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How council staff and volunteers worked together to protect the most vulnerable from COVID-19

When the pandemic first took hold, the council was forced to act.

A list of 2,729 names was handed over by the Government. The people on the list were those living in the borough who would be the most severely impacted by the virus, and most at risk of potentially dying from it.

Council work is more all-encompassing than many people realise. There’s fixing potholes, collecting bins (usually) and caring for vulnerable children and adults. Lesser-known things too, like leisure, culture, heritage and even mineral extraction.

When lockdown began, many of these duties were put on hold as hundreds of council staff became COVID-19 responders. Suddenly the priority became securing PPE for places all over the borough that were in dire need, and more than 100 staff members became responsible for protecting the 2,729 people on the shielding list.

“In terms of core services, they were operating as they were,” said Duncan Sharkey, managing director of the Royal Borough. “But on top of all that we’ve been running PPE supply and distribution. Between March and August we handled 80,000 different pieces of PPE.

“When you see what we did about PPE before, we might have bought boxes of gloves now and again and some masks every couple of years, but we didn’t really handle that.

“That whole piece of work was literally from ‘we’ve never done this before’ to ‘we’re doing it live’.”

Throughout lockdown the council brokered the PPE by spreading the supply across the area and preventing places from hoarding too much. As a result, no care home or council facility was short of PPE when it mattered.

Meanwhile, 140 council workers were given a new assignment: call up every person on the shielding list, see if they are OK, and find out what they need.

“It wasn’t necessarily everyone’s choice to go on the shielding list”, said Dave MacFarlane, transformation project manager at the Royal Borough.

“We knew that if we contacted every person on that list and were warm and friendly, really open, wanting to listen to people, understand their experiences and want to be able to connect them to community support, when you come at it from that angle the response is almost entirely positive.

“You’re not the council trying to bother these people, you’re not trying to get anything out of them, you’re calling entirely for their benefit.”

Every day the council’s team of callers, by this point all working from home, would contact the people on the shielding list, checking that they were OK, seeing if they needed help, and where they could, connecting them with volunteers in the community who were offering to support them.

“What was really nice was some of the relationships that were built between some of our staff making the calls and the residents themselves," said Mr MacFarlane. “Some of the more vulnerable residents who needed a bit more support.

“There were a few members of staff that were in touch with them continually and have even gone out of their way, where appropriate, to drop off shopping, medication, even up until now. It was an overwhelmingly positive response.”

Despite the work of the council staff, with the scale of the pandemic and the number of residents who were impacted, their efforts alone would not be enough.

Fortunately, they found a helping hand in the community.

Since March, 53 volunteer organisations have come forward to aid the council in supporting the borough. The council is aware of about 1,000 people who stepped in and helped out, but thinks the total number of volunteers was closer to 6,000.

At one point, it was estimated that between five and 10 per cent of the borough’s 160,000 residents were volunteering in some capacity during the pandemic, with people helping out by making friendly phone calls, dropping off urgent supplies, picking up shopping, posting mail and walking dogs.

Transformation project manager Jesal Dhokia helped co-ordinate the council’s ‘one borough’ approach alongside the many volunteer organisations, and states it made her ‘proud’ to work for the Royal Borough.

She said: “It’s been amazing to see how the communities have just come together, the voluntary sector, the council, the partnerships, the local GPs, every stake holder you can think of has worked with us to put together a community response.

“There wasn’t one ward that didn’t do anything across Windsor and Maidenhead.

“Our councillors really led and became community ambassadors within their localities, everyone was just one borough. That makes me proud to work for RBWM because of the staff, in terms of the management and just the community, I think they’re amazing.”

As cases continue to rise nationwide and with lockdown restrictions tightening up around the country, it seems like it may only be a matter of time before some form of lockdown is put in place in the borough once again.

There may be reason for some optimism though. An app is in development to match willing volunteers up with vulnerable people in the area, and there is confidence that the resilient community will step up once again to protect those most at risk.

Given everything they have learned over the last six months, the Royal Borough team plans to be ready for whatever comes next.

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