This article was first published in The Times Red Box on Tuesday 24 November 2020.
An NHS reservist service would continue a proud voluntary tradition
Britain’s reserve services are often our unsung heroes. From the RNLI’s lifeboat crews ready at a moment’s notice to save stricken sailors or swimmers to police special constables helping to keep our streets safe, these volunteers are people from all walks of life giving back to their communities.
This proud tradition of reservists and uniformed volunteering can trace its roots back to the start of the 20th century when the Territorial Army, now known as the Army Reserve, was formed before the First World War.
As well as deploying thousands of frontline soldiers including 71 who would be awarded the Victoria Cross, the Territorial Army also provided volunteer engineers and drivers, and staffed and ran all Britain’s military hospitals during the Great War. Over 7,000 volunteer nurses also served in the Territorial Army, with remarkable stories of courage commonplace. Daisy Dobbs, for example, was awarded the Military Medal in 1917 for continuing to treat patients despite being injured herself in an air raid.
The Territorial Army’s modern-day reservist counterparts, in all branches of our Armed Forces, continue to serve our country with distinction. They deployed in significant numbers to Afghanistan and Iraq, and played a key role in making the London 2012 Olympics a great success. More than 2,000 reservists were on duty, about 15 per cent of all the military personnel working at the Games.
In the same spirit, this year hundreds of thousands of volunteers have mobilised to join the fight against the coronavirus. More than 750,000 people have signed up to become NHS Volunteer Responders, and they have collectively completed more than a million tasks, from collecting prescriptions to making friendly phone calls to shielding patients.
These selfless citizens are continuing that very best of British traditions: volunteering to make our country a better place.
We now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build on the foundations laid by these NHS Volunteer Responders, and the 80,000 people who were already volunteering across all acute NHS trusts in England.
To harness their energy and commitment, we should launch the NHS Reserves.
This new reservist system for our health service, which I am proposing today in my House of Commons Bill, has the backing of the health secretary, Matt Hancock, and would be modelled on the proven armed forces reserves.
A new NHS Reserves framework would provide a more formal structure — and a uniform — for volunteers already working within the health service, and provide a route for retired NHS staff and recent leavers to continue contributing.
The NHS reservists would also be a vehicle to attract and retain highly skilled non-clinical professionals such as vehicle drivers, electricians, logistics specialists, IT experts, communications professionals and others with a trade or professional expertise to share.
Just like our other reserve services, NHS reservists would undertake regular training and clinical staff would have to keep their medical qualifications up to date. This would give patients reassurance that they would still be receiving the same high standards of treatment no matter who was caring for them.
In the same way that regular armed forces personnel work alongside highly trained reservists, NHS doctors and nurses would serve alongside health service reservist colleagues in a range of scenarios, from periods of seasonal increases in demand to responding to terrorist attacks, natural disasters, health and civil emergencies, and incidents such as traffic accidents.
Underpinning the NHS reservists would be a new national reservists register that would be a central source of information about volunteers and their skills. The register would be accessed by NHS trusts, hospital chief executives and other healthcare bodies when they needed to call-up reservists.
To turn my Bill into a reality, the health secretary is launching pilots in all seven NHS regions across England to explore how the NHS Reserves can work best in practice. I’ve also been encouraging MPs to sign-up to become NHS Reserves champions, promoting the initiative in their constituencies and calling on people to become NHS reservists when the scheme is rolled out nationally.
By launching the NHS Reserves we have a golden opportunity to create a positive, long-lasting legacy from the pandemic. This would build on our long tradition of establishing successful volunteer reserves, and I hope the NHS Reserves will be another part of the health service family that people from all backgrounds will be proud to join.
Alan Mak is MP for Havant and vice-chairman of the Conservative Party