The NHS could gain a pool of reservists similar to those provided for the police and army under a proposal to extend the coronavirus volunteer scheme after the pandemic.
Health secretary Matt Hancock has signalled his support for a private members’ bill that could see the creation of a system comparable to the one used by police special constables and armed forces reservists.
The bill by Tory backbench MP Alan Mak will be introduced under the ten-minute rule in parliament on Tuesday 24 November looks to set up a uniformed reserve of volunteers for hospitals to draw on when demand is high.
Such periods could include public health emergencies, wintertime pressures, large public events, industrial action, and critical incidents such as terrorist attacks.
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About 47,000 former heath workers volunteered to help the NHS during the coronavirus crisis, according to Department of Health and Social Care figures, with 18,000 thought to be open to having a longer-term role.
Hancock has said he would support Mak’s bill, and said: “Hundreds of thousands of people have selflessly volunteered to support our NHS during the coronavirus pandemic, bringing out the very best in us all to help our communities and our country at this difficult time.
“I want us to build on that incredible collective achievement, and Alan Mak’s proposal for an NHS Reserve force is a brilliant opportunity to make this happen.”
Mak, who is a Conservative Party vice-chairman, said the system would create “a positive, long-lasting legacy after coronavirus that will benefit the health service for years to come”.
“The pandemic has shown how much people love our NHS and how ready they are to support the health service when times are tough,” he added.
A national NHS reservists register would be created under the proposals. NHS trusts and hospitals would have access to the register and would be able to contact volunteers with relevant skills.
A wide range of skills would be on offer from retired doctors and nurses, IT experts, electricians, drivers, logistics specialists, and communications specialists.
During the pandemic a further 750,000 people signed up to help the NHS as non-clinical volunteers, delivering groceries to those who are self-isolating and driving people to hospital and GP surgeries for appointments.
Other Tory MPs who have given their support to the proposal include Jeremy Hunt, chairman of the Commons health select committee, and Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers.
For health service workers union Unison, however, the plan did not address a leading priority. Head of health, Sara Gorton, said: “Without the thousands of ex-health workers who returned to help out earlier in the year, the NHS would have struggled. Establishing a permanent volunteer register would be a good idea, but it’s not the most pressing concern.
“Near the top of the government’s list must be a proper plan of action to fill the 100,000 plus vacancies across the NHS. This would help both patients and staff alike.
“This week the chancellor must announce the money to fund a decent pay rise for all NHS staff this year. This would allow the NHS to hold onto experienced staff and attract much-needed new recruits.”