'We were all in the dark at first' - Town's 'essential' Covid volunteering effort

Conservative councillor for Dereham Neatherd Alison Webb, who serves as Breckland's executive member for health and housing

Conservative councillor for Dereham Neatherd, Alison Webb, who serves as Breckland District Council's executive member for health and housing. - Credit: Gary Donnison Photography 2021

In our latest column, Conservative councillor ALISON WEBB, who serves as the executive member for health and housing on Breckland District Council, reflects on Dereham's extraordinary volunteering effort over the past year. 

Looking back to March 2020, none of us could have possibly known what we were all facing. We all felt confused and, to be perfectly honest, a little bit frightened of what Covid was going to mean for us all.

I knew that our community of Dereham and Toftwood were feeling much the same, so I spoke to councillor Hilary Bushell and councillor Phillip Duigan and they agreed that we had to do something for residents who needed help.

At fast pace, we put a scheme in place. I asked the aboutDereham team if they could help and a webpage was created where residents could register if they needed help with basic needs such as shopping and collecting prescriptions, or would like a phone call if they were feeling isolated. This was essential, especially during lockdown periods, as vulnerable residents were asked to shield. The website also asked for volunteers, to help those in need.

I felt that to some extent we were all in the dark at this early stage. Nobody knew exactly what would be needed or how to find the people most in need. The Dereham Cares website was an essential tool because people who didn't even live in Dereham could register their elderly relative and ask for them to receive support.

Dereham Town Council has declared a climate emergency. Picture: Archant

Mrs Webb and others worked quickly to establish the Dereham Cares support group, to help vulnerable people in the town. - Credit: Ian Burt

I was amazed at the response we received from the community. The Dereham Cares scheme had more than 200 volunteers who were willing to help those people who were isolated in this way. These volunteers were put into teams by our wonderful coordinators. 

The volunteers were offered health and safety advice in pandemic conditions and some volunteers received training in how to help people with complex needs.

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Our funding was much appreciated from Dereham Town Council and the Norfolk Community Foundation which allowed us to give out emergency food parcels to those who were in desperate need. On top of what we provided, Breckland District Council also distributed food parcels and helped with more complicated cases with multiple needs.

In the very first lockdown, between March and June 2020, the volunteers helped an amazing 480 residents. They went to the pharmacies and collected their prescriptions and brought them to their homes free of charge.

For some people, this service was literally life-saving.

“People were very appreciative”, said former Dereham mayor and Breckland councillor Hilary Bushell.

Hilary Bushell, Mayor of Dereham is keen to help promote adoption. Picture: Ian Burt

Hilary Bushell, Mayor of Dereham is keen to help promote adoption. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Archant

“I know because I have spoken to people who could not have stayed healthy had they not had their prescriptions delivered in this way, so that they did not need to go out.”

I shall never forget the time when our prescription collection team under the coordinator lead of councillor Hugh King delivered a record 260 prescriptions in two days.

This year's lockdown was also a challenge. By now, some people had been staying away from shops and other social areas for more than 12 months. In some cases, this has led to extreme isolation. In these instances, a friendly telephone call once or twice a week can make all the difference.

So where are we today? Dereham Cares is still operating isolation phone calls but the requirement for prescriptions and food deliveries has now stopped. Of course we will be ready to start up again if needed in the future, but let's all hope we will not need to!

Looking back and to the future, what has struck me about our Dereham and Toftwood community is the way that when we are faced with challenges, we all pull together to help each other. This feeling of supporting and being supported is so special and we should all be so grateful and proud.

I would like to express my gratitude to Breckland council, which also put a vast array of provision in place to help residents and businesses in the district, both during these difficult times and in the recovery period.

Breckland Council Offices, Dereham. Picture: Ian Burt

Breckland Council Offices, Dereham. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: IAN BURT

One of the important challenges is helping residents who are suffering with their mental wellbeing. Breckland council, also under my lead, is launching a programme of training Community Mental Health Champions, starting in September, so they can help people who may be struggling in any way after a period of isolation or illness.

Finally, my personal thoughts: yes, Covid has impacted on us all but as well as the negative side of things, there has been a Dereham/Toftwood community team spirit which has emerged strongly and my hope is that this will continue and help us all through whatever life throws at us in the future.