Call for volunteers to help the elderly in coronavirus crisisMegan Orito
Call for volunteers to help the elderly in coronavirus crisis.
Welsh authorities plan to recruit ‘army’ of non-qualified people, while local support groups are self-organising across the UK
Residents on the seafront in Porthcawl, South Wales, where volunteers are coming together to relieve pressure on GP surgeries. Photograph: Mk_Malin/Alamy.
The former Labour MP Madeleine Moon is on a mission to ensure vulnerable elderly people confined to their homes by coronavirus in Porthcawl are not forgotten. The 69-year-old is pulling together a team volunteers in her former South Wales constituency to drop off essentials and offer emotional support over the phone to people in isolation, relieving some of the pressure on local GPs and the NHS.
“There is a growing sense of panic,” Moon says. “For the older demographic, certainty there is a feeling that nobody is worrying about them – that they can be discarded. We are not going to let that happen in this small town.”
She is not alone in making preparations. Across the country, groups of volunteers are starting to come together ahead of the virus peaking, which is likely to lead to many thousands of people falling ill; others are likely to be fearful of leaving their homes for long periods.
In Shropshire, a medical centre has organised volunteers to collect groceries for its most vulnerable patients during the outbreak, which could last months. In Cornwall, a charity has recruited 50 people to assist those without family or friends to turn to for help. Local support groups are being set up hourly across the UK on Facebook and other social media.
Moon’s initiative is wholeheartedly supported by the local authority, Bridgend council. Huw David, the council’s leader, is considering how the group could be replicated elsewhere in the county. “The outbreak is the biggest public health crisis in generations,” he says. “At its peak, we won’t necessarily have staff available to meet the needs of every vulnerable person or check they are OK, so it will be very helpful to have volunteers available.”
A decade of austerity has left councils across the UK with fewer staff and resources to deal with emergencies such as coronavirus. In Wales, councils have lost 20% of their funding and at least 28,000 posts since 2010. “It will be difficult for most authorities because we don’t have as many staff as we had in the past,” says David. “But given the possible extent of the outbreak, it would still have been challenging.”
Other Welsh councils also anticipate having to call on volunteers as hospital wards fill up and doctors’ surgeries find themselves inundated. In Monmouthshire, the council is considering launching a major publicity campaign to encourage members of the public to come forward.
“We are really going to have to look at getting people in to help us who are not qualified,” says Penny Jones, Monmouthshire’s cabinet member for social services. “We are going to use anybody and everybody we can.”
The Local Government Association (LGA) is not aware of similar steps being taken by English local authorities but their Welsh counterparts are planning on recruiting large numbers of volunteers. Council leaders and cabinet members discussed the idea with the Welsh health minister, Vaughan Gething, last week.
David, who is also the Welsh LGA’s health spokesperson, says: “The situation is evolving very quickly and we will arrive at a position where we will want to call on an army of volunteers.” But he adds that they will need to be trained to keep themselves and others safe, with deliveries left on doorsteps and conversations carried out over the phone to avoid close personal contact.
Moon is still firming up the arrangements in Porthcawl. A local GP has agreed to pass on the group’s contact details to vulnerable people who have to self-isolate. “The aim is to ensure that the surgery doesn’t get blocked up with people who don’t know how they are going to get their medicine or have run out of food or just need to talk to someone to get some reassurance,” she explains. “The idea is that we shoulder that as a community.”
Many care homes across the UK are meanwhile going far beyond the official advice that healthy older people do not need to self-isolate yet. Some are closing their doors to all visits from family and friends; others are allowing only essential visits for people near the end of their lives.
“Providers will do what they think is right for their businesses and for the people they look after,” says Nadra Ahmed, executive chair of the National Care Association, which represents the majority of care homes in the UK.
Stonehaven Care Group is banning all visitors apart from medical professionals from its 10 care homes in the south-west. “We are desperate for some government guidance,” says Nick Connors, the group’s managing director. “Ultimately we are putting the safety of our staff and residents first and foremost.” He added that Skype would be made available to ensure residents could stay in touch with relatives and friends where possible.
In the north-west, Borough Care put all its 11 homes into indefinite isolation on Friday, so family and friends cannot visit. Tracey Halstead from the company says it took the decision to keep residents safe: “It is a precautionary measure. It has the support of families. We have not had any negative feedback.”
Emergency measures due to be announced this week by the government are reported to include allowing councils to lower standards in care homes to deal with staff shortages, so long as these do not lead to “serious neglect or harm”.
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