By Nicole Sykes, Director of External Affairs at Pro Bono Economics

They’re the first people you see when you pull up for your appointment, jittery with anticipation to get your long-awaited Covid vaccine. They check you in, keep an eye on you as you recuperate, and wave you off as you leave with your body newly prepped to fight off the virus which has consumed so much of the last two years.

Volunteers have played a critical role in the UK’s Covid vaccine campaign. In England, NHS Stewards have undertaken 37,000 shifts at sites across the country. St John’s Ambulance, meanwhile, has been busily training 30,000 volunteers to administer the vaccines themselves, so teachers, chefs and lawyers can back up the medical teams already at work. Through these two schemes alone, people have donated over 436,000 hours to speed the country closer to normality.

Few countries have been as ambitious as the UK in utilising volunteers in their vaccine campaigns. Plenty of nations have leaned on volunteer marshals to help shepherd their citizens through the vaccination process – directing traffic, sanitising chairs and taking temperatures. A number have called on a diverse range of folk with health backgrounds to administer jabs: in New York, a dentist or podiatrist might be the one wielding the needle; clinics in Colorado are staffed by chiropractors and optometrists; and in Connecticut and Nevada, the person plunging Pfizer into your arm may be more used to inoculating the neighbourhood’s cats and dogs. But utilising thousands of ordinary citizens to administer Covid vaccines as the UK has is unique in the West.

And the efforts of volunteers to drive vaccine uptake haven’t stopped at the clinic gates. Collaborating with government and the NHS, charities and community groups have been credited with helping to tackle vaccine hesitancy. Armed with grassroots expertise, their volunteer teams have been developing tailored messaging for marginalised communities, translating guidance and reaching out to reassure the reluctant.

Community outreach has been seized upon to boost vaccine uptake in other parts of the world too: youth volunteers in Serbia have taken it upon themselves to drive up vaccination rates in Roma settlements, while President Biden has urged grassroots leaders to do the same for rural and isolated communities in the US.

But again, the UK has thrown more energy – and more cash – behind community efforts than other nations. The government has invested £23 million to support local organisations to counter disinformation and encourage uptake as part of the strategy to drive up numbers. And that strategy has been working. Between the start of March and mid-April, the gap in vaccine uptake between white and non-white residents of the UK fell from 30 to 26 percentage points for black residents over 60 and from 12 to 10 percentage points for South Asian people in the same age bracket. By the middle of April, the overall vaccine uptake among all ethnic minority residents in England had tripled.

Between the stewards, the vaccinators and the community champions, Britain’s trailblazing volunteer efforts have helped save lives. Their success has been key to putting the country back on a footing where we can hug our grandparents and drink with friends again. And the vaccination campaign has provided a literal shot in the arm to the economy: the Centre for Policy Studies suggests the successful roll out is worth £100billion to nominal GDP.

But why stop there? When the day comes that we pack up the privacy curtains and one-way signs and turn vaccine clinics back into libraries, leisure centres and ordinary GP practices, do we wave those volunteers off into the sunset? Are we content to let all that potential drift away?

The NHS will emerge from this crisis run ragged. With Citizens Advice estimating around 20% of a GP’s time is normally spent on social problems not primarily related to health, how can volunteers be better used to link patients to solutions and help the NHS run more efficiently in the future?

COP26 is on the horizon. Volunteers have been leading the environmental movement for decades. They continue to work in their hundreds of thousands to conserve our woodlands, waterways and wildlife. They are beavering away with 230 of the country’s local councils to ensure declarations of climate crises become community action plans. Will government look to turbocharge their efforts as well as accelerating climate finance and electric vehicles in Glasgow later this year?

It didn’t take much to unleash the value of volunteers in the vaccine campaign. A little political leadership, a clear vision, effective partnerships with charities, a dash of ambition and a pinch of flexibility. We should be replicating that recipe once the population’s veins are swimming with antibodies and we have time to turn to the country’s other challenges.

3 June 2021