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This post was co-authored by Caroline Abrahams, Chief Executive of Age UK, Juliet Bouverie OBE, Chief Executive of the Stroke Association, and Lynda Thomas, Chief Executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, for the NHS Assembly.

After one of the toughest years in the NHS’s history, it’s essential that the NHS and all its partners pool our collective strengths. The voluntary sector plays a unique role in supporting people with long-term conditions and during coronavirus has been a lifeline for so many people whose care has been disrupted. As discussions turn to service recovery, charities’ holistic support will be more vital than ever.

Support when it’s needed most

The impact of the pandemic on our most vulnerable people has and continues to be immense. But let’s also celebrate the phenomenal achievement of our professionals, researchers and volunteers, which has been a critical part of this story. Their agility and innovation have been astonishing. Teams have adapted and even enhanced support. In stroke, this has included pre-hospital triage services, telephone consultations and greater use of Early Supported Discharge. In cancer care, mobile chemotherapy units and virtual patient group sessions, led by clinical nurse specialists, have enabled vital treatment and support to continue.

People missing out on vital care

However, this progress cannot mask the strain on services that has led to so many older and vulnerable people and their carers missing out on vital support.

  • Macmillan’s ‘Forgotten C’ report reveals how long delays in accessing tests and treatment have left tens of thousands of people waiting anxiously for a cancer diagnosis or to start treatment.

  • Age UK research reveals 34% of older people report that their anxiety has worsened during the pandemic. The closure of so many support groups has left many lonely and isolated.

  • The Stroke Association’s Stroke Recoveries at Risk report highlights the devastating impact of the pandemic on the lives and recoveries of stroke survivors and their carers.

  • As the Richmond Group of Charities point out, the move to ‘digital by default’ has not been transformative for large numbers of people who are excluded by this shift, and longer-term risks widening health inequalities.

Charities are concerned that the system is so stretched and understaffed that it will take years to respond to this level of unmet need. If our NHS is to proactively address the needs of people with long-term conditions as well as urgent and emergency care, we must work smarter together and enable people with multiple conditions to live the best life possible.

What charities bring to the table

Charities represent numerous pieces of the health and care ‘jigsaw’. We provide staff and volunteers, training, information, equipment, peer support – the list is endless. But we also bring value that can’t be quantified: expertise and contacts built over decades working in communities, research and evidence, advocacy and campaigning – all with people’s lived experience at the very heart.

The pandemic has hit us hard – at a time when the demand for our services has never been greater. We’ve had to make painful cuts, adapt our models, and be extra-creative with our resources during this turbulent time:

  • The Stroke Association has rapidly developed Stroke Association Connect, an NHS partnership that provides stroke survivors with personalised, specialised support, information and reassurance in the early days following hospital discharge, and Here for You, a volunteer-run telephone support service to help stroke survivors who are feeling lonely or isolated.

  • Macmillan has launched SafeFit, a free remote trial linking people with a suspected or diagnosed cancer with a cancer exercise specialist.

  • Age UK has scaled up its Friendship telephone services in response to a huge surge in demand from isolated and anxious older people, many of whom are not online.

We are natural collaborators. And new national reforms built around local systems offer greater opportunities to join up and innovate together.

The NHS Assembly is emblematic of this co-production. It brings together the best of all our sectors and is a valuable space for learning and sharing. The engagement and relationships that it has fostered create the promise that we can and will build back better.