How Bedford coped with COVID: The Borough rises to the challenge

Coronavirus public parks sign
Bedford is an area that is considered at high-risk of a second local lockdown.

As Bedford, and the rest of the UK, begins to emerge from coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown the story of how we coped, the cost, and what could happen next can be revealed.

Using internal council documents seen by the Bedford Independent, this three-part report will show how the community rose to the challenge, officials overcame obstacles that threatened at times to overwhelm them, the full extent of the bill we now all face, and how it might be paid for.

Over the next three days, we’ll reveal:

  • How Bedford rose to the coronavirus challenge
  • How close Bedford has come to crisis
  • What the coronavirus cost will be on Bedford Borough Council, and perhaps, the taxpayer

Bedford Borough rises to the coronavirus challenge

Bedford Borough Council was ahead of the game. Within two days of Boris Johnson announcing lockdown, a Community Hub had been set up. This was well in advance of instructions from government to do so.

Officials were impressed by the sheer number of volunteers who came forward. Within the first fortnight there’d been 660 offers of help.

Charan Sekhon, chair of the Seva Trust, delivered to international students “who have nothing to eat” after being stranded here due to the COVID-19 lockdown

To begin with it was more than the system could handle. But soon they were busy: packing donated food and delivering it; doing shopping for the vulnerable and housebound; delivering prescriptions; and providing face to face welfare such as doorstep chats.

Read: International students in Bedford “starving” in coronavirus lockdown

In those first two weeks the Hub dealt with 1,740 requests for support. But that was just the start.

By early June 7,757 contacts had been made. More volunteers came forward – another 300 – and they were certainly needed as the lockdown continued to bite.

Their impact was felt in what they delivered to most vulnerable in our town.

  • 3,356 food parcels
  • 433 hygiene packs
  • 1,236 shopping requests
  • 1,062 prescriptions
  • 134 vulnerable residents befriended
  • 148 deliveries to dementia sufferers

It shows what Bedfordians can do when we put our minds to it. People discovered a sense of community, realised what a divided society we live in – but also how much difference a little self-sacrifice can make.

The urgent question now for council officials, charities, for all of us, is how to maintain that community spirit as we return to our atomised, self-centred, pre-COVID existence.

Helping the homeless

There was one other group that benefitted directly from lockdown – the homeless. Suddenly, a problem that had bedevilled all governments for decades was solved – at a stroke.

The solution was obvious all along of course, adequate government funding. It meant that 60 rooms could be booked at the Mercure Hotel by the river, and a further 20 at the Holiday Inn.

Nurses have been able to provide a drug and alcohol triage clinic at the Mercure, along with other health interventions.

By early June only four people were still sleeping rough in Bedford. Two have since returned to the Mercure and there are rooms available for the other two.

Before lockdown there had been around 70 people sleeping on the streets.

Mercure Hotel
Bedford’s rough-sleepers were offered accommodation at this town centre hotel

Read: Town centre hotel opens doors to all Bedford’s rough-sleepers

We have all become used to the government spending billions, tens of billions, to get the economy going again. The cost of getting the homeless off the streets? £3.2 m – and that’s for the whole of England.

But it’s due to end this month. Ministers insist councils can continue to help the homeless from the billions they’ve been given overall.

Those who work with the homeless know better. Only earmarked, specific and continuous funding will do the job. But they doubt that minsters will listen.

Tomorrow, Municipal Man will explore how close services provided by Bedford Borough Council came to crisis.

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