Britons have been urged to raise an ‘army of volunteers’ to help people trapped in self-isolation during the coronavirus crisis.
Efforts are underway at local and national level to recruit thousands of volunteers to make sure those staying at home do not suffer food shortages and other practical needs, as well a debilitating sense of loneliness.
The moves follow a call by Prime Minister Boris Johnson for a “wholehearted national effort” that would see millions of people mobilised to “help and support each other”.
National charities are in discussions over the best way of coordinating the efforts of those who want to help.
St John Ambulance, which has 10,000 active health volunteers, including healthcare professionals, said it was ready to step up its work in the face of the epidemic.
Richard Lee, Chief Operating Officer of St John Ambulance: “We work closely with other charities such as Age UK and the British Red Cross to help relieve pressure on the NHS in times of need and have been working throughout the winter to do so. We are ready to provide any extra support required as a consequence of the COVID-19 outbreak.”
At the same time dozens of local initiatives have already sprung up, with community groups setting up data banks of residents willing to help out.
St Margaret’s Church, in West Hoathly, West Sussex, has set up a ‘find a phone buddy’ scheme to encourage people to link up with neighbours before they go into self-isolation, and is putting vulnerable groups such as the elderly in touch with community schemes to provide them with weekly shopping.
In Walthamstow, north east London, a data bank of volunteers has been set up by the area’s locum MP Kizzy Gardiner, with the aim of marshalling people who can “deliver food parcels, check in on the elderly and ensure food banks are well stocked”.
Ms Gardiner is also urging constituents to set up street WhatsApp groups as a means of keeping in touch and providing essentials to self-isolating neighbours.
“That way we can make sure that everyone gets the support they need,” she said. “It’s very important that people take the time to talk and to check up on their neighbours. Lots of people in Walthamstow have been in touch asking how they can help others at this time.”
A similar initiative is already taking place in north Dorset, with doctor’s surgeries and local MPs backing the distribution of leaflets with details of residents willing to pick up supplies and carry out basic tasks for neighbours.
Sharing the leaflet on Twitter West Dorset MP Chris Loder said: “In coming weeks and months we are all going to need to look out for our families, friends and neighbours. I’m glad to share this simple initiative for those in our communities who need assistance but don’t know how (or who) to ask.”
Similar efforts are underway in south London, where Sarah Jones, the MP for Croydon Central has called for people to step forward to help.
In her appeal Ms Jones said: “I know there is deep concern across our community about the spread of coronavirus, but that there are also many people asking how they can help. This is not a time to panic, but a time to prepare.
“The Prime Minister has just given a statement calling for a “wholehearted national effort” of volunteering across the country over the coming weeks.”
She added: “I am gathering a database of people who may want to be in a position to help with voluntary work that may become necessary, such helping ensure elderly people have the supplies they need at home.”
Government advisers have said such efforts are essential to ensure those who go into self-isolation with symptoms of the virus do not feel abandoned.
Susan Michie, professor of health psychology at University College London, who is advising the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies on its response to the coronavirus outbreak, said: “I think it’s important to really look out for everyone in the community – food deliveries, setting up phone rotas to check how people are. There are lots of little things that can be done to make sure that they feel that other people are caring. We really need to engender that sort of spirit.”
She added: “A psychological effect of isolation and quarantining is depression and frustration and loneliness.
“In order for everybody to prepare in advance, it’s not just, do I have enough toilet paper, but have I got enough [material] to keep myself entertained, have I got channels of communication so I can keep in touch with people so I can get help and support, how can I structure my days so its as manageable as possible?
“A lot of people may not have comfortable houses to live in. They may not have the internet, they may not have a television, they may not be able to read. It is so important that these situations are recognised and catered for.”
One national food bank charity is appealing for more volunteers and increased Government funding, warning that those most vulnerable and living in poverty could be placed at increased risk of hunger as the coronavirus epidemic worsens
FareShare said that it anticipates it could see a significant increase in demand for its service in the event of school, workplace and public space closures.
Lindsay Boswell, FareShare Chief Executive, said: “The situation around Coronavirus is unprecedented and developing fast, and we are working as a UK-wide network of redistribution organisations to meet the changing needs of local organisations on the ground and ensure we are best prepared for all possible outcomes.”