Health champions helping people of Westminster through the coronavirus crisis

By Julia Gregory, Local Democracy Reporter

“I’m an eternal optimist,” said Westminster health champion Anne Cortazzi as she celebrated the hopeful news of a Covid vaccine.

She is one of 100 residents who signed up to help pass on the latest facts about coronavirus to their family, friends and their communities.

Mrs Cortazzi was one of the army of more than 3,000 Westminster volunteers who joined the Westminster Connects response to lockdown in the spring.

Between them they supported 6,000 people all over Westminster and they have carried out 50,000 acts of kindness.

Mrs Cortazzi helped out at North Paddington Food Bank and delivered food to shielding vulnerable residents, getting to know the borough better and build more links in the community.

She lives in central Westminster and has been in the borough for about 30 years and she said volunteering helped her “feel that you have a value to the community”.

She also used her counselling skills in phone calls to keep some isolated residents in touch and make sure they had regular welfare chats.

Since then she has signed up as a health champion to help support people with up-to-date advice about coronavirus and the restrictions.

The role also sees her feed back people’s concerns about the pandemic. She’s also on the parent and teacher association of a school in Marylebone and helps share health information there.

She said: “During the first lockdown people were a little bit freaked out about joggers in the parkland getting too close.”

Other concerns included lenient interpretation of lockdown rules and the impact on people’s mental health.

“Everyone’s been anxious about the situation, it’s across the board,” she said.

One tip she’s keen to pass on is the need even in the darker days of winter to get out into the great outdoors as a real mood booster.

“It’s one of those things we know we should do,” she added.

“We’ve talked about the mental health benefit, looking at nature and enjoying the parks sensibly.”

Health champions have also supported people to help with their anxiety about doing things which were second nature to them before the pandemic, such as enjoying a drink at a cafe.

“I had someone who was shielding who was scared. When they were able to go to a cafe it was a big step to get out,” she said.

“People should not do anything which makes them feel uncomfortable.

“We have all had to be courageous – don’t be foolish, but don’t be scared. Be cautious and be respectful of the virus.”

Health champions have regular calls with Westminster council to get up-to-date information about the virus and the rules.

The idea is that by sharing clear information, volunteers can help their friends, family and members in their community to make informed choices.

Mrs Cortazzi said: “This really is a grassroots effort and it is heartening to know there is a team of local residents taking an active role in addressing the pandemic and trying to improve the situation for all of us.

“I have been talking with friends, neighbours, colleagues and school contacts about Covid-19 in London, and further afield. In fact, it is rare to have any kind of discussion these days without mention of the dreaded virus. Being a health champion makes me feel involved and just a little bit useful.”

Stefano, who is another health champion, said: “I believe it is important even more now than ever to be able to reach out to the largest number of people within the local community and help in any way possible during these challenging times.

“It could be a few words of encouragement, comfort, providing feedback and ideas to the local authority and support dissipating some of the myths around the virus.”

Mark Shearer, Westminster city council’s lead member for Westminster Connects and deputy for community, said: “We all need to play our part to reduce the spread of Covid-19 within our communities, and our health champions in Westminster are doing a fantastic job myth-busting and sharing accurate information on the latest health updates with their friends, family members and colleagues.”

Pictured top: Anne Cortazzi

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