Can volunteering be safe currently?


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The homeless and the needy have been victims of the current crisis. Many rely on volunteers to feed them and provide warm clothing, tents etc.

But volunteers are often over 70 years old or constrained by safety measures related to the Coronavirus.

For about eight years, I have worked voluntarily at a local drop-in centre for the homeless and needy. Our normal service involves 20-45 people thronged into a small hall, cheek by jowl. So, we had to stop that. Fortunately we are continuing our service by giving out bags of ready-to-eat food. But we’re having to get the clients to queue outside two metres apart, place the bags on a table by the door and retire, liberally wash hands and disinfect surfaces.

So we are continuing a basic service and many street homeless have been put into empty hotel rooms – although they still need food, so some of our food parcels are going across to them.

Another voluntary role I perform is as an Independent Custody Visitor. This is where members of the public regularly visit detained persons in their cells, to check that they are being looked after properly. Our visits were stopped about two weeks ago. However, we are about to start “telephone visits” where we talk to the custody staff and, hopefully, detained persons.

I administer Communion to people who are unable to come to church. This has stopped but I am regularly phoning my usual communicants and checking whether they need any help.

I normally attend regular choir rehearsals, but now I am attending the online daily rehearsals for Gareth Malone’s Great Home Choir – which is fun.

So there are ways of continuing to do voluntary work in a safe(ish) way. (And of course I can still do my voluntary work safely here on LDV, aside from the danger of inhaling the odd illogical rant…. 😉 )

I have also volunteered as a driver for my local food bank and for the NHS.

On that latter point, Conservative Home carried an article yesterday by Paul Goodman, raising questions about the NHS volunteer scheme:

…the volunteers will ideally need protective equipment, but it is reported that there is a shortage. If this is so on the front line for doctors, it will be even more so for volunteers.

The Community Response Volunteers will not always be able to leave shopping or equipment at the door. Some of those they are helping will be severely disabled, or will have complex needs.

The Patient Response Volunteers will be assisting those who are medically fit for discharge, but it is arguable that some may still be infectious.

The NHS Transport volunteers will be visiting places and facilities that are hotbeds of the virus, so they will need to be especially careful.

These are valid concerns. That said, the scheme is being delivered by the Royal Voluntary Service, which has an exemplary history going back 80 years. They do appear to have done their homework. Volunteers are being sent a detailed “Getting you started” guide which includes detailed safety instructions for the current crisis. For example it says:

If you agree to drop off shopping, essential items or prescriptions…

  • When you arrive at the persons home, sanitise your hands.
  • Notify them you have arrived by knocking the door or ringing the doorbell and never enter a persons home. Leave items and receipt on the doorstep, step back at least 2 metres and wait for the door to be opened for the items to be collected.
  • Request the person retrieves the shopping, leaves payment on the doorstep and closes the door. If change is required ask for this to be placed on the door step and retrieve when they have closed the door. Avoid any personal contact such as handshakes.
  • When you leave a persons home, sanitise your hands and any money given where possible.

So the NHS scheme does seem to have been carefully prepared. But of course, someone who is volunteering takes some sort of risk of catching or passing on the virus. But, then again, if people don’t volunteer then vulnerable people may be left without medication or food.

Please leave your thoughts on this dilemma in the comments box below.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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7 Comments

  • No! It isn’t very elegantly phrased, but there isn’t an infinitive in your title!

  • Paul – I’ll look out for you this evening at Gareth Malone’s!

  • Phil Beesley 26th Mar '20 - 3:55pm

    Joseph Bourke: “Most of us will have experience of organising volunteers for campaigning and will be aware that it is no simple task.”

    Not sure. If nobody knows what is expected, nobody knows what to do. If some people know, they lead, and teams can be extraordinarily productive.

  • Robert (Bristol) 27th Mar '20 - 8:42am

    Even staff in the major supermarket chains are now getting very concerned about handling cash and the ability to pay in cash is being restricted. I am not sure there is any scientific evidence to suggest cash is any more risky than, say, a pack of tomatoes driven in from Spain. I suspect more pairs of hands have touched the tomato pack than a ten pound note.
    These days many people don’t keep cash to any great extent and I do hope that this volunteer scheme has some safeguards to protect vulnerable people, their credit cards and pin numbers.
    As an aside can we please stop people standing at supermarket news racks thumbing through magazines and putting them back! I reported one bloke yesterday and to be fair the management dealt with him pretty swiftly.

  • Peter Hirst 27th Mar '20 - 2:27pm

    Volunteers need to be one of the first groups to be tested for immunity when it is available. Once we know what proportion of the country has already been exposed we can adopt some statistical common sense as to how extensive the testing needs to be. It will probably vary widely geographically, by demographics and rural vs urban.

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