Covid-19: Updates from the co-op movement

Latest news on coronavirus from the co-op, credit union, community business and employee-ownership sectors in the UK and abroad

Co-op News will stay up and running through the Covid-19 outbreak, bringing you the latest responses and initiatives from the global co-op and credit union movements, and links to the latest guidance for co-op businesses, on this thread. Follow us on Twitter or refresh this story for updates.

20 March, 2020

Here’s a round-up of some of the latest developments from the co-op movement’s response today.

Co-operatives UK

Ed Mayo, secretary general of Co-operatives UK, has sent a message to co-operators, telling them: “As we face weeks and perhaps months of social distancing there has never been a more important time to co-operate.

“We’re seeing it across the country. With stories of neighbours checking on vulnerable people, retailers working round the clock to deliver food where it’s needed and NHS workers and health care professionals spending time away from their own families to keep us all safe. To all those playing their part, we can’t thank you enough.”

With the world braced for the economic and health impact of the pandemic, Mr Mayo says “the importance and relevance of the co-op values of solidarity and self-responsibility are more apparent than ever”.

“We’re co-ops. We know how to do this. If there is ever a sector that can ride out the current economic uncertainty it is the co-operative sector. Based on our wonderful shared principles, co-operatives are set up for the benefit of your members – and your members can be a resource for immediate support.”

Mr Mayo urged co-ops to draw on the strength of their members by engagig them in planning, asking them for extra help and funds, citing the example of  The Larder in Preston, who are fundraising to provide 10,000 meals for vulnerable people in their community during the pandemic.

He said Co-operatives UK is working hard to seek clarification that the government package of support for business applies to co-ops and community benefit societies.

“We’ve already written to government to help ensure our great sector is adequately covered by these relief measures. Read our simple summary and tell us if you are facing specific challenges accessing this support, so we can lobby on your behalf.

“We’re also talking to funders to leverage financial aid and advice for those co-ops most in need. Details will follow in the coming days. And we’re creating simple, clear advice that you can use on a practical level to see your way through the deluge of information, rumour and fake news.”

He asked members to bring forward any issues they are facing so they can be raised with policy makers and funders. Co-operatives UK can be contacted on [email protected] or 0161 214 1751, and hosts a webinar on Tuesday 24 March at 1pm.

Central England Co-op

Chief executive Debbie Robinson and president Elaine Dean updated Central England members, telling them: “The situation is ever-changing and affecting us all. In these extremely testing and uncertain circumstances, our co-operative values of social responsibility and caring for others are showing what we do best.”

They said the retail co-op was working hard to increase stock, adding: “We have a robust supply chain and are redeploying our colleagues where we need them most. We are also recruiting new colleagues, including additional security to support our front-line teams. To make sure there is enough food and goods for everyone we have taken the decision to limit purchases to two items of any product.”

The retailer is also taking steps to help those who need it most, noting that its foodbank partners have seen an 80% drop in donations. “FareShare Midlands, our food redistribution partner, is working non-stop to ensure children benefiting from free school meals aren’t going without while their schools are closed. In response to this urgent need, we’ve donated a five-figure sum to support additional delivery services during this busy time.

“We have also donated a significant amount to Dementia UK to allow them to manage their vital helpline so that they can answer more calls from people who may be self-isolating or house bound.

“In our funeral business we are preparing for what may come. Our travel business has been impacted by recent events and our colleagues are assisting all members and customers during this difficult time.”

They concluded: “Please be reassured that as soon as it is safe to do so, we will be re-starting our membership events and activities. We look forward to seeing you in person then, but in the meantime, please be safe.”

More information on Central England’s response, including links, phone numbers and daily advice, here.

Midcounties Co-op

In his latest update to members, CEO Phil Ponsonby said: “To help senior citizens and those who are most vulnerable or at risk we have introduced a ‘Priority shopping hour’ from 9.30 to 10.30 every day in all our Food stores. Whilst we appreciate that we all have a need to shop at particular times, we would be grateful if you could help us preserve this period for senior citizens, their carers, the infirm and those with underlying health issues to complete their shopping.

“In Travel we are focusing on bringing back customers who are in affected destinations and prioritising customers that were due to travel shortly. We are concentrating on keeping people safe and staying in contact with our customers who have existing holidays booked with us. To improve our capacity and deal with queries as safely and effectively as possible we are temporarily closing our branches and increasing support for our central contact centre.”

