Thousands supported by community helpline

By David Gledhill, Marketing & Communications Lead

We have been looking back at the work of the Torbay Community Helpline over the last 18 months, and the figures are staggering.

Launched as the Torbay Community Coronavirus Helpline back in March 2020, one week before the first lockdown, it has taken more than 25,750 calls – each one of those from someone who needed help.

Statistics are meaningless until you recognise that every single figure represents a person who was struggling and the Helpline, which did not exist before the COVID crisis began, was there to support them.

In total, staff of numerous charities in the Bay led by the Torbay Community Development Trust, AgeUK Torbay, Brixham Does Care, Healthwatch Torbay and Citizens Advice Torbay have worked alongside an army of volunteers to help and support more than 4,000 people.

The calls are still coming in, but in manageable numbers, a far cry from the peak of nearly 400 calls a day at the height of the crisis but whilst they are no longer as urgent, they are no less important.

We have provided information and advice to 4,064 people who, very often, had nowhere to turn when the world began to change; the roads fell silent, the doorbell stopped ringing and thousands of people were forced into a strict regime of self-isolation.

At first, not everyone had the support of friends, neighbours or relatives to go shopping or pick up their prescriptions. Some didn’t even have anyone to talk to and went for weeks at a time in relative silence.

Initially, it was down to our Rapid Response Team of Community Builders and volunteers, which dealt with people who needed help urgently to run the heightened risk of going out onto the streets to join snaking queues outside supermarkets and pharmacies.

It was the Rapid Response Team that went shopping on more than 720 occasions and collected nearly 2,500 prescriptions – some containing life-saving meds, all the while putting themselves in potential peril, and several of them did inevitably contract COVID themselves.

But that did not stop them or, at the peak, the 1,800 volunteers, from repeatedly venturing out to help their friends, neighbours and more often than not, strangers in their hour of need.

In total, the Helpline and its network of helpers went shopping 1,729 times and collected 3,508 prescriptions. It was, at times, relentless.

Before the crisis started, through our work with Ageing Well Torbay, we estimated there to be 6,000 lonely and potentially isolated people in the Bay out of a population of 135,000.  We now believe there to be thousands more – although we have yet to analyse our findings.

We do know that there were many callers to the Helpline who we did not know about before the crisis began and we have been supporting as many as possible through our telephone befriending service.

We have not recorded how many telephone befriending calls have been made over the 18 months that have elapsed since COVID entered our lives because some people are rung several times a week others just once a week.

But we know that 400 people asked for a friendly voice to get in touch with them on a regular basis so that they have someone to talk to and know that they were not alone in what became an excruciatingly lonely world.

The Torbay Food Alliance brought together all the foodbanks in the Bay to deliver meals to those who found themselves suddenly unable to put food on the table because they could no longer work.

More than a thousand people were referred to the food banks via the Helpline, and more than 260,000 meals have been delivered. Although it has quietened down a lot in recent months, a combination of higher winter bills and the removal of the Universal Credit top-up may well reverse that trend.

In addition, we have helped just short of 500 people whose mental health has taken a turn for the worse and nearly 900 people who have needed help with their spiralling finances.

Finally, we have been there for people suffering domestic abuse, problems with housing, practical support via the Staying Put Handyman service and, more recently, we have added adult social care calls to our offer.

We weren’t ready when COVID struck, but we were determined and had it not been for the voluntary and charity sector working alongside the NHS and the council, then Torbay today would be in a far worse place.