Public services: lessons from coronavirus

The role of spontaneous volunteers and mutual community support groups

This submission will focus on the role of civil society (particularly volunteers and community groups) during the COVID-19 pandemic, and focus on the following question from the call for evidence:

What lessons might be learnt about the role of charities, volunteers and the community sector from the crisis? How could the sectors be better integrated into local systems going forward?

Executive Summary:


1) Introduction by Author:

I am a Social Psychologist based at the University of Brighton with a research interest in the study of crowds and mass emergency behaviour. I have worked with colleagues who are currently on the SPI-B group that feeds into SAGE (Professors John Drury & Steve Reicher) and we were previously involved in an ESRC funded research project at the University of Sussex 2004-7 exploring mass emergency behaviour (such as the 7/7/2005 London bombings, Drury et al, 2009a & b). From this work we developed the Social Identity Model of Collective Resilience (SIMCR- Drury, 2018) that argues that people behave much more resiliently in emergencies than they are often given credit for. This is because a shared identity often emerges amongst those affected by an incident (‘we’re all in this together’) that encourages cooperation, rather than selfish and/or ‘panicked’ behaviour. Developing this work, I explored the concept of ‘zero-responders’ (Cocking, 2013) whereby bystanders intervene to help each other before the arrival of the emergency services (first responders) and submitted a £1m bid for NIHR funding to explore the role of zero-responders at Mass casualty Incidents (Cocking 2020a). In early March 2020[1], along with others, I predicted that such collective resilience would mean that adherence with the looming lockdown would be better than the authorities were fearing & that the concept of ‘behavioural fatigue’ was not supported in the social sciences. I also later argued that public compliance with the lockdown restrictions could be undermined if the authorities did not give clear and consistent public messages, as this could fracture any collective identities and erode public motivation to comply with such restrictions (Cocking 2020b). Finally, I am currently involved in a University of Brighton funded project, looking at mutual co-operation in the South East during the pandemic (Cocking, 2020c). I am submitting this evidence as I believe that my work on emergency behaviour, particularly that on ‘zero-responders’ can help explain the concept of spontaneous volunteering during the current COVID-19 pandemic and provide policy makers with a greater understanding of how to harness and encourage such public co-operation during the current and any future pandemics.


2) Background to mass emergency research:

It is now widely accepted in academic circles that those affected by disasters and emergencies tend to behave much better than is often portrayed in popular social discourse, and that the concept of ‘mass panic’ is largely a myth that is not supported by any credible evidence. Research on the psychology of crowd behaviour in mass emergencies (Drury et al 2009a&b; Drury et al. 2019) builds upon previous work from sociological studies of emergencies to argue that people behave more co-operatively than assumed by classic irrationalist models of crowd behaviour, and that social networks tend to endure. However, these psychological perspectives also developed a novel finding that social bonds can also be created by the incident itself and often emerge during the acute phase of emergencies (Drury, 2018). This is because a shared identity emerges whereby people develop a connection with each other that encourages co-operative (as opposed to selfish) behaviour, as they not only support others, but also expect to be supported, thus creating co-operative social norms that are a source of social influence for others. This leads to the conclusion that co-operation in mass emergencies can happen not just in spite of the incident, but also because of it. This seemingly counter intuitive notion has been supported by research into the 7/7/2005 London bombings (Drury et al, 2009a& b), as people who previously did not have any sense of connection with others around them (commuters during rush hour), quickly developed a common identity deriving from a shared sense of fate once the incident happened..

3) Zero-responders & emergencies:

Building upon this idea of collective resilience, I looked in further detail at how and why bystanders directly affected by emergencies might show mutually cooperative behaviour before the arrival of the emergency services. This concept is known as ‘zero-responders’, and I explored this phenomenon with relation to bystander behaviour during the 7/7/2005 London bombings (Cocking, 2013). The Kerslake report into the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing also made explicit reference to the concept of zero-responders and cited my work on 7/7 in its recommendations to improve response to future incidents (Kerslake, 2018). Therefore, in the following paragraphs, I will explore how the concept of zero-responders can be applied to understand greater understand and enhance the spontaneous volunteering and mutual cooperation that we have seen so far in the COVID-19 pandemic.

4) An opportunity for public service reform?

