County takes time to pause one year on from first lockdown

This story was published 19 March 2021

The last twelve months have been unlike any other year in living memory.

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Since the start of the first Covid-19 lockdown on 23 March 2020, North Yorkshire – like the rest of the United Kingdom and the world – has seen its share of tragedies and challenges, but also tremendous resilience and community spirit.

On Tuesday, March 23, everyone is invited to take part in a national day of reflection to remember those who have died, consider the trials of the past year and look forward, perhaps with cautious optimism.

The day is spearheaded by the charity Marie Curie to reflect on our collective loss, support those who have been bereaved, and hope for a brighter future.

For those working with and alongside the County Council , these months have been a period of rapid change, resilience and commitment to support those in need through strong partnership working.

County Council Leader Cllr Carl Les said: “There can be few, if any, of us in North Yorkshire who have not felt the impact of the pandemic. To date, the county has lost 1,129 lives. That’s more than a number, it’s personal. Behind every one of those 1,129 is a human story and grieving family and friends. This day of reflection is an opportunity to acknowledge those lives.

“It is also a time to remember the challenges we have faced in the past year and the commitment, innovation and kindness of our communities that has seen us rise to meet those challenges and to support those residents who have needed extra help.

“Necessity is the mother of invention, and I think that as well as bringing out the best in people the pandemic has been a catalyst for incredible innovation in the way vital services have continued to be delivered and revolutionised.”

This has included the ground-breaking work with 23 community support organisations around the county and the army of volunteers that they have organised to ensure that no-one in need of help goes without. Since last March, volunteers have given an incredible 110,000 hours of their time to delivering shopping and other essentials as well as making more than 56,000 befriending calls and telephone check-ins. 

Helen Flynn is Executive Director Nidderdale Plus, one of the community support organisation hubs the county council commissioned at the start of the pandemic as part of the Covid response.

Helen said: “At the time when you heard about places in Europe going into lockdown it seemed odd, but very quickly we were in a lockdown as well. We had to act really quickly to wrap our arms round the community. Being appointed as the community support organisation for the area gave us the ability to properly resource our Covid effort right at the beginning. I feel that we’ve responded to that need really well and through doing that we’ve all learned so much more about our communities.”

Other examples include the incredible efforts by schools and early years settings to make sure that children and young people continued their education remotely during lockdown and to support the children of key workers.

At the start of the lockdown last spring, the County Council set up Buy Local, an online platform to bring together businesses serving North Yorkshire with customers. This will continue beyond the lifting of restrictions to showcase local businesses and help people to buy local as the economy recovers post-pandemic. Businesses can register for Buy Local, where shoppers can also search for goods and services.

Sharon Davis, founder of Dales PR and Marketing and Dales Business Women networking group, has recommended Buy Local to both shoppers and businesses. She said: “This might be the lifeline that keeps businesses going and local support is more important now than ever. If you’re a business, then please do use this resource as you never know, you may get a few sales through it and every single penny counts right now.”

Library staff and volunteers have also worked incredibly hard to keep in touch with their communities online and through a select and collect service. Since last March, more than 270,000 e-books have been loaned and the home library service has continued to reach residents who struggle to get out and about. 

Cllr Les added: “In addition, there are the less visible heroes of the pandemic, such as social care workers, foster carers, highways teams, trading standards officers and household waste recycling centre staff, working flat out to maintain vital services across the county. Particularly our customer service centre colleagues, who have taken an incredible 234,653 calls during the last year.”

County Council Chief Executive Richard Flinton said: “Through the many challenges over the last twelve months, strong partnerships and the courage and determination of colleagues, partners, community groups and volunteers have made sure that vital services continue to be delivered and that we protect and support those who need our help. We have never stepped down our pandemic response, and continue to help people and to support families struggling because of Covid.

“It has been heartening recently to see children and young people returning to school and families able to visit loved ones indoors in care homes once again. These are two significant steps forward.

“I thank all county council staff, volunteers, businesses and partners for their tenacity and ingenuity throughout the response to Covid-19. Many of you have suffered personal loss and it has been without doubt a hard year. I hope everyone can take a moment to reflect and feel a sense of pride at what you’ve achieved. I also thank the county’s residents for the kindness and support they have given to each other. You should feel proud, as I do, to be part of Team North Yorkshire.”

Among the services that had to react and adapt to the pandemic at greatest speed were public health and adult social care.

Cllr Michael Harrison, who is vice-chair of the County’s Outbreak Management Advisory Board and who also leads on adult social care and the County Council’s work with the NHS, said: “In a matter of ten days we completely changed how adult social care operates, so that we could respond even more quickly to help people with Covid-19, as well as others in our communities.”

This included redeploying 2,000 staff to work around hospitals and GP surgeries.

With the NHS, Public Health created a testing service for the county, which put North Yorkshire in a strong position to have local testing and mobile testing in rural areas. Practical support was stepped up for the county’s 235 care homes and hundreds of home care agencies, and, ahead of national policy, safer discharge beds were set up for people leaving hospital after having Covid-19 to offer some safety and protection.

Following feedback from a young disabled man who lives in a care home, the County Council worked with care home residents, their loved ones and care providers to encourage safe care home visiting back in the autumn – in pods, through windows and via technology.

“The pandemic has changed public health and adult social care,” said Michael. “We always talk about public health being everybody’s business, but this year it has absolutely been in the forefront of people’s lives. Public health has genuinely become everybody’s business, because that’s what this pandemic has been about.

“Our adult social care service has fundamentally changed how it works. We have strengthened the working between adult social care and public health and our way of working with the NHS. A lot of good work done to support places to be covid-secure has been undertaken with colleagues from environmental health and trading standards, and we have done some really good work, particularly in Scarborough, with housing teams around people at risk of spreading the virus.”

Operation Talla in Scarborough and Whitby, before Christmas, and similar exercises in November, saw multi-agency teams and volunteers undertaking work street-by-street to explain the Covid restrictions and to offer testing and explain the support that was available to keep people safe.

Health Improvement Officer Dan Atkinson, who was involved with Operation Talla, had been with the public health team only a few weeks before the pandemic hit. Dan said: “Reflecting on the past 12 months, I’m in awe of how the county has pulled together. It truly has been a collective effort that has encompassed colleagues from various different teams. I think it’s also important to reflect on what an incredibly difficult year this has been for a lot of people. Everyone has had their own challenges. Throughout it all we’ve really seen the best of people living and working in North Yorkshire.”

Francesca Floris, graduate inclusion and diversity officer, said: “When I look back on the last year, like everyone there’s a mixture of feelings. It’s been a difficult time, not knowing what comes next. But in a way it’s also been quite liberating. We’ve had to really focus on what’s important. Despite the struggles there’s always an opportunity to overcome. My hope for the next year is that we continue to see the positive and keep learning.”

As the country continues to move towards further lifting of restrictions and as North Yorkshire residents consider the events of the past year, they are reminded of the importance of not letting down their guard.

Richard Flinton said: “As we use the day of reflection of look back on this turbulent twelve months, I thank people again for their tremendous effort and remind everyone to continue following the rules and remembering hands, face and space. Our flag at County Hall in Northallerton will by flying at half-mast as we remember those we have lost and the sacrifices people have made.  We have come too far to allow a better tomorrow to slip away from us now so please keep going.”