People are saying that things ‘won’t be the same’ after the Covid-19 pandemic is over. While I am not sure about that it is striking what has changed over the last few weeks.lambreWho would have thought that suddenly volunteers are seen as an important and integral part of the health system. Suddenly, as the population impact of COVID-19 becomes apparent and the UK government realises the scale of the challenge and the actual impact on vulnerable people and the NHS it clicks its fingers and creates over 750,000 volunteers. Indeed there has been such an interest in this that recruitment has had to be temporarily paused so that applications can be processed.
This is truly amazing. First, because so many people have put themselves forward to help, but as fundamentally because despite the efforts of some people in the NHS and many community organisations volunteering and the contribution of citizens as assets in their communities has been at best a peripheral issue in the NHS.
The most explicit reference to the ambition that NHS England had with regard to volunteers is here in the Long Term Plan which came out in January 2019.
Even here the primary focus appears to be on volunteering in the acute hospital sector, (according to the Kings Fund in 2013 there were just 78,000 volunteers in acute hospitals – 10% of the number recruited in 1 week during this pandemic!) the above extract probably exists in large part due to the work of the Kings Fund who have published quite extensively on this topic.
Aside from this and a tentative briefing aimed at STP/Integrated Care Systems I think that NHSE main focus has been on interface issues using social prescribing as the main tool. In other words focussing on the NHS system engages with community organisations and communities and actual and potential volunteers. This strategy is set out in the NHSE document on Universal Personalised Care.
More generally volunteering works a bit like this at place level:
- Grass roots self actualising informal groups sometimes bound together by hyper local geography – for example on my street two WhatsApp groups have sprung up in the last 2 months.
- At community level are local Voluntary organisations who have credibility with and are connected to communities of geography or interest – for example Carers Centres, Community Anchors, Mencap and interestingly hospitals.
- The local NHS – increasingly General Practice are developing (through Primary Care Networks) mechanisms such as Community Link Workers and Social Prescribers to connect with the two groups above. However, they are some way behind the groups in bullet point 2 above.
- Just as importantly local authorities have with varying degrees of success been seeking to develop joint commissioning approaches with Clinical Commissioning Groups to support local voluntary organisations and also develop bridging and connecting services such as Local Area Coordination. Local Authorities do have a long history of supporting volunteering – for example through funding lunch clubs.
The creation of this army of volunteers by NHSE and the Royal Voluntary Service represents both an opportunity to move the volunteering agenda more onto the mainstream agenda of the NHS in the medium and longer term but it also presents some real challenges which include:
- While National organisations with a strong brand like the NHS can at times of crisis recruit volunteers very quickly – these only have utility if they can be connected quickly and safely with local communities and local services. It is here that local authorities and local voluntary organisations have a key role to play – they have those connections and credibility.
- For example in Sheffield the local CVS has very quickly developed targeted volunteer recruitment and produced a map which flags up community hubs, describes roles and responsibilities flagging up community hubs in the city and the local authority has now producing a community action plan to ensure a city wide approach connecting statutory services with the local voluntary sector.
In the coming days and weeks it will be crucial that this national initiative bends to the local and also makes resources available to ensure that local organisations can respond to the scale of this offer.
I think we should have high expectations that NHSE will rewrite their approach to volunteering and the role of the NHS in terms of funding the voluntary sector
What do you think?