NHS Reset: Providing a vital lifeline at a time of crisis | Yvonne Lee

Yvonne Lee

NHS Reset is a new NHS Confederation campaign to contribute to the public debate on what the health and care system should look like in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this blog, part of a series of comment pieces from NHS Confederation members and partners, Yvonne Lee shares how Age UK Oldham has supported vulnerable housebound people throughout the pandemic. 

For years we’ve struggled to get funding for our supermarket-based shopping service for vulnerable housebound people and used our precious resources to keep it on the road, despite facing rejection at every turn. 

Then came lockdown on 23 March. At Age UK Oldham, we quickly redeployed additional staff to respond to the deluge of calls from the local authority’s emergency hotline by upping the shopping service and doubling the number of home deliveries.  

The calls didn’t stop, so using what we already knew of people’s shopping patterns, we approached a second local store and designed a new model offering a fixed fortnightly grocery and household package. This sped up ordering and packing, helping us to reach more people who were unable to leave their home. At the time of writing, we’ve made 1,855 shopping deliveries – and counting. 

But we haven’t stopped there. 

Practical support 

After liaising with environmental health, our lunch club’s catering team transformed into a production line producing and delivering fresh meals for those unable to cook for themselves. We found funding to buy extra equipment (such as fridges, freezers, oven-proof containers, a heat sealing machine and other bits) and to date we have already delivered 9,417 meals. 

Volunteers who shopped during the protected hour for older people enabled us to introduce a same-day emergency response, meaning we could also deliver up to five items – such as bread, milk, sanitary items, emergency prescriptions – to help fill the need gap. 

We were able to recruit new volunteers and fast track disclosure and barring service (DBS) checks and references, which enabled us to man a telephone befriending service. As a result, 162 vulnerable people (previously unknown to us) are now able to hear a friendly voice every day.  

Quite early on we closed our central office, but staff working from home covered our switchboard, Information and Advice, Dementia Support, and Choosing the Right Care services over seven days each week. This meant we could also respond to emergency handyman calls for joiners, electricians, plumbers and occupational therapy requests for emergency home adaptations which helped people to stay safe at home. Opening our stores to deliver disability equipment, beds and mattresses helped avert crises and accelerated some hospital discharges. 

We supplied 160 people from our falls prevention service with information packs, activities and videos and telephoned them weekly to encourage them to carry out exercises. 

A shoulder to cry on 

People living with dementia and their carers have been disproportionately affected by the rules imposed by lockdown, and the closure of our day-care service was a huge blow. Changes in their routine, unable to leave the house, no respite for carers and families and the trials and tribulations of even a simple shopping trip made life difficult.  

To help with the inevitable isolation and try to prevent carer breakdown our staff made daily calls – they were a shoulder to cry on, a friendly listening ear and sometimes a distraction for the person with dementia to talk to a familiar voice. Our dementia support service devised strategies for carers to deal with challenging situations and averted crises on more than one occasion. 

Better together 

The admission to residential care for eight of our service users was disappointing for staff, of concern to relatives and an added financial cost to the local authority (one person was admitted out of borough where their needs could be better managed) but also an ironic indication of the preventative value of day care, which is sometimes viewed as an outdated service. 

In partnership with the local authority, clinical commissioning group and the fire service, we shared our three adapted minibuses and drivers/escorts to provide an additional hospital discharge service for both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients. Working together to a tight deadline, we cut through the red tape and launched a new service in less than three weeks – an achievement we all agreed would normally have taken far longer. A lesson learned. 

A double whammy 

At the start of the crisis we made the decision to do everything we could to help – after all, that’s why we exist. But it has been at a cost. The pandemic has delivered a double whammy for small local charities like ours. As we rose to the challenge, dug deep into our financial reserves and upped our game, the independent income we have worked so hard for has disappeared.  

Our ten charity shops closed their doors as did our events centre, with all wedding bookings postponed for a year. Our community venues lie silent and, together with other buildings we lease for a myriad of activities, are still a drain on our purse. 

Prevention is our byword 

Prevention is what we in the voluntary sector have always practised – it is our byword. And though it is discussed and revered at conferences, in plans and is promised, it is rarely commissioned and funded.  

All of the services we have put in place are lifelines for many older people who are restricted because of the lockdown. But they will still be needed post pandemic by many of those who still face restrictions every day because of their health conditions and disabilities. Our shopping service has always been a lifeline, keeping people independent and one of many preventative services that we and others deliver but struggle to fund.  

As we enter the next phase of the pandemic, please don’t forget about the value of prevention and about all these people as life returns to normal for the majority. They, and we, will need support more than ever. 

Yvonne Lee is chief executive of Age UK Oldham. Follow the organisation on Twitter @ageukoldham

Get involved in the NHS Reset campaign 



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