Coronavirus London: Greenwich Council and voluntary sector powers up emergency response

Coronavirus London: Greenwich Council and voluntary sector powers up emergency response

All across the capital vast networks of borough workers, volunteers and charities are co-operating, reshaping and upscaling in extraordinary ways to help Londoners in the greatest need cope with the Covid-19 crisis. Claire Pritchard had eight minutes to spare for On London before the start of a more important conversation, but in that time she conveyed an energising sense of what is being achieved in just one borough, Royal Greenwich, in the vital area of food supplies.

“We sent out over 1,500 very healthy frozen ready meals last week,” she said. “They went to frontline organisations who support vulnerable people all across Greenwich. This has been going on for years, but the need now has really grown. We already knew about the level of poverty that exists in London. Now you’ve got people on Universal Credit who are losing part time wages and suddenly you have a lot more people experiencing poverty and food insecurity.”

Pritchard’s work getting nourishment to those who might struggle otherwise covers a number of roles, including chairing the London Food Board, which advises Sadiq Khan. She is also chief executive of Greenwich Cooperative Development Agency, a position she has held for ten years. The huge meal production effort she is now involved with centres on the Woolwich Common Community Centre, where a core staff of three with part time help and volunteers have been accepting, preparing and redistributing “huge amounts of surplus food” from separate donation supply chains. “One day, last week we received a ton of chicken,” she said. “An actual ton”.

Homeless people, poor people, those officially shielded, those whose unsettled immigration status denies them recourse to public funds, and any others who, as Pritchard puts it, “might be experiencing all sorts of things at the moment”, are being found and properly fed in the bizarre and sometimes frightening new London created by the coronavirus on top of those who were already being helped. “Sometimes people just come to the door of Woolwich Common, saying we haven’t eaten for a couple of days. We had a refugee family that had just been rehoused arrive, so we organized a box of food for them.”

Vital to all this is Deptford-based FareShare London, originally co-founded by street homeless charity Crisis and supermarket Sainsbury’s. Today, surplus food from many major UK companies is sent to FareShare’s warehouse and parcelled out to an array of London charities. Pritchard says “they’ve really upped what they are doing”, joining forces with the similar Felix Project and City Harvest, with a lead person assigned to all of London’s 32 boroughs.

The Greenwich operation will now move to serving up “a brilliant, really healthy, high quality large box of food, enough for three meals a day for seven days for either a single person for two weeks or a family for seven days, and with snacks”. Recipients will be able either to buy them or, “if they qualify for a free one it will be funded”. These will be delivered to doors, starting tomorrow. “It’s fantastic,” Pritchard says. “I’m so proud and I’m so impressed with everyone for getting it together”.

That more important conversation was with Debbie Weekes-Bernard, one of Mayor Khan’s deputies, whose job description includes promoting active citizenship. Her working days now suddenly include helping the Greenwich borough model and others “roll out right across London”. Before Pritchard had to say goodbye, she reported with delight that “a giant Ferrero Rocher has just arrived in the post.”

Another vital player in the Greenwich collective effort, closely tied in with the food project and the council’s wider work, is the community trust of Charlton Athletic Football Club. The Trust has long run some of the council’s social programmes, including its youth service, the phone line of its Live Well service – which informs people about events and support for improving happiness and health – and its “short breaks” respite care offer for disabled children and their families.

Trust chief executive Jason Morgan describes its coronavirus effort as in some respects an intensification of established projects, and in others a necessary adaptation of them, due to the need for social distancing. Counselling and mentoring services have largely moved online, where previously they involved face-to-face work. But the Live Well line has now become what Morgan calls “an extension of the council’s response to Covid-19”, and now known as the Community Hub. The call centre has been greatly enlarged, so there are now “50 people taking calls from 9:00 until 6:00, Monday to Sunday.” Non-clinical advice is provided to anyone in search of it.

Greenwich leader Dan Thorpe has expressed dissatisfaction with national government support, firstly over supplies of personal protective equipment – there’s been a good response to his local appeal for it and a further consignment was due today – but has also had big worries about emergency food supplies from that source. Department for health datasets about which local residents would be in need of special help do not, he suspects, accurately reflect local realities. But the council’s partnership’s with the local voluntary sector have him glowing with pride. “It has been absolutely brilliant,” he says.

The different threads of  it are now being drawn still closer together, as more than 600 of the 1,700 Greenwich residents who’ve offered their support complete the necessary checks and start their work on the borough’s streets. Anyone in good health who would like sign-up is still welcome to, Thorpe says. The email is: volunteer@royalgreenwich.gov.uk.

Photograph: Volunteer John Butcher, supplied by Greenwich Council. Article last updated 12:45, 7 April 2020.

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