Overheard during Covid: What the pandemic has taught us

December 9, 2020   By Pippa Coutts

Over six months, Pippa Coutts and her colleagues at Carnegie Trust talked to communities across the UK to gather their experience of the Covid pandemic. The resulting ‘Listening Project’ reflects on what has been learnt during this time and outlines hopes and opportunities for how communities and the public sector can work together in future.  

At the start of the pandemic, like everyone, the Carnegie UK Trust team was feeling its way. For decades we have partnered with different sectors across the UK to promote wellbeing. And in March and April, we were concerned about the wellbeing of the people we knew in these partner organisations, and of their communities.  

We decided to contact people we had worked with before to find out more about the emergency, the local response and what that might mean for the longer term. We began a ‘listening project’. Over six months we spoke to people in the voluntary sector and local authorities across the UK from boroughs in Central London to islands in the Outer Hebrides. Although geographically disparate there were some core similarities, particularly in how areas responded to the crisis.  

Here’s some of what we found:  

The emergency response was led by individuals and communities.  

At a local and hyperlocal people and small groups stepped up to provide essential supplies to neighbours, friends, fellow community members. The most striking evidence of this is the thousands of mutual aid groups the sprung up across the country: highlighted by New Local research on the rise of mutual aid. The communities, and often the organisations in the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector (VCSE), were flexible in the range of support they offered their neighbours and fellow citizens. People began by delivering food, but as food became more accessible they switched to meeting other needs: for example signposting people to accessing income support; providing care and activities to promote mental health; and enabling digital access 

Partnership working was powerful 

Competition, for example for funding in the VCSE sector, was reduced. And this promoted collaboration and working together. Local Authorities worked across sectors, as people where redeployed into different roles and attention to targets and performance management disappeared.  Partnerships between sectors formed. The VCSE sector and communities, with their rapid response, knowledge of volunteering and local communities, assisted local authorities to provide more effective support than either could offer alone.  

People let go of rigid processes 

The immediate risks of the pandemic, and the need to response quickly to save lives and livelihoods, meant that the recurrent risks organisations faced paled. Disclosure applications were processed free and quickly; commissioning processes were shorter and more collaborative, and funding was given without the usual targets and reporting procedures. Council staff were given permission to provide the help that people wanted. For example, a member of staff who received a call for a prescription delivery thought the individual sounded ‘maybe not right’, and went to drop off the prescription and check.  The person hadn’t seen anyone in weeks, thought he’d been forgotten about, and his mental health had suffered. The council staff member had easy access to a range of support, during the emergency, and was able to arrange a soup-and-a-sandwich lunch to be dropped off regularly by someone who also had the time for a chat. 

There was more holistic support 

The crisis has shown that people’s needs are holistic – food, fulfilling activity, friendship – and when sectors work together they can respond better to a multiplicity of people’s needs. This has implications for the future of public sector services. Communities need policymakers to place their wellbeing at the centre of services, across sector and silos. 

The services and behaviours we heard about in our conversations are very similar to the ‘balance-shifting’ practices that New Local is uncovering in a partnership project with Barrow Cadbury, Carnegie UK Trust and Power to Change. They provide learning about how to tackle ‘wicked problems’, such as poverty and inequality, more effectively in the future. 

The keys to change are recognising the conditions that allowed the mutually beneficial partnership and practises to emerge, and making those drivers of change stick into the future.  

 What I’d like to see stick is: 

  • A shared purpose. We don’t want to rely on tragic emergencies to bring us together, so we must work harder to develop shared narratives across the UK to unite us in our local places. 
  • An altered attitude to risk. The health risk won over normal risk management processes. This allowed radical kindness to flourish in the public sector, and helped local organisations to blossom.  
  • Help people to help each other through recognising people and communities are the ‘first resort’ for community wellbeing. This can prompt a shifting of decision-making and funding to a hyperlocal level. 
  • Rebalancing work and life. People were able to volunteer and help out because they had more time, for example if furloughed, or their employer promoted it through redeployment or more flexible working. For some, these contractions and changes in employment are of pressing concern financially. But for others the changes brought opportunities to engage in their local communities. This begs the question of whether now is the time to take more seriously initiatives such as a four day week and time banks. 

As one participant in the conversations said: 

“We can’t go back to ‘normal’ after this. The current situation is a catalyst for social change that we need to capitalise on.” 

This blog is based on a summary of conversations included in the report COVID-19 and Communities Listening Project: A Shared Response

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