Volunteering: Friendly, coming together to socially distance!

30 March 2020

What a week! Good to have the opportunity to sit back and try and make some sense of it all from a volunteering perspective.

Coronavirus Thumb 1First and foremost the clapping hands applause for our NHS was a wonderful recognition that they are on the frontline and we’re with them. You could say that the applause summed up the massive groundswell of mutual support that has heartened us all in the middle of this awful plague. Volunteering at its heart is the friendly, coming together of people, to make a positive contribution. We’ve all seen this in abundant examples of community spirit, and very challenging it is to do this along with social distancing!

How wonderful for us to experience the giving nature of all our citizens and realise that we do have a society based on relationships and looking out for each other. Part of this, of course, is to keep in mind our “Duty of Care”. Protecting our selves, ensuring that we don’t put anyone in unnecessary risk, and being disciplined about the key aim of staying at home and helping the NHS to cope with the demand to save lives.

The UK Government captured the zeitgeist of our willingness to help and the extraordinary 700,000 plus registration of NHS volunteers for England and Wales only. However, I’m a believer in a time of crisis that you need directive leadership, “command and control”. This requires clarity about what’s needed where, and when. Whilst it’s heartwarming to see this supply side so keen, what’s the actual demand for people’s service?

Scotland has taken a more measured approach and has been using the head as well as the heart. From next week Ready Scotland will provide a starting point for anyone that wants to volunteer. This will be a coordinated effort to signpost you to where the needs are now, and also to give the option to get involved at different phases of this crisis.

There’s what’s needed now, with the role of the country’s network of Resilience Partnerships, including local neighbourhood Resilience Hubs where these are in place. There’s a mobilisation underway and I hope to witness a lot more of these hubs over time. Community action is core to this, and East Ayrshire Council and my old boss Fiona Lees is a great example of this.

Then there’s the period of the greatest strain on the NHS and the prospect of directed volunteer assistance for the frontline. Driving, collections, ward support, feeding patients, and doing whatever is necessary under the command of the NHS and the standards required. The British Red Cross will be playing an expert and vital role in matching NHS need to volunteers, and this will be clearly communicated on the Ready Scotland website.

I’ve been listening to Professor John Ashton the public heath expert from Liverpool. He said that we can assist the NHS in a major way by helping get patients back home quickly and this will need home care, from workers and community volunteering, including basic nursing skills. Has our “Duty of Care” now dramatically extended into the moral sphere of caring for each other in ways we haven’t been thinking about, and is less about not doing harm and more about generating well being for us all?

Once we get through all this, we then need to focus on recovery. There has not been the same attention to this because we’re caught up with our immediate challenges. However, the greatest potential of volunteering will be at the recovery stage. Most of the country’s volunteers along with the workforce are at home just now. I’m talking to people about what it might be like at the other end. About regaining our volunteers and associational life. About getting for instance all the walking groups re- started. Health walks. Talking about how we’re faring and generating the whole spectrum of volunteering life through mutual support, formal service, and civic engagement and campaigning.

The Covid 19 crisis has been likened to a war. At the end of the second World War the new expectations of women, troops and citizens led to a transformation in society, including the establishment of the NHS itself. How might the incredible expression of community spirit and volunteering of this moment transform our way of life in the years to come?


George Thomson, Volunteer Scotland CEO