Liverpool's unsung COVID heroes: how the city's arts scene became a life support network

Culture was always a large part of my life. But when we all had to rush home in March 2020, I felt like I lost it on the way – as if I’d left it on the bus in a bag. It’s making me question my future: what will be left when all this ends? How many venues, how many bands, how many theatres, how many art galleries?

You are never far away from culture in Liverpool. The forthcoming host of the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest on Ukraine’s behalf has long pioneered the idea of “arts as life support” – via initiatives such as The Life Rooms, which uses a library and theatre (among other sites) to engage people in cultural activities as part of its social health model.

While COVID required the temporary suspension of many in-person arts offerings, it also sparked a remarkable shift in how the city’s arts organisations and charities operated. As government health and welfare services shut down or struggled to adapt to the crisis, cultural organisations stepped in to provide vital support – including, in some cases, fundamentals of food and heating – to their networks of participants and audiences whose usual care was falling short. As one Liverpool arts organiser recalls:

I was phoning people asking: “Have you got food, have you been to your GP, did you get your prescription sorted?” But sometimes they just wanted to have somebody to have a laugh with – some human interaction.

Liverpool has long struggled with some of the poorest mental health levels in the UK. For those most at risk of loneliness and mental distress, COVID delivered a further devastating blow. At the peak of the pandemic in November 2020, almost one in five adults in the Liverpool City Region were suffering from a “common” mental health problem such as depression or anxiety – exacerbated by some of the highest deprivation indicators in England.

Our new research shows that access to arts activities during lockdown was a crucial lifeline for many people throughout Liverpool. One interviewee referred to cultural contacts as their “lifeblood” during those days of isolation, while another said: “Online arts activities opened a locked door, letting in some light during a very dark time for me.”

Picking up the pieces

The Choir With No Name is a national charity with choirs in London, Birmingham, Brighton, Cardiff and Coventry as well as Liverpool, all supporting people affected by homelessness. Prior to the pandemic, the Liverpool branch would meet once a week – first to catch up socially, then to rehearse a forthcoming gig before finally sharing a hot meal cooked by volunteers.

According to the choir’s manager: “For many of our [homeless] members, it’s the only sense they get of sitting down and sharing food as a family. Sometimes coming in and getting a hug can be the only physical contact they’ve had all week.”

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When COVID struck, choir members – who were typically in the “middle ground” of need – were largely left to fend for themselves by the authorities. The choir’s volunteer staff had been used to helping them deal with GPs, housing, police and other services. But when many of these services suddenly shut down, the volunteers were left “picking up the pieces – and picking them up quickly”:

There were so many people who lost the ability to get food from anywhere … People who were street homeless actually had better provision of care than people in a bedsit, where you were just abandoned. I spent a lot of time in those first months sorting food for people and making sure they had electricity. One member’s housing provider left them with no water for four days because they didn’t understand how to communicate with somebody who was vulnerable, so we had to step in.

What soon became clear, says the choir’s manager, is that the more informal nature of many arts charities enabled them to fill crucial gaps where they were needed:

An organisation like ours works in an unofficial way – we’re not the social worker or housing association. We’re left with a lot more freedom to support people in the way they actually need to be supported, instead of ticking the boxes that these statutory services have to tick.

For Liverpool-based charity The Reader, arts provision and social care proved inseparable during the pandemic. Having grown out of a single reading group in Birkenhead library, The Reader brings people together in a variety of health, community and secure care settings to read short stories, novels and poetry aloud. According to its head of teaching and learning:

An awful lot of what we do is directed towards mitigating the disastrous effects of loneliness and social isolation. But that lifeline was immediately taken away by COVID. A big area of our work is in care homes, and a lot of our volunteers just could not get inside them at that time.

This led to Reader volunteers setting up a big screen in the lounge of one Liverpool care home so that its residents – otherwise completely isolated from the outside world – could gather around the screen to hold their readings. “Lifeline packs” of stories and poems were also supplied: “We knew if we could get them into the hands of somebody working on the premises, they could distribute them.”

The Reader also partnered with homeless charities to offer shared reading sessions over the phone for people suddenly living alone in a single room 24 hours a day. One recipient told us that getting this call was “a highlight of my week … a salvation”.

A digital crash-course

Vulnerable as small arts organisations were to the economic impacts of lockdown, their relative freedom from bureaucratic constraints – coupled with their energetic creativity – meant they could adapt quickly to the new COVID conditions, including by delivering their shows, events and workshops online.

Prior to the pandemic, the use of online technology had been viewed with some scepticism. A video or audio version seemed counterintuitive for an activity whose raison d’etre is the power of in-person performance and connections.

“If you’d have asked me the week before the theatre closed [for lockdown] whether our drama activities could translate into something digital, I’d have been really sceptical,” recalls the Liverpool Playhouse’s then-director of social learning. “Yet so enormous was the impact of lockdown on our group members, we started our drama Zoom events the following week.”

