Food volunteers stand ready as lockdown hits

A four-week national lockdown that came into place today (Thursday) will see pubs, restaurants, gyms and entertainment venues in Congleton close in an effort to reduce the number of coronavirus cases and prevent further strain on the NHS.
Volunteers in the town are gearing up to support people living in isolation as a “food hub” that was successful in delivering parcels to those in need during the first wave puts together plans for “Christmas hampers”.
A councillor behind a recent business support scheme in Congleton has said that the Government would have been “irresponsible” not to have imposed further restrictions, while the owners of a pub have welcomed the lockdown in the hope that trade will see a boost if it is able to reopen on Wednesday, 2nd December as planned.
Under the latest national measures announced by the Prime Minister on Saturday (31st October), schools, universities and nurseries will be allowed to stay open, as well as supermarkets, chemists and takeaways. It was also announced last week that the furlough scheme has been extended and will continue to pay up to 80% of wages for employees unable to work.
Matt Oliver-Eaton took over the Cheshire Tavern, on West Road, in February with his partner Adam, a month before the national lockdown in the spring forced them to close.
He said that pubs have been “vilified” over the course of the year, with fewer people visiting out of fear and due to mixed messaging from the Government.
Mr Oliver-Eaton also criticised the tier two restrictions brought in across Cheshire East last month, arguing that they would not make a difference to the rate of infection as there was no way to police the rules about mixing between households.
He instead called on the Government to introduce a complete lockdown, allowing for a boost in trade around Christmas.
After the prime minister’s announcement at the weekend, Mr Oliver-Eaton told the Chronicle: “We were happy, but it’s still a bit melancholy. It’s sad that we’re having to go into a lockdown, but it is definitely what’s needed.
“We couldn’t go on like we were; it was bringing everyone down because our team got used to the pub being busy, but then that came to a halt. Staff felt as if they were doing something wrong, but it wasn’t our fault.
“My only concern is that there has been talk of returning to the tier system after the lockdown. If that’s the case – the lockdown would put us into the coffin, but the return to the tier system would hammer the nails in. It would kill off businesses.
“My other concern is that schools and universities will stay open – a lockdown should be across the board. There could be provisions put in place for kids to learn from home, and I don’t think university students should have gone back in the first place.”
At the end of last month, in an effort to attract customers back to the Cheshire Tavern, the landlords decorated the inside and outside of the pub ready for Christmas. Despite the fact that the pub has now had to close until December, Mr Oliver-Eaton said that the lights would stay on to give people “a bit of Christmas cheer”.
He said: “We just thought, we’ve had a miserable year, why not put up the Christmas decorations early?
“We’re going to keep the lights on while we’re closed and we’ll keep coming down and turning them on. It will be nice for people to drive past and enjoy looking at the pub, rather than it looking like a ghost town.”
Volunteer Shaun Radcliffe was among those leading the town’s response to the effects of the virus’s arrival at the start of the year. He launched Congleton Food Hub after being shocked by the effects of panic-buying on the elderly.
The hub quickly evolved into a team of volunteers working out of The Vale Club, on Canal Street, and by the summer the team had delivered more than 8,000 bags of food, and snack packs, to those in need.
Mr Radcliffe said that he realised that the food hub would have to start up again “sooner or later” as a second wave became unavoidable. The volunteers reopened the hub at The Vale Club yesterday (Wednesday) to organise efforts for the new lockdown.
“Our original plan was to set up again on a smaller scale, but then the announcement came and things changed,” he said.
“I knew that sooner or later we would end up having to start again, but I thought it might be closer to Christmas. Last week we made the decision to go for it, so we’re there if people need us.
“This time, we’re going to be putting together Christmas hampers as well as doing the food parcels that we did earlier in the year. For the hampers, we’re relying totally on donations and we’re going to concentrate on the elderly and the disabled, as well as people who probably aren’t going to get that much for Christmas or might not be able to see their families.
“The hampers are going to have a mixture of things in them: mince pies, Christmas puddings, socks, mittens, whatever we can get out hands on really. We’ve already got over 300 people on our hamper list; I’ve got shoe boxes and wrapping paper coming out of my ears!”
Mr Radcliffe was less optimistic about the Government’s handling of the recent spike in cases. When asked if he thought the new restrictions would work, he said: “No, I think it’s too late. There should have been a circuit breaker over half-term like we thought there was going to be, and maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation.
“The other problem was that there were a lot of places that weren’t following the rules. But what do you expect when there are people like MPs and others in power breaking the rules too?
“Volunteers, as well as doctors and nurses, are trying to help people, but it’s disheartening when you see the rules getting broken.”
Congleton Food Hub will be open again tomorrow (Friday) and on Monday from 9am – 12pm. Mr Radcliffe said that the volunteers will then assess demand and decide whether to open every day.
He said: “There are no questions or judgements, I don’t want people to feel embarrassed about coming to us for help.”
To contact Mr Radcliffe, call 07825 408 377.
Earlier in the year, Independent Coun Russell Chadwick set up a business support group on behalf of Congleton Town Council that aimed to work with local businesses to boost trade following the national lockdown in March.
He welcomed the Government’s new restrictions, arguing that it was important to find a balance between keeping the economy going and reducing the rate of infection.
He said: “From a health perspective, it’s the right thing to do but equally it’s a balance between keeping businesses open and going into a lockdown.
“Certain things are going to be able to stay open, which I think is good, and it’s great news that the furlough scheme is being extended. When you compare the support in England to the equivalent provision that is being offered in Spain, our furlough scheme has been very supportive.
“I am glad that the Government is taking action now. I believe that it is doing everything it can and that it would have been irresponsible for it not to do anything.
“The town council will continue to do what it can in terms of marketing local businesses, mitigating the effects of the pandemic and supporting where we can. I would encourage businesses in need to visit the town council’s website, where available grants are highlighted.”