A pensioner and full-time carer for her disabled daughter has told of her devastation that Bermondsey’s Riverside day centre is permanently closing ‘due to COVID-19’.
Norma Lawrence’s 56-year-old daughter, Dawn, has been attending day centres in Southwark, including Riverside, for 25 years.
Dawn is profoundly deaf, partially sighted and has a learning disability, caused by congenital Rubella.
When she was exposed to the virus in the womb vaccination was not widely available. She is one of many babies who were affected during large outbreaks of the viral disease in the 1960s.
“At the time no one knew much about the condition, or how long they would live for,” explained Norma.
“Dawn hasn’t had any serious illnesses but she needs full-time care. She can’t go out by herself.
“She went to a special school, the Royal School for Deaf Children in Margate, but as an adult has lived at home with me.
“Riverside is the only thing that gets her out and socialising, and keeps her active and meeting other people. She likes to paint.
“It’s both about her leaving the house and having independence and some form of respite care for me.”
Norma, who is vice-chair of the Walworth Society and well known for her community work, says the two days a week respite she used to have between 10am to 3.30pm was the only time she had to focus on her own interests.
“As you get older you need it more,” she said. “If I want to go to the shops I can’t take her with me now because my eyesight is getting bad. The fact is that she needs a service like Riverside.”
But on April 28 Norma received a letter in the post telling her that the lifeline day centre was closing down for good.
What makes the news even more shocking is that carers like Norma had been left largely on their own throughout the pandemic, with Riverside workers offering just a few hours of one-on-one support instead.
For Dawn this meant a two hour walk to Burgess Park with a carer and picking up some lunch once or twice a week – but no opportunity to see her friends or take part in an activity.
Since the first lockdown families have been eagerly awaiting to hear when it would be back up and running.
Instead, in a bitter blow, they have been told the centre is closing and given no details about what else will be provided in its place.
Most bizarrely, the Camden Society, which runs the day centre, and Southwark Council, which owns the building, appear to now be embroiled in a series of claims and counterclaims disputing who was aware of the decision and when.
Southwark Council has maintained it had no idea that the Camden Society had made the decision not to reopen.
In the letter sent to Norma and other families, the society said it would remain closed because the building was not big enough to accommodate everyone due to COVID rules – even though all restrictions will end this summer – and that they “need to try something new” and promise “we will be keeping you informed as we go along”.
“There has been no consultation, no discussion, no information,” said Norma.
“I don’t even think the majority of families have received this letter and may not know that in a few short months they will be left without.
“Southwark Council has a duty of care. They should have been informed so they can start writing to users to tell them what is happening and there should be some form of consultation, but so far we have heard nothing.
“Who have the Camden Society been talking to?”
It is undoubtedly Dawn and others who will suffer the most if another provider does not take over the building and offer a similar care.
“She’ll be at home and be isolated, sitting watching television all day with nothing to do, affecting her mental health,” Norma said, describing the last year as a lonely, difficult time for families who feel abandoned.
In her view the closure is the latest in a long line of services axed or cut beyond recognition.
During her adult life Dawn has visited long-closed centres in Surrey Quays, Braganza Street, Tower Bridge Road and, most recently, Queen’s Road Peckham which was knocked down to make way for an office Southwark Council now says it does not need.
This is not the first time Riverside has been threatened with closure. In 2017 we reported that Southwark Council had u-turned on previous plans to shut the centre down. At that time the Camden Society had been served a notice on its lease, but was then offered new terms after an outcry.
As far as Norma and other parents were concerned that was the end of the matter – until now.
We asked the Camden Society why they had made the decision, why the council was not informed as it claims, and what would replace the centre.
A spokesperson for the Camden Society (London) provided a statement, revealing that the organisation had, as recently as last year, been considering a £100,000 refurbishment. It is also implied that the decision had been tacitly influenced by conversations with the local authority.
“The Camden Society (London) has been supporting up to 90 people with a learning disability in the Riverside Building, which is owned by Southwark Council,” the spokesperson said.
“The building sits at the heart of the community and we were planning on leasing the building and investing over £100k to refurbish it.
“We had been considering ambitious options to enhance it with facilities for the wider community and to broaden the range of opportunities available for the people we support. We had been working actively with them to understand their ambitions and interests and how those might be supported
“But COVID-19 struck. We had to stop using the Riverside Building and instead provided our support to individuals or ‘bubbles’ out in the community, in other local facilities or in people’s homes.
“This forced closure of the Riverside building allowed us to explore more proactively with people what they might want from us and to review the way we were delivering their support in Southwark.
“We were able to go back into the building in September 2020, after the first lockdown, but after a month of cleaning and preparation, we still concluded that it was no longer safe to support large numbers of vulnerable people in a single venue.
“Instead, following discussions with the council about their intentions to review and assess people’s support needs, we have decided to continue delivering our support in the community.
“This will be carried out by the existing Riverside team and others, enabling people to use a wide range of community facilities and a much greater range of opportunities, whilst maintaining the friendships and shared interests that are so important to them.”
On the question of communication with the council, the spokesperson added: “The Camden Society (London) has been in discussions with the council over two years about people’s support needs and about a range of options for their support.”
Councillor Helen Dennis, cabinet member for social support and homelessness, at Southwark Council told the News that the closure was a ‘unilateral’ decision by the society and a ‘surprise’. She fell short of pledging to find another provider to take over the centre’s work.
“As their statement confirms, the decision to close Riverside Day Centre was taken unilaterally by the Camden Society (London), and any questions from families about this decision should be addressed directly to them,” Cllr Dennis said.
“As we understand it, the Camden Society (London) has stated that they intend to offer a community-based service instead – and we have asked that they share their plans with us.
“It’s fair to say that we were surprised to hear of this decision, but that we, as always, will be here to offer whatever support we can to anyone who approaches us for help individually.
“Ultimately, those who use the service are the people we have most care and concern for and I hope they are not left confused or upset by this decision.”
Bermondsey and Old Southwark MP Neil Coyle reiterated that the decision was made without any consultation with parents or those who use the centre.
“It is a massive worry for parents and families and I will be aiming to work with whoever comes forward who may be able to fill that gap,” he said.
The News understands the society had been operating without a lease for a number of years, a situation the council was happy to continue. Although the day centre is not commissioned directly by the council, places are funded through the direct payments it offers to eligible families. They will now have to choose whether to wait and see what else will be offered in place of the centre, or try and find new placements elsewhere whether council-commissioned or otherwise.
For Norma, it is yet another example of how the most vulnerable have all too often been let down and suffered the most during the pandemic.
“I’ve been doing this for so long – caring for a child is something you have to do from cradle to grave,” she said.
“And I don’t always want to be doing it, I want to sit and think by myself – I want to rest.
“I don’t have a choice, that’s what’s been happening all these years.
“I’m still concerned about her mental health and for all the other people including older carers who may not manage.
“They say carers are hidden but actually we are ignored. Southwark Council is the one really that should let us know what is happening
“They should take charge – they are responsible for these people.
“The Camden Society don’t realise what harms they are inflicting. How dare they.”