New Government guidance on using volunteers during the pandemic


28 January 2021

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the UK charity sector has been severe, with the dilution of fundraising opportunities, and the growing demand for services as communities self-isolate and vulnerable people require additional support.

Back in the spring of 2020, many charities swiftly pivoted to provide new services or modified services to comply with safety measures, and have done so again in light of the new B.1.1.7 variation of the virus taking hold in the South and East of England and the renewed Government restrictions. Many experienced volunteers have been unable to continue their work in the same capacity due to shielding, self-isolating or being in a high-risk group, leaving charities to face new challenges in many cases whilst both under-funded and under-resourced.

It is in this context that the British public has been urged to play their part in supporting their local communities, and it is reported that individuals have flocked to join volunteering endeavours across the country – perhaps as a result of decreased existing work commitments. It is therefore more important than ever to consider the wellbeing and safety of your volunteers, particularly where they are in the community. On 13 November 2020, the Government published new guidance for organisations in England on how to involve volunteers safely and effectively during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The guidance reminds charities of their duty of care to ensure that volunteers are not exposed to risks to their health and safety. The British Red Cross has prepared a training video and quiz, which you can ask all volunteers to complete to help them volunteer safely and in line with Government restrictions. It confirms that the conditions that must be met in order to volunteer outside the home are as below:

  1. In line with the national approach to going to work, the nature of the work must be such that working from home is not reasonably possible. In order to comply with this guidance, you will need to carefully assess each volunteer role and consider whether any adaptations can be made so that it can be done from home.
  2. The volunteer does not need to self-isolate. You can ask all volunteers to download the NHS Test and Trace app (although you cannot force them), and put procedures in place to ensure that volunteers self-assess for COVID-19 symptoms before leaving the house. Promoting a culture of caution in this respect is important too.
  3. The volunteer is not clinically extremely vulnerable, (i.e. those who are 70 and over or have been contacted by the NHS or their GP to confirm that they are on the Shielded Patient List). Of course, even if volunteers are not in the high risk category, they may not be comfortable leaving the home to volunteer and the guidance clarifies that volunteering (especially outside the home) is a personal choice and organisations cannot pressure individuals to work in circumstances where they might feel uncomfortable. You should consider how such individuals might be able to remain involved in your organisation. All volunteers may require additional support to follow social distancing rules and minimise contact with others.
  4. The volunteer follows social distancing rules. When volunteering in a workplace or where social distancing is difficult then you must take steps to ensure your workplace is COVID-secure in line with HSE guidance. Organisations should display this notice in their place of work as a guide and reassurance to volunteers. Volunteers can meet in groups or with others from outside their household, but they must observe the Government’s ‘Hands Face Space’ key behaviours. If travelling is essential, volunteers should where possible only travel locally (meaning avoiding leaving the village, or part of the town where they live unless absolutely necessary). Face masks should normally be worn indoors, particularly if volunteers are coming into contact with people that they do not normally meet or if they cannot stay more than one metre apart.

The guidance usefully restates the Government’s message that volunteers classified as being in critical worker roles are allowed to send their children to school or other educational settings. It also confirms earlier guidance that those who are in receipt of benefits and payments through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme can volunteer. Despite calls from the third sector for employees furloughed by charities to be allowed to perform voluntary work for them, furloughed employees are still not permitted to volunteer for their own employer or any organisation linked to it. It is important that organisations adhere to this rule.

If you require advice on any employment or volunteering matters for your charity, please get in touch with Sonya O’Reilly or another member of Birketts’ Employment Team.

This article is from the January 2021 issue of Essential Trustee, our newsletter for charity trustees and senior management. To download the latest issue, please visit the newsletter section of our website. To keep up-to-date with the latest news, legal updates and seminar information, please register and select the areas that are of interest to you.

The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at January 2021.

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