COVID-19 has put an additional burden on some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. Many were already suffering from inequality and known to their councils. But the pandemic has also identified new people as being vulnerable and needing shielding or support.
As the crisis hit, councils immediately stepped up – they worked tirelessly with national government and local partners to provide an impressive range of emergency food, financial care and wellbeing support across all ages.
As the restrictions ease and we move as a nation towards recovery this work continues. Vulnerable people, including the shielded cohort, are likely to be adversely affected by the pandemic. One of the most noticeable impacts is on the digitally excluded. This has been heightened by the closure of libraries, which account for the vast majority of public access computers, meaning some weren’t able to apply for benefits. The aftermath of COVID-19, and the prospect of our communities having to live with the virus for a while, is likely to be felt for some time by the most vulnerable members of our communities as financial inclusion and mental health issues hit them the hardest. Councils, the NHS and the VCS must have the flexibility and resources to continue to support them.
While the national shielding programme was an impressive concept it has been made a reality on the ground by councils. It has created significant challenges for councils in terms of data quality, inaccurate data flows and issues with deliveries to vulnerable people. Enabling councils to design systems that meet local needs, and extend across all vulnerable groups, will support more effective outcomes and better use of resources. The core principle of ensuring systems are co-designed with the input of councils, who are closest to the people these systems support, must become the bedrock of all future public policy development.
For our vulnerable residents, the pandemic has thrown up a range of financial inclusion issues. LGA research has shown the national benefits system cannot meet the complex challenges and vulnerabilities faced by many low-income households without considerable and consistent support from councils and other local partners. Many households have taken on new debt during COVID-19 or will need to find new ways of managing on a reduced income. Councils are embedding financial wellbeing at the heart of a wider safety net alongside other key services like health, social care and housing. This will be vital to ensuring that people aren’t left behind and are able to respond to new opportunities as councils lead their communities into recovery.
The mental health impacts of COVID-19 will affect communities in different ways. Councils already have the insight and partnerships (especially with the VCS) to identify need, target immediate support, and with the right resources, lead preventative mental wellbeing approaches at scale. Supporting mental wellness can only be done effectively at the local level. National mental health policy and funding remains too focused on treating mental ill health rather than helping everyone to stay mentally well, receiving community support and helping people continue with their lives. Good mental health needs to underpin the COVID-19 recovery. Councils are seeing positive changes which with the right funding and support could be the foundation for a more preventative approach to mental wellness that aids recovery and community resilience in the long term.
If society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable, then now is the time for us to act across local and national government to ensure these people have better life outcomes.
To continue to work with all partners to protect those most vulnerable to COVID-19 from the immediate, short-term and longer term impacts of the pandemic.
To work with councils to design the future programme of support to the vulnerable so there is an integrated and holistic offer based around the support councils are already providing to shielded and non-shielded vulnerable people.