Coronavirus and the third sector

18 Mar 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 18 Mar 2020

What should civil society do amidst the Covid-19 pandemic? This is a changing picture, any answers depend on the organisation, but immediate and practical steps are possible.


Coronavirus has changed our way of life.

For months, maybe even a year or more, normal routines are to be abandoned. Covid-19’s effect on society will continue long beyond that time, with the nature and extent of this effect yet to be determined.

What does this mean for the third sector? Or, indeed, any industrial sector?

For now, managing the immediate term is the challenge.

NICVA has put together a multi-faceted list of advice about how to manage the impact of the virus. This includes guidance on how to protect staff, volunteers and visitors; a comprehensive approach to HR and looking after your workforce (including links to wider advice from the Public Health Authority, the NCVO, the Federation of Small Businesses and others).

It also has reassurances from some larger funders, advice from a variety of community and voluntary organisations and, of course, information on how to reduce the spread of infection.

All of this is useful for any employer, business or place or work.

Some organisations, however, have trickier questions to answer.

Core mission

Community and voluntary organisations each have an explicit and well-defined social function.

Many organisations look after some of the most vulnerable people in society. Many of those organisations provide frontline services, including face-to-face work; many of their service users are in the high-risk groups for coronavirus.

NICVA’s advice provides plenty of information on how to approach this. Nevertheless, the balance is still extremely tricky.

The starting point is the government’s advice on social distancing and on at-risk groups. Hopefully everyone is aware of the broadest ways to reduce social interactions and, thus, chances to spread infection (avoid large gatherings, stay at home where possible, avoid anyone displaying symptoms, etc) as well as the increased focus on hygiene (wash hands often and thoroughly, avoid touching your face, clean and disinfect surfaces at home).

There is also more specific advice for people who rely on others for essentials like food and medicine:

“Ask family, friends and neighbours to support you and use online services. If this is not possible, then the public sector, business, charities, and the general public are gearing up to help those advised to stay at home. It is important to speak to others and ask them to help you to make arrangements for the delivery of food, medicines and essential services and supplies, and look after your physical and mental health and wellbeing.

“If you receive support from health and social care organisations, for example, if you have care provided for you through the local authority or health care system, this will continue as normal. Your health or social care provider will be asked to take additional precautions to make sure that you are protected. The advice for formal carers is included in the Home care provision.”


For individuals and organisations helping people in such situations, that advice is clearly also useful, while there is further advice aimed directly at visitors/carers/service providers.

Firstly, they should not make visits unless they are providing “essential care” which “includes things like help with washing, dressing, or preparing meals.”

The government also has guidance on residential care provision, supported living provision and home care provision, which could be useful for anyone providing frontline help.

If vulnerable service users had essential needs that can only be catered for in face-to-face visits a couple of months ago, they are very likely to still have those needs now – and those visits remain necessary.

Most of the advice is about taking precautions to reduce the risk of spreading the virus as much as possible. Precautions are about managing not eliminating risk but, unfortunately, this is unavoidable: there is no sure-fire fix.

Per the section on home care provision: “Care workers should use personal protective equipment (PPE) for activities that bring them into close personal contact, such as washing and bathing, personal hygiene and contact with bodily fluids.

“Aprons, gloves and fluid repellent surgical masks should be used in these situations. If there is a risk of splashing, then eye protection will minimise risk.

“New personal protective equipment must be used for each episode of care. It is essential that personal protective equipment is stored securely within disposable rubbish bags.

“These bags should be placed into another bag, tied securely and kept separate from other waste within the room. This should be put aside for at least 72 hours before being put in the usual household waste bin.”

Aside from that core guidance, perhaps the most important single piece of advice, given the projected infection rates for coronavirus, is to plan for contingencies. Communication is key.

For instance, using home care as an example, it is vital to make sure that if the caregiver becomes symptomatic (or is unable to provide care for whatever reason) a practical alternative is ready to go.

Overall, it is about doing the best you can. There is no perfect solution – but there most certainly is best practice.

Not alone

The government is leading the response to coronavirus. However, for those in a specific sector, there may be other organisations asking similar questions to you – as well as providing some answers.

NICVA has links to advice from Carers NI and Carers Trust NI, the Commissioner for Older People, the Alzheimer’s Society, the MS Society, the Cystic Fibrosis Trust and more.

Much of this covers similar ground to the government’s own advice, but that is unsurprising.

Organisations (or individuals) providing essential frontline services or care are as important as ever.

Continuing that good and necessary work while minimising risks - to both service users and providers - is not straightforward. Procedures on hygiene and viral transmission should be followed. Balances must be struck.

This is a bewildering time. Anyone who feels doubt or reluctance or even fear is simply behaving like a normal person. Read all the advice, take it all in, and work on the basis that while nothing is fool proof (and, ultimately, huge numbers of people will almost certainty get infected at some point) there are good ways and bad ways to handle any scenario.

And remember that you are not the only person feeling how you feel. As well as providing useful advice, all of the above should give reassurance that lots of people are asking all the same questions you are. Hopefully that helps.

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