Lewisham Hospital and Christmas tree
The Helpforce campaign has helped out at Lewisham Hospital
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853‘s special correspondent MERCURY MAN has a little secret – he hides a Daily Mail inside his copy of the Racing Post. With the season of goodwill upon us, he reports on a campaign in the paper that has touched a chord locally…

A brilliant campaign launched out of the blue in more ways than one last December, has touched the hearts of thousands of patients and staff at hospitals all over the UK.

By Christmas this year more than 33,000 people had been matched into volunteer roles following the Daily Mail’s groundbreaking partnership with the Helpforce charity.

Small but vital roles, from feeding patients to being a blood courier, take the pressure off frontline staff so that they can focus on treatment and care. And in many cases they offer what patients need most of all – friendship.

The month-long recruitment drive a year ago – backed by the health unions – was the biggest in Britain since the 2012 Olympics.

“In early 2019 the matching process began with pledgers being put in touch with local NHS trusts in need of their time and talents,” said Helpforce founder Sir Thomas Hughes-Hallet over a glass of red.

“Our charity partners, the Royal Voluntary Service and the British Red Cross, were pleased to bring in more volunteers for the campaign. We are extremely grateful for the great spirit of kindness that people across the country showed, and for the support they want to bring to the staff and patients in our fantastic NHS.”

Community spirit is at the heart of the operation and it’s not too wide of third slip to suggest that its genesis was in Deptford High Street almost 40 years ago. That’s when Daily Mail editor Geordie Greig – whose idea it was – joined the South East London Mercury as a junior reporter in SE8.

Geordie Greig
From Deptford High Street to High Street Kensington: Daily Mail editor Geordie Greig (photo: DMG Media)

The Merc had quite an effect on young Geordie, whose previous convictions were housed at Eton and Oxford. He told Press Gazette, the journalists’ trade website, in 2012: “The paper has been at the heart of my journalism ever since. The campaigning energy and enthusiasm of the Mercury, emphasised by my first editor, Roger Norman, is how I’ve always seen what newspapers should be about.”

Today he says: “I always remember from my days on the Mercury – as the most junior reporter – going to hospitals and also seeing how lives in Deptford and other SE London areas were made better by miraculous volunteering from organisations like the 999 Club.

“Helping other people changes lives and I am in awe of our readers who volunteered almost two million volunteer hours. We all owe the NHS and our readers loved to give something back to it.”

During his time as editor of the Evening Standard in 2009, the Dispossessed campaign was launched Mercury-style to tackle poverty, illiteracy and unemployment. More than £9m was raised for grassroots groups to help more than 100,000 people in the capital.

Helpforce volunteers aged 16 and over have pledged to give one day a month or three hours a week – for a minimum of six months – to help their local NHS hospital or healthcare services, as well as charities such as the Royal Voluntary Service, Marie Curie and the British Red Cross.

Thousands of people have helped out in their local hospitals as a result of the campaign

The campaign last Christmas was backed by high profile supporters like musician Bryan Adams, British tennis star Johanna Konta and advertising mogul Maurice Saatchi. And the key to Hospital Helpforce – which would have had Roger Norman smiling and nodding – was that no previous experience was required. All you needed was a good heart and the will to go with it.

Like 73-year-old former nurse Patricia Hererra, who lives in Hither Green and has five grandchildren and one great-grandchild named Aniyah. And she still finds the time to help at Lewisham Hospital. She said: “I read about it in the paper and just wanted to help. People talk about giving back and that’s what I wanted to do. I was a nurse and midwife here from 1972 until I retired in 2003.

“The best thing is simply doing anything to help the patients, feeding them, chatting to them, taking them to the toilet, helping them with anything that’s needed. I missed nursing when I retired so this was perfect for me.

“The NHS is for everybody. Some people can’t help themselves, which is what we’re doing. The patients say thank you and so do the nurses. The atmosphere is lovely. It’s not about us, it’s about the patients and the nurses.

“There are some great characters here, including the cleaning and catering staff. There’s a lady called Mabel who’s always very friendly and another lady we know as ‘Foxy’ who knows exactly what patients want to eat!”

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Patricia has made a new friend herself in fellow 72-year-old volunteer Sandra Bishop, a former primary school teacher from Lee. Sandra said: “I think the most wonderful thing is seeing people’s faces light up with a new energy when volunteers go into the wards. They know they are going to have a nice chat and they obviously look forward to it.”

The Helpforce/ Daily Mail campaign has now closed, but to volunteer at the Lewisham & Greenwich NHS Trust, visit its website.