Making A Difference: Giving Voice to the Hardest Hit

Charlotte Augst is the Chief Executive of National Voices, the coalition of charities that stands for people being in control of their health and care. Prior to joining National Voices in March 2019, Charlotte led the work of the Richmond Group for five years, developing strategy, facilitating discussions and representing the Group externally. During the pandemic, she has led National Voices to advocate for the parts of society most impacted by COVID-19.

Being asked to write this short blog about our work since COVID-19 was an opportunity for us to take stock.

So, how did we, as very small organisation with a very new team, make decisions to find our way through this crisis?

It is important to realise that the people whom we feel we were put on this planet to serve and work with have been hardest hit by this pandemic.

People with long-term conditions are most likely to have had severe complications from a COVID-19 infection and they are also most likely to die from the disease. Roughly one in four people who died of COVID-19 had dementia. Roughly one in four had diabetes.

However, perhaps even more importantly for our work, we must remember millions of people had substantial health and care needs before this crisis started, and they still have these needs.

But these needs have very often not been met. Across the country tests, treatments, home visits, visits from family members, and support visits for people with special needs have been cancelled. This has also led to pain, suffering, hardship, and, as we now know, to deaths.

What could we, a small membership organisation, possibly do to make any of this better?

A lot, as it turned out. We focused on two core activities which have shaped most of our work over the last few months:

1. Taking key themes from our member organisations to decisionmakers.

What are the key themes in the challenges our members are hearing about and dealing with? They include food security, isolation, mental ill health, shielding, the digital divide, inequalities and more. We took these issues to decision-makers, particularly to help our members who don’t have large policy or public affairs teams.

2. Creating a platform for people with health and care needs to say what they want and need.

What are people with health and care needs saying about what they want and need? To find out, we created Our Covid Voices, where anyone with ongoing health and care needs can talk about their experience of health and illness during this period. We have taken what we have learned from the insights they’ve shared to the Health and Social Care Select Committee, the Care Quality Commission, the Department of Health and Social Care, NHS England, and expert audiences through well-received comment pieces in HSJ and the BMJ.

It is hard to claim you are having a clearly-defined impact in the world of influencing, particularly as the normal rules don’t always apply during a crisis.

But we have a sense that we have made ourselves, the work of our members, and maybe most importantly, the experiences of often very vulnerable people, more visible and audible during this very noisy and fast-moving period. We have received some great feedback from people who are shielding, from members, and from decision-makers that this contribution has felt useful and timely to them. We feel this is not bad for a small and under-resourced organisation such as ours

We have worked incredibly hard (harder than we can sustain in the long run) and so our next task is to consolidate, to take stock and to slow down.

So many people have experienced such hardships during these last three months. It feels good to know that we have at least kept a record of these experiences and enabled them to be heard by those people who are designing our country’s response to this crisis, and that we have done this with authenticity and a sense of moral urgency.