How has the pandemic affected the local voluntary sector? In a three part series, Covid-19 Community Reporter Paris Ali-Pilling interviews Citizens Advice Portsmouth’s Chief Officer, Sandy O’Neill to find out how the pandemic and lockdown has affected the charity, which works with Portsmouth residents on a range of issues by offering advice, advocacy and support. In part one, Sandy explains the financial impacts and how these have affected service users and her staff.
[Editor’s note: this interview took place before the introduction of the second lockdown, during which Citizens Advice Portsmouth’s office is closed. Please see the website for up to date details on how to contact the team by telephone and email.]
Paris: Can you briefly tell me what your organisation is and what it does in the local community?
Sandy: Citizens Advice Portsmouth is an advice-giving charity, [we] give people information about their rights and responsibilities and our purpose is to try to ensure that people know what their choices are. We’ll give them their options and see what the pros and cons of each are, we’re free, impartial [and] confidential. Currently, we provide advice up to specialist level for money issues, housing, employment, service for older people, benefits, immigration and energy services. We base any funding applications around the need that we see in the city.
What financial impact has the pandemic had on your organisation?
Surprisingly, we’ve ended up bringing in more funds. We have found that there has been a huge amount of people willing to supply grants and support to charities like ours to increase the work we do. If we go back to March – when the pandemic was first declared [and] everyone went into lockdown – the increase in the enquiries that we had was immense, [but] the lack of resources we had at the time meant it was incredibly difficult to supply [people’s] needs.
We had the expenses of moving people into remote working, so there was an initial expense to us, but there were so many grants popping up all over the place and we were proactive in applying for them. We managed to get several funds to support the cost of remote equipment. There was a peak and then a lull because the legislation stopped changing around COVID. We’re expecting another peak, because the protective legislation put in place for people who are renting and for people with debts is going to be lifted. We expect our money advice and housing lines to be inundated with enquiries. We’ve managed to get grants to increase our resources and our capacity to be able to deal with that when it hits. We’ve been very lucky.
How has Covid-19 and the lockdown affected the services you deliver?
It has had an impact. In March, we had to move our entire team to remote working, we actually didn’t stop delivering any of our services. We moved to flexi-time working, so our lines are open for longer. That was one of the great benefits of people remote working, which meant we could extend our hours to the clients and everything moved online to web chat and email. We didn’t do video chat; we didn’t find the demand for that.
But there are vulnerable members of our community that potentially couldn’t access us remotely [and] we can’t ignore the fact there were people out there who just can’t access us that way, so we have recently moved back into the office, a very small team. We are running a very limited drop-in and appointment service for our most vulnerable clients. Now those clients can access us via our drop in, and they can pop into a room where we have a [PC] screen [and] they can talk to one of our specialist advisors [who are] at home, or they can have a face to face meeting. All our offices and interview rooms are set up for being COVID-safe. We’re really proud we haven’t had a single gap in the service.
Was there anything you were able to do for people without access to technology?
Yeah, it’s really difficult that one, because you don’t know what access they have. We were aware of HIVE Portsmouth and the work they were doing was incredible. [We] made sure the HIVE were aware of our opening hours and we put notices on our doors – if people were popping by just in case we were open – saying there are other places you could go, and the physical addresses.
We were really aware that [potentially] those people were being failed by a lot of services, not just our own, but we were very keen to find a way of getting back into the office [to] do a partial service for them, [as] we have a lot of clients that need ongoing support. We felt at such a critical time, those people are likely to be badly affected [and] that we must do something to help them.
It’s going well at the moment, we’re constantly reviewing, reflecting, changing, evolving just to make sure we’re doing the best we can. One of the funds we got since COVID was an Innovation Lab Fund from our national organisation, which is all about testing and trying new ways of remote working to help the clients more productively. So, we’ve experimented with all sorts of different ways of helping clients in a remote fashion. That’s been really exciting to do and hopefully some of the output from that would be really helpful to our clients.
How has the pandemic and lockdown affected your staff, both their work and their wellbeing?
I cannot praise our team enough, during March and April, everyone was so willing, so able, so flexible and adaptable. Everyone’s priority was, ‘How can we help? What can we do?’ You can’t say enough to a team that have done so much. Initially, the move to remote working with flexi time [and] the phone platform, was really welcomed; everyone did the training really quickly and adapted really well.
I would say as the remote working continues, more people are struggling with it because they like the social atmosphere in the office, so we try and find more innovative ways of supporting our advisors and our other team members. Currently, we run two or three social gatherings a week on video. About six or eight people attend every session. That tends to help, but I think people’s wellbeing is affected, it’s certainly affected our team.
Before even thinking about [the] back to office move, we’re to do individual risk assessments with every team member. We made sure that anyone [who] went back was first of all willing and wanted to, and didn’t have anybody vulnerable in their family units or had no vulnerabilities themselves, didn’t use public transport and have children under the age of 14, to make sure that we made the most sensible decisions. We just have to be constantly mindful of the impact of remote working, and we’re constantly looking for ways of supporting people and helping them still feel included in a team and not so isolated.
If you are looking for help in regards to finances, benefits, mental health or other issues, click here to see the services that Citizens Advice Portsmouth deliver.
For more information on the current opening hours for Citizens Advice Portsmouth, see the website or call the Helpline on 023 9400 6600.
S&C has been awarded funding from the European Journalism Centre Covid-19 Support Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on diverse communities and sectors in Portsmouth:
- voluntary sector, including charities, community groups and social enterprises
- small businesses and self-employed people
- BAME communities
- people with disabilities
We have also been awarded funding from the Public Interest News Foundation Emergency Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on migrants, and asylum seekers and refugees.