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Mon 1 June 2020
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Stephen Colegrave investigates whether the NHS Volunteer Responders scheme is working and discovers an amazing array of local and community initiatives.

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A couple of days ago, I tweeted that I didn’t know anyone who had done any tasks for NHS Volunteer Responders – the Government scheme for people to carry out simple, non-medical tasks for the vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic. I received a torrent of messages from people who had signed up and also from an amazing number of really impressive local and community initiatives that were already helping shielded people across the country.

Some people said they were already performing tasks on their NHS Volunteer Responders app, but many more were still waiting. Earlier this week, those administering the scheme emailed everyone to tell them that they expected the number of tasks to increase soon. At the same time, I was inundated by people busily helping their communities in a range of ways from street level WhatsApp groups to much more sophisticated operations that have sprung up in the past three weeks.

So, what is the real picture? And how will NHS Volunteer Responders complement and extend what is already happening?

The concept of NHS Volunteer Responders is ambitious and laudable. When the Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that sign-ups had far exceeded the 250,000 target, and eventually reached 750,000, this was a remarkable sign of the public’s generous spirit. But, like most Government statements or hype during this crisis, it was a headline-grabbing soundbite, but there has been no follow-up updating the public. It is therefore not surprising that the public at large is wondering what happened and the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who are diligently signing on to their app as ‘available’ are bemused as to why many of them are not yet being utilised.


Responding to Speed

It is easy to make comparisons with the very successful Games Makers volunteer programme for the London 2012 Olympics, but there were years to prepare for the event. Neil Churchill and his team at NHS England, who have set up NHS Volunteer Responders scheme, are working on crash timings. Also, they are dealing with vulnerable people, so checking out credentials and verifying people is even more important. The app has only been live less than two weeks. I asked Churchill about this.

“The biggest challenge was probably speed – the scheme went live for recruitment a week after it was approved,” he said. “We recruited volunteers very quickly – 750,000 in just four days – when we had expected it would take considerably longer. We started on referrals immediately but it takes time to reach every GP practice, pharmacy, local council etc. Now we have live examples to share, more people can see how it works, which helps.”

The aim of NHS Volunteer Responders is not to replace community or council initiatives, but to complement them. So, if a council is short of volunteers on a particular day or a pharmacy needs help, someone nearby on call can help. Also, whilst community groups are doing a great job, their coverage isn’t 100%. Indications are that rural, suburban and small towns are very well covered but that some poorer inner-city areas are not so lucky. These areas were less likely to have their own WhatApp groups or community hubs. So, if NHS Volunteer Responders can fill in these gaps, it will be important. But it is going to take time to connect with every GP practice and council.

“The app works by linking with local tasks in addition to the four already available, there may be additional NHS tasks that can be added,” Churchill told me. “We want to signpost local schemes that need extra help and we can signpost national opportunities too.” 

There are a wide range of potential tasks that responders could eventually be helping with including: delivering medicines from pharmacies, blood sugar monitors to pregnant women and sample kits to people with Cystic Fibrosis; driving patients to and from appointments; helping people who are self-isolating to manage shopping; and moving NHS equipment between locations.

NHS Volunteer Responders is not perfect. The app was obviously put together very fast and was originally designed for cardiac episodes and finding people with defibrillators. The sign-up process also had flaws as many people who had impeccable credentials were rejected by its verification process seemingly without reason.

Many responders feel that they have been on call for hundreds of hours but nothing has happened and feedback has been that communication could be much simpler and better. Also, some people feel worried about what is happening to their data and need more reassurance about this.

The initiative is still suffering from being over-hyped in the first place and it is important that it takes the public with it and that responders are persuaded to stick with it so there is the capability as it builds.

On Twitter, I did hear from responders who have had referrals spoke positively about the scheme. It has the potential to play an important role as it builds over the next few weeks.


A Town with a Plan

While NHS Volunteer Responders has been setting up nationally, an amazing array of local and community initiatives have sprung up very quickly to fill the gap.

Corrine Bailey, in Bewdley, with a background in microbiology, was concerned when she saw what was happening in China and then, when the Coronavirus spread to Italy, she knew she had to do something. Corrine set up a Facebook page to initially provide guidance about the risks of catching the virus but very quickly built up a group of 50 DBS-checked volunteers that have already helped 180 people.

