My Extraordinary Year

I took over as High Sheriff of Surrey just as the first lockdown started and thought to myself, ‘It’s going to be a difficult year, how can I make a difference if I cannot be out there in the community?’ Then I was wondering if we are going to be back to some sort of normal in the summer or maybe later in the year, but in reality we haven’t, and we have endured a whole year with some form of restrictions. People kept saying to me ‘It must have been a difficult for you, not getting out and about and it’s been a disastrous year for you in terms of being the High Sheriff’, but my answer is that this year, in my own personal opinion, has been a year that has brought out the best of our County. The code red situation the pandemic has caused, not just in Surrey but globally, in my opinion has given us a chance to reset the way we conduct our lives and I think it’s galvanised us and in many ways helped us to understand what we’re all about and look more closely at our lives.

​You know we so were so het up about discovering what’s in the universe and interested in all that’s going on globally, yet we don’t even talk to our neighbours, we don’t see what is under our noses but still we strive to know what’s on Mars or what’s on the moon. There’s nothing wrong with all that but I think we have been forced to start looking at what is immediately around us, and for me, I have seen the best in society since lockdown. If I’d have had hosted or attended events in a formal capacity, I may have seen only what I wanted to see yet I actually saw real people in Surrey, making a difference in the communities – working together, uniting and making the best of the situation that we are all in.

​When the pandemic started, I remember young school kids making PPE equipment at home, families stitching face masks and at home, neighbours doing food shopping for vulnerable people who were shielding and generally looking after them, I saw a really caring society, people caring about individuals and families and being more aware than ever of the welfare of people around them and faith groups of all religions working together to support their parishes. The UK’s oldest established mosque – the Shah Jahan Mosque, in Woking encouraged worshippers who may be on furlough or have free time to deliver leaflets offering to help people who needed extra support with shopping etc. They worked with a Christian charity to source food and goods and were offered products from supermarkets. They supplied help to people in the community – 90% of which were non-Muslims. A great example of people working together which warmed my heart.

​My theme for the year which was decided before the pandemic arrived was ‘Together we are Stronger’ – my thinking was to encourage people to work together from all faiths for a better community life – I did not expect that the opportunity would come, as difficult as it was, for people to prove themselves that together we definitely are stronger – it happened organically and I am overwhelmed with a sense of pride at what I have seen in Surrey during the past twelve months.

​This pandemic has caused problems especially to people with long term illnesses, the elderly and people who live alone. We have had to adapt and learn as we went along, we had huge pressure on the emergency services and especially on the NHS, we have seen a massive increase with the need for food banks and volunteers who put themselves at risk to help provide food for people who had lost their jobs or could not get to the supermarkets. It has been a been a real challenging year for everybody. It has also been encouraging to see the County’s business world stepping up to the plate, corporates, the likes of McLaren, getting involved in producing ventilators to the London Irish, delivering 50,000 meals, (one even delivered by HRH The Countess of Wessex), the HG Wells centre in Woking providing accommodation and meals to the homeless working with the York Road Project. There are many examples like this across the County. I am so grateful to the authorities – county councils or local boroughs who have consistently worked hard to look after their constituents.

​‘Death with dignity’ was another topic I decided I wanted to make people aware of. We had a large amount of extra deaths in Surrey during the past year. Temporary morgues had to be established and once again organisations helped to facilitate these like Surrey University and with Headley Court, which had recently decommissioned the Armed forces hospital facility – the owner offered up those facilities which also treated people with Covid-19. The immense pressure on funeral directors, crematoriums and Cemeteries was difficult to deal with but as with other extraordinary elements of this pandemic the community and armed forces rallied round to help. Also was the issue of addressing the needs of some cultures where people needed to be buried within 24 hours, in some cases arranging for people to be transported back to their place of birth in accordance with their beliefs. So it has been incredible for me to see how the emergency services, the NHS, the Coroners and the local and County Council and all of the people that that support those infrastructures have worked together to cope with everything.

​I wanted to get involved with the introduction of non-intrusive postmortems after a very good friend of mine Barry Hitchcock passed away and it took a long time for the postmortem to be undertaken. At such a sad and stressful time people need for these things to be done quickly in order to lay their loved ones to rest and have some closure. The technology for non-intrusive postmortems is available and would help to speed up the process as well as be more dignified. The process is like a deep CT scan and is available in other parts of the UK and thanks to lobbying and fantastic support from Richard Travers we are through to the approval stage, it is backed by CEO’s, the NHS and Coroners it is moving forward quickly.

​Although my ‘civic’ activities were very limited during my term, I did get to see for myself the work done in Surrey with some carefully managed visits – I spent some time on Christmas day with the York Road project and whilst I am no master chef I did do a bit of cooking – sage and onion stuffing as I recall and I have been involved with regular visits by the Earl and Countess of Wessex who have volunteered on many occasions in Surrey, packing goody bags for the homeless, cooking and baking food, always enthusiastically and donating a lot of their time. They were kind enough to visit the Mosque on the last day of Ramadan too and their greeting in Arabic generated well over a quarter of a million views on the Royal Family social media page. I am a huge fan of the Royal Family and the magnificent work they do, having been involved as an ambassador for one of Prince Charles’ Charities and had the privilege of sitting next to her Majesty the Queen at an official lunch. Recently I undertook a reading at Guildford Cathedral during a service for His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh whom I met on several occasions through sport. He was a rock for the Royal family and an amazing person, He was a cricket fan and it was such a shame that despite his long innings he could not be 100 not out – only missing it by a couple of months.

​I have many people to thank for the support they have given me during the past twelve months. The Lord Lieutenant – Mr Michael More- Molyneux for his unwavering support, my support team, Caroline Breckell, Emma Chown and Andy Newbold who all helped to keep me on the straight and narrow, a huge thank you to Surrey Local Resilience Forum, Steve Owen-Hughes, Chief Constable Gavin Stephens, along with Tim Oliver, Joanna Killian and all the CEOS and portfolio holders at 11 boroughs for the their tremendous support to me and the High Sheriff Youth Awards. Peter Lee DL and the committee of the High Sheriff Youth Awards, Judge Fraser along with many people from the Judiciary, the Coroner Richard Travers, Woking Asian Business Forum, Sam Jones and the team from Surrey University who gave us the opportunity to stream the Youth Awards live with Asad Ahmad hosting the event, everyone at the Shah Jahan Mosque, Fin Wells, my cadet who unfortunately did not have much to do because of the Covid restrictions and of course my family for supporting me. There are many other people who I have to thank but I would be here all day!

​Finally I would like to congratulate Julie Lewellyn – the High Sheriff for the next year on her appointment and I am sure she will make a big difference with her knowledge of the charity world through her work with the Community Foundation for Surrey and with her theme this year dealing with school exclusions.

​It has been an honour to serve as High Sheriff and I hope that moving forward as a County we never forget what we have learned during these past twelve months, that ‘Together We Are Stronger’.

Shahid Azeem DL
High Sheriff of Surrey 2020-21