The last few weeks have affected public services in a way very few of us could have possibly anticipated. Local councils and community organisations have found themselves needing to transform the way they work, in order to keep serving their residents, at the same time as building new services to reach out to the most vulnerable and those suddenly finding themselves self-isolating.  At moments when the challenges have felt insurmountable, the powerful spirit of co-operation together with proud traditions of community activism are the foundations for an approach to reaching out to the most vulnerable and meeting their needs.

In Tower Hamlets, we have built on our strong community sector partnerships to set up a network of organisations providing food support and befriending support.  Co-ordinated through the Council for Voluntary Services and the local Volunteer Centre, the Council has supported community organisations to build up their services for those who might use services which are now closed due to the lockdown and those who are self-isolating. We have all been overwhelmed and grateful with the response we have had to the call out for volunteers, with 1000 volunteers now signing up.  The Volunteer Centre is now advertising a wide range of volunteer roles and we are seeing these already supporting services.

The Council itself has established a phone line and online form for anyone self-isolating. The phone line is available at the weekends as well.  A Council officer from our outreach team will contact the household to talk to them about their needs, including food and additional advice if they have lost their job or are suddenly losing income. If someone contacts this service needing food on the day, a Council officer will take food either from a local shop or one of the food banks we are working with to that household.

Sadly, our local food banks have been on the front line responding to austerity for 10 years now.  The Council’s food response team has been working with food banks to support them with their food supply, linking up with Fair Share and working with them on crowdfunding campaigns to ensure they have the funds to purchase stock.

Over the next few weeks there is still more to do. We will be developing our food distribution approach – we have received amazing offers of support from a wide range of organisations who have offered their space for food distribution – alongside continuing to support households whose incomes have suddenly dropped through directly contacting those most at risk and helping welfare advice services to keep going.

We must also keep campaigning or food justice and a social security system that works for everyone. There has never been a more important time to co-operate.