Rooted in the community – the NHS and the enduring power of giving, volunteering and charity

We tend to think that healthcare free at the point of delivery is what makes the NHS the most celebrated institution in the country. There’s no doubting the impact this has had on the nation’s health since 1948 but what really makes the NHS great, possibly exceptional, is its people and its roots in our communities.

This week marks both Thank You Day, when we are invited to say thank you to everyone who makes our communities great, and the NHS’s 75th birthday. Coming so close together, these events are an opportunity to reflect on how community has always been at the heart of everything that is important in the NHS.

Border Crossings is a fascinating research project funded by the Wellcome Trust that is looking at the changing role of charity and voluntarism in the NHS. Before the NHS, much of our healthcare was delivered by voluntary hospitals and other voluntary organisations. Although most were absorbed into the NHS in 1948, many health charities continued to operate outside but in partnership with the NHS.

Since 1948, volunteers and our voluntary sector partners have continued to support the NHS in different ways.  For example, during the early days of the Cold War, St John Ambulance and the British Red Cross managed a reserve group of trained and qualified volunteers ready to step in to help in the event of conflict.  In the 1970s, cancer charity Macmillan began funding specialist cancer nurses enabling them to have greater impact and improve outcomes for people with cancer.  Organisations such as the British Heart Foundation, have supported treatment breakthroughs such as heart transplants, pacemakers and portable defibrillators.  And NHS charities continue to help the NHS go further for staff and patients in so many ways.  I was particularly struck by the story of the NHS charity that funded accommodation so parents could remain with their children during long hospital stays in specialist units, which are often long distances from the family home.  Partnerships such as these have helped improve the lives of millions.

Every day throughout the history of the NHS, individuals have given the precious gifts of time, kindness and compassion to improve patient and staff experience. Today, there are more than 300 different volunteering roles within the NHS.  Volunteers might be supporting patients and families through end-of-life care like Colchester Hospital’s ‘blanketeers’, or helping new mums during birth and early parenthood like the Bradford Doulas; or supporting ambulance crews as Community First Responders.

Communities’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic provided a fantastic example of how volunteering has evolved in step with the NHS over the past 75 years.  Hundreds of thousands of people came forward to support the NHS in different ways, from helping to keep people safe at home to supporting the delivery of life-saving vaccines.

The recently published NHS Volunteering Taskforce report has used the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic to map out what the future of NHS volunteering might look like. Its aim is to raise awareness of the value of volunteering and expand the number and nature of volunteering opportunities.

Some of its recommendations will be transformational but one thing is clear, community and voluntary action will remain central to NHS delivery and I thank everyone who gives their time in whatever way to making a difference to people at times when it matters most.

To find out more about flexible volunteering opportunities available now, go to NHS Care and Volunteer Responders

Emma Easton

Emma Easton is NHS England’s Head of Voluntary Partnerships. She leads on developing more inclusive partnerships with the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) sector, including through a close working relationship with the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England to support the VCSE Health and Wellbeing Programme.

Emma’s team also develop and lead the approach to increasing high impact volunteering opportunities in health and care.

Prior to joining NHS England in 2014, Emma worked for Regional Voices, a network of regional VCSE organisations, supporting the VCSE sector to be more involved in health and care policy development, for example in supporting the sector’s response to the Marmot review, the transition from LINks to Local Healthwatch, and involvement in the Health and Social Care Act, 2012.