Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
The last year of unparalleled economic and emotional uncertainty due to the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of community, and the way people have come together to support and look after each other.
For example, 750,000 people volunteered to help the NHS ‘test and trace’ when the call went out during the first lockdown. But volunteering is nothing new; it is embedded in the British DNA, with individuals and groups spending their free time doing a range of unpaid work, quietly and modestly, contributing to society, saving the State and local authorities billions of pounds annually.
So why did the Census not have any questions about volunteering, when the data is supposed to inform and prioritise future policy and investment for the next ten years?
Charities couldn’t survive without their volunteers, manning shops (when open) and foodbanks, as well as telephone helplines, including Childline and the Samaritans; volunteers are crucial to organising fundraising events, engaging with the disabled and lonely, masterminding amateur theatre performances, and managing local clubs which are key to the safety and security – as well as bringing fun – to their communities.
‘Saving Lives at Sea’ is a series of real-life incidents filmed by highly trained RNLI volunteers, illustrating their bravery and generosity of spirit in some of the most frightening circumstances. But they are not the only volunteers putting their own lives at risk to save others: in some locations, fire services rely on their volunteers for rapid response. We must also be grateful to the Mountain Rescue Service for going out in all weathers to help those at risk, as well as volunteer ambulance drivers and those who assist the Police and homeless.
Volunteer coastguards are also essential to the safety of experienced and amateur sailors as well as protecting beaches and swimmers, and supporting the Immigration Service, saving illegal immigrants from drowning when their boats are overwhelmed.
At times of crisis, including floods or wildfires destroying communities and countryside, volunteers immediately arrive with tractors and other equipment, food and hot drinks, they help with searches to find and transport the most vulnerable at particular risk, opening their homes and public buildings to offer comfort to victims. They also put their own lives at risk to save livestock, wildlife, and domestic pets.
With the environment threatened by waste, groups of litterpickers regularly spend hours collecting the rubbish thrown out of cars, left on beaches, and dropped in the countryside, endangering wildlife as well as potentially causing damaging fires. Volunteers help with mental health and wellbeing on allotments, welcoming the lonely and forgotten to tea and coffee with cake in ‘man sheds’, creating a friendly atmosphere for sharing concerns and expertise.
Retired Ministers routinely volunteer to conduct services in their local places of worship, across all religions, providing leadership and comfort in the good, as well as bad, times.
National Trust and Museums rely on volunteer guides, who also man public libraries, or put themselves forward to become parish councillors and school governors. Volunteer sports coaches are key to mentoring and developing young people’s fitness, keeping them out of trouble by giving them the confidence to recognise and develop their own abilities, learning to socialise, and giving them hope and ambition as they plan their futures.
Whilst it was always common practice for neighbours to babysit for each other, and look after pets when their owners are away, during the last difficult year, many thousands more people have relied on the kindness of neighbours, doing their shopping, taking their dogs for walks, helping with some garden maintenance or painting fences. People of all ages, from all walks of life, have responded to these challenges, bringing empathy, and humour, where appropriate, during doorstep conversations.
Once the vaccine rollout began, volunteers were on hand to help manage sites, and drive the elderly and vulnerable to get their jabs, celebrating the likelihood of long-awaited freedom to see friends and family again with them.
Volunteers have a remarkable humility; they are driven by a strong sense of duty and a willingness to share whatever knowledge and skills they have, expecting nothing in return.
Consequently, the Census was a wasted opportunity, when this commitment to others is evidently so undervalued that it won’t be recorded, leaving a massive gap in the ‘data’ analysis. How will this be reflected in expenditure – and where it is directed – over the coming decade?
It is a significant failure because cash-strapped Government and local councils appear dismissive of their (hidden) reliance on volunteers who save taxpayers billions of pounds. Something to be celebrated rather than ignored; perhaps volunteers should adopt the massive egos of some politicians to be appreciated.