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Let’s ditch the good old days

This article first appeared in No Going Back, a collection of voices from Manchester’s voluntary, community and social enterprise sector on the response to Covid-19 and their thoughts for the future, published by MACC. You can read the full collection here.

I was listening to a podcast the other day about a US Government department in the 1950s whose job was to decide what to save for posterity after a nuclear apocalypse. It brought back many memories of diving under my school desk as part of a nuclear attack drill – it’s my excuse for never learning my times tables.

Then, the podcasters asked what Americans of today would preserve. One of the most thought provoking answers was from someone of Native American heritage who said that he wouldn’t save anything. Instead, he extolled the benefits of an oral history that adapts and changes with the times, because it doesn’t trap people in the attitudes of the past.

How great would it be if, following this period, we could ditch the old attitudes and beliefs that keep us returning to doing things the same old way. This is a real opportunity for us to create a better world than we had before.

Covid-19 has shone a light on the big injustices in our society: How unequal our society is; how reliant we are on some of the people society values the least; and how important our public services are. It has also revealed our superpowers. Overnight we cut carbon emissions, found rough sleepers somewhere to live and built huge ‘Nightingale’ hospitals – things that we thought would take us years to achieve. Along with The Black Lives Matter
protests over recent weeks, it has given me hope that we can tackle the injustices and inequality in our society by making positive choices that make a real difference.

Big Life have been forced into new ways of working. I have been amazed at how quickly we have got things done. Our staff seem energised and empowered to reach out and make new partnerships, and find new ways to do things. In Tameside, we set up a mental health helpline in under a week, redirecting Peer Support staff from face to face to telephone support.

In Rochdale we seconded staff to local authority Covid-19 hubs, provided staff at testing centres to reassure people attending, and moved all our mental health services to telephone or video appointments.

We expanded our online ‘Learn Well’ training which offersa range of courses to enhance wellbeing, and developed a new bereavement course which specifically responded to trauma caused by Covid-19 related deaths.

Hundreds of our staff moved to making welfare calls. Our 56 Be Well staff in Manchester made over 3,900 calls to 1,900 people during the three months of lockdown, offering support on welfare benefits, wellbeing, and access to foodbanks. The Living Well team in Rochdale made 2,016 phone calls and 61 WhatsApp video appointments, offering support with smoking, oral health, low mood, isolation and general wellbeing to 779 people.

One woman who had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and had recently quit smoking was really struggling with cravings to smoke when lockdown started, but due to regular calls from her key worker, she has now maintained six months smoke free. She said “I’m on oxygen, but goodness only knows what I would have been like if I started smoking again. Probably not on this earth, but under it.” Living Well staff also supported people through Zoom groups including Arabic women’s, carers, fibromyalgia and men’s group. As one housing provider put it, “your chatter helpline has become a real lifeline to some of our tenants”.

Our centres staff who could no longer offer drop-in groups and face to face support started co-ordinating local volunteers to help out at food banks and undertake deliveries to people shielding. In Hulme and Moss Side, we supported people with a range of challenges, including people who had been furloughed and had reductions in income, people who weren’t eligible for Universal Credit or Covid-19 support, single people with mental health and addictions, and people with long term health conditions who were shielding.

15 volunteers delivered 490 food parcels and 360 hot meals prepared by local church volunteers. One asylum seeker with underlying health conditions who was shielding, said “My friend has just seen me for the first time in three months and he can’t believe how healthy I look. It’s the first time since I came to this country that I have not been hungry”.

Our schools (Unity and Longsight) and family services moved to telephone and online support during lockdown. The biggest challenge was for families without any internet or devices for children to access online learning and over 100 home learning and resource packs were delivered by staff. All teaching staff kept in regular touch with children through Class Dojo or telephone calls. We kept one Children’s Centre open for essential midwifery services, using it as a base for parents to collect more resources and food vouchers.

Public sector commissioners have embraced their roles of facilitators and enablers, rather than contract managers. They came to us with problems and we went back to them with solutions. Working as a team of voluntary, community and public services with a common aim, we were able to be creative and agile. We need to keep this agility, strengthen self-managing teams and embed professional autonomy and accountability across the spectrum of public service. We do not need to return to an outdated version of all public services which are centrally commissioned, highly specified and delivered by large nationally accountable monoliths.

Covid-19 has deepened partnerships and strengthened communities. A lot of the support for vulnerable people has been delivered by community generated, bottom up initiatives; communities coming together, partnering with private businesses, community organisations and the voluntary sector, to help themselves.

When Big Issue North had to stop selling on the streets, we raised £70k from public donations to support 230 vendors who suddenly, overnight, had no income. We reached out on social media and got supermarkets to stock our magazines, and we got PPE when it was nowhere to be found. One vendor said he became “aware that the staff might be able to help in these difficult times, so I rang up the office. They’ve helped me massively. I’ve received two vouchers and a hardship payment. The support I’ve had from the office has just been really helpful”.

However, whatever opportunities Covid-19 may provide for radical change in the future, it’s important to acknowledge how devastating it has been too. Let’s face it, it’s been really tough and it’s going to get tougher. Along with many personal tragedies in our communities and families, Big Life lost a valued volunteer to Covid-19 and a member of staff took his own life. We have had to strip our budgets and take advantage of government furlough and rate relief to help manage the losses from our nurseries and the Big Issue North. I am worried about central government trying to recover the national debt by embarking on more public sector austerity in the years ahead.

We have started a consultation with staff about how, where and when they want to work in the future. Many staff don’t want to return to their old patterns of work, but continue the positive aspects of lockdown – more time with their families and at home in their neighbourhoods. One of the other things I would like to keep in our new normal is our deepened relationships with each other. We have peered into each other’s homes over Zoom. We have met each other’s children and pets. We are no longer one-dimensional people – identified by our roles – at work Chief Exec – at home mother. At work and at home, I am now the Chief Exec, post lady on a bike, bin woman, ‘easy’ yoga lover, foodbank volunteer, gardener, book lover, and part of my local neighbourhood. I’m also very, very, hopeful that we can have a better, fairer ‘new normal’ in the future.

Fay Selvan, CEO, The Big Life group