What we can learn from community aid groups during coronavirus

When coronavirus hit Britain local communities quickly started organising themselves to link volunteers with those in need of help. There are now thousands of Covid-19  Mutual Aid UK groups  who are playing a vital role in improving health and wellbeing in their areas.

For any healthcare teams interested in what’s happening in your local area, we’d suggest talking to your existing community networks first. You can also look online to find out how volunteers are being organised in your area (eg. Hammersmith & Fulham CAN) or you can use the map on the Covid19 UK Mutual Aid website to search for volunteer groups near you.


In March we arranged our first Zoom call with one of our most active Practice Champions, the super-connected Hanan Ghouneim. We wanted to know what health concerns and questions local families had and to see if we could help with any myth-busting. Hanan told us about the local Mutual Aid group she's joined through the Hammersmith & Fulham Community Aid Network (CAN) and was able to share helpful resources with the group. It has been an amazing communications resource for our team but we’ve also seen the far bigger picture of the extraordinary workforce of volunteers who have mobilised to improve health in their communities. 


We asked Hanan to tell us about the impact that community network groups are making: 


What is a mutual aid group?

A mutual aid group is a group of local volunteers. They are grass roots groups organised through Facebook and WhatsApp groups. We offer services from friendly phone calls to running errands, such as collecting shopping or going to the post office. Volunteers are asked for their name and contact details and if they have a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check (if they do they could help some of the more vulnerable people in their community).


We had leaflets printed with volunteer contact details (that’s our own contact numbers). I adopted three streets (my street and another two) and leafleted those three streets – we were given gloves for the leafleting. 


While local authorities and NHS volunteer groups were getting started, local mutual aid groups acted a lot quicker. You can respond a lot quicker when you are on the ground and if you are not trying to cover a large area.  


How was it organised?

Our borough Hammersmith and Fulham is broken down into different wards, the groups have been organised by each ward. Local stakeholders and individuals who work within the community and council started to contact the people they knew already who were living in the ward, to see who would volunteer. It’s a sort of stretch from the council to local people. I’m a “community junkie” so I got the call and was asked if I would like to help. I’ve got 4 kids and I’m busy like everyone but I just thought at a time like this I can’t sit back


There are over 100 people in my mutual aid group with a handful of active volunteers going out and helping people in the community. Understandably lots of people are scared at the moment, so some are doing the befriending calls rather than going out.


Why is it needed?

We know our area better than anyone. It’s better to have someone from the community to help rather than someone new who doesn’t know the area and understand our needs. We know people on a personal level so we know what they need and what the area needs.


What you worry about is the people who need help who we don’t know about yet, especially the elderly who don’t have family to look after them. I’ve just had a call about a 93 year old who has nothing, no family and no support. The call came through the GP practice where I’ve got a really good relationship, they know they can come to me for signposting to what’s happening locally and helpful links. I count myself lucky that I do know a lot of people and have these links, where there is a lot of trust. But we are six weeks in, so that’s six weeks where someone who’s 93 has gone without help and is now relying on volunteers to help. 


What have you achieved?

We are all trying our best. We know that all the people who we’ve been in contact with have got the help they needed. We know that their needs have been met, even if it was just that they needed a pint of milk. It’s the sense that you’re actually helping.


What are the biggest barriers?

Things need to happen quickly – we don’t have time at the moment. I couldn’t find my DBS number but wanted things to move quickly so I called the deputy head of the school where I’m a governor to get it. 


But the main thing is trust. People want to hear things from the government or from the NHS at the moment, but we’re not an official body. We don’t have any official ID so you have to rely on the fact that people know you or have seen you around doing things locally, so that they trust you. The barriers can put you off, it makes you think ‘why am I bothering?’ On the flip side, when you are able to do something to help it’s an amazing feeling.


What difference has it made having connections to NHS healthcare professionals at this time? 

Half the stuff that I’ve been able to do is because of my contacts with Connecting Care for Children and the Council. It is really important that we are able to share information from the hospital, and from the NHS, so people know that is it information that they can trust. 


I’ve been able to share the everyday concerns I’ve been hearing, like the Mum who needed the dentist but didn’t know where to go. The documents that we’ve pulled together (with answers to the frequently asked questions) are exactly what people need. I can’t wait to share them with my community next week. This information wouldn’t have reached my community or it would have taken a lot longer. We’re not expecting people to know all the answers but we’ll be able to share where they can get help. 


People aren’t looking for answers but guidance. Now more than ever, something is better than nothing! You want something that you can trust so that you’re not left in the dark.