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Unions bar trusts from including volunteers in staff numbers

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Volunteers must never be used by the NHS as a cheap substitute for trained nurses and other health staff, union chiefs have warned.

They made the caution in a new charter issued today to set out boundaries between the role of volunteers and paid professionals in England’s health service.

“The number of volunteers in English hospitals is expected to double by 2023”

Sara Gorton

One of the aims of guidance is to offer reassurance to those working in the NHS who may have concerns about the commitment in the NHS Long Term Plan to increase volunteering.

There are an estimated 78,000 volunteers providing help and support to patients in hospitals across England and that figure is expected to double by 2023.

Among the key principles enshrined in the charter, produced by a group of health unions including Unison, Unite and the Royal College of Midwives in partnership with Helpforce, a not-for-profit organisation that runs NHS volunteer programmes, are:

  • Volunteers must not undermine paid staff, with essential care tasks reserved for health employees;
  • Volunteers must never be included in the workforce numbers for individual trusts and they have to be clearly identified as volunteers.

The document also places responsbility on NHS trade unions to monitor at a local level how volunteers are deployed in organisations. 

It notes that common concerns from staff around the use of volunteers in the NHS include the fear that it will mask workforce shortages and will restrict the development of new job roles.

Volunteers taking on roles meant for trained staff is also listed as a worry often cited by employees, as well as the potential to affect patient safety and confidentiality.

Sara Gorton, chair of the health unions and Unison head of health, said: “The number of volunteers in English hospitals is expected to double by 2023. That’s why it’s vital staff, volunteers and their managers agree measures to protect themselves and the people who use the health service.

sara gorton for index

sara gorton for index

Sara Gorton

“The charter recognises the important contribution of those who give their time for free to an under-resourced NHS, as well as providing clarity for the way ahead,” she added.

Jon Skewes, executive director for external relations at the Royal College of Midwives, said the charter “brings clarity” to the role of volunteers in the NHS.

Sir Thomas Hughes-Hallett, chair and founder of Helpforce, said the document sought to reinforce best practice and create a national standard for NHS volunteering.

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