|5 Jan 2021
Geoff Ledden (OB 1954-60) led an army of volunteers, in his local community, in the fight against Coronavirus during the first lockdown of 2020. Here, he tells us his story - written at the end of October 2020. Presumably, and sadly, he'll be doing it again now, as we enter lockdown again at the start of 2021!
Monday, 30 March, and I receive a ’phone call from a lady at Tandridge Voluntary Action (TVA), a charity supported by Surrey County Council and Tandridge District Council (TDC). They know of volunteers in Lingfield and Dormansland who are helping vulnerable people in isolation due to the Covid-19 pandemic and need someone to act as coordinator and point of contact with TVA and TDC. My name has been suggested because I run the Comnet email network for Neighbourhood Watch and to publicise community events.
I’m in isolation due to age with time on my hands and the readymade network, so why not? I have already started a temporary magazine named Caged! to try to alleviate the boredom of isolation if only for a few minutes each week. TVA provides the list of volunteers; I contact them and off we go. Guidelines and forms of identity are drafted, agreed with TVA and distributed. It is quickly apparent that money will also be needed to provide a safety net for the volunteers who cannot be expected to bear the cost of shopping on behalf of housebound folk who run short of cash and don’t use online banking. The authorities promise help but this is an unprecedented situation and the private sector can respond faster. I use Comnet and Caged! to launch an appeal and also contact Rotary Meridian, East Grinstead, who skip their usual formalities and within 48 hours agree a grant. Private donations also start to flow, a £50 note and 5 x £20s delivered to the door; online payments to an account I have nominated. A well-qualified neighbour agrees to act as external Examiner for the new Covid-19 Fund for which we agree guidelines. Pro-forma claim forms are sent out to the volunteers and the hand-made identity forms are replaced by formal, numbered badges issued by TDC.
I discover that groups of volunteers have been formed spontaneously; nine of my neighbours, for example, have banded together, produced a flyer and posted it through the letterbox of every house and retirement flat on our estate in Lingfield. They identify the households where help is needed and assign a named volunteer to each one. I receive an urgent email from a lady in Singapore who has just been placed in lockdown and is concerned about her mum who is in her 80s and lives alone. By good fortune, a volunteer lives next door and has already offered help.
Another group has made contact with Lingfield Surgery and Boots offering to assist with the collection and delivery of prescriptions. Initially, the queues outside Boots are horrendous; the pharmacy is short-staffed due to the pandemic, but patients want to stock up in case of shortage of supplies. Some volunteers queue for up to 3 hours but a good working relationship soon evolves, the queues shorten and waiting times decrease. Lingfield Runners offer their services to collect medications which go into a backpack and off they speed: 2 birds with 1 stone. A young lady behind the counter pops a red paper heart into prescription bags to cheer people up.
Lingfield Parish Council provides emergency funding and applies to TDC for a grant which is approved as soon as funds are released by Surrey CC. This is all new to me, having never been involved with local Government. I have regular contact with county, district and parish councillors whose knowledge of the area and connections with Surrey Adult Social Services etc. are invaluable. We help households whose Universal Credit is overdue; a family with a hungry dog; a blind person who lives alone. The Lingfield Parish Clerk drafts a letter to send to more than 100 households in Lingfield providing contact details should they need help.
TDC has been trawling through various records to identify addresses where there might be extremely vulnerable people and we are tasked with contacting each one to ascertain the situation. We have some telephone numbers but a lot of house visits will be needed. I can’t ask volunteers to doorstep folk who might be extremely vulnerable unless they are properly equipped so masks, disposable gloves and hand sanitisers are needed. Fourteen volunteers agree to make house calls and 14 packs of masks etc are prepared for collection from my porch, which is fast becoming the best-known pick-up place in Lingfield. More volunteers undertake the telephone calls. The task is completed within a week and the results passed back to TDC. The exercise has revealed one case of urgent outside need and one where a council and possibly police visit might be necessary.
Meanwhile, our neighbours down the road in Dormansland are equally busy. They have converted The Plough’s car park into a community farm shop with an army of residents packing fresh vegetables for volunteer drivers to take to needy families. A separate group has been organised in response to the need for PPE for the NHS and care homes. Old sheets, pillowcases and duvet covers are cut, sewn, washed and delivered in the shape of masks, aprons, scrubs and scrub bags. It’s a production line and the staff at the East Surrey Hospital, Young Epilepsy and College of St Barnabas soon find themselves decked out in pretty patterns that once adorned village beds. A tree near the Memorial Hall does not escape attention and is soon clothed in multi-coloured knitwear, a symbol of the spirit of this community, which is recognised by an Award presented by Claire Coutinho, MP for East Surrey.
As I write, the restrictions on our freedom are easing; we can form bubbles with loved ones; supermarkets are providing a greater number of delivery slots; many people have signed up with online pharmacies; and even toilet rolls are available. Caged! magazine has run its course after 12 editions, all available on the Community News website and destined to be included in the Hayward History archives in Lingfield library. The Lingfield Marathon Minibus, which normally takes the elderly and disabled to Oxted and Crawley to shop, is preparing to resume service when it is deemed safe to do so, thanks to a donation from the Covid-19 Fund for essential PPE for drivers and any passengers who don’t have their own.
But this is not the end of the story. The shoppers are still shopping; prescriptions are still being delivered; bedlinen converted into masks; and volunteers are on standby for emergencies and in case of a second wave of the wretched virus. How many of them - who knows? Some have given their services every day; others have been called upon only occasionally; some have fitted shopping in between the demands of young families; some in the evenings after work. They certainly number more than 100 in the two villages. They all have one thing in common, though: selflessness; and the communities owe them a massive debt of gratitude.