NHS 'volunteer army' could be used to ease pressure on social-care services amid staffing crisis

Volunteers could help "reduce pressure on services and enable better outcomes" in adult social care
Volunteers at a Covid vaccination centre in 2021. Photo: Carol J Saunders/Alamy Stock Photo

The Department for Health and Social Care is considering calling on the “army of reservists” it built up to support the NHS during the Covid pandemic to help relieve pressure on social-care services.

DHSC could begin deploying volunteers into adult social-care settings through the NHS volunteer responder programme – which was set up in 2020 to support the health service and clinically vulnerable people who were shielding – next year.

The department has confirmed it is looking at expanding volunteering opportunities in social care to “build on the positive legacy following the pandemic”, after contract documents revealed it hopes to use volunteer responders to help “relieve pressure” in the sector. 

NHS England and DHSC are looking at how to develop the programme from a Covid emergency-response model to one that can help meet the “ongoing needs” of health and, potentially, social-care services, according to documents published last month.

Pressure on care services has been growing for years, with MPs lambasting funding cuts and a refusal to address what the Public Accounts Committee last year called the "greatest workforce crisis" in the sector’s history.

There are currently more than 165,000 job vacancies in social care, according to Age UK, which last week warned that staff shortages have dramatically reduced access to both at-home care and residential care-home beds.

A damning report from the charity found around one in eight people aged over 50 – 12%, or 2.6 million – have unmet social-care needs, including support with showering, eating and getting dressed. The figure rises to 21% of over-80s.

Volunteers could be assigned to help with tasks including responding to falls, as well as diabetes health promotion, according to a contract published last month. Volunteering roles will be tested out in a range of new settings including ambulance trusts, community organisations, Integrated Care Systems and pharmacies through a series of pilot studies in the coming months.

The Innovation Unit – the social enterprise that began life at the Department for Education in 2002 – will run the pilots under a £198,630 contract to support the design of the “refreshed” service over the next year.

"It is intended that the NHSVR programme will be extended to include deploying volunteers into adult social care settings in due course. Therefore, this will form an essential part of the piloting activities to be undertaken as part of this contract," the contract says.

"It is intended that the NHSVR programme will be extended to include deploying volunteers into adult social care settings. This will form an essential part of piloting activities"

Between 20,000 and a million volunteers are expected to be active at any one time through the programme, which will be managed by the Royal Voluntary Service. These volunteers will complete between 11,500 and 16,500 tasks per week, according to the RVS contract.

The programme is "not intended to duplicate existing volunteer provision available elsewhere but to help reduce pressure on the health and care system in areas where a micro-volunteering model could provide a solution", it says.

The RVS will be paid up to £17m over the next three years to deploy volunteers, create a quality assurance process to approve other organisations to be able to access and deploy volunteers, and provide infrastructure to support local volunteering organisations.

As the volunteer programme moves to a “business-as-usual” model, one of its core aims will be to help “reduce pressure on services and enable better outcomes for patients and service recipients” in health and social care, according to a third contract with IT supplier GoodSAM.

GoodSAM, which has supported the website and mobile app used to deploy volunteers since the programme began, will work on modifying the programme's digital infrastructure “with minimal cost to meet the discrete and evolving needs” of both volunteers and the bodies that wish to access their support in the coming years.

Its £3.3m deal,which runs until 2025 is with NHS England, but DHSC is expected to sign on as “co-commissioner” of the service in future “to enable services to be provided within social care settings”.

A DHSC spokesperson said: “We recognise the important impact volunteers can have on the wellbeing of people who draw on care.

“We are currently exploring what more we can do to support volunteering in adult social care and build on the positive legacy following the pandemic. We will set out next steps in due course.”

Since it was first set up in 2020, there have been an average of 16,000 referrals per month to the programme, for volunteer support, most of which have come from health and care professionals. 

While its initial focus was on supporting clinically vulnerable people who were advised to shield in the early stages of the pandemic, the programme was later expanded to support others affected by lockdown rules, support NHS staff and help with Covid vaccinations. When the Omicron variant emerged in December 2021, additional volunteer roles were added to provide extra support in NHS and adult social care settings.

Civil servants were encouraged to sign up to the programme, and in December 2021, permanent secretaries were told to produce a "concrete plan" to free up officials to volunteer for the rollout of Covid booster vaccines.

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