As you may know, the UK Government, Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and Northern Ireland Assembly are taking a phased approach to gradually lift restrictions with each nation having separate timescales and activities.   
  
At Guide Dogs, we’re closely monitoring these approaches to inform our ‘Way Forward’ plan to prepare to restart activities in the safest, most practical way possible whilst continuing to adhere to the current guidelines. All plans are being carefully assessed from a risk perspective in line with Government requirements and our own Health and Safety protocols.  

We’re currently working on a number of protocols — these are a sequence of steps to follow to complete an activity safely. This may mean volunteering in a different way than you are used to for a period of time. We are starting all activities gradually; and may re-prioritise some activities if we feel we have to move slower or quicker due to the easing or tightening of government restrictions.  

Protocols cover topics such as working in the community and Guide Dogs’ premises. At this current time we are continuing to minimise the numbers of staff working on Guide Dogs sites — every person at any given time has a specific, authorised reason to be there. Our regional and community centres continue to be closed at this current time — and we will advise when we are able to reopen our buildings for volunteers, service users and visiting members of the public. 

Currently (as of 7 July), our high-level plans for restarting Guide Dogs are outlined below in order of priority. This list isn’t exhaustive. 

  • Gradually restart rehoming dogs, breeding programme, puppy placement and preparations to make our regional sites and community teams COVID-secure to recommence work, including essential dog day care, dog training (including community-based). 
  • Aim to get all our dogs back into training. Complete training for 55 partially trained partnerships. 
  • Begin placing Buddy Dogs with approved families. 
  • Restart partnership training with replacement clients. 
  • Recommence habilitation, orientation and mobility work with service users. Resume some elements of community and face-to-face fundraising in line with government advice and our own Health and Safety protocols. 
  • Test re-commencement of the My Sighted Guide service as part of our reinstatement plans. 
  • Resumption of all services to the fullest levels possible as defined under new service operations principles and COVID-19 led restrictions. 
  • All necessary facilities reopened for staff and volunteers. 
  • Fundraising events, for example marathons, will commence subject to the go ahead from third party organisers. 

As mentioned before, these activities and timings are likely to change as a result of the status of the Coronavirus pandemic, government guidance, our own health and safety protocols and learning.

Re-opening our offices and centres 

For our community teams and regional centres located in England there is a plan, including a rigorous checklist for slowly restarting activity  in a phased and controlled way.  We began with dog training at our regional centres in June and are gradually increasing our activities over the coming weeks and months.

Part of this plan will be the introduction of social distancing, processes and other measures into the working environment to protect staff. We’ve circulated new Health and Safety guidance for staff to help prepare for a new way of working. The priority will be for staff looking after dogs to return first. During this preliminary stage, we won’t ask any volunteers to visit any of our sites. 

As we move forward, we will use this time to configure the best localised approaches for each community team to begin welcoming back volunteers on site in a safe and controlled way. 

We will begin welcoming staff and volunteer in community teams in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland when the respective plans for each nation allows us to do so.  

In the meantime, all volunteers should wait until they’ve been contacted by their Volunteer Manager before they can return to their roles. 

Your Volunteer Manager will have a conversation with you to talk through any changes to your volunteering role, provide Health and Safety information, find out how you’re doing, and outline the necessary steps to take to return safely. 

We will be in touch with volunteers once we’ve completed these necessary steps in your area and are confident that everyone’s health and safety is protected as best as possible.

On site Health and Safety measures

We’ve taken the necessary steps and complied with government guidelines to ensure the safety of all, whilst our offices start to open and dog training begins to resume: 

  • We've carried out a COVID-19 risk assessment and shared the results with the people who work here 
  • We have cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures in line with guidance
  • We've taken all reasonable steps to help people work from home 
  • We've taken all reasonable steps to maintain the appropriate social distance in the workplace 
  • Where people can't be at the appropriate distance apart, we've done everything practical to manage the risk of transmission 

Restarting dog training

At Guide Dogs we continue to plan and prepare for getting our dogs back into training so that we can deliver life-changing services to people living with sight loss. At the same time we are ever mindful of ensuring the safety of our service users, volunteers and staff. 

We are following UK government advice and that from the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. As a result, we’ve now made the initial steps to restart training some of our dogs at some of our sites. All of our plans are being progressed with extreme care and will be tailored to regional requirements. On 22 June, we also began community-based dog training in many areas. This is being carefully monitored and is the next step in our ambition to get all dogs back into training by the end of July.

We have already contacted guide dog owners who were mid-way through qualifying when lockdown started and we're now getting back to those people, where safe to do so, and completing their qualifications.

Our breeding programme 

After temporarily pausing our breeding programme, we’re slowly resuming from June and preparing for those puppies to be placed in October. We will gradually increase the breeding programme over the coming months to address our long term requirements for dogs to both enter training and the breeding programme itself in 18 months’ time. We will adjust our breeding plans at any time based on the changing situation.

Please note that activities such as public tours, events and puppy helper experiences at our National Breeding Centre are temporarily postponed. 

Looking after expectant mums and their volunteers 

Our mums and dad dogs are cared for by our wonderful volunteers in their own homes. Those caring for our guide dog mums also help to deliver and rear our newborn pups in the early weeks.  
 
We have a number of guide dog mums who were already expecting litters before the lockdown was announced. We’re continuing to provide our volunteers with expert advice and support over the phone, so they are well-equipped to care for the dogs and puppies when they arrive.  
 
All our volunteers have previously received detailed training in how to care for a guide dog mum when she is having a litter and have all the equipment needed to provide the best care possible. While there aren’t any face-to-face visits currently taking place, our volunteers remain fully supported and have 24-hour access to expert advice and guidance, using all the technologies available to us. 

Placing puppies with volunteer puppy walkers 

After initially pausing placing new puppies with volunteer Puppy Walkers, we resumed this at the beginning of May. This will make sure our puppies benefit from early socialisation in volunteers’ homes, which helps develop their life skills in becoming guide dogs. We will of course continue to follow the Government’s social distancing guidance to protect everyone involved when it comes to placing our puppies with volunteers. 

How we’re restarting volunteering  

At Guide Dogs, we couldn’t do what we do without our incredible volunteers. Our volunteers are instrumental in the way we help people with sight loss live the life they choose. Over the last three months, some of our volunteers had to temporarily postpone their volunteering due to social distancing and self isolation measures whilst others were able to continue virtually. We’re grateful to all our volunteers' ongoing dedication and support — whether or not they could continue as normal. 
 
We appreciate that it’s been a challenging time and getting back to normal activities will seem like a breath of fresh air. As we emerge out of lockdown, following Government guidance and our own health and safety protocols, we will slowly welcome back volunteers in a steady, safe and controlled way.  
 
Any volunteer returning to their role(s) will need agreement with their volunteer manager or key contact before restarting any activities which are not virtual. 

When the time is right, we will notify specific volunteering groups about how and when it’s safe to gradually return to volunteering. We’ll also ask our volunteers to consider their own personal circumstances before thinking about coming back to their role. They’ll be able to get in touch with us in the usual way to have a conversation about returning.

For further information, volunteers should read the ‘role readiness for volunteers’ guidance, which is available on the Volunteer Information Point.