The coronavirus crisis has sparked a series of volunteer projects in the Enfield community to support the vulnerable

From Whatsapp and Facebook groups to food banks and churches, Enfield has seen a surge in unique initiatives with volunteers to support them. Even Jose Mourinho has been spotted putting together food packages for the elderly at Age UK Enfield

According to 2018 estimations, Enfield has one of the highest elderly population compared to other London Boroughs, with 43,903 people aged 65 and above. With measures in place to stop over-70s from catching coronavirus, the community has stepped up to make life more manageable for the vulnerable. 

James Maxwell posted 950 letters in Highlands Village to start a Whatsapp group that supports the vulnerable. What started as a way to deliver shopping to the elderly who were self-isolating, turned into a full-on operation.

A copy of the letter posted to the residents at Highlands Village


“The response was unbelievable. We’ve got 90 people in the group and it’s fantastic,” says James, overwhelmed with the support that his local project gathered. 

James found that the group had more volunteers than people who needed help. These included a GP, a councillor, a child psychologist, and plenty of people willing to pick up items on their shopping trips. Even elderly people who were restricted to their homes wanted to volunteer; James gave them buddy roles and assigned them people who needed support.

Despite recognising the “fantastic” support, James acknowledges an alarming reason for the skew towards more people volunteering than asking for help.  “I’m concerned that they’re not getting in touch and I think that is because they’re very wary of all these scams going on,” says James.

He adds: “The most important thing for them [members of the group] to do now is to tell their elderly neighbours that they’re part of this group… and we are not trying to scam them.” 

James has taken the responsibility on himself and recognises the “need to be extra cautious”, especially when it comes to the disinfection process. Ensuring every item of shopping does not contain any trace of the virus is a lengthy process but a necessary one. It involves wiping down every surface, every item, and every handle touched. When delivering it, James wears gloves and assigns “a dirty hand and a clean hand”. He receives the money in the dirty hand and delivers the shopping with the clean hand.

James’ disinfecting process for each item he receives

James’ project is not the only one to see a surge in volunteers. The North Enfield Foodbank has seen “amazing generosity” according to their manager Kerry Coe. They have been receiving donations ranging from local people to big businesses, including food from Costa Coffee and burger buns from McDonald’s.

Donations to North Enfield FoodBank from The Latymer School in Edmonton

This increase in donations matches the rise in demand. The food bank has seen 1,700 referrals in March, double their usual amount. 

Kerry says: “We’re able to feed everybody that comes to us but we would really encourage anyone who does want to donate because we think that we’re going to continue to see an increase in the number of people.” 

There’s been “a real community spirit”, not only in the donations but also the work attitude. Volunteers have been saying that “it’s been really lovely to be able to do something that actually makes a difference and blesses somebody else during this difficult time”, according to Kerry.

Volunteers helping out at the North Enfield FoodBank


The community spirit is also important to St. Thomas Church in Oakwood, where they are holding short live stream services, reading the bible over video-calling app Zoom and calling people to check up on them.

A daily service led by David Reavley, which was live streamed from the vicarage garden

Church music director and assistant youth worker, David Reavley, says: “In a time like this where people are lonely if we can be a friendly voice and over time become less of a stranger to each other then that’s a good thing.”

Like James, they posted flyers in their neighbourhood to reach out and help those struggling with isolation. “We’ve had 35 people who wouldn’t normally come to church asking for help from us,” says David. 

The church administrator pairs up the vulnerable with people who want to help, whether that is picking up their prescription or getting their shopping. 

David adds: “Hopefully over time we can build up a relationship to demonstrate that we don’t want to be an exclusive club for people who think that they’re good, but an inclusive church where anyone can come.”

With a high number of charities and services willing to help during this crisis, Love Your Doorstep has set up a service that brings together over 30 of them. They have supplied volunteers to North Enfield FoodBank and directed over 300 people to collect food and deliver it to those who need it. 

Their volunteer Facebook group has 1,300 people, over 600 of which have been logged as actively helping out with these services. 

Enfield is not the only borough to see this surge in volunteers. An umbrella organisation called COVID-19 Mutual Aid has inspired over 200 local groups to form all over the country. The groups offer both practical help and emotional support through this crisis.

The Mayor of Watford making an appearance at the Watford and Bushey COVID-19 Mutual Aid group

Anna Vickerstaff, one of the coordinators of the national network, said in a press release earlier this month: “There’s some pretty big questions about whether or not the government’s response to this crisis has been fit for purpose. So it’s even more important that so many ordinary people across the country are keen to offer solidarity to each other in a moment of need.” 

James has seen this solidarity first-hand and its impact on the community, he says: “Everyone’s there to help. They’re thinking of different ideas to help other people in the community… and everyone is of the opinion of sticking together.”

