This report is based on a study of the official, borough-wide Lewisham COVID-19 Emergency Response Hub, referred to here as the Hub. The Hub was operational March-August 2020 with the aim of delivering information, food and a befriending service during the national lockdown to isolated, vulnerable people with the help of volunteers. The study was commissioned by Lewisham Local/Rushey Green Time Bank (Lewisham Local) and London Borough of Lewisham (Council). It came about because the Hub was keen to capture the specifics of the borough’s experience. Their aim was to use lessons learned from participant reflections to inform the development of the voluntary and community sector and future recovery plans. This report is therefore primarily a case study of the London Borough of Lewisham experience, documenting how and why the Hub was developed, what it achieved and what is to be celebrated. Importantly, this report also identifies the challenges that were faced, points to lessons learned, reflects the unrelenting intensity of the work and makes recommendations based on an analysis of the data.
London Borough of Lewisham has long had an established commitment to partnership work and a Main Grants Programme supporting Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) organisations. Just before the national lockdown came into force in March 2020, Lewisham Council and VCS organisations came together to form an effective local emergency response. They created a Hub of five partner organisations that coordinated emergency support. There were three strands to the Hub’s purpose: food parcels, befriending relationships and practical help.
The Hub was a dynamic and evolving partnership. It was based on strong pre-existing relationships between the VCS organisations and their structural links to the Council. These were solidified through the success of the operation. The partnership demonstrated strong leadership and initiative in setting up the Hub. A high level of dedication from everyone involved in the delivery process was evidenced. VCS and Council strategy leads provided essential facilitation, expertise and connections in community development and cross-sectoral work. During the crisis, organisational boundaries became temporarily permeable, allowing some staff to be redeployed in support of the Hub. This was especially valuable where people had relevant skills for the role. In addition, organisations embedded in local communities were willing, responsive and agile collaborators, able to mobilise existing networks effectively.
The Hub created a valuable new website and a telephone line, which was the single point of entry into the open access system. A one entry system supporting delivery by multiple organisations enabled calls to be triaged and duplication to be minimised. The emergency phone line proved essential in the crisis and some form of open access service continues to be needed for people pending or otherwise unable to secure referral.
A large number of volunteer opportunities were generated and there was a surplus of applications from potential volunteers. In the process, the partnership engaged newer communities, received positive feedback from residents and gained new local information and expertise in managing the complex process at scale.
The combined impact of the virus and lockdowns increased unemployment, poverty, homelessness and other significant social issues. Given the challenges identified through the study, a connected three-pronged approach is needed as part of a Lewisham recovery plan based in collaborative partnerships:
- Relieving residents’ immediate problems – through a mix of casework, advocacy and an infrastructure of support. These could aim to identify needs and process them holistically. A mix of social prescribing, open access provision and mutual exchange that takes account of the full range of basic needs and local diversity is recommended.
- Creation and investment – in local jobs, businesses, cooperatives, affordable housing, public health and connecting communities. Partnerships have a key role in facilitating these.
- Democratic renewal and community engagement – addressing root causes of social and economic inequality. It is recommended to promote a shared sense of agency through local deliberative democracy, promoting solidarities and supporting wider campaigns or movements for change. This involves recognising individual problems or cases are part of wider social issues requiring policy and structural change.
As the size and profile of the Lewisham population is considerably different to case studies reported on by the Carnegie Trust18, this report begins with some important details about the Lewisham profile and what makes the borough distinctive.