On ConservativeHome today, we provide a link to the Government’s new NHS Volunteer Responder scheme, as announced yesterday. Matt Hancock said that 250,000 recruit are sought: “people in good health to help the NHS, for shopping, for the delivery of medicines and to support those who are shielding to protect their own health”.
Volunteers whose applications are accepted will apparently be divided into three categories.
First, Community Response volunteers, who will collect shopping, medication or other essential supplies for someone who is self-isolating, and delivering these supplies to their home.
Second, Patient Transport volunteers, who will support the NHS by providing transport to patients who are medically fit for discharge, and ensuring they are settled safely back in to their home.
Third, NHS Transport volunteers, who will help to transport equipment, supplies and medication between NHS services and sites.
We wish the scheme well, though it gives rise to some health-related questions, and some broader ones.
The Government is instructing people to stay at home, and there is specific guidance on social distancing, self-distancing (for those who may be infected by the Coronavirus) and shielding (for especially vulnerable people).
That first set of instructions takes into account providing care and helping vulnerable people, but there are obviously potential issues in terms of the health of volunteers for the new scheme, and therefore for those that the scheme is intended to help.
Volunteers “must be 18 or over, and fit and well with no coronavirus symptoms”. But as John Redwood wrote on the site recently, there are considerable unknowns about the virus: “knowledge is still imperfect about how long it can be in someone before symptoms show, how it is transmitted, why it is sometimes very dangerous but normally not for a younger healthy person, whether it can be caught twice by the same person, and whether someone does build immunity to it by having it”.
It is surely possible to have a healthy, fit adult who has the virus but is displaying no symptoms. So he or she may infect others if not careful. Similarly, it is possible that some of those that these fit, healthy adults will help will themselves have the virus.
It may be argued that healthy, fit adults will both get the Coronavirus and then get over it. But some will be living with or be in contact with other people that are also vulnerable.
Furthermore, as Liam Fox pointed out on this site yesterday, “there is a large proportion of the population, including younger patients, who may contract the disease and who, although they are more likely to survive, may still require hospitalisation. This could have a severe impact on the capacity of the NHS to cope particularly if it resulted in admission to already overstretched ICU services”.
So the volunteers will ideally need protective equipment, but it is reported that there is a shortage. If this is so on the front line for doctors, it will be even more so for volunteers.
The Community Response Volunteers will not always be able to leave shopping or equipment at the door. Some of those they are helping will be severely disabled, or will have complex needs.
The Patient Response Volunteers will be assisting those who are medically fit for discharge, but it is arguable that some may still be infectious.
The NHS Transport volunteers will be visiting places and facilities that are hotbeds of the virus, so they will need to be especially careful.
None of this is intended to undermine the scheme (were we seeking to do so, we would not be publicising the application form), but it is important to ask these questions and others, and to clarify some of the main issues.
It is also worth noting that face-to-face contact won’t always be necessary: those in higher-risk groups (including those over 70, those who are pregnant or with underlying medical conditions) will be able to offer support by telephone.
Furthermore, volunteers will be given additional employment safeguards so they can leave their main jobs and temporarily volunteer in the event of a UK epidemic.
The scheme will be delivered by Royal Voluntary Service, and will clearly criss-cross with the work of local councils, other charities and voluntary groups. That’s inevitable under these testing circumstances.
As ever, some councils are proving more go-ahead than others, and as an example we pick out a perhaps obvious one – Westminster City Council. The Coronavirus Information and How you can help sections of its website are easy to find. There is advice on how to set up a local group of volunteers, and much else.
A final word that looks back, though not all that far. If all this isn’t David Cameron’s Big Society, we don’t know what is.