Covid - A Year On: Islington mutual aid groups 'still going strong'

Clerkenwell Mutual Aid co-ordinator George Allan (left) being given a food parcel by volunteers at the St Luke's Foodbank

Clerkenwell Mutual Aid co-ordinator George Allan (left) being given a food parcel by Tsedal Mengistu and Carol-Ann from the St Luke's Foodbank in Central Street - Credit: Clerkenwell Mutual Aid

Mutual aid groups set up to help the vulnerable and needy are going strong, one year on from the first coronavirus lockdown - and are still desperately needed as much now as when the pandemic first hit.

Community groups sprung up across Islington last March to deliver supplies and medication, and to offer advice and support to others in the community.

The groups mobilised as the vulnerable and elderly were told to shield to protect themselves from catching Covid-19, or to self-isolate so as not to pass the virus on to others.

Bunhill and Clerkenwell Mutual Aid is one of about 12 groups across Islington, which has helped more than 400 people in the past year.

Aged between 20 to 80, some of them have only needed assistance once - but there is a core of about 20 people who access help several times a week. 

One of the group's co-ordinators, former councillor George Allan, 68, helps man the phones from his home on a rota system along with seven others. 

"It's still going strong, and it's still needed," he told the Gazette this week.

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"Although the incidence of coronavirus are going down steadily, it's clear there is a need for organisations like ours."

The group has nearly 500 volunteers, and requests for help are shared via email and WhatsApp. They help deliver prepared meals, go shopping, pay bills, top up gas and electric meters, and collect and deliver a lot of prescriptions.

"It's very rare we can't find someone within an hour to respond," said George.

"People are overwhelmingly very grateful.

"I think there are a lot of very worthwhile long-term relationships building up, as people get to know people who they do shopping for.

"The Peel Centre [in Northampton Road, Clerkenwel] has a buddy scheme which older people are enrolled into, and when people bake cakes they are able to share it with others who are sheltering at home."

Guilene Marco co-ordinates a similar group in St Mary’s ward with 150 volunteers, which she helped set up last year.

"Not everyone is mobilised, but I'm still impressed how people are still present, and still available to support their neighbours.

"I always find it very moving and inspiring.

"It's more the everyday things that I find extraordinary. Just the fact that every time we get a request, we have someone who will say, 'Ok I'll do it', I still find really really impressive.

"We have never had an unfulfilled request because we always find someone ready to do it. We've all been going through a lot, and no matter how complex or tiring, someone will just say, 'Yes I'm here'."

The fact the service is still needed now, "shows a lot of the safety nets in our country are disappearing", according to Guilene.

"For a lot of people it's not so much because of Covid that they need help. It's been a revealer," she said.

"It's their financial circumstances and Covid made it even worse. A lot of people lost their jobs or if you are on furlough you don't get your full income and for a lot of people things have been so hard.

"Inequality has deepened, and we have had people calling because they couldn't afford the electric bill.

"People are doing it because they are community minded and want to support their neighbours."

Guilène Marco, Gaia Young  and Ana Wilks from St Mary's mutual aid group in Islington

Guilène Marco, Gaia Young and Ana Wilks from St Mary's mutual aid group in Islington - Credit: St Mary's mutual aid group

Cllr Sue Lukes  is part of the Highbury Mutual Aid group, which has had 500 volunteers sign up over the year, and is also "still flourishing".

"It's very much about solidarity and not charity," she said.

This is what we would like someone to do for us if we needed it, and the way that works has been very Islington. 

"It's very much about strengths and it's very much about kindness and it's about respect.

"Mutual aid is simply an expression of a community getting organised and doing what a good neighbour does. 

"We do it because we want to support each other, and we do it if you like, in the knowledge that today we may offer support, but tomorrow we might need it.

"We are still going and the feeling is we may carry on beyond the pandemic, because it's a quite informal but committed way of working and it's something we have enjoyed."