Coronavirus (COVID-19): supporting people at higher risk - qualitative research

Findings from interviews with representatives of 16 local authorities across Scotland, exploring how they have been supporting people at higher risk during COVID-19.


Call Handling

Contact options and promotion

Local authorities report a variety of different routes that people can use to contact them to access essential services, with a number of different models in place. These include their normal advice and assistance lines, or lines they have set up specifically to deal with the Covid response (e.g. local Freephone numbers). Where LAs are using their existing lines, they are using these to capture and deal with any concerns arising in their local area, including support needs for shielding, non-shielding requests, business enquiries, queries about everyday council services (e.g. bin collection), etc. as a 'one call does it all' service. Other areas set up specific lines for non-shielding, Covid-related support needs (and may also have specific shielding lines as well). The National Assistance Helpline diverts people to their relevant local authority[3]. There was a mixed picture from LAs in terms of whether call handlers could tell whether a call had come from the National Assistance Line or direct via their own local number.

Alongside these phone numbers, many LAs offer a Covid-specific online referral form or email service (though the latter had not always been successful in all areas, with some shutting this down and moving to an online referral form system to capture more useful initial data from individuals), and in some areas walk-in services are provided for limited hours. Referrals may also come into the local authorities from the third sector, social work, the NHS, local political representatives, and other members of the public. LAs are working closely with the third sector to manage referrals between them.

A number of LAs referred to promotion of their helplines and the support available through council websites, mail shots and media; for example, one rural authority ran a joint campaign with the Deputy Leader of the Council encouraging people to get in touch and ask for help if they needed it.

It is important to note that local authorities had a Covid support system in place before the National Assistance Line was developed, meaning this has provided an additional route to support. One LA noted that the marketing and communications around the National Assistance Line were useful to them in encouraging people to call for support – they would not have had the resources for that level of campaign and it reached out to people who might not otherwise have realised the support was available.


The call centres or customer contact hubs used to deal with calls coming into local authorities were either established specifically to deal with Covid-related support queries or expanded from existing customer support teams. As noted above, some LAs initially had separate teams to deal with non-shielding and shielding calls, but over time, as call volumes have decreased, most LAs have moved to using a single team to deal with these calls. This means that, despite the variety of routes that the public can use to access support, the call handlers are generally a central team.

There are varied numbers of staff operating helplines both across LAs and within LAs in response to demand over the period and each day. The number of call handlers at any one time (full-time equivalent) ranges from 4 in rural LAs to 30 in urban LAs. Call handlers usually work on rotation from a pool of staff: the pool of call handlers within larger urban authorities has been as many as 60 at peak. Call levels are currently in decline so staffing numbers have reduced accordingly. Local authorities are monitoring demand to ensure appropriate staffing levels and are anticipating increases in call volumes as potential contacts of positive cases are identified and advised to isolate through Test and Protect.

Most LAs operate a Monday-Friday helpline service, with an out of hours voicemail system taking messages for call-back the next day, and provide an emergency number for urgent needs. Some LAs continue to operate a six or seven day a week helpline service, but many LAs have scaled back to a core Monday to Friday office hours service as demand has decreased.

Most LAs have at least some call handlers working from home, with some call handlers office-based with physical distancing. In one LA, call handlers initially all worked from home, but then decided collectively to work in the office to allow for quicker communication within the team and with other services, particularly during busy periods.

The model for handling incoming calls varies in terms of who handles calls and how calls are handled. Staff in some LAs are the usual team of call handlers who handled advice and assistance calls before Covid, supplemented with redeployed staff from across the council as needed. Where this has occurred, LAs noted these staff were redeployed from services that had been stood down, such as leisure services staff, or were staff who had volunteered for the role when their normal jobs were paused or moved to a part-time basis. Other LAs had decided to make use of staff with particular skills for call handling, such as their housing or social work teams, for whom some day-to-day work is paused, and who have training and skills in handling crisis support requests.

Some LAs operate a 'two tier' model. Customer service call handlers ('tier 1') take information from callers (to understand the basic needs of the caller and to collect data for internal management and returns to SG and COSLA) and deal with more straight forward issues (e.g. enquiries for information, calls relating to another LA, whether on the shielding list) and in some LAs, help with completing application forms for the Scottish Welfare Fund or a crisis grant. Tier 1 call handlers then pass the information to colleagues ('tier 2') in local authority teams such as housing who call people back for a more detailed assessment of need and to arrange suitable solutions, including 'matching' them to LA or third sector support in their area.

In other LAs, local authority teams such as housing or social work handle the initial calls. The aim is to allow these staff to more immediately triage and respond to sensitive calls themselves, as well as referring on to other specialist services within the council or community.

LAs have some concerns about resourcing going forward as Test and Protect picks up and redeployed staff may be called upon to work on the recovery or return to their day jobs. They are unsure how this will be resourced, given the possibility that support may need to be offered for some time to come.

Issues for call handlers

Call handlers sometimes have to deal with very sensitive and emotional calls and concerns, including from those who are isolated, lonely, and afraid; those who may be terminally ill; rape or domestic violence victims; or from people at risk of suicide. This has been a difficult aspect of the work in LAs where staff were less used to dealing with such issues. This illustrates a wider point: many staff in LAs are covering different roles from their normal work and are sometimes covering multiple roles to meet demand in this crisis. The interviewees were highly positive about their staff, reporting that they are going 'above and beyond' to ensure that 'no one is made to wait' for support.

Call handlers also have to deal with long calls, sometimes more than an hour long. A few LAs highlighted that for call handlers working at home it can be difficult to separate work and home life, particularly during periods of high call volumes. These interviews did not gather feedback on the extent to which call handlers are trained to cope with these kinds of issues.



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