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Volunteering, COVID and Integrated Care

Volunteers have always played a significant role in the National Health Service, particularly in hospitals. However, there has been only limited change in the role of volunteers since the NHS was founded until now.

This report looks at what’s changed in the last decade and particularly in 2020 as a result of the response to COVID, including the contribution made by NHS Volunteer Responders. A survey of system leaders looks at how far their attitudes have changed during this year. A series of discussion groups held during the summer and autumn reinforce key messages. Over 40 case studies were reviewed to illustrate volunteering best practice across England.

Even before the Covid pandemic, there was increasing awareness of the role volunteers could play to support patients. In part, this was due to a general reassertion of the role of society in contributing to wellbeing. There has been an increased recognition that health and social care need to be more integrated to achieve lasting and affordable change in patient support. More patient centred care, tackling inequalities, and increasing social prescribing also all point to an increased role for volunteers.

These trends were enhanced by the response to the COVID pandemic. New ways of delivering NHS services became necessary. The number and diversity of volunteers who came forward was a real demonstration of the power of community spirit. The roles undertaken by NHS Volunteer Responders and by those who enrolled in other volunteering programmes at the local level, made many in the health services aware that volunteers could contribute more than they had thought possible. More patients became more appreciative of the role of volunteers. For many, volunteering itself became a positive activity for their physical and mental wellbeing. The overall success of the NHS Volunteer Responders programme has helped many sector leaders better understand and appreciate the potential volunteering contribution.

Looking ahead, volunteering in the NHS is a key way in which the Government and citizens can join forces to support people in need. It can be an important contributor to delivering integrated care. Volunteers support person centred care. They are vital to the achievement of social prescribing ambitions. They can support the virtual delivery of services by being alongside the patient at home.

Key recommendations

Four key steps need action now to achieve the potential of volunteering over the coming years:

  • Develop the role of volunteers in integrated care systems
  • Improve volunteer management
  • Invest in volunteer support
  • Establish new partnerships to benefit from national volunteering expertise

By contributing their skills and commitment alongside staff, volunteers can enable the NHS to transform its relationship with patients and meet the challenges posed by COVID and its aftermath.

Volunteering, COVID and Integrated Care – Challenges and opportunities

Written by Jeremy Hughes CBE (former CEO of the Alzheimer’s Society) for Public Policy Projects (PPP) in partnership with Royal Voluntary Service


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