Covid-19 mutual aid and community support: How volunteers are getting involved

The volunteer response to coronavirus has been truly astonishing. Despite the UK being on lockdown, more than 750,000 volunteers have signed up to NHS Volunteer Responders this week. Alongside this, thousands of new volunteer-led community support groups have been created across the country – as friends, families and neighbours come together to help one another. You can find out more about how to volunteer during the outbreak and read Shaun Delaney’s blog to understand the guidance on volunteering during the lockdown.

Many of the volunteer-led community groups refer to themselves as ‘mutual aid’ groups and are organised autonomously – usually within streets or neighbourhoods. Covid Mutual Aid UK have been supporting these individual groups and they’ve mapped out thousands of these groups on their website.

Earlier this week, I caught up with Mark, Mustafa and Matt. They’re three people who’ve helped set up volunteer-run groups to support their local communities during the outbreak. I wanted to find out how they’d set up their groups and how they were responding to community needs while also keeping people safe.

Getting started

When a crisis hits, many people want to bring their community together to create a local response. But sometimes knowing where to start can be a challenge.

Matt Hick, from the village of Scholes in Yorkshire, said in the early days of the crisis there were little pockets of local voluntary activity, but not yet a coordinated response. To bring things together, he reached out to local stakeholders and together they drafted a community response plan. Within a matter of days, someone had helped to create a website and Your Scholes was up and running.

In Earlsfield  South-West London, Mark Mayhew was finding the global scale of the pandemic overwhelming so decided to focus on the needs of the local area. He started talking to existing local groups and asked, ‘how can we best come together and provide support to the community?’ An initial Zoom call was held to coordinate the plan and soon they’d set up Earlsfield Together. Rather than directly coordinating the volunteer response, the group decided to focus on supporting people to organise at street level to support one another. They’ve put together some great tips for those thinking of starting a street level community support group.

Responding to community needs

The coronavirus crisis is complex and linking up those willing to help with those needing support can be a logistical challenge. Mustafa Almansur, who’s helped set up a network of mutual aid groups in Islington, North London reflects on his experience. He identifies a key part of ensuring needs are met has been linking up with pre-existing groups in the area. The Islington Network have linked up with groups working with certain communities, such as the Islington Somali Community. It’s these connections which have helped them to bridge community divides and provide support to everyone.

Mark in Earlsfield echoed the above point and said it’s important to remember that there’s a wealth of knowledge and resources already out there. Linking up with nearby groups and charities can help immensely in being safe and effective while helping people.

For anyone thinking of starting a local group, finding your local Volunteer Centre can be a good place to start. A Volunteer Centre is a local organisation that provides support within the local community for:

  • potential volunteers
  • existing volunteers
  • organisations and groups that involve volunteers.

Making safety a priority

We know thinking carefully about safeguarding and data protection is very important within the voluntary sector. Mustafa mentioned his group had thought about how to keep people and their data safe. Those providing or receiving help enter their details into a Google form only shared with a small co-ordinating team. If someone needs help, then their door number is only shared with the individual volunteer allocated. Explicit consent must be given for personal data to be processed. Cornerstone Barristers have written a helpful blog explaining how mutual aid groups can comply with data protection rules. In Yorkshire, Your Scholes have a data protection policy in place which outlines how personal data is collected, stored, used and how long it’s kept for.

You can read our guidance around safeguarding and data protection for volunteers responding to the coronavirus and follow our steps for staying safe when supporting others in your community. We have removed the paywall from our KnowHow resources – you can access our safeguarding guidance and data protection guidance for free.

Why not also take a look at the government’s safeguarding and DBS fact sheet which has information for community groups helping people during the outbreak. The ICO have also written a blog to help community groups understand how to approach data protection and comply with the rules.

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Charlie Gillies Charlie is a trainee volunteering development policy officer at NCVO, supporting NCVO's volunteering policy work. He has been volunteering since childhood in various roles, including at a community development charity working with the eastern European Roma community in Glasgow, as an adviser at a Citizens Advice bureau, and as a Scout leader.

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