Blog post

After 1 million hours of support to the NHS, what comes next for trained volunteers?

Hardwiring volunteering into the health services DNA will serve it well for the future, writes St John Ambulance's Richard Lee.
Richard Lee

7 September 2021

In the past 18 months, colleagues across St John Ambulance have given over 1 million hours of patient-facing care to support the health service in England. Behind this has been hundreds of thousands of hours of volunteering in support roles such as training, logistics, recruitment and fleet.

Our patient-facing activity has included suitably trained volunteers performing roles which have not previously been seen as those for volunteers, such as administering vaccinations and responding to 999 calls on the behalf of ambulance services. We are now keen to build on this, to develop a lasting legacy of resilience and make sure we are able give the best support to the NHS and communities in the future.

This means formalising our role and making sure we are continuing to build effective partnerships with statutory services. This will help services know exactly how we can best support them in an emergency.  

Supporting across the NHS with new and experienced volunteers

Since the start of the pandemic, we have supported the NHS in a range of settings, often in new ways.

While volunteers have been a key part of vaccination programmes across the world, so far as we know, England was the only nation in the world to train members of the public to actually administer vaccinations. As of July, the army of 27,000 volunteers we trained had given over 640,000 hours of patient-facing care as part of the vaccination programme. We have now confirmed their support will continue till at least the end of 2021.

Many of these vaccination volunteers were new to St John and health volunteering at the start of 2021. Their work was preceded by thousands of our long-standing volunteers, who normally support with event first aid cover, volunteering in hospitals and in communities.

The nation’s ambulance auxiliary: part of our heritage and our future

One major area of work for us, and one which is not always widely recognised, is our support for ambulance trusts. 

Ambulance trusts welcomed the additional capacity provided by our crews as we were able to help them respond to patients as quickly as possible

Up until the formation of the NHS ambulance service in 1974, St John Ambulance was the only provider of ambulance services in parts of England. Since then, we’ve played an auxiliary role for ambulance services, supporting them in times of need. Currently, we have a mixed workforce of volunteers and employed crews who work hard to maintain their skills and offer professional care. This is reflected in our ‘Good’ rating from the Care Quality Commission.

The pandemic has put ambulance trusts under record levels of extreme pressure, but it’s also shown the value of our support to them. Depending on demand, we have responded to thousands of 999 calls, from life-threatening to less urgent situations, while also providing non-emergency transport and transfer services. Overall, we’ve given over 158,000 hours of support to trusts since the beginning of the pandemic and we are clearly the nation’s de facto ‘ambulance auxiliary’.

Our own internal evaluation has found that ambulance trusts welcomed the additional capacity provided by our crews and that we were able to help them respond to patients as quickly as possible. We also found good examples where we had helped trusts keep patients at home and out of hospital wherever possible. 

One problem we found is that the ad hoc nature of our support for ambulance trusts made it harder for them to factor our crews into their resource planning. In response, we are looking at how we can develop a stronger, longer-term partnership to resolve these issues.

As well as this close partnership with ambulance trusts, we want our ambulance auxiliary status to be fully recognised. This could be done in the Civil Contingencies Act and its associated guidance, ideally by making us a Category 2 responder. This will help us maintain our capabilities in a formal state of readiness.

A lesson from the pandemic: volunteer does not mean amateur

The pandemic has reignited a conversation around what volunteers can offer in times of crisis. For example, a major aspect of the UK government’s consultation on a new National Resilience Strategy is the role and framework for involving the voluntary sector in emergency planning and response.

With the right training and support, volunteers can give meaningful patient-facing care and assistance to healthcare professionals and services in times of crisis

Sometimes, conversations about the role of the voluntary sector in emergency response are based on the idea that the voluntary sector can only provide very limited, general and unskilled support. This means that for certain roles where specialist skills, or experience, are needed, only statutory services are relevant.

As the experience of the pandemic shows, this is a false dichotomy. Volunteer does not mean amateur. With the right training and support, volunteers can give meaningful patient-facing care and assistance to healthcare professionals and services in times of crisis. Our St John people have played an indelible, crucial role in healthcare, in the vaccination programme and in communities during the pandemic so far. They are a truly special breed. 

The question for readers is, will you work with us, plan with us and prepare with us, to make sure volunteers can give more when you need them the most?

Richard Lee is chief operating officer and deputy chief executive of St John Ambulance. Follow him and the organisation on Twitter @stjacoo @stjohnambulance