1,000-plus UK volunteers groups spring up to fight COVID-19
Daniel Harries
A commuter covers her face in London, Monday, March 16, 2020. /AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth.

A commuter covers her face in London, Monday, March 16, 2020. /AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth.

Hundreds of citizen-led mutual aid groups have emerged across the UK in an effort to help those in need as the coronavirus outbreak spreads.

Coordinated via WhatsApp and Facebook, there are now more than 1,000 groups listed as being part of the COVID-19 mutual aid network. From delivering food and medicine to walking pets or just providing company to those who are self-isolated and vulnerable, the groups aim to help those who are worst affected by the outbreak.

The UK currently has 1,950 cases recorded with 152 deaths, many of whom have been elderly.

The network aims to "connect those who are particularly vulnerable to the virus – such as elderly people, those with a compromised immune system and precarious workers – with local support," explains the group's national coordinator, Kennedy Walker. "We also aim to connect those who can help to their local group or enable them to set one up themselves."

Fellow national organiser Anna Vickerstaff explains that "No matter what we look like, where we live or how much money we have, getting sick reminds us that at our core we're all just human. And in every country it's the old, the sick and those already struggling who will be affected worse."

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Upon noticing that small groups were springing across London, Walker says "we thought it necessary to have a central place where people could find resources on safe practise, but also how to set up or join a group. We wanted to ensure that the energy that was building was being directed to local organizing."

Vickerstaff explains: "We want to make sure that no one in our communities is being left to face this crisis alone, and because we want to try and redress some of the serious inequalities this outbreak will expose."

The response of the UK government to the virus has been an outlier when compared to other European countries. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson hasn't issued a lockdown like the ones in Italy and France, nor has he closed the border or banned mass gatherings – only advising against them.

"There's some pretty big questions about whether or not the government's response to this crisis has been fit for purpose," states Vickerstaff. "So it's even more important that so many ordinary people across the country are keen to offer solidarity to each other in a moment of need."

Walker believes that the government messaging has been "unclear." "It was inevitable that groups such as those in insecure work for example, would need local support," she says.

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Part of the government's strategy is to mitigate pressure on the NHS. Initial data from Wuhan and northern Italy suggests that the death rate from COVID-19 multiplies many times over when a nation's health service is at breaking point.

While the Conservative government $7.26 billion of new funding for the NHS in its latest budget, since they came to power in 2010 health funding has been among the lowest – in percentage terms – since the service's inception.

"With the NHS and public services having been so ruthlessly underfunded in the last decade, we really just want to make sure that people don't end up suffering alone, or without the basics and support that they need from the outside world," says Vickerstaff.

Relieving a stretched health service is a key consideration of those who expect to rely upon the network. London resident Hope Winter-Hall says "I am a disabled person with a care package. I am self isolating with my 92-year-old mother.

"We already know that social services and the NHS were overwhelmed before this virus hit. I'm very well prepared for months of isolation, but I'll be needing help before it is over. Finding the Islington Mutual Aid group lifted our spirits and changed our view of the future."

Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a press conference on the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. /Richard Pohle/Pool via AP

Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a press conference on the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. /Richard Pohle/Pool via AP

Johnson has said that the government will soon issue a lockdown similar to that in Italy. Restrictions to all but essential travel and enforced quarantines could hamper the network's tasks.

However, Kevin Smith, the network's head of media, is confident they can adapt. "We're developing guidance as the situation develops.

"The organizing is happening at the most local level possible. In a lockdown, people will still have to go to the shops and pick up prescriptions and so the principle of doing the same for an elderly neighbor who can't leave the house stays the same."

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