COVID-19 Public Affairs Forum
NICVAs Public Affairs Forum brings together those working in policy and public affairs across the voluntary and community sector to share information and insight and to discuss key issues in policy and policy development. It offers a programme of engagement events, training and activities aimed at supporting public affairs and influencing work across the sector.NICVAs Policy and Public Affairs Team are keen to continue to provide such support to the sector in these challenging times and recently hosted the first virtual meeting of the Forum in response to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This recent Forum meeting brought together over 20 Policy and Public Affairs representatives from across the sector to share policy insight and key messages in regard to the impact of the current crisis on their organisations and those they work with and on behalf of.
The range of organisations in attendance was diverse, with representatives from across a variety of sectors including:
- children & young peoples
- rural communities
- womens sector
On the Agenda
- Updates on how NICVA is working to support the sector at this time, including; gathering insight and information, providing tailored advice and support and making representation to government and others.
- What challenges the crisis is bringing to organisations and those people and communities that they serve.
- The positive response, voluntary and community organisations are making on the ground; how they are innovating and adapting to the complex challenges of the pandemic and continuing to provide critical support and services.
- What lessons sector organisations are already drawing from the crisis and what issues it highlights for the future of the voluntary and community sector , its work and it's beneficiaries.
- How organisations are engaging with policy and decision makers at this time in regard to the COVID-19 crisis and wider policy priorities and concerns.
- How NICVA can help amplify organisations insight and messaging at this time and support the sharing of resources, information and expertise across the sector, with government and others.
Key Themes and Issues raised by Sector representatives:
The range of issues under discussion was wide ranging, highlighting the far-reaching impact of this pandemic. Discussion highlighted that whilst this crisis is bringing with it new challenges for organisations and those they serve, it is also exacerbating existing gaps, pressures and inequalities in public policy and service provision, that were already being felt by individuals and across communities.
- Organisations are producing extensive health messaging, information and resources in response to COVID-19, including web-based resources, virtual support and guidance and bespoke Tele-support services to respond to the needs, questions and concerns of affected groups/individuals.
- There are significant efforts across organisations in bringing key health services and supports online and via digital and telephone provision. However, is acknowledged that this is not without its challenges in terms of organisational resources and also accessibility issues for particular groups of service users for eg; some older people or those in poverty etc.
- Organisations would welcome support in sharing and amplifying their health messaging at this time both across the community and voluntary sector, to the public, government and beyond.
- There is real concern that the pandemic has amplified those gaps in essential services and wider health inequalities that existed prior to the current crisis. Organisations cited the particular impact on those with disabilities, young people, carers, women and other key vulnerable groups.
- Reports and concerns are emerging that the public may not be accessing or are delaying accessing health care supports, in particular emergency and acute services such as cardiac or stroke support due to fears and concerns around COVID-19.
- There is a need for increased public messaging around wellbeing to encourage people to go to A&E and access health advice and screening etc .Organisations are working to address this across own services, with many currently engaged in or planning, messaging and awareness raising initiatives regarding.Support in sharing this messaging, across organisations and beyond was welcomed.
- The future public health impact of delays or cessation to some screening and preventative health programmes was highlighted.
- Concern as to the impact of COVID-19 on the provision and quality of wider health care services. There are emerging concerns that other forms of health care support for eg; stroke care and mental health provision are being negatively impacted by the current health care emergency. Organisations are working to gather insight and experiences regarding.
- Concerns regarding the process of administering government Shielding Letters and associated provisions, with reported inconsistencies and a lack of clarity regarding being reporting.
- Concerns that important wider health reform and developments have effectively been paused by statutory agencies and government departments as a result of the pandemic. Whilst this may be understandable due to current pressures, concerns are growing as to the future impact of this for policy and service provision, as the crisis looks set to continue for some time.
- Significant concerns regarding the Mental Health impacts of the crisis both now and in the future due to the impact of increased levels of isolation, the cessation of vital mental health supports and increased experiences of grief and trauma.
