The Liberal Democrats have explained how they enabled a brigade of volunteers to make tens of thousands of phone calls, run a food bank and even set up a community radio station during the Covid-19 lockdown.
With it looking increasingly likely in March that a shutdown would be put in place as coronavirus cases started to rise, acting leader Sir Ed Davey said he called in experts to ensure party members could safely muck in to help their communities.
As a result of the party’s coronavirus community taskforce, chaired by Sir Stuart Etherington – a former chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, more than 40,000 phone conversations have been held with elderly and vulnerable people in society.
The effort by almost 2,500 volunteers beats party records set during last year’s winning Brecon and Radnorshire by-election in terms of calls made, conversations held and the number of new volunteers involved, said party officials.
It was not about canvassing or promoting the Liberal Democrats, what it was actually about was being involved in your communitySir Ed Davey MP
Speaking to PA news agency, Sir Ed said he “choked up” when he saw the sheer scale of good deeds carried out by members.
As well as manning phones, other efforts – which have been formally recognised through Lib Dem “hall of fame” awards – include members in Greater Manchester helping found a radio station and a Cheshire supporter setting up a website to take bookings for picking up prescriptions and shopping for those shielding.
Sir Ed said the idea for a taskforce came after the local elections, which the party had been gearing up for in May, were postponed due to coronavirus.
“There was lots of desire across the party for people to help out and do something,” said the former energy secretary.
“I wanted to enable that to happen but not in a party political way – we were really clear on that from the start.
“It was not about canvassing or promoting the Liberal Democrats, what it was actually about was being involved in your community.”
Guidelines and safeguarding set out by Sir Stuart’s taskforce paved the way for individuals and groups to get involved, with take up across the country.
Volunteers were expressly forbidden from discussing voting intentions during phone calls and other works, but did declare that they were Lib Dem members.
Members in Cheedle, Manchester, were involved in setting up a community FM radio station in a bid to reach older residents in the area, with contributions from other local groups.
The team also established a weekly virtual coffee morning for isolated residents, as well as creating the Cheadle Neighbours community Facebook group, flagging to users those who required support.
Two councillors in Cheltenham, Suzanne Williams and Peter Jeffries, helped start up and sustain a local food bank, delivering more than 1,500 food parcels to households in the town.
Rural volunteers also got involved with Jo Conchie, a member based in Winsford, Cheshire, using her goodneighbourwinsford.com website to help hundreds of people a week by collecting prescriptions, doing shopping, walking dogs, and providing reassuring phone calls, according to the party.
Taskforce chair Sir Stuart said: “Our community champions should be immensely proud.
“Initiatives like these have been there for people during one of this country’s darkest moments and those who stepped-up when it mattered showed what community means.”
Sir Ed told PA the way people came together in the community was reflected politically at the start of the pandemic, admitting the party “deliberately pulled our punches” in a bid to be “constructive”.
But the ex-cabinet minister said delays in ramping up testing, the scale of care home deaths and the struggles in providing adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) to health staff, along with the discovery that the Prime Minister’s chief aide Dominic Cummings had travelled 260 miles while strict travel restrictions were in place, “changed the mood” both nationally and in Parliament.
When asked whether the Government had missed an opportunity to unite MPs over its approach to handling Covid-19, he said: “I’m afraid I do.”
The party leadership contender added: “That’s what has so frustrated people. There has been a desire to work together but it is almost as if it is not in Boris Johnson or Dominic Cumming’s nature.”
The Lib Dems are calling for a public inquiry into ministers’ handling of the crisis.
Cabinet ministers have publicly recognised that there will be a time to “look at the lessons” following the Government’s recent performance.
But Sir Ed said there could be no repeat of the delays experienced with the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, a report which was published more than a decade after the conflict started.
“That’s not acceptable and we can’t repeat that,” Sir Ed said.
“We want commitment now, want a named person who is going to run this and we need a timetable that isn’t going to stretch out for years and years.”