“Boris Johnson came here to Bewdley on 8 March to meet people who had been impacted by the floods,” she said. “He was casually shaking hands with people, which I thought was reckless at the time. On 12 March, Johnson addressed the nation and said ‘many would lose loved ones’. I was so shocked by this casual approach that I set up the website.”

By the next Saturday, Corrine had pulled her first four volunteers together, to work out how they could support those who were isolating and the first emergency food parcel went out that day.

The scale and organisation of some of these local initiatives is astounding. In Burntisland, with a population of 7,000 just north of Edinburgh across the Forth, there had been a plan ready for years.

“We had an emergency plan in place for the last 20 years that we had developed with the local authority”, Alex MacDonald, chair of the Royal Burgh of Burntisland Community Council, told me. “It has been continually updated but never put into action – this time we decided to activate it. The plan identifies a network of properties and people that could come together.”

This meant that, immediately once the UK’s lockdown was announced on 23 March, the community council was able to turn the Toll Community Centre into the centre of operations. It has 77 volunteers, as well as a call centre and a collection point for food. It was able to utilise the First Aid Services Trust, with 25 people trained at first aid level or above. They concentrated on prescription deliveries.

They volunteer group work alongside a local pub, which is offering to buy shopping for the over-70s. A local hotel in partnership with the butcher and greengrocer is making meals to deliver to the elderly twice a week. Regular donations have been negotiated from a local baker, dairy and supermarket.


Existing Charities Step Up, New Networks Pop Up

Existing charities have also stepped up to help cope with the pandemic.

The St Vincent de Paul Society is active in parishes across the country. Like many, it has had to to furlough many of its staff and rely much more on volunteers, but the need is even greater.

“For the people in poverty and those lonely, this crisis is just escalating their needs and problems, but we are changing the way we operate because there are more restrictions in movement”, said trustee Elaine Heyworth. “We are using local volunteers who, because they don’t have DBS checks, have to leave food outside doors where we used to go in to have a chat.”

The charity is taking a different approach in each parish and doing whatever is needed most. “In Canvey Island, we are working with local restaurants and food banks to make sure we can deliver people in need hot food,” Heyworth told me. “While in Westcliffe, we have 80 volunteers baking and making food for doctors, nurses and volunteers in the local hospital, which is not something we would have done in the past.”

One of the most organised local initiatives is across the 17 wards of Surrey Heath, with a population of more than 85,000 in an area surrounding and including Camberley. At least a week before lockdown, local grassroots volunteer groups sprang up across many of the wards. About the same time, a councillor set up a website recruiting volunteers and taking requests from anywhere in the borough.

“Within a few days ‘Surrey Heath Prepared’ had an operational structure, a growing panel of local ward coordinators and a steering group led by the recently-retired Colonel of the Gurkhas, James Robinson, who provides great leadership,” explained steering group member, Alasdair Pinkerton. “Surrey Heath Borough Council recognised that we had a good structure so they were happy to work with and through it.”

The organisation soon built up a network of more than 3,000 volunteers who have already completed in excess of 3,500 tasks as well as setting up a food bank and a call centre at High Cross Church in Camberley, run by the Reverend Mike Thompson. The previous food bank, as with many other volunteer-led services, was struggling because most of the people running it were over 70 and had to shield themselves.

This group is really ingenious and created its own pre-payment online personal account system so that nobody has to handle cash. All the wards report to the steering committee but have their own organisation.

“Our ward of 6,000 households has a WhatsApp group for each clusters of streets and a closed Facebook group for the 300 ward volunteers,” Pinkerton said. “The principle driving all of our efforts is one of good neighbourliness. We encourage close neighbours – people who might be only three to four doors apart – to help each other. That, we hope, will be a meaningful and sustainable relationship for the duration of this crisis, and will hopefully sustain itself long after this lockdown has come to an end.”

This organisational structure is backed up by an impressive database and back of office, which was developed by a local resident and crisis management expert, Matt Hodges-Long. He and his team are now making this available free of charge to other councils: Hart, Runnymede, Spelthorne and Marlow.

The database system has been packaged under the name “is.prepared” and, if anyone working for a local council wants to find out more, they can here

These are just a few examples of many community and local projects that are already providing vital support during this crisis. As NHS Volunteer Responders comes on board to fill in the gaps and amplify the activity, millions of people will not just be staying at home, but looking after those most in need.


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