'I'll do anything': coronavirus volunteers sign up to help NHS

Molly Blackall, Rachel Obordo and Guardian readers
Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

The NHS has saved Ainsley Hinchcliffe’s life twice. “I’ve had breast cancer on [two] separate occasions, and I had a hysterectomy three weeks ago,” said the 53-year-old computer programmer from Bolton. “If anyone needs to give something back, it’s me.”

Hinchcliffe is one of more than 500,000 people to have signed up to join the NHS’s “volunteer army. The scheme, announced on Tuesday, will see volunteers offer help to 1.5 million vulnerable people with underlying health conditions, who are most at risk from the coronavirus.

“It helps you to feel like you can do something positive, because you feel overwhelmed,” Hinchcliffe said. “There’s so many sad stories, so you want to do what you can to relieve the burden on the NHS. I’m willing to do anything that’s required.”

The volunteers haven’t yet been told what they’ll be doing, or if they’ve been accepted at all. If their application is processed successfully, they could be given a number of jobs, including delivering medicine from pharmacies, driving patients to GP appointments or hospital, and making regular phone calls to check on those at risk of loneliness.

Jack Hattersley, 22, from Langley Park in Durham, said he saw no reason why he shouldn’t volunteer. “People need help – that’s really the crux of it,” he said. “Both my parents are key workers – Mum works at a primary school and Dad is a transport manager for Asda. They’re doing their thing and I don’t see why I shouldn’t.

“With all three of us out and about it is only a matter of time before one of us gets it and then we’ll all have to self-isolate. So I have to help as much as possible while I can.”

Hattersley, a student at the University of Kent, is still waiting to be verified – it is likely to be up to 72 hours before he hears back.
“I signed up as a community response volunteer and NHS transport volunteer. The north-east will most likely be one of the worst-hit areas in the UK. The poorly-funded area and lack of transport there means the only way of overcoming the virus is if we all band together.”

Hattersley and his family have already been taking precautions at home. “We have developed a system of taking off clothes, immediately putting them in the wash and having a shower when we get home.

“I don’t have any concerns at all. It’s the lack of equipment that will be the biggest worry to me and other volunteers. My only issue is accidentally passing it on to others.”

The scheme will match volunteers up with local healthcare professionals when they need assistance. This sense of community, and the ability to help those nearby, has been a pull for many people.

“My parents live about an hour and a half away, and a month before the coronavirus outbreak my dad was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, so he suddenly became one of the most vulnerable in the country,” said Sarah Goodenough, 48, in Suffolk.

“They’re not on the doorstep, so I feel so helpless. I’m telling my mum to use the volunteers nearby, so I think I need to be giving back, and helping someone in my community.”

“I can’t help them, but I can do that for someone else,” she added.

Shamyla, who lives in London, has just turned 18, and has decided to volunteer with the NHS now that her A-levels have been cancelled. “The past few months I’ve been coming home and revising, and waking up and revising, and that’s all gone, so we’re left with nothing to do.” she said.

“I used to volunteer at a hospital in London last year, where I helped out with mealtime support workers, and helped in the stockrooms every week. Now, I want to get involved with visiting people, going out and getting supplies, or having a chat with people who are in self isolation to make them feel less lonely,” she said.

John Berry, 60, who has retired from the army’s physical training corps after 35 years of service, said he would like to help in any way possible. “I’ve signed up to be a driver, to deliver food or medical supplies and to help those who are vulnerable,” he said.

Berry, who lives in the West Midlands, said it’s important to help those who are struggling.

“I was expecting to hear back but I heard that the government has been inundated with volunteers which is great news as it shows what we can do as a country when we come together.”

Guy Champniss, a behavioural scientist, also thought the volunteering scheme could have some psychological benefits for participants.

“It’s a time of particularly drastic measures, and it’s difficult to accept that the vast majority of what we do for a living suddenly falls away and is completely irrelevant,” he said.

“Lots of people are curious to keep learning and changing careers because we want more meaning. It makes you question how much meaning your work has if you’re simply a bystander, which is what most of us have been reduced to.”

“Even just applying and going through that action has been positive,” he added. “A lot of behavioural science says that first small step is the critical one, so I feel like now I’m facing in the right direction.”