Martin Houghton-Brown: Focus and risk-based leadership will be key to overcoming the Covid-19 challenge

Even as charities continue their response to the pandemic, they must begin a journey, not so much to recovery, but to discovery

Martin Houghton-Brown
Martin Houghton-Brown

As leaders in civil society, we have to “do risk”. Whether as the leader of a youth group, where the risks taken and presented by young people are dynamic to say the least, or leading a £100m organisation with 30,000 volunteers who willingly throw themselves into giving CPR to someone in cardiac arrest, risk is everywhere.

But I am not sure any of us imagined the risk assessment for a global pandemic would land so squarely on our register.

At St John we have a “protecting people” risk theme, which looks at everything from safeguarding to a well-rehearsed clinical procedure that is now understood by the global population: infection prevention control.

So naturally – training being in our DNA, and with a predisposition to protecting our people – we decided very early on in this health emergency that every volunteer potentially having to deal with a Covid-19 patient would get an extra 20 hours of education.

What would have taken 18 months took us six weeks: to develop the digital content, deliver it online and train thousands of volunteers in Covid care. It was an extraordinary effort by our incredible volunteer training team, but also, critically, by all of those who made us digital.

Responding in our ambulances as an auxiliary to the NHS and, crucially, training and then deploying into the Nightingale, where lives were saved through the dedication and care of the teams of clinicians and volunteers, this was St John at its best.

Alongside this, we have also been building our support for patients within local hospitals, assisting in emergency departments and with Covid. More than 1,000 hours a day from clinical volunteers alone and 89,000 hours of voluntary support have been offered from across the charity in April alone.

This extraordinary effort was brought about by a rapid response and a willingness to combine skills, say goodbye to old practices and focus all of our efforts on saving lives. Focus and risk-based leadership was, and remains, key.

One of our volunteers at the Nightingale hospital told me “I am excited to do my bit, but also a bit scared”, which brought home how that decision to educate and to manage the risk at a very individual level was key to the success of the operation. Linking the individual risk to the wider challenges is essential.

As a result we now have a whole system of new processes in place, including a daily dashboard that indicates the amount of personal protective equipment readily available, so that no one will be asked to work with us without protection. In short, we can see the risks and manage them.

I am also glad that before all of this we had been campaigning for the integration of mental health into first aid. Glad, because whether the risk was present from being furloughed or from seeing a patient struggle for breath, the impact on our mental health was going to be immense and we needed to manage this risk too. We began to think about wellbeing and welfare from day one, building content online and supporting virtual meetings and helplines. It is interesting to note that of all the virtual training and support sessions made available to the team, each Wednesday’s Wellbeing Live has proved to be the most popular.

Now we have to reset the compass, to take a bearing from all that we have learned and – even as we continue the response to coronavirus – to start our journey, not so much to recovery but to discovery.

We have taken an open, questioning approach to the future, accepting the very real risk that some members of the team will not be employed by St John next year. We have had to learn from our risk-based leadership and prepare for a world with fewer financial and physical resources available. We are curious about this digital world that values wellbeing, beckoning us.

I imagine St John supporting the health resilience of communities through volunteering, education and a commitment to wellbeing, both digitally and, as ever, with the calm physical reassurance of care that is the hallmark of every St John volunteer.

Martin Houghton-Brown is chief executive of St John Ambulance. This is the second in a four-part series of blogs covering the VCS Emergencies Partnership response to Covid-19

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