How faith groups are supporting health and social care

Image credit: Nishkam Healthcare Trust

By Hardeep Singh

Faith groups gave magnificent support to the NHS during the Covid pandemic, but do they have the potential to diversify into other areas of health and social care service to support established NHS and local authority services? An example of future partnerships is the Nishkam Healthcare Trust, a Sikh faith-based organisation in the Handsworth area of Birmingham. Is this a template for the future?

The pandemic has illustrated how faith groups across the country can harness their social and spiritual capital to support the National Health Service.

Not only did the groups encourage adherence to strict social distancing rules and handwashing in places of worship, but they also assisted vulnerable hard-to-reach groups to receive vaccinations.

Some ran faith-based Covid-19 vaccine centres, and many worked with the government to tackle the spread of misinformation about vaccines being widely disseminated on social media, as well as stepping up bereavement services for families during the height of the pandemic.

Organised religious groups — be they Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, or Sikh — demonstrated how they can work in partnership with the NHS and local government to tackle health inequalities during an unprecedented public health crisis and become an integral part of Britain’s civic response. Post-pandemic, the government has been looking to replicate this.

In December 2021, the government announced: “Faith leaders — who are the pillars of many communities across the country — have played a vital role throughout the pandemic, from backing the vaccine drive, to making sure people practise their faith safely, and even adapting places of worship into pop-up soup kitchens and food banks.”

Some led by example. A report reflecting on these efforts, On Faith, Place and Health: Harnessing the Power of faith groups to tackle London’s Health inequalities, explained how rabbis in north London were getting vaccinated to encourage their congregations to follow suit, and Anglicans spoke of their “sustained but tired” effort to support mass bereavements.

Encouraged by the innovative inter-sector collaboration, Lord Greenhalgh, the faith minister at the time, announced the Faith New Deal Pilot Fund, which aimed to strengthen engagement between faith groups, local and national government.

Under the deal, 16 faith groups shared £1.3m, including coronavirus recovery projects. A mosque in Oldham was transformed into a temporary vaccination centre, and a gurdwara in Wolverhampton, working with public health services, ran testing pilots to help the government to obtain a clearer picture of coronavirus detection.

A “faith compact” — a set of principles for local and national government to work in partnership with faith groups and communities — is under development. A “faith covenant” for partnering faith communities with local government exists already, but only a small number of local authorities have signed up to this.

Evaluation of the pilot projects will no doubt influence development of the faith compact and future public policy at a national level. But is there capacity to build on the innovative cross-sector pandemic partnership? And do faith groups have the potential to diversify into other areas of health and social care service provision, thus supporting established NHS and local authority services?

An example that demonstrates the potential of faith-inspired groups is the Nishkam Healthcare Trust, which this year marks its 10th anniversary.

The trust is a Sikh faith-based organisation in the Handsworth area of Birmingham. Sikhism promotes the practice of sewa, or selfless service for all, and the trust observed an opportunity to innovate, noting: “Even with the existing healthcare provision, including many GP surgeries, pharmacies and dentists, Handsworth has poor health outcomes compared with the city and national average.”

Having identified health inequalities, they today offer an impressive and diverse range of services, including: a pharmacy, footcare clinic, pay-what-you-can-afford dentistry, and a mental and emotional wellbeing clinic. There are also plans to open a GP surgery.

It then comes as little surprise that the Nishkam Healthcare Trust opened a volunteer-led vaccination centre in March 2021. Since then, it has worked in collaboration with Sandwell and West Birmingham Clinical Commissioning Group, Public Health England, and Birmingham University, to deliver outreach programmes for some of the most vulnerable communities, including homeless people and undocumented migrants.

However, is this trailblazing model of integrated healthcare replicable elsewhere, or is there something unique about the Nishkam model? I spoke to Dr Manvir Kaur Hayer, who chairs the trust.

“There is definitely a unique element to this healthcare model underpinned by visionary leadership and motivated volunteers. We have 30 healthcare professionals who have been volunteering their time regularly,” she said.

“All these individuals have their own full-time jobs, but they are united by a passion for service through equitable healthcare and a commitment to the people of Handsworth.

“But there’s also a replicable element to it. Handsworth is among the 1.6 per cent most deprived areas of the country with many marginalised population groups and poor health outcomes so we identified a need to make healthcare more equitable here. The mission from the outset was to introduce an innovative approach to healthcare, with a faith-based values-led approach to keep people well through disease prevention, but also through compassion, humility and love.”

She added: “These three faith-based values make us a unique model. We ask ourselves what are the needs of this area and what can we do to help the community in this area. We recognise the strength of partnership and collaboration and are open to complementing existing initiatives.”

The Nishkam trust will soon be starting a project with the newly formed Birmingham and Solihull Integrated Care System focusing on the first 1,000 days of life. The trust also aspires to work with general practitioners who act as gatekeepers of healthcare. Dr Kaur Hayer added: “As far as the caring agenda goes, the values of compassion go a long way.”

However, advocating for policy change on behalf of faith groups is also an important part of the equation.

FaithAction is a national network organisation supporting its members with a range of social action activities, acting as a conduit between its grassroots membership organisations and policy-makers in Westminster.

It is also the secretariat for the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on faith and society, which was launched in 2012. The APPG recently published a report, Keeping the Faith: Partnerships between Faith Groups and Local Authorities during and beyond the Pandemic. Many of the faith-based organisations or (FBOs as they like to call them) within FaithAction’s membership deliver services complementary to health and care.

Jeremy Simmons​​, FaithAction’s policy and programme officer, said: “We think there is great potential to build upon innovative cross-sector partnership work carried out in the pandemic, and ensure faith-based partners are part of more strategic conversations around health and care at a local level. This will need to be backed up with appropriate resourcing, funding and capacity building, recognising that many FBOs are small, grassroots organisations powered by volunteer activity.”

The government’s desire to support future policy interventions is clear. However, it remains to be seen whether the successful pandemic inter-sector partnership model is easily transferable across other areas of health and social care provision.


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