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Operation CommUNITY: GP surgeries, community groups, charities and churches pool resources to ensure those in need get practical help and emotional support

Organisations in the Bishop's Stortford area are coming together to combat the coronavirus with the launch of Operation CommUNITY to help elderly and vulnerable residents.

A crisis centre at Age Concern’s New Apton Centre in Apton Road, Bishop’s Stortford, will co-ordinate the response by five doctors' surgeries, community groups, charities and churches to ensure OAPs get practical help and emotional support.

The over-70s have been asked to self-isolate as the Covid-19 contagion claims 759 lives in the UK – including four at Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow – with 14,543 confirmed cases.

Operation Community logo (32290096)
Operation Community logo (32290096)

Many are struggling to buy groceries and other essential items as widespread panic-buying clears supermarket shelves.

The pandemic has prompted the closure of several organisations focused on the well-being of the elderly, including the New Apton Centre, which provided daily activities; the Welbeloved Club, which offered a monthly Sunday lunch and companionship in Sawbridgeworth; and Re-engage, which hosted a monthly tea party in the Markwell Pavilion in Stortford's Castle Park.

The teams behind the initiatives have joined forces to come up with a new support strategy which keeps the elderly in Bishop's Stortford, Sawbridgeworth, the Hadhams and several other villages safe and are now working with:

  • the town, East Herts district and Hertfordshire county councils
  • Rotary clubs of Bishop's Stortford, Stort Valley and Sawbridgeworth
  • the area’s churches, notably Holy Trinity and the Salvation Army
  • Isabel and St Clare hospices
  • established co-ordinators like HertsHelp, and
  • home care provider Home Instead Senior Care of Sawbridgeworth.

Waitrose in Stortford has also come on board and Operation CommUNITY is hoping to dovetail with Herts County Council’s response, Operation Shield.

Crucially, the Stort Valley and Villages Primary Care Network – the partnership between Bishop’s Stortford’s Church Street, South Street and Parsonage surgeries, Sawbridgeworth’s Central Surgery and Much Hadham Health Centre – is at the heart of the project to identify those most at risk and has mobilised its social prescriber for the elderly, Simon Marlow.

It is estimated 18% of the network’s 63,000-plus patients are over 60.

A “traffic light” triage approach will be adopted to prioritise support.

Together, the organisations believe they can use existing volunteers with security clearance to shop for and deliver groceries, building on work Captain Megan Kervin, of the Salvation Army’s Bishop’s Stortford corps, has already started.

They also aim to recruit and vet a new army of supporters to phone and offer comfort and emotional support to those in isolation or quarantine.

Mr Marlow said: “The GPs in the area are very concerned for isolated and vulnerable people in the community. They are worried about how this is all going to play out."

He said that those most at risk would be identified and contacted every three days, and if they needed further medical help, a mobile GP or paramedic would be dispatched. Keeping the elderly supplied with healthy food was critical and he said: "We are reaching out to community organisations to back us with that service.”

Zara Skidmore, the New Apton Centre manager, will play a pivotal role. She said: “What we're trying to do is offer a centralised telephone number for befriending and daily tasks.”

Those in need will be able to access deliveries of food or prescribed medicines or simply have a chat.

Jo Gill, who founded the Welbeloved Club, said that she had 130 elderly guests and explained: “I feel that the isolation is going to be more dangerous than the virus in the long term. Seventy per cent of our members have nobody noted as their next of kin.”

She feared she had 30 clients who could go weeks without speaking to anyone.

The town’s fit and healthy pensioners are also eager to play their part. Bishop’s Stortford Rotary president Margaret Webb said that while her members would be self-isolating, they were eager to volunteer to man the phones as well as helping to provide funding.

Holy Trinity Church, which is home to the town’s winter night shelter in South Street, will use its expertise in safeguarding to train new volunteers, and the hope is that Operation CommUNITY will also work closely with the food bank at South Street’s Methodist Church.

The Rev Dr Sarah Forrest, assistant curate at Holy Trinity, said that churches were ideally placed to act as outreach centres for the project in surrounding villages.

* Details of how you can get involved in Operation CommUNITY are being finalised in readiness for the initiative's launch on Monday involving existing volunteers from the partner organisations.

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