They haven’t had much to cheer about in 2020. But at least some of Britain’s best-loved charities have one reason to smile this week – an early Christmas present of sorts, courtesy of Mail Force.
Our charitable campaign, started by this newspaper and backed by our generous readers, is on the road once again with truckloads of personal protective equipment (PPE) destined for a dozen charities, along with a simple pledge.
We will be back again and again with more of the same every three weeks between now and Christmas – a total of nearly five million pieces worth £560,000. In short, whatever else they have to worry about, our chosen charities can rest assured that they will have enough surgical masks and hospital-standard protective aprons to see them through to 2021.
So grateful Lauren Hamer, (pictured) from Age UK, with Mail Force masks at the Warrington centre
‘PPE has been a massive frustration during this pandemic. We’ve been spending four times more than we usually would on it so we are extremely grateful to Mail Force as we will now have a war chest for the coming winter,’ says Hugh Fenn, interim chief executive of Leonard Cheshire, which cares for more than 2,500 people with a range of disabilities in 120 care homes across Britain.
This week, the Mail Force van has been all over the country, dropping boxes of PPE at, among others, Age UK in Warrington, Cheshire, and the Oxfam depot in Walsall. Since our campaign started back in April, we have raised more than £11million and delivered more than 30million pieces of PPE.
We have helped to kickstart new production lines of UK-made equipment and spent more than £1million on state-of-the-art virus testing equipment for hospitals all over Britain. But there is still much to do.
As well as stuffing our van with PPE, we have been using lorries, too. One truck has been to the Royal British Legion in Kent and ExtraCare in Coventry. Another has been to Blind Veterans UK in Llandudno, north Wales, and the Manchester Refugee Support Network.
At Leonard Cheshire’s London headquarters, offices are now doubling up as a warehouse. Desks have been pushed aside to provide storage for piles of emergency kit.
Szymon Brezgiel and Amanda Borland: Some of the new kit was swiftly on its way to Leonard Cheshire’s Hydon Hill home near Godalming in Surrey
Yesterday, deputy facilities manager Julian Heinemann was busy finding space for Mail Force’s delivery of 250,000 masks and 150,000 aprons (just a quarter of the amount which we will be providing between now and Christmas).
Some of the new kit was swiftly on its way to Leonard Cheshire’s Hydon Hill home near Godalming in Surrey. There, I meet service manager Amanda Borland. She leads a 55-strong team looking after 34 adult residents – most of them with multiple sclerosis – in a leafy woodland complex of single-storey chalets and bungalows.
‘We’re just so grateful to all the Mail readers who are just keeping it all coming,’ says Amanda, who knows all about the threat of Covid-19. Early on in the pandemic, she was one of 19 residents and staff who went down with a confirmed case of the virus.
Though one resident sadly died, while in hospital, the rest have recovered and Amanda is absolutely determined that her home remains Covid-free for good (quite rightly our meeting takes place in the garden).
Mail Force charity delivered PPE masks to Age UK distribution centre in Warrington, Cheshire Pictured: Michael Kelly and Lauren Hamer from Age UK and Mail Force Gerry Smith (right) with some of the delivery
‘This will make a big difference to us’, say care home staff
The charity, which helps those with learning difficulties, has been spending an increasing portion of its budget on protective equipment for its 200 staff.
Now Mail Force has provided 56,000 masks and 50,000 aprons.
Chief executive Cathy Andrews said: ‘This will make a big difference to us – we can’t thank Mail Force enough. It’s saved us £30,000, which is a lot of money for a small charity during the pandemic.’
The Orchard Trust was set up 31 years ago with a smallholding in the village of Drybrook, Gloucestershire, where residents helped to look after sheep, chickens and goats and worked on the land.
Three decades later, the charity cares for 45 people at five homes. Staff get through 160 masks a day and even more aprons, which are changed more often.
The Mail Force supplies mean the trust can now afford Nitrile gloves, which have quadrupled in price since the Government made them mandatory for healthcare workers.
‘It also means we can help out some of the local social care charities we work alongside by giving them gloves and aprons,’ said Miss Andrews.
‘We have suddenly found ourselves in a fortunate position.’
Most residents have not left the premises since March whereas, before the pandemic, they would all enjoy at least two outings a week. So, Amanda and her team are doing their best to keep spirits up. It is certainly easier to do that when the staff are all well-equipped.
‘Early on in the pandemic, I was even buying PPE on eBay,’ says Amanda. ‘But we’ve got very good bosses who were straight on to it. Now we have help from the likes of Mail Force and it’s one thing we don’t have to worry about. I think we’ll just write off this year altogether, pretend it never happened and just start again in 2021!’
I speak to Lorraine, 65, a Hydon Hill resident for the past eight years. The high point of her week used to be a day trip to see her sister in Chichester, West Sussex – ‘nice and flat and good shops’.
She hasn’t been there for more than six months yet she remains upbeat. ‘I’m hoping to go back soon,’ she says, adding that she is very grateful to Mail Force donors ‘for keeping us all safe’.
Sourcing and funding PPE is just one of the many headaches facing the charity sector right now. But if we can at least take it off their ‘To Do’ list, then we are making life a little easier for these hard-pressed organisations during the worst crisis in living memory.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director of Age UK, says: ‘We’ve had to close 133 charity shops and make 400 people redundant. During lockdown, we were losing £880,000 a week and we have had to take £12million out of our reserves. We’ve really done all we can and so we are really grateful for all your help. The next few months are absolutely key.’
The charity – which has a network of 130 local operations and free advice services for older people – estimates it will get through at least 225,000 masks between now and Christmas. Mail Force will now be providing those.
Oxfam is another charity with a strong retail presence. Head of trading Anne Webb tells me that the pandemic meant furloughing 1,100 of the 1,200 staff in its 600 shops. Now, 550 of those shops have reopened and 95 per cent of the staff are back at work.
‘Shops are a vital source of income and without PPE, we would not be able to keep our shops open so we are very grateful for all of it,’ Anne explains. However, the number of all-important shop volunteers has fallen from 18,000 pre-Covid to 13,000 now.
In a normal year, these shops generate £20million for the charity. Anne does not yet know what – if anything – the retail side of the charity will yield this year. But she is remaining steadfastly optimistic.
‘The pattern of shopping has changed but people are actually spending slightly more than they used to,’ she tells me, ‘and we are going to make the most of Christmas!’
At least that may now prove a little bit easier thanks to the unwavering kindness of our readers.