 

Desjardins

One key question for co-ops involves effective governance, especially when it comes to hosting AGMs. Canada’s Desjardins Group – the largest federation of credit unions in North America, has announced it will be hosting its AGM online. It will be held via webcast at the time scheduled for the cancelled physical event, at 1.45pm on Friday, March 27, 2020 at 1:45 p.m., but via online webcast only.

All of the details together with the link to attend the AGM are available on CRCD’s website at www.capitalregional.com/AGM.

11.30am, 19 March 2020

The Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS) says co-operation in the farming industry is vital to ensuring food security and animal welfare during the ongoing crisis.

The ICOS board held a conference call yesterday to discuss the situation. Afterwards, on the organisation’s website, president Jerry Long welcomed “a strong commitment given by co-op leaders to work together as a sector to ensure the continuation of operations during the Covid-19 outbreak, whilst protecting the health and safety of staff, customers, suppliers, members, ensuring the continued supply of food, and protecting animal welfare.”

He said he was heartened to see the huge efforts being made co-operatives to ensure social distancing, and encouraged co-op stores and marts to continue to work to protect the health of all stakeholders.

“Customers should order product from co-ops by phone, for delivery if possible, be as organised as possible, call less often to the store, collecting more product per visit, abide by staff guidance regarding distance between customers, use the disinfectant provided, be patient as everyone is doing their best to protect us all from this disease.

“Co-op leaders reiterated the need for marts to remain open during this crisis, whilst implementing the strict social distancing protocols and controls in place regarding numbers attending the mart.”

He reiterated the critical nature of the work carried out by ICOS members. “We need to ensure that the economy keeps working. We have to keep generating revenue to pay for the heroic work being done by our state services. We need to keep producing clean fresh food for our customers, in Ireland and overseas. It’s vital that the supply chains within the food industry can continue to operate, within the current advice issued by our health authorities”.

He also called on the government, banks, and the EU authorities to be creative and brave to facilitate liquidity within the supply chain. “There are huge disruptions currently to the supply chain, with the food service business decimated. We need to ensure that all players across the supply chain; distributors, hauliers, service providers, can have access to credit to allow them to survive what could be several months of business disruption.”

11.05am, 19 March 2020

A report from the Philippines: The National Electrification Administration  has directed all electric co-ops  to ensure continuous delivery of power to their consumers as the whole of Luzon – the main island in the country – was placed under enhanced community quarantine.

NEA administrator Edgardo Masongsong issued a memo to the country’s 121 electric co-ops to activate their vulnerability and risk assessment and emergency restoration plans for crisis management.

“Possible or assumed scenarios should be considered, including delayed payments by the consumers,” he said.

10.40am, 19 March 2020

A message from Co-op Group CEO Steve Murrells on the retailer’s website, including new initiatives on food, measures for families affected by the school shutdown, the health app, and the community role of the Member Pioneers.

Mr Murrells writes: “I’ve never known anything like what we’re experiencing right now. I know you’ll be as worried as I am about the health of your loved ones and the livelihoods of those around you. The Co-op’s got a critical role to play in supporting our members, customers, and colleagues as well as local communities across the country. My heartfelt commitment to you is that we will work through this, together, in the most co-operative, responsible and compassionate way we can – just as you would expect us to. While I don’t have all the answers and the information we’re getting is changing as fast as I can type this note, I wanted to let you know how we’re responding.”

He says the Group’s Food staff are “working round the clock to make sure our shops remain stocked. You’ll have heard the request from the Government not to panic buy. I know you’ll be thinking of your friends and family as you shop, as well as yourself, but please shop normally so there’s enough for everyone all of the time.

“We’re also going to do everything we can to make sure our most vulnerable customers get the food they need and we’re looking at a few different options to make this happen.”

Mr Murrells also addressed the issue of the school shutdown, which will deprive many children of their free school meal – often their main meal of the day.

“If school closes unexpectedly there’s a risk they go hungry. We can’t let this happen.

“So, we’re stepping in and giving 6,500 students that have free school meals at our 25 Co-op Academy schools a £20 voucher for every week of unplanned closure. This can be spent in any Co-op food store. But it’s a drop in the ocean when you consider there are 1.4 million kids on free school meals in this country. So that’s why today, I’ve also asked the government to lead a nationwide effort to make sure no child goes hungry just because they can’t go to school.”

