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One year on from the first national lockdown Rachel Ellis explores what life has been like in the Personal Legal Services team, and answers the question – is this the new normal?

I’m probably not alone when I say the last year has, without a doubt, been the longest and most surreal I’ve ever experienced. Stood outside in the cold and dark early last spring clapping for the NHS, I am not sure any of us could imagine the year there was to come. A year on, it seems a good time to reflect on the last year and how this has changed – and challenged – personal legal services.

With the government’s stay at home order, the first challenge was getting the team set up at home. While our solicitors are used to working remotely, our legal helpline staff had never been able to work from home before. As such, we needed to get the technology set up to make this happen, and fast!
Minster’s IT team rose to the challenge admirably and our helpline staff were set up and functional phenomenally quickly.

The first few weeks of lockdown went in a blur and for me at least his consists of seemingly endless days trying to manage full time work and getting an 8 and 6-year-old to do any sort of schoolwork. I have to say, in the first lockdown I failed at the second part miserably… My children soon figured out it they were persistent in their varied and imaginative objections as to why now was not the time to do school work, my phone would ring or I would have to deal with something urgent and off they would quietly disappear back to their iPads.  After several weeks of comparing myself to the other mums on Facebook with their multicoloured school timetables and routines I decided to give up… aiming for survival and happy health children seemed more realistic.

The news and daily announcements had created a level of anxiety about our safety I hadn’t experienced before and getting us through this seemed temporarily more important than times tables.

After being initially quiet with hearings vacated and employer’s waiting to see how long the situation would go on for, by May the situation in team began to change. A key part of our work is advising in relation to employment queries. As the situation progressed the volume of enquires in relation to furlough and concerns in relation to health and safety skyrocketed. We were seeing everything from general queries in relation to the scheme, to employee’s being dismissed for raising concerns in relation to abuse of the process. A common theme seemed to be employee’s being put on furlough but being asked to work at the same time. Another key issue as the summer progressed was those on furlough due to childcare or a requirement to shield, finding themselves targeted for redundancy over those that could come into work. This has led to many cases for discrimination or health and safety breaches coming in – only time will tell how the Employment Tribunal will deal with these cases in the context of a global pandemic.

From September the work coming into team again increased enormously, the impact of the recession was hitting hard and the number of claims in September and October increased as the publicised end of the furlough scheme loomed. This coincided with tribunal’s trying to catch up with existing matters that had been postponed over summer. As such, we were increasingly stretched, but we pulled together as a team and got on with it. One of the consequences of dealing with people who have lost their job all day, is that it makes you very thankful for your own job and situation. I know I share the views of my team when I say we are all grateful for the approach Minster took to Covid compared to some of the employers we have dealt with in our daily work.

Before, we knew it suddenly it was Christmas and the Covid situation was dramatically worsening again. We tried our best to stay cheerful, but the anxiety in relation to the situation increased. Like everyone we have all been affected on a personal level, whether it be job losses in our own families or concern for vulnerable relatives. I found it almost a relief to enter lockdown after Christmas to feel I could keep my family safe, but it was still a heavy blow for things to feel like they had gone back to the start after nearly a year. It also meant a return to home schooling, which with the advent of lessons via teams wasn’t half as challenging as the last time. Still, clapping on the doorstep seemed a long, long time ago.

With the announcement of the government’s road map cases into team slowed slightly. It’s hard to say why, but we think employers who have hung onto to staff this long are ‘waiting and seeing’ how the economy bounces back as society opens up again. The extension of the furlough scheme has no doubt also helped in relation to this.

As a team we have stuck together through the year. At first, we embraced the Zoom socials with gusto, before screen fatigue set in like it did with everyone else! However, our daily online catch up’s have being going for over a year now and have kept engaged and together as a team.  We’ve also done step challenges, had coffee mornings and recently been out in the community volunteering at the vaccination centres; a completely inspiring experience watching hundreds of people leave the centre with a spring, of hope, in their step. We’ve also successfully inducted several new team members remotely over the year, an experience I don’t think they will forget.

And so, to now…  A year on, hopefully there is real hope for normality on the horizon. Last weeks anniversary was a day to remember as myself and my youngest again stood out in the cold and dark, but this time with a candle to remember those who had lost their lives to Covid.

The past year has taught us all many lessons both professional and personal.  People can work productively at home, most of us aren’t teachers, that teamwork is everything, the importance of looking after wellbeing in adversity, I could go on. But overall, I would say that the main thing the last year has taught us is to be grateful for all we have, something not to be taken for granted.