On this day last year, when national lockdown restrictions were introduced and we were all told to stay at home to protect the NHS and save lives, none of us expected that 12 months later we would still be living with coronavirus.
‘Unprecedented’ and ‘life-changing’ are the two adjectives we are familiar with hearing used to describe this pandemic that has touched every person’s life. In some respect, it feels like only yesterday, and yet to see where we were then and where we are now, the journey that we have all experienced has been long.
For too many, touched by grief or sudden changes to employment or personal circumstance, the year has been painful. Today has been named a National Day of Reflection by the end of life charity, Marie Curie, and offers a moment to stop, catch our collective breath, and remember.
The coronavirus pandemic is very much still with us. But there is a lot to be optimistic about, and our testing capability and the mass vaccination programme have a part to play in that. We have done well in Devon to keep the worst of the pandemic at arms length, for which I thank everyone.
So as we move towards the loosening of restrictions, we must do so with caution. The measures we have in place – social distancing, face coverings and washing our hands regularly – are likely to be with us for some time yet to come. And so they must remain, if we are to learn to live with this virus and not allow cases to rise again.
We have learned a lot about ourselves these last 12 months, and a lot of good things have come from the changes we have had to make in our lives. If 2020 was a year we’d rather scratch from the calendar, then this year let’s try to keep hold of the many good things that we’ve learned, about our ability to adapt and to look out for each other, our families, neighbours and friends.
Steve Brown, Director of Public Health Devon.
Communities made the difference during lockdown
Community organisations have played a significant part in Devon’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, quickly mobilising to ensure vital support reached those who needed it most.
We’ve supported their efforts with more than £625,000 through our COVID-19 Fund which we set up at the start of the first lockdown in March 2020.
Since then 622 individuals and groups have received grants of between £300 and £5,000 to support a diverse range of local projects. They included the delivery of essential goods and services to people who are vulnerable; practical support for accessing online information; projects that help people stay connected to support mental health and wellbeing; and transport-related initiatives that support safe travel in the community.
One such project is Uplift Devon, in Mid and East Devon. At a time when many families have found it especially challenging financially, Uplift Devon has supported over 200 families with children that are living in poverty, providing them with donated clothing and other essential items.
Another was Brauton Ability Football Club for young people and adults with disabilities. People with disabilities and their families are much more at risk of feeling alone, isolated or anxious so the club used the funding to help keep their players active, connected and entertained during lockdown.
Unable to run their usual community craft sessions during the pandemic, the South Molton Scrapstore made the most of their funding by tackle loneliness and isolation and promoting mental wellbeing and community connection through their free environmentally friendly craft packs. They delivered over 500 locally sourced packs to those struggling with the restrictions, such as the elderly and those with learning disabilities or conditions such a dementia who found the lockdown especially challenging and lonely.
Community transport providers have not been immune to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, but they have continued to play a crucial role to ensure people can access vital services. East Teignbridge Community Transport Association used its grant to help local people in their area attend essential appointments at hospitals and GP practices. And in recent weeks they have been taking people to have their COVID-19 vaccination, visit family in care homes and pick up essential groceries.
A look back at the school year
Within just a few days last March, schools and colleges across Devon quickly shifted their focus from learning face-to-face in the classroom, to a model of remote learning, via Teams, Zoom and other online learning platforms.
Schools themselves of course never closed. They stayed open right throughout the lockdowns, for children of key workers and vulnerable families.
Teaching staff worked hard to provide both in-class lessons to the few, while supporting those learning during lockdown at home.
There were challenges. Some children had problems accessing remote learning because they didn’t have devices at home. So, in addition to government-provided laptops, local communities stepped up to help. We also gave thousands of pounds to provide tech for young people to help them access online services, including school work.
Now, a year on, schools and colleges have fully re-opened for all pupils and over 95 per cent of primary and secondary school children in Devon have returned to the classroom.
Schools have done a tremendous job in building confidence and welcoming pupils back and we have had some great responses from pupils, parents, headteachers and their staff.
