“The need for volunteers is still low in some areas, and we’re asking for your patience” said the email from Volunteer Scotland. Wow. Too many volunteers, not enough patients.

I do remember, particularly as a student (when there were too many graduates and not enough internships) being told “due to the high number of applications we are unable … but we will keep your details on file.” One of the (many) crazy aspects of the “Corona crisis” is that pretty much the same thing is being said to people volunteering to work for free. In times of economic crisis the unemployed would join the “dole queue.” In this crisis we have a (socially distanced) volunteer queue. What on earth is going on?

When the COVID epidemic broke out I planned to zip around on my motorbike, delivering critical medicines to people in self-isolation: think Médecins sans frontières meets Postman Pat. I know many others are also trying to help and I want to explain why I think so few of us have been called upon (yet), and share some information on how to get involved. It may be hard at first, but with a little bit of persistence you can get through. The way I see it, when am I next going to get an opportunity to do something socially useful like this again?

So where do you start? If you search online you quickly find a link to an NHS page where you can “Volunteer to help the NHS with coronavirus.” That sounds great, but this is just for NHS England and I live in Scotland! It’s not that straightforward in England either (I’ll come back to that in a minute), but the idiosyncratic experience of trying to volunteer in Scotland is revealing.

I would scroll 500 pages and I would scroll 500 more

NHS Scotland does have a volunteer page, but when I applied I got an automated email saying they were pausing volunteering – because of the Coronavirus!

I asked around for help and was directed by a friend of a friend to the Scottish first minister’s twitter feed where I found this:

ReadyScotland is Scotland’s website for emergencies: loss of utilities, severe weather, terrorism – all the scary stuff. At the top there is a link to a Corona virus volunteering page with four options:

If you’re not a health or social care worker or Medical, Nursing and Allied Health what do you do? Join the Red Cross? Surely you need some Red Cross skills before you can do that? So I skipped to sign up to Volunteer Scotland – it sounded more approachable. That works fine for signing up, but – so far – all I have to show for it is the email I quoted above, asking me to be patient. Interestingly, I decided to click on the Red Cross link to research this article and it says:

So, via Nicola Sturgeon’s twitter feed and ReadyScotland, I‘ve signed up to be a British Red Cross community reserve volunteer! I almost feel respectable.

The lesson from my Scottish experience is that the bodies which are organising the volunteers are overwhelmed; they’re scrambling to keep up just as much as we are. That means you need to do your own research, wherever you are in the country. Given that we’ve all got our own worries at this time, it’s easy to say “I’ll come back to that later” and never get round to it. All I would urge is – don’t give up, you only need to invest a few minutes and you could end up changing someone’s life. While looking around you may even discover new things, like me with the Red Cross. And if you’re confused there’s always someone who can help you, like the friend who follows Nicola Sturgeon on twitter. You just need to keep asking.

The Patient English

It’s worth touching on the set up in England as that’s where most volunteers are signing  up. Things are more straightforward there, but – maybe because of that – they’ve had so many offers of help that they’ve stopped taking new volunteers:

What’s interesting is that those lucky 750,000 will be managed using an App called GoodSAM, which I downloaded. But you can’t register to help on the App itself:

The registration page says the App is only for volunteers in England, so I can’t use it, but it’s exciting to see the NHS employ third-party software like this. It seems as though the crisis is having a positive impact in kickstarting new, inventive uses of technology. Hopefully GoodSAM will be efficient – once the powers that be finish vetting those 750,000 patient volunteers. And hopefully other nations (looking at you Scotland) will give it a try if it works on the other side of Hadrian’s wall.

Nextdoor

If you get no joy from the official channels, Nextdoor is worth a try. It’s a social platform that assigns you to a neighbourhood based on your postcode. People use it to ask for help (I loaned someone a ladder through Nextdoor), swap local information, advice and recommendations. As soon as the Corona crisis started, local support groups sprung up there. Surprise, surprise, in mine there are well over 50 volunteers and counting … but only one or two people asking for help.

The people who asked for help are probably regretting the decision, as they are now bombarded with messages from people desperate to be useful.

However Nextdoor have come up with what I think is a really neat solution for us frustrated volunteers, a help map on which you can advertise your services. The beauty of this is that people in need can see what help is available near them.

Why the queues?

The main reason why, up to now, there hasn’t been anything for most of us volunteers to do is that the NHS and other bodies are busy processing our applications. Another important factor is that, unfortunately, we haven’t seen the peak in COVID-related hospitalisations yet.

The chart on this NHS page is quite frightening. Although the data are incomplete (as this episode of the BBC’s “More or Less” explains), the number of cases and deaths are, unfortunately, still rising, so we may well be needed soon:

But I think there are other reasons for the lack of demand:

  • The impact of COVID-19 is heavily concentrated among the elderly, who are not typically big users of Apps like Nextdoor. How do they ask for help when they’re in self-isolation?
  • Running essential errands is the one thing that offers you a cast iron alibi to get out of the house these days. You’re not going to spoil that pleasure just to make some earnest volunteer feel good. So most people will only ask for help if they’re in a really bad way.
  • I also suspect very much that many older people are not asking for help during the Corona crisis because they are reluctant to ask for help with anything (my mother is a prime example). They are used to soldiering on without complaining.

One of the moving aspects of this crisis is seeing older people when I’m out walking. Many will say hello and chat (from a safe distance). While we talk, if it’s not artificial, I will mention that I can help if someone they know needs it. So far there’s still no takers but, who knows, this old fashioned word of mouth may yet get me my COVID volunteer call up.

Eric Woehrling is the Finance Director of Pacla Medical Limited, the company behind BackHug

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