In times of crisis, communities seek strong leadership, agile thinking and immediate access to support services. It’s also a time they are tasked with empacing and adapting to rapid change.
Helping to support his wife, her team and colleagues at Sheffield City Council to set up a COVID-19 Triage Response Helpline in order to help prioritise vulnerable people in need, was a no-brainer for Terry Newton.
“It was an idea my wife Andrea and her team were working on,” explains Newton, a software testing engineer for Sentinel Rk1, Raytheon UK’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft operated from RAF Waddington. “Some of the cases my wife has had to deal with have been extremely distressing. If I can provide support to her, then it makes her life easier and allows her to be better prepared for what she may continue to be confronted with.”
Quickly recognising there was a communication vacuum between the Council and the local community it served, Customer Services Director Andrea Newton drove forward a mobile communications product which Newton was already familiar with through his role at Raytheon UK.
In a fast-moving pandemic like COVID-19 time was of the essence to get the helpline up and running.
“We spent the whole weekend working it out between us, installing it on to my wife’s device and then we wrote a ‘layman guide’ how to implement it,” Terry Newton said. “Much of the technical information cannot be divulged as it is a Council initiative. However, by inputting specific criteria into the helpline the Council is now able to prioritise material needs and urgency across a variety of socio-economic groups.”
The husband and wife duo have distinctly different skill-sets but they had a mutual desire to work together to assist an on-going critical situation. The new information service provides advice and help in the form of triaging the delivery of vital medical supplies, food parcels and any COVID-19-related assistance to all social groups covered in the Community Partnership. Council staff members have also been trained in COVID-19 specific response measures.
Traditionally, local government Councils have struggled with business agility and digital innovation, but this was not true of Sheffield.
“It was all done quite quickly, which is indicative of the skill set and flexibility of the staff within the Council,” Terry Newton said. “The feedback so far has been excellent and a good thing is that the service hasn't, as yet, hit a peak. This means that the measures in place are currently able to sustain the demand.”
Initially, the service was meant for interacting with local people who have been advised by government to self-isolate for 12 weeks and who had no alternative support measures available, but Newton said it has already evolved:
“The group criteria is very fluid and is dependent upon the directives being issued by central government,” he said. “An example of this fluidity is that the provision of help has been extended to social groups with financial and emotional needs.”
Newton, who signed up to the UK’s COVID-19 NHS Volunteers Responder registry following the government’s nationwide appeal for 250,000 volunteers back in March, describes helping vulnerable people as “very fulfilling”.
He’s yet to be called up, but the Royal Air Force veteran who served for 25 years as a radio/radar aircraft engineer in theatre, is sure his armed forces background will prove helpful.
“It does prepare you for an awful lot of situations. I’d like to think in this situation I’d be pragmatic, calm under pressure, take control and get on with it…like anybody who is willing to volunteer for this sort of thing you can’t afford to be wet behind the ears,” Newton said. “You’ve got to understand that if you are needed you have to respond in the right way.”
That said, part of him hopes that the NHS responders won’t be called upon.
“That would mean that things are under control and that there is less need because there are less people in trouble,” he explained. “But I’m ready if needed. There are many people who are putting their lives on the line, literally, in the current crisis. It’s good to be able to give something back.”