Hospital staff describe 'distressing' battle against rising Covid cases

A nurse wearing PPE works on a patient in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) in St George's Hospital in T

The Whittington NHS trust's adult critical care hit 100 per cent occupancy on Sunday, as the hospital had to stop accepting emergency cases due to bed shortages and pressure on oxygen. Stock image. - Credit: PA

The Whittington hospital trust is lining up psychological support for staff involved in the “distressing” fight against the coronavirus second wave.

Chief nurse Michelle Johnson said help was being organised after a staff member said colleagues were becoming “burnt out” and quitting.

Beds occupied by Covid-19 patients increased more than seven-fold between early December and early January.

On December 1, the hospital had 21 Covid-19 patients. By January 5, the number was 179.

By Sunday, January 10, its adult critical care beds were 100 per cent occupied.

That weekend the hospital “went on divert” – meaning it could not take emergency patients, due to a combination of bed shortages and high demand for oxygen.

The Whittington Hospital turned blue for the NHS' 72nd birthday. Picture: Whittington Health

The Whittington Hospital trust saw the number of beds occupied by coronavirus patients increase more than seven-fold between early December and early January. - Credit: Archant

“It is literally a horrible environment to be in, turning up to work and seeing all those ambulances outside,” said a nurse, speaking on condition of anonymity. “People go off sick with the stress. It’s quite dangerous. I know some people are leaving.

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“I think people are just tired. Tired, and sort of had enough. You don’t have any time for yourself. You go to work and you’re in Covid. You go home and Covid is all over the news. You’re physically and mentally exhausted.

“We haven’t even got over the first wave and now this second wave is here – and it’s worse.”

Ms Johnson said she had heard similar comments from staff.

“It’s exhausting, relentless, distressing,” she said. “I’ve been a nurse for over 30 years and I’ve never experienced something like this last year... I go home every night feeling, ‘I cannot believe we are going through this’.”

The trust is organising “immediate support” for staff, said Ms Johnson, which she was accessing herself: “It affects all of us.”

“I think the psychological support, the more long-term impact of Covid, will come later,” she said. “We are preparing for that. We are working with our mental health trusts and local primary care to make sure we’ve got that support ready when staff want it.”

Michelle Johnson, chief nurse at the Whittington Hospital. Picture: Whittington Health NHS Trust

Michelle Johnson, chief nurse at the Whittington Hospital, said the coronavirus pandemic was unlike anything else she had seen in her 30-year career, with staff under 'exhausting, relentless, distressing' pressure. - Credit: Whittington Health NHS Trust

The second wave has been “significantly harder on all the staff” than the first, said Ms Johnson, with patient numbers higher than ever.

A nurse said: “There are lots of staff shortages... My shifts are 12.5 hours and I have been picking up extra shifts to help out. A lot of us feel obliged to help out.

“There were two nurses this week on a ward of Covid patients... You’re talking at least 15 or 20 patients.

“I got [a message] at the weekend asking nurses to come in and cover the ITU [intensive care], even if they are not qualified, and they will pay an enhanced rate. The ones who are not qualified would be supporting the ones who are qualified.

“A couple of doctors told me they were asked to cover the ITU nurses’ breaks. But the doctors could get an emergency bleep and have to rush off, so patients could potentially be left unattended.”

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

Psychological support is being organised for staff at the trust, as one nurse said colleagues were quitting due to stress and exhaustion. Stock image. - Credit: PA

Ms Johnson said an increase in lateral flow tests had picked up asymptomatic infections in staff who might otherwise have come to work and unwittingly infected colleagues or patients.

As a result, she said: “We have more nurses off sick than we ever normally have... We are managing on a day to day, shift by shift basis, to ensure all areas of the trust are safely covered.”

She said that meant staff being “incredibly flexible, to work with patients and provide care that may be someone else’s responsibility normally.”

One nurse told this newspaper that non-compliance with Covid-19 rules was damaging morale.

“I encountered someone saying to me the other day it was all a hoax,” she said. “It was an Uber driver on my way to work. The whole journey, he was saying it was a hoax. I was trying to tell him and arguing but he was adamant... It was so ignorant. I gave up in the end because I was going into a shift and you need that time beforehand to prepare yourself.”

Ms Johnson said the vaccine had boosted morale, saying: “I did lots of vaccines at the end of last week with staff and the buzz in the clinic was just wonderful.”

She said residents should not be deterred from seeking medical help, adding: “Thanks to the incredibly hard work of staff from across the trust we are still able to care safely for everyone who needs us.

“But on behalf of my hardworking colleagues, I appeal to the public to follow the national lockdown rules and stay at home unless you absolutely must go out.”