AS confirmed coronavirus cases began increasing across Britain and daily life looked destined to change staff at the London Irish Centre (LIC) began devising a plan.
The Camden-based charity provides vital services for Irish people across London.
Many of their clients are elderly, vulnerable, suffering from social isolation or health issues.
With that demographic firmly within the categories most at-risk from the virus, the LIC team knew those they provide their most vital services to would soon be forced to lock themselves away in their homes to protect themselves and others from covid-19.
And as important as staying at home is to fight the virus, the team knew it would bring huge, additional challenges and risks for their members, which would require drastic changes in how they provide their services.
“We saw what was happening, so we started planning ahead” LIC CEO Ellen Ryan told The Irish Post this week.
“We knew we would be heading towards a shutdown, so we had to have a strong contingency plan.”
“We have very vulnerable people coming to the centre,” the Co. Kerry native, who only took up her position at the LIC five weeks ago, said.
“We have people who are very isolated, they come for the food, but they also come for the warmth and the friendship and the relationships with each other and we knew they had to be a priority.
“We asked ourselves, how are we going to address their needs in a very challenging situation, where they are going to feel very isolated and they are vulnerable, particularly when we go into this lockdown and they won’t be let out.
“So we took a very needs-led approach.”
After consulting with the Irish in Britain organisation and the Irish Embassy in London the LIC devised a huge overhaul of their services – which was ready to kick into action just as Prime Minister Boris Johnson put the entire country under lockdown in their homes a fortnight ago.
“Taking a needs-led approach to this meant us going back to providing what we can to people who are very vulnerable in terms of basic needs,” Ms Ryan explains.
“We know our members won’t be able to come into the centre now, so we need to go out to them in as safe an environment as possible.
“So we moved much of our staff onto telephone befriending, because we knew there would be people vulnerable to being on their own who would need that, also some of the people who go to our social clubs are also very vulnerable - they would often only see other people once a week.”
The LIC’s befriending service now sees their staff call people twice a day, in the morning and evening, checking on their health, wellbeing, daily routines and generally providing companionship from afar.
“The response to the calls has been really encouraging,” Ms Ryan admits, “it has given us a sense of hope.”
Last week the centre introduced food parcel deliveries also.
“We don’t want these people out and about,” Ms Ryan explains, “we need them to stay home so we did our first delivery of food parcels last week.
“We stand a good distance from their houses, of course, and we met some people who usually come into the centre but what is interesting is that we are also meeting other people through this who haven’t been coming in but are isolated – very isolated.
“And that’s coming through word of mouth.”
Local stores and supermarkets have donated goods which the LIC use to fill their basic needs food parcels – but they have added a few culturally-specific treats of their own too.
“We have had so many donations for the parcels, which has been fantastic, and we are putting it all in there,” Ms Ryan admits.
“It’s a basics package really, but what they were really happy with was that we added things like Galtee cheese, Barry’s Tea and Tayto crisps too. Things that bring back memories of home and that made them feel quite touched.
“We delivered about 30 parcels last week and we have an even bigger delivery going out this week.”
It is an all hands approach at the centre, with Ms Ryan and other senior members of the team delivering parcels alongside their volunteers.
“All the staff are going out,” Ms Ryan admits.
“I did a couple myself, as did our vice-chairman, and do you know what, the people are so grateful for a bag of food but more than that they were grateful to see a face and talk to somebody.”
The centre has also introduced a hot meal delivery three times a week, working in conjunction with a local Irish caterer.
That saw more than 135 hot meals delivered to vulnerable Irish people in London over its first three days.
“We needed to go further than the parcels, as hot food is just so important,” Ms Ryan says.
“I know that for many of the people that come to the centre that will be the only hot meal they eat that day.
“But we can deliver three hot meals a week now and they have been so happy to get that.
“It’s a two-course meal, and our first delivery was Irish stew followed by a Victoria sponge. “It’s delivered to outside their door and having somebody bring them warm food cooked for them is just a lovely thing.”
Next week the LIC will enhance these projects by launching a library outreach service – which will see a library book being added to each food delivery.
“We want to keep people alert,” Ms Ryan explains.
“They are at home but they will still be getting a bit of stimulation and our befrienders can then talk about the book with them.”
They have also set up a new Health and Wellbeing Helpline, manned by a qualified nurse and two trained mental health professionals.
“That’s a number that people can ring in on if they are worried about anything health-related, maybe their medication or coronavirus symptoms, to help take the pressure off the NHS and 111,” the CEO adds.
As a not-for-profit organisation, the work of the LIC is largely reliant on fundraising and donations.
Thankfully, its response to the coronavirus crisis has drawn support from across the Irish community.
“We have been inundated with calls from people who want to help,” Ms Ryan reveals.
“It has absolutely been a big outpouring of the best of Irish community. We have had people ringing in wanting to give their time, wanting to donate money, it all adds up.”
She adds: “It really helps as we rely on fundraising and we have taken a big hit ourselves due to the outbreak with events being cancelled.”
And Ms Ryan and the LIC staff are determined to continue to serve their members on the frontline as the coronavirus pandemic continues to engulf Britain.
“These types of services are vital for our members,” Ms Ryan says.
“I went out on those drops to see who we are covering, and they really are so vulnerable. “They are so on their own, so isolated. Their greatest fear is to die of loneliness and isolation and not having anybody to see them and speak to them.
“We of course have to abide by the social distancing. We are following all the guidance, we wear rubber gloves, we’re careful with our use of volunteers, we are mindful that we need to look after ourselves and our staff and our volunteers. But we absolutely feel this is our duty.
“It’s all about keeping up the communication with our members, making them happy making them feel cared for and not forgotten. Having someone to call.”
So, while the usually vibrant LIC building in Camden’s Murray Square now stands silent and largely empty its staff are as busy as ever - tending to the most vulnerable members of the Irish community across the capital on the frontline of the ongoing war against the coronavirus.
You can support the London Irish Centre’s Covid-19 Response Appeal here.