Meet the nation’s volunteers

An army of more than 750,000 people have galvanised into action to help those most vulnerable during the Covid-19 pandemic.

On Tuesday 24th March 2020 health secretary Matt Hancock issued a rallying cry. We are seeking a quarter of a million volunteers, people in good health, to help the NHS,” he said, for shopping and for delivery of medicines, and to support those who are shielded to protect their own health.” 

Few could have predicted the response.

In just 24 hours, over 400,000 people had answered the call, signing up to the Government’s new volunteering scheme, NHS Volunteers Responders. To date, more than 750,000 people have applied; an army of volunteers galvanised into action, risking their own health for the vulnerable.

Yet this just one of the charitable initiatives that has been set in motion in recent weeks. Since the deadly COVID-19 hit our shores, a range of support groups, projects and enterprises have arisen across the UK, offering a wealth of services to those in need. Staffed by people of all ages, notably, an impressive number of young adults have come to the fore. 

Here, some of them tell their stories.

Keren Jemima, 22, Geography Student

Kanlungan is an alliance of community organisations based in London providing support to Filipino migrants living in the UK. In Tagalog, Kanlungan means To Shelter” and I’ve known about the organisation all my life; it gave help to my parents when they needed it.

When I started at King’s College London, I wanted to get involved in supporting the Filipino community and volunteered to be Kanlungan’s secretary. At that time this just meant checking their inbox and responding to emails. Now, in the midst of this terrible crisis, everything’s stepped up. We are delivering aid to people in difficulties and offering advice on a range of issues, from housing to employment.

I am one of the main points of contact, which means I am always on call. If we get requests, I initiate group chats, delegate tasks to volunteers and log our activity on spreadsheets.

I recently did my first telephone consultation, which was very upsetting. I got a call from someone who said both she and her partner had been laid off due to coronavirus. She asked if I knew of any jobs going, and I sent her links to openings in her area. Afterwards, she sent me an email – it was really lovely – saying thank you so much for your help”. Further down, in the last couple of sentences, she revealed what had made it really difficult for her. She had suffered a miscarriage; emotionally and physically she could not work. It just happened at the wrong time.

After I read the email, I called my Mum – who is a nurse – and I just cried. I said to her, Mum, this is so much harder than I thought it was going to be.” She’s been in nursing all her life and she replied: It is upsetting. But the one rule of serving people is, they don’t want to hear you upset. They want to know that you’re always going to be there for them.”

Some of the requests we get make me very anxious. One of our volunteers had to drop groceries to a domestic worker who claimed that she wasn’t able to leave the house at the orders of her employer. Overseas domestic workers’ legal rights are completely different to normal Filipino migrant workers’. It makes you really worry about what some of them might be experiencing in the lockdown. We don’t know what’s going on inside when we do those deliveries – all that we can do is drop groceries by the door and answer their calls.

I did my first delivery in Lewisham. Two Filipino migrants had developed symptoms and were self-isolating. They had issued a request for rice, eggs, salt and other basic groceries. As I was nearest, I volunteered to make the journey. Within an hour, I had bought a bike, been to Tesco’s, joined the queues and cycled to Lewisham. I left food by their door and waved to them at the window. Then I cycled away.

I’m not from London – I grew up in Dorset – and I don’t really know the city’s streets. When you see the roads empty, you think, why? And then you remember. A couple of times en route, I asked myself whether I should be doing this and what would happen if I got the virus? The death toll is going up and I was potentially exposing myself to someone who had it. But I comforted myself that we have been given guidelines by Kanlungan – drop by the door, stay well away – and as long as you adhere to them, and the Government’s advice, you will be safe.

It felt heart-warming having done the drop off; to know that I had managed to help someone out.

Ben, 24, Actor

A month ago, I had started doing drop-offs for a friend of mine who had just had knee surgery. I began by bringing him a couple of beers, but it developed into a weekly shop. I have been part of the student task app UniTaskr for a couple of years and saw they had launched a Task4Help non-for-profit in response to coronavirus. It was never a thought in my mind that I needed to start volunteering – it was more, helping a friend, which led to using the app, and then doing my bit.

