Information on preparing your volunteer program for novel coronavirus (COVID-19)

Volunteering Queensland is closely monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic.

We’ve heard from our members and volunteer-involving organisations that they are feeling increasingly uncertain and anxious about the spread of the rapidly evolving COVID-19. Some of the questions we’re hearing are:

  • How do we ensure the health and safety of our staff, volunteers, and the people we serve?
  • How can we ensure our operations and vital work is not severely impacted?
  • What do we need to communicate to our stakeholders?

We understand your concerns as they are our concerns too. This is a time to be informed and prepared. This article is intended to help you identify precautions, guide difficult discussions, plan what steps you may need to take to ensure your business continuity, and monitor and reduce your risk.


As the situation is constantly changing, we’ll keep this information up to date. This page was last updated on 5 April 2020.


What is novel coronavirus (COVID-19)?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are known to cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

COVID-19 is a new strain of coronavirus that has not been previously identified in humans. It was discovered in late 2019 when a higher than normal number of people in Wuhan, China, started to get pneumonia after having an illness similar to the flu. Some people have recovered easily, while others can get sick very quickly or experience severe symptoms and complications.

It has since spread to more than 200 countries with over 1,000,000 confirmed cases. The impact on Australia is growing, with more than 5,400 people diagnosed with the condition. The spread of COVID-19 is expected to increase and peak over the coming weeks, and likely last to some level until the end of the year.

Australia is well prepared and well equipped to deal with the pandemic. We have a first-class health system that includes mechanisms for early detection and effective management of cases. To read what the Australian Government is doing to minimise transmission and mitigate the impact, please visit the Department of Health website.


What are the symptoms of novel coronavirus (COVID-19)?

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, which means it affects the parts of your body you use to breathe: your nose, throat and lungs. If you’re sick with COVID-19, your symptoms might include:

  • Fever
  • A cough
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath.

If you are worried about symptoms, please call 13HEALTH (13 43 25 84) and visit the Queensland Health website for more information.


What’s the best way you can prevent the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19)?

  • Keep your hands clean:
    • Washing your hands often and properly for at least 20 seconds means that you can prevent viruses from entering your body. That means washing your hands when you’ve been out and about, before you eat, and after you use the restroom. View 6 steps to successful everyday hand washing.
    • Use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser if soap and water are not available. Remember to then wash your hands with soap and water as soon as possible.
    • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Maintain a social distance:
    • Try to stay at least 1.5 metres away from people, and refrain from physical touch such as shaking hands or hugging.
    • Avoid contact with anyone who has symptoms such as fever, a cough, sore throat, fatigue, and shortness of breath.
  • Practice good respiratory etiquette:
    • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue or flexed elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard tissue immediately into a closed bin, and wash your hands with soap and water.
  • Only use a surgical mask if needed:
    • Surgical masks are only helpful if you have COVID-19 symptoms to prevent it spreading to others. If you're well, you do not need to wear a surgical mask. Please note: If you are a person who touches their face often, you may consider wearing a mask as a barrier to touching.
  • Keep your environment clean:
    • Viruses can live on hard surfaces for up to 48 hours. Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces in the home and work environment. 
  • Keep your doctor informed:
    • If you are unwell with COVID-19 symptoms, call ahead of time to book a doctor’s appointment. Tell your doctor about your symptoms, travel history and any recent close contact with someone who has COVID-19.
  • Self-isolate when required:
    • Stay home if you are unwell. Do not attend work, volunteering, events, or meetings.
    • You should self-isolate for 14 days if you have travelled overseas, and are now also required to self-isolate if you travel interstate to a number of Australian States and Territories. You should also self-isolate if you have been in close contact with a person with a confirmed case of COVID-19. Please visit the Queensland Health website and follow their latest advice.
  • Look after your health:
    • Looking after yourself by eating a healthy, balanced diet, getting regular physical activity, sleeping well and reducing stress is important at this time, and all the time.

What do you need to do to protect staff, volunteers and the people you serve?

