Why the Daily Mail’s “volunteer army” should be resisted

A front page from the Daily Mail, with the headline "Let's give our hospitals a helping hand: Mail calls for volunteer army to transform NHS".Today, the Daily Mail launched a campaign to recruit a “volunteer army” to “help” the NHS starting next Spring, in conjunction with a “new social movement called Helpforce”. The roles that volunteers are expected to do include running hospital libraries, fetching medicines from pharmacies for patients, talking to and comforting patients (including children) when their families cannot or do not visit, delivering blood on motorbike, assisting cardiovascular patients in the gym and providing speech therapy for people who have had strokes. Hospitals have always had volunteers doing some of the above roles, running libraries and cafes and acting as porters (although the latter is also a paid role), but while it’s assured that this scheme will not amount to running the NHS on unpaid staff, some of these roles do cut into what should be paid jobs.

Let us understand that there are clear disadvantages to relying on voluntary workers. Voluntary work is not actually free; the NHS will need to provide training and get criminal record checks for all volunteers, to prevent another Jimmy Savile using voluntary work to find vulnerable people to abuse. Only someone who has a lot of time on their hands on a regular and reliable basis can volunteer regularly; most jobs people do to make ends meet leave barely enough time to take care of household necessities such as cooking, cleaning, laundry etc. This includes a small number of young people or people who have been made redundant who seek to build up their work skills but mainly means retirees. Furthermore, by nature, a volunteer can choose to continue or discontinue his or her work because, for example, they may have family duties or have just found a more fulfilling use of their time; they do not need to do the work and the people they are serving do not have any right to demand that they continue, unlike with a paid worker who is contracted to work for a set number of hours. When I left some voluntary work early a few years ago for family reasons, the administrator thanked me for my time when he could probably done with a few more hours of it.

Some of the roles mentioned in the Mail’s article and in their interviews with some volunteers, should be (and usually are) paid. This includes the man delivering blood supplies on his (or a NHS-supplied) motorcycle, for example. Any job involving a motorcycle is hazardous; however well-trained, and however much they enjoy the job, the rider is at risk from other road users, oil or ice in the road and so on, to a greater extent than almost anyone else on the road. (Ideally, a blood bike should have blue lights and be allowed to break speed limits and so on as the delivery may well be urgent.) Support for people undergoing treatment for cancer or for cardiovascular patients are specialised roles and while someone who has been through this treatment (chemotherapy, mastectomy or whatever) may be able to talk to someone just about to about what it involves, better support can be provided by full-time, paid staff than a volunteer who is only there one day a month.

We must remember that paid work is a social good, and this includes low-skilled paid work; even if it is not a career or even a living, it means that people gain at least a bit of self-reliance and have money to spend that is theirs and not a loan or a hand-out. It is unfair on these people if their paid work is abolished so that people can “gain experience” or do something for the buzz or the feelgood factor. Some of these voluntary roles pose the danger of usurping skilled paid roles; much as advice from a Citizen’s Advice volunteer is not always a substitute for qualified legal advice, no unqualified volunteer can possibly be as effective as, say, a trained speech therapist for a stroke victim and if enough of these volunteers are available, there will be the temptation to simply do away with the paid specialist or combine their role with other work. The suggestion that the wave of volunteers might “transform the NHS” rather does suggest that they will be doing a lot more than volunteers do right now.

And nobody will have missed the ‘coincidence’ that the voluntary roles are due to start in the Spring, at just the time when Britain is due to leave the European Union and there is a risk of economic collapse — perhaps there is the suspicion that a lot of people will have free time on their hands — as well a large number of paid NHS staff from the EU, particularly eastern Europeans who will have been made particularly unwelcome, leaving as a result of uncertainty about their residency. One commentator on Twitter compared it to an arsonist offering a thimble-full of water to put out a fire he started. It also clearly harks back to David Cameron’s rhetoric of a “big society” which put a heavy emphasis on volunteering, and proved to be a cover for public service cuts (and some of the promises made, such as a “national care service”, remain unfulfilled). If we were not about to inflict a major disaster on ourselves, we would not be talking about recruiting huge numbers of volunteers but investing in more paid staff.

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