NHS volunteering during coronavirus: ‘These four months have been both rewarding and humbling’

Harry Taylor volunteered to distribute scrubs during lockdown.

Harry Taylor volunteered to distribute scrubs during lockdown. - Credit: Harry Taylor

If you had told me in February that I’d be responsible for the fashion choices of 200 people a day, I would never have believed you. Especially not with my dress sense.

Harry (left) with volunteers Richard Sugar and Rui Mendes hand out scrubs. Picture: Royal Free Hospi

Harry (left) with volunteers Richard Sugar and Rui Mendes hand out scrubs. Picture: Royal Free Hospital - Credit: Royal Free Hospital

Yet for the last four months, I’ve leapt out of bed at 5.30am three or four times a week, and helped kit out the doctors, nurses and staff with scrubs at the Royal Free Hospital during coronavirus.

The job was half-market trader, half-weary parent of a toddler. Taking orders, greeting staff as they come on shift, having a chat to those on their way home, making sure the queue’s being kept down, having a bit of a laugh and a joke with people and trying to make sure they leave with a smile on their face - while, at the same time, assuring some of the choosier ones that yes, it should fit; no, we don’t have another size; yes, these are all the colours we have today; and that I know it’s a bit creased but it’ll have to do. Everyone fears turning into their parents, and I came close to repeating the words of mine twenty years ago, telling me and my siblings to hurry up and that it “isn’t a fashion show”.

I say all of that with great affection for the staff and total admiration for the work they do. Add that to the gratitude for the impact it had on me.

The reason I got into journalism, in the loftiest of senses, was to make a difference. To change things, speak for the voiceless, hold power to account and ultimately leave things better than when I found them. As eagle-eyed Ham&High readers may have noted, by the time Covid hit, I’d left to become a sub editor at the Guardian. A crucial role, but not one that has you close to the action. So when a global crisis hit, I lacked that opportunity to make a difference. We were told that the way to help was by staying at home. The paradox of action through inaction. I was left like a substitute on the bench, a bundle of energy, wanting to get on the pitch and do my bit.

But it was more than that.

Late last year my mental health was not in a good shape. Nothing too serious, certainly nothing I ever saw a doctor about, but I was in the midst of a prolonged nadir. The general election gave me some metaphorical PVA glue to patch myself back together, six weeks of 12-hour days will do that. But eventually, to 99% of the electorate’s relief, that eventually ended. I tied up my loose ends here, and left the newspaper as the fireworks went off on the Embankment on New Years’ Eve. In the game of musical chairs that is life, the music stopped, and I looked for somewhere to sit. Mentally, all the chairs had been taken away.

By the time of Covid - things had improved. Just. But the chance to volunteer gave me a new found purpose. I practically skipped to the tube station on my first day, unheard of for me at 5.45am. I could finally make a difference.

READ MORE: Royal Free: Trust celebrates staff with ‘hero’ pins as volunteers sign off

So that was it, three times a week I’d finish work at the Guardian between 12.30am and 1am and I’d be walking through the Royal Free’s doors, nodding to the security guard at 6.45am. As a reporter you learn to live off little sleep, but I could hardly complain, I was turning up and giving out scrubs - not exactly going through the stresses and strains of staff documented in the BBC’s excellent Hospital documentary.

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Among the staff I worked alongside were the hospital’s porters, whose duties include moving the bodies of patients who had died of Covid-19. I heard the stories first hand and saw how emotionally drained they all were at the height of the pandemic. I hope they get the support they might need in the future.

The porters can sometimes seem like the forgotten warriors of the war against Covid. In football jargon, compared to the flashy, technically gifted doctors and nurses who get the plaudits, the porters are the shuttling midfielders. The N’Golo Kantes, Granit Xhakas or Harry Winks’ of the game. They’re breaking up the play, doing the hard, heavy work and allowing the more technically gifted players to perform. They’re the key cog in the machine, without whom the team wouldn’t function. The same can be said of the hospital. Without porters, the system would break down within minutes. They deserve far more recognition than they get.

Despite the thousands of new cases every day, you can be fooled into thinking the virus has been “sent packing”. If you squint in many scenarios now, you would struggle to tell the difference between now and a year ago. Regardless, I hope some of the lessons aren’t forgotten.

It would be easy now for so many of us to retreat behind our front doors, draw the curtains and go back to our old ways. For far too long, as a country we’ve shunned the idea of community and society, with neither major political party able to properly articulate an argument for it. One of the heartening things has been how many people have stepped up and realised that we owe a duty to our neighbours, and our community - from the Hampstead Volunteer Corps to the incredible work of the Camden New Journal’s Dan Carrier, and many other groups across the country. Let this not be lost.

We need to value our NHS and its staff more. Analysis has shown that the poorer, unsurprisingly, have been hit hardest by Covid-19. Overcrowded housing, insecure work, and low savings, all contribute to a vicious circle.

This crisis, whether through a vaccine, herd immunity or fatigue, will pass. There are other, less virulent, health problems out there that haven’t gone away; obesity, diabetes, loneliness.

Governments and local authorities alike need to take steps to improve preventative health measures, and citizens need to take more responsibility for their health.

Both would allow resources inside hospitals and clinics to be better directed for better outcomes.

NHS staff deserve a proper long-term pay rise from the government after this. The idea of giving medals is fine, but it won’t help pay the bills. You cannot talk about NHS staff as heroes unless you reward them as such.

Last week the volunteering ended with one of the most humbling moments of my life as doctors and nurses turned out to applaud and thank us.

As I said to them, it’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done - but as wonderful as it’s been - I hope not to return. A recall would mean something, somewhere, has gone badly wrong and we’re about to return to the bleak days of Covid.

Fingers crossed that summons does not come.