- Organisations felt government departments must further transition the emergency planning cycle from the consideration of practical immediate needs (such as food, medication) to give greater consideration of the emotional (for eg; loneliness) and mental health impacts of the crisis. The importance of the Department for Communities and the Department of Health to share/fuse strategy and work together in this was stressed.
- The prevalence of mental health issues in NI and concerns as to the quality of provision are already a significant societal issue and challenge which will inevitably be compounded by the pandemic. Organisations greatly welcome the Heath Ministers recommendation for the appointment of a Mental Health Champion for NI.
Children, Young People and Families
- Concerns as to how the pandemic is adversely affecting the welfare of children and young people. Is view that their needs have to date largely been left out of the crisis response from government.
- Concerns that the risks to already vulnerable children and young people are becoming heightened as vital support systems are reduced as a result of the pandemic for e.g. closure of schools, ending of face-to-face meetings with social work or other key workers.
- Concern at the notable drop in safeguarding referrals being reported by statutory services, at a time when organisations are concerned that the risk of abuse or neglect may actually be increasing.
- Concern that social distancing measures are exacerbating feelings of Loneliness and poor Emotional Wellbeing, particularly amongst those children and young people already vulnerable or marginalised. There is real concern that we will see a long-term impact on the mental health of children and young people, with more needing support for the first time or the needs of those already vulnerable becoming more acute.
- Concerns that statutory responsibilities in regard to children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing are not being met, for example; access to Child and Adolescent Mental Health services and other mental health services, assessments and supports being withdrawn or reduced at this time. Where support has gone online or via phone, this is presenting challenges for some young people in terms of accessibility etc.
- Justice system – reports that some young people exiting juvenile justice at this time, are unable to affect bail as no accommodation options are available.
- Young people with Special Educational Needs and their families – significant challenges and pressures being experienced as school and other essential supports are withdrawn at this time. Organisations are advocating to the Department of Education, to agree and put in place alternative arrangements or supports for children and families due to the pressures being experienced at this time,
- Poverty - children are already at a higher risk of poverty than the general population. As a consequence of the pandemic, many families have been pulled into poverty as a result of losing their jobs or increased financial pressures.
- Parental Visitation and Family Contact Arrangements - increasing problems due to theimpact of social distancing measures are being reported, both for children in separated families and those in care.
- Education – concern around the lack of information in regard to assessment of essential skills provision , which is often seen as ‘the poor cousin’ to more formal education provision. Organisations have been making representation to Government and Exam Bodies regarding but feel young people need access to this information as a matter of emergency, with many concerned about impact on their future plans.
- Childcare provisions – organisations have been working in partnership with government departments and providers to agree arrangements for key workers .
- Learning Disability - the need for greater clarity in regard to the rules around outdoor exercise and exemptions for certain groups. Organisations have been advocating for improved arrangements and whilst is some progress, there is still disparity around how this is being managed locally. Emerging rights issues and concerns are being reported, regarding the disproportionate impact of lockdown measures on those with learning disabilities and their families.
- Concerns that young people are being disproportionately affected economically by the pandemic, in terms of their access to government relief initiatives and rising unemployment both now and in future.
- Organisations are working hard to maintain contact with children and young people in these challenging times and there are some excellent examples of innovation regarding.
- Concern that the gendered impact of the crisis is not being responded to adequately by both local and UK Governments. This is despite growing evidence of the many ways in which women are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
- Concern that women may bear the brunt of the crisis; economically, socially and in terms of health as women constitute over 70% of the health and social care workforce , 70% of those workers who are ineligible for Statutory Sick Pay and 85% of part-time workers in NI .
- Emerging issues in NI include the lack of perinatal care and poor maternity support at this time, including the need to improve access to Telemedicine and support. There are concerns over the longer-term impacts of this on infant and women’s health and wellbeing.
- Pregnant women have been declared a vulnerable group in the Emergency Legislation but no guidance has yet been issued in NI. There is concern this is leading to confusion and poor practice. For eg; women’s eligibility for Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) being affected because of employment issues connected with COVID-19.
