Change has happened so fast this past month it has been hard to keep up. No sooner have we held a Coronavirus meeting, revised risk assessments and issued communications than the situation changes, leaving hours of spent time useless in its wake. Obviously this is a minor inconvenience in the scheme of things but the need for decision making has been relentless, with the guidance often running two paces behind what has felt morally right, leaving organisations like us who work with vulnerable people, in a dilemma. Like every organisation we also have the health and livelihoods of our employees and their dependents to consider when navigating the line between risk to health and risk of closure.
On 4th March we sent a letter to everyone involved in our learning disability projects to ensure they knew to stay away for 14 days if experiencing Coronavirus symptoms and telling them of the precautions we had put in place regarding hand hygiene and cleaning shared surfaces. We incorporated hand hygiene/cough/sneeze training into our weekly sessions and planned activities outdoors as much as possible.
Our trustees met on 11th March and agreed with much regret to cancel our forthcoming Quiz Night, anticipating that social distancing would be mandatory by 28th March. Ticket holders were offered the choice of refund or donate their ticket cost and we’re incredibly grateful to the many people who chose to donate. Coronavirus scenario planning was agreed and FAQs produced for staff and volunteers with links to NHS and GovUK websites. We agreed to pause services for the next week while Liz took some much-needed annual leave. This would allow us some time to see what government would put in place for vulnerable people and social groups.
At 5pm on 12th March the Government issued advice for social groups and clubs to cease meeting indoors, to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. This was our cue to close our adult learning disability sessions, as although our projects offer an important therapeutic service, we are listed by HCC under ‘hobbies and leisure’ and our services could not be described as ‘essential’. Liz decided typically not to take the full week as leave but to spend much of her time speaking to our gardeners (service users) on the phone telling them personally of our decision and reassuring them and their carers. At the end of that week the schools were closed and by the following Monday most of our gardeners were either back at home with their parents or in self-isolation due to underlying health conditions or contact with someone experiencing symptoms. Liz continues to be in touch with many in a voluntary capacity as do other members of staff.
We went ahead with the planned Foraging Walk on 15th March, having contacted the tutor Jane Simmons to ensure extra hygiene and distancing precautions were in place. This was our last event from Ransom’s Pavilion, although in reality it was predominantly outdoors. The walk was sold out and feedback was very positive.
On 23rd March the ‘Stay at Home’ social distancing statement was announced and outdoor gatherings of more than two people not from the same household were banned. This forced the closure of Garden Club and our Sunday Volunteer Mornings, and stopped what was left of our income stream.
Our situation now is that the only activity still happening at our sites is the tending of our allotments by individual garden club members who are not self-isolating. This is being done singly, on a rota, under strict risk assessment controls, as part of those individuals’ daily exercise and on a voluntary basis. It's being coordinated by Fiona Dolman, one of our trustees and chair of our Garden Committee. The idea is to enable the benefits of 'garden therapy' to continue to be available to garden club members while also ensuring that our allotments can be ready to be of use to our projects later in the year when we hope sessions can resume. Sadly all our paid staff have had to go onto the government's Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (or 'furlough leave' as it's known) as we have lost our income stream, having cancelled all our sessions and events. We are hugely grateful for this scheme as it means we do not have to make our valuable people redundant, they can still pay the rent and feed their families, and we can look forward to starting back with their skills and experience in place when normality resumes. Our Chair of Trustees Vicky Wyer will be acting in the Project Manager role while Liz McElroy is on furlough leave.
Over the next few weeks our volunteers will bring you the virtual highlights of spring emerging at the Triangle Garden via social media, when their daily exercise walks take them through the garden. We will also be sharing ideas and images from other online nature and gardening sites to keep spirits up. Stay safe everyone.