Reflecting on Oxford’s response to the pandemic one year on

Published: Thursday, 18th March 2021

As the national Day of Reflection approaches on 23 March, Oxford City Council pays tribute to all who have helped the city through the pandemic, and reflects on those who have been impacted by it.

On 23 March 2020, two weeks after the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic, the UK went into lockdown. More than 190 people in Oxford have died of coronavirus since the disease was first identified, equivalent to someone dying every two days. Thousands more have suffered from illness, mental health issues and deprivation.

Through this period the City Council has been there to support our residents and our businesses, providing food support and help with essentials like fuel and utilities, bringing the homeless off the streets, and protecting livelihoods through a huge programme of business grants and payment holidays.

Helping the most vulnerable

The Council has supported those hardest hit by the restrictions, working with partner organisations to tackle food poverty, isolation and support the most vulnerable. The Council worked quickly to establish Locality Response Hubs, teams of Council staff covering the main residential areas to deliver essential support for people locked down and unable to work.  Within nine days the hubs were staffed and running, taking on food support from food banks that couldn’t operate in lockdown.

The locality hubs built partnerships with their local community groups to help people, carried out welfare checks on the vulnerable and used ODS drivers to deliver hundreds of food parcels per week. With Oxford Hub, the Council formed the Oxford Together, which ran a network of thousands of volunteers to help housebound people with shopping and prescriptions, as well as a phone service to tackle loneliness.

Tackling food poverty

From March to October the Council delivered over 10,000 food parcels to households across the city. This was undertaken in partnership with SOFEA, Oxford Hub and many other volunteers and community groups.

  • the Council worked with a nutritionist from Brookes University to ensure food parcels are nutritionally balanced
  • food parcels have been tailored to household dietary needs, including halal supplies and food allergy specific boxes
  • Council food parcels have met additional needs like baby essentials
  • Council and ODS staff have ensured delivery to the door of up to 800 food parcels every week through the course of the crisis.

From September onwards the Council moved away from providing food parcels itself to supporting community groups to provide an independent service. Work to support these in hardship includes:

  • Securing a regular food supplier, SOFEA, for Community Larders in the city and also to support low cost food access for food bank operations
  • Providing 259 free school meal food vouchers in October Half Term
  • Continued working with communities and community groups to promote community food opportunities and help tackle root causal issues
  • Providing logistical support for food services such as vehicles and staff to support pick-ups and drop offs when required
  • Supporting 400 free memberships of community larders from Jan-March 2021, enabling households to access low-cost groceries and community support
  • Providing winter support grants that have supported 4 advice centres and 13 community food groups, and using emergency funds that have benefitted  426 people or households to date, ensuring that those most vulnerable are fed and warm.

Supporting minority communities

Data has shown that Black and Asian communities have been disproportionately impacted by the virus. Generational inequality also means they have been more vulnerable to the economic impact of lockdown. The Council has strengthened and extended its partnership working with these communities to make sure they can access the support they need, including:

  • working with Oxford Central Mosque during Ramadan 2020 to ensure 150 families identified as in need had appropriate emergency food parcels
  • supporting Oxford Homeless Project on the 2020 Grand Iftar event that provided 1500 free hot meals across the city
  • supporting community groups including Oxford Community Action, Oxford Mutual Aid and SYRCOX to ensure they have a reliable, appropriate food supply and premises to provide food parcels for Oxford’s minority communities – now supporting over 1500 households per week
  • working with the NHS to deliver online events for the Black, Asian and other minority communities in Oxford to address their specific concerns around the vaccine

Tackling rough sleeping

As the pandemic struck last March, the government issued an ‘everyone in’ direction for English councils to provide emergency housing for vulnerable homeless people, including those living in shared hostel spaces. The council moved quickly to comply and secured 121 self-contained hotel and student rooms within two weeks. As temporary agreements with hotels and colleges came to an end in July, the council leased two blocks to provide 118 rooms of interim housing for another year, managed by St Mungo’s.

Interim housing is a bridge from emergency accommodation and the streets, providing a breathing space for people to get the support they need to leave homelessness behind.

So far, the council has housed 335 people under ‘everyone in’ arrangements and 158 of them have been supported into more permanent housing.

This has been possible with the help of £2m from the Next Steps Accommodation Programme (NSAP). NSAP funding will also support the council to deliver longer term ‘housing led’ solutions over the next few years.

Protecting livelihoods

Jobs and livelihoods have also been hugely impacted, and without support many more Oxford families would have needed emergency help from the Council and community. The Council has given out around £38.5m in grants to local businesses to support them through this extraordinary time. In addition rate and rent holidays have equated to £57m support, helping employers keep their businesses viable through lockdown. The Council supported local businesses as the economy reopened last summer and through the autumn, promoting confidence in visiting the city centre, providing free park & ride, and expanding outside seating for hospitality through significant pedestrianisation in the centre.

Keeping people safe

The Council has been a key part of the regulatory framework put in place to keep people safe. Since March when restrictions were first imposed by the government 1,759 visits to businesses have been made to check for compliance with over 200 warning letters and notices sent out. A further 492 businesses have been spot checked by a partnership project with the Health and Safety Executive and over 4,000 emails have been sent to businesses regarding changes to the regulations and providing advice. Last September the Council set up Oxfordshire’s first Covid Secure team which has been out every night since visiting businesses to check they are complying with the rules, and supporting the police in deterring large gatherings.

“A year of this pandemic has taken its toll on everyone. Many people have had to make huge sacrifices this year, but it has been especially hard on those who were already disadvantaged. They have suffered the most from this disease, because where you live, what you can afford to eat, and what work you do directly impacts on your health. We at Oxford City Council have been there every step of the way to work with communities and partners to tackle these issues. I want to thank all our staff and partners for their dedication and enthusiasm to help, but also a big thank you to the thousands of local residents who volunteered to help their neighbours and fellow citizens. Together we have looked after our most vulnerable residents.

“On Tuesday 23 March we will mark the national day of reflection by flying our City flag at half-mast. We will remember those we’ve lost, those who still suffer, our key workers and our NHS. A national moment to come together to reflect and grieve is something we all need. Now we need to learn the lessons from this pandemic and continue to work together to provide a better future for our city, working together to improve the health and life opportunities for all of our citizens.”

Councillor Susan Brown, Leader of Oxford City Council