NHS at 70: Volunteers, Remote Interviewing and Covid-19

‘We need to capture the lives we are living at this unprecedented time in our history’.

Volunteers are at the core of NHS at 70. Since 2017 we have trained over 150 volunteers to record NHS stories across the four nations of the UK. Throughout the project volunteers have collaborated with us to develop many aspects, from streamlining processes, to co-producing research, to extending the reach and potential of the project through advocacy and support at engagement events.

As Covid-19 gained ground during late February and early March and it became clear just how significant the pandemic was going to be, we realised that NHS at 70 was uniquely placed to capture its unfolding. We knew from the ongoing evaluation that for both interviewers and interviewees, the social connection established through the interview process was meaningful and often had longlasting impacts. How could we maintain these social connections during a time of physical isolation? Would volunteers want to continue to interview during such uncertain and difficult times?

To our delight, volunteers expressed their huge support for continuing interviews by switching from face to face to ones done by telephone. We made it clear from the outset that we were fully prepared for them to stop without notice if their personal circumstances changed. Preparing for this new remote world of work required us all to learn new technical skills: achieving archive quality sound quality is tricky when contending with telephone lines in remote areas that have poor signals. We also developed new ways of supporting our team through one to one debriefs after interviews and remote ‘drop-in’ coffee and cake sessions. By the time the UK was in full lockdown, we were ready to go.

 

Images of volunteers on laptop screen for zoom meeting

Motivations for volunteering

 

Ongoing conversations with volunteers and anonymised surveys have captured their reasons for participating and one of the key factors is the historical significance of the Covid-19 pandemic .

‘It is living history that no one could have anticipated.’

‘As we keep hearing, these are unprecedented times. These interviews are an important part of capturing history and could also be used to understand the discourse surrounding the delivery of care during these times.’

‘Recording COVID interviews for future reference. This is an extraordinary time and it's important we document it with as many reflections as possible.’

Volunteers also expressed a keenness to contribute their skills and do something purposeful during a period when they too were in social isolation, and sometimes furloughed from work.

By using my skills I expect this will give me a sense of positive self-worth as I will feel like I am contributing to a project I view as very important.’

'I expect I will learn more about the pandemic from staff within the NHS, as well as thinking about the pandemic from alternative perspectives. I think it is a new challenge and one that I will find greatly rewarding. It also will help me to reflect on the pandemic myself.'

'Connecting with people from a wide area of life, I hope to be able to give some help in making their life more bearable. There will be a positive benefit for me in feeling able to do something to help in a situation where I too am unable to leave my home.'

 

Since we began remote interviewing in late March, our brilliantly adaptive and supportive team of 55 volunteers (and project team) have conducted over 200 interviews over the telephone with people spread across the UK. Some interviewees are sharing their experiences and reflections on Covid-19 during short, regular interviews, and others are sharing their longer life-history with Covid-19 featuring in the present.

Our volunteers are well-used to listening to challenging stories. Since 2017 NHS at 70 has collected over 1000 recordings, many of which include interviewees sharing difficult health and life experiences. The critical difference about Covid-19 is that, as one volunteer reflected, ‘[this is an] active present health crisis we are all living through rather than something that has some sense of distance.’ We are all part of an unfolding story that as another volunteer commented, ‘[produces] some degree of anxiety about the unknown times we find ourselves in’.

 

Image of audio equipment

A volunteers' remote recording set-up!

Yet despite shared fears about the effects and impacts of Covid-19 on all our lives, our volunteers and interviewees have proved unequivocally, the value of continuing to record NHS stories during this extraordinary moment and the emotional benefits of remaining involved and socially connected during physical isolation.

 

'Today just before the interview with X we had a one minute's silence to remember frontline workers who've died from Covid. I think we both found it quite emotional.

The sense of positivity from interviewees has had a positive impact on me!

It is wonderful to be in contact with interviewees who I now count as friends. I hear first-hand how they are coping in the present crisis and their determination and stoicism are a credit to them. Everyone is pleased their experiences will be recorded.

I feel privileged to have listened to so many perspectives on the crisis, the NHS, our country and the response worldwide.

Thank you to all our volunteers and interviewees for all your support and invaluable contributions! You are wonderful.

Discover more about our volunteer programme here.