England’s top NHS nurse says volunteering surge can be positive COVID legacy

Increased volunteering across the NHS and beyond can be a positive legacy of COVID, England’s top nurse said today, as new research showed that giving up time for the health service or other good causes can significantly boost quality of life.

Speaking at the start of Volunteers Week, Chief Nursing Officer for England Ruth May thanked hundreds of thousands of volunteers across the country who have played their part in the fight against COVID and urged them to stick at it as the country recovers.

New figures released today show that 436,000 people from the NHS Volunteer Responders Programme, set up at the start of the pandemic, have so far carried out almost two million tasks for those who needed to stay at home during the pandemic, ranging from phone calls to the isolated to delivering medicines and medical devices, while thousands have given up their time to steward vaccination sites as part of the biggest jabs drive in NHS history.

This comes as the NHS transforms Twickenham rugby stadium into the biggest vaccination centre in England – with vaccinations to be administered on Monday – staffed with the help of hundreds of volunteers.

Increasing the number of volunteers who can help free up nurses, doctors and other NHS staff to deliver care to patients was a key aim of the NHS Long Term Plan, a move which was accelerated by the country’s extraordinary response to the pandemic.

Separately, a new study from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) found that the wellbeing benefit to volunteers themselves from taking part in the programme was the equivalent to what they would feel from receiving a £1,800 bonus.

The improvement in quality of life from volunteering was also a third of that from being in a relationship and a quarter of having a job – with those who are most active seeing the biggest benefit.

A further 74,000 people signed up to a similar scheme to support the NHS vaccination programme launched on New Year’s Day, with Steward Volunteers so far clocking up 387,000 hours of support to NHS teams and those attending for jabs.

They joined an additional 27,000 volunteers recruited by St John Ambulance, who have clocked up around 360,000 hours on shift, and many more recruited by local health bodies.

Together, they have helped deliver what is the biggest vaccination programme in NHS history, the fastest in Europe and most precise in the world, and which has already saved at least 13,000 lives in England.

Over a million people have also volunteered for important COVID-19 research programmes, including almost 95,000 who have signed up for clinical trials of new treatments or vaccines for the virus.

This has meant that NHS teams have been central to identifying, and then swiftly rolling out, effective treatments for COVID-19 – including dexamethasone and tocilizumab – which have saved an estimated 22,000 lives in the UK and close to a million around the world.

The new recruits have bolstered the ranks of NHS volunteers, which already included some 10,000 community first responders and other ambulance service volunteers, and an estimated 100,000 volunteers working in hospitals and other health settings across an estimated 300 different roles.

Chief Nursing Officer for England Ruth May, said: “Whether through helping find vaccines or effective treatments, supporting people to return or stay at home, or helping the NHS to roll out vaccines to more than 30 million people already, there is no doubt that everyone who has stepped up during the pandemic has helped us to save countless lives.

“On behalf of NHS staff, who have been pulling out all the stops to ensure those who needed care were able to receive it, I want to say a huge thank you to every single volunteer who has supported us – and their communities – through the most difficult time most of us can remember.

“As we work now to recover services and focus again on our priorities for improving care, it’s vital that we continue to provide those flexible opportunities for people to support those efforts when they are able, using the innovative approach during COVID as a positive legacy of the pandemic and a blueprint for the future.

“And while not everyone will be able to volunteer, you can still play your part by getting the vaccine when you’re asked – whether that’s at Twickenham this bank holiday Monday or at one of the many other vaccination centres in the country.

Speaking ahead of the mass vaccination event at the home of Rugby, Kelly O’Neill, Director of Public Health, Hounslow Council said: “Getting the vaccine is the single most important step we can take, and hundreds of volunteers will be spending their bank holiday Monday making sure the public protect themselves, their families and our communities against COVID-19 and we encourage all our local community to have their vaccine as soon as they are eligible. Let’s tackle COVID.”

In a world-leading study titled Happy To Help, researchers from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) found that people who took part in the NHS Volunteer Responders programme, delivered for the NHS by Royal Voluntary Service and GoodSAM, experienced multiple wellbeing benefits from volunteering.

Levels of wellbeing increased significantly for individuals who participated in the programme, with effects lasting after the volunteering period had ended.

Researchers found that even small acts of volunteering, including talking to at-risk individuals on the phone or helping to deliver prescriptions, boosted participants sense of wellbeing and increased feelings of belonging within the local community.

Importantly, researchers found that the positive impacts on wellbeing lasted up to three months after the last task had been completed. Life satisfaction, for example, increased by 0.17 points (on a scale of 0-10), which in other terms equates to 25% of the impact of being employed as opposed to being unemployed, and 30% of the impact of being in a relationship.

Professor Paul Dolan, from the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE, said: “The NHS Volunteer Responders programme was the largest mobilisation of pro-social action in the UK since the end of the WWII. Its success shows just how good helping other people can feel.”

“We could take the lessons and impacts from this programme as a model for a National Volunteering System.”
Amongst the 1.9 million tasks carried out by NHS Volunteer Responders, which employed an innovative ‘micro-volunteering’ approach with participants using a mobile phone app to choose what tasks they could do and when, are:

  • 19,272 referrals for pharmacists including medicine deliveries;
  • 14,581 transport tasks including lifts to medical appointments or home from hospital, and;
  • 837,167 ‘check in and chat’ calls to combat loneliness and isolation.

More than 100,000 individuals, the vast majority whom were either shielding or isolating, have benefited from at least one task.

The same system was subsequently used to support the NHS vaccination programme, with Steward Volunteers checking people in for appointments, marshalling queues and providing non-clinical information for those receiving their jabs.