Volunteers worried about plans to increase their role in the NHS

Volunteers have expressed concerns about the Government's drive to increase volunteering levels in the NHS.

Last week, third sector minister Ed Miliband and care services minister Ivan Lewis announced a £265,000 scheme to persuade more youngsters and people from disadvantaged backgrounds to volunteer in the health and care services.

The scheme will be delivered by the Time for Health coalition of volunteering charities, members of which include WRVS, TimeBank and Attend.

The announcement came at a debate held last week by the coalition and the Community Channel, the broadcaster that promotes volunteering.

Lewis said that volunteers would be used in addition to professional staff. "We're absolutely clear about that," he said. "Of course we don't want to see volunteers undermining the roles of properly paid staff."

But volunteers accused the Government of using them to cover up inadequacies in the health service.

Phil Partridge, who called himself "a compulsive volunteer", said at the launch that volunteers were being used for roles the public would rather were carried out by professionals. He said: "Volunteers don't know a thing, do they? They're not trained. These volunteers are a smokescreen."

He said that if he had questions about his care or the care of a relative, he would rather approach a doctor or nurse than a volunteer who had been dispatched to perform an advocacy role, because they would be more likely to have the answers he required.

He also queried the use of volunteers for tasks such as checking that patients are eating properly. He said this ran the risk of encouraging nurses and doctors not to do it themselves.

Joan Penrose, who cares for three schizophrenic sons, said that the NHS relied too heavily on volunteers already. She said: "I think the NHS needs volunteers too much in mental health."

She added that holes in the system meant parents and relatives were often forced to volunteer against their will. She and Partridge agreed that the NHS should be better funded so that there was no need to employ volunteers.

Terry Owens, volunteer placement manager at the Aintree University Hospitals NHS Trust, said that people who volunteered within the NHS in Aintree, Liverpool, were not allowed to do work such as giving out medicines or lifting and handling patients, which was the domain of professionals.

By feeding and offering tea to relatives and offering basic support, Owens said, volunteers freed nurses and doctors to spend more time with patients.

"Volunteers act as human bridges between patients and their relatives and the staff," she added.

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