Volunteers’ Week: The community spirit that has seen us through the pandemic can sustain us in recovery

Volunteers’ Week is an opportunity to mark and celebrate the incredible gifts of time, care and skill that so many people have willingly made to support vulnerable people and NHS services across our country in our time of need.

The last twelve months have been a year like no other and the achievements of volunteers have been equally incomparable. A year ago, we celebrated the fact that so many people had stepped forward to help. Today, it is even more remarkable that volunteers have kept going and are still on hand to offer their time to those who need it most.

We have learned that COVID-19 is not a disease that comes and goes like the ‘flu. It is exacerbated by underlying health conditions and inequalities that persist in many communities and in turn, it exacerbates those underlying circumstances, leaving people more vulnerable than before. Often when I speak to volunteers, they tell me how they were motivated to come forward by the national emergency presented by COVID-19 but have stuck around because they see that the needs they encounter – frailty, loneliness, anxiety – won’t fade when the virus is behind us.

Volunteers of all ages have played a crucial role in protecting some of society’s most vulnerable people from the virus and helping them sustain their mental health and wellbeing. Our surveys consistently show that a majority of people who have benefited from an NHS Volunteer Responder, for example, have had no other means of support. And volunteers are especially well placed to help in ways that paid professionals just can’t. Simply putting in a regular telephone call to chat with someone who won’t get the chance to speak to another human being for the rest of that day or even that week is invaluable.

We are humbled by the way people step up to help when we face the greatest pressures, whether that is during heavy snowfalls, harsh winters or times of pandemic like these. But the circumstances of the past year mean that we have learned a lot too that will shape the future. Patients, carers and volunteers alike have suggested new ways that volunteers can go above and beyond the things that NHS services can offer, through the unique connection forged when individuals choose to spend their time helping others.

That’s why this Volunteers’ Week I want to say a massive thank you to each and every volunteer who has supported the NHS over the past year and celebrate this achievement by looking forwards and not back. Volunteering has always been in the lifeblood of the NHS but I predict that the next few years will see a further infusion of vitality in the opportunities we extend to volunteers in and beyond our services. We can already see this in the growing number of young volunteers in the NHS whose contribution we will celebrate throughout the Power of Youth Day on 2 June.

The community spirit that helped us through the last 12 months can transform the way we sustain the health and wellbeing of our most vulnerable citizens in the years ahead. We hope that many of you who volunteered to support the NHS over the past year will want to explore other ways that you can be part of our NHS’ future too.

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