As restrictions ease, Fiona Liddell, Helpforce Cymru manager addresses questions of risk management for volunteering
As I write, the number of cases of COVID-19 in Wales are falling, encouragingly, after the sharp peak we saw at the beginning of the year. More than 75% of the population in Wales has had two vaccinations, with almost 60% having also had a booster jab (for more details, including regional data, check out Public Health Wales website).
By the end of March we expect to see the removal of all the remaining legal domestic protections and requirements that came into force in 2020.
But Coronavirus 19 has not gone away and there is still an onus on organisations to make decisions that are informed by their own assessment of the risks in their particular context. Voluntary organisations recognise their responsibility for the safety of volunteers, staff and service users and the trust which others place in them – which they do not want to lose or undermine. This means that control measures may still be kept in place if, on the basis of risk assessment, your organisation deems this to be necessary.
SHOULD VOLUNTEERS BE VACCINATED?
A question we have been asked by volunteer managers in recent weeks is ‘should we make it compulsory for volunteers to be vaccinated?’
The question arises from a desire to be cautious and responsible. However, this does need thinking through. A policy of mandatory vaccination would exclude those who for whatever reason fail to meet the standard (would that be defined by the number of jabs received, or by having been vaccinated within a given time period?). Unless there is a strong and well articulated case, this is likely to be a divisive practice and an infringement of volunteers’ privacy.
It is true that there was a move to introduce new regulations in England which would have required all workers in the wider health and social care sector who have face to face contact with patients to be vaccinated.
However, this proposal has been revoked for two main reasons. Omicron, now the dominant variant, is less severe than the previous Delta variant. And secondly, even a full course of an approved vaccine does not protect against the spread of COVID-19, in the way that was previously assumed.
Encouraging vaccination remains a priority for everyone. Each vaccination confers lasting additional protection against severe disease or death (although it should be noted that protection against being infected does seem to decline within weeks of vaccination).
The prudent advice therefore is to encourage volunteers to be vaccinated, but there are insufficient grounds to make this a general condition of volunteering.
We are becoming accustomed by now to the control measures that are available to us for managing coronavirus risks, namely wearing face masks, use of hand sanitizer, maintaining social distance, ensuring good ventilation, lateral flow testing and encouraging those who display symptoms of infection to stay away.
The measures that we ask volunteers to adopt depends on a local assessment of risks. Some measures, such as hand hygiene and staying at home when not well, may be regarded as good practice generally. Where risks are higher, due to the vulnerability of client groups or of volunteers, for example, additional precautions may be appropriate, such as lateral flow testing (whilst these are still freely available) or maintaining social distance.
Remember that risk assessment involves an all round consideration of four aspects: the building/environment, the client/service user group, the volunteers and the activity involved. Managing risk involves putting in place proportionate measures to reduce but not necessarily to eliminate it.
The Welsh Government All Wales COVID -19 Risk assessment tool is a useful means for volunteers to review their own personal risk, which can then inform discussion about what they are prepared and able to do and any adjustments that could be made to the volunteering activity or environment.
The experience of the pandemic has taught us that individuals vary in their tolerance of risk and this too needs to be considered: what one person concludes to be ‘safe and proportionate’ may still feel uncomfortable to others.
The best way to ensure a balanced and proportionate approach is to involve others in the process of risk assessment and to revisit it on a regular basis.
TAKING A LONGTERM VIEW
We need to be planning for the long term now; for a future in which COVID-19 is a part of the risk environment, along with influenza and other infectious viruses.
Over the past couple of years the incidence of ‘flu has fallen. Our assiduous attention to hand hygiene, social distancing and so on has prevented infection not only from Covid 19 but from other viruses too. General hygiene precautions should remain a priority and this maybe something that we have given inadequate attention to in the past.
With the end of Coronavirus legislation, the legal basis for our public health response reverts to what it was before the pandemic. Emergency measures gave organisations the right, or indeed the mandate, to collect personal data from volunteers, including health information such as test results and vaccination status. Once Covid legislation ceases to apply, GDPR becomes once again the primary guidance for what personal data can be collected and what are volunteers’ privacy rights.
The Information sheet Volunteering and Easing out of Lockdown was published last year at a time when stricter Covid restrictions were in force and most people’s vaccination status was not as good as it is now. It is still a useful guide to thinking about managing risk in the longer term.
The leaflet anticipates that ‘there will be a need for many organisations to be responsive to changing times, such as the demands of future coronavirus spikes…some of the changes that are necessary at this time could become embedded as new ways of working in the longer term’.
The possibility of new variants cannot be ruled out and if the situation required it, legislation in Wales could once again mandate additional measures such as we have seen over the past couple of years. Until such a time, this may be a positive opportunity to rethink our standard practice, ensuring that we have proportionate and sustainable measures in place, in order to respect and protect those who are vulnerable.
Helpforce Cymru is working with Third Sector Support Wales (WCVA and 19 CVCs), Welsh Government and other partners to develop the potential of volunteering to support health and social care services in Wales.