They come from all walks of life but have one thing in common – a willingness to help in whatever way necessary to support Orkney’s most vulnerable people as the nation continues to wage war on the coronavirus.
Just a few weeks ago council employees – Angela Kingston, Keely Donald and Steven Gough - were going about their daily lives as normal.
But as lockdown measures were imposed, life was to change beyond all recognition and OIC staff answered the call to help at a newly created Coronavirus Community Support Hub, based within Kirkwall’s Pickaquoy Centre.
It would mean leaving their jobs and being trained in taking calls from Orkney’s most “at risk” – those whom the NHS has identified as being most vulnerable to severe illness if they catch the coronavirus.
Maureen Swannie, Orkney Health and Care Head of Service with responsibility for the Hub, said: “They are a fantastic team of folk who have been redeployed from across OIC into roles that were completely new to them and they have done this gracefully, willingly and positively.
“Our call handlers are dealing with an increasing call volume every day, with anxious and distressed callers, as well as challenging issues they help to resolve using their collective knowledge. They deserve our thanks for stepping up.
“As you would expect in these uncertain times, those most at risk are anxious and looking for reassurance, in addition to the practical help of arranging medication and essential food and household deliveries or healthcare services.
“That reassurance has to come from the call handlers and can be challenging itself. So, while we do follow up checks on the wellbeing of some of our callers, we must also look after our staff and ensure their own wellbeing.”
This may have started thousands of miles away in China, but it has touched everyone around the world and affected families in ways never thought imaginable.
Angela Kingston, from Kirkwall, a Committees Officer in the Chief Executive’s Service, has worked for the Council for almost 37 years.
She now works five shifts a week as a Hub support call handler.
“It was recognised quickly by managers at the Hub that four-hourly shifts were an appropriate length of time, due to the stressful nature of the calls, to ensure the call-handlers’ wellbeing.”
Continuity is proving to be invaluable – keeping the same folk on shift at the same time – it also makes handover easier, at which time desks, phones and laptops are thoroughly cleaned. Each person has their own headphones.
“It's been beneficial to work with the same small group each day - I've got my usual work colleague, Sandra, with me, and I've met some great new people, all fellow Council workers, but folk I would never normally have any contact with. We all help each other on shift and we all play a part in keeping a smile on each other’s faces.”
Angela continued: “It's been useful to have been at the Hub from the start – we've had great ‘brainstorming’ sessions, trying to find the best working practices to ensure we help the folk phoning in. The amount of information to keep up to date with is overwhelming – we don’t just answer the phone, we have to come up with answers to the issues people are telling us about. There are very real problems for folk – there are very real fears for them too.”
Calls can be complex and emotional.
“A lot of the time it's difficult to switch off after a shift. I often find myself, later at night or at some early hour in the morning, mulling over a particular issue – I think all of us at the Hub think we, personally, need to find all the solutions for folk.”
On a typical morning for the team of four call handlers, they will answer between 20-30 enquiries.
“It is mentally exhausting – I have never felt so drained. Sometimes my head feels like it'll burst, purely with the amount of information needed to do the job. It's an ‘all consuming’ role. Challenging – yes. Rewarding – yes, I know I've stepped up and done my bit, when callers are genuinely grateful even just to have spoken to you.”
She is hopeful of “normality” once again.
“I hope I can do the ‘normal’ job when I return – it feels like a million miles away, like a big missing gap from my life at the moment. I like to think that this whole experience just might make us all look on things in a different way and maybe we'll turn out to be better to each other.”
A senior Library Assistant at Orkney Library and Archive, Steven Gough, from Burray, has been a Council employee for 14 years.
Steven volunteered his services at the Hub and, while a case of “jumping in at the deep end and learning on the job”, he said good team spirit and friendships were quickly established.
“We are in contact with many folk shielded and unshielded, who require assistance or even just reassurance during these strange times. I am doing five shifts a week, including Saturday, and it can be quite stressful as some stories are difficult to hear, but we are here to help and offer whatever support we can.
“It is rewarding too, especially when you are able to sort out an issue for someone whether it be prescription pick up, food parcel delivery or someone to walk the dog. In general most folk are quite upbeat, and appreciative of the service which does make our efforts worthwhile.”
On a personal note, both Steven’s parents, who live south, are shielding which means he is unable to help them.
“Hopefully, I am helping other folk’s parents and loved ones though by working at the Hub. I take extra precautions at home as I live with asthma sufferers, but it’s just a case of using common sense and staying vigilant.”
Keely Donald, from Stromness, has worked for the OIC for five years and was redeployed to the Hub from her role within Warehouse Buildings as a customer services adviser/library assistant.
“We deal with so many different things, answering calls and never knowing what we are going to be asked! And then trying to find the answer! The managers are on hand to help deal with requests for help, where we are not sure what to do. We ring volunteers to organise deliveries of food and prescriptions, dog walking and well-being calls. We also have to keep all our paperwork and our knowledge up to date, using ‘Teams’ has been helpful for this.”
But while taxing, it is also rewarding.
“We get a lot of thanks from people, and it’s really good to be able to help people with a wide range of issues. We have recently started to do follow up calls to check in on how everyone, who we are helping, is doing and it’s nice to have a wee chat with folk, it can brighten both their day and ours!
“Mostly I would say folk are coping well. They also understand the need for ‘shielding’ and why it is important they stay home and follow the guidelines. Saying that, is has also highlighted that there are a lot of isolated, scared and vulnerable people in our communities and it can be difficult to hear the situations they are in, but we are there to help and make a difference, that is why it’s so worthwhile.”
Keely is aware that “normality” may be a way off.
“I miss seeing my family and friends and I’m fully expecting our whole summer, including my 5Oth birthday plans to be written off I also miss my Warehouse Building colleagues and customers!”
Following the initial identification of those most at risk, a second group of people likely to be badly affected by the virus were highlighted and now receive essential assistance thanks to a national helpline – 0800 111 4000 - which links directly to the Hub.
The Scottish Government also tasked Hub staff with making arrangements for onward delivery of free food parcels to those shielding. So far, around 420 have been delivered to the county’s most vulnerable.
There are nearly 80 volunteers who have stepped up to offer their services - many of them remain on standby.
Anna Whelan, Strategy Manager, Corporate Services and Volunteer Co-ordinator at the Hub, said: “Some volunteers haven’t had a callout yet simply because we haven’t needed to, which is a sign of how well Orkney’s regular support networks are holding up.
“Ideally, we’d hope that everyone in the community stays well and our support won’t be needed after all, but it is far better to be prepared.”
Calls can be taken at the Hub, which is not open to the public, from 9am-5pm, seven days a week on 01856879900 or via the dedicated email email@example.com