Everyone has done a remarkable job over the past year and we’ve had positive reports about how well children are continuing to manage all the changes and how good it has been to see them enjoying lessons and meeting their friends again.
Working together to support Devon’s vulnerable
Supporting Devon’s most vulnerable residents has been our top priority during the coronavirus pandemic.
Around 52,000 adults and children in the county have been ‘shielding’ because they have an underlying health condition that puts them at very high risk of severe illness if they catch coronavirus.
Many have relied on family, friends and neighbours for help or called on the county’s network of volunteer community groups, trusted charities and local authorities to deliver essential supplies.
We’ve supported this effort through Team Devon – a partnership between the county, district councils and other organisations to coordinate county-wide support to help people quickly and effectively.
Working together with a wide range of community groups, we created a strong network for people who needed help to call on, from delivering essential supplies such as food and medication to those shielding, to providing funds to community organisations working to combat loneliness.
And now, with lockdown restrictions easing and the national shielding programme due to end on 31 March, some vulnerable residents may be anxious about transitioning back to normal life after the last 12 months. You’re not alone, and it is completely normal to be feeling uneasy. Take your time, there’s no rush. It’s important to share any concerns with those closest to you and remember that the friends and neighbours who have helped you over the year are still your friends and neighbours even after the shielding ends, and they are still there for you.
Everyone has gone to a huge amount of effort over the last year to help protect each other and stay safe and well, so as we enter the home stretch, please keep up the kindness.
Combating hardship and holiday hunger in Devon
The coronavirus outbreak quickly put a huge financial strain on some people, with work and income changing overnight as a result of the national lockdowns and ongoing restrictions.
We’ve worked closely with community and voluntary organisations, schools, children’s centres and our district council colleagues to make sure vulnerable families in Devon worst affected by the financial impacts of the pandemic were supported.
This included committing emergency hardship funding for those struggling to pay for basic household essentials such as heating, utilities and food.
We also launched a comprehensive programme to combat holiday hunger, with families of over 15,000 children who receive free school meals during term time automatically sent supermarket vouchers to help them buy food during the holidays.
It’s clear that the effects of the pandemic are going to be felt for some time to come, so work is also underway with the Devon Community Foundation, which has close links with foodbanks, community kitchens, holiday clubs, local businesses and charities, to establish food networks across the county together with a sustainable programme of learning and support.
Many have chosen new careers in health and social care
The year of the pandemic has proved a turbulent time for employment with hundreds of people looking for jobs – and in Devon, through Proud to Care, many of those joined the health and care sector.
At the beginning of 2020 things were very different. The economy was getting stronger; rates of employment were high. Then the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent national lockdowns came. Almost overnight large sections of the economy stalled.
At the same time there was a shortfall of people to support the vulnerable and people were urged to consider joining the care sector. Almost immediately we were deluged with hundreds of offers of help from people of all ages and walks of life, including lawyers, students, builders, musicians, fire-fighters, artists, hairdressers, engineers, and accountants.
Some entered the sector because they lost their jobs; others missed the regular day-to-day contact with others. Many came back from retirement to do their bit. But regardless of their circumstances they were welcomed because they cared about the vulnerable.
One of those people was Mollie, aged 24. She had her own business as a sports therapist, but like so many, she was not allowed to operate during lockdown and her business had to close. After considering her options, she was interested in becoming a support worker for older people including adults with learning difficulties or physical disabilities.
“I love making a difference,” she said. “I know that I am helping people to be a better version of themselves, enabling them to do things on their own and build a level of independence. In this job you build great relationships with clients and their families and earn their trust. Trust really is the key.”
We have made a video with Mollie, and others who have chosen new careers in health and social care. It’s part of our campaign to encourage more people to work in care. We’ve not launched the video yet, but here’s a sneak preview just for you.
Now 12 months on almost 300 people have been offered employment through Proud to Care’s applicant placing service while thousands more have applied directly for the hundreds of jobs advertised on the Proud to Care jobs board. There are many rewarding jobs and career opportunities in health and care right now, so why not take a look?