Mr Murrells also called on the government to support the funeral care industry, saying “the whole industry is going to be turned upside down by this crisis and we need a joined-up approach.

“In the meantime, our colleagues do difficult work with utmost care and compassion, and no matter how they’re challenged in these coming months, I know that won’t change.”

On health, Mr Murrells writes: “You’ll likely already know friends and family members who are self-isolating at the moment. I know this will be hugely difficult for everyone but particularly if you have an existing condition that requires a repeat prescription. If you do, then please make use of our Co-op Health app where we can arrange delivery of your prescriptions, free of charge, across England. Unfortunately, we haven’t got connectivity for the rest of the UK just yet but we’re working on it.”

He also looked at how the Group could develop its role in the community to help through the crisis.

“I’m sure you already know, but at the Co-op we passionately care about communities. And right now, community is everything! So we’re urgently and carefully looking at how we can use everything we’ve got to help – from our 700 Member Pioneer colleagues, to our local community fund, to our partnership on mental wellbeing with MIND, SAMH & Inspire. We’re also working on a new online platform called ‘Co-operate’ which connects people to local support and information. I can’t think of a time when this kind of tool has been more needed and so we’re pulling out all the stops to build it faster and get it to more communities.

“Right now my teams are working out the best way for us to help, practically and financially, where we’re most needed. Colleagues right across the business are working exceptionally hard, while caring for themselves and their families too. I’ve never been prouder of them or more grateful for their commitment.

“These are exceptional times but I promise that we’re here for you and we’ll work to support each other through this and keep you updated.”

6.50pm 18 March 2020

Here’s an example of how the outbreak is affecting the UK’s community pub sector: The Bevy, the much-praised community pub in Brighton, said yesterday it would close until it is safe to reopen.

But it adds, on its website, “We know the pub is a lifeline for many vulnerable and isolated people in the local area and we know that now is the time for us as a community pub to step up.  We are reallocating our staff time to focus on what we can do.

“We are speaking to the large number of local organisations we work with to find safe ways to support people and to keep in touch to make sure they have what they need, especially if people are forced to self-isolate. While physical distance is important to prevent the spread, there is no doubt we need some form of social connection more than ever.”

The team has trialled Bevy Bites – delivering hot meals to a local community hub. “This was a real success and something which we will be rolling out across Moulsecoomb and Bevendean in the near future. We are looking at ways to ramp this up even quicker to be able to deliver hot, cheap or free meals locally and in safe and hyper clean environment.”

The pub says any locals who are concened about someone should get in touch and is also appealing for volunteers, or ideas of how people can be helped.

It adds: “As a community benefit society, any extra income generated by the pub is reinvested in the local community.  We always run on a shoestring, now we are closed more than ever, so if you live further away how about supporting us financially? If you are able to you can do so here www.thebevy.co.uk/donate”.

6pm, 18 March 2020

Euro Coop has announced that its office is closing in response to the risk of Covid-19.

Its note says: “Please be informed that, as of today – 18 March 2020 until 5 April 2020, the Secretariat office premises are closed and all staff will continue their duties by means of teleworking from home. The Belgian federal government has implemented a so-called “shutdown” – strict measures to combat the spread of COVID-19. Remote working has become the norm. 

“We aim at maintaining our operations to the maximum capacity. We can be reached via e-mail and telephone, as all landlines have been redirected accordingly. 

“We would like to make an appeal to all of you to stay healthy, calm and in high spirits. If we all follow the advice and recommendations of the authorities, this could be over sooner than later. ” 

1pm, 18 March 2020

UK retailer Central England Co-op is launching an urgent food bank appeal to support its charity partners after they reported a major fall in donations at the same time as a spike in demand. It is also looking a mass recruitment drive for customer service advisors in many of its stores to ensure the community continues to be served. The retailer has also made a donation to boost its partnership with FareShare Midlands, paying for vital extra transport and staffing costs to make sure that more emergency food packages continue to be delivered.

A dedicated online hub has also been launched to provide regular updates on the society response to the Coronavirus, exact details on its work to help those in need in the local community and hints and tips for people affected.

Chief executive Debbie Robinson said: “As a co-operative retailer, we want to make sure we are leading the way for our communities during this difficult time.”

