Early on in the Coronavirus crisis, many will remember Matt Hancock calling upon Britons to sign up to the Government’s NHS volunteering scheme.

NHS England set a target of 250,000 to join the “volunteer army”, designed to support 1.5 million vulnerable people (including pregnant women, people with disabilities, those aged 70 and above, and others with certain medical conditions).

Participants could do this using a phone app to offer one or more of these services:

  • “delivering medicines from pharmacies;
  • driving patients to appointments;
  • bringing them home from hospital;
  • or making regular phone calls to check on people isolating at home.”

The advert received an astonishing response.

Over 500,000 joined up, and shortly afterwards the Government extended its initial target to 750,000 – before quickly reaching that, and subsequently closing down calls for action.

Given the enormous numbers of people that had offered their assistance, one might expect scenes to unfold outside of men and women rushing about with shopping bags and medicines.

Perhaps one’s own phone, even, to be buzzing with activity – for those good souls who signed up.

Conversely, one volunteer tells me: “nothing’s really happened”, and others follow suit, explaining that they registered but haven’t heard anything back.  The newspapers report disappointment and “frustration from volunteers who haven’t been used yet”

So what is happening with this “volunteer army”?

On April 23, The Royal Voluntary Service (RVS), which is running the scheme, said that “over 600,000 volunteers have been approved to help those most at risk”.

This means, among the fact that 600,000 are willing and able to help, that approximately 150,000 are no longer taking part from the 750,000 that originally applied.

Paul Reddish, CEO of Volunteering Matters, says “that’ll be a mix of people that have decided not to [do the scheme] and those that haven’t met the criteria”, in regards to security checks. 

That leaves us with about 600,000 volunteers for deployment, and RVS says that they have “75,000 tasks logged on the system” (from 50,000 the week before) – which gives a measure of how many people are being used.

It’s worth mentioning here that we do not have a breakdown of the tasks or know how many individuals each task represents. It may be the case that 75,000 people carried out 75,000 tasks – or that some individuals have carried out far more than others, thereby making the number of people used even less than 75,000. 

But the figure of 75,000 alone will make many wonder why the Government set a target ten times higher?

When asked about why the Government had not deployed more people yet, Chloe Stables, Head of Communications at the National Volunteer Council, said it’s important to remember that the volunteering efforts would be “a marathon and not a sprint”, hence volunteers will be called on at different points during the crisis.

One volunteer corroborates this, saying that: “[The RVS] said in various emails to us, we’re doing a soft roll-out; it’s all taking time, don’t worry if we don’t contact you straight away”.

Reddish explains that one aspect of the scheme that’s improved, and should speed up the number of jobs handed out, is that vulnerable people can now “self-refer” for help. 

Whereas they once had to get a referral from GPs, doctors, pharmacists, nurses, midwives, NHS 111 advisers and social care staff when they needed assistance, they – or a carer – can now call an RVS helpline. 

Once through, a call centre worker can take them through a list of checks, to ensure they’re eligible for help. 

“That’s been the main change that’s led to the increase [in volunteers being given tasks]”, says Reddish.

So we should hopefully see his continue. Reddish says the most up to date figures he has on volunteering are that around “35 to 40 per cent have been given tasks.”

When I ask if the scheme can be sped up in other ways, such as loosening checks, Reddish emphasises that these are vital, especially as the volunteer scheme operates similarly to “Uber”, matching volunteers and vulnerable people by way of accessing their proximity. 

“Some of these people are very vulnerable… you’d be dropping off parcels to people who are entirely reliant on it otherwise they might starve”… “we have to be absolutely sure about these [volunteers] because the risks of getting that wrong are too high.” 

From speaking to various groups – from volunteers to volunteering organisations – the gist seems to be that these things simply take time from a logistical standpoint, not least because the system has only recently been set up.

Either way, the volunteers I’ve spoken to seem circumspect about the situation.

“Clearly everyone really wants to help”, says one; and another tells me that their area is probably “well served with volunteers”.

Perhaps the Government’s target is a security measure, more than anything.

More recently it has had to cancel orders of ventilators – having realised it had enough.

Over-ordering, particularly when it’s free, is surely no bad thing…