Celebrating NHS volunteers

As we mark Volunteering Week, Neil Churchill, Director for Experience, Participation and Equalities at NHS England and NHS Improvement, looks at how volunteers are ensuring that vulnerable people get the help they need during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for those personally affected but it has also brought out the best in our communities, as people have rallied to support those in need. Across the country, people have been looking out for neighbours, joining local support groups or giving their time as an NHS Volunteer Responder to make sure that people get essential supplies, a helping hand and a friendly voice at the end of a telephone. Over 250,000 tasks have so far been completed by NHS Volunteer Responders alone.

Many who have joined these schemes have been active in their local communities for many years. But I want to mark Volunteering Week by celebrating those who are stepping forward for the first time. As an NHS Volunteer Responder myself, I have benefitted from the tips and advice other volunteers have shared on the Facebook pages that have sprung up to support the initiative. One of the most rewarding elements has been reading about the experiences of those new to volunteering. Some were quite nervous about what to expect – one volunteer said beforehand that picking up the phone to make a ‘check-in and chat’ call was the most stressful thing he had ever done. But it’s clear that volunteers have often enjoyed the calls as much as the people they were designed to help. Some have discovered deep connections in their own lives, such as a younger widow who made contact with an older woman whose husband died decades ago. Others have learned about lives very different from their own, such as WWII veterans. Or just as importantly, people have made contact with near neighbours they had never met who have felt lonely and isolated for years.

Although lockdown is being eased, many people are still shielding from the virus or struggling to cope at what remains a difficult time. That’s why it’s so important that hundreds of thousands of NHS Volunteer responders are on call, ready to leap into action whenever help is needed. The scheme now averages more than 7,000 tasks a day and 98% of requests for help – which can be made by professionals or individuals – are met within 24 hours, with the majority (70%) matched and delivered within two hours. ​

For those who’ve been able to help out, it has become an addictive experience, as longstanding volunteers well know. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard new volunteers say ‘I wish this could be my job’ as they see the direct personal benefit of helping others. The NHS Long Term Plan set out to increase the number and diversity of volunteers in the NHS and I am delighted that many of those who have come forward have said they want to continue volunteering once the pandemic is over. The NHS owes a great deal to the many fantastic volunteers who have been with us for years. But those brought into volunteering for the first time by COVID-19 will give us a massive boost and help us be more representative of our national community. Volunteering does make a big difference, to patients, to the NHS and to the volunteers themselves, and I hope that many new volunteers will find they have adopted a habit they will not want to break.

The NHS and Royal Voluntary Service are encouraging anyone in need of support – whether they have been asked to shield by a health professional or are vulnerable for another reason – to seek help by calling 0808 196 3646.
Dr Neil Churchill

Neil is Director for People and Communities at NHS England, having joined the NHS after a 25-year career in the voluntary sector. His work includes understanding people’s experiences of the NHS, involving people and communities in decision-making and leading change to improve the quality and equality of care. He has a particular focus on strengthening partnerships with unpaid carers, volunteers and the voluntary sector.

Neil has previously been a non-executive director for the NHS in the South of England, is a member of the Strategy Board for the Beryl Institute and Chair of Care for the Carers in East Sussex. He is himself an unpaid carer. Neil tweets as @neilgchurchill