“Not being the massive organisation that the NHS is” meant the Playhouse could quickly establish a creative wellbeing programme, running between eight and 15 sessions each week.

The speed of the pivot to online provision among Liverpool’s cultural organisations was remarkable. Within three weeks, The Reader was delivering shared Zoom reading sessions not only to its Liverpool members but internationally, twice weekly. It also developed a series of programmes for national prison radio that reached 120 prisons every day.

COVID proved a powerful catalyst for arts organisations to make the switch to digital offerings. As one creative writing practitioner puts it:

We’ve all had a crash course in the feasibility and practicality of online delivery of arts. That probably wouldn’t have happened with such speed or sophistication if it hadn’t been driven by the necessity of a global pandemic.

According to the partnerships manager at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic: “The pandemic has highlighted that we were missing a trick previously as to the diversity of ways of working with people through digital engagement. Some people feel safer online than being physically somewhere.”

In Liverpool, as elsewhere in the UK, online performances, cultural events and workshops were a crucial buffer against loneliness during the pandemic. The account of woman who hadn’t spoken to anybody for a whole week so “found herself talking to the wheelie bin” was not unusual in our research. A beneficiary of the Playhouse theatre’s creative wellbeing programme says that without it: “I would have fallen back into my PTSD stress [as] I’d have been left in the lurch.”

Read more: The magic of touch: how deafblind people taught us to 'see' the world differently during COVID

Retaining cultural connections during the COVID lockdowns has been highlighted as critical for people who were at increased risk of psychological ill-health – with an emphasis on providing them with meaningful activities, not just check-in calls.

A photographer describes how her online sessions led to people “using photography as a way to document what was going on for them. It became quite a cathartic process for many – a therapeutic way to counteract the negative feelings of the lockdown experience.”

Similarly, a creative writing group leader says members processed the emotions that were coming up during the pandemic through their writing – “whether that was grief, anger at the government, or feelings of loneliness”.

Overcoming digital poverty

In its five-year action plan published in February 2021, the Liverpool City Region Cultural Partnership paid tribute to “the creative organisations and people who, despite the odds, were able to reach out to our communities and vulnerable groups to offer a moment of joy [during the pandemic]”.

Yet only a year earlier, at the onset of COVID, the financial and employment situation of many of these organisations had looked perilous. In addition to a severe loss of income from visitors to the city, as many as 60% of Liverpool’s estimated 15,000 freelance creative workers faced redundancy overnight.

Due to the complex nature of professional contracts in the creative industries, many employees did not qualify for the government’s furlough or self-employed support schemes. Across the entire region, 62% of musicians were unable to benefit from either scheme.

Read more: 'We will not forget our colleagues who have died': two doctors on the frontline of the second wave

In March 2020, Arts Council England announced a £160m Emergency Response Package to help alleviate the immediate pressures faced by arts organisations and artists. Across Liverpool, some organisations used this fund to ensure continued connectivity among their members, recognising that digital poverty was as fundamental an issue to overcome in tackling social isolation as the provision of food and heating.

An arts centre running a programme for people with learning disabilities found that many participants had neither mobile data nor wifi – so it used some of the emergency fund to purchase iPads and data for them. There was an added bonus to this kind of initiative: distributing laptops and other digital hardware helped organisations sustain contact with their hardest-to-reach members – asylum seekers, refugees and vulnerable migrants – when “official” support organisations had closed their doors.

But while this rapid switch to digital was both necessary and valuable, arts providers and recipients still describe their sense of loss at moving online – both in terms of the unfulfilling quality of some digital experiences, and missing the wider enrichments that go with in-person cultural experiences and events.

“In a room you can read the energy – you read how people are feeling,” says the co-director of one dance organisation. “Over 20 years of leading dance activities, I might have a plan for a class but it always alters slightly depending on the people in the room. We can do that to an extent online, but if people aren’t sharing the things you can see in a physical space, you’re unable to respond.”

When the COVID lockdowns finally lifted, organisations echoed one another in describing their “joyous” responses as in-person activities resumed – “just that joy of connection … that joy of being able to come back into a space”.

Collaborating with the NHS

The importance of Liverpool’s cultural organisations to the city was underlined by the closeness of many partnerships with healthcare providers during the pandemic.

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic had already been working for more than a decade with Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust on a music in mental health programme. When COVID struck, it held Zoom sessions in secure hospitals for people sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Hospital staff reported resultant changes in the ward environment, describing “a happy, warm atmosphere with patients feeling calmer, more positive and having more fun”.

The Liverpool Playhouse, which had begun a partnership with Mersey Care just before the pandemic, found that at the start of lockdown, the NHS trust wasn’t allowed to use Zoom because of governance issues. So their partnership model shifted, with the theatre taking the lead and the trust signposting vulnerable patients to it.

