“Oh, Penny, I’d heard you were volunteering here!”

The woman behind the mask, arriving for her Covid vaccination, is a near neighbour, as is one of the other volunteers on this shift. At our local vaccine centre, you never know who you might see. People you’ve not caught up with for months, because of the restrictions on meeting or congregating in person. School mates of my children who are now all grown up. Their teachers.

The word spreads on social media too. Local (borough, neighbourhood) and ultra local (street) social networks are full of people talking about Covid-19 vaccinations: discussions on the merits of different vaccines, getting an appointment, having had the jab, and who they bumped into (in a socially distanced way, of course) at the vaccine centre.

This got me thinking about the impact on patients of seeing a ‘familiar face’ – or anticipating that you might.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

I’ve been volunteering at two centres in Hackney: Bocking Street (affectionately known as Bockingham Palace) and John Scott (Britain’s first purpose-built NHS health centre). The centres have been set up and are run by City & Hackney GP Confederation, which is a not-for-profit community interest company supporting 42 independent member GP practices working together to improve primary care in this part of London.

informality reduces tension and anxiety

Alex Chase is the COVID Vaccines Volunteering Manager at the Volunteer Centre Hackney, which is organising volunteer stewards for both centres. He agrees that:

“If you know someone who’s volunteering, it helps you feel reassured about the vaccine. It also makes coming to the vaccine centre a bit of a social occasion – a rare opportunity to meet and chat with real people. This makes the experience better for patients, and that shows through when they tell their friends about it.”

Because the volunteers want to be there, there’s a surprisingly light-hearted atmosphere. People are greeted by someone who is cheerful, energetic and friendly, even while asking the screening questions which are part of keeping the virus out of the site. That so many of the volunteers seem to have done bar work, events or worked in creative or performance sectors undoubtedly helps.

“Have you got a temperature, a new continuous cough, a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste?”

“My breakfast was as delicious as always this morning!”

“Glad to hear it. Congratulations! You get to go to the doorway, where you’ll have your temperature taken by my lovely colleague.”

Alex says this informality reduces tension and anxiety. Certainly the word cloud created from the hundreds of feedback forms has the word ‘friendly’ standing out boldly in the middle. And people who’ve seen the centre in action have come back to volunteer.

Wordcloud of feedback

Volunteers have also supplemented the phone-based interpreter service, speaking Turkish, French, Portuguese and Mandarin when people don’t have a family member to help them out. Confidence that you are understanding the medical questions and that your answers are being understood is a huge reassurance.

The familiarity and personal contact people have built up [...] meant the sessions “booked up in no time”

It’s not completely unproblematic, of course. Volunteers tend to be people who have spare time, unused energy and financial security. In my part of London, that means the volunteer vaccine stewards tend to be whiter and more middle class that the general population. Not everyone who comes along will be seeing their friends, neighbours and family reflected back at them from behind the mask.

So it’s great that as well as the vaccination sessions which anyone eligible can book in to, in our area the City & Hackney GP Confederation has worked closely with Hatzola (a local volunteer ambulance service set up over 40 years ago), to organise vaccination sessions for the local Charedi community of strictly Orthodox Jewish people on Saturday evenings (after Shabbat).

Yoel Friedman, a Hatzola organizer, tells me that although members of the community had been going along to the general vaccination sessions at the John Scott Centre too, the special post-Shabbat sessions attracted what he jokingly calls “sell-out crowds” because there is so much confidence in Hatzola already. The familiarity and personal contact people have built up, coupled with really good access to targeted communication channels like community newspapers, local WhatsApp groups and via synagogues, meant the sessions “booked up in no time”.

No doubt more community-led and supported sessions will be organised for other parts of the community as needed. Elsewhere in the UK, community vaccinators from across diverse communities are being trained. Vaccines are being given in community centres, mosques, gudwaras, churches and even in a VaxiTaxi! Experimentation is emerging where people put their hands up and say ‘we can offer this’ and ‘it would work for my community if you did that’.

people just want to roll their sleeves up and help each other

It’s been estimated that over 12 million adults have volunteered in the UK during the pandemic in everything from professionally coordinated vaccine trials to spontaneous mutual aid groups or simply knocking on neighbours’ doors to check up on them. In Hackney, the response has been so huge that there are currently nearly 650 people on the vaccine stewarding register.

My experience is that people who are volunteering to support vaccinations at the moment are a pretty uncynical bunch, glad to have a good reason to leave their homes and put their skills and energy towards a clear purpose at a time when so much is uncertain and strange.

Volunteers provide a flexible, low-cost resource which can be deployed fairly quickly, perfect for the vaccine roll-out workforce. They bring with them the intangible extra benefit of myriad local connections and positive attitudes.

And most of all, people just want to roll their sleeves up and help each other.

This piece is part of the "Democratic Response to COVID-19" series curated by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University.


Penny Walker is an independent facilitator and an Involve associate. She has been volunteering as part of the #HackneyVaxPack, organised by Volunteer Centre Hackney.

The vaccine centres mentioned are organised by City & Hackney GP Confederation, which is a not-for-profit community interest company supporting 42 independent member GP practices working together to improve primary care.

Hatzola is a volunteer ambulance service.