Social campaigns strike a chord in Britain

Beneath the cut-and-thrust of politics, campaign work goes on, engages public opinion and politics, and at times leads to significant changes

By Prasun Sonwalkar

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Published: Mon 23 Jan 2023, 10:11 PM

Westminster politics in recent months and years has led to much cynicism among the public, as opinion polls often point out, but every once in a while news buried in the inside pages reaffirms some faith in the system. Civic society’s work to create better conditions continues, mostly away from the headlines. One of the remarkable aspects of everyday life in Britain is the large number of campaigns run for various causes, from cradle to grave, from raising funds for individuals and hospitals, or to raise awareness of diseases and focus on research, or to change laws as a result of tragic events.

Beneath the cut-and-thrust of politics, campaign work goes on, engages public opinion and politics, and at times leads to significant changes for the wider good. Nearly £85 billion are donated to charity annually and a regulator keeps a close eye on the work and management of charity organisations.

Last week, there was another success for such campaign work. The Rishi Sunak government announced that all state-funded schools will be equipped with defibrillators – the life-saving medical device that can make all the difference between life and death when a person suffers cardiac arrest. It is easy to use and when available in time, restores normal heart beat by sending an electric pulse to the heart, which buys crucial time before an ambulance or medical help arrives. Britain already has a large number of defibrillators installed in shops and other public places, but a sustained 10-year campaign to make it available in all schools has now succeeded, and deliveries began last week.

The campaign began through a foundation set up in January 2012 following the tragic death of 12-year-old Oliver King, who had an undetected heart condition. His heart stopped during a swimming race in his King David High School in Liverpool in 2011. Mark King, his father, set up the Oliver King Foundation to raise awareness of Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome and to place Automated External Defibrillators across the UK. The largely hidden heart condition reportedly kills 12 young people in Britain every week; the annual death toll is 270. If a defibrillator were available in Oliver’s school, it would have made a vital difference.

The cause was supported over the years by local and national celebrities, as the foundation began providing training in defibrillator awareness and first aid. It has placed 5,900 defibrillators in schools and organisations across the UK, trained 135,000 staff in defibrillator awareness along the way, and estimates that over 60 lives have been saved by the defibrillators it has placed. An e-petition signed by over 110,000 signatures led to a debate in parliament, as various prominent MPs endorsed the work. The campaign eventually led to a meeting with Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi, who committed to install a defibrillator in every school.

Deliveries of the first defibrillators last week mark the start of a roll-out of over 20,000 defibrillators to almost 18,000 state-funded schools by the end of the academic year. It is the largest defibrillator programme in England to date. Schools are also urged to sign up to The Circuit – the national defibrillator network, which provides ambulance services with vital information about defibrillators across the UK so that in those crucial moments after a cardiac arrest, they can be accessed quickly to help save lives. As part of the rollout, awareness videos are being provided to show how simple defibrillators are to use, and schools are being encouraged to share these videos in staff meetings and assemblies.

King, who founded the organisation in his son’s name, was visibly moved but satisfied as he appeared across the news media: “This is a landmark moment and will be welcomed by pupils, parents and teachers up and down the country. It is a proud day for us because we’ve campaigned for schools to have access to defibrillators for over a decade. It is a major victory for the Oliver King Foundation. Defibrillators save lives and I have no doubt that lives will now be saved so that families do not have to suffer the heartbreak of unnecessarily losing a child. This is for our Ollie”.

Campaign and charity organisations have long been central to everyday life in Britain. News reports of financial and other irregularities in some organisations affect donations for some time, but over half of Britons support them by giving money regularly, while others donate goods to charity shops that sell them and use the income for various causes. The sector also sees a large number of individuals volunteering to work for various causes and at sites that include hospitals, heritage locations and museums. Many charity shops are located in high streets, while individuals run marathons or walk large distances to raise awareness and funds for issues.

Besides the defibrillators campaign, there have been at least three that hit the headlines recently.

Thomas Moore, better known as Captain Tom, was a British Army veteran who saw action in colonial India and the Burma campaign during World War Two. As Britain hunkered down during the Covid-19 pandemic, the frail 99-year-old began to walk 100 lengths of his garden in Bedfordshire with the help of a walking frame on April 6, 2020 to raise £1,000 by his 100th birthday on April 30. He became such a sensation and a national icon during the 24-day campaign that by the time the fund-raising window was closed, he had raised over £32 million, – largest total raised by a single campaign on the JustGiving online platform. He passed away in February 2021 after testing positive for Covid, plunging the country in grief.

Friendship and the limits of human endurance came together in another campaign to raise awareness and funds for research into motor neurone disease. Kevin Sinfield, 42, is one of the most successful rugby players in the history of Super League, but hit the headlines for a different reason in November 2020. He wanted to raise £77,777 to help his friend and former Leeds teammate Rob Burrow, who was diagnosed with the disease, and for the work of Motor Neurone Disease Association. The plan was to run seven marathons in seven days to reflect

Burrow’s No 7 top for Leeds, but the target was reached on the first day itself. By the end of the seventh marathon, over £1.2 million had been raised. He again raised over £1 million in October 2021 by running 101 miles in less than 24 hours, and over £2 million in September 2022 by running seven ultra-marathons in seven days.

Another campaign that struck a chord was three fathers, whose young daughters committed suicide, walking 300 miles over 15 days to raise awareness about suicide among the young and to raise funds for a suicide prevention charity. Suicide is the biggest killer of those under 35 in the UK. Andy Airey, Mike Palmer, and Tim Owen walked between their homes in Cumbria, Greater Manchester, and Norfolk in 2022; each set out to raise £3,000 but their story evoked such response that over £500,000 were quickly raised, including contributions from celebrities such as Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman. - The writer is a senior journalist based in London

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