Training Week, 23rd March 2020 – We had a conversation in our team meeting about how we would keep working in the event that this new virus from Wuhan came to the UK. We planned, we revised our already robust Infection Control policy, we worked out what we’d do. At this point, Us in a Bus employed 19 people, visiting over 200 people a week, in over 60 locations. We were a flourishing charity, with good reserves, proven track record and an increasing portfolio.
All of a sudden, Homes closed. We sat at home with very little prospect of going to work. The situation seemed very gloomy. Within a few weeks, we faced the prospect of a lockdown. Like everyone we assumed that this would be measured in days or a short number of weeks. Then we heard the news that the government had developed the furlough scheme, and I think one or more of us had a little tear in our eyes. On the back of this, we made the decision to pay 100% of salaries – as if we’re honest, nobody joins Us in a Bus for the largesse of the salary and benefits and we thought paying the legal minimum of 80% was inappropriate in the circumstances. The next few weeks were extremely strange – with everyone at home on furlough other than me. We were very conscious of the requirements of the scheme so no one did any work other than me which was a steep learning curve for me and I learnt a lot! Luckily the Spring was lovely and for some, the downtime was appreciated. We had regular social zooms to keep in touch, and we were very obstinate that we weren’t doing social distancing but physical distancing. What we thought would be a 2 week or 30 day lockdown turned into months.
The most tentative of openings came on August 10th when we returned to work to about 10 homes a week. It was a confusing and unusual time – full of new jargon, new rules and PPE. It was heartbreaking not to be able to respond to the usual signals from the people we support to come near, into meaning visual or auditory range, or to respond in the normal way or with touch. And of course, only a very small number of homes were willing to open their doors at all. So many of the people we support remained at home, 24/7, with no visitors or family.
With a hard deadline of furlough ending in September, and a radical decline in income, we took the agonising decision to reduce the size of the team in order to reduce our outgoings. Without furlough, we simply couldn’t afford to pay people in the medium/long term. The law rightly protects workers in this process, and we took great pains to conduct the process with compassion and openness. Even so the process was stressful and brutal, even though we all knew it was necessary for the long-term future of the charity. We left it until the last moment that still gave us sufficient time to conduct the process legally.
On the day furlough ended, we made redundancy payments and people left. Oddly, the hardest job was removing people from WhatsApp groups. I went for a walk in the woods, and my phone pinged with the news that the Government had extended the furlough scheme (in part). I sat on the hill top and wept and wept. It was cruel: too little, and too late.
We moved on: launching zoom services on October 13th. If I’m honest – some of us never thought Intensive Interaction would work electronically and we were cautious. However, we are converts – it’s so much fun and of course for some people it can be better than being in the garden decked out in PPE. We went back into furlough in November and January, but this time, the guidance was much more accommodating about visitors and the balance shifted towards careful and cautious house opening. This has made an incredible difference and as I write this (May 2021). We are now back to 25 sessions a week, a figure that rises steadily and consistently. In addition to this, we have some more zoom sessions that are in the process of transitioning to in person sessions.
What does the future hold for Us in a Bus? Well, it is worth saying that unlike a great many of our contemporaries, we have survived. So many small charities have closed, and I suspect we will miss them considerably in future years when we notice the ‘gaps’ they leave behind. The last year hasn’t been our best – even though it should have been as it was our 30th Birthday. We’ve missed out on visits, social entertainments, hugs, weddings, and even work meetings! We’ve missed funerals of family here and abroad, and of some of the people we support.
We would not have survived the year without the furlough scheme and two very generous large donations in particular, not to mention a huge number of smaller amounts, and we appreciate every single penny. Financially, we are ok: I suspect it will be an uphill struggle for fundraising this year as many Trusts have generously given out so much in 20/21 and will restrict criteria in 21/22. We are not out of the woods yet, but we have a positive outlook for the long term.
Like everyone else, a considerable impact of the pandemic has been anxiety. Anxiety about the people we support, anxiety about fundraising and income, anxiety about friends and family, anxiety for the people who left the team in October (who we miss terribly), and anxiety for those of us who are left. I am generally an optimistic person and we have much to feel positive about. We are almost all vaccinated now, many of the people we support (who can be) are also vaccinated. It is tempting to see a return to ‘normal’ soon.
We have learnt a lot and we are adapting to the new world. We test twice a week. Following guidance, and in association with managers, we are dispensing with visors and aprons to try and reduce the PPE, which many of the people we support really struggle with. We’ve used technology in new ways, we’ve learnt new skills (and our gardens generally look amazing!), our practice has varied and developed. It goes without saying that we couldn’t be where we are without the work of our wonderful team. They’ve adapted to being wrapped in plastic from top to toe, up to 8 hours a day in the garden in the pouring rain, up to 4 tests a day as each home needs their ‘own’ one, reduced access to both tea and toilets, solo sessions and longer drives. They have cheerfully adapted every time and I’d like to thank them for all the support and care.
We have developed resilience, shown courage, acknowledged anxietyand learnt new skills. It is still not a year I would care to repeat. Now, we start the process to grow again to former glories. First step, Surrey. Next step, the world!