We need to talk about this emergency and others to come

By Norman McKinley | 27 July 2020

There’s crying in the background when a call comes through to the British Red Cross coronavirus support line.

A woman explains, with quiet desperation in her voice, that she’s on her own with her two-month-old baby. She is hungry and cannot afford food.

This is just one of the 5,000 calls we’ve taken so far from people who might otherwise have slipped through the cracks.

From the woman reliant on her abusive adult son for shopping (who may or may not use her money for food), to the elderly man whose neighbour is shielding and can’t help, to the young family who have just one packet of porridge and no money.

We activated our support line in April, as we have for many emergencies, including the Grenfell Tower fire and the terror attacks of 2017.

It’s a simple but effective way to offer people a one-stop-shop of support, whether that’s a listening ear, or more practical help or signposting.

It also gives us and our partners helpful insight into one of the many challenges coronavirus has brought to responding agencies – how do we reach everyone at the most risk? Where are those people who aren’t on the ‘vulnerable lists’? And what do they need?

Coronavirus has brought a unique set of challenges to bear on government, local authorities and the voluntary sector.

Emergency food provision, in particular, has shown both the scale of need and the complexity of meeting that need in an emergency.

It has also shown, though, the importance of working together, across sectors and specialisms to ensure people have access to the food they need and the food they want.

Mammoth efforts combined with local knowledge, new partnerships and innovation have helped us collectively to reach into communities, and continually revise and expand operations.

It has been, and still is, an inspiring mission to be part of. But it’s also come with its challenges – despite these efforts people have fallen through the gaps.

As we enter into the next phases – local lockdowns, individual isolation due to Test and Trace, and easing of restrictions – we need to capture lessons learnt. We need to have an honest conversation about what worked, what didn’t, and what we want to see happen in future emergencies – and the next stages of this one.

Our new report, Access to food in emergencies: learning from Covid-19  gathers insight from across the sector and communities.

From collective experience and our research, we make a number of recommendations. These range from practical insights such as translating information and lifting heavy food deliveries from doorsteps, to tackling longer-term causes of food insecurity and consider reviewing the Civil Contingencies Act.

Currently, no single agency has a specific statutory duty to provide humanitarian support in an emergency, including food.

The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 has guidance.

However, we would like Government to consider a review of the Act so that food, and humanitarian assistance more broadly, become a statutory requirement.

We have previously highlighted the need for a review of Act in 2019’s People Power in Emergencies report.

Including access to food and other aid would be a concrete action to outline responsibilities and provide a more consistent approach, giving local authorities, charities and voluntary groups a clear framework in future crises.

Or, as I put it to a colleague: ‘Imagine doing all this again, only with more preparation, an advance plan and budget.’

We don’t want to be reinventing the wheel when the next emergency comes.

There are actions we can all take in the meantime. One of those is to expand our understanding of vulnerability.

We know emergencies can increase vulnerabilities in a wide range of people – and we’ve especially seen this during COVID-19. Shielding, finances, support networks falling down, ill health – the virus has created an extra layer of risk and amplified existing issues.

Finding those in need is a challenge – there are council lists, and charities and agencies who work with people who need extra support.

But not everyone is on a list.

This pandemic has also exposed how many of us can become vulnerable, even if it that’s not how we see ourselves.

How many of us would be at risk if one link in our own personal chain of support were to break? And those who become ‘newly vulnerable’ may not have the resilience or experience to know where to find help.

To help identify communities at risk, we’ve created a publicly-available Vulnerability Index to map areas where people are more likely to face inequalities in health, wellbeing and economic hardship.

This isn’t the full story of communities – people aren’t data or geography – we also need to listen to what people want, not give them what we think they need.

People’s requirements are as individual as they are and we need to be better at providing a more nuanced response, rather than one-size-fits-all.

For example, food parcels are great but not if they don’t contain what people need, or they can’t lift them, or they can’t understand the information leaflet inside.

At the British Red Cross, we’ve used our experience in working with vulnerable people here and overseas to inform our response.

We’ve made over 50,000 food deliveries through our network of services and helped FareShare transport over 19 tonnes of food through our logistics channels. We’ve used our experience in cash support in emergencies to launch our Hardship Fund, to provide a more flexible solution to people who may be facing multiple challenges due to the virus.

All of us – local authorities, councils and the voluntary sector – have a part to play in building on the experience of the coronavirus response to ensure we’re even better prepared for the next emergency – or the next phases of this one.

By reviewing the Civil Contingencies Act, we can also help set the standard for the future.

Together, we can ensure no-one is left behind next time and no-one goes hungry in an emergency.

Norman McKinley is executive director of UK operations at British Red Cross

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