Chris Howells, Chair of Banbury and Bicester CLP 
Chris Howells, Chair of Banbury and Bicester CLP 

This week, the Coronavirus (COVID19) provides the basis for my article. But rather than focus on whether or not the Government has mishandled the crisis – there are more than enough opinions on that topic already – my theme is what it has meant for our local communities.

One of the most startling statements I’ve heard recently was the Prime Minister’s admission that “There is such a thing as society”. Frankly, I think those of us who work in and with our local communities have always known it was true. Alas, it’s taken a pandemic of epic proportions for our national leaders to realise it.

Initial reaction to COVID19 locally mirrored national experience – panic buying in the supermarkets and a huge loss of trade (85% virtually overnight in Bicester Village for example). In contrast, national response to the request for NHS Volunteers Responders (over 750,000 as of last Friday) has been astonishing. Volunteers will carry out simple, non-medical tasks supporting people who need to shield themselves from COVID19 because of underlying health conditions and ensuring that they can stay safe and well at home. Tasks include driving people to and from hospital, delivering food and medication, transporting equipment and supplies for the NHS and making regular phone calls to check on people isolating at home.

This national response has been reflected in the desire of our own local communities to organise support for people in this crisis and the number of local groups engaged formally and informally in tackling the impact of the disease on daily life is heartwarming.

Bicester Town Council has earmarked £20,000 in grants to local organisations supporting communities and residents in tackling the effects of the virus while a Corona Virus Helpers group has been set up on Facebook to help those in need in Bicester and surrounding villages. Over 3000 members have joined this group since it was established a few weeks ago. It is working with foodbanks, retailers like Tesco, local authorities and national charities like Age UK to ensure vulnerable people are supported, and providing up to date information and advice to help people cope with the impact of the virus on daily life.

For our part, Banbury & Bicester Labour has encouraged local members, their families and friends to join North Oxfordshire CAB’s COVID19 support service. The service is aimed at ensuring elderly and other vulnerable groups in self-isolation get access to food and emotional support. Amongst other things, the service needs volunteers to take telephone calls, compile and deliver grocery orders, and support administration of the service from home.

In Piddington, residents and their Parish Council, have set up a community support network to include picking up shopping and medication, posting mail, walking dogs, topping up electric or gas key, arranging deliveries and organising urgent supplies if needed.  Perhaps most importantly the network, as it says, is ‘…a friendly voice at the end of the phone’.

And this is the point. When push comes to shove, from national to street level, the essential co-operation and mutual support, that sense of community which human beings thrive on – society in other words – is what will see us through this pandemic, just as much as the phenomenal dedication and skills of health and social care professionals.

To quote Franklin D Roosevelt “Let us not be afraid to help each other—let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us.”

Bicester Advertiser column from Chris Howells, Chair of Banbury and Bicester CLP

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