When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020 and the world went into lockdown, our hospitals were forced to adapt overnight. We went from welcoming hundreds of family members and loved ones each day, to only allowing staff and patients through our doors. This brought about new challenges, many of which were unique to the diverse cultures, languages and faiths of our local populations.
We had to rethink how we support patients and their families, but we couldn’t do this properly without first understanding their concerns. That’s where Abbas Mirza – who had just joined Barts Health as community engagement lead – came in. Linking in with system partners, faith groups and community organisations, and working with Louise Hicks from the Trust, he created a community and interfaith network that has now become a core pillar of our work.
68 members; five London boroughs
In the early days of the pandemic, Abbas encouraged colleagues from eight different organisations local to Barts Health to join an informal community group, where the fears, needs, questions and concerns of local people in relation to healthcare in the time of Covid-19 were raised.
As word spread about the group, it quickly grew to 68 members. Community champions, faith leaders and staff from organisations including the East London branch of Citizens UK (TELCO) and the Women’s Inclusive Team – a Somali-led charity supporting black and ethnic minorities in Tower Hamlets – joined. Interfaith forums from five of the London boroughs our trust serves (Newham, Waltham Forest, City, Tower Hamlets, and Redbridge) also joined.
The network connected weekly via Zoom to share the unique ways Covid-19 was impacting their communities and the challenges they were facing in light of the pandemic. “The group quickly became invaluable and members came regularly to share insights, resources and understand how our communities were feeling,” explains Abbas. “It was also an important conduit for when we needed to get information from the Trust out quickly, like changes to our hospital visiting policies and how people could continue to access our services during lockdown.”
One of the first network members was Reverend Alan Green, team rector of St John on Bethnal Green and chair of the Tower Hamlets Interfaith forum. With over 20 years’ experience of bringing together people from different faiths as the head of the Tower Hamlets Interfaith Forum, he was – and remains – an integral member of the group. “Being part of the Barts Health network allowed us to build stronger partnerships across the east London boroughs,” he says. “Relationships with the Trust weren’t the best before the pandemic, but Abbas broke the mould with the group he brought together and we’re still seeing the benefits of it today.”
The fruits of our discussions
Another member of the group is CEO of the Women's Inclusive Team, Safia Jama. “I’ve grown up in Tower Hamlets and this network was the first time that I’ve seen Barts Health have a real connection with their local communities. It was beautiful to see. Our concerns were being heard and we could see the fruits of our discussions come to bear quite rapidly with the solutions that were implemented. This meant that we were ultimately able to save lives.”
In one of the group’s early meetings, Reverend Green recalls the challenges that our local Somali community were facing: “We were hearing that our Somali community had become isolated during lockdown, and that they did not know that the hospitals were adapting to look after patients with Covid-19. We also learned they were contracting the virus without any contact with healthcare. Through this group, we discovered that this was a shared issue across other communities.”
Representation within organistaions is important
Safia continues: “It became clear that the concerns and barriers that the Somali community had in Tower Hamlets about Covid-19 were similar to the issues faced by the Black community in Newham. We were able to share these insights across our borough borders and come up with solutions for all our patients. Working together, we at the Women’s Inclusive Team also created a pool of volunteers who were Somali local community leaders who registered with Barts Health as volunteers, and could support patients in that way.”
As well as their own meetings, the network has become embedded in Trust activity with its members joining board meetings to voice their experiences at the highest level. The group has helped in other ways too. For example, when it was time to roll out the Covid-19 vaccines, we were able to deliver outreach clinics in the community with the support of the network. Mosques, synagogues, churches and temples stepped up to provide clinics for people to get their vaccine and assuage concerns from the religious communities they serve. In fact, they’ve done so much that their fantastic work has recently been highlighted as an example of good practice in terms of tackling health inequalities by NHS Improvement.
Now two years on, the group are looking ahead and exploring topics beyond Covid-19. This includes engaging in new Trust projects and strategies, and how we’re working to reduce the waiting lists for elective care. They’re also working with the Trust to build on lessons learnt during the pandemic, which has led to a new Somali patient engagement officer being appointed to the Trust.
We've done some great work over the past two years
“Now the network meets once a month to discuss wider health issues that affect our communities. We’re committed to looking at health inequalities that have been perpetuated by the pandemic and how we can work together to tackle these,” explains Abbas.
“Representation within organisations is important, so I’m delighted that we’re continuing our work and that this new role will support our local Somali community in how they engage with hospital services. They’ll also be embedded within our Women’s Inclusive Team centre so they can bring any nuanced cultural concerns to Barts Health first hand,” says Safia.
She continues: “We’ve done some great work over the past two years but there is still more to do. I’m looking forward to continuing to work as part of the network and ensuring that the voices of our communities are embedded in work carried out across the Trust.”