“At a time when thousands are experiencing financial hardship, to expect individuals to work unpaid, whilst taking considerable risks to their health, is a scandal. The government must rectify this immediately otherwise their testing rollout will become another shambles even before it’s begun.” (Sir Ed Davey, acting co-leader of the Lib Dems).
Kate Devlin Whitehall Editor www.independent.co.uk
An army of unpaid volunteers is being recruited to carry out coronavirus tests across the country as ministers try to hit their target of 200,000 a day.
They are being asked to sign up to work at least 32 hours a week, swabbing the noses and throats of people who may be infected, for no pay.
The high-street chemist Boots is advertising the roles across the country, with the support of ministers.
However, a leading trade union and opposition politicians have criticised the move, accusing ministers of taking advantage of the goodwill of the public.
The Unison union said the roles took the idea of volunteering “too far”.
Volunteers would be expected to work alongside others being paid for the same role, it is understood.
The adverts warn applicants of the dangers of the role and tell them to consider the health of family members before signing up.
The position will involve standing for hours at a time and require enough mobility to “be able to reach into a vehicle to take swabs of both throat and nasal passages at potentially awkward angles”.
The adverts promise volunteers will be given full personal protective equipment, in line with NHS standards, as well as training.
Recruits will be expected to be able to work “at least” 32 hours a week, according to the advertisements.
However, applicants are warned: “Please be aware that this is a voluntary unpaid role.”
Volunteers are being sought in locations including London and Coventry.
One advert states that they are seeking to recruit “up to 1,000” volunteers and current Boots staff to fill the roles across the country.
Boots is assisting the government in the recruitment of volunteers, but it is thought that the guidelines have been set by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).
Sources close to the health secretary, Matt Hancock, said that volunteers had been used to great effect throughout the coronavirus crisis.
They added that the volunteers would receive training on how to carry out the tests. Individuals using home kits are currently self-administering the swabs with no training.
Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison, said: “Many people want to give their spare time to the NHS to help it through the Covid crisis, but this advert takes the notion of volunteering way too far.”
She added that rather than “seeking to take advantage of people’s good nature, the government would be better placed utilising the experience of NHS staff returning from retirement, or the healthcare students in their final years, to help expand the UK’s testing capacity”.
Andy McDonald, a member of the shadow cabinet, said: “This is physically and mentally demanding work which should be paid, with terms, conditions and rights negotiated and agreed with trade unions.”
Sir Ed Davey, acting co-leader of the Lib Dems, said: “The British public are going above and beyond in their efforts to slow the spread of the virus – whether it is working on the frontline, helping the vulnerable, supporting their local charities or simply following the lockdown measures in place.
“This does not mean the government should try to take advantage of these efforts by not paying those who will be testing for the virus.”
He added that those performing the tests should be formally employed, trained, paid and receive the benefits that come with employment.
“At a time when thousands are experiencing financial hardship, to expect individuals to work unpaid, whilst taking considerable risks to their health, is a scandal. The government must rectify this immediately otherwise their testing rollout will become another shambles even before it’s begun.”
Boots declined to comment on Tuesday night and directed enquiries to the DHSC.
A DHSC spokesperson said: “The speed at which we have increased our testing capacity is unprecedented and a real success made possible by fantastic teamwork between the government, key private companies and amazing volunteers.
“Meeting the 100,000 target was a fantastic achievement, but it isn’t the end of the goal, it’s just the beginning.
“We will continue to expand our testing capacity, with thousands more tests becoming available every day. This will be done with more test centres opening, more mobile testing units, and rapidly increasing the numbers of home-testing kits becoming available.”
[Footnote from Owl: Has the Government yet consistently reached 100,000 test a day yet?]