Voluntary support for the healthcare system during COVID-19

During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic there was a significant wave of support of the NHS and caring for communities from the general public, with thousands of people looking to offer help as volunteers. However, this support came to a system that was not totally set up to make use of this resource, and these large numbers of volunteers (signed up as NHS First Responders and other voluntary routes) were being underutilised.

One reason for this low uptake was that the volunteer work force was not managed systematically, and outside of settings where volunteering is already embedded (such as NHS Trusts) there was less awareness of the ways that volunteers could help, which resulted in an apparent absence of demand.

The North West London (NWL) Sustainability and Transformation Partnership (STP) Gold Command asked Imperial College Health Partners (ICHP) to be part of a workstream supporting the system to understand how to access and make use of the resource available.

The NWL Volunteering Workstream

Stakeholders and objectives

The workstream was comprised of the following stakeholders:

Imperial College Healthcare Partners (ICHP), Helpforce, Health intervention and voluntary sector leads for NWL CCGs and NWL CCG Communications. ICHP also engaged extensively with the Royal Voluntary Service (RVS) throughout the process.

The workstream’s overall objective was to use the opportunity to increase and embed the use of volunteering in health and social care in North West London.

The project objectives were:

  • To support those organisations (e.g. Trusts) who can specify what they need volunteers for, support those organisations in identifying volunteers to meet that need.
  • To work with other organisations to help them identify the added value that volunteers bring and address gaps in the current demand (with a particular focus on primary care and care homes where there is not currently a culture of using volunteers).
  • To embed these new arrangements in the community by working with boroughs and third sector so that the programme develops in the period after the lockdown.

To review work that has been completed locally at borough level as well as in partnership with councils and voluntary networks, further strengthening existing relationships.


Initial Findings

Understanding the landscape

The workstream split into four separate workstreams in order to rapidly gather information and better understand existing volunteering needs and provision in NWL.

Local boroughs

As was identified with the Royal Voluntary Service (RVS) NHS Responders scheme, local borough councils had lots of volunteers but many were not being used. As such it was agreed that the group would use the local authority volunteer pools to supply identified demand.

We developed local pathways for volunteer access, to include accessing volunteers through the local RVS NHS Responders scheme.

Royal Voluntary Service NHS Responders

NHSE commissioned the Royal Voluntary Service to deliver the NHS Responders scheme, using an application called GoodSAM.

In North West London, it was identified that around 19,000 people had signed up to volunteer, however the uptake was low.

As Royal Voluntary service volunteers have a level of training and there is governance in place we identified that the scheme should be one of the options healthcare professionals consider when they need a volunteer, and we began to add this to local pathways.

Acute Trusts

The majority of acute and mental health trusts were mature in terms of their use of volunteers and did not require our support, so we focused on primary care as a key area for development.

We worked with social prescribers/link workers, who were nominated by practice managers to take forward ideas on volunteering.

Care homes

Care homes were in lockdown, to protect both residents and staff, and as such any volunteering roles would have to be done virtually, or through delivery of items to the care homes.

Through engagement with the heads of social care and Hammersmith and Fulham (H&F) GP federation, it was clear that there was a role for volunteers in supporting care home staff without adding to the workload. We worked with the H&F GP Federation to ensure any initiatives formed part of existing relationships with care homes, through their ‘Caring for Carers’ programme.


ICHP were the main lead for this pharmacy workstream. Pharmacies, particularly community (retail) pharmacies do not traditionally make use of volunteers. However, with many patients self-isolating and shielding, pharmacies were facing an increased demand for prescription deliveries.

ICHP produced flowcharts to help community pharmacists access volunteers through the RVS NHS Responder scheme  and local voluntary sector organisations, and supported their implementation.


Increasing volunteer uptake in NW London

The group’s focus on raising the profile of the RVS NHS Responder Scheme across North West London resulted in an increase in the number of tasks completed by volunteers in this area.

By early May 2020, 4,524 volunteering tasks had been completed across North West London and 19,252 volunteers had offered their time.

By the end of early June 2020, 18,516 volunteer tasks were completed, an improvement of 309%.

West London CCG became one of the highest adopters of the RVS NHS Responders Scheme application in England. One of the reasons for this success was down to the workstream lead, which disseminated communications to West London primary care networks early on and ensured that the GoodSAM application was widely used.


Examples of volunteering in NW London

Through the Volunteering Workstream we engaged with acute care, primary care, community pharmacies and care homes to support provision of volunteers in a brokerage role and develop primary care based projects. Examples include:

  • Brent project supporting their primary care networks in sourcing volunteers to deliver Oximeters.
  • Hounslow project to develop volunteers to support patients with digital activation.
  • Hammersmith and Fulham project involving local community organisation and GP Federation to deliver hot meals to staff at three of the four care homes.
  • Community pharmacies were able to establish longer term access to volunteers, particularly through voluntary sector organisations.

ICHP involvement helped the Local Pharmaceutical Committees start conversations with key stakeholders and voluntary services that we were unaware of. We have since been able to build relationships and undertake projects wider than volunteering. The LPCs are now well equipped with the system intelligence, ready to remobilise volunteers if required and pleased that our community pharmacies have built ongoing support from some volunteers.”

Marsha Alter
Consultant Pharmacist, The Middlesex Pharmaceutical Group of LPCs


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