The easing of lockdown restrictions is bringing new challenges for those organisations that have been at the forefront of supporting the community during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Watford and Three Rivers Trust (W3RT) has been pivotal to the local effort over the past three months in several areas, including registering and placing volunteers in Three Rivers and also joining forces with Watford Borough Council for a special appeal that has so far raised more than £150,000 to help local charities.

Donations to the Covid-19 Community Charity Appeal remain important, with good causes in the area seeing their income badly hit by the pandemic, but chief executive Bob Jones and the W3RT team are now looking at other ways the voluntary sector and the vulnerable will need support as the lockdown is relaxed.

The trust started in 1974 as the Watford Council for Voluntary Service and is in regular contact with hundreds of charities and community groups in and around the town, affording it a unique position in the local voluntary sector.

This remains at the heart of the W3RT and it continues to be commissioned by Watford Borough Council to provide an effective community and voluntary service (CVS) for the town.

This function means it is taking over responsibility for supporting those most at risk from the virus who need help.

Mr Jones said: “Herts County Council, as part of the next phase, are shutting down their shielding operation. If I remember correctly there were 30,000 people in Hertfordshire who were shielding including three members of our staff. They were very vulnerable but I don’t think any of them have had a day off for the past 12 weeks, other than weekends, and they’ve been magnificent.

“As the shielding operation ends, 23,000 of those 30,000 are coping themselves. They’ve got deliveries from supermarkets, have friends, family and neighbours supporting them, but there’s around 7,000 over the whole of Hertfordshire who do need support and the responsibility for supporting them on a day-to-day basis has been passed down to the CVSs which in Watford and Three Rivers means us. So we’re looking to put in place yet more systems, databases and referral pathways to support those.”

Watford Observer:

The trust is keen to capitalise on the community goodwill that has been generated during the pandemic and is hoping to establish a befriending project to allow people to continue to volunteer and support each other, but it is the economy and people’s mental health that are causing particular concern looking forward.

Mr Jones admitted: “As furloughing comes to an end we don’t know what’s going to happen. We know the number of people claiming universal credit went up three-fold in the first 12 weeks and that’s while furloughing is still in place, so it could get quite difficult.

“We know there’s going to be economic hardship and we’re working with the local councils, the county council and the CABs (Citizens Advice Bureau) are going to be pivotal because they run the debt advice services and they’re going to be in the front line on this.”

He continued: “The other big spike we’re anticipating is around mental health, particularly young people who have been isolated for a while and they’re going to have a lot of adjusting to do.

“There’s also a lot of very anxious elderly people who are afraid of catching Covid, they’ve not been able to access a lot of their support networks, the clubs they’ve been going to are not there, so we’re looking at what we can put in place to support those.”

Watford Observer:

As well as providing the CVS service, W3RT runs two community centres in Watford – Holywell and The Barn – usually hosts lunch clubs and produces a quarterly ‘What’s On’ guide for the elderly, provides volunteer drivers to take people to hospital and doctor’s appointments and is a major partner in a county-wide scheme that relieves pressure on the NHS by finding a better way of meeting wellbeing needs.

All of these were affected by the pandemic as staff saw their job change from, for example, chatting to the elderly over lunch to becoming part of a mass collective effort that saw statutory and voluntary organisations refer people to what was effectively a new wellbeing service set up by the trust to support those who were self-isolating.

Admitting the last 12 weeks had been “very difficult”, Mr Jones explained: “With our partners we have registered around 1600 volunteers in Three Rivers. Unfortunately we haven’t managed to find roles for all those 1600 but in a way it’s a positive thing because the virus wasn’t as bad as we feared it might be.

“We were told to prepare for 30 per cent of our staff and volunteers to be off sick at the peak of the virus and, in fact, absenteeism has actually improved because people have been working from home and not getting out.

“We were told there would be a food distribution centre in Watford and possibly one in Three Rivers and that each of them would need 50 to 100 volunteers, but neither of them were ever set up, so we had an excess of too many volunteers.

“Our staff on the whole were absolutely magnificent. We had to develop a new database almost overnight, new systems, everybody had to change what they were doing and the vast majority of our staff and volunteers have been magnificent.”