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Volunteering on the frontline during COVID-19

At the outset of COVID-19, a helpline run by the charity Advice NI was dealing with up to 50 calls a day. But as demand quickly increased, support was needed to deal with surging numbers. Our Belfast office mobilised a team of volunteers.

Setting the scene

90,000 shielding letters were sent out by the Department for Health to people living in Northern Ireland who had underlying health conditions and were at increased risk from COVID-19. This caused major difficulties for people who were not able to leave their homes so Advice NI was asked to set up a helpline. Typically dealing with housing, disability and consumer issues, it became the main point of contact for the most vulnerable, marginalised and isolated people in Northern Ireland whose typical support services were now closed down. 

Calls to the helpline jumped from around 50 a day to just under 2,000 at its peak. The call centre team quickly became overwhelmed. As people were phoning with critical problems, the existing staff and volunteers needed support to ensure no call went unanswered.

For over 25 years, PwC has partnered with Business In The Community (BITC) to share its greatest asset - its people and their skills. In March, BITC connected the Belfast office with Advice NI and it recruited a team of 15 volunteers.

How we helped

The group was set up to work on Advice NI’s call handling system and triage calls from the public and connect them to the correct service provider such as health trusts, local councils and mental health advisers. There was an exceptional amount of work involved in establishing the programme (particularly around cyber security issues) on laptops plus the delivery of webfones to our people working from their homes. 

While there was a lot of uncertainty and worry, Advice NI was able to trust our team to take on this critical project. The charity had confidence in the group’s ability to manage the technology as well as understand issues around data protection and follow agreed processes.

Early on the firm also developed a wellbeing strategy to support the volunteers as they dealt with very difficult conversations with the public.

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“PwC came in at a time when the calls were going up and we needed urgent help. We knew that as the team came from a professional organisation, it could hit the ground running and this was so reassuring. We had an excellent relationship with the Purpose officer Benny Miskelly who always picked up the phone to help, which made a big difference. We are preparing for the helplines to be needed again as we continue to manage COVID-19 through the autumn, and are grateful that we know we can reach out for PwC’s support if that happens.”

Patricia Donald, Head of ICT from Advice NI

Making a difference

Over a two-week period PwC staff directly supported nearly 1,100 of the most vulnerable people in Northern Ireland during the COVID-19 crisis. They provided support to people struggling with mental health issues, employment and benefit-related questions, and even people living outside Northern Ireland who were worried about relatives they had not heard from and couldn’t check on.

One of the volunteers was Events lead Simon Boyd who said: “Having worked in PwC for almost 20 years I can honestly say that this is perhaps the most important project I have been involved with. It exemplifies our values as a business solving important problems together - for our clients, our communities and for the world at large. I am exceedingly proud to have been a part of that team.”

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