The Community Response to Covid-19 in Dursley and Cam: A Case Study

In this case study, Stephen Dunmore, Chair of the Royal Voluntary Service, provides an insight into how the local community organisation and charity “GL11 Community Hub” led the local response to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic in Dursley and Cam, and shares some lessons learned for building community resilience.

Introduction and context

Dursley and Cam are adjacent small towns with a population of around 15,000, located in south Gloucestershire. Dursley has seen its thriving manufacturing businesses decline over the last fifty years and many residents now commute to Bristol, Gloucester, and Stroud for work. The socio-economic composition of the towns includes middle income groups with pockets of deprivation, and a relatively small minority ethnic population.

The GL11 Community Hub was created in 2001 to provide a diverse range of weekly activities for local people of all ages and abilities through a mix of paid staff and volunteers. Since the large majority of the 40-50 activities are normally delivered in-person at GL11’s community centre, the onset of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdowns demanded fresh thinking and a radically different approach. This case study describes how GL11 Community Hub, a local community organisation and charity, led the response to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic in Dursley and Cam.

Key findings and lessons from this example of local-led resilience included:

  • Speed and flexibility: GL11’s ability to respond swiftly and flexibly to the needs of the community.
  • Established roots and resources: GL11 was well established for over two decades with continuity of leadership, a visibly embedded network of public and private sector partners, with dynamic and strategically minded staff, experienced and supportive trustees, and a core of committed volunteers.
  • Local relationships: strong relationships at grassroots level and an understanding of the community enabled a targeted and inclusive response.
  • Multi-faceted: GL11 worked with a range of public sector organisations including GP surgeries, NHS and the local authorities, raising additional funding from local and national sources.
  • Collaboration: where partners and actors worked together in a locality their confidence and ability to respond to emergencies was greater.
  • Community-led: Covid-19 response was community-led and co-ordinated by GL11, with limited involvement of voluntary sector initiatives, and national or statutory structures and organisations.

GL11’s response to Covid-19

GL11 closed its community centre in mid-March 2020 with the announcement of the first lockdown and rapidly developed a plan to support every at-risk and vulnerable household in Dursley and Cam. GL11 called a community response meeting, gathering several local partners to pool resources. This resulted in a significant surge of support, with 200 volunteers recruited in the first week to deliver the following:

  • Volunteers were trained and supported by 15 volunteer co-ordinators from different community partners and allocated to every street in the area.
  • Postcards clearly stating GL11’s phone number were delivered to every residence on three different occasions, alerting people to the availability of supplies from the food bank, delivery of shopping and prescriptions, and provision of support with the emotional impact of the lockdown.
  • A group of 20 volunteer counsellors (‘Listening Ears’) was recruited to deliver that emotional support.
  • Seven staff were equipped and supported to provide a Hub phone line from their homes.
  • A volunteer developed a new database and data management system to help GL11 handle the large volume of calls and manage the volunteering programme.

Safeguarding: Safeguarding issues increased significantly over 2020, and support in this area from statutory bodies was largely unavailable. Staff and volunteers were rapidly upskilled and trained to hold and manage safeguarding issues and professional case supervision was provided, escalating to police intervention as necessary.

Impact: In 2020 alone, GL11 dealt with 8,000 telephone calls and responded to 2,000 requests for assistance; and the ‘Listening Ears’ made over 600 emotional support calls. The work of the street volunteers and the Hub phone line continued through 2021, albeit on a reduced scale. The human kindness provided by GL11 staff and volunteers was an essential support, with many acts of care and friendship then resulting in people accessing far more support than they would have done without that initial contact. Volunteering also provided purpose, social engagement and mental health support for people who would prefer not to ask for help.

Food security: Pre-Covid-19, GL11 was already responsible for the local food bank as part of the national food bank network. During lockdown, requests for food trebled and by July 2020 over 60 households were benefitting from a weekly delivery in addition to many ad hoc foodbank requests. Pastoral care leads at local schools connected GL11 with struggling families, while the street volunteers provided a shopping service as well as healthy meal deliveries at discounted prices for the isolated and vulnerable, in partnership with Severn Vale Community Kitchen. By December 2020, GL11 had provided 1,560 emergency food bank parcels to 128 households; 1,815 weekly food parcels to households with long-term financial difficulties; 600 half-term meals for disadvantaged children and 1,500 shopping and prescription collections/deliveries. With the support of local supermarkets and other companies, the provision of food parcels continued until autumn 2021.

Social and digital inclusion: In summer 2020, funding from the National Lottery Community Fund enabled GL11 to create a team of caseworkers to offer intensive and sustained support to people suffering complex practical, psychological, and social problems as a result of lockdown. GL11 also developed a digital inclusion project, training five volunteers as ‘digital buddies’. Some 50 people who were either without computers or requiring technical assistance to get online were supported on their doorstep and, where necessary, provided with free, long-term loans of hardware and/or data packages and routers. This developed into a regular digital drop-in when Covid-19 restrictions permitted.

