The VHS annual conference is a key event in the VHS calendar. The format this year was, of course, very different. However, despite the limitations of digital rather than face to face contact, the conference still provided highly informative presentations in plenary and lively workshop sessions that provoked plenty of discussion and exchange.
We heard from speakers in leadership roles in Public Health across the UK. There was striking commonality in the themes that emerged. These themes are now becoming very familiar in any forum where we seek to identify how collectively the public and voluntary sectors can address the challenges of coming through this pandemic and creating a future where rights are respected and resources and opportunities more fairly distributed to improve health and reduce inequalities. We know very well that this requires tackling deep seated social and economic problems whose effects are painfully experienced by real people in real communities today: poverty of all kinds, poor mental health and wellbeing, lack of social connectedness and loneliness, and access to support and care when we need it.
I had the opportunity to be part of two workshops, one featuring the findings from national surveys on the impact of COVID 19 and the second, the work of the British Red Cross as it adapted its services to meet needs. The discussions that emerged had much cross-over and included the following points:
- The issues that people are struggling with are inter-linked, not separate themes. Mental health is affected by debt and loneliness for example. Services need to work in a coordinated way and be able to offer the support people need, holistically. There have been some really inspiring examples of collaborative working with large and small organisations working together to respond to needs at local level.
- It is all the more important in the context of the pandemic to listen to and learn from people’s experiences so that we can add detail and depth to data from surveys. However some of the platforms we use ordinarily to engage with communities are not available just now and people are less likely to be coming to community settings where we can make contact. This means we need to make efforts to find different channels so that we hear from a range of people particularly those most marginalised.
- In the early stages of the pandemic, understandably, there was a lot of attention to practical help and ensuring people had the basic necessities but we need to remember that human contact and interaction are so important. Disruption to social relationships has been a universal experience and so we need to continue work out how we can retrieve or establish new ways to connect effectively. Lots of services have add a befriending element to their service provision, for example, or given more weight to the relational elements in delivery.
- There has been a lot of learning about what can be best be done nationally, regionally and locally to ensure support and service delivery can be sustained. One of the key strengths that comes from working with local groups / organisations is their knowledge of local community resources that can reach out to people but we need strong networks to make this effective and respectful ways of collaborating not competing. There is still some way to go however to breakdown the distinction between public sector and voluntary sector.
Some of the important lessons that we heard throughout the conference were about the need to build relationships with communities based on trust and on a recognition of their distinctive strengths and characteristics. Communication has to be at the heart of this. The example from Wigan was inspiring with its starting premise that the public sector had to undergo a fundamental change in culture to be able to achieve what communities deserved. It was heartening, too, to be reminded by the Faculty of Public Health that the economic case for investing in prevention and early intervention is strong and we can use that in advocating for investment as we build forward.
Allyson McCollam is Chair of VHS. VHS’s annual conference Building Forward Better for Health and Wellbeing was held over 4th and 5th November 2020, with the hashtag #WeArePublicHealth.