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Supporting vulnerable people during Covid-19

Who will support the shielded after lockdown is lifted, ask Duncan Shaw and Margaret Harris.

Speculation about who will be ‘released’ first from the UK lockdown has focused primarily on the least vulnerable, such as school-age children and adults with no underlying health problems.

But it has also focused on those who may remain in isolation, the so-called ‘shielded group’ of around 1.5 million people, those who are classed in the most high-risk category of vulnerable people and who have certain health conditions that would make then more susceptible to health-related complications from COVID-19.

As we now consider what ‘living with COVID-19’ means for this shielded group, there are important questions for local authorities, volunteers and the voluntary sector to answer.

New volunteers

In the UK’s early days of COVID-19, government organisations decided to quickly attract a vast number of new volunteers thought to be needed for social and health support, including to the shielded group. In some cases this was enabled through partnerships with the voluntary sector, for example NHS Volunteer Responders with the Royal Voluntary Service and GoodSAM, and pre-Covid relationships between local authorities and voluntary organisations.

In other cases, local authorities became a recruiter and manager of volunteers, essentially creating a spontaneous volunteer management arm organised by redeployed local authority staff.

Similar speed has been needed from the NHS and other organisations to identify those in the shielded group. Membership of this group is still changing either because people have needed to be added because they were missed off the original list or have since experienced deteriorating health, or have been subsequently removed from the list.

To help the shielded group, 750,000 volunteers registered with the NHS Volunteer Responders programme and countless others volunteered to help local initiatives, community activities and, informally, their family, friends and neighbours.

In many local authorities a new volunteer base was created almost overnight, one populated in large part by people with new found spare time during lockdown and organised by redeployed local authority staff. The tasks for these volunteers included food and medicine delivery and social support to the shielded group.

Living with COVID-19

The big question now is how will this shielded group be supported after lockdown ends if the COVID-19 volunteer army diminishes as they return to their own normal lives? And, how will the volunteering management arms be organised if redeployed local authority staff return to their jobs?

Furthermore, despite the rise in COVID-19 volunteering, the charity and voluntary sector is currently under enormous strain due to anticipated and actual major falls in donations and other income, and it is feared many could disappear over coming months just as they become most crucial.

So, if voluntary organisations do not survive the crisis, or do in a much smaller form, how can they be enabled to partner with local authorities? And, if the charity and voluntary sector is significantly smaller then who will recruit, train and manage volunteers?


These questions take on a new significance when considering that ‘living with COVID-19’ is expected to be prolonged. This means that the shielded group may increase in numbers as more people are added to it, while new practical, social and psychological needs emerge too.

And then we also need to consider that the government estimate there are around 19 million vulnerable people who are in an ‘at risk’ group, some of whom (along with other people) may self-isolate after lockdown is lifted thus increasing requests for volunteer support.

There seems then to be a high probability that a social support vacuum will emerge following the lifting of the lockdown in which the shielded group are the most vulnerable. Thus, several questions for local authorities follow:

  • Which of the tasks needed to support the shielded group are suitable for volunteers both in the short and long term?
  • What training is needed for those tasks, and when does training need to begin?
  • How can the COVID-19 volunteer cadre be motivated to move into new (perhaps less time-consuming) roles once their own lives become busy?
  • Should we think in terms of a temporary cadre of COVID-19 volunteers who will help through the interim period until ‘living with COVID-19’ is normality for everyone?
  • How can charities and voluntary organisations be supported to contribute to the recruitment, training and management of COVID-19 volunteers?
  • Is there scope to support charities and voluntary organisations by commissioning volunteering-related services from them to support shielded group and other vulnerable people?
  • What funding is needed for these arrangements, and whose responsibility is it to find that funding?
  • What partnerships with charities and voluntary organisations can be initiated or deepened to lead this effort?
  • How can volunteering management arms of local authorities gradually be handed over to the voluntary sector, and when should this start?

Supporting charities and voluntary organisations now can prevent losing them to the effect of COVID-19 and having to re-energise an entire sector. So, as we begin thinking about recovery, designing charities and voluntary organisations into present and future solutions is essential as the shielded group, other vulnerable people, and local authorities will rely on them (like they have done before) to fill the social support vacuum.

Margaret Harris researcher


Margaret Harris is Emeritus Professor of Voluntary Sector Organisation at the University of Aston, UK.

Blog posts give the views of the author, and are not necessarily those of Alliance Manchester Business School and The University of Manchester.

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