As part of a series exploring Big Local responses to COVID-19, our journalist-at-large Ryan Herman speaks to Sue Merriman from Brereton Big Local in the West Midlands about reaching beyond the internet to provide support to local residents
When Sue Merriman walked the streets of Brereton last week with a team of volunteers to deliver food parcels, they discovered an uncomfortable truth about the effect that COVID-19 is having behind closed doors.
She explains, “We started distributing food to our oldest residents that we knew of. We also wanted to check in and see if they were okay. But as more food donations kept coming in, so we decided to keep going from street to street.
“We started to find people living on their own, who have been in isolation for about two weeks and who are anything from 83 to 95 years old. They had received their letter from the NHS that said they need to stay indoors for 12 weeks.
“They did their shopping three weeks ago, had locked themselves away, and were starting to run out of supplies.
“In some cases, they had gone three or four days without food. They are sitting in their houses, watching the news, seeing that a doctor has died, a 13-year-old has died, and they are absolutely petrified. I do worry how many more people are in the same boat and I don’t just mean here in Brereton.”
Inevitably, a number of those people who are considered to be most at risk will be elderly, alone, and either don’t know how to use the internet or cannot afford to – according to the Office for National Statistics, 5.3 million Brits have never used the internet.
This, in turn, means they cannot register online for government services such as applying for support with daily living.
But it also serves to highlight the importance of the ‘on the ground’ response from community groups and volunteers during this crisis.
“One dear old lady had been left all week with barely any food. Because she lives with her son, everyone thought she was ok and he would be looking after her. But he had been really poorly and was told to isolate himself in his bedroom.
She is 88 years old and has her own health problems.
“Thankfully, her son is recovering but we’re still doing their shopping.”
Sue is a community worker at Brereton Million Big Local in Staffordshire and has been helping to coordinate the effort of getting food deliveries out to the community after the foodbank had to shut its doors when the lockdown came into effect on March 23.
“So now we are going out every day and hitting as many streets as we can, knocking door to door, just to say ‘hi, how are you?’ We’re also buddying people up to make phone calls either daily or every other day and those calls are logged to make sure we’ve got a record that somebody has picked up the phone.
“The key workers who live in this community are shattered. You’ll have somebody in their 90s, and they are not registering on the government’s website,
so it’s about getting everyone to help and realise that even though they are stuck at home, they can provide support. They can help somebody else to fill in the online forms over the phone.”
The Brereton Million partnership has also been holding regular meetings online, along with daily discussions through their WhatsApp group where they can share ideas, raise issues or highlight concerns relating to individuals in need. It also serves as a forum for forward planning.
They want to build on what they’ve achieved in Brereton since Big Local started here seven years ago.
“Our area had lacked community spirit,” says Sue. “Going back decades, we always used to have a carnival, but that stopped. The community stopped working together, neighbours stopped talking to each other.
“The carnival returned around the same time that Brereton Million started. We now hold community events all year round and we’ve built up respect and trust.
“We are very lucky in that the foodbank has been running for six or seven years, so it is well established. We work closely with all our local restaurants and shops like the Co-Op. Whatever we do, we do in partnership with local businesses.
“And we’ve just launched a big campaign to get people to lose weight and kickstart a healthier lifestyle. We’ve grouped together people and organisations who can help, covering anything from sports groups to mental health and yoga.”
Indeed, one of the consequences of the coronavirus crisis could be that we take more interest in the mental wellbeing of our friends and neighbours, and Sue is keen to stress that there will be positive experiences to take from this.
“Our district has set up a support network to organise volunteers for the whole area (during this crisis), we’re helping to coordinate that effort
and one thing that we’ve noticed is the number of men who have come forward to volunteer. They may not be at work but they don’t want to stop working.
“The biggest thing we are pushing is getting to know to your neighbour. It may not seem like it right now, but I think this crisis will raise so much more awareness around the issues of isolation and loneliness.
“Neighbours will get to know who those people who have been living on their own. It will make our community stronger.”