Hannah Ormston, Policy and Development Officer at Carnegie UK Trust, reports on some of the Welsh and UK-wide findings from their new research, COVID-19 and Communities Listening Project: A Shared Response
‘The pendulum is swinging, and our role is to hold it, to prevent it swinging back to the status quo.’ – Covid-19 and Communities participant
After nine months of living with the reality of COVID-19, over the past couple of weeks we have been given a small piece of hope: news of the arrival of a vaccine which will be slowly rolled out across the UK. Unsurprisingly, this has sparked conversations about the possibilities of returning to ‘normal’ – that is, life as we knew it, before March 2020. However, throughout the pandemic, many have highlighted why returning to ‘normal’ is no longer a desired outcome, nor a feasible option, particularly for the many that were left behind before the pandemic began.
The COVID-19 crisis has affected all dimensions of our lives and reminded us about what is required to live a good life. Listening to the local experiences and voices of people in the community is critical if we want to fully understand where the gaps remain, and to act on the learning shared. With this in mind, in April 2020 – amidst the first national lockdown – the Carnegie UK Trust started a listening project with representatives from the third sector and local government across the UK to learn more about community responses to the pandemic. In the following six months, we had over 80 conversations with participants from a diverse range of places: from Merthyr Tydfil and Treorchy in Wales; to Paisley, East Ayrshire and Dumfries in Scotland; Broughshane and Fermanagh in Northern Ireland; and Camden, Lancaster, Scarborough and Todmorden in England. We heard from communities – large and small – about their experiences.
In these conversations, the local responses to the pandemic were described as ‘organic’ and ‘extraordinary’. Many commented on the unifying collective ambition to react and respond; to be relational first and foremost and to ‘be there’ for those that needed support. For example, we heard a moving account from one participant in Treorchy, who explained that when a key figure in the community passed away during the pandemic, the local priest read the sermon on the street.
Our conversations shone a bright light on the work of the CVS, who, with pre-existing knowledge and networks, acted as a golden thread between sectors and services, and rapidly reorientated their approach. They also uncovered that many of the former barriers to partnership working between the local authority, voluntary sector and community somewhat disappeared overnight. Yet, as well illuminating the many capabilities, the conversations exposed many inequalities that persist, particularly around digital exclusion, social isolation and mental health, the interruption of ongoing services for those in the recovery community, and access to food and essential items. In Merthyr Tydfil, housing associations responded to food needs by setting up food fridges in the community to enable anyone to take the food they required. In Treorchy, they sought to address loneliness and isolation challenges by hosting remote pub quizzes and bingo on the street, and food inequality with businesses such as pubs and restaurants delivering hot meals, and florists providing fruit and vegetables.
These conversations demonstrated that there is value in bringing together the shared experiences of people working across the UK, and within each sector. Though each community has its own unique story – collaboration, supporting each other and sharing learning will be crucial for moving forward. COVID-19 and Communities Listening Project: A Shared Response offers tangible examples and makes recommendations for policy makers, funders and leaders across the UK. It aims to inspire and shape thinking – and importantly, action – as we move towards planning for the medium-term recovery. Carnegie UK Trust believes that a fundamental first step is to listen, to share, and be open to change.