Karin Smyth MP on the community response to the Cornavirus crisis

In times of crisis, as the famous quote goes, look for the helpers.   

And in Bristol South, they’re everywhere. Bristol City Council is doing a great job of co-ordinating this effort – establishing need, working with charity partners to put systems in place to help people through this. Much of this has been about building on what’s has already been developed by local people over many years – particularly here in Bristol South.  

As it is home to some of the most deprived areas in the city, Bristol South already has some incredibly innovative, agile community organisations which have been running crucial services to support local people, organisations such as Hartcliffe and Withywood Community Partnership. These foundations have put us in a strong position to be able to get help where it’s needed during this Coronavirus crisis.

Working with the Labour-run council, local ‘community anchors’ such as Knowle West AllianceBS3 Community and Heart of BS13 (formerly Hartcliffe Health and Environment Action Group) are stepping up their responses with pop-up food banks and a growing network of volunteers to support people with shopping, collecting prescriptions and other tasks – things which those being shielded are unable to do themselves at the moment.   

As well as new food banks run by existing organisations – such as Square Food‘s Square Meals campaign and BS3 Community Larder – we’re also seeing new entrepreneurial initiatives reaching into Bristol South. From hyper local mutual aid groups to The National Food Service, which was set up in Bristol just six months ago and is now delivering meals to over 200 people across Bristol South every week. Unlike most food banks, it’s not means tested and you don’t need a referral to use it. Anyone who needs food for whatever reason – say you can’t get to the shops or book an online delivery slot – can self-refer. See my webpage for details of this and all the other support available.

But I know that these voluntary organisations, while responsive and effective, are currently facing many challenges. While businesses are able to access government support to cover most of the wages of furloughed staff via the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, those involved in responding to the pandemic must continue to pay staff or rely on volunteers with no extra financial support; this is on top of a huge reduction in income as they cannot fundraise or generate income in the usual ways. The Quartet Foundation is doing what it can to help with emergency grants, and is particularly keen to support more South Bristol organisations, but it can only do so much.

I know that many local community organisations, who are essentially providing a public services and a social safety net, are desperately worried about their future. It is for this reason that I have been calling on the Government for some time to provide them with greater financial support. The current offer falls far short of filling the financial black hole that many charities are facing.  

And as new Shadow Charities Minister Rachael Maskell MP recently said, we need to make sure that there is not only funding to see us through the next few months, but also to ensure there will be grants available to rebuild.  

That said, we have a system where charities rely on grants and volunteers to deliver vital local services which, should this funding or volunteer effort subside, would disappear. It’s not sustainable. It’s essential that the Government and other statutory bodies recognise and respond to this. The work many of these highly efficient organisations do isn’t an optional extra, it’s essential to help ensure that people have the food, healthcare, guidance and support they need.  

Bristol is fortunate enough to have an umbrella organisation, Voscur, which supports the city’s voluntary sector. They’re currently helping to share funding sources, provide safeguarding training and distribute other vital information to the wealth of city’s charities and volunteers which have come together to help people through this.  

This is particularly important considering the issue of burnout among those working hard for their communities. I know that some of the women heading up operations for the community anchors in Bristol South are working 10-12 hour days, often seven days a week to oversee the local response. The calls they’re receiving are increasingly complex, with people starting to feel the mental strain of the crisis. We must support voluntary sector workers with their mental health and wellbeing throughout this, while also equipping them to support others.  

The Government is not recognising the public service role provided by these organisations. It is vital that the Government looks at what additional measures and financial support it can make available to this sector. It must also ensure that new funding gets to them as quickly as possible to prevent further damage being done. I will continue to press the Government on this as a key demand in tackling the Coronavirus emergency.  

As we recover from this crisis, we must create a more equal sustainable and supportive society in which these community organisations are supported to have a leading role.