The Daily Mail and Helpforce have launched a national recruitment campaign for volunteers to help support the NHS this winter. Despite being supported by the NHS Chief Executive Simon Stevens and Prime Minister Theresa May, the campaign has been met with reservation in some quarters.

Detractors are concerned about three main issues: the displacement of paid, low-skilled jobs by volunteers; that volunteers may ‘paper over the cracks’ in areas of workforce constraint; and whether volunteers working with vulnerable patients will be properly vetted.

These understandable worries, however, have been anticipated. The executive team driving this initiative has extensive experience in the charity sector and is working closely with NHS leadership and qualified volunteer managers. These reservations should not preclude us from taking this opportunity to enshrine NHS volunteering as integral to active citizenship.

The value of volunteering to the NHS

The NHS has entered the winter season: a time of pressure on its staff and services. It is at this time of stress that volunteers can add the most value. There were 8 million missed hospital appointments last year. Winter pressures can lead to elective procedures being cancelled as resources reach their capacity. In these circumstances, every patient contact becomes crucial. Having a smiling volunteer is not only pleasant for patients, it means they can be ushered promptly to the places they need to be for their check-ups, tests and scans. These types of interactions are often under-appreciated, but are actually hugely important to both patients and the efficiency of the NHS, helping to oil the wheels.

We now have a better understanding of the effects of social and economic factors on health. The NHS was created after the publication of William Beveridge’s 1942 report, which argued that government should provide social security ‘from cradle to grave’. Volunteering can help us meet this goal.

Benefits of volunteering for individuals

For young people, volunteering in an NHS institution is an opportunity for meaningful work experience and civic engagement. Prospective employers view volunteering positively, and appropriately skills-matched volunteering can be a route to work. For those wishing to embark on a career in healthcare, work experience is highly sought after but is often reliant on personal contacts. An accredited hospital-volunteering programme may help widen access to these opportunities for all social groups.

We are seeing the negative health effects of social isolation, particularly among the older population. For the elderly, volunteering activities can facilitate social contact, stimulation and provide structure to the life of a volunteer.

A properly functioning, adequately staffed and well-funded NHS remains a foremost concern for the British public. Volunteering won’t make that any less important. Rather, it should be seen as our civic responsibility and a way to get the very best out of one of the finest health care systems in the world.

Na’eem Ahmed (@DrNaeemAhmed) has an interest in strategy and works as a doctor in London

Bruce Keogh (@DrBruceKeogh) is the former National Medical Director at NHS England and the current Chair of Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust

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