Our response to Covid-19 in Greater Manchester and changes to our service delivery model

On 16 March 2020, the Prime Minister held a press conference and advised that the UK public should stop non-essential contact with people and avoid unnecessary travel to try and slow the spread of the global coronavirus pandemic, until further notice.
Senior managers at Henshaws had already met earlier that day and had agreed to cease face-to-face contact with service users across both Greater Manchester and Liverpool, as many were vulnerable due to their age and related health conditions.
Detailed below is how we responded to the crisis, ensuring that both staff and service users were safe and informed during this challenging time.

Remote working for staff

Within 24 hours of the decision to stop our face-to-face service delivery and minimise unnecessary travel, all staff were working remotely from home.  This was thanks to recent investment and upgrades in our IT and telephony infrastructure, which allowed remote working to continue seamlessly from our head office environment.

All staff had been using Office 365 for emails for several months, and our client database is Dynamics, so it is cloud-based.  All staff were already set up on Microsoft Teams, so video conferencing calls, file sharing, and chat functions were in place.

We already used the Mitel MiCollab communication system, so our business continuity wasn’t affected by not being able to sit in the office – call handlers could still make and receive calls from the Henshaws telephone number from their laptops and mobile phones at home.

Image shows a laptop screen with 5 different sections each showing a different member of staff looking at the camera.
Image shows young woman sat at a desk holding a tablet device and smiling at the camera.

Communicating with our service users about Covid-19

The first action that we took on 17 March, was to write to all of our service users to outline the changes to our service delivery, and to reach out to people to assure them that we were still here for support.  This was quite a mammoth task, as we needed to contact almost 6,000 people (both adults and children) across both Greater Manchester and Liverpool.

We also needed to take into account the preferred format of communications for our visually impaired service users.  To that end, we sent over 4,000 large print letters, almost 1,000 emails, approximately 500 audio recordings on CD, and a significant number of copies transcribed into Braille.

We were also able to put messages across our social media platforms, and copies of all communications were also available on our website here.

Welfare checks and befriending service during Covid-19 lockdown

Our priority has always been the welfare of the people we support; but this was even more important at this time due to the extra challenges that social distancing and staying at home would bring to our service users.

We were able to produce lists of all our service users (both adults and children), sorted by area, and then prioritised by age, whether they lived alone, and had other medical conditions. Our small team of call handlers were then able to start pro-actively calling our service users to assess their welfare needs and we implemented a red-amber-green (RAG) system to determine their vulnerability and inform our actions.  In the first three weeks alone, we made more than 1,500 calls to the most vulnerable people we knew!

All of the staff making these welfare checks had received Information, Advice and Guidance training, as per our Matrix Standard Accredited frontline service.

We also utilised our team of volunteer Group Leaders, who were able to directly contact their Group members and feedback any concerns to our central staff team.  As well as offering a welfare check, this also acted as a be-friending service to allow Group members to keep up to date with each other’s well-being.

Image of a woman talking on the telephone

Delivering our services differently during Covid-19 lockdown

As face-to-face services could no longer take place, we had to quickly change how we were able to support our community of blind and visually impaired adults and children.

The first element of our work that we were able to quickly adapt was our popular and essential digital assessment service.  This service allows people to be trained using assistive technology that helps to increase knowledge, skills and independence, and reduce social isolation (you can find out more about this service here).

It was more important than ever during this time, that people are able to access information and keep connected with their friends and family.  This remote training was carried out by our Digital Team both over the telephone, using remote access technology, and video conferencing tools to great effect.

We also moved to remote support for the children and families that we support, providing online content through videos, blogs, worksheets and video conferencing to help parents both entertain and educate their children at home.

Other elements of our service delivery were already handled remotely prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, although now this was being done from staff homes rather than the central office.  We were still able to deliver information, advice and guidance, including support with medical information, via our helpline number and email support.

We were also able to continue to provide online support through our Knowledge Village resource, which actually grew at a faster rate as we needed to get more information out to the people we supported; so new videos, blogs and eBooks were added almost daily to our website and YouTube channel, offering hints, tips and tricks to help people with a visual impairment.


The next steps

We launched a survey on 21 March for visually impaired people to complete online (using an accessible tool) to enable us to analyse data over time and help focus service delivery where it was needed.  To date, there have been more than 400 responses to the survey and this number continues to climb.  We will be publishing the results and sharing with our partners in due course; the survey can be completed here.

As no-one is sure when this current situation is going to be resolved, we are busy looking at ways that we can deliver some of our other services remotely; for example, we are currently making some videos that cover the basics of our exercise classes.  We are also looking at ways we can reach out to people with care packages, dependent on funding applications.

We continue to monitor the well-being of our staff, who are working under challenging conditions. Unfortunately it has been necessary to enter some members of staff into the government retention scheme, as we are facing financial problems due to the cancellation of many fundraising events and reduction in income across the charity.  To this end we have also launched an emergency appeal to help us to continue to support visually impaired people in isolation.

We are proud of how our staff and volunteers have adapted to the necessary changes as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and our service users have certainly been appreciative of our on-going support.

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