'We're at risk, just like doctors': the NHS staff fighting coronavirus behind the scenes

Sarah Johnson
Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

Francis Yongblah, biomedical scientist, London

This pandemic has brought to light the importance of my profession. People hear about testing for coronavirus but they don’t recognise we’re the ones doing it.

It’s been intense. We’ve had to do a lot of contingency planning to be able to do as many tests as possible, and we’re trying to get people trained. Coronavirus testing is critical: we want to diagnose patients as quickly as possible so wards can decide whether to isolate that patient and stop the transmission of infection to others.

Running tests is a hugely complicated process that requires years of education and training. From the time we receive a swab, it can take up to six hours to get a result.

Our workload is starting to increase. We’re doing about 50 tests a day but it may go up to 100-200. We’re having to change work patterns so we can cope with the demand; one of my team has tested positive for Covid-19 so is off. There is a lot of pressure. More and more wards are phoning saying they need immediate results.

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We’re setting up a separate service where we can screen staff, which we’re hoping will go live this week. Once that’s up and running, we will be at capacity. If further testing is needed, there must be more investment. We will need more machines.

We have to carry out tests in personal protective equipment (PPE). Information changes daily in terms of how at risk we are. If we don’t follow protocol, we’re at risk, just like clinicians.

It’s nerve-racking. It’s so unpredictable and we haven’t hit the peak yet.

Mark Westby, head of medical equipment services, Nottingham

I’ve got 42 engineers in my team and look after 60,000 pieces of medical equipment. We commission equipment, service it, repair it and decommission it for Nottingham University hospitals NHS trust.

We’ve had to cancel planned and non-critical work. We’re working seven days a week and I’m trying to get staff to cancel annual leave. We are working overtime.

The university, which has closed, has provided classrooms we’ve converted into testing and storage areas for all the equipment we’re ordering. We’ve also recruited 17 volunteers to help us.

Hospitals are asking for the same things to equip a critical care bed: a bed, a surface, a ventilator, five infusion devices, a feed pump, and monitoring devices. Let’s say we’ve got to equip 180 critical care beds; we’ve only got 60 so all of a sudden we’ve got to equip 120 beds with all this equipment. We can redistribute some of it from other areas that we’ve shut down but we’ve got lots of orders in.

Luckily for us, we were going through a replacement programme for ventilators before all this began. We’d already ordered quite a lot without decommissioning the old ones. The NHS supply chain has been sourcing them nationally and there’s an application process for trusts.

We’re having to put so many new pieces of equipment in place that we’re renewing electricity, gas and oxygen supplies. We’re putting four critical care beds in a theatre – that’s four times as many as normal – so we have to increase the amount of electrical sockets, and make sure there are gas outlets.

We’ve got to be on site. We have to do repairs on the wards, so we need the right PPE. We’ve already got a few staff self-isolating with symptoms. If we lose 20% of our team, it will cause us operational problems.

We feel like we’re the elves that come in overnight and fix things. We’re hidden behind the nurses and doctors but we don’t mind; our job is to support them.

Danny Leigh, radiographer, Morecambe Bay

I do X-rays. For the Covid-19 patients, we go to them with portable equipment. It’s put a lot of pressure on our department and we’re having to get extra staff.

Sometimes radiographers are forgotten about. We go under the radar; a third wheel after doctors and nurses. I’m very proud to be a radiographer – we are there on the frontline but no one knows it.

We have to wear PPE each time we take an X-ray. The nurses showed me how to put it on; at first they didn’t realise I needed it. I get right in there with the patient, and put the X-ray board behind them – we are within inches of infective patients.

The chest X-rays are like nothing I’ve ever seen in the way the pneumonia is presenting at the bottom of the lungs.

This crisis has hit home now. Doing the shifts has made me realise it’s real. I worked three days in a row and I feel like the number of patients doubled each day. There’s a headteacher two streets away from me who died.

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I’m off work now because I tested positive for Covid-19. I’ve got a fever, and feel achy with sore lungs. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. I was in work for four days and contracted it. It’s quite scary because I took all the precautions.

There’s a lot of anxiety over what’s going to happen. Will we be able to cope? We don’t have enough members of staff as it is. It’s going to be a case of filling in the gaps – we will be firefighting. I think it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better, but we will get used to the new way of doing things.

Hannah Marshal-Nichols, specialist respiratory physiotherapist, north Wales

My role is to improve people’s breathing – to get rid of phlegm and optimise lung volume, including when people are on ventilators. I cover the critical care unit and other wards, so I’ve been treating patients with Covid-19.

It’s challenging work. We have to wear PPE which makes communication difficult. When you’re in a mask, the patient can’t see your lips if you’re smiling. It’s also tiring and dehydrating.

At the moment, we are still in a preparatory phase; we have confirmed cases but we’ve not hit the peak yet. I’ve been upskilling physiotherapists so they can do my role. There’s six of us who are full-time but we’ve got 16 from other departments we can call on.

Ultimately what we do contributes to a patient’s chances of recovery. Being mechanically ventilated takes its toll on the body so patients will also need significant amounts of rehabilitation down the line.

Coronavirus is the most serious challenge the NHS has faced in terms of the number of patients we’re likely to see. It’s overwhelming and the biggest test I’ve faced in my career so far.

Kate Jarman, communications professional, Milton Keynes

These are interesting times for communications professionals. People think of the spin doctor stereotype but most of our work in the NHS is about communicating well with staff. We’ve got more than 4,000 employees in my trust, and my priority is to make sure they’ve got the right information so they feel supported and can support their patients.

The demand for communication and information externally and internally has really stepped up since coronavirus hit. We look to reach staff in different ways. We’ve got people working remotely in a way they’ve never done before, and it’s the same for clinics.

Anxiety levels are high. There’s a huge amount of personalised information people are keen to have. A few weeks ago we held big open forums to ask questions and hear the latest updates. Now, because of social distancing guidance, we have to do that differently. It’s very difficult to do blanket communications. My job has become much more about finding out what matters to staff.

Advice changes every day; there are continual reviews at a national level. The main challenge is making complex, quite scientific and frightening information easy to understand and follow.

We work closely with other departments supporting health and wellbeing, like getting food to people who can’t go out or to departments with staff working longer hours. We made parking free last year and introduced free tea and coffee. We’re now thinking about what we can do next.

There’s a real sense of team at the moment and of people coming together. We’re here, and we need to deal with this. That will be what keeps people going.

Do you work in the NHS and want to share your views and experiences? Get in touch with sarah.johnson@theguardian.com