As we enter the fourth week of ‘lockdown’, it’s hard to comprehend the unprecedented changes happening in health and care. The weekly ‘clap for care’ is now a feature in most of our communities, reflecting the public’s appreciation of the huge sacrifice that staff are making. But equally notable is the number of people in those communities who have volunteered support to those around them and to organisations providing that care.
Analysis from questions in the British Social Attitudes survey in 2015 estimated that around 1.7 million people were volunteers in health and care across England, Scotland and Wales. As our previous work shows, volunteers can be found in many parts of the NHS and care system including hospitals, general practice and ambulance services, not to mention those in the voluntary and community sector. At the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, many organisations took the decision to stop their volunteering support, but as the impact of the situation grows, the ways in which volunteers can positively contribute to the response is evolving.
The ability to match capacity to demand in hospitals while ensuring the safety and wellbeing of volunteers, staff and patients remains foremost is dependent on good volunteer management.
In hospitals volunteers often undertake practical tasks, such as picking up medications from the pharmacy or providing comfort and support for patients on wards. With staffing numbers stretched and a ban on visitors, a small number of trusts are piloting if these roles can be safely re-introduced to support staff in delivering quality care. At the same time, hospitals are finding that the scale of change and offers of external help are creating new demands to manage the offers effectively. Many of these tasks are logistical rather than patient-facing – such as ensuring that donations of food and supplies are distributed to staff where they are most needed.
The ability to match capacity to demand in hospitals while ensuring the safety and wellbeing of volunteers, staff and patients remains foremost is dependent on good volunteer management. Organisations such as Helpforce, Pears Foundation and the National Association of Voluntary Services Managers have been integral in supporting hospitals to develop this capacity. But this type of investment is not always an option for smaller providers.
Two new schemes that aim to meet this demand during the Covid-19 crisis are NHS volunteer responders and the National Care Force. NHS volunteer responders was established to ensure that the 1.3 million people identified as being most vulnerable to Covid-19 and who have been asked to self-isolate for 12 weeks are able to access support in the community with vital tasks such as shopping and picking up prescriptions. The scheme provides a route for individual staff in both health and social care to refer individuals who are then matched to offers of support by volunteers managed by the Royal Voluntary Service. Similarly, the National Care Force has established a network of non-NHS care providers, health care workers and volunteers, aiming to match demand with offers of support at an organisational level.
They will need to consider the balance between people and services in need of volunteers and the needs of volunteers themselves, and to ensure that we invest in capacity, capability and flexibility to incorporate those needs in our communities
The scale and pace at which these different routes into volunteering have multiplied has not gone unnoticed. NHS volunteer responders grabbed the headlines with a record 750,000 people signing up to volunteer, but has also come under criticism for delays in deploying those volunteers. Important questions have also been raised about the potential impact of NHS volunteering on organisations that have traditionally enabled volunteering within local communities, most notably the voluntary and community sector. And we should not forget self-organisation at a local level, with more than 200 local community groups registering as part of the Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK network even before the lockdown began.
As the response to the Covid-19 outbreak continues to change, and in a time where timely access to individual services is not always a given – having lots of different routes to meet the demand for support may be preferable in getting help whenever it is needed. Yet in what has been described as a marathon not a sprint, it would be remiss to expect volunteers to continually offer time and skills without due recognition of their motivation to contribute and the value that volunteering affords them. In the moment, the willingness of so many to step forward and volunteer has to be seen as a silver lining, but winning the race and turning this into a lasting legacy will require organisations to see volunteers as more than a resource. Importantly they will need to consider the balance between people and services in need of volunteers and the needs of volunteers themselves, and to ensure that we invest in capacity, capability and flexibility to incorporate those needs in our communities as we seek to find our way forward post-Covid-19.