“Meeting digitally has helped us all to keep going through hard times. I enjoy that we can all support each other and meet weekly.”

‘A’ – Support Group member

Just ahead of the March 2020 lockdown, the British Lung Foundation (BLF) advised its network of Support Groups to stop meeting and started to think about what to do next. Group Support Officers talked to volunteer Group Leaders in their areas to understand what they wanted to do. Initially many groups set up telephone trees and communicated by post and email.

“When the lockdown began and we could not meet as a group [group leader] set up a WhatsApp group and invited everybody to join by sending an email and a letter.”

‘A’ – Support Group member

However, to the surprise of many staff, groups were keen to try Zoom meetings. BLF offered information and guidance around running meetings safely and trained Group Leaders on Zoom. Group Support Officers helped to facilitate and members supported each other to get online.

“I had no idea about meetings online so, when it was spoken about, I didn’t think I could be part of it. I have a basic phone which only texts and calls but no internet, however I had an old laptop, so one of our group’s volunteers talked me through how to Zoom. It was easier than I thought so I have been able to join in all the activities every week.”

‘C’ – Support Group member

Around 60 per cent of the Group Network met via Zoom during the pandemic – these meetings were popular and highly valued.

“I think that Zooming someone has been a way to satisfy the yearning gap in human contact.”

‘E’ – Support group member

The Support Group Network that BLF developed as part of Nesta’s Accelerating Ideas programme proved invaluable during the pandemic. Regular surveys of Group volunteers helped BLF provide responsive support. The team heard people wanted activity sessions, such as Zumba, quizzes and arts and crafts online, and worked to set these up.

“I love the Monday quizzes when about 40 of us meet for a good laugh. I joined the men’s chat, which is great because I live on my own.”

‘D’ – Support group member

The move online helped bring groups together and broke down barriers – reducing hierarchies between group ‘officers’ and other members, for example. The mutual experience of learning new technology has built camaraderie.

“Digital does not just have to be for local people. I am so proud of our group and that we can now reach out to people that live in different parts of the country.”

‘A’ – Support Group member

“It is great when new people come onto Zoom for the first time. Everybody has struggled with the sound or video to begin with.  It always makes me smile because we have all been through the same initiation to master Zoom.” 

‘A’ – Support Group member

“I have found that the virtual meetings have given people the opportunity to get to know each other better than if they were in a normal style meeting. Usually, most folk sat at the same tables each time and chatted mostly to the same people but online everyone has said that they now know each other better.”

‘B’ – Support Group member

However, the digital divide remains an issue. Among the 40 per cent of groups that have not met online, some have provided support by phone or post, but others have missed out.

Looking to the future, BLF knows that groups want to meet face-to-face, but this needs careful planning.

“Although the virtual meetings have been a lifeline through the most horrendous time of isolation, anxiety, and loneliness, they can never replace the feeling of seeing a friend face to face.”

‘B’ – Support Group member

Some groups plan to continue online meetings in addition to face-to-face and Zoom may be used in winter when, historically, meetings have been quieter as many members are vulnerable to winter illnesses.

“I am sure that we will carry on zooming even though we are able to meet up. Zooming is here to stay.”

‘A’ – Support Group member

Reflecting on their experiences, the BLF team now know they underestimated how well groups would take to online meetings.

British Lung Foundation are one of eight organisations supported through Nesta’s Accelerating Ideas programme. Over the last five years, Nesta has worked in partnership with National Lottery Community Fund to scale up eight innovations that help people to age well, feel connected to others and be part of active, engaged local communities.

Read more about the Accelerating Ideas programme

Read more about British Lung Foundation's Integrated Breath Easy model