“We have literally fed all sections of the community,” Fr Tom Davis, the chair of the trustees of Oldham Foodbank, says of the charity’s work in the town in Greater Manchester during the pandemic. “People struggling with kids being at home during lockdown and needing more meals, people on furlough who got into huge debt, homeless people who were put into hostels, and a couple who were living in a car.”
Oldham, which has five neighbourhoods that are among the 1% most deprived in England, is one of the places worst hit by Covid-19. Last summer, the town had the highest coronavirus infection rate in the country, and, after another sharp rise in cases this summer, it currently has the fifth highest rate.
The local council and community groups say the pandemic has pushed many people who were previously just getting by into poverty. “Prior to the pandemic, we would feed about 8,000 people a year, says Davis, priest of St Margaret’s parish church, Hollinwood and St Chad’s, Limeside, one of the poorest parishes in the UK.
“By the end of 2020 we’d fed just over 17,000,” he adds, noting that the charity has gone from operating from a pub to taking over two warehouses since July last year to meet demand. “So far this year we’ve fed 9,590 people, including 3,796 aged 0-16.”
For the council leader, Arooj Shah, the food bank was one of several local charities and community groups without which the town would have struggled to cope with the increased hardship caused by Covid-19. “I think without that sector, our response [to the pandemic] would have been really scary,” she says.
Shah, who in her former role as deputy leader led the council’s response to Covid-19, points to the work of volunteers from Real Education Empowering Lives community interest company (Reel CIC), who switched from running parenting classes to going door to door to debunk myths about the virus and Covid tests last summer.
Graham Rogers, a community worker at Reel CIC, says: “People were worried because they’d heard horror stories like: ’You’ve got to stick the swab all the way up your nose up into the brain.’ We were putting their minds at rest. Then the day after, the NHS were coming around to do the swab testing.”
Sean Fielding, the council’s leader until May, says these volunteers helped the town avoid going into a Leicester-style local lockdown last summer. He adds: “That was one of the one of the ways that we really brought the infection rate down. After a couple of weeks, we weren’t in the [national] spotlight anymore.”
The town faces considerable challenges to meet the additional levels of need caused by the pandemic. Budget cuts to council services have risen by £5m to £28m as a result of the costs of Covid, according to Fielding.
But the council did allocate additional central government grants worth £828,000 to the voluntary sector, including local food banks, during the pandemic.
Jill Ebrey, a lecturer at Manchester University, who co-authored recent research for the London School of Economics that looked at the legacy of austerity in Oldham, says local government cuts have increased vulnerable residents’ reliance on community groups for support.
During the first Covid lockdown in March 2020, the Chai (care, help and inspire) women’s project reacted rapidly to support its members, who are predominantly mothers from the local south Asian community, which suffered some of the highest rates of infection in the town.
Its founder, Najma Khalid, who set up the group in 2011 to improve the wellbeing and opportunities of women and their children, says: “One of our members lost five members of her family within 10 days due to Covid. There was a lot of loss and fear.”
Unable to continue their regular meetings in local schools, Khalid says members were only able to stay in touch initially via WhatsApp, as home schooling and a shortage of digital devices made Zoom meetings impossible for many. “Every day people were supporting each other, putting messages in about local food banks,” she adds.
The group later managed to work with the local theatre, Oldham Coliseum, on a project called Stitch, embroidering patches of fabric with positive images and messages. The project started running Zoom meetings in September 2020, offering healthy eating and mental health advice, and exercise classes, including Asian Zumba with the actor Mina Anwar, from the 1990s BBC TV comedy series The Thin Blue Line.
But Ebray warns that the pandemic has exposed the precarity of some voluntary organisations, with several smaller grassroots groups based in the town’s most deprived estates forced to shut or suspend their services due to a lack of resources.
The community arts group Crafty Lasses, based in the Limehurst area of the town, was unable to continue its workshops for women and children without a physical meeting place.
“I feel more isolated than ever before,” says Stacey, one of the group’s coordinators. Stacey, who was also unable to work as a hairdresser during lockdown, says she misses the sense of purpose and achievement she got from the group’s weekly sessions, during which members created art projects that were exhibited regularly in the town. “I didn’t realise how much of a lifeline it was.”
Ebray says: “All of those kinds of groups have gone to ground. It’s just heartbreaking..”
Jim McMahon, the Labour and Co-operative MP for Oldham West and Royton, praised those local organisations that continued to provide support in the town during the pandemic despite a loss of funding and physical space. But he adds: “We’ll need the government to step up to the plate here too. This cannot be a permanent sticking plaster where community groups and volunteers step up and provide a service out of the goodness of their hearts that the state has neglected.”