Saving the nation UNISON members tell their stories from the first months of the covid crisis

The UK was put into lockdown on 23 March 2020. By that time, UNISON members across the range of our service sectors were already gathering at the frontline. They had two monumental tasks ahead of them – to save lives, and to keep the country working.

Health workers, school and police staff, care workers and many, many more stood up to be counted, when the UK was in its direst need since WWII.

Some of our members shared their experiences as they happened. Reproduced here, their stories chart the country’s course through the first, troubled months of the pandemic.

March 23.... lockdown begins

Stella Quentin, 111 call handler, Surrey

Usually the 300 call handlers for the South East Coast Ambulance Service take around 2,000 to 3,000 calls a day, with issues ranging from sore throats and drug overdoses.

But as COVID-19 has emerged, the volume of calls has doubled, with some days seeing as many as 7,000. And the vast majority are now related to the virus.

“Normally, it’s quite a brutal place to work," says Stella, a call handler and UNISON rep. "The pressure is constant and as soon as you finish one call you have to pick up the next. If you’re not logged on and taking calls, managers will come and find out why.

“But once the call levels started to go through the roof with COVID, the pressure from management stopped. We already have overtime policies in place, but now managers give us extra breaks and, this Saturday, my manager was pushing a tea trolley round to bring us hot drinks while we were taking calls.”

Despite the pressure of the pandemic and the weight it’s placing on an already over-burdened 111 service, Stella is proud to do the job she does – and proud of the way that managers are supporting frontline staff.

April 8

Mohammad Ahsan, care assistant, London

Every day Mohammad looks after around six or seven people, for an hour or so each, driving to their homes to give them personal care, wash them, change their clothes and help with cooking and shopping.

“Everybody is worried about the virus. Carers are worried for themselves, and worried for our clients too,” he says.

“Most of my clients are elderly and in the high-risk group. Those who can look after themselves without us have cancelled their visits. But some cannot get up from their bed by themselves, and they need us to wash them, change them and make them breakfast. They’re scared, but there’s nothing they can do. They can’t isolate.”

While the government has instructed the whole country to stay at home, its guidance on self-isolation and social distancing “isn’t much use to carers,” Mohammad says.

“We cannot be 2-3 metres away from a client, because we give personal care – it is our job to wash people. All carers are at direct risk. But if we all stopped working, who else would be there to look after the most elderly and vulnerable?”

UNISON has been at the forefront of campaigning for personal protective equipment (PPE), pressuring government, councils and employers to address the issues impacting care workers.

It's not just equipment though. The agency, like many others, is also strained on staffing, with many staff self-isolating. And this adds more pressure to those care workers still able to work.

“There are now even more hours to cover,” says Mohammad. “But I am not planning to stop. I can’t think in that way. I enjoy helping people and I have good relationships with all of my clients. I just can’t leave them at this time.”

April 17

Christian Groves, refuse collector, Harlow

As an HGV driver for a refuse collection team, Christian has found social distancing a challenge. His job usually involves spending whole days shoulder-to-shoulder in a lorry cab with three or four colleagues, visiting thousands of homes.

UNISON has agreed guidance with national local government employers, which states clearly that social distancing rules must be adhered to in council vehicles.

It is up to employers to find solutions to avoid having more than two people in a cab. Some are using mini vans to take workers to their collection rounds, to avoid crowded cabs. This might mean redeploying drivers from other services, but it has to happen.

“It’s scary for me," says Christian, who’s a UNISON rep. "I’ve got four young kids and a wife. I don’t want to take anything home to them. My youngest is only a year old. Every day I think, ‘How do I know I haven’t got anything?’ Or the two sat next to me – how do I know?

“You go into our team room at work and there’s 30 to 40 blokes, all in the size of a small classroom. I have spoken to the local management about minimising the number of refuse workers that come to the office every morning."

Christian has bought his own face mask on eBay, and is taking other precautionary measures to stay safe, including picking up his loaders from their homes, so that they’re not travelling to the office or congregating in the team room.

“If there’s any way I can cut down the time we spend together in that lorry, then I will. That was my suggestion to the management. It’s so different out there at the moment, it’s so weird. But I’m doing all I can.”

There has been one ray of sunshine. “Local residents have been so lovely. They’ve been coming out with drinks for us, food and little bags with rubber gloves and hand sanitiser. To be honest, the public have been giving us better equipment than our employer.

