On 11 March 2020 the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 outbreak to be a global pandemic. A year later, the UK is beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel, but the danger is far from over. And after months fighting the pandemic's second wave, the health team is at breaking point.
UNISON’s national nursing officer Stuart Tuckwood reflects on the experience and speaks with colleagues on the frontline.
Before working for UNISON, I was a nurse in a critical care rapid response team. So when COVID-19 became a national health crisis in 2020, I offered to go back into the NHS to provide cover and help my colleagues. What followed was a year of intense, fearful, sometimes heart-breaking work for everyone involved.
Having survived the first wave of the pandemic, we spent the autumn watching with fear as COVID-19 infections started to rise again. Our hope that the worst had passed fell away with the leaves from the trees. Intensive care staff – nurses, healthcare support workers and doctors – were full of dread, knowing the hell they had already battled through once and desperate not to go through it again.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what they had to do.
“Imagine you have a car, and you’ve driven it until the tank is empty,” Victor Tapah, UNISON steward and critical care nurse, tells me. “But you are still driving because you can’t afford to stop. This is how the second wave of the virus makes me feel. After the burnout, fatigue and trauma from the first wave, we never had time to refuel.”
Victor joined the intensive care unit (ICU) at Royal Papworth Hospital, in Cambridge, shortly before the pandemic erupted, having only recently qualified. Nasia Psariadi, a Greek nurse at nearby Addenbrooke’s Hospital, previously worked in theatre recovery but was redeployed into intensive care in March 2020 as patient numbers climbed. After just one day working alongside a regular ICU nurse, she started to care for severely sick people who required ventilators to survive.
“The ICU nurses were amazing. I was never alone,” Nasia recalls. After the first wave subsided, she decided to remain with them: "I wanted to help those who had helped me at the most difficult point of their careers.” And as the second wave gathered momentum she faced up to the prospect of now being the one to support other ICU volunteers.
At the same time, she admits, “It was difficult knowing we would have to go through this again.”
As Christmas and household-mixing passed, the numbers of sick people admitted to intensive care units became a deluge. Hospitals expanded ICUs into theatres and spare ward areas – stretching their trained staff more thinly and supplementing them with other nurses, volunteers and support from the military. All of the regular ICU staff I’ve spoken to have expressed their gratitude for the help they’ve received from colleagues. But supervising so many other staff whilst caring for their own patients takes a drastic toll.
On my first night working in the second wave I strived to learn quickly – desperate to pick up what I needed in order to care for my young patient without the need to overly bother the ICU nurses. The second night I also helped them to run their blood samples and to wash and clean their patients. By the third I was supporting the volunteer doctor alongside me, who hadn’t worked in ICU in years.
Meanwhile, a relatively junior Filipino nurse marshalled the room, to support us and make sure our patients were monitored and cared for properly. The nurse in charge appeared at our bedsides to check we were OK and offer advice.
The skill on display was incredible; through layers of PPE, I particularly marvelled at the more experienced nurses who juggled so many different advanced treatments at once.
Victor’s ICU is a specialist centre that offers ECMO, an advanced form of cardio-respiratory support, and he has had to manage this treatment for several patients while administering medicines, providing personal care, monitoring his critically unwell patients’ observations, and much more besides. Victor now oversees volunteer nurses and doctors far more senior than him – in intensive-care, he has to support them. “I feel like I’ve been a nurse for 20 years,” he says. “But the thing is, you need to support each other, you need to lead, you need to cope.”