Volunteers’ efforts during coronavirus are amazing. But they shouldn’t be necessary

What happens when this crisis ends? When GoFundMes are swapped for picnics in the park, the applauding public returns to the pub and I go back to making costumes for the made-up superheroes of the movies, not the real superheroes of the NHS?

Sarah Dearing
Monday 20 April 2020 18:39 BST
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As Covid-19 has swept through the country disrupting lives and causing thousands of personal tragedies, it has brought with it some inspiring stories of communities coming together. From 250,000 people signing up as NHS responders in a matter of days, weekly applause for the NHS and key workers, to most recently the 99-year-old veteran Captain Tom Moore raising more than £26m for NHS charities, feel-good stories have lightened the gloomy national mood.

I became involved in one such initiative: volunteers stitching medical scrubs for local healthcare workers. Running a small business designing and producing costumes for film and theatre for more than a decade, I found myself suddenly without work when the entertainment industry went into lockdown. I joined a group of home sewers on social media and within weeks found myself running a local subgroup of over 800 volunteers. We have already produced and delivered almost a thousand sets of scrubs and are on track to make hundreds more. Individuals and businesses have rallied around us donating cash and resources. We receive photos and letters from staff at hospitals, care homes and hospices thanking us for our contributions. It is undoubtedly deeply rewarding.

But this is not a good news story.

The job of managing such a vast network of people in lockdown is complex and consuming, particularly as we have had no involvement or instruction from the government at a local or national level. With no centralised system in place to establish where shortages are, who has authority over the requirements or the best system for safe delivery, volunteers are left to scramble for information. We are calling already overworked hospital staff, trying to source fabric and seeking to formalise a production line via Facebook. Given the circumstances, the results are extraordinary, and the commitment to the project from thousands of volunteers nationwide is overwhelming.

And yet with hospitals experiencing scrubs shortages in the thousands, daily anecdotes of empty uniform shelves and staff working in hastily bought pyjamas, their needs are far greater and more specific than a well-meaning, but inherently inefficient, network of home sewers can ever realistically meet. In a nation already riddled with anxiety, it’s difficult for people to work so hard, aware that they will barely scratch the surface of what’s needed. It’s heart wrenching. And worse, it was avoidable.

The limited systems that were put in place for volunteers and businesses offering support have been marred by issues. After the fanfare of recruiting 250,000 NHS responders, most have yet to hear back due to sluggishness in the registration process and app. The government has been painfully slow in replying to businesses offering their support with the Covid-19 response. While recruiters on job sites are offering unpaid shifts to make scrubs, desperate-to-help textile factories are still sitting dormant.

Even without the government's bumbling response in the first months of the outbreak, we were woefully ill-prepared for a national emergency, with now-vital PPE stocks being allowed to diminish and expire under austerity policies since 2010, while no-deal Brexit preparations were prioritised over pandemic planning.

The NHS was in crisis long before the novel coronavirus emerged. Successive years of underfunding and mismanagement of public services has led to the “charitification” of the NHS, with hospitals and trusts forced to hold out a begging bowl to a population painfully aware that they’ve already paid their taxes. Public donations are used to fund vital services such as new wards, while hospitals regularly find themselves overstretched and declaring “black alerts.

Volunteers are not infrastructure. They cannot and should not take the place of lawmakers in readiness or response. From food banks and legal representation to social care and the protection of healthcare workers, services essential to our society are being propped up by an unstable network of volunteers and charities. It isn’t efficient, it isn’t ethical and it isn’t sustainable – it should be the responsibility of the state and the state alone.

While stories of grassroots action like mine provide a short-term, welcome relief from the bleak daily death toll, they also act as a smokescreen for this government's shambolic handling of and preparation for the crisis. An inadequate welfare system struggling to support people out of work and a health service grossly underfunded for a decade are all being sugarcoated in the guise of “Blitz spirit”.

What happens when this crisis ends? When GoFundMes are swapped for picnics in the park, the applauding public returns to the pub and I go back to making costumes for the made-up superheroes of the movies, not the real superheroes of the NHS?

Our public services should not depend on charity. Without some honest reflection on the handling of this pandemic and a genuine change in the way we fund the institutions we all rely on, every day in the NHS will remain in crisis and we will all feel the impact of that.

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