The coronavirus pandemic continues to take a heavy toll on global society.  My thoughts are with all of those affected by the virus and especially those working on the frontline in health services around the world.  All of us that have friends or families cared for by the National Health Service in this country are hugely grateful for the incredible work carried out by our medical professionals.

As I wrote last week, the RSPB’s priority at this time is to keep our people safe while also doing what we can to protect the long-term health of the organisation. The coronavirus outbreak has had major impacts on the RSPB’s work.  We have had to close our reserves, postpone vital conservation projects and bring home colleagues from across the world. 

Last week, we took a further step, and like many organisations, we are accessing the UK Government’s Job Retention Scheme.  Initially we have asked around 50% of our colleagues who can no longer fulfil their roles to take leave from their day jobs. This will enable them to focus on caring for others, learning and development or volunteering for other organisations if they are able.

While some of our colleagues are temporarily stood down, we are continuing as much of our important work as we are able to with the current restrictions.  The crisis facing nature is not on hold, and our core mission as a charity remains as important as ever.

Also last week, our Chief Executive Beccy Speight, along with other leaders of environmental charities, met Defra Minister Zac Goldsmith to discuss the impact the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lock down is having on our sector.  This was the latest in a series of meetings we have had over the past weeks, to impress upon the UK Government the urgent crisis facing parts of our community and the need for support.

These discussions have been welcome and there a number of truths that we would hope the UK Government accepts.

First, governments need nature conservation non-governmental organisations as partners

In the UK, we are fortunate to have a diverse and active community of environmental non-governmental organisations which all contribute huge amounts to civil society not just in this country but through our international networks (such as BirdLife) around the world.  Environmental NGOs are not just a (mainly) constructive critics of government, they are also partners in delivering government’s own response to the climate and ecological emergency.  We provide data to understand the nature of the challenge, pilot solutions to address problems identified, deliver them where we can either on our own land or in partnership with others.  We have played this role for many decades and more explicitly since the 1992 Earth Summit after which the then Conservative Government established the UK Biodiversity Action Plan as a partnership of government, agencies, ngos and business.  We have worked in partnership ever since.  Without a vibrant, diverse and well-resourced NGO sector, the UK Government will fail to meet its laudable environmental commitments which have rightly been ramped up as the scale of the climate and ecological emergency has hit home.

Second, paying people not to work runs counter to the core purpose of charity

The UK Government’s Job Retention Scheme has been hugely welcome but it has one major failing for charities.  Yes, it is lifeline to protect those roles which are impossible to be fulfilled as a result of government restrictions, but it is perverse if designed as a measure to protect charity finances.  Even though there is work to do, and for charity that will always be for public benefit, because we face financial difficulties we are being encouraged to accept government money and pay people not to work.  For no extra cost to the Treasury, government could simply pay the 80% of salaries and allow charity workers to continue to work where government restrictions allow.

Third, for some, there will be insufficient funds to maintain business critical activities

Despite the need to moth-ball large parts of its business, charities will still need to maintain some core functions in order to maintain critical business activities (such as maintaining finance systems and payroll, maintaining employment and IT systems, complying with a range of regulations especially on land, protecting property, fulfilling funded obligations where possible reliant on all these services etc).  As was highlighted in a statement from Wildlife and Countryside Link last week, for some, the furloughing scheme will simply be insufficient to cover these costs and so financial reserves (which as charities we are always encouraged to keep low) will be eroded.

For our partner organisations in the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs), the picture is particularly stark. The UKOTs contain some 90% of the UK’s biodiversity.  Conservation organisations working on the ground in the territories are vital to delivering successful outcomes for threatened species, but operate on small budgets and simply don’t have the reserves to survive this level of financial shock. The Job Retention scheme, which is the one lifeline offered to the UK conservation sector, is not open to organisations based in the UKOTs.  I would encourage the UK Government to be creative in working out how best to support these vital organisations during this time of enormous uncertainty.

During lockdown, we are seeing just how much the public values nature with thousands of people sharing images and stories of how wildlife is helping lift their spirits during lockdown.  There is a growing body of evidence that underlines the role of nature in improving our mental and physical well-being.  But if people want and need thriving nature, we also need a thriving NGO conservation sector to continue to deliver this.  A small investment now could prevent a major erosion of civil society’s ability to support government’s ambition to restore nature in a generation.

As well as these challenges facing our sector, many of us are naturally looking at how we recover from this crisis, and what kind of world comes next.  As my colleague at Birdlife Europe, Ariel Brunner, put it succinctly last week as part of a plea for a green recovery post pandemic:

“If COVID19 shows us anything, it is that we can mobilize together rapidly, effectively and massively against challenges of life and death – the science is undeniable that humanity’s survival demands that we take all possible and similarly dramatic measures now to stop and reverse global warming and save nature.”

There are moments in history when norms shift rapidly.  When this crisis is over, there is a chance to create something better: to rebuild a society and economy that works with and not against nature, respecting planetary boundaries and the needs of all life on this small planet we share.  This is the case we will continue to make, with others, in the days and weeks to come.

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Fabulous image of avocet courtesy of Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com) 

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