'We were in the thick of it'

In Part 1 of our two-part series on NHS pay justice, Unite health members reflect on the sacrifices they made at the height of the pandemic

Reading time: 7 min

More than 500 UK health workers have died in the line of duty battling the coronavirus pandemic – this is among the highest health staff death rates from the pandemic in the world.

And as the pandemic continues, all NHS workers – from cleaners to porters, doctors to nurses, paramedics to health visitors and many more in between – continue to risk the very same fate as their colleagues who paid the ultimate price.

Even those who did not contract the virus are left with psychological scars that could take years to heal.

It’s left many nurses with PTSD’

St Thomas’ Hospital A&E staff nurse Mark Boothroyd, who also serves as Unite branch secretary for Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital branch in London, described the shocking nature of the sacrifices that he and his colleagues have made throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

“PPE provision was very badly affected by the government’s decision to not replenish the pandemic stockpile that was set up by the previous Labour government,” he explained. “The government basically let the stockpile expire, run down and run out.

“Compounding the problem was the government’s decision to privatise the distribution network of PPE – it just wasn’t fit for purpose when the massive extra demand arose when the pandemic hit. It just couldn’t cope.

“We were left in a situation where hospitals were scrambling around to get whatever PPE they could. Masks were changing from day to day; some wouldn’t fit. Staff were going into Covid wards exposed and there was a general shortage. It was an unbelievably horrendous situation.”

Mark told of the immense pressure intensive care nurses were under at the hospital during the peak of Covid-19 hospitalisations.

“To cope with the extra demand for intensive care, we went from having 75 ICU beds to 300. An intensive care nurse typically cares for one patient at any given time – maybe two maximum if we’re short-staffed. Because of the huge increase in patients in ICU, their workload quadrupled to four intensive care patients.”

Meanwhile, nurses covering other services such as out-patient or surgery which were then suspended, were redeployed to work in ICU because of a shortage of staff at a time when these intensive care units were flooded with patients, Mark explained.

“These redeployed nurses didn’t have intensive care experience so they were basically given odd jobs to do. In turn, intensive care nurses then had to manage these redeployed nurses as well manage four patients. It was incredibly stressful. It’s frankly left many nurses with varying levels of PTSD.

“Staff just feel generally let down that the government hasn’t actually followed the scientific advice on how to tackle the pandemic — and we’re now looking straight at a second wave. And so we’re all going to have to do this all over again.”

‘We were all very worried and distressed’

Unite rep and health visitor Victoria Thorpe, who also works for Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital Trust, agrees.

“At the height of the pandemic, it was incredibly scary time for health visitors,” she said. “Everything was mismanaged from the beginning and we were told because we worked in the community and not in a hospital setting we didn’t need any PPE. So were expected to have contact with our clients without any protection at all. It wasn’t until weeks later when Public Health England (PHE) and others realised the severity of the pandemic that we were given PPE.”

 Victoria noted that initially, there was a plan to redeploy health visitors into the acute sector, but then this plan changed when public health experts realised the importance of continuing a health visiting service.

“Mothers were still giving birth to babies so there was a need for consultations, and there were a lot of safeguarding issues amid the pandemic as well.”

“We quickly redesigned our service to meet the needs of the population, at great risk to our lives. “We developed what we called ‘hot’ and cold’ teams where some people worked from home and did virtual consultations and then some would go into health centres to see clients directly.

“We were in the thick of it really. At first some of us were going into uncontrolled areas like people’s homes. And we know that the majority of the population first became sick from Covid-19 at home before going into a hospital setting.”

Victoria and her colleagues were especially angry that at one point during the pandemic, they were asked to do increased contact visits, despite it going against PHE guidance.

“Some of the babies were from families we had never visited before and there was this assumption that they had to be physically seen by someone and have the baby physically assessed by someone. There might also by a partner at home while we were doing a virtual consultation so we weren’t able to ask those domestic abuse questions. The rationale behind it was understandable but it just wasn’t assessed or managed properly.

“After all, asking those mums to leave their homes during the pandemic and get onto public transport with their young babies, come to the health centres and then travel back home  – it significantly increases their risk of contracting Covid-19.

“When we pushed back against management, they just said it came from ‘command and control’ and we had to work that way – despite our argument which was that midwives were already following up with these families so extra contact visits weren’t necessary.”

Many health visitors as whole are doubly at risk of catching and dying from the virus – this is because a strong majority, 80 per cent, are from Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority (BAEM) backgrounds.

Despite this added risk factor, Victoria said that this wasn’t taken into consideration. 

“A Covid-19 SOP (standard operating procedure) was developed it didn’t have an equality impact assessment to see how it discriminated against staff in protected categories.

“We were all very worried and distressed because we knew the statistics say if you’re BAEM then you’re much more likely to contract the virus and die from the virus.”

Mark, Victoria, and all their colleagues and other NHS staff have made tremendous sacrifices and risked their lives amid the pandemic, as we’ve seen in Part 1 of our feature. Stay tuned for Part 2, where we hear from Mark and Victoria again, who explain why because of these sacrifices, they deserve a pay rise now.

By Hajera Blagg

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