The idea of creating a uniformed reserve of volunteers to help hospitals when they are under sever pressure is one that is being put to Parliament this week. A volunteer base or NHS reservist system, if approved, could be tapped during public-health emergencies like a pandemic, large-scale public events, serious industrial action or critical incidents such as major terrorist incidents. The system could well be modelled on similar systems run by the armed forces and police.

Precedence

There is recent precedence here. At the start of the current pandemic, around a quarter of a million non-clinical volunteers signed up to help the NHS during the pandemic. According to official figures, 47,000 former health workers have volunteered during the pandemic, with about half saying that they would be interested in fulfilling a longer-term role. They could be clearly be an invaluable human resource, along with troops, to help in any mass vaccination programme.

Beyond the NHS, there is much to commend a wider examination of volunteering in dealing with national emergencies, especially as large reservoirs of doctors and nurses, soldiers and police may not always be available at the drop of a hat. Yet, the military could certainly provide a model for a logistical and command structure from which to establish a non-military reservist system.

The UK has previously possessed a civil-defence organisation. The Civil Defence Corps (CDC) existed from 1949 to prepare for and respond to a Cold War nuclear attack. By March 1956, the CDC had 330,000 personnel, largely volunteers, based around the country with regular training and exercising. It was disbanded in 1968 as the nuclear threat waned. (1)

A new organisation

Perhaps it is time to revisit this idea, even under the label of volunteering. In national crises, there is a natural and strong desire to ‘do something useful’ and contribute to the community. However, as Professor David Alexander from UCL points out: ‘the present century is one in which spontaneous voluntarism needs to be replaced by the organised kind’. (2) If uncontrolled, there is the danger that numerous, separate groups may emerge which lack cohesion and hence impact, no matter how well intentioned.

Part of that control is having the necessary legislation in place, possibly under a revised Civil Contingencies Act (2004). Equally importantly, it is necessary to have in situ the command and control functions even as a skeleton so that activation can be swift and smooth. Preparation should also include the creation of a database of volunteers listing individual achievements and resources available to them – up-to-date PPE would be one vital category.

A civil-protection system that incorporates volunteering organisations is a robust way to prepare for major disasters that may face the nation. Success will only be assured if the system and the participating volunteers are trained, equipped and have a clear role to play.

Volunteers can provide a valuable link to the wider community while having regional or local knowledge as well as specialist skills. They can also help make their communities more resilient by providing a strong element of social capital or social ‘glue’ that is vital when recovering from major incidents.

References:

  1. See Resilience First news item: https://www.resiliencefirst.org/news/updating-national-preparedness-point-view
  2. Alexander, D. 2020. Building Emergency Planning Scenarios for Viral Pandemics: UCL-IRDR Covid-19 Observatory. Working paper, Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London, London, UK.