In this exclusive interview, Laura Hannon shares with readers how the BDA Benevolent Fund has continued to support the profession in times of unprecedented challenges.
Laura Hannon is the General Manager of the BDA Benevolent Fund.
How has the BDA Benevolent Fund been able to address the challenges posed by COVID-19?
Laura: We were a little ahead of the curve in terms of lockdown and social distancing, as we have had an online application system in place since September 2019. This means we aren’t reliant upon being in our office to deal with requests. I am notified automatically once a form has been submitted, which I follow up with a conversation to learn more about what someone’s biggest worries are and I could still do this working from home. A sub-group of the Board approves whatever help is most appropriate, which they can do wherever they are in the UK.
It was intense at some points; in March and April 2020 we received 73 new requests for help which is a huge increase. To put this in context, in the whole of 2019 we had a total of 54 applicants. Due to the volume, people did need to bear with us a little bit, but we managed to get back to everyone as soon as we could, usually within one week. We kept in constant communication and managed expectations and I hope that people felt that we provided a good service.
In over half of the request cases, financial aid was what was most needed because of issues to do with cash flow issues as people had stopped working. However, it wasn’t just about giving out grants. We give everyone information about where else they can get support such as universal credit and the self-employed grant scheme. Things were uncertain for everyone and there were delays so often people had to wait until their money came through. This is where we helped the most, we could move swiftly if there was a cash flow issue and plug that gap.
Understandably, at the beginning, when practices were shut down and universities closed, people were worried about how they were going to look after themselves and their families financially. The good news was that they knew they could contact us for help, and this was what a lot of people found reassuring. We were a place they could turn to and to talk them through things. It was also a stark reminder for everyone in the profession as to how easy it is to get into difficult circumstances through no fault of their own.
It’s interesting you mention needs beyond financial help. So, what have been the main issues faced by BDA Benevolent Fund applicants?
Laura: We normally approach support by prioritising people’s essential needs, for example, contributing towards their rent or mortgage, utility and other household bills as well as food and other living costs.
We were really pleased that the government announced support for mortgage payments and the option to ask for repayment holidays with their main creditors, so applicants could prioritise the essentials whilst making some longer-term arrangements. People could also use the free budget planner on our website to help. Luckily, some people had a good level of savings but, for those who didn’t, for example younger dentists, those newly qualified or new to the UK and undergraduate students, we were there.
There were political issues going on around all of us, which we did take into consideration, but what really hit home for me was that no matter what happens out in the world, the BDA Benevolent Fund is set up in such a way that we will always be here to help. We were able to offer the same level of support that we always have done, despite a three-fold rise in demand.
You mentioned being able to find help for applicants with emotional issues, too. How does that work?
Laura: Starting in January 2020, we launched an Assistance Programme with a company called Health Assured, which is completely confidential and aims to support people’s health and wellbeing. It includes an online portal, an app and a 24/7 helpline that is open 365 days a year. They triage people who call in helping you with your emotional, physical or professional worries and, when appropriate, referring you to a counsellor.
The truth is that financial difficulties often go alongside anxiety, so we want to offer support for everyone, depending on what their needs are.
Given where we are now as a profession and a nation, what do you imagine 2021 will look like for the Charity?
Laura: We are aiming to make sure we are better at reaching undergraduate dental students next year. We want to make sure they understand we are here to help them throughout their career.
We suspect that they will face the greatest level of difficulty. This is not just financially but because of the isolation we’ve all faced this year, combined with the challenges of being a student on a demanding course or starting on the career ladder later than anticipated.
So, 2020 was a challenge for us – as it was for everyone – but we were really pleased to find we had robust systems in place to meet the increase in demand and are committed to doing the same in 2021 and beyond.
Please, if you are worried about anything, get in contact with us. We are here to help.
For more information, visit www.bdabenevolentfund.org.uk