TWO weeks ago, Oxford City Council set up a series of hubs across the city to help vulnerable people stranded in their homes by the coronavirus lockdown.

Council staff have been tasked with manning the five community response hubs across Oxford, giving out food parcels, co-ordinating volunteers and lending a friendly ear to the lonely, often while also carrying out their normal jobs.

One of the people working in these hubs by acting as a deputy leader is 34-year-old Joseph Barrett.

Mr Barrett usually works as a youth ambition officer for the city council but is now helping to run the hub for south Oxford, based at Rose Hill Community Centre.

Mr Barrett shared his experience of the work he and his colleagues had been carrying out, and explained how they had all had to learn of the job and quickly adapt to working life under the lockdown.

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He described their work as being part of the effort to ‘handle this from the frontline’.

Mr Barrett, who grew up in Blackbird Leys, works out of Rose Hill Community Centre alongside a team of other council staff.

Every day the council workers put together food parcels for people who need them, who can either collect them from outside the centre while observing proper social distancing, or have them delivered if they are housebound.

The centre’s staff have been reassigned from other jobs within the council, with Mr Barrett having previously been a youth worker, helping children on Oxford’s estates to think about their ambitions for their future.

The staff work long hours, with Mr Barrett saying everyone was ‘doing their extra bit’ to help the vulnerable with food, medicine and comfort throughout the lockdown.

He said: “We are now getting lots of food parcels out to vulnerable people, those who are elderly, isolated and those who are not allowed out of their homes for health reasons.

“We are getting people’s shopping to their homes: the essential items that they need.”

But at the same time, the staff are still taking time to carry out what work they can for their regular roles.

Mr Barrett said that while many of the activities he would usually run with children and teens have been put on hold with schools and youth clubs closed, his work had not entirely ‘disappeared’.

He and all of the other staff members have had to quickly learn on the job about how to run the hubs.

Usually the council would spend months preparing a project like the hubs, but instead, it turned them around in two weeks, ahead of government guidance to all councils to do something similar.

When the lockdown began, Marie Tidball, Oxford City Council’s cabinet member for supporting local communities, said the authority’s view was ‘doing nothing wasn’t an option’.

Mr Barrett said staff had adapted well to the quick change.

He said: “It is a lengthy process usually, firstly to put in place this sort of working but also to get people to adapt to this way of working.

“Obviously you usually train people, you show them how it works and give them the best procedure. In this context we didn’t have that time to develop people over a period of time.

“But they have been flexible and people are giving it a go.”

Members of the public have also quickly got used to the new way of doing this too, he said, with many involved in the new hubs as volunteers.

But he added that the support needed to be done largely from a distance, and said it was refreshing to see that people had been following the government guidelines on social distancing.

Mr Barrett said: “As a result of what has happened, we all have to find a new way to support each other. It is just a lot of learning.”

He said the development of the hubs had been helped by the council’s past experience of working on projects alongside communities in Oxford.

Mr Barrett said: “This is a way of working we had already thought about. We have something called the Oxford City Community Impact Zone.”

The zone, which works across Cowley, Blackbird Leys and other eastern parts of the city, is mainly aimed at bringing more community activities to the area.

Mr Barrett added: “We found that if the community are directly involved in something then people in the community are more likely to take part.”

This was the reason he believed thousands of people had signed up as volunteers through Oxford Together, the scheme run by the council and volunteer group Oxford Hub, to support the new coronavirus response hubs.

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Sometimes, to keep morale high during the long working hours at the community hub, staff play music or games when they have a chance to take a break.

Mr Barrett said: “The playlist is a mix of whoever gets there first and plays what they like. Sometimes its the radio, sometimes its just funny music videos, it's whatever keeps the morale high really.

“The other day one of our delivery drivers started playing some tunes so we all had a dance and chilled out for five minutes.”

While there has been hard work, the coronavirus outbreak has also led him and his colleagues to see some moments of human kindness.

He said: “Out of this terrible situation, we are all doing something exceptional.

“It is nice to see so many people have offered to volunteer to help. There is a great partnership between the different organisations which are working on this, because we are all in this together.”

While the city council runs the five hubs throughout Oxford, a network of volunteers set up with help from Oxford Hub has been put in place to check on vulnerable neighbours and see if they need help.

The Oxford Together scheme has already seen results.

According to Mr Barrett, it has led to a new awareness of community spirit, even if people are not allowed to meet physically.

He said: “What is really nice to see is how people are supporting each other. They are coming together.”

From his own day-to-day experience, he gave the example of an elderly Rose Hill resident, whose neighbour has stepped in to help while no one else can visit her.

Mr Barrett said: “There was a really lovely story in Rose Hill I can think of where there was a lady who was 91 and isolated.

“She required food but she cannot cook for herself so her neighbour ended up cooking every day for her. I think that is fantastic.

“I think that is community spirit. It comes in a lot of ways.”

Mr Barrett said knowing the communities in Rose Hill and Blackbird Leys had helped bolster people's trust in him during the coronavirus lockdown.

He said: “I’m local, and I genuinely feel a sense of community on the estate.

"There’s always been a certain stigma around the estates in Oxford but I know my neighbours and I know the people who live around me.”

Mr Barret’s work with the council saw him based in Rose Hill for several years.

While there he said he fostered strong relationships with people, who now feel like they can turn to him, not just for help but to point out where others might need help during the coronavirus lockdown.

Now he is looking forward to being able to do that job again, once all of this is over.

He said: “We try to take away barriers of participation.It’s all about making sure young people have a say in what they want to do and helping them with problems they have at the same time.”