  • Share the latest information from trusted authorities:
    • Use all your communication channels to provide clear information from Queensland Health. Utilise posters and emails to promote hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette.
  • Promote social distance:
    • Encourage staff to keep a social distance of 1.5 metres from one another. Promote handshake free meetings – staff can wave and verbally great each other instead. Hold virtual meetings when possible.
  • Set strict expectations on unwell staff:
    • Communicate clearly the need for all unwell staff to stay at home. If a team member who is unwell comes into the office, ensure that they go home and seek medical attention if needed.
  • Offer handwashing facilities:
    • Handwashing facilities should be available and well supplied. Provide soap, hand sanitiser, tissues and cleaning products around your buildings for staff, volunteers, clients and visitors. Queensland Health has published clear and printable instructions on handwashing techniques which can be displayed around your workplace.
  • Schedule cleaning regimes:
    • Frequently clean key areas including keyboards, desks and door handles.
  • Support staff working from home:
    • Staff and volunteers may be required to work from home, particularly due to school closures. Consideration should be given to the infrastructure, equipment and processes needed to allow staff to work remotely. These could include secure, remote access to your files, video conferencing and telephone facilities and guidance on working from home safely.
  • Protect vulnerable groups:
    • If your organisation works with people with weakened immune systems, older people, those with disabilities or those with long-term conditions like diabetes, cancer and chronic lung disease, it’s important that you plan to limit their risk to being exposed.
    • Consider time off for vulnerable volunteers and those who are understandably concerned about their health. 
  • Cancel or postpone any public events or mass gatherings:
    • As per Federal Government instructions, non-essential internal gatherings should be limited to 2 people. At this stage, it will be necessary to cancel or postpone your event to a later date.
  • Hold meetings via video or tele conferencing:
    • Utilise video or tele conferencing for internal and external meetings, including board and committee meetings.
  • Review travel risks and arrangements:
    • Do not travel overseas and consider domestic travel restrictions. Staff and volunteers should avoid travelling at this time.
  • Look after mental health:
    • Support staff and volunteers to look after their mental wellbeing. Remind them to take time to switch off from all things COVID-19 and focus on things they can control.
  • Record key contacts:
    • Ensure all emergency contact details are up to date.
  • Be prepared at home:
    • Recommend staff and volunteers have two weeks’ supply of food and medication on hand for all residents and pets. Encourage being prepared, discourage panic buying.

How can you ensure your operations and vital work is not severely impacted?

With COVID-19 expected to infect at least one in four Queenslanders, you should prepare for how this pandemic will disrupt the operations of your volunteer-involving organisation. It is highly likely that volunteers will pull back and no longer be available to support your work. To prepare, we strongly recommend that you create or update your business continuity plan.

As part of this process you should clearly identify core and non-core business. You should also outline all the potential scenarios your organisation could face, from fear or confusion amongst your staff and volunteers, to consideration and a revision of how your organisation will need to work. Questions to guide your discussion include:

  • Do you have a business continuity plan? Are volunteers included in this plan?
  • Volunteers and Paid Staff:
    • How can you best support your volunteers and paid staff and their families to stay safe?
    • Do you have volunteers and/ or paid staff who are vulnerable? What extra precautions do you need to take for their safety?
    • Have you communicated clear, accurate information to volunteers and paid staff on what your organisation’s plans are and what actions they need to take?
    • Have you planned for a volunteer workforce shortage?
    • Do you have up to date records of which volunteers are and are not available?
    • What volunteer and paid staff support do you need to continue to deliver essential service delivery?
    • How can you keep volunteers and paid staff actively engaged if they are no longer working? How do you reduce any of their feelings of isolation?
  • Operations:
    • Do you have appropriate policies and procedures to protect your team? Are these well understood by all team members?
    • Do you we have plans that can quickly be put into action if one of your team contracts COVID-19? How will you cope if all your staff and volunteers must self-isolate for 14 days?
    • What steps should you take to protect your vulnerable clients?
    • Do you have the necessary PPE (personal protective equipment)?
    • How do travel restrictions impact your work?
    • What will the impact be on your service delivery? What are your essential services that need to keep running? Can you cope with increased need for support from people who rely on your work?
    • Does your team need to work remotely? Do you have the collaborative tools, information and supplies to support this? Can you take steps now to test your remote working systems?
    • Does your team deliver critical transport services? Will you and if necessary, how will you continue to deliver these services without putting staff and clients at risk?
    • Have you informed all relevant parties about the changes you are implementing – e.g. volunteers, paid staff, clients receiving your services, funding agencies, program partners, the general public (if appropriate)?
    • How will you restore operations smoothly when the crisis has passed?
  • Events:
    • What are the implications of cancelling or postponing your event?
    • Can your events be held virtually?
  • Financial:
    • Can you budget for increased contingency costs over the next financial year?
    • How can you buffer any fall in income? How do you manage increased costs from suppliers?
  • Social impact:
    • Which of your services may ramp up during this time, such as support provided to people experiencing disadvantage who may be less equipped to prepare for self-isolation and/ or added hygiene needs due to a lack of disposable income for bulk food and supplies?
    • How can you show support to staff and community members who may be experiencing racism or discrimination due to COVID-19?