Items needed for the food bank appeal include cereal, tinned food and fruit, tea bags, dried pasta, rice, long life milk, sugar, biscuits, fruit juice and squash, pasta sauce and instant coffee. Donations will be collected up from Central England Co-op stores and used to create food parcels, which contain around 11 items and will provide at least three days’ worth of meals for those in need.The temporary roles on offer will include serving customers and replenishing stock. Three month rolling contracts are on offer and people must be flexible with shift patterns and locations.

In another update from the UK retail sector, Lincolnshire Co-op has reiterated calls on customers to avoid panic-buying. It also asks those who suspect they have Covid-19 to stay away from is pharmacies or other outlets and instead follow government advice, which can be found here.

“If you have to order a prescription from our pharmacies, please leave enough time for it to be processed or for medication to be delivered if we’re running short,” the society adds.  “You can also sign up in our pharmacies to our text message service which lets you know when your prescription is ready.”

For travel customers, Lincolnshire says: “We continue to monitor and follow the relevant Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice as the health and wellbeing of our customers is a priority.

To reassure those with existing bookings, the society adds: “We have ABTA bonding, we only book holidays with tour operators who have ATOL Licenses and we’ve been trading successfully for more than 150 years.”

10:50am, 18 March 2020

The Co-operative Commission of Malaysia is to consider the deferement of loan payments for co-ops affected by the pandemic. It is also looking at ways to reschedule repayments for the Co-operative Development Department Revolving Fund and other financing, to help co-ops recover from the outbreak. Co-ops have also been given a three month extension for the deadline of holding their AGMs.

9.30pm, 17 March 2020

Park Slope Food Co-op, the independent grocery in Brooklyn, NYC, has announced strict measures on its website to protect staff and customers. This includes controlled entry to the store, support for members at high risk or involved in front line services, and use of authorised shoppers who can visit the store for members who have to self isolate.

Park Slope Food Co-op

Park Slope told industry website Fern’s Ag Insider it had managed to stay well stocked despite a rush to buy items by increasing orders from suppliers. “Because we treat our vendors with respect and because we have a great record of paying on time, we find that distributors and farmers like selling things to us.”

9pm, 17 March 2020

Reports from the US say a number of electric co-ops are suspending disconnections and penalties for customers struggling to pay bills during the Covid-19 outbreak, as well as closing offices to reduce the risk of tranmission.

Shenandoah Valley Electric Co-operative said it, and all other electric co-ops in Virginia, is “waiving disconnects for non-payment and late payment penalty fees for our residential members. We continue to work with our small business and commercial members on a case-by-case basis to mitigate the impact of the pandemic virus.”

It added: “We reached this decision with measured, consistent thought and care prior to taking action to ensure we can maintain our level of service to members.

“While disconnects and late payment penalties are suspended until further notice, this does not release members from responsibility for paying the electricity bills that they incur. The co-operative encourages members to continue to make payments as they are able. At the end of this pandemic virus situation, while wewill be offering payment agreements, electricity bills remain on account and require payment.”

In Ohio, Paulding Putnam Electric Cooperative in Ohio, says it “understands the stress put on its members during this time and is willing to work with those who call”. The co-op will also be holding its AGM online, with no physical attendance, and has suspended all training and travel for employees.

Other, similar announcements on non-payment, include Jackson EMC, the largest electric co-op in Georgia, New Hampshire Electric Co-op and SECO Energy in Florida.

On its website, the apex body for electric co-ops in the US, NRECA, said managers of electric co-ops have been making preparations since reports of deaths in China’s Wuhan province in January.

“Inquiries and information-sharing intensified across the co-op network in early February, and the pandemic preparedness, response and mitigation sections in co-op emergency operations plans were reviewed,” it said. “Many co-ops have devoted time and space in safety meetings and staff communications to their individual preparations in recent weeks.”

Measures taken by electric co-ops include video conferencing for line workers, restricting customer service to drive-through or online, staggered shifts to avoid too many workers gathering together at any one time, and the postponement or cancellation of AGMS and other public meetings.

And Orcas Power and Light, in Washington state, is providing broadband hotspots so schoolchildren can attend online lessons, using laptops provided by their schools.

7.11pm, 17 March 2020

Here’s a tweet from earlier this evening by the Co-operative Heritage Trust:

2.50pm, 17 March 2020

A number of organisations have closed their offices but staff are continuing to work from home. These include the Co-operative College, which says in a statement: “Although there might be some changes, our support to you should not be majorly affected.

