"I think Extern was better prepared than many for the lockdown. As a team we had been discussing how we would cope with Covid-19 for a number of weeks beforehand and had begun to formulate plans as to how we could keep vital services running. I was concerned about the potential loss of life across our area, as at that time very little was known and the disease was spreading fast.

My teams responded brilliantly to the lockdown, though; they quickly implemented a rota system so our outreach staff could continue to support those most at need. Staff also responded very positively to working from home, while still ensuring we provided what services we could.

Important plans for naloxone provision and needle exchange were put in place immediately across all of our Low Threshold teams, and our mental health crisis service ensured that phone support continued.

There was a lot of concern about those who use alcohol heavily, as initially it looked like off licences would shut, and this could be very serious for dependant drinkers. Our Low Threshold alcohol team quickly made contact with all their clients, ensuring that support by phone would be ongoing. There were also concerns about our service users who use IV drugs, and their access to treatment.

Those service users who were homeless were also of major concern to us, but the actions of our teams, and the sector as a whole, put supports in place to ensure no one was left on the
streets.

In Extern, we always go the extra mile for people, and I was so impressed with the dedication and responsiveness of our teams. I was overwhelmed by their ability to adapt their services to meet the changes and the new levels of need.

For example, our outreach staff administered naloxone to people on two occasions In Belfast in the initial lockdown phase, as well as performing rescue breaths. They undoubtedly saved lives. Staff from our Street Injectors Support Service were also called to assist someone who was suicidal, and worked with the PSNI to help the person feel secure enough to access treatment.

And let's not forget that many staff members were also having to cope with their own anxieties and worries while still supporting service users who were struggling with isolation, suicidal ideation and hopelessness. To me, that just shows the quality of the people who work for Extern.


Overall, while we showed that we can do effective work remotely, we have also learnt the importance of human contact, both for each other and service users. One of the big lessons is how we take things like communication and interaction for granted."