The COVID crisis made visible a pre-existing, chronic crisis of inequality and poverty – and the Covid response improved the lives of people suffering before COVID (the homeless, those in unsuitable accommodation, those with NRPF) as well as those who were newly in need.
- The spread of COVID 19, government instruction to stay at home and sudden economic crisis exposed and exacerbated deep inequalities in Newham. The borough was already tackling public health crises including related to poor air quality, the housing crisis and poverty.
Newham is the most ethnically diverse borough in the UK, with 73% of residents from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. It quickly became clear that the pandemic was disproportionately affecting Black and minority ethnic communities and so was experienced acutely in Newham. There were a number of complex interrelated issues affecting this, borne of long standing health inequalities and structural racism.
- ONS data also showed a stark correlation between COVID 19 mortality rates and the prevalence of overcrowded housing. Between 1 March and 17 April 2020, Newham had the highest death rate (114.3 deaths per 100,000) and the biggest overcrowding problem (25.2% of homes are overcrowded).
You can see in this photographic essay by Laura Dodsworth the conditions that our mothers had to endure during lockdown. One Room Lockdown. These were mothers who were not under Newham’s direct care and therefore did not benefit from the Mayor’s decision to move all of those in shared accommodation in to self contained homes in order to facilitate the possibility of self-isolating, or social distancing.
We were so worried about the plight of those unable to keep safe in Migrant Help accommodation that the ITV did a story on it, and the Mayor of Newham wrote to the housing secretary to express concern.
The response of Newham was exemplary in terms of communication, decisiveness and trusting and enabling community groups, faith organisations and third sector to act in the interests of our residents.
Partnership working has been central to supporting residents in Newham, with the council, voluntary, faith and community sector all mobilising together at rapid speed. This included:
- The Newham Food Alliance – A network of voluntary, community and faith sector organisations coordinated by the council to distribute food. In 2020, this network and HelpNewham distributed 264,000 food parcels to Newham residents, and council vehicles moved over 920 tonnes of Felix fare-share surplus food, with these figures rising daily.
- The Newham Social Welfare Alliance has worked with community organisations to provide training sessions on Housing and Homelessness, Domestic Violence to Children and Young People’s Mental Wellbeing. Since November, 753 people from 81 organisations have attended sessions.
Establishing a COVID-19 Health Champions network of 400+ residents who share information in the community. The network was recognized as best practice by the government and the Ministry of Communities and Local Government now funds similar work at other Councils.
- Pioneering a rapid local testing model in the borough, which has fundamentally changed access to testing particularly for the most vulnerable communities.
- Working with the local NHS to establish vaccine sites beyond health care settings, including pop up vaccine sites in churches, temples, mosques and community centres.
- Offering free accommodation for living in overcrowded housing, the first local authority in the country to do so. This followed research by the council on why some residents feel unable to self-isolate, which found that 71% of those surveyed listed fear of losing their job as a factor that gets in the way of being able to self-isolate. A further 60% said they were preventing from self-isolating by the need to earn money.
- Newham rapidly mobilised an emergency accommodation and assessment centre and accommodation for all rough sleepers, regardless of their immigration status or local connection (Four Hotels and 40 Houses of Multiple Occupancy.) Newham has had the largest decrease in rough sleepers this year nationally, with rough sleepers falling by 91%. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Newham had accommodated 124 Rough Sleepers, with approximately 70 people still on the streets. Newham currently has 212 people accommodated and 6 people on the streets. Throughout the pandemic 198 people have been supported to move on out of this temporary accommodation and into longer-term settled accommodation.
3. The response to COVID proved that – with political will and central funding – crises can be addressed. It proved that other long-standing chronic crises – child poverty, homelessness, food poverty, digital poverty, hygiene poverty, loneliness, NRPF – could benefit from being treated as a public health crisis of the same urgency.
- The pandemic has dissolved many of the barriers between the council, health partners, voluntary, faith and community organisations. This unprecedented mobilisation to support residents demonstrates what is possible when local authorities and community organisations are giving the appropriate funding and powers. In March 2020 the Chancellor promised to do ‘whatever it takes’ to fund councils through the pandemic, but as of March, the impact of the pandemic on Newham council was £82m, and support from government only estimated at £68m. Council across the country have been left short.
- The pandemic has also shown the power of local authorities of convenors of local communities during crises. Councils like Newham are uniquely placed to play this role. During COVID 19, we have seen the value of a more balanced central-local relationship in tackling this challenge. The vaccine programme shows each level playing to its strengths: with central government using its purchasing power and other levers to accelerate vaccine development and acquisition, and the local NHS, council and community partners working to get it into people’s arms. The Test and Trace Programme has in contrast been highly centralised.
- Newham has launched its 50 Steps to a Healthier Newham Health and Well-Being Strategy 2020-23, that sets out how Newham will respond to the significant pre-existing and new health challenges created by the pandemic. The strategy details how the borough will work with partners to do all possible to maximize the health of the population over the next three years, placing a key focus on supporting people around the determinants of their health.
- This is underpinned by the Council’s ‘Towards a Better Newham’ COVID-19 Recovery Strategy, all informed by the council’s overarching strategic goal to tackle inequality, racism and disproportionality. The strategy is based on eight pillars, including a commitment to measuring the council’s success in future on the health, happiness and wellbeing of residents.
- Newham is showing what is possible with imaginative policies, partnership working and political will. Going forward, we need a national approach that focuses on prevention and tackling structural inequality at its roots.