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Big Society?

I love volunteers. I run a charity that couldn’t exist without an incredible group of skilled and passionate people who support our work in so many ways. I also love being a volunteer, working in many different roles over the years. Each has given me new skills, connections and a warm fuzzy feeling. Volunteering is even good for you! According to the Mental Health Foundation:

‘Evidence shows that helping others is actually beneficial for your own mental health and wellbeing. It can help reduce stress, improve your emotional wellbeing and even benefit your physical health.’

Over the past two weeks, I have been in the centre of a volunteering revolution. Along with many hundreds of people around the country, my first response to the Covid-19 crisis was to try and work out what I could do. So, I started a Facebook Group, trying to bring together people who were unable to leave their homes with people who felt the need to just do something. .

I am now running a group with over 1000 active members. In a community that until very recently was incredibly polarised and one I wasn’t sure I wanted to live in any more. After experiencing the right-wing attitudes widely and openly shown around Brexit and the election. It can be hard to live in an area as a fairly centralist liberal when Iain Duncan Smith has been the local MP for over two decades.

This crisis changed that, well for now. As well as amassing hundreds of volunteers willing and wanting to help people in their communities I have also found myself connecting with a group of incredible women who I have never met but who have been dragged into admin roles with me. Women I hope I can be actual local friends with when life returns to some kind of normality.

With my love of volunteering and bringing the community together, you would have thought I would have jumped for the joy at the idea of an NHS volunteer army? I am happy in certain aspects. There are lots of people who suddenly have time on their hands and who really want to feel useful and there is definitely a need. But I am worried. Worried that the NHS which is already broken will be seen as suddenly fixed with the recruitment of thousands of unpaid and unqualified workers.

I am also a little frustrated. The community response to Covid-19 has been incredible and very hyperlocal. People are already out doing shopping, calling people, collecting prescriptions and generally supporting the most vulnerable in our communities. This has been completely grassroots with most of us learning about safeguarding, volunteer management and use of technology in the space of a few days with no funding and no structure.

However, this effort seems to have been swept away by the arrival of the official govt backed recruitment drive. I welcome resources and support but failing to recognise the hundreds of thousands of people who are already active with the use of Whatsapp and a few spreadsheets almost belittles what has been done so far. I liken it to when there is a big, hugely publicised charity appeals take up all our social media platforms and the little guys (who may have been doing similar work for years) suddenly stop getting any support.

I run a registered charity and I am a complete advocate of partnership work. I work with the NHS, the government and local councils but also spend a lot of time ensuring grass roots organisations don’t get forgotten. This crisis has highlighted the power of the community working without regulation but also the idea that this is somehow not real.

But frustration aside and back to the NHS. Outside of the charity sector I have worked for the NHS in frontline positions. Many moons ago I spent a couple of years working as a Healthcare Assistant. We were the dogsbodies of the hospital wards. There to provide the support that nurses didn’t have time for. I worked a great deal in palliative care and found it surprisingly rewarding, making people a little more comfortable in their final hours. For those without family (and there were a lot), I was able to wet lips, moisturise hands, help with personal care or just sit and be present.

However, even then, there was a nursing shortage. Most shifts would run on agency staff, the nurses who were on duty had to do the jobs of 3 nurses, and so often the nursing tasks would fall to unqualified youngsters such as myself. I had compassion and care in bucketloads but what I didn’t have was any medical training, apart from a brief one-day induction.

I have two examples of when I was put in situations where I was way out of my depth.

Firstly, I was asked to do all the daily observations for a cancer ward in a hospital. I had no idea what I was doing. Yes, I should have asked, but there was no-one to ask, they were all too busy doing actual nursing. I hate to admit it; I completely faked it. I wandered around with the right equipment, copied what I had seen done and ticked a few things in each patient’s book. No-one checked.

The second was when I was working in a mental health unit. It was a secure unit where the patients had been placed after time in places like Broadmoor. They had committed some pretty awful crimes between them, but they were also incredible people who I enjoyed working with. It was here I first learnt the difference between ‘bad and mad’ and to also not judge a book by its cover (or in this case patient profile).

As an unqualified 18-year-old, I was put regularly on night duty. In a locked unit with twelve patients. I usually had an agency worker with me. I had some horrific experiences over the six months I worked there. Unqualified, I was unable to give any proper care or medication, and so all I could do if things got out of control was lock myself in the office and call the police. Scary for me, but often situations which could have been sorted out with the right care escalated so much that the entire unit were left distressed and angry. There should have been funding for a qualified and experienced member of staff to be on site at all times. There wasn’t.