Mental health support: The evidence from the ‘Listening Ears’ and the casework service showed that there was an enormous unmet need for mental health support for people facing a second year of Covid-19, with an emerging cohort of patients experiencing Long Covid. With close collaboration and funding from the NHS and Stroud District Council, two new services were launched in spring 2021. First, following a GP assessment at any of five local surgeries, people with low-level but distressing mental health symptoms were referred to GL11 for 6-12 weeks of counselling and support. Secondly, GL11 set up online and face-to-face groups to bring together patients suffering from Long Covid for mutual support. This initiative has developed into a county-wide network of ‘experts by experience’.

Vaccination roll-out: GL11 also played the lead role in mobilising volunteers to support the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccination programme across Berkeley Vale (a wider area than Dursley and Cam) in late 2020 and 2021. GL11 seconded a full-time co-ordinator to the NHS and the local vaccination centres engaged 5,757 hours of GL11 volunteer time, helping the NHS to administer 71,115 vaccine injections .

Whilst this list of GL11 initiatives is confined to those activities which were a specific response to Covid-19, a much wider range of activities were operating before Covid-19, many of which have been reintroduced as restrictions have relaxed.

Funding and partnerships

GL11’s Covid-19 response came at a cost, and additional income had to be generated, rising from £445k in 2019/20, pre-Covid-19, to £636k in 2020/21. This included donations, grants from a variety of charitable trusts, from Gloucestershire County Council and Stroud District Council, commissioned funding from the NHS Gloucestershire CCG, a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and a substantial grant from the National Lottery Community Fund (£167,734). Equally significant was the added value of effective partnerships – with local authorities, parish and town councils, the NHS, GPs and local schools and churches, local businesses and, by no means least, the many volunteers who stepped forward.

Except for the grant from the National Lottery Community Fund, the various relevant national initiatives, organisations, and structures (the National Emergencies Trust, the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership, British Red Cross, Royal Voluntary Service (NHS Responders)) were not engaged in the response to Covid-19 in Dursley and Cam. Although NHS Responders volunteers carried out over 3,000 tasks, including 92 vaccination steward shifts in the area of Stroud District Council, they do not seem to have been needed in Dursley and Cam. This was due to the effectiveness of the local response led by GL11. NHS Responders are designed primarily as a national safety net to provide volunteering support and build capacity where local communities and other potential partners were not ready or able to do so. There was also no engagement between GL11 and the Gloucestershire Local Resilience Forum, set up under the Civil Contingencies Act (2004) to plan and prepare for emergencies.

Legacy and lessons

There are a number of positive legacy outcomes from GL11’s Covid-19 response including:

  • Strengthened capacity: In delivering its activities and services, GL11 continues to build on the volunteering response to Covid-19. In the context of the hardship caused by the current economic downturn and also in the event of a future emergency, there is a now a much larger database of volunteers ready to be deployed.
  • Wider service offer: Several long-term community driven initiatives that emerged from the Covid-19 response, e.g., mental health partnership, Long Covid groups and Digital Buddies, are being continued.
  • Partnerships: New collaborations with local authorities, in particular Stroud District Council, and other voluntary sector organisations have been developed to share expertise and experience. GL11 now convenes the district’s monthly ‘Know Your Patch’ network, bringing 400 members of the public and voluntary sector together. Work is underway with other charities and Stroud District Council to develop a network of community hubs across the district. ‘The Engine’, a project to provide help and advice to business start-ups in Dursley and Cam, has been launched by GL11 and social enterprise partners.

GL11’s successful Covid-19 response approach provides some lessons for other areas and organisations:

  • Local first: Where a voluntary sector response to a national emergency can be delivered effectively with the right partnerships in place at the local community level, that should be the preferred option; and any relevant national funding should prioritise that local response.
  • Clear interfaces: Where national voluntary sector initiatives and organisations are a part of the response, careful attention must be paid to brokering and defining the interface between national and local to develop cooperation and equal partnership, rather than duplication or competition.
  • Collaboration: Being ready and willing to work with partners at all levels is key to building resilience.
  • Local capacity: A locally based approach will only be realistic within a framework where the voluntary and community sector has the capacity and ability to play a key role, and robust relationships exist between the various partners.
  • Responsibilities and resources: The responsibility for ensuring that community ‘readiness’ is in place and properly funded lies not only with communities, community-based organisations, and their local partners, but also national government, national voluntary sector structures and infrastructure bodies and the Local Resilience Forums.
  • Local intelligence: As a first step, Local Resilience Forums, collaborating with the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership, should gather intelligence about where such ‘readiness’ exists and where it is lacking.

Acknowledgements

This case study is based on information supplied by the GL11 Community Hub in person and online. Thanks are given to Indigo Redfern, GL11 Chief Executive, GL11 staff and Paul Rummer, GL11 trustee, for their cooperation and input.

Further reading

For more case studies and insight please see the NPC report “Societal Resilience Initiatives During Covid-19” by Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, UK and National Consortium for Societal Resilience [UK+] here.