How Newham has deployed an army of volunteers to support residents

Rokhsana Fiaz

Two weeks ago, there was nothing. Some ideas, lots of questions and a whole bunch of challenges to overcome. How can we get food, medicine, essential household items and support to residents who need to self-isolate or are vulnerable? We had no locations, no names, no confirmed supply chain, no data system, and no joint arrangements with the voluntary and community sectors. As a social activist turned politician, I know that it can take a while for local government to mobilise. But the response over these past two weeks has blown me away.

By last weekend, we had taken delivery of one ton of food, which has since been packed into 900 boxes by volunteers including residents and hundreds of council staff. We have requisitioned schools – closed to the majority of pupils – and council buildings, and transformed them into eight #HelpNewham local hubs. From those hubs, we distribute prescription medicines, food and essential supplies to our most vulnerable.

This army of volunteers is made up of residents and hundreds of council staff, who are giving up their time to help with the mission we have embarked on: protecting and supporting our residents during this coronavirus pandemic. The mission has taken a humanitarian vigour to it, coupled with logistical precision and agile management – though there’s a discreteness to the hub locations, to avoid theft.

We are not unique, of course – I know many other Labour councils are doing the same. But I think that we in Newham have something we can share with others, and over 20 authorities from across the country have been in touch to learn from what we have done. One of the biggest challenges will be to ensure that our supply chains are maintained. All the great work of our volunteer army could be for nothing if we don’t have supplies to deliver.

We have embedded community wealth building in our local hub model and approach, which is about addressing poverty and inequality, protecting livelihoods and building stronger communities. Because we know that the economic impact of the pandemic is going hurt so many people; in the last two weeks alone, we have seen one million people apply for Universal Credit.

Our #HelpNewham local hubs are working with all parts of our communities: our schools, faith groups, youth workers, residents and local businesses, who have all made incredibly generous donations. We are supporting local businesses as well by ensuring that our catering service, Juniper, is sourcing local produce and household items from local suppliers where possible.

In our last survey of residents, nearly a third of people said that they had no-one they could rely on when things became difficult. It’s a stark reminder that even in one of the busiest cities in the world, people can feel incredibly lonely and isolated.

In response, we are setting up a phone ‘befriending service’, which can be staffed by people who also have to stay at home. This will be a chance to have some human interaction, a quick natter over a cup of tea, to break the monotony of being on your own. But our call handlers will also have detailed scripts so they can provide the right guidance and support to our most vulnerable residents.

This has been one of the most testing moments for government – for central government but also for local councils, which are already struggling with huge reductions to our budgets. Now we are in the midst of a global crisis, where we are on the frontline to delay the spread of the virus and save lives.

We had to take a very difficult decision to close the Stratford Mall shopping centre during the nights, following the requirement by government to house all rough sleepers by the end of one weekend. For those of you not familiar with our borough, the shopping centre has become a place of comfort for many rough sleepers, despite the risks that they face.

The advice of our public health experts was that the risk of coronavirus spreading amongst those sleeping there and others was too great. In a space of a few hours, our specialist officers supported by volunteers had to find accommodation for a group of 30 rough sleepers – amongst our most vulnerable residents.

We have all been learning as we go, and no doubt mistakes will be made. It has not been easy for everyone to adapt so quickly to working remotely, but I’ve been impressed by the way in which my colleagues have embraced everything from Skype calls to using Sharepoint or Zoom to collaborate. We had planned to shift to this way of working anyway, but not at the pace that the crisis has imposed on us.

Newham has become something of a hub for the pan-London Covid-19 relief effort, where all councils are coordinating efforts to delay the spread of the virus and save lives. There is the NHS Nightingale – the 4,000 bed hospital built in the Excel centre, next door to our own council offices. It was completed in just nine days. And a new temporary mortuary has been set up in Manor Park.

I could never have imagined all this a month ago. When this is all over, many of our first thoughts will be to seeing friends again, going out for a bite to eat at a local restaurant, watching a film at the cinema or giving our loved ones a heartfelt hug. But when normality has returned, we should also reflect on all the lives that have been lost.

While I have been incredibly moved and impressed by the work of our voluntary and faith groups to support those at risk, in the end, this crisis has shown the importance of a functioning and well-funded state. Whether it is keeping a business going, a hospital working, or vital council services operating, it is something that the architects of austerity must consider – because our world has changed indelibly.

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