Will Tanner is Director of Onward. James O’Shaughnessy chairs Onward’s ‘Repairing our Social Fabric’ programme.
The coronavirus has brought out the best of British spirit – from Colonel Tom’s marathon to the mutual aid groups set up in every neighbourhood.
But there are worrying signs of fatigue and frustration among the communities and volunteers on the frontline of the pandemic response.
Charities, like the youth mentoring service Lifeline Projects in Barking and Dagenham, are being forced to choose between helping the growing number of people in need now, or laying off staff to protect their ability to do so once the crisis is over. The wave of initial enthusiasm for the NHS volunteer scheme has been allowed to peter out, with many of the 750,000 initial volunteers complaining of delays and an absence of useful tasks.
And figures this week from the Office for National Statistics show that 25 million people have increased levels of anxiety, with over-70s in self-isolation particularly anxious.
Unless we act, these problems will get worse in the coming months of social distancing and the wave of community spirit will be lost when it is needed most to bring the country back together. That is why today Onward publishes a fifteen point plan for a ‘social stimulus’ to the virus to accompany the healthcare and economic measures already announced.
We know that families are often best placed to support vulnerable loved ones, so as we plan for the end of lockdown we should put family contact and informal caring at the front of the queue for travel and testing.
Meanwhile, parks and libraries should be opened as early as possible to give people back the benefits of physical exercise, green space and digital access.
To help food banks, debt advice charities, and domestic abuse services deal with rising demand, charities should be able to re-deploy furloughed workers as volunteers and new funding sources, from endowment funds to corporate gift aid, should be encouraged to give them financial security.
It is fast becoming clear that a nationwide mental health package will be necessary to combat the grief and mental illness that sadly accompany this virus. Ministers should start by granting everyone free access to NHS mental health apps and rolling out crisis care in communities to reduce reliance on hospitals.
The NHS volunteer army should be turned into a lasting civic institution that links local people to civic action in their community well beyond the crisis, by allowing charities and communities to post useful jobs on the app for local people to volunteer for. Some communities already have a strong social infrastructure that will help them rebound from the crisis, others don’t. So extra help is needed to build volunteer networks in the places that need them most.
These volunteer heroes should be recognised alongside NHS doctors and nurses, charity workers and local philanthropists in a new look honours system, one designed to mark their exceptional contribution during the pandemic, proposed and voted for by members of the public.
During the Second World War, Lord Beaverbrook helped fund the Royal Air Force by asking people to sponsor a Spitfire. Today ministers should raise their ambition and target £1 billion in donations from individuals, endowments and corporations to fund community recovery, with every £1 gifted matched by the Treasury and going into a Community Recovery Fund.
The irony of the last six weeks of social distancing and self-isolation is that the pandemic has brought us closer together in spirit. As the crisis continues, the Government will need to do more to ensure that that spirit is retained, amplified, and used to help every community across the UK bounce back from the coronavirus crisis.