How Task4Help works is, people upload requests onto the website and you scroll through to see if there’s one nearby that you can help with. At the moment it’s more requests from the elderly, pregnant women and those with existing health conditions who don’t want to put themselves at risk. Tasks vary, but predominantly it’s weekly shops or picking things up.

I think it’s very beneficial. There is a high concentration of people in London but some, especially the elderly, don’t talk to a lot of people. Often I find what they actually need is conversation – although obviously, I’m careful to keep my two-metre distance and we never enter their properties. We just drop food off near the door.

Something I have implemented with the elderly people I deliver to is to tell them: Hey, I’ve hopefully got an acting role coming up in a show set during the War. Would you mind telling me a story about that time?”. It’s more so that when I next do a delivery, they can tell me things they have remembered. When you leave their doorstep, you don’t want them to shut the door thinking: Right, well, that’s my only contact for the week done and dusted.” I want them to think: When Ben comes next time I can tell him this story because it will be really beneficial.”

Being a volunteer means being as careful as possible. I wear gloves and a mask, which is pretty much the norm now. You don’t want to put yourself in jeopardy because you want to continue to be able to offer your services. You do worry though – the other day for instance, I was stood in a queue to go to Tesco’s and a man, six feet behind me, started coughing. On any other day, I’d have just thought: Oh, maybe he’s a smoker.” But immediately my head went to: Could he have it?” If you follow the Government’s guidelines, that’s all anyone can do.

I love the level of camaraderie between people, especially in the queues outside supermarkets. People nod at each other, and there’s a bit of: Hi, how are you doing?”. Sometimes I go in and think I’m probably not the only one in there who is shopping for another person. People have families, friends and neighbours who they are looking out for. And I think that is such a great thing.

Kanishka, 30, MBA student

I was studying for an MBA in the US when news of coronavirus spreading to the UK hit the headlines. I was super worried about my parents, so I took the first flight back to be with them. 

They run a high street law firm in Cardiff – where I grew up – advising small businesses. Pretty soon after the pandemic was announced they started getting calls from people saying they couldn’t pay their rent and weren’t sure if they could keep going. I realised many of my memories from Cardiff were linked to those businesses – teashops and coffee shops where I’d been on coffee dates. It gave me an idea. 

I called up a couple of nearby curry restaurants that I knew were facing cash flow issues and brainstormed ways in which I might be able to help. What came out of those conversations was the need to spread the word that they, and other businesses like them, were in trouble. So together with two friends – Eddie in Oxford and Merle in London – and with no tech background, we set up a makeshift website on WordPress, which we named HelpYourHighStreet​.org. Pretty soon, we got help from Steve, a software engineer volunteer from Bristol.

We listed 100 shops that we particularly liked – small, independent businesses such as coffee shops, bakeries, florists and the barber where I get my haircut – and encouraged people to either order from them online, or order from them for the future. Some, for instance, were offering a gift cards which can be redeemed in four months’ time when they’re back up and running. It’s a great way for businesses to get cash today to stay afloat.

We launched on Monday 30th March, and what’s been validating is that in only a week, 500 businesses have signed up. Jess Phillips MP also gave us a nice shout out on Twitter, which helped.

On the site, we also listed a couple of volunteer matching platforms, such as the global organisation HelpWithCovid​.com. Through them, our team as has grown to 12 people, based primarily in London, Bristol, Cardiff and Oxford.

Our primary goal is to get the word out about helping local businesses. The second is to systemically organise deliveries, matching the elderly especially with shops capable of getting groceries to them. 

It’s like a full-time job. Most of us are online by 9am, figuring out our priorities through Slack. I usually spend the next seven hours working on the site – in fact, most of my social engagements now happen through it, which sounds a bit sad, but we’re all focused on a shared goal and that’s quite fulfilling. 