Economic recovery plan to build a stronger Devon
Running a business during the last year has been tough. The impact of the pandemic has been felt by our workforce and across all Devon communities.
The national lockdowns and ongoing restrictions have meant making rapid adjustments to the way people work, including for many, closing their doors to customers and working from home. And it’s likely that the next two years may be among the most challenging in living memory for our local economy.
This last year, we’ve been working hard with other local authorities and groups in the south west to support local businesses throughout the coronavirus pandemic. The tourism, food and drink, construction and agriculture industries – which Devon’s economy relies largely on – have been hit especially hard.
Last summer, we launched a vision for economic recovery over the next three years, and with it a determination and focus to support Devon’s young people to learn and work, help for employees who have lost their jobs or want to find new opportunities, and support for businesses to help them retain staff, apprentices and suppliers.
This last year has been hard, but there is hope and opportunity to restart, regrow and reset our economy. By working with agility and flexibility, with our partners and with business, Devon will emerge stronger and be a more dynamic place to live and work.
Impact of coronavirus on speech and language development
Services such as Devon’s Public Health Nursing, which includes health visitors and school nurses, were quick to respond to the national coronavirus lockdown in March 2020, using online and remote ways to continue their work with parents and children.
Alongside partners in education and children’s centres, health visitors and school nurses have continued to provide support for those most at need throughout the pandemic.
“Children’s lives have been turned upside down by COVID-19,” says Sarah Miller, Speech and Language Advisor.
“The disruption to services, changes to education provision and the additional pressures within families have meant that some children will be struggling to achieve their potential despite huge effort and tireless work of schools and services across the county.”
One of the reasons why children may struggle finding their way in life is because they have difficulty communicating. So, the impact of COVID-19 on children’s language development in particular is the focus of much local and national interest.
Sarah and her team have been working hard during the last year to raise awareness among parents and carers and professionals to help them understand the importance of speech and language, and how it’s everyone’s role to support children to be able to communicate as effectively as possible.
Their work has been to improve communication services and support for children and young people up the age of 25 years old. They’ve helped develop a lot of resources and support networks.
“We are very excited at how this work is going. We want to celebrate this and encourage more people to get involved” says Sarah.
Devon’s carbon emissions reduced by almost a quarter in the first lockdown
Over the last year real progress has been made to create a roadmap to show the way to a net-zero Devon by 2050 at the latest.
The Devon Climate Emergency Response Group (DCERG) and its appointed group of experts, headed by Professor Devine Wright, have created an interim draft carbon plan. That plan will become the blue-print to show what we must all do – residents, councils, businesses alike – to ensure that Devon reaches its net-zero ambitions.
Since the first lockdown we have been encouraging more walking, cycling, and advising people on how to get around safely while social distancing. Pavements have been widened, new paths created, and roads have narrowed to accommodate greener travel options.
Research last summer showed that Devon’s carbon emissions reduced by almost a quarter during the first lockdown.
“We have an opportunity to introduce transformative change, and not just tinker around the edges,” said Professor Devine Wright.
Chairman of the DCERG, Dr Phil Norrey said:
“The lockdowns have given a glimpse of how a more sustainable Devon might look, feel and sound.
“There is a huge opportunity to improve our public health, our resilience and our wellbeing, as well as address the climate and ecological emergencies.
“We must be careful not to fall back into the same old routines. We all must think differently about the way we work and the way we travel.”
Devon’s Youth Workers have worked tirelessly
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been felt by people of all ages.
Throughout the last year Young Minds, the UK’s leading charity for children and young people’s mental health, has been investigating the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Their fourth survey, carried out during January 2021, showed that many young people have found this lockdown harder to cope with than previous ones. Anxiety, panic attacks, loneliness and isolation, and concerns about school are all described in their findings.
These last twelve months, Devon’s frontline youth workers have worked tirelessly to support young people during the pandemic. There have been around 85 youth workers, and 27 volunteers, working on behalf of SPACE, who we commission to run youth services in Devon. Their support has made the difference between a young person facing an uncertain future or becoming a productive and valued member of society.