- Access to Telemedicine more generally is an issue, including access to contraceptive and abortion support. Disparity of provision is being reported across Health and Social Care Trusts and challenges in women being expected to travel long distances, including to mainland UK to access appropriate support .
- Significant concerns around the potential increase in Domestic Violence at this time, which has been evidenced in other countries and the need for greater cross departmental action and messaging regarding. Women and Domestic Abuse organisations are working together to produce and profile information and messaging at this time regarding supports available.
- The Women’s Policy Group is in the process of finalising a submission on the impact of Covid-19 on women for an inquiry led by the Women and Equalities Committee at Westminster.
- The challenges in regard to Digital Access and Inclusion for those in rural communities have been amplified by the crisis.
- As many essential and public services and supports continue to be digitised and moved online at this this time, there is a need for clear messaging and decisive action from government regarding.
- There is a need to look at other channels of communication between citizens and government, for eg; some older people or those in poverty.
Finance and Resources
- Organisations are experiencing significant financial pressures, at a time when most are seeing an increased demand for services. Some are reporting a significant loss of income due to the impact on fund raising activity and on the delivery of other key services and activities (for eg; the closure of charity shops)
- Some organisations reported that increasing numbers of staff are being furloughed as a result.This is presenting concerns as to the well being and interests of affected staff and also on organisational capacity to respond to and meet demands on services.
- The difficult position for the sector whereby in emerging from a three-year freeze on government funding for many, with until recently no functioning local government, to then go directly into a period of global crisis that takes (understandably) over all governmental priority was stressed.
- Organisations are keen to have more information and urgent clarity in regard to the UK Chancellors funding package for frontline charities and what that funding will look like for Northern Ireland. There was general consensus and concern that this funding will be wholly inadequate to meet the growing pressures.
- Organisations are innovating, utilising digital technology and bringing online support and services wherever possible. However, this is not without its challenges and limitations, including accessibility for more vulnerable or marginalised individuals.
Informing and Influencing
- Organisations are continuing to engage with Government Departments and officials at this time, which has been helpful in informing some of the emergency responses by Government departments and agencies.
- Organisations would welcome continued support in amplifying their messaging and experiences at this time, particularly to Government. This includes via the Emergency Leadership Structures and also more widely with Government departments including the Departments of Health and Education.
- The policy narrative to date has quite rightly been on the challenges the sector is facing in terms of sustainability. There is also a need for positive messaging with regard to the innovation, and resilience being displayed by the sector, including it’s significant contribution to the emergency community response.
- Concerns that some key policy issues and concerns are at risk in the current policy environment where responding to crisis takes over (understandably) all governmental priority. There is a need to ensure that wider societal issues and policy concerns don’t slip down the agenda, whilst maintaining sensitivity and balance to the current crisis.
- The current crisis provides opportunities to highlight the vital role and contribution of the voluntary and community sector, and its contribution to essential and public services, which previously may have been undervalued. This includes in it’s future relationships with government and statutory sectors (health trusts, Councils, etc)
- Is a need to consider the aftermath and legacy of COVID-19 on individuals and communities and how we as a sector can continue to respond and adapt to these challenges.
All in attendance agreed that it had been helpful to connect and share information, resources and insight at this challenging time.It was agreed that for the immediate future and in response to the continuing crisis, NICVA will facilitate forum meetings on a frequent basis, approximately every 2- 3 weeks .
The focus of these meetings shall be on creating a supportive space for:
- NICVA to regularly consult on and share essential information and updates on its policy and public affairs activities and the wider work of NICVA.
- Facilitating the sharing of policy insight, information, and resources across the sector. Agreeing how NICVA can help promote and share these more widely as necessary.
- Providing a regular source of policy insight and intelligence that NICVA and forum members can use to support and inform their messaging to government and others.
- Identifying and raising awareness of key themes and issues emerging and framing these as key questions or asks for government and others where appropriate.
- Agreeing how NICVA can support the sector in amplifying their experiences and messaging to government and others at this time. Including agreeing channels of communication to gather insight and messaging but also to promote these externally.
- Exploring how we work together collectively to inform and influence public policy, decision making and debate in this ‘new environment’ and beyond.
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