Now is also a good time to review the national code of practice for volunteer-involving organisations. We would like to draw your attention to the part where organisations agree to ‘not place volunteer staff in roles that were previously held by paid staff or have been identified as paid jobs.’ While we understand volunteer-involving organisations may find themselves short-staffed due to COVID-19, we would recommend it’s best practice to seek advice from Fair Work and Queensland Unions when you are looking at roles for volunteers in the response.

Visit the Business Queensland website for more information on business continuity planning for a pandemic.


What do you need to tell your stakeholders?

We recommend you create internal and external communication plans to update and reassure your volunteers, paid staff, partners, funding agencies and the people you serve, about your response. It’s important to provide accurate information quickly, to minimise any spread of misinformation, misunderstanding or unnecessary worry.

Your communications should cover what steps people need to take to protect themselves, the precautions your organisation is taking to respond to the pandemic, the expected impact on staff, volunteers and your business, and link to the Queensland Health website for further information. As the crisis unfolds you can tailor further communications as you collect feedback from your team about their concern, and as organisational decisions and government plans are made.


How are we responding at Volunteering Queensland?

The team at Volunteering Queensland are watching the situation closely as it unfolds and taking every precaution. We are:

  • Regularly participating in meetings with Queensland Health and the Queensland Government to ensure a coordinated response and consistent messaging for our sector.
  • Working closely with Volunteering Australia and the network of State and Territory Volunteering Peak Bodies to share and best support one another through this pandemic.
  • Utilising our Emergency Volunteering service (EV CREW) to support the Queensland Government's Care Army initiative. The Care Army is made up of everyday Queenslanders who want to help older people living in the community who may not have friends, family or neighbours who are able to support them during the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • Updating our business continuity plan, and considering our options for essential service delivery, the impact on our programs and events.
  • Cancelling face to face contact, training, non-essential meetings and events and putting in place alternative methods of contact and service delivery.
  • The majority of our team are working remotely, using systems best placed to support them, volunteers and our sector.
  • Promoting good hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette and social distance.

Our thoughts are with our sector, you have our care and concern. We will endeavor to keep you informed and engaged. We can only support each other through this difficult time. We believe that together we will get through this and once we do, we will need your helping hands and hearts to rebuild Queensland’s amazing volunteer workforce.

We will be communicating updates as further information becomes available.


Position Papers from Volunteering Australia

Volunteering Australia have published the two following policy position papers with input from all State and Territory Peak Volunteering Bodies, Volunteering and National Policy Settings; and Safeguarding Volunteers and Volunteer Involving Organisations; in order to clearly articulate our position around a number of issues regarding COVID-19 and the volunteering sector.

Volunteering and National Policy Settings

This position paper sets out our shared views on how national policy settings and messaging might need to adapt to help ensure volunteers are safeguarded during the COVID-19 emergency and that volunteers can be facilitated to best support the emergency response to COVID-19. Volunteers are critical to many essential services and voluntary action will be a key part of the solution to many of the challenges that communities will face.

Safeguarding Volunteers and Volunteer-Involving Organisations

This position paper sets out our shared views on how volunteers can be safeguarded during the COVID-19 emergency and how volunteers can best support the emergency response to COVID-19. The aim of this position paper is to help guide decision-making of volunteer-involving organisations and of volunteers in these very challenging times. We will provide guidance which draws directly from official sources of advice and expertise, and which is mindful of rapidly changing State and Territory priorities.


Stay safe and informed

We hope our article has given you a starting point for planning your COVID-19 response. Please follow us on Twitter where we will be retweeting useful webinars from a range of organisations which will help you navigate this situation.

Energize (an international training, consulting and publishing firm specialising in volunteerism) has created a blog post about supporting volunteer efforts during COVID-19 which links to resources around the world. We recommend you view this information on the Energize website.

We encourage you to continue to follow health and safety guidelines as advised by appropriate and relevant authorities:

 

Thank you to the NCVO (The National Council for Voluntary Organisations) based in the UK, some information included in our blog post is based on their guidance page.