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Volunteers - the hidden care army

Over the last eighteen months, I’ve had the privilege of being the Volunteer Lead for our COVID mass vaccination programme (four sites in Hampshire & the Isle of Wight)… one of those roles you unexpectedly land in but that change your life. When I said I’d ‘help for a bit’, I had no idea the scale of the task or the extent of the volunteer input into the Vaccine Programme, but oh my goodness, we’ve learnt a lot, had a lot of fun and mostly stood in wonder.

The infographic shows the extent of the volunteer contribution - in sum we’ve had about 2000 volunteers, and they’ve covered around 42,000 shifts. They’ve worked as guides inside and out, and also as vaccinators. They came from a massive range of backgrounds - from elite athletes to physicists; highly trained finance, marketing and HR leaders from the corporate world; retired or part retired teachers and healthcare workers; parents whose kids had grown up. They came from all walks of life with the one combined aim of being useful, of helping where they could. Some came as individuals, and some as members of community organisations - they came in their hundreds and without exception did what was asked of them - stood in all weathers, smiled, reassured, held hands and in my view, provided the backbone of what made those vaccine centres special. In their sea of high viz jackets, they were the welcoming face of the centres, crucial in those early days of apprehension and fear.

The secret to success was the voluntary sector organisations who partnered with us - these were the teams that mobilised hundreds of volunteers in just a couple of weeks, who supported them in new roles and coached us in this very new way of working. As I spent more and more time with leads from our voluntary organisation partners, I very quickly realised how naive I’d been to the degree of reliance the health and care system has on the work that they do, and the thousands of volunteers that support them. They are a hidden army of people out in communities keeping people safe, fed, giving companionship, offering activities and friendship, and using professional and life experience to run charities, fund raise, innovate and connect. This is done with immense skill and compassion - and those that are doing it aren’t volunteering because they haven’t got anything else to do - they are volunteering because they want to give something back to communities, to use their skills for a greater good.

It’s struck me that a lot of us are missing a trick in the NHS - what I am absolutely sure about from this experience is that we should be working much more closely with the voluntary sector in the provision of care, and be much more ambitious in the roles we consider volunteers can do. I’m not proud to say that whilst the narrative is one of genuine thanks and appreciation, I’ve learned first-hand that there is an undeniable underlying prejudice in respect of volunteers. Once someone is labelled as such, there is a sudden fear about the additional risk this may cause, and an assumption that they are unskilled and can only be trusted with certain roles. There is a clear (unintentional) sense of unease with the concept of a ‘clinical volunteer’, and slowly, we’ve seen fewer and fewer volunteers on site, replaced with much less skilled and capable (but possibly more controllable) agency staff. It’s an uncomfortable subject, and one that I know is high on the agenda of things to change as the service moves into a Business as Usual model.

There is no end to the ways in which volunteer organisations can not only help but lead the way.

It would be so easy to do, and the Voluntary sector leads that I have met are crying out for more co-ordinated approaches. I know there will be people worried about ‘governance’ but how many great things don’t happen in the NHS because of excessive risk aversion, governance, and hierarchy? If we could focus on what could go right or so much better, rather than what might just go wrong, I think we’d not only help our patients, but take an immense amount of pressure off our staff.

I could go on - volunteering is a great way to get people into careers in care; it’s a brilliant form of training; it helps create a sense of purpose. There are multiple ways to create a reciprocal benefit and to use resources so much more efficiently.

I’m only stepping down because this was a pandemic role on top of the day job, and I can’t do both well. We’ve taken advantage of new relationships and already have a joint post with one voluntary organisation to make research more accessible across our communities, with more planned. I will be eternally grateful to the many members of my team who’ve stepped in and delivered this so well, to all the volunteers, and the organisations who’ve put up with my early naivety and shown endless patience and kindness to everyone on the vaccine programme.

I’ve learnt so much over the past 18 months, have met inspiring people and have had more fun that anyone working in a pandemic probably had the right to. It’s a joyous way to work, and I continue to be in awe of the reach and strength of the volunteer army.

About the author

I am the Associate Director for Research and Improvement, and the Volunteer Lead for the Hampshire and Isle of Wight mass vaccination centres. I lead the Academy, its core team and the clinical academic programme for Solent NHS Trust. I also work nationally and across Wessex on a number of areas, such as quality improvement, research strategy, patient and community partnership working and workforce development.

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