This call rightly states that the coronavirus outbreak requires a fundamental rethink of how public services respond to the needs of the communities that they serve’. I would suggest that part of this rethink should include greater democratisation of public involvement in emergencies and a recognition that people will spontaneously come forward and volunteer to help. Such help will also often be outside of traditional official structures (eg local/ national govt and the 3rd sector). Recent Community Resilience Frameworks developed by the Cabinet Office (2019a) recognize the importance of increased public involvement, and of the need for more participatory approaches. However, the overall concept of community resilience is rather vague, and of the potential resilience frameworks mentioned, there is little emphasis on the concept of communities of circumstance whereby spontaneous co-operation can emerge from those affected by the incident itself. A recent Cabinet Office policy guideline (Cabinet Office 2019b) is dedicated to the concept of spontaneous volunteers, however, this guideline tends to focus on existing social structures and embedding into the official coordinated emergency response those spontaneous volunteers who come forward from neighbouring communities and further afield in the aftermath of an emergency. As a result of this focus, the possibility of autonomous spontaneous intervention from within the communities that are directly affected during the acute phase of the emergency receives less attention. Therefore, the possibility of cooperation emerging from the incident is downplayed, and specific examples of such possible public participation and how this can be facilitated are not well defined and often missing from emergency planning and response protocols. Therefore, a bias remains that views members of the public as passive recipients of emergency planning and response guidelines, rather than as active agents and potential partners in collaboration.

5) COVID & spontaneous mutual cooperation:

When the COVID pandemic hit the UK in March 2020, over 750,000 people volunteered to help the NHS. However, by May 2020, most of these people had not been formally recruited to help, and a recent article in the Guardian (Butler, 2020) suggested that this could be because the vast number of local mutual aid groups that sprung up spontaneously in response to the outbreak have made volunteering for the NHS somewhat redundant (there are an estimated 4300 groups currently connecting over 3 million people in the UK outside of national and local governmental structures). The concept of people spontaneously coming forward to help others in emergencies is known as convergence and can be a positive sign that people wish to help others. However, there can be logistical problems with such convergence behaviour, as highlighted by Drury et al (2019). For instance, if such offers of help come from those external to the communities affected, then those offering such help may not fully appreciate what the communities affected actually need, and so unwanted donations and/or offers of services could pile up, thus creating extra work in managing such resources. Therefore, there needs to be a greater connection and understanding between those providing offers of help and those receiving it- something that is easier for those involved in spontaneous volunteering in their local communities, as they will more likely to be in tune with the needs of their local community.

6) Enduring resilience?

My work on zero-responders’ is mainly developed from one-off mass casualty incidents, and so less is known about how such co-operation can endure in ongoing incidents, such as the current COVID pandemic. Therefore, I am currently looking at why people get involved in spontaneous volunteering to support others during the COVID pandemic to see whether such mutual cooperation can endure in the medium to long term- something that is recognised in the current call (whether the transformation seen in some service areas will remain once the crisis is over’). This is a topic of ongoing discussion, and before the lockdown began, I was involved in a debate over Twitter[2] with other psychologists, where we questioned the provenance of the concept of 'behavioural fatigue', as we were not aware of any evidence supporting this concept, and what evidence there was appeared to show the opposite. For instance, classic work by Fritz (1996) on civilian populations in the UK and Germany during the bombing campaigns in WW2 found that people could become remarkably resilient to severe ongoing threats, and the levels of psychiatric casualties were much lower in the general population than the authorities had feared. The crucial factor in encouraging ongoing mutual cooperation from a social psychological perspective would be to ensure that shared collective identities remain salient (rather than more individualised identities which would encourage more selfish behaviour). Possible ways of doing this would be to have more collectivised approaches to public information campaigns (eg ‘we should all help those more vulnerable to COVID than us’) and avoid ones that encourage more individualised approaches (eg ‘what I need to do to survive’).


7) Conclusion and recommendations for action:

I would conclude by saying that the outpouring of spontaneous cooperation and mutual support we have seen during the current pandemic is a perfect example of the collective resilience that myself and others have found in our research into mass emergencies. We also need to nurture and enhance such cooperation if we are to improve the UK’s pandemic response, and I would urge that policy makers at both national and local government levels adopt a more collaborative approach to public volunteering. One of my recent collaborations with fellow emergency researchers (Drury et al, 2019) suggested 12 practical recommendations for professionals to encourage community resilience in mass emergencies by supporting resilient behaviour in the public that will then help the public ‘develop and maintain their own capacity for such resilience’ p.1. Central to these recommendations was a call for accommodating the public urge to help, which is described as follows;