These examples are of course looking at a slightly foolish young person paid to do a role, and I am not for one minute saying that this round of NHS volunteer recruitment is going to start placing people in the front line, but it is a slippery slope.

David Cameron’s Big Society has been back to haunt me this week and I’m beginning to see some areas of the media call for it to be revived. Because it never really took off first (or second) time around.

It was a pretty good idea in theory. The stated aim was to create a climate that empowered local people and communities, building a “big society” that would take power away from politicians and give it to people.

The term was coined by Steve Hilton then director of strategy for the Conservative Party. We only have one official political slogan in this crisis #StayHomeSaveLives but I have also repeatedly heard We Are All in This Together, Let’s Beat This Together and Whatever It Takes in the past few days. All slick one-liners possibly dreamt up by well-paid advisors also pretty similar to Big Society?

Cameron appeared to be aware of the possible issues when he launched the manifesto, saying that;

“Of course, there is not one lever you can simply pull to create a big society…We should not be naive enough to think that simply if government rolls back and does less, then miraculously society will spring up and do more. The truth is we need a government that helps to build a big society.”

At the time voluntary groups broadly welcomed the idea but expressed concerns about how equipped they were to take on more responsibility, given that public funds were likely to be cut as part of the budget squeeze.

Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said.

“The government is simply washing its hands of providing decent public services and using volunteers as a cut-price alternative.”

And yes, the idea does appear to have been launched at the wrong time just preceding a period of acute financial pressures for public services and cuts in financial support from the government for many charities and voluntary organisations.

Before Covid-19, the voluntary sector were already providing so much public service, in a climate of austerity. Volunteers and the voluntary sector are continually helping society for so little money. The irony for many that many charities cannot afford to pay staff and so fill gaps with volunteers, even though this is not how it is supposed to be. Everyone I know working in the voluntary sector, at least in smaller charities, work two or three times the hours they should.

Which brings us back to our NHS in crisis and the gap that looks to be plugged with our volunteer army. We are truly all in this together, but this means thousands of possibly unskilled workers coming forward to help when we know that even frontline workers are being forced to put themselves and others at risk.

My worry is then, why would the government pay for something when it is being provided for free? If volunteers keep the service running then why invest in staff? There is likely to be a great deal of austerity after this crisis to pay back the massive financial support being provided right now, which means in the long term the NHS is set to suffer even more. We owe so much to our NHS right now but a solid organisation with enough staff, fair pay and conditions is the least we should be giving them.

There are also likely to be a lot of people out of work after this crisis. There have been attempts to force people into volunteering previously by sanctioning benefits if they didn’t take part. This moves the action from volunteering into forced labour. It can also take a lot of resource for charities to take on volunteers, particularly if they are not willing or if their skills are not a good match. I hope that people who find themselves unemployed so try and gain new experience by seeking out voluntary positions where they can expand their knowledge and be useful but it shouldn’t be seen as something they are made to do.

I truly hope that this crisis will continue to bring the country, my community together but this crisis is going to destroy many charities and organisations. The idea of us all working together at this time should not let anyone off the hook. The volunteers should be encouraged to support not replace the NHS, people have capacity and it should be there to take the load off the workers who must be at breaking point already.

I hope that when this finally ends the third sector will be seen for what it is and start to treat it as on a par with the other sectors. People are beginning to realise, albeit temporarily that health and community are so much more important than capitalism, particularly when many corporates are behaving badly. The Big Society had the right idea in putting the power back to the people, but this needs to be done with structure, resources and investment. It also should include supporting volunteer programmes that train and provide skills, not just a cheap way to fill needs but proper recognition of how incredible volunteers are.

Looking ahead, we are just putting on hold so many of society’s problems and the fallout is going to be huge. Our mental health services are already failing which has a knock on effect on all the emergency services, who themselves are losing colleagues to suicide far too frequently. People are reaching crisis because the help needed to intervene early is just not there. The Coronavirus is going to be traumatic for such a huge percentage of society. From those who are watching people die on the frontline to others who will be sitting in isolation for weeks, watching events unfold.

The third sector can and does do brilliantly to help those in need. Those who will find their physical or mental health problems increased during and after the crisis. But we need to ensure that the voluntary sector survives this and begins to be seen as a vital service. In the same way we need to fight for the NHS to stay as a public sector, not being run by volunteers.

So please go out and clap every week until this is all over. Send food, help in any way you can. But then think seriously about what the NHS and its staff need. Investment and more staff not cutbacks.





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