“With the support of funders, we have paused our project work that has been taking place in towns and cities all over the UK and we are focused on re-starting this as soon as it is safe to do so.

“As you consider the impact for your own organisation and those you serve, please know that we are committed to being as flexible and responsive as possible in meeting your training and development needs.  As an educational charity, we’re trying to find a way through these unprecedented circumstances and are looking at alternative ways we can work with those in our sector and beyond. For instance, we have a wide range of eLearning packages that are suitable for a whole host of different sectors. Look out for more information and opportunities to work with us in the days and weeks to come too.

“We’ve modified our public training and event schedules. We’ve postponed a number of workshops until the summer months and re-evaluated how we deliver several others, such as our upcoming ‘Reclaiming the University for the Public good’ event which is now online only. As ever, the health and wellbeing of our staff and all our supporters is our number one priority.”

If you need to contact the College, the relevant numbers can be found on its online Covid-19 statement.


1.50pm, 17 March 2020

Co-op store October Books, in Southampton, has tweeted:

1.47pm, 17 March 2020

Wales Co-operative Centre has issued a statement in its newsletter for co-ops and social enterprises in the country with details of support available.

Director for enterprise Glenn Bowen wrote: “The world is a worrying place at the moment. People are facing a time of unprecedented uncertainty. As well as thinking about the health of their families and colleagues, they are also considering how best to support their local communities and user groups (many of whom are vulnerable), and think about how their social enterprise might fare if income dries up or staff become ill.

“Despite this, I have two very positive thoughts. The first is that this is a time when social enterprises can really step up and come into their own. We’ve recently seen the amazing way that social enterprises have supported local communities affected by flooding, and now we’re seeing organisations offer help and support in all sorts of ways to people affected by the virus. 

“Secondly, social enterprises are not alone. Social Business Wales and its team of expert advisors are on hand to provide help with enquiries about cash flow, HR, digital platforms, marketing and communications and a range of other areas which might need re-thinking in light of the current situation. We can provide advice via telephone or through video conferencing – just phone us on 0300 111 5050 or email [email protected] if you need our support. Events are moving very fast, we are working as a team to develop specific tools that will be accessible in the coming days and weeks on http://businesswales.gov.wales/socialbusinesswales”.

1.11pm, 17 March 2020

In Cardiff, UK, driver-owned co-op Drive Taxis is offering free shopping trips for the elderly and vulnerable. “All our drivers are DBS checked and extreme care will be taken when interacting and delivering those much needed essentials.

“We will call at your house, pick up a list of what’s needed along with the money for the goods, shop for you then deliver it to your door – obviously with a receipt. 

“If you’re in Cardiff and need assistance with local shopping trips then call us ☎️ 02920140140

“During these testing times we must all look out for the vulnerable members of our society.”

12:26pm, 17 March 2020

From Australia, co-op apex body the Business Council of Co-operatives and Mutuals (BCCM) has provided Co-op News with the latest updates from the sector’s response to Covid 19.

Capricorn Society, a member-owned support organisation for the auto industry, is managing supply chain issues related to automative repair and maintenance products. The supply chain for replacement parts in Australia is very exposed to China, so Capricorn has been speaking to major suppliers to plan for the coming months. 

“Some companies have a good, better, best strategy for a number of product categories. This means the same item is available in different brands, so if one brand becomes depleted they have others to fall back on.” 

Oz Group Co-op’s network of farmers and growers have also been working proactively to secure supplies of essential materials such as fruit packing boxes, fertilisers and fungicides. “We are continually communicating with our suppliers to build up our reserves to have at least 6 months available on hand , which should carry our growers through the peak season”

The Limestone Coast Fishermen’s Co-operative sees the COVID-19 outbreak as a good example of how the co-operative business model demands a low-risk approach to running an export business. 

“We will continue to work closely with our members, and other industry stakeholders, and we are communicating regularly with the marketplace to provide the best and most timely information about the situation but, for now, we have to wait and see what transpires over the coming days and weeks.” 

The primary concern for the Geraldton Fishermen’s Co-operative is labour supply: “50% of the casual work force in our regional hubs are on work visas, so extending visas would be something that we’d put our support behind as well.

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