How deep-rooted volunteering knowledge helped Hunts Forum deliver critical COVID support

Approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by UK regulators in December 2020 marked a huge milestone at the end of a difficult year. But the mass vaccination of over 53 million adults would not be possible without the help of one constant, unwavering force in the story of the pandemic – volunteers.

Huntingdon-based charity Hunts Forum exists to help voluntary and community groups thrive. Thanks to their deep-rooted community connections and strong networking presence across Huntingdonshire, they have played a crucial role in the rollout of the vaccine and mass testing locally; and in the process helping to raise the profile and impact of the voluntary sector more widely too.
Using their specialist knowledge of the complexities of recruiting and deploying volunteers, Hunts Forum was asked to share best practice across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough with the Voluntary Community Sector (VCS) and Primary Care Networks (PCNs) when the urgent requirement to undertake volunteer recruitment on an unprecedented scale arose.

Mass recruitment of volunteers for the vaccination programme

Once the first vaccines were approved, Primary Care Networks in Huntingdonshire received funding from the Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) to deliver the local vaccination programme, with rapidity and safety at the forefront. Operating on a scale much larger than the flu vaccine, the care networks recognised that volunteers would need to play a key role in the delivery of the programme. Hunts Forum’s Chief Executive Officer Julie Farrow joined early conversations taking place within the local partnership network, which included County Council representatives and NHS providers. Julie raised the issue of supporting the organisations who needed to undertake volunteer recruitment, and offered to draw upon Hunts Forum expertise to create best practice guidance which could be disseminated across the region.

Creating a best practice guide in just 48 hours

The COVID Vaccine Volunteer Pack was created in just two days. The best practice guide provides practical support for the Voluntary Community Sector (VCS) and Primary Care Networks and ultimately aims to ensure that volunteers are recruited and deployed effectively, and subsequently have a positive volunteering experience.

The pack highlights the unique differences between employees and volunteers, something that most Primary Care Network practices have little experience of. It also provides a range of support materials including a sample advert for recruiting volunteers, an outline of the recruitment process and a volunteer agreement. Juliette Glenn, formerly part of the C&P CCG Mass Vaccination Workforce Cell and ICS Development Lead NHS England and Improvement (East of England), credits the resource pack with giving Primary Care Networks greater independence.

“Thank you again for the support you have provided, and that your voluntary and community sector contacts continue to provide locally. We really, really appreciate it and we definitely wouldn’t be in the position we are in today with most Primary Care Networks being much more self-sufficient in terms of volunteers without your support, especially Kathryn and Julie (on behalf of all your umbrella organisations), and without the sharing of your incredibly helpful guide!”

Produced under the Support Cambridgeshire project, a collaboration between Hunts Forum, Cambridge Council for Voluntary Services and Cambridgeshire Acre, the COVID Vaccine Volunteer Pack has been delivered across the whole county including through Clinical Commissioning Groups. Now in its fifth version, the resources have undergone several collaborative reiterations, including the creation of a version for volunteer recruitment to support in-school testing, and another for mass testing sites. As the resources are fundamentally based around the principles of working effectively with volunteers, they will still have value once the pandemic is over.

Matt Oliver, Head of Think Communities at Peterborough City and Cambridgeshire County Council, reflects on the role Hunts Forum has played in the response to the pandemic.

“The role of Hunts Forum through the pandemic has been inspiring to say the least! Working together we have faced many and varied challenges as a result of Covid-19, from shielding and testing through to vaccination support. The ability of the staff at Hunts Forum to find the right solution to supporting volunteer recruitment and support as well as implementing this quickly to take pressure of the rest of the system has been particularly impressive. The community response to Covid-19 in Cambridgeshire has been amazing, and that is in no small part due to the infrastructure put in place by Hunts Forum.”

Priority vaccines for volunteers

Volunteers have undertaken a huge number of different roles during the pandemic and in some cases, have supported health and social care in frontline roles. Recognising the associated risks of these volunteer positions and ever keen to raise awareness of the voluntary sector, Hunts Forum Chief Executive Julie Farrow used her network and influence to ensure that local volunteers were included in the same vaccination cohort as health and social care staff.

Once volunteers were added to the Government’s vaccination priority group, Hunts Forum worked closely with the County Council to design a gateway through which targeted organisations could check eligibility of their volunteers against the strict criteria. As a result, so far over 730 volunteers within the region have been able to access a vaccine. The impact of being able to offer these vaccines has been felt by both the volunteer organisations and the volunteers. One organisation commented “Huge thanks – this made a real difference to the confidence levels for these very kind and willing people!”

An opportunity to reverse the decline

Volunteering levels have followed a steady decline since 2003. This trend has been dramatically reversed by Covid-19 and created a global surge of interest in volunteering, with tens of millions of people giving up their time to help others within their community.

Volunteers have been deployed up and down the UK in roles that have supported the critical strategies for supressing and overcoming the pandemic – social distancing, self-isolation, shielding and vaccination.

Ensuring that volunteers are well looked after and have a good experience presents the opportunity to reframe the idea of volunteering. Before the pandemic, many organisations struggled to recruit volunteers. There is now a real possibility that this trend can be overcome, and that volunteering can continue to offer individuals a way of staying connected to their local communities and deliver a range of positive personal benefits.

Thanks to Keystone Marketing for their help in preparing this article.