Clinks’ Health and Justice Policy and Development Officer Zahra Wynne writes about the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on voluntary organisations working in health and justice, what Clinks has been doing to support them, and our future work on health and justice in ‘the new normal.’
Just over three months ago, on 19th March, I posted a blog outlining what was on the horizon this year for health and justice. Although the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK was rapidly developing by then, most of us could not comprehend how far reaching and long lasting its consequences would be. Two days later, nationwide lockdown was officially put into place.
With the NHS swiftly mobilising to brace for the impact of Covid-19, social distancing measures putting an end to the majority of face-to-face services, millions of workers being furloughed, and prisons across England scaling back regimes substantially – it was inevitable that the year we were anticipating for health and justice had changed dramatically in just a matter of days.
We want to keep our members up to date with what we’re hearing from voluntary sector organisations delivering health and justice services, what Clinks are doing on their behalf during this uncertain time, and how we’ll continue to support the sector both during and beyond Covid-19.
Clinks are running monthly virtual network events on health and justice, bringing together a wide range of voluntary sector organisations who deliver services to meet the needs of people in the criminal justice system experiencing substance misuse issues, mental ill health, and poor physical health. Organisations have been telling us about the impact that Covid-19 is having on their services, service users, and the sustainability of their organisations.
What are health and justice organisations telling us?
Wherever they can, health and justice organisations are delivering vital services virtually where they cannot deliver face-to-face, which is working well for some service users, and inevitably not so well for others. As well as in the community, social distancing measures are beginning to be lifted in stages within prisons, presenting challenges for health organisations who have been absent due to restrictions for many weeks and are anticipating returning to work with service users with even more entrenched mental health and substance misuse needs, alongside their own limited capacity.
The mental health of people who are being released from prison into radically changed environments in the community is also a concern. With the wider mental health needs of the population as a whole going up, and this creating stress on already stretched services, organisations are worried that this may result in increased thresholds within already limited mental health assessments. This would make it harder for people who need mental health services to access them. Our most recent State of the Sector report found that it is already challenging for people in the community to access statutory mental health support, so this presents a further challenge for the voluntary sector who must then try to fill this gap.
All of these issues are compounded by growing unease around the sustainability of organisations beyond Covid-19. Health and justice organisations have expressed gratitude that commissioners and grant funders were being flexible with requirements – especially those with existing NHS contracts – but reflected growing concerns that although the Covid-19 emergency response is very welcome, it could hinder longer term funding opportunities for organisations, which poses challenges for organisations in sustaining themselves beyond the pandemic.
What is Clinks doing to support the voluntary sector working in health and justice?
Clinks has been advocating for the voluntary sector working in the criminal justice system, ensuring that their concerns are heard and shared with officials, and that organisations are able to access appropriate support, through our monthly health and justice network events and regional criminal justice network meetings.
We have been keeping a close eye on how Covid-19 is affecting the most vulnerable groups of people in the criminal justice system, including older people, pregnant women in prison, black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people and Muslim people especially in the context of Ramadan falling during lockdown. We have responded to a range of consultations on how Covid-19 is affecting people in the criminal justice system and the organisations who support them.
We have also been running a series of surveys for all voluntary sector organisations working in the criminal justice system to understand the impact Covid-19 is having on them, and feeding back this information to stakeholders at the Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service.
Our ongoing grant programme to support voluntary organisations working in criminal justice with an annual income under £500,000 to continue their work through the Covid-19 crisis has received over 150 applications to date, with organisations having already been awarded funding to deliver a range of services, including mental health interventions. To date, applications received had totalled over £1m, and though we know that the current amount of funding will never be enough to meet the needs of the sector, we continue to advocate for further resources from the government.
Working beyond Covid-19
People in contact with the criminal justice system had health needs before Covid-19, and will continue to have them beyond Covid-19, though they may well be exacerbated.
Health organisations and partners will continue to respond to Covid-19, but they will also work to deliver the health and justice interventions that were planned prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, such as the national roll-out of community sentence treatment requirements and the RECONNECT programme, though the landscape and context for that work has undeniably shifted.
We will work to ensure that the voluntary sector’s voice is heard when navigating these health interventions under a new normal in the Covid-19 restore and recovery phase and beyond, through our work with the VCSE Health and Wellbeing Alliance and our engagement with the voluntary sector, NHS England, HMPPS and MoJ.
We will also be continuing to focus on the unique health needs of older people and pregnant women in the criminal justice system, which have become even more pertinent due to Covid-19.
As the lockdown begins to lift, and both health and criminal justice services resume within the context of the ‘new normal’, we are committed to supporting the voluntary sector to be able to deliver health services to service users in the criminal justice system in the safest and most effective way possible, and to continue to operate during and beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.
If you are a voluntary sector organisation that delivers health services to people in contact with the criminal justice system, and would like to talk more about the impact that Covid-19 is having on your work, or highlight good practice, please contact Zahra Wynne at Zahra.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: © Andy Aitchison
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