By David Gledhill, Marketing & Communications Lead
TWO years ago today, the unthinkable happened and a new word was introduced into all our vocabularies – lockdown.
Doors across the Bay were closed and we all said goodbye to friends and family as we hunkered down to see what the future would bring. The fear was palpable.
Theories, conspiracy theories were available in abundance, but what we needed more than anything were facts as we gathered around our television sets for a daily briefing from a Government minister and the now eponymous professor Chris Witty.
We hung onto their every word as stories unfolded not just from this country but from around the world about the seemingly unstoppable march of the coronavirus or to give it its proper name COVID-19.
Here in Torbay, we were lucky, as a group of charities and voluntary organisations had the foresight to prepare and had set up what was then called the Torbay Community Coronavirus Helpline.
Staff from five organisations, Torbay Community Development Trust, Brixham Does Care, Age UK Torbay, Healthwatch Torbay, and Citizens Advice Torbay were commandeered to answer the phones and listen to what people need.
It soon became obvious that what was needed more than anything was a rapid response team of people prepared to go and stand in queues outside supermarkets and pharmacies to buy food and collect sometimes life-saving medications.
Initially, the burden was carried almost exclusively by our own community builders who risked everything to support their communities, often without adequate supplies of masks, gloves and hand sanitiser.
Early on, the foodbanks that had hitherto worked independently came together to share experience, provide a comprehensive service, and increase their buying power. Sadly most of them are still operating today and demand is as high as it has ever been.
Video calling became the norm as we all learned the vagaries of FaceTime, Zoom, Teams or WhatsApp, which was all well and good for the IT literate, but for many others, it was a time of loneliness and isolation with no interactions from one day to the next and sometimes one week to the next.
As a result, we added to our rapidly expanding army of volunteers with a whole host of people, themselves often isolated, prepared to ring others for just a few minutes at a time, sharing their experiences and reassuring everyone that they were not in this alone.
We also encouraged communities to organise themselves to support their neighbours and around 70 new Good Neighbour schemes were set up across the Bay. The community spirit was overwhelming.
Lockdown, local lockdowns and numerous other restrictions have since come and gone and most of us have got used to the new routines, but behind the scenes, the Helpline has also developed to cope with new pressures and difficulties caused directly or indirectly by the virus.
We added specialist befrienders to help deliver a mental health triage service for those that were struggling and set up a similar triage service to help people with their finances. We also added in a domestic abuse support service for people locked down with their abusers.
And we have continued to add support and services down the two years until we have reached the point where we can say confidently, one call, that’s all. If we don’t know the answer, we will find it for you.
We are still here, 38,000 phone calls providing support to 8,000 people, later. We are not going anywhere and whilst the future (COVID-wise) looks better than it has done since the beginning, it is by no means over and it continues to affect us in varying degrees, depending on our own vulnerabilities.
Ironically, the number of infections in the Bay are peaking and for a short time earlier this month we had more cases than anywhere in England, and despite what some would have you think, for some people, the symptoms are more than a mere cold or mild flu.
We owe it to each other to remain sensible – it should not take a government to ensure we wear masks when appropriate, keep our distance when possible, ventilate rooms and keep on washing our hands.
If you need help, contact the Helpline on 01803 446022. We are here for you.