Royal Free calls in the army as 'unprecedented' demand continues

Kate Slemeck Royal Free

Kate Slemeck (right), chief executive of the Royal Free hospital, revealed the army had been drafted in to help after its critical care beds hit 100 per cent capacity. - Credit: Left: PA Wire/Daniel Leal Olivas. Right: Archant.

The military has been drafted in to support the Royal Free hospital as it continues to experience “unprecedented pressure” on its intensive care services.  

In an interview with the Ham&High, the hospital’s chief executive, Kate Slemeck, said 40 combat medical technicians arrived last week and are expected to stay for a month.  

“That has been absolutely critical for us to keep services going, having lost quite a lot of staff and having so many more patients to care for,” she said.  

Other military personnel are also on-site, working in non-clinical roles. 

Ms Slemeck spoke to the Ham&High on Monday, January 25, hours after it was reported that Prime Minister Boris Johnson may relax some lockdown measures before mid-February.  

Asked whether she was concerned about the news, she replied: “I have to say, (I'm) a little bit nervous about that.” 

Ms Slemeck said she understood that balancing the health of the economy against protecting the NHS was “a really difficult business”, but added: “Certainly, we’re seeing lockdown now having an impact and I think there’s a real anxiety that if we don’t behave and don’t work within the confines of lockdown or be sensible, that these numbers could just start tipping the other way.  

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“The community rates are still really high. They’re so much higher than they were in the first wave. I hope any decisions will be made very sensibly and thoughtfully because obviously, what we’ve seen here has been very concerning.” 

Since early November, the trust has upped its critical care beds from 59 to 116 – yet by January 17, it had still hit 100 per cent occupancy.  

Ms Slemeck said finding the staff to cope with that demand has been “quite a struggle”.  

More than 200 clinical staff have been redeployed to support critical care, whilst 250 non-clinical staff have taken on duties such as helping with virtual visiting and coronavirus vaccinations.  

Staff are also being drafted in from other London trusts, including Great Ormond Street, and medical students are stepping in to support nurses.  

Staff sickness is currently around 8pc, whereas it would usually be around 2.5pc at this time of year, said Ms Slemeck. Many are off with Covid-19, including lots who were asymptomatic and discovered they had the virus when they underwent routine testing.  

“We are identifying people who perhaps would have carried on working, unbeknownst to them that they were carrying Covid,” Ms Slemeck said. “They need to be away from work for 10 days. That’s a long period when you are super-surging with patient numbers. So I think that’s probably been one of our biggest challenges.” 

Hospital staff on one of five Covid-19 wards at Whiston Hospital in Merseyside where patients are ta

Ms Slemeck said staff morale had been 'quite tested' by the Covid-19 second wave, which had been much worse than the first. Stock image. - Credit: PA

Staff had expected a second wave, she said, but it had come earlier than anticipated. Cases began rising exponentially in mid-December, “so we had to ask staff to delay their leave, reduce their leave, come in off their leave”.  

Cases have “continued to surge throughout January”, said Ms Slemeck. “It’s been incredibly challenging for the staff but they have been absolutely amazing. They’ve all stepped up to the plate and worked under very challenging conditions and supported each other.” 

Cases appear to have “plateaued”, she said – but pressure on the hospital remains unprecedented.  

“The growth rate has slowed down completely – in fact, it is almost at zero – but the numbers are remaining very high,” she said. 

The trust has not yet seen any evidence that the new strain, revealed by the government shortly before Christmas, is proving more deadly.  

“But what we are seeing is younger people – people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s in hospital beds and in ICU (intensive care),” said Ms Slemeck. “That was very different from the first time around, where it was generally 60-plus.” 

Staff morale has “been quite tested”, she said. As a high-level infectious diseases unit, the Royal Free was one of the first UK hospitals to accept Covid-19 patients. It admitted its first on February 9, 2020.  

“So it’s been a really long haul for the staff here,” she continued. “People are quite tired. I mean, everyone’s sick of Covid, aren’t they – let's face it. The general public are and everyone else. We are sick of living with it.” 

Psychologists are supporting staff “in the moment and then after their shifts – and then later on, if that’s what they want,” said Ms Slemeck.  

“Whilst you have to keep working on keeping morale up, in the main it’s not too bad. But they’re very keen for this to come to an end.”  

The mass vaccination programme had made staff “hopeful” that an end may be in sight, said Ms Slemeck, but “then we’ve got a gargantuan task to actually step up all the work that we’ve not been doing".

In order to ease the pressure, she said, her message to the public was: “It’s really important to adhere by lockdown rules. They’re there for a reason... Be safe and be sensible.”