“What keeps me awake at night is the thought that we might miss someone”

I’ve spoken to several friends in the past few days who have had their letter from the NHS telling them that because of their underlying health conditions and the drugs they’re taking for them, they need to be ‘shielded’ from the Coronavirus, as they are especially vulnerable. There’s usually a slightly embarrassed reaction to this, or at least in the telling of it, as they have never before seen themselves as vulnerable. These are the educated middle class, more used to managing other people or writing stories about unfortunates who are in some way ‘victims’, than embracing victimhood themselves.

With modern drugs, people who have quite serious lifelong conditions can be high functioning professionals, going about their lives with their condition unknown to friends and colleagues unless they choose to mention it. Now they have to mention it, and to rely on other people. Most of those I know have networks of good friends, enough money to support themselves and access to all the information they need. So far they’ve said “I’m alright thank you”.

But what about those that don’t? Those who are normally quite self-sufficient, but socially isolated and reliant on an income source which has now dried up? Those are the people who councils up and down the land are attempting to reach out to, in order to include them in the help networks being established.

Steve Curran has been a councillor for ten years, and leader of Hounslow Council for six. The Coronavirus epidemic is the biggest challenge he’s had to face.

Images above: Hounslow House, closed and empty

Launch of the Community Hub

Last week the council launched its Community Hub, aimed at providing support to all those who are isolated and vulnerable. His team is working through lists – a list provided by the NHS of those who need to be ‘shielded’, a list of all those who have had dealings with the council’s Social Services, lists of council tenants and people who have contacted their housing department, and those new lists of people provided by the police and by members of the public ringing the council hotline. It’s a huge task, finding all the people who might need help and coordinating the council’s response. Those who are most likely to need help in the way of food parcels and other practical assistance are precisely the people who don’t have computers, smart phones and access to social media.

“What keeps me awake at night is the thought that we might miss someone” he told The Chiswick Calendar.

The council has put in place its command – control systems for emergencies. Chief Executive Niall Bolger is the Gold Commander. He describes himself as a business development professional , a qualified town planner with a PG Diploma Public Administration from Warwick University Business School. He works in conjunction with his own team of council officers, many of whom have been drafted in from other jobs such as librarians, and with the elected Cabinet Office of councillors.

The Community Hub has been a ‘slow burn’ says Steve, because they’ve been waiting for the list from the NHS and for food parcels from the Government, but they received both last week and have started ringing round, asking people if they needed help and delivering food accordingly. The Government food parcels when they got them were “pitiful” he says, with “the wrong type of food. Lots of sugar.” The council has since swapped to its own provider and stocked the food parcels with “juice, milk, fresh fruit and veg, eggs, bread – proper food”.

The people they’ave delivered them to so far have been very grateful. “The urgent and critical list is building up”, he says. “Most people keep themselves to themselves, but we now have a few hundred people on the list who we know need support. We are adaptable and flexible.”

“The response from the public has been fantastic”, he says. At the moment they have more volunteers than they have jobs to give them. “It really has brought out the best in people. I’m very proud of that.” They aren’t able to get people DBS checked quickly enough to be confident to send them out to vulnerable people on their own, so volunteers are channelled through established volunteer organisations.

Images above: Messages left out for the rubbish collection teams. Photographs, Jane Davies

“Let’s build on the positives”

The council now also has access to those volunteers who have answered the call to help the NHS. I ask him what he thinks of all the hyper-local, street based groups which have sprung up over the past couple of weeks.

“It almost goes back to a bygone age” he says, “when there were real communities in the streets. People coming out and clapping has brought a lot of communities closer together. People have got to know their neighbours. I hope that is one good thing that will come out of this, the local groups are very good indeed and we should do more of this in the future. I hope it builds stronger communities and more involvement. Let’s build on the positives”.

Among those who have offered support are Brentford FC, which has put both staff and premises at the council’s disposal. “We’ve had some lovely emails and letters from people offering help” says Steve.

Council Tax Relief

It’s unfortunate, says Steve, that the automated release of Council Tax bills for the coming year happened just as everything was shutting down and people were wondering how they were going to make ends meet.

“Depending on your financial situation, you don’t have to pay your Council Tax right away. In fact you can get up to 100% relief on Council Tax. Ours is one of the most generous schemes in the country”.

Hounslow is not chasing anyone for late payment of Council Tax right now, neither is it chasing rent arrears, or going ahead with any evictions or repossessions. Most of its staff members are able to work from home.

“We’re lucky that when we built Hounslow House (opened a year ago)one of the reasons we moved was to downsize. There are not enough desk spaces, so everyone has been encouraged to work from home for the past two years – the first year on a trial basis before we moved offices, so people are set up to work from home and are used to it”.

Building a new morgue

There is one aspect of this the council leader is not able to put an optimistic spin on. They are having to build more morgue facilities. This is a pan-London response to the epidemic, being organised along the lines of coroners’ areas. A temporary morgue capable of taking 1600 bodies is being built in Hillingdon, he tells me.

“There are well-rehearsed plans in place for this sort of thing, and those plans are now being put in place. I have a weekly conference call with all the leaders of local authorities around the country, chaired by Robert Jenrik, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and another weekly call with leaders of the London councils, chaired by Peter John, leader of Southwark council”.

Not enough testing or protective equipment

Steve Curran is also worried about the insufficient availability of PPE, Personal Protective Equipment. “There still isn’t anywhere near enough coverage” he says. “I am concerned about care homes and the inability to test people for the Coronavirus”.

Does the responsibility for all this keep him awake at night? Yes it does. “I’ve not been sleeping well. I worry about my (nearly 3,000) staff, about the grave diggers and the waste disposal crews, the registration staff. But most of all I worry that we will miss someone”.

If there is anyone you think is in need of council support through the epidemic, they can ring themselves or you can ring on their behalf to have them added to the list for a phone call or a visit.

Call 020 7084 9697 or email Hub@hounslow.gov.uk