‘If survivors are “zero responders,” then this means a different way of thinking about them and their role. Survivors (and “convergers”) try to help (whether or not they have expertise). This has functions for the broader disaster community: involvement builds unity and trust; and it can make people feel better. But the key point…is that it is often necessary for the public to respond, given the inability of sufficient responders to reach survivors in time, which means that it should be accommodated where possible. P.14

In the current global pandemic, where our public services have been stretched to breaking point, it also makes practical sense to draw upon this vast army of unpaid volunteers that can and will help support those vulnerable, thus relieving pressure on national and local government, and the emergency services. Finally, I would also suggest that there needs to be more support from Government for more research to further our understanding of spontaneous volunteering, as there are still some unanswered questions. For instance, it is unclear whether the actions of spontaneous volunteers could be more efficiently managed if they were embedded within broader local & national pandemic responses, or if their very nature means that they work best outside of official structures, and attempts to co-opt them within more formal structures could undermine the spontaneity and localised nature that make them appealing to those involved in them.



Butler P (2020) NHS coronavirus crisis volunteers frustrated at lack of tasks. The Guardian, 3/5/2020 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/03/nhs-coronavirus-crisis-volunteers-frustrated-at-lack-of-tasks

Cabinet Office (2019a) Community Resilience Development Framework: A reference tool for the delivery of strategic approaches to community resilience development, at the Local Resilience Forum level in collaboration with non-statutory partners. June 2019 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/828813/20190902-Community_Resilience_Development_Framework_Final.pdf

Cabinet Office (2019b) Planning the coordination of spontaneous volunteers in emergencies. June 2019. Available via: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/828201/20190722-Planning-the-coordination-of-spontaneous-volunteers-in-emergencies_Final.pdf

Cocking, C. (2013). The role of "zero-responders" during 7/7: Implications for the Emergency Services. International Journal of the Emergency Services, 2 (2) 79-93.


Cocking (2020a) ‘Leveraging 'zero-responders' in emergencies: how social psychology can encourage greater public involvement and enhance emergency planning and response’ Funding submitted to NIHR PGfAR Emergency Response and Preparedness Call, (NIHR201457- £1,026,797.00). The outline bid proceeded to the 2nd stage but was ultimately unsuccessful.


Cocking C (2020b) ‘Resilience requires those in authority to be honest, open and consistent’ The Psychologist: Coronavirus – Psychological perspectives. 25/5/20.



Cocking (2020c) Spontaneous volunteering in COVID response in Brighton and the South East. University of Brighton, Covid-19 Research Urgency Fund £4344.


Drury, J. (2012). Collective resilience in mass emergencies and disasters: A social identity model. In J. Jetten, C. Haslam, & S. A. Haslam (Eds.), The social cure: Identity, health, and well-being (pp. 195–215). Hove, UK: Psychology Press.

Drury J (2018) The role of social identity processes in mass emergency behaviour: An integrative review. European Review of Social Psychology, 29 (1) 38-81


Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009a). Everyone for themselves? Understanding how crowd solidarity can arise in an emergency: An interview study of disaster survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology 48. 487-506


Drury, J., Cocking, C., Reicher, S. (2009b). The nature of collective ‘resilience’: Survivor reactions to the July 7th (2005) London bombings. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 27 (1) 66-95.


Drury J, Carter H, Cocking C, Ntontis E, Tekin Guven S and Amlôt R (2019) Facilitating Collective Psychosocial Resilience in the Public in Emergencies: Twelve Recommendations Based on the Social Identity Approach. Frontiers in Public Health 7:141. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2019.00141 


Drury J, Reicher S & Stott C (2020) COVID19 in context: Why do people die in emergencies? It’s probably not because of collective psychology, Special Section Paper, British Journal of Social Psychology 16/6/20 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/bjso.12393


Fritz CE (1996) Disasters and mental health: therapeutic principles drawn from disaster studies. University of Delaware Disaster Research Center. Available via: http://udspace.udel.edu/bitstream/handle/19716/1325/HC%2010.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Kerslake R (2018) The Kerslake Report: An independent review into the preparedness for, and emergency response to, the Manchester Arena attack on 22nd May 2017. Available via: https://www.kerslakearenareview.co.uk/media/1022/kerslake_arena_review_printed_final.pdf


[1] https://dontpaniccorrectingmythsaboutthecrowd.blogspot.com/2020/03/coronavirus-and-social-psychology.html

[2] https://twitter.com/DrChrisCocking/status/1238481772524027905