COVID-19: supporting poorer communities

Carla Stanke, Public Health Specialist with LEAP, considers how her programme, working with families in four wards in Lambeth, is responding to a crisis that has hit poorer communities hard.

None of us ever imagined the need to quickly reorganise our programmes because of a global pandemic.

Carla Stanke

LEAP, based in south London’s diverse Brixton community in the borough of Lambeth, has seen high numbers of reported coronavirus cases; this is unsurprising given emerging information about the particularly insidious spread of the virus in more deprived communities. The impacts of deprivation on child and family wellbeing are well established, and we are more concerned than ever about how our families are coping in the midst of this extraordinary public health crisis.

Just before the national lockdown, as we quickly transitioned to home working and scheduled urgent phone calls with our service providers to take stock of their plans, it became evident that our communications - with the families we serve as well as with colleagues - would become paramount to our response.

New web pages were created, making it easy to understand which of our services were operational - albeit remotely - as well as signposting visitors to reliable sources of local and national information and support.

We strengthened our social media presence: Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp groups became more important than ever to keep us connected in light of physical distancing requirements.

We explored digital delivery options: words like Teams, Zoom and Skype became part of every conversation. Above all, we ensured that our messages were consistent with national public health advice and, where possible, circulated these messages in the languages most spoken in our neighbourhoods.

Our service providers adapted admirably in their digital responses: virtual breastfeeding support groups were established; remote nutrition advice sessions were organised; parent/infant psychotherapy was reimagined for telephone delivery and a leaflet for parents was written and shared across the country; Zumba was offered by Zoom; domestic violence support, oral health advice and overcrowded housing support were offered by phone.

In the blink of an eye, everything that could be delivered remotely, was.

We miss our NHS service providers: the midwives, health visitors, health trainers and speech & language therapists who deliver several of our services, and know that their redeployments elsewhere to support frontline COVID-19 efforts are crucially needed.

The Healthy Living Platform (HLP), one of LEAP’s Diet & Nutrition providers, has been instrumental in the enormous emergency food response in Lambeth.

Sue Sheehan, HLP’s director, is managing one of two emergency food distribution hubs in the borough. Sue and her team have their fingers on the pulse of local distribution of food parcels (in excess of 400 per day out of Sue’s hub alone) to vulnerable and shielded families. HLP is working with our Communication & Language team to include activity packs, full of art supplies and home learning activities, in food parcels for families with young children, and we are currently working together to provide delicious hot vegetarian meals to new mums when they arrive home from hospital after having their babies. We know that postnatal support is critically important for women and new babies and we are trying to help fill this gap with the currency known to bring people together: food.

Brixton food hub

Like organisations around the world, we are capturing insights on how the pandemic is affecting people: our service providers and partners, the NHS workforce we employ, the families and children we engage with every day.

Early results reveal unsurprising - and sobering - details about local circumstances. We are seeing

  • Increased anxiety about finances and food security; concerns about children’s behaviour and learning;
  • Worrying accounts about people’s emotional wellbeing;
  • Increased requests for domestic violence support;
  • Reports of extraordinary pressures on single parents isolating at home with their children and fears around grocery shopping with young children;
  • Anxieties from healthcare providers about doing their jobs with inadequate personal protective equipment; and the difficulties in providing bereavement support for local families.

We are gathering these insights the best we can and will use them to help us re-build LEAP in a way that meets the new needs of our families in the wake of COVID-19.

We are proud of our LEAP community for pulling together quickly and calmly in the face of a global pandemic, and will continue to put the interests of families and young children at the heart of everything we do.

Carla Stanke is Public Health Specialist at LEAP

About A Better Start

A Better Start is a ten-year (2015-2025), £215 million programme set-up by The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK. Five A Better Start partnerships based in Blackpool, Bradford, Lambeth, Nottingham and Southend are supporting families to give their babies and very young children the best possible start in life. Working with local parents, the A Better Start partnerships are developing and testing ways to improve their children’s diet and nutrition, social and emotional development, and speech, language and communication.

The work of the programme is grounded in scientific evidence and research. A Better Start is place-based and enabling systems change. It aims to improve the way that organisations work together and with families to shift attitudes and spending towards preventing problems that can start in early life. It is one of five major programmes set up by The National Lottery Community Fund to test and learn from new approaches to designing services which aim to make people’s lives healthier and happier

The National Children’s Bureau is coordinating an ambitious programme of shared learning for A Better Start, disseminating the partnerships’ experiences in creating innovative services far and wide, so that others working in early childhood development or place-based systems change can benefit.

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