Coronavirus: working in the NHS

This is a series of personal stories and experiences shared by friends of Renew during this pandemic. Carla Burns is an NHS worker, and she tells us what it's been like supporting those working on the front-lines.


The last few weeks have been very strange.


As news emerged from China about a new respiratory illness, our infectious diseases colleagues began to get twitchy. I work in an NHS trust that has a specialist unit for infectious diseases and we are used to dealing with high-risk illnesses, including monkeypox and other terrible things, so when these specialists say they are worried you know to pay attention.


For years NHS trusts have struggled to prepare for major incidents due to chronic underfunding and shortages of staff. There was little time to ensure systems and processes were in place. Planning for a global pandemic should have always been coordinated and funded from the centre. But, of course, this did not happen.


The focus of my work has been to coordinate the provision of mental health support for staff who will be facing the inevitable horrors over the coming weeks. On top of the huge increase in extremely unwell patients, the NHS will also have to limit the availability of all but immediate life-preserving treatment whilst facing high-levels of staff sickness and self-isolation. The lack of early available testing has placed huge limitations on the planning phase of the pandemic, even before the patient numbers began to increase. On top of this staff are anxious about the conflicting and shifting guidance around Personal Protective Equipment, with NHS guidance currently not reflective of that advocated by the WHO. News of the first deaths of healthcare workers from COVID-19 is hitting them hard.


To attempt to mitigate some of the potential impact on staff, work has been taking place with a team of in-house psychologists whose day job is working with cancer and pain patients. Together with them, we have developed a training programme to upskill as many staff as possible to be able to provide Psychological First Aid to their colleagues, which is a model of mental health support used by the WHO in war and disaster zones. Along with this we have partnered with a local university to provide training in the prevention of PTSD – which we hope will have a positive impact. In addition to this, staff can access counselling and specialist support via a temporary service.


Many support offers have been made available to staff from all places - apps, guidance, advice etc. and we have been attempting to pull them together into a coherent offer so staff are not overwhelmed. Alongside this staff are being provided accommodation if they wish to keep away from their families to reduce the possibility of bringing the virus home. The majority of our staff are female and have caring responsibilities and this is hitting them particularly hard. All we can do now is support the front-line, rotate the staff between the more and less stressful areas and keep them rested and fed/hydrated and with adequate PPS - their physical needs are inextricably linked to their ongoing mental health.

And when this is over we will pick up the pieces as best we can.


The silver lining to this has been to witness teams of people being assembled and addressing tricky and complex issues in new and innovative ways. People working off-site are finding technology to enable this to happen when it was previously believed to be impossible. What cross organisational work with reduced boundaries and a shared common goal can achieve.


All of these things remind me why I work for the NHS - passion, determination and for some, a willingness to pay the ultimate price.


It has been a truly humbling few weeks.

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