Covid-19 is a global emergency and a local one

7 May 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 7 May 2020

Fiona MacLeod from Red Cross NI
Fiona MacLeod from Red Cross NI

It’s Red Cross Week, and Scope speaks to the organisation here in Northern Ireland about how it has had to transform its work to tackle the pandemic.


This year the Red Cross marks 150 years of responding to emergencies around the world.

The organisation provides support on the frontlines of disasters – floods, fires, famines and wars. And, now, Covid-19.

It is rare that national Red Cross (and Red Crescent) organisations worldwide are all dealing with such similar issues at a similar time, but a global pandemic is an extraordinary event by any measure.

Fiona MacLeod, Director of Independent Living and Crisis Response at Red Cross NI, spoke with Scope to mark Red Cross Week and outline how it has had to reshape or completely transform aspects of its local work to help deal with coronavirus.

As well as reducing face-to-face support, where possible, and instead working digitally or on the phone, it has made  frontline work much more flexible to get the most out of staff and volunteers.

“The Red Cross is an emergency response organisation so in many ways we are used to these kinds of immediate and urgent needs and situations arising out of emergencies.

However, the scale of this emergency is like no other we have seen in recent times.

“We have had to look at how we operate and what we do and deliver, and make a number of changes to ensure we can support people that need our help – but also so that our staff and volunteers are able to do that safely and effectively in this really extreme crisis.”


In normal times, the work of Red Cross in Northern Ireland falls under five main categories:

  • Independent Living – supporting vulnerable people to remain independent for as long as possible, through practical and emotional support: helping them home from hospital sooner, or providing a volunteer for up to six weeks after discharge. This scheme is co-funded by the Co-op and helps socially-isolated people of all ages to reconnect with the community.
  • Mobility Aids Service – short-term wheelchair loans to people across NI, in conjunction with all five health trusts. It allows people to leave hospital more quickly, remain independent and keep a positive state of mind.
  • Crisis Response – support for people following emergencies, such as with severe flooding or fires.
  • Refugee Support – providing initial orientation to refugees and asylum seekers, as well as destitution support for those who find themselves falling through the social security system (and may not have any income at all).
  • Education – first aid education to many people in NI every year, and education about humanitarian work to young people.

However, Covid-19 has changed the needs and demands of vulnerable people across NI significantly. Red Cross has adapted or expanded some of its services, moved into new areas – and also found new ways of working internally.

Whereas previously the above areas might have worked in silos, the pandemic has broken down some of these barriers and led to greater agility.

One way in which Red Cross has been working efficiently for some time is in combining practical support and emotional support, wherever possible. Often, an individual who needs support in one of those areas will also require help in the other, and by dissolving barriers between the two provision can be more effective.

Working together

Ms MacLeod said: “We’ve been think about how to use volunteers better and more flexibly, about how we can attract new volunteers, and capitalise on that amazing community spirit we have seen across Northern Ireland and, probably, across the world.

“Normally we would have Mobility Assistance volunteers, Ambulance volunteers, and so on, but we are moving ourselves towards focusing on need rather than services.

“For instance, our Refugee and Asylum Services would usually be a team of really specialised volunteers and staff dealing with refugee issues. In this crisis, the needs of that population is the same as everyone else: food, safety and emotional support. So, while specialist support is needed,  a Mobility Assistance volunteer can deliver a food package to a refugee or asylum seeker equally well.

“Another example of our collaborative approach happened when a volunteer phoned an individual at home for a safe-and-well check. The individual mentioned they had fallen and had a bit of a fright from that but, in the current circumstances, didn’t want to put pressure on the NHS or call their GP, so this person had remained at home. We were able to get one of our trained first responders from Ambulance Support to go and check on that person.

“Across the UK, we have been speaking with FareShare [a UK-wide charity tackling food waste and hunger], using community reserve volunteers, individuals that want to help and who don’t need stringent training.”

She said further that some of these fresh ways of working will be kept on after Covid-19, and even fit in with plans that were already being drawn up.

“This year, Red Cross was due to launch a new framework, a new 2030 strategy which, at its heart, was trying to move us to a place that is more focused on needs rather than services anyway. This crisis has provided a bit of impetus for that.”

Coronavirus services

The upshot of all this is that Red Cross is currently offering a huge list of services in Northern Ireland in response to coronavirus.

In the broadest sense, the organisation’s focus is on ensuring people can get the help and support they need – especially those who are isolated.

One of the main pillars of their Covid-19 response is alleviating pressures for Health and Social Care, through their Ambulance Support, Hospital Assisted Discharge and Mobility Aids services. The organisation is trying to identify unmet needs and supplement the work of HSC, and help sustain the large scale pandemic response.

Staff and volunteers have been out delivering food, medication and offering safe-and-well calls to check on vulnerable people.

The organisation is supporting Belfast City Council and Fermanagh and Omagh District Council to deliver food parcels. Community Reserve Volunteers have been mobilised to help with this.

The Red Cross Belfast Health and Social Care Trust service has so far supported 224 of the most vulnerable individuals in Belfast with food and medicine.

This week it is delivering 70 education resource packs to refugee and asylum families to help provide additional educational activities for children. And last Friday they began working with the Islamic Centre on the first day of Ramadan to support food deliveries to destitute individuals who are unable to go to their local mosque in the evening to break fast as they would normally do.

Their Restoring Family Links team has developed a contact card for people to record their details, in case of emergency, and developed tips for those separated from their loved ones because of Covid-19.

As well as all the coronavirus services above, Red Cross is still business as usual on other services – e.g. Emergency Response Teams supporting NIFRS at recent gorse fires.

Third sector

The pandemic represents a major threat to the third sector. Many organisations are worried about their sustainability.

Ms MacLeod said that Red Cross has done a lot of work in recent years to make its finances health but, while it has no direct concerns about itself, it realises charities in general are under pressure.

Moreover, any significant downwards turn for community and voluntary organisations, in general, will make things tougher for all organisations.

At the same time, for Red Cross as with other charities and the sector as a whole, Covid-19 has shown how important the sector is.

“The big thing that Covid-19 has shown is that the Red Cross is still relevant and still has a place. We still want to be there, helping communities in crisis, and we have been so touched by the amount of support we have received.

“It’s a reminder that we are all in this together, and we are really happy and proud to be part of that.”


While right now remains about dealing with the emergency itself, Red Cross already has one eye on what comes after.

“I think the services that Red Cross offers day in, day out gave us a good foundation for helping and supporting people through this crisis.

“We know from our work in emergencies, such as with flooding or fires or the Manchester attacks, that people experiencing an emergency are experiencing a form of trauma. Everyone will respond to that differently and have varying levels of resilience.

“The Red Cross approach, linking practical and emotional support, is our way of seeing the whole person and recognising that these are never simply or easily separated.

“Right now, we are responding to the emergency but in the next few weeks and months we will all have to deal with the impact of the emergency and the recovery coming out of it. People are starting to talk about that word, recovery, and what it means.

“From my point of view, the Red Cross has international and UK experience in recovery from emergency. There will be needs that change or develop or shift over time, so we will have to adapt and be flexible.

“I’m hopeful that we will continue in that way. The Red Cross is looking forward to playing our part. There will be significant impacts for people, this will be a long haul, and we are here for the long haul.”

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