One of the good aspects of a crisis is the way people come together. What we are not so good at is seeing things coming. But on Thursday 12th March, when not a single case had been reported in East Sussex, Kim Batty thought she should start preparing “just in case”. It was nothing to do with panicking, she said, and she even hoped it wouldn’t be necessary.

Within ten minutes of posting on Facebook, she was contacted by Alistair Fairly and HEART was under way. They set up the HEART – Hastings Emergency Action Response Team Facebook page to start a volunteer network for when people needed to start self-isolating and with a view to galvanising people power when it was needed. Within three days the page had attracted about 1,600 members and 500 volunteers. The reaction was very gratifying, although Kim admitted “It felt terrifying”.

The next thing to do was deal with all the data that they had collected about the volunteers and that’s where collaboration became essential. They had a meeting with Hastings Borough Council (HBC), Hastings Voluntary Action (HVA) and Heart of Hastings, who helped them became aware of and to deal with the bureaucracy involved – especially safeguarding issues.

Kim’s foresight turned out to be necessary:  with things changing by the day, the implications of the pandemic began dawning on the community – considerations like how to help the elderly, how to look after children with schools closed and feed them if necessary.

The original Facebook page was for gathering data. On 19th March, the project was launched into the wider community with the HEART Corona virus – useful tips page (scroll down the search page as many hits come up).

There are all sorts of unforeseen obstacles. It was considered useful to have a coordinating structure for each ward, but there isn’t a clear map of wards available and one had to be created (now completed). There was no website (now completed). Volunteers were looking for things that they could do (direction is now being given). Donations need to be kept safe and accounted for (HVA, which has experience in financial matters, has set up a bank account). Other ways of communicating with people other than through digital media is required (phone banking – organised phone contact – is being explored).

The ward maps were required because it was agreed to recruit area coordinators for each ward: these will liaise with those volunteering directly with HEART as well individual groups – and there are many including street groups, charities and statutory agencies. Work is well advanced for recruiting and safety checking ward coordinators, three for each ward, and all will hopefully be in place when this paper goes to print. 

But the main purpose of HEART is to be a central hub for information and coordination: information for volunteers and information for the general public. And as Kim pointed out: “One positive thing about people not going to work is there will be more vigilance as people will be available to keep an eye out and be good neighbours, an important aspect of community help. 

HEART will be providing regular bulletins to keep the community informed. These will be on Facebook, the website and will be organised through other media.

So far, the response has been overwhelming. As Sam Kinch from Heart of Hastings says: “I’ve been blown away.”

For more information visit HEART Corona virus – useful tips page on Facebook.

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