“While officially we couldn’t use the NHS badge,” the theatre’s former director of creativity and social learning explains, “we could see when people really needed support and help – suddenly losing benefits or getting ill – and identify where safeguarding was necessary”. She suggests this has led to an exciting opportunity to “think outside the box”, not just in Liverpool but nationally:

There is going to be a huge increase in the need for wellbeing services, which are already overstretched and oversubscribed. [We need to] think more about how the arts and health sectors can work more closely together.

The recent creation of NHS England’s Integrated Care Systems (ICS) is an endorsement of the value of working with community groups, activities and spaces to deliver better health outcomes. Liverpool is now part of the Cheshire and Merseyside ICS, with a mission to work jointly with a wide range of local partners to tackle inequality and “improve the lives of the poorest fastest”.

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s partnerships manager says their experiences during the pandemic have led them to consider “whether we should be focusing our attention more at a neighbourhood level, connecting with GP surgeries in our immediate vicinity”. She is encouraged by the way funding organisations “are now looking at how arts and mental health can be embedded in the NHS’s long-term planning”.

According to The Reader’s head of shared reading programmes, there is now a “really, really exciting” opportunity to create a “radical” shared platform with people working in direct healthcare. People could use the voice they gain through contact with cultural and creative organisations to let healthcare services know what the best form of care is for them.

A new sense of art’s value

Some Liverpool arts organisations are building on their digital successes during the pandemic to design new in-person activities for local communities. My House of Memories is an app based on memory sharing linked to activities offered by National Museums Liverpool. Designed to support people living with dementia as well as their carers and families, the number of users increased to tens of thousands during the first lockdown.

The app’s success has inspired House of Memories On The Road, a 30m² immersive cinema and exhibition space that can be taken into local communities. This physical version offers immersive walks through local landmarks, a trip on Liverpool’s overhead railway, and visits to a 1950s grocery store and 1930s wash day – complete with objects to touch and smell, to stimulate users’ sensory responses and memories.

House of Memories works with community partners to identify those neighbourhoods or elder groups who are experiencing loneliness. Its director explains: “We can drive into local spaces, hospital trust settings, a GP car park or a supermarket. The idea is that we bring the museum to you, wherever you are.”

She adds that a world without arts and culture “would be a very dark and cold place”:

The NHS is there to help us when we’re unwell, but to remain well in the rest of our lives, that’s where arts and culture can play a massive role. What COVID gave us was a real opportunity to shine a light on that value of how important the arts are.

Such initiatives also represent an important part of the “slow return to normality” as the pandemic threat recedes. According to the director of a Liverpool arts centre:

The cultural scene could play a massive part in bringing in people who are less keen to come back because they’re still very worried about COVID. [If] shops and going for a meal aren’t enough to tempt them out, something that’s more meaningful to them like coming to an exhibition, a workshop, the theatre or a concert could be really important for getting people back out, reconnecting and active.

As Liverpool emerges from the ravages of the pandemic, the hit to the city’s creative sector is particularly concerning given its importance to the local economy. Amid a continued risk of closures and loss of creative talent, reduced access to arts and culture for the city’s most vulnerable groups could be very damaging in light of recent research showing the severe impact of the pandemic on mental health across the region.

Yet we have also seen a deepening appreciation of the importance of arts provision during COVID. Liverpool City Region’s 2021 strategic action plan identified a “culture-led and creative response” as being “most likely to be transformational and result in new ways of doing things” – not only in the arts, but for health and wellbeing more generally.

Perhaps just as importantly, the experience of sustaining themselves and others through the COVID ordeal has helped Liverpool’s diverse cultural organisations understand more clearly their role and significance for the regional population – both in-person and online.

Despite the dance tutor’s concerns about what was lost without in-person performances, she highlights that “we now have people from all over the world doing classes when normally we’re [restricted to] Liverpool. It was a really exciting opportunity to share cultures, practices and dance styles.”

Similarly, having been “kind of reluctant” about switching to digital for their annual festival, a writing charity’s programme manager agrees the experience has “highlighted to us the power of what we can do online – this will change the way we work forever”.

Throughout Liverpool and far beyond, we have seen many arts providers step up – despite severe personal challenges – during a period of extraordinary need. And they will surely continue to play a crucial role in processing the pandemic’s impacts for years to come. As The Reader’s head of shared reading programmes concludes:

There’s an embodiment of grief in people now – some of it very real, but also bereavement at having lost almost two years of our lives. So if you don’t create spaces to connect with how we feel, and the thoughts we find difficult to have – whether that’s through music, dance, theatre or literature – I worry that we’re going to be “baking in” fractures into our future society.

This article is part of an Insights series developed with UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to explore the wider impacts of research carried out during the pandemic. COVID-19 CARE is an AHRC-funded project; here is its final report and online resource.

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This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Josie Billington receives funding from Arts and Humanities Research Council, UKRI

Ekaterina Balabanova receives funding from Arts and Humanities Research Council, UKRI.

Joanne Worsley receives funding from Arts and Humanities Research Council, UKRI