t very well known sometimes.” Jean observes. “But you’ll get a phone call and they’ll say, ‘Oh I’ve seen this green bus’, and they will ask about the service and we will run through it with them – and they are very happy to know that we are here.
“I hope I have been able to make a difference,” Jean reflects. “For me it’s very rewarding being able to help people get back out and get a little bit of normality.
“They can feel reassured that we are still there for them to give them the service they have had – and that we will be here for them for as long as we can.”