Frustrations of a Volunteer Vaccinator

10 February 2021  /  Updated 7 March 2021

by a Former Nurse

Back in November 2020, I read with interest on Lockdown Sceptics that St. John Ambulance were recruiting for volunteer vaccinators. The only qualifications required were to be educated to A-level standard, and perhaps have some sort of healthcare experience.

Being suitably qualified, and having spent time as a nurse in the 1980s, I decided to apply for three reasons:

1) To help speed up the end of lockdown and aid our (purported) swift return to normal life: “The distant bugle of the scientific cavalry coming over the brow of the hill.”

2) To help the NHS, so their staff could focus on clinical care and catching up on backlogs, rather than being diverted to mass-vaccination centres, thus “relieving pressure on the NHS” and the “threat of being overwhelmed”.

3) To get an inside view of proceedings and the vaccination roll-out.

I therefore applied on December 1st.

Initially things moved quite fast and I was interviewed, approved (with enhanced DBS) within a fortnight. However at that point the wheels came off the bus and applicants – including me – were being lost in the system. (I know this was widespread having spoken to fellow volunteers.)

The order of events should have been:

a) Submit online application.
b) Have an online interview.
c) Complete enhanced DBS.
d) Complete nine St. John Ambulance online courses.
e) Complete six NHS online courses.
f) Attend a face-to-face training day.
g) Submit certificates online & get uniform.
h) Download the rostering app and volunteer for shifts.

All sounds pretty straightforward right?

I began to get concerned when after the initial flurry of activity I heard nothing for quite a while. Eventually a young lady called me late in the evening around Christmas Eve, asking if I knew what stage I was at, as there was “a great deal of confusion”. I explained that I had been interviewed and approved and was waiting for access to the online courses.

In early January (having still not obtained access to any of the online courses) I received a number of emails and phone calls congratulating me on “completing the online courses successfully”, and inviting me to book my face-to-face training. (I even received one phone call asking me which shifts I could commit to.) I explained to each one, with ever-increasing frustration, that I could not book face-to-face training, nor commit to shifts as I’d not yet even received logins to access the courses.

By now I was running out of ideas as to how to progress things, having emailed and called every department I could think of with no success, so I decided to go ahead and book the face-to-face training anyway (at least that way I thought I could see a human being and try to sort out the course access, and perhaps complete them then & there?).

I therefore booked the face-to-face training day for the second week in January.

At the end of the first week in January, I finally gained access to the NHS portal and hastily completed the six modules required. As my face-to-face training day was now only a few days away, and I still had no access to the SJA portal, I decided to complete NHS courses which looked roughly equivalent to the nine modules required, so at least I could provide certificates covering most subject areas (even if not the right ones).

Luckily around this point a very helpful young lady from SJA called to ask (again) if I could book my face-to-face training, which I (again) patiently explained I had already done, and also told her all about the online training fiasco. She valiantly took up my case, and on the day before my face-to-face training I finally received access to the SJA courses and managed to complete them just in time.

The face-to-face training day itself was very good, and the St. John Ambulance team were professional, thorough and friendly. We had a fabulous lunch courtesy of a local restaurant, and the press were in attendance. It was a lovely public picture of well-ordered industriousness. We were issued with ID cards, training passports and T-shirts at the end of the day.

Back in the real world I continued to receive random emails with further links to portals, websites, training etc. After a while I chose to ignore them all as it seemed obvious they’d gone from losing me in the system completely, to now creating multiple versions of me in their records!

During the third week in January I received a link to the app used by SJA to book vaccination shifts. There was at the time only one site available for volunteers to apply to in our region (in a large city) so I booked to cover a shift every week (taking the day off work each week to do so).

My first shift was in the last week of January 2021 (nine weeks after initially applying to volunteer).

I arrived for the 2pm-8pm shift, and it immediately became obvious that volunteers were, by and large, superfluous to requirements: Despite our training and preparation, almost all St. John volunteers were assigned roles which could be generously described as ‘meet and greet’, but mainly involved giving out leaflets and standing at cold doors with nothing to do.

The place was full-to-bursting with NHS clinical staff. There were so many in fact that a good number were kicking their heels and just watching the proceedings. One nurse told me that they daren’t leave their vaccination posts for a break, as if they did so their tables would be snapped up by other staff with nothing to do.

As the second vaccination site had now become ‘live’ and was better positioned geographically for me (and located in a more rural area), I decided to change my shifts to volunteer at that site in the hope they might actually need volunteers!

The evening before my first shift (8am-2pm) I received an email to say the shift had been cancelled as the NHS didn’t require volunteers at this time. The following week was also cancelled, so I contacted St. John’s local team to find out what was going on.

I was told that the NHS team managing the site had informed them they currently had “no need for volunteers”. In addition, the original vaccination site (in the large city) now also didn’t require volunteer vaccinators, only ‘advocates’ and ‘carers’ (aka ‘meet and greeters’) so despite all our training, commitment, frustrations and efforts, there is at present nowhere in our region where a St. John Ambulance volunteer vaccinator (50 trained at present) can actually carry out vaccinations!

As well as being extremely frustrating, this is also very strange as we are constantly hearing how the NHS is at risk of being ‘overwhelmed’ and needs ‘protecting’, yet when given a perfect opportunity for volunteers to pick up the slack and do the bulk of work at mass vaccination centres, the NHS instead choose to divert hundreds of staff from hospitals into the mass-vaccination centres, turning down offers of help from perfectly capable volunteers.

Perhaps giving vaccinations in a huge centre with media coverage and thousands of grateful citizens, is more ‘glamorous’ than preparing a patient for hip surgery or carrying out cancer screenings, but I was under the impression that the whole point of the exercise was for us to all work together, and that should obviously include the NHS accepting qualified offers of help.

I’m still signed onto shifts until the end of the month (there are currently no March dates showing at all on the rostering app), but whether the NHS will require our services or these shifts will also cancelled remains to be seen. In the meantime you know where to find the extra nurses if they’re short in your hospital.