40,000 people in county now relying on unpaid volunteers

Special report by Isabella Jewell.

AN estimated 40,000 people in Oxfordshire are now relying on volunteers to help them get through lockdown.

Thousands of unpaid neighbours in more than 400 community groups are providing food, medicines and basic human company.

They have responded to more than 117,000 requests for help.

However different approaches from councils means there is a postcode lottery for what sort of help residents can get through their local authority.

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The volunteer figures were revealed by Oxfordshire All In, which has been mapping and co-ordinating grassroots Community Support Groups (CSGs) helping people through the Covid-19 pandemic.

With 690,000 residents in the county, those 40,000 getting help are just under six per cent of the population.

The group’s figures highlight the extent to which vulnerable and elderly residents have been dependent on unpaid volunteers to help them survive.

Oxford Mail:

Jo Haggas, aka ‘Mrs Cluck’, volunteered to help people in Abingdon and delivers 150 eggs a week to her neighbours. Picture: Oxfordshire All In

Raya Salvat, 31, who lives in Bayworth near Cumnor, was heavily pregnant when the lockdown came into force on March 23.

She asked the volunteers from her local group Support Everyone in Radley Village (SERV) if they could do some shopping for her so she didn’t need to put her health – and her baby’s health – at risk by going out.

She said: “I am incredibly grateful to the volunteers who helped me stay safe throughout the last part of my pregnancy during the pandemic and provided that so important peace of mind that I needed. Thank you!”

Mike Wykes, who is retired and lives in Sunningwell near Abingdon, asked the group to get him his prescription.

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He said: “I’m Covid-shielded and in April I needed a prescription collecting from Abingdon.

“At the time I had just become aware of the existence of SERV, so called the advertised telephone number and spoke to Bella, who told me that my prescription would be collected soonest.

“The next day it was delivered to our house by Lizzie and I think this was a five-star service indeed.

“I’d like to say thanks to Bella and Lizzie and all their colleagues at SERV.”

In Witney, volunteers from the Scouts have delivered more than 5,000 prescriptions from Windrush Medical Practice to people self-isolating around the town.

Oxford Mail:

The Abingdon Coronavirus Community Response group has answered more than 2,700 requests for help over the past 11 weeks from 400 people, and as the lockdown eases assured locals it was ‘still here to help’.

The Coronavirus Helpers Bicester and Surrounding Areas group, meanwhile, launched before the lockdown started and created a list of people needing help, such as the elderly, who were told to stay home.

As with most CSGs, the support it offered was not just for practical help such as shopping, but to make sure people had someone to talk to in times of isolation and heightened anxiety.

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David, who coordinates the Kidlington and Surrounding Area (KASA) group, explained that his volunteers got no money, even to cover their expenses.

He said: “We now have 140 volunteers supporting 230 households throughout Kidlington and the surrounding area.

“We are entirely voluntary and as there are no costs: volunteers use their own vehicles and fuel if needed.

“We have no need for funds.”

Oxfordshire All In, which is based at charity group KEEN Oxford, said: “There are more than 400 community support groups listed on our map.

“They range from very small – covering one village – to organisations covering a whole town, like Abingdon.

“Every town or village in Oxfordshire has a group of volunteers helping with shopping, collecting medicines and all sorts of other requests.”

Oxford Mail:

Volunteers for Botley Community Fridge packing food parcels for people in isolation. Picture: Oxfordshire All In

The group and all its CSGs work with local authorities.

It explained: “We work very closely with the county and district councils, and other established community organisations such as charities.

“It is a two-way process: we help them link individuals with CSGs, and CSGs can refer people who they come across who need more assistance to them (especially to social services).”

In a Freedom of Information request to Oxfordshire’s four district councils – Cherwell, West Oxfordshire, South Oxfordshire and Vale of White House – and the city council, we asked how they were coordinating aid.

The district councils have been working with established CSGs, referring residents who contact them to their nearest group.

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South and Vale said in a joint statement: “In mid-to-late March, South and Vale established a Community Support Programme (CSP) to help to provide support to vulnerable people.

“The CSP help to coordinate the councils’ response to the pandemic. It takes calls, e-mails and other requests from (or on behalf of) residents in need of assistance and connects them with volunteers and organisations in their local area.”

Cherwell and West Oxfordshire have also been taking a community-led approach, referring residents to existing organisations.

However Oxford City Council has established a more centralised system, partnering with Oxford Hub volunteer centre to set up a single point of contact for residents who need support, and has set up six ‘locality hubs’.

The council has now answered more than 2,500 requests for assistance.

The greatest numbers of requests have come from some of Oxford’s poorest areas – Blackbird Leys, Rose Hill and Iffley and Northfield Brook.