While youth centres temporarily closed, the creation of an invite-only youth club, via the Discord app, has proven most successful. Open every evening, there’s been almost 2,000 attendances, and it’s being shared with 15 voluntary sector youth clubs across Devon. But online youth sessions are no substitute for the real thing, and young people have missed having somewhere to go, something to do and a trusted adult to talk to.
With no guidebook on how to deliver youth services during lockdown, it was up to youth workers to develop new skills – youth workers like Alex Gurpinar, who leads a team in Newton Abbot. Her leadership qualities have been recognised nationally, winning her an award at the Inspiring Hope Awards 2021.
“She has not only embraced but pioneered many of the changes we’ve put in place so we can continue to support and develop young people,” added Dan Barton, the Partnerships and Projects Lead
“She has continually demonstrated her determination to keep young people connected, safe, valued and happy.”
Former Flybe building becomes Future Skills Centre
Although the former Flybe airline was already in a difficult situation by March 2020, the emerging COVID-19 pandemic was said to have put additional pressure on the firm.
The airline went into administration that month, and with it, thousands of former employees lost their jobs.
Alongside Exeter College, we’ve bought the building that used to be the Flybe Training Academy, and it will offer training and education opportunities for learners of all ages, skills, and qualifications fit for the economy of the future.
The Future Skills Centre, as it’s now known, provides the region with a specialist facility for the delivery of training for high-tech jobs in engineering, digital, construction and clean growth.
“Creating and retaining a highly skilled workforce will underpin the economic prosperity of Devon and will be a key part of our recovery plan after COVID-19,” said Keri Denton, Head of Economy, Enterprise and Skills for the council. “High-tech skills for engineering and digital are vital to our economy.”
Exeter College Principal and Chief Executive John Laramy, said:
“Not only will the centre provide the future skills for a more sustainable Devon, it will also support us to develop skills in digital and data technologies, including building on our track record of working with artificial intelligence and supporting emerging sectors such as robotic agriculture.”
Libraries reflect on a year since first lockdown
Devon’s libraries responded immediately to news of the national coronavirus lockdown, and on 23 March 2020 all branches closed their doors, mobile libraries were taken off the road and the home library service halted.
In their place, new ways of delivering a much-needed service took over. Dozens of regular groups, events and workshops immediately went online. Library staff made over 6,000 calls to those who are most vulnerable or isolated, to check that they were OK. E-book downloads shot up, and online stocks were expanded.
‘Choose and Collect’ enabled people to ask for specific books and arrange a contact-less collection. 84 per cent of customers surveyed said that Choose and Collect has helped them feel less isolated during lockdown, and 94 per cent said it helped with their sense of wellbeing.
‘Grab and Go’ bags encouraged younger readers, and the long-established Book Track went online, as did the Summer Reading Challenge and Winter mini challenge.
For people with no digital access, in-library appointments were, and continue to be arranged.
“None of our teams have ever worked through an experience like the last 12 months, and there’s no doubt it’s been tough in so many ways,” says Alex Kittow, Chief Executive of Libraries Unlimited.
“We are grateful to our volunteers and Friends Groups that have supported us throughout the pandemic.
“We look forward to welcoming people back to our library spaces and will continue to work closely with communities to meet their changing need into the future.”
Marking the day in Devon
We supported the minute silence at midday today to mark the National Day of Reflection.
In a message to Devon County Council staff, our Chief Executive, Phil Norrey, said:
“It’s been an incredibly challenging year, and one that many of us will never forget.
“I am incredibly grateful to all of you who have worked tirelessly in some of the most difficult circumstances we could have ever imagined.
“Over the past twelve months we have all made significant sacrifices and been personally affected by the pandemic.
“Please do take the time that you need today to pause and reflect on the events of the past year and the hope for the future.”
The one minute silence was followed by a bell toll at County Hall, Exeter.
And this evening we’re encouraging everyone to stand on their doorsteps at 8.00pm with phones, candles, and torches to signify a ‘beacon of remembrance’.
You can find local guidance and information about the impacts on our services on the Devon County Council website.