The Government’s “battle plan” to fight the coronavirus is well and truly underway, with ministers drawing up a number of dramatic steps to protect the country.
Boris Johnson will be given sweeping powers to create no-go zones in affected areas, border officials will be allowed to deny entry to Britain to anyone suspected of the virus, and already the NHS has bumped up its 111 helpline, with 500 more staff on board.
One of the most crucial plans the government has is to use an army of NHS volunteers, who would be called in to man helplines, deliver supplies and cover childcare for staff in case of a serious outbreak.
They are relying, specifically, on the enthusiasm and skills of retired doctors and nurses, whom they hope will fill in the gaps.
The flaw in this strategy – and apologies for the morbidness to follow – is that retired people are some of the most likely to be affected by coronavirus. We know that its impact affects everyone differently depending on age, health and sex (men are slightly more susceptible), with older generations more affected.
In fact, an analysis of 44,000 cases from China showed that the death rate was ten times higher in the very elderly compared to the middle-aged, with incidences beginning to increase noticeably around the 50-years mark. On the other hand, death rates were lowest for the under 30s, with eight deaths in 4,500 cases.
In conclusion, the government would be wrong to depend too much upon retired workers to deal with the crisis – who may very well be the ones needing medical support (again, excuse my morbidness). Ministers, in fact, need to establish how to tap into a much younger workforce.
But herein lies another issue; young people are some of the most reluctant to volunteer. This may be hard to believe, as with their wokeness, activism and interest in social responsibility, it’s easy to think whippersnappers permanently reside in charity shops. But 25-34-year-olds are the least likely group to volunteer. So what do we do about this?
It strikes me that the approach to volunteering in this country has been pitiful for a long time, and now is the time to have a rethink. Some might say that things are fine – 20.1 million people volunteered at least once between 2017 and 2019 – but we do have to ask how to improve the youth uptake.
As a 31-year-old who volunteered in her twenties, what always irked me was the amount of admin involved – it’s easy to forget you’re actually trying to help, as you feel almost punished for doing so.
Of course, so much volunteering involves looking after vulnerable groups – children and adults – meaning that there needs to be a degree of checks involved. But some of these come across as completely excessive.
For instance, while searching for volunteering jobs in my area, I found an advert for a “Digital Champion” – which involves teaching people how to use computers – that required a criminal record (DBS) check.
Friends who have volunteered recently tell me that the DBS forms (CRB checks in my day) are easy to use, and take a couple of weeks, but still – they cost £23 each time.
Most employees for full-time jobs do not ask for DBS checks, so why are they inordinately required for charity shops and other fairly safe work?Add to that, they often want references on top – which is especially difficult for young men and women, who are trying to gain work experience through volunteering.
Elsewhere on the volunteering website I find an advert for a “Travel Buddy”, a role which involves helping children learn about their local area and how to use public transport.
As well as asking for a DBS and references, it promises that the volunteer will get a full induction into the service as well as professional Child Safeguarding Training and a handbook “full of useful information”.
Isn’t it obvious how this is offputting to the young?
The rationale for the huge amount of inductions, and references, and criminal record checks is, of course, fear around being sued and other safeguarding issues.
Yet it seems to me we have gone a bit too far on bureaucracy front, and it’s no surprise that young people – used to technology and fast information – are the least attracted to such pursuits.
Even someone who fancies a cup of tea with an elderly person once a week might find applying for this role feels like being vetted for the army – the processes have simply gone too far. Other generations survived without so many certificates.
Generally, we’ve become incredibly risk averse as a nation. In the last few weeks, for instance, children under the age of 12 have been banned from heading footballs during training.
But we forget that there are costs to trying to reduce risk – if people don’t want to volunteer because of forms, that leaves us with a smaller workforce to help the elderly, and a growing loneliness crisis.
(If children have too many rules around their sports, they may not want to play football – and the obesity crisis could worsen, too.)
In essence, it’s time for a rethink about our volunteering workforce – and how we can widen access to it.
With 30 days to go before a serious outbreak of the coronavirus could occur, there’s no time for long forms.