EDGING shiftily around shops, keeping to stickers plastered on shop floors, warily avoiding others – the people of Colchester have been doing their best to stick to social distancing.

But for the blind and visually impaired, lockdown has been a terrifying, isolating experience.

For around 30 years, Bob Finch, director of Colchester and District Talking Newspaper, has endeavoured to provide audio recordings of Colchester news to keep visually impaired people informed.

He said: “We serve people who are either totally blind, or very visually impaired, and many are very socially isolated.

“With their condition, social isolation is often dreadful, and even worse during these current circumstances.

“Many are frightened to death of going out, for the simple reason they cannot see where everybody else is.

“Their main communication with the outside world has been through TV and radio, and neither of those mediums tell them anything especially local.”

The talking newspaper has been in operation for 47 years, keeping visually impaired people informed about the goings on of the borough.

It first did this through a studio at the University of Essex, but has been forced to change the way it operates by the coronavirus crisis.

Volunteers would visit the studio and read out selections of the week’s news, taken from the Colchester Gazette and Essex County Standard, to be recorded and shopped off on audio cassettes to clients.

But with social distancing measures still in place, the charity has had to adapt.

It has also moved with the times in terms of technology, instead sending out memory sticks containing recordings made from the comfort of volunteers’ homes.

For the first four weeks of lockdown, Bob, 72, was allowed into the studio alone to record 90 minutes of news.

“It must have been dreadful to listen to with just one voice for 90 minutes,” he said.

“Normally there would be at least half a dozen different voices on the recordings.”

He was inspired by a segment on Look East, where journalist Stewart White broadcast from home using his mobile phone when his broadband failed.

Now the charity photographs stories in the paper, sending them as email attachments to volunteer recorders.

The volunteers record their segments via mobile phone, before emailing the recordings back to Bob for distribution.

Of 15 volunteer newsreaders, some record snippets from as far afield as Scotland and even America.

Bob said: “My niece who lives in Florida who wanted to contribute, including occasional items of interest from Florida published in the Daytona Beach News Herald.

“This was a leap of faith for all concerned, none of whom had previously used mobile phones in this way and had no idea if it would work, or not.

“But it did, we were getting studio quality recordings and in most cases, continue to do so.”

The talking newspaper takes a lot of work, but Bob is committed to making sure it doesn’t fold when its users need it the most.

During lockdown, many of the around 450 talking newspaper services in the country have shut down.

Bob picks up the Daily Gazette from his doormat at around 7.30am each morning.

A quick scan identifies stories concerned with Colchester and the wider borough, and they are photographed and sent over to readers.

“Within 20 minutes of sending them, I am getting audio recordings back,” he said.

“They are compiled into a single file for that day and by lunchtime are normally all saved to a different memory stick.

“The returned memory sticks and cassettes are collected from the post room at the university and taken to the studio.

“A couple who normally deal just with despatching each week unpack, clean and then repack new recordings which have been copied whilst they are doing that.

“In about 90 minutes these are ready for despatch and on Friday morning they are taken to the Royal Mail for delivery.”

Around 95 blind and visually impaired people rely on the service to be their source of local news every week, with an unknown number accessing the recordings through the charity’s website, at colchestertn.org.uk.

But Bob fears there could be others out there who could use its support.

He said: “We need to reach more people who are blind and visually impaired as because of the virus, the social agencies that normally refer people to us are not doing so at the moment.”