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Members of staff at Northern Gas Networks (NGN), the North of England’s gas distributer, are combining their day jobs with voluntary work for Age UK Gateshead, giving the charity extra capacity at a time when demand on its services is increasing.

Age UK Gateshead provides practical support and advice to more than three-and-a-half thousand older people, some of whom have high levels of need through dementia and serious health conditions, but many more of whom are experiencing isolation and loneliness during the Covid 19 lockdown.

Now Northern Gas Networks colleagues, including depot staff, customer care officers and members of the Customer Care and Connections Teams, are volunteering their spare time to take on some of the daily welfare telephone calls that are proving to be a lifeline for many clients.

The calls are an opportunity for clients self-isolating or shielding to let the volunteers know if they need help with shopping, medication or keeping medical appointments. But perhaps more importantly the calls give older people in Gateshead to the opportunity to interact with someone else and to hear a friendly, understanding voice.

“A conversation is more than just a chat,” says Julie Latimer, Head of Income Generation and Business Development at Age UK Gateshead. “Many of our clients live by themselves, and our usual face-to-face meetings aren’t happening at the moment, so they have even less contact with other people than usual. The welfare call is something that our clients look forward to, as it may be the only time they talk to someone else that day.

“Having volunteers from Northern Gas Networks on board is great for us, because we have the assurance of knowing that those welfare calls are taking place, while we concentrate on clients who require specialist caring skills, such as those with dementia or mental health issues.”

One of the volunteers making the welfare calls is Annie-Rose Thomson, who is an admin assistant at Northern Gas Networks’ East Riding depot in Pontefract.

“I wanted to volunteer during the lockdown because I knew that there were lots of people out there who need help and support,” she says. “I find the telephones calls really rewarding because I know that I can flag up practical needs such as shopping with Age UK, but it’s lovely to chat to clients about whatever is on their mind, or to talk about the things that interest them, whether it’s their grandchildren, pets, hobbies or even what they’ve watched on TV that day. I do feel that the calls are making a difference.”

Jill Walker, Social Strategy Manager at Northern Gas Networks, said: “Northern Gas Networks is rooted in the communities that it serves, with our staff both living and working in our region. So, following the lockdown announcement in March, we extended our staff volunteering programme to offer unlimited paid volunteering hours to our workforce of 1,300 colleagues.

“We’re seen a fantastic response from our people, many who want to contribute to their communities by volunteering with charities, local authorities and the NHS. The great work being done by our volunteers in Gateshead with Age UK is just one example about how we’re getting involved during the health crisis.”

Customers in Winlaton, Gateshead, will became the first on a public gas network to use blended hydrogen for heating and cooking, instead of natural gas, as part of the HyDeploy partnership project which aims to cut climate changing emissions.

HyDeploy is a pioneering energy pilot exploring how by adding 20 percent zero-carbon hydrogen into the natural gas network, the UK can reduce CO2 emissions caused by heating homes without needing to change customers’ appliances or behaviour.