VBG Bikers at Carrickfergus Castle
VBG Bikers at Carrickfergus Castle
Bikers rode out to help the NHS, the vulnerable, and the NI Children’s Hospice 

During the lockdown the roar of a motorcycle’s engine signalled a dedicated team of volunteer bikers from across Northern Ireland rode out to help deliver PPE and scrubs to frontline medical staff, prescriptions and vital medication to hospitals.

More than 200 riders from the Volunteer Bikers Group (Team VBG) were involved in supporting the team behind NI Scrubs supplying masks and other equipment as well as life-saving cancer drugs.

In doing so the motorcyclists covered the equivalent of two laps of the planet – 50,000 miles, all self-funded, all without any grants or any other intervention.

With the service wound down and NI Scrubs no longer needing to provide masks and scrubs the bikers are, however, ready to step into the fray again if needed.

“We don’t feel the need is at the same level it was in March,” said John Lawson of Team VGB.

“Our structures and systems remain in place if we need to use them. We have many riders who still have indicated they are more than willing to help again if they need too, and whilst it hasn’t happened never say never.”

Equally NI Scrubs has wound down, after making 106,000 items for care staff.

The brainchild of Clara Maybin at the start of the first lockdown, when nursing and care staff were facing shortages, it grew from an appeal to become an army of 9,000 sewers, including Great British Sewing Bee contestant, Angeline Murphy.

“The sheer sense of community we have created will last for a long time,” said Clara. “We have built a real sewing community in Northern Ireland where people have made friends and ask for sewing advice every day. It is a truly invaluable group to a lot of people, in so many ways.

Angeline also believes the legacy will live on: “It was a great campaign that helped more than just the front line staff. It helped thousands of stitchers rediscover their skills, meet new friends and give back to society.”

John explained how the bikers worked with the sewers and stitchers.

“We became aware of NI Scrubs and a number of similar NI groups who had begun making scrubs for the front line workers and other essential services,” he said. “We reached out to them and offered to support them through free collection and delivery provincewide.

“We never expected the demand to be so great. As quick as the sewers could make them, we delivered. And many friendships have been built as a result.”

The bikers’ initiative began when Michael – a motorcycle instructor in Ards – saw his business forced to close in March.

“Michael’s business was halted almost overnight,” said John. ”He decided to utilise his motorbikes to help those that needed support, and recruited the rest of us on the admin team. We initially only planned to cover North Down and Ards but quickly realised that we were growing at a phenomenal rate with bikers from all over the province offering to join us.

“As a result, from the 23rd March 2020 we had the ability to role out in excess of 200 motorcyclists throughout the province helping those in need with medication deliveries as well as delivering scrubs; materials and other essential items to the frontline NHS and other vital frontline services with often same day deliveries. As quick as they could be made, we had them delivered.”

That included a dash to make sure vital medication could be brought from England, via Scotland to Omagh Hospital, as well as a mercy dash across the border.

“The journey that stands out for us was the delivery of urgent cancer drugs from Altnagelvin into RoI in the first few days of lockdown,” explained John. “No one knew how to do it, or what the ‘rules’ where but through the determination of the team and our rider Dave, we successfully got the package collected from the ward, and delivered to the isolation address of the patient in Ireland within a few hours of being asked.

“The family gratitude was overwhelming and definitely spurred us that we had to continue in helping support the NHS staff in saving people’s lives.”

Rather than taking any payments for their service they encouraged people to donate to the NI Children’s Hospice.

“We raised in excess of £2500 for the Children’s Hospice for the tasks we completed thanks to donations we received from those we helped,” John said. “This was much needed at a time when the hospice continued to provide their invaluable service but had limited support as a result of lockdown.”

However, as this was the first time any such service was offered or needed barriers had to be overcome.

“It wasn’t without headaches in the early days,” he explained. “We had to battle our way through many red tape areas to ensure we met all the rules and regulations.

“After all, a bunch of bikers wanting to deliver drugs was always going to set of alarm bells.

“Through communicating and meeting with those in Pharmacies; Government and through excellent support from the team at Access NI, we quickly had all our team of riders through suitable Police & criminal record checks and confirmed them as suitable to not only deliver medication, but to come in contact and be trusted by those vulnerable people within our communities who we would support.

“We had many pharmacies support us early on and realise the benefits of what we offered that allowed them a reliable and legal service which afforded them the time to focus on dispensing medicine. We had our service well established before some others even realised there was a need for such a service to exist.”

Such was the success other bikers across the UK contacted Team VGB to establish similar services.

And, John is keen that the perception and stereotype of bikers can be addressed.

“We hope that the work and determination of Team VBG encourages those who held any negative views on motorcyclists to reconsider them.”

“It isn’t what the rider may look like; or what the bike is that they ride, it matters more for what would that rider do for me and what can I now do for them. Our answer to this is to always think of the motorcyclist when out driving; that way you can help save our lives too.”