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Coronavirus crisis sees grassroots groups pop up across U.K. to help the vulnerable

London — Neighborhood groups are forming across the United Kingdom to coordinate and provide grassroots support for those most vulnerable amid a fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak. The government has urged everyone to stay home, and those deemed to be at the highest risk will soon be told to do so for months.

The groups of concerned citizens have sprung up in dozens of cities across the country and at least 34 neighborhoods in London. Neighborhood by neighborhood — sometimes even street by street — they are organizing volunteers to slip leaflets under doors that list contact information for local volunteers who can help with picking up groceries, or just having a chat with someone feeling lonely.

"It's really quite reassuring for people to have a piece of paper. Even though they may not need us now, they may need us in the future," Emma O'Dwyer, a member of one group in South London, told CBS News.

Community support

Organized by a volunteer-run organization called Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK, which says it focuses on "providing resources and connecting people to their nearest local groups, willing volunteers and those in need," the groups have seen huge interest from people wanting to help. The organization communicates via online conferencing tools like Zoom, Slack, and WhatsApp.

"We had a massive Zoom call on Sunday morning, but there were like 200 people invited to it. At that point we thought, okay, this is getting unworkable," O'Dwyer said of a South London planning meeting.

As a larger group, they came up with a leaflet and then split into smaller, locally-based sub-groups. Now, volunteers give their availability and location and are assigned streets for leafleting.

"For older people who may be looking at self-isolation for quite a long time… you have this whole network of people who are willing to collect shopping or whatever it may be," O'Dwyer said.

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A leaflet being distributed to vulnerable people in London during the coronavirus outbreak is shown here on March 17, 2020.

Self isolation

At least 55 people in the U.K. have died of COVID-19. Of the 50,442 people tested, 1,950 have been diagnosed with the disease.

On Monday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced new measures to tackle the outbreak in the U.K., including recommending that all people avoid "non-essential" travel and unnecessary contact with others. He said that soon, people over the age of 70, those with certain health conditions and pregnant women would be asked to stay in their homes for 12 weeks.

"Now is not the time to back off our older population, who need our love and support more than ever," Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK, said in a response to news of the upcoming quarantine. "Do provide reassurance and now's a good time to make a plan together as a family.  And for everyone else now is also a great time to look out for older neighbors, especially if they seem to be on their own and help to provide support in the weeks and months to come."

O'Dwyer said she's feeling hopeful because of the organizing that's going on to assist those who will need help in the coming weeks.

"Connecting with other people and trying to have some positive influence is good for people," O'Dwyer said. "It brings people closer together. It binds people in what is a very very stressful time."

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