“The deliberative wave” that could change European politics

The audience responds with a laugh as Brett Hennig suggests in his TED talk to replace all the politicians in Parliament with randomly selected people. Brett, like many others, believes that in this proposition lies the answer to key modern-day issues. These include climate change, the refugee crisis, and rising inequality, but most of all it provides a solution to what he calls our “broken [democratic] system”.

It isn’t as easy as putting a group of random people in a room. Brett is referring to a citizens’ assembly, a deliberative and structured process where the power of policymaking is given to the people. “A citizens’ assembly is essentially bringing together a randomly selected but representative sample of people to talk about a political topic,” says Brett, director of the Sortition Foundation that helps select people for assemblies.

The past year has seen an “explosion” of citizens’ assemblies in Europe. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an international organisation that assists with policymaking, is calling it the deliberative wave. The assemblies are being utilized by councils, governments, and public bodies.

This deliberative wave can be traced across the UK. Some of the many places include Birmingham, London, Leeds, and Edinburgh. The citizens’ Assemblies tackle topics from transport to health services. The list of locations and issues goes on. The Sortition Foundation alone has helped set up 20 assemblies in the past year.

One of the three demands from climate campaign group Extinction Rebellion is to institute citizens’ assemblies on ecological issues. Their website says that the assemblies are a “fair and transparent” method to achieve “climate justice”.

The key to a successful citizens’ assembly lies in the process. Caroline Pakel, Extinction Rebellion co-ordinator for people’s assemblies, says: “There’s an input stage, a deliberative stage and then an output stage.”

The input stage is where the group hears from experts to inform their discussion, these could include scientists, doctors, or even people who have had personal experience with the topic. Caroline highlights the need for professional facilitators in the deliberative stage as they impose rules of a “reasoned discussion” to help the participants arrive at a joint conclusion. The group presents their findings in the output stage, where it is recorded and presented to the rest of the group.

Caroline finds they often come to similar conclusions, as the assemblies create what she calls a “collective intelligence”.

Caroline says: “We can all do it together but none of us can claim that I had the idea because it’s been moulded by our sharing. So, when it comes to the consultation at the end… it comes very naturally. So, we don’t fight over ideas. It’s very organic, very collaborative.”

One of the most successful examples was the Irish citizens’ assembly held on abortion. With criticism coming from the United Nations, and politicians anxious about receiving backlash, Ireland gathered 100 people to discuss whether the ban should be lifted. They heard the medical and legal position to inform their deliberation and concluded that there should be unrestricted access to abortion in Ireland. A referendum was given to the public and 66% agreed with the recommendation from the assembly.

Siobhán Fenton, a freelance reporter on Irish politics, says: “The fact that the citizens’ assembly supported it put pressure on the government to set a referendum, pick a specific date in the near future, and make sure it actually happened.”

The abortion assembly was held in November 2016, with the referendum in 2018, and the law was finally brought into action in January 2019. Despite its success, Siobhán says that citizens’ assemblies are not fit for time sensitive issues “as there could be lots of irreparable damage” whilst the assemblies are taking place.

As such a widely experimented process, there are various ways in which they have been utilised. Last year, a council in East Belgium set up a permanent citizens’ assembly that tackles a variety of issues. Their conclusions are presented to parliament, which is enforced to engage with them. Parliament announces their position a year later, whether they decide to pursue the recommendations or not.

Citizens’ assemblies have encountered another problem, one that is very familiar to global politics; underrepresentation of women. Despite using a representative selection method, Siobhán says that women are more likely to drop out because they have “caring duties”.

“It’s the majority of men who tend to take part in the citizens’ assemblies… and that does mean that unfortunately, women tend to be blocked out from quite an important democratic process,” she says.

A skew towards male participants is not the only bias that lies in citizens’ assemblies. The Sortition Foundation has noticed that higher educated and wealthy people are more likely to respond to a citizens’ assembly invitation. Brett’s theory is that “the more highly educated you are, the more confident you are in expressing your opinion”.

To combat this skew, the Sortition Foundation sends 80% of the invitations to randomly selected households and the other 20% to impoverished areas of the country using the index of multiple deprivation.

One of the reasons why citizens’ assemblies have been experimented with is because there is not one singular formula. Laurie Moulton-Ulrich, a member of the Extinction Rebellion citizens’ assembly working group, says: “Looking across the world and experience, there’s no cookie-cutter approach to citizens’ assembly.”

Laurie adds that assemblies are used so differently for different purposes and a variety of topics, that there cannot be one fit-all version of the process.

This also means that Brett’s suggestion to replace all the politicians with randomly selected people is an unrealistic one. Laurie argues that citizens’ assemblies aren’t a method to replace those in power, but a tool to help put people at the forefront of democracy.

Siobhan says: “It can help give politicians a certain amount of momentum or legitimacy, but I don’t think it would work if you are having citizens’ assemblies on every single topic.”