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Supporting the most vulnerable and at-risk people across Essex during the Covid 19 pandemic

At the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, Virgin Care and Barnardo’s joined forces with Provide, a community interest company, and other health and social care providers to form a virtual call centre – known as the Essex Wellbeing Hub – to support the most vulnerable and at-risk people across the county. The Hub gave residents a gateway to the “Essex Wellbeing Service”, which provided advice, support and reassurance as well as the coordinated delivery of everyday household necessities through a network of community volunteers.

Virgin Care
Virgin Care

The challenge

Although many people had access to support from family, friends or neighbours, which they could call upon for support during COVID-19, some households did not. This could be because they are living in relative isolation, are socially shielding for medical reasons, or because their needs are too complex for the support offered by local volunteers or the Local Offer from District Councils. Overwhelming fear, isolation and a very real danger to life meant the most vulnerable in society needed additional support, and quickly.

The solution

Essex County Council realised there wasn’t an existing solution that could support the unprecedented needs of the community. All the right components were available, but they needed bringing together under a single partnership. So, Essex County Council sought assistance from Provide to lead the development of Essex Welfare Hub and soon thereafter called for Virgin Care and Barnardo’s to come on board. Working under Essex County Council’s governance processes and commissioning oversight, the consortium could assuredly draw on Virgin Care and Barnardo’s local community knowledge and operational expertise and Provide’s innovative software solution and project leadership capability.  Working in partnerships is not something new for Virgin Care – it is part of our DNA and one of the reasons for our success in supporting children, young people and families across Essex and the country.

The difference

After just two weeks of Essex County Council’s ask, Operation Shield was launched and the Essex Wellbeing Service was up and running. It provided a central contact point for vulnerable people and their families to get practical support where COVID-19 had left them with nowhere else to turn for help.  Essex County Council had defined 428,000 people across the county as being vulnerable and in need of support from the programme, so the demand for this service was high.

Staff from Virgin Care and Barnardo’s Essex Child and Family Wellbeing Service were voluntarily redeployed to run a virtual call centre, taking on the role of call-handlers because of their experience of local people and places and their training in handling personal data and sensitive information. Call handlers truly went above and beyond, offering to work on one-day-a-week shift patterns for the virtual call centre in addition to their normal jobs. The service was popular from launch, and by July had handled more than 56,000 inbound and outbound calls. Tremendous flexibility, patience, hard work and goodwill was needed because things had not been done at this pace or scale before.

But it wasn’t just the call handlers that made this operation a success; the innovation and technology programme was exceptionally complex but well-delivered too. Working across multiple agencies, disciplines and geographies, IT professionals rolled out robust technology to call handlers so they could carry out their new responsibilities effectively. The progress that was made in such a short time is most impressive and, most importantly, helped provide support or direction to all those who have reached out to us. By getting innovative technologies and systems like PriorityMe and Cisco Jabber tailored to work on devices across four organisations with different IT infrastructures, the service was well-positioned to respond to the operational and GDPR challenges faced in keeping the most clinically vulnerable people in Essex safe and healthy.

Once set up, the Essex Wellbeing Service was able to help people with various needs, anything from finding a volunteer to deliver them food shopping or medication, to organising support for their mental health difficulties. Every day was different and challenging, but always rewarding, for the service’s call handlers. They often needed support themselves, so team leads are on-hand when there is uncertainty on how to deal with a call or what route to go down to support a patient. It wasn’t only taking calls from vulnerable, elderly or disabled demographic, there were instances where additional support needs required further management. For example, if a caller had additional needs for their children and family that are beyond basic necessities such as food, the call handler would seek permission to refer them to their local Healthy Family Team for someone to contact them to offer them further help.

Some of the most common questions from callers were about needing food parcels or asking when their vital delivery would be. Call handlers were also known to have supported with completing government vulnerable list application forms, as often literacy skills or confidence is low from callers.

Other types of calls can be particularly challenging, for example needing to coordinate safeguarding visits or social care referrals which this service isn’t designed or permitted to undertake. These can be challenging and long phone calls as the patient on the phone can become distressed and quite emotional. By the end of the conversation, the caller often feels a lot better knowing someone is there to help them and to simply listen.

Once calls were handled and needs were identified, volunteers from the community were a crucial element in carrying out the delivery aspect of the operation. After recruitment adverts were put out across social media, over 3,000 volunteers from the community came forward. Their roles would go on to include an array of errands, from shopping for the elderly and vulnerable who were shielding, delivering essential food parcels, dropping-off vital medical prescriptions or even taking an owner’s dog out for a walk.

As the country moves to the recovery phase, the programme has now evolved into an ongoing support service. Colleagues from Virgin Care and Barnardo’s are returning to their usual jobs, but they continue to be involved in the project by offering additional support in partnership with Active Essex and Neighbourly.

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