I mostly stay indoors as I’m paranoid about my parents contracting the virus. Both of them are over 60 and have underlying health conditions. Owing to the US time difference, my MBA classes start at 9pm and go on till 2:30am – so it’s a pretty weird situation, being sat in my parents’ living room, day and night. I’m sure I’m going to end up being very fat by the end of it.

My passion for local businesses is partly why I’m running our website, but also concern for those whose jobs are being impacted. The husband of a family friend runs one of the nearby takeaways and has been asked to not do it any more. There are a bunch of stories like that. Most of us who are not medically trained are feeling a desperate urge to do something to help in this crisis. And I think that’s what’s driving me and the other 11 folks who are currently helping out.

Emily, 28, Medical Student

I was working on placement in a hospital when the pandemic was announced. Soon after, my university – Leicester Medical School – said all placements were cancelled for the foreseeable future. I felt helpless because I wanted to be out there, but at the same time, it was understandable. A lot of us were working in oncology blocks with patients having cancer treatment and getting the virus would potentially kill them. We completely respected the decision, and a number of us have since put ourselves forward to become Health Care Assistants at local hospitals.

For the last two weeks, my four housemates and I have been isolating because my partner – who is a doctor, and has been living with us – had developed coronavirus symptoms. During that time, we signed up to the Leicester arm of a new grassroots project called COVID-19 Mutual Aid UK. The idea was to recruit community aiders to cover every street in Leicester, meaning every household would have someone to contact should they need help.

It’s been very successful and through our social media strategy we have managed to amass over 1,000 responders. They came to our house to pick up flyers (left outside our door), filled in their details, ticked the boxes of the services they could offer, then posted them through the doors of the homes on their designated street.

We’ve since had some great feedback. One letter said: I’m one of those oldies who is shortly going into self-isolation… Thank you for spreading some kindness during this COVID virus crisis”. Another lady, who remembers the Co-op in the War, said she was so relieved to receive the flyer. These messages bring home why we’re doing it and who we’re doing it for.

Now we’re finally out of isolation, we’ve been flyering the last few streets yet to be assigned a helper, putting our own details down instead. The worst thing would be to miss a little pocket of the city where there are vulnerable people. 

I delivered my first food package this week. A request came in from BBC Radio Leicester saying a lady was self-isolating and couldn’t access her money and therefore wasn’t able to get food. I immediately messaged a contact at the Leicester Community Services, who had been in touch to say if I ever needed food parcels he could help. The guys there are incredible; they’ve been making food packages and going to hospitals to give all the staff hot food. My contact got back to me straight away and within the hour, I had met him and dropped off four bags, full of supplies, with the lady. It felt really good. 

Yesterday, I received word that a man needed help. I rang him on the assumption he also required food, but it quickly became apparent he was struggling with mental health issues. And then he just started talking. He opened up, as though he knew me like a friend. I listened and appreciated how rubbish his situation was. That’s all you can do. I offered to speak to him every week, or put him in touch with relevant mental health services. He said he was OK for now, and that he knew where we were if he needed us.

Last weekend I visited a local GP who I’m going to start babysitting for so she can carry on working. It’s a scheme I came across on Twitter, where medical students sign up as babysitters for doctors and other medics, getting matched based on their respective locations. It’s such a good idea, not least because medical students have already had their Police Checks and DBS Clearance so it can be easily worked out.

My biggest concern is spreading the virus to someone who couldn’t cope with it. I’m also anxious about someone in our house developing symptoms meaning we’d have to go back into isolation. We are all anxious about that, and we’re doing everything we can to prevent it. At our front door we have a doffing station where anyone who has been working in a hospital gets changed before coming into the house. We have a dirty box and a clean box, and we sterilise everything before it comes in. After undressing, we go straight to the shower.

In times like this, helping people seems like the natural thing to do. There’s been nothing like this in our generation, so we need to rally together. Every day we hear stories about what this is doing to NHS workers and just how awful it is to be out there on the front line. Knowing that just makes me want to do everything I can. I know I am volunteering on a number of fronts and at some point I will have to start saying No”. But for as long as I can, I’m spreading myself as much as I can. You’ve just got to do what you can, don’t you?


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