Key workers launch befriending service to combat isolation

Key workers at UK Power Networks have partnered with charities to launch a telephone befriending service aimed at tackling social isolation during the coronavirus pandemic.

West Norfolk Befriending and Deafblind UK have teamed up with the UK’s biggest electricity distributor to match the company’s trained volunteers with older people and those with hearing and sight loss who may be feeling isolated by COVID-19.

UK Power Networks befrienders will phone them regularly during work time through the company’s Donate a Day scheme, which gives over 6,000 employees two paid days annually to volunteer.

Pippa May, chief executive of West Norfolk Befriending, said: “We are a tiny charity facing increasing demand for our services so it’s incredibly exciting to work with UK Power Networks to transform the service we offer and reduce social isolation at this difficult time.

“On average we work with frail people in their nineties who may have outlived family and friends or don’t have family nearby. They are often housebound, so isolation is always there, but increased by lockdown because the few visitors they had, such as hairdressers, can’t come anymore.

“It makes a real difference to their quality of life having someone to chat with, who has time to listen. Any family they do have may be carers, but a befriender listens to them. My hope is that at the end of this lockdown the community continues coming together to tackle isolation. It doesn’t have to cost anything.”

Each volunteer is background checked to safeguard people. A priority for UK Power Networks during the pandemic is taking extra care of people in vulnerable households in the rare event of a power cut. Some 1.87 million eligible households have signed its Priority Services Register for the extra services the company provides in such emergencies, up 6% in the last year.

Clare Watson, head of national services at Deafblind UK, said: “We are thrilled to be working with UK Power Networks to deliver befriending services. Deafblindness can be really difficult to live with and evidence suggests that it can have a big effect on mental health too. As a result, many people feel isolated, lonely and generally very low. Our services focus on re-connecting people and giving them some social interaction, but since the COVID-19 outbreak, our face to face services have been suspended and our members have found themselves even more isolated than usual. We have had a 500% increase in requests for regular contact!

“Having the support of UK Power Networks will enable us to fulfil as many of these requests as possible. Volunteers will be paired up with one of our members and will give them some regular contact by either phone, email or text. Many of our members just want a chat and are grateful for the opportunity to interact with someone else. Often, our members become very good friends with their befrienders and build genuine lasting relationships. This means such a lot to them.”

Kerry Potter, consumer vulnerability manager at UK Power Networks, said: “We are excited to work with our existing charity partners to provide additional support at a time when their resources are stretched and more people are contacting them hoping to form a social connection at a time when connections are much more difficult to establish.

“These charities are providing an invaluable service to customers in our highest risk groups who would be eligible to join our Priority Services Register and typically may be struggling with their energy bills. People who have been shielding during the coronavirus outbreak will have an increased awareness of how their mental health is affected by social isolation.”

The Priority Services Register provides free extra help during power cuts for pensioners, families with young children and people with special needs, disabilities or health conditions. For details visit www.ukpowernetworks.co.uk/priority, call 0800 169 9970, or email psr@ukpowernetworks.co.uk.