“Some people have baked us cakes and kids have drawn us little posters with ‘thank you’ on. It makes you feel really appreciated.”

In April UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis stated the union’s role during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our contribution to overcoming the crisis is to protect the people who are protecting us. We're there for them.”

The union was working on all fronts – giving members minute-by-minute advice and support, while using its political influence at national level to protect their safety and workplace rights.

At the top of the list of the union’s priorities was personal protective equipment – the now famous PPE.

“I’m simply in awe of the bravery and caring ethos our members are showing during this crisis,” Mr Prentis added. “It's not just in hospitals, it's in care, it’s in schools, it’s social workers, it’s police support staff, it’s public service workers across the whole of the frontline.

“It’s an honour for us to be able to support them, speak up on their behalf and protect them while they do their job.”

May 7

Sarah Wall*, homeless hostel team, Birmingham

In the week that the lockdown was announced, Birmingham City Council urged local services to get all rough sleepers off the streets. Sarah remembers it clearly, as “the busiest Monday I’ve ever had.”

She explains that the city didn’t have the capacity to house every single homeless person, with some services already full before the outbreak. The solution was to rent out a hotel, which also allowed individuals to have their own self-isolation spaces.

Despite Birmingham being one of the UKs worst homelessness hotspots, statistics show that the city has made a huge reduction in rough sleeping.

At the same time, Sarah feels like frontline homelessness services have been forgotten in the national narrative around PPE. None of her team members, or anyone in the entrenched rough sleeper team has been put on the supply list.

“You have no idea how much risk we take in a face-to-face homeless service. The amount of exhaustion people feel goes unrecognised. I’ve felt more at risk of exhaustion than COVID-19. And exhaustion could lead to infection.”

The coronavirus crisis has proven that it is possible for the government to house rough sleepers. However, without forward planning Sarah fears that it will go back to where it was before.

“We’ve managed to house a lot of people during COVID-19. So what now?”

* Sarah Wall is an alias.

May 13

Lucy Knightley, operating room practitioner, Gateshead

ODPs are key members of the operating room staff, who cover each phase of a patient’s operation – anaesthetic, surgery and recovery. During the COVID-19 crisis, their skills and critical care training became invaluable.

Lucy Knightley is what’s known as a scrub ODP, whose normal role at Queen Elizabeth Hospital is centred on the procedure itself – she prepares the theatre, checks the equipment, then works alongside the surgeon, providing instruments and advice.

But as soon as her hospital started to galvanise for coronavirus, Lucy and her fellow ODPs were redeployed to the critical care department, where the most seriously afflicted COVID-19 patients were being ventilated.

“Pandemic is definitely not in our job description. But when it came to it, a lot of us hit the ground running. When they said you have to go into critical care, we all said ‘That’s fine. We know what we have to do.’”

Lucy herself was helping a critical care nurse look after patients – with personal care, medication, observation, “every basic element to keep them safe.” They would generally care for one individual for a whole shift.

Reflecting on the past two months, she notes one tragic difference from her normal job.

“It was more upsetting when you'd come in and somebody you've looked after was no longer there, because patients don't tend to die in theatre very often. So to see that, at the level we did, was difficult.

“But we had to go in and say ‘Right, my next patient needs me’, and power on through the day. Your training and professionalism took over.”

Despite its difficulties, Lucy, who is the joint branch secretary of UNISON’s Gateshead health branch, describes the privilege she’s felt during the crisis.

“Some of those patients never got to see a family member, so they spent the day with us. We were the closest they had to company, and a hand to hold, whether they knew that we were holding it or not. It was an honour to help them.”

The whole country showed its appreciation and support of key workers during the weekly clap for carers (Jess Hurd/Report Digital)

May 14

Katie Hodgson, administrator, Sheffield

Almost half the staff in the NHS (around 470,000 people) are in clinical support or infrastructure support roles – including porters, administrators, medical secretaries, telephonists, cleaners, caretakers and laundry staff.

In 'normal times' these vital workers keep the NHS running. But during the COVID-19 crisis they’re pulling out all the stops – changing shifts and often undertaking redeployment to assist where they’re most needed.

Katie Hodgson usually works in admin for a clinical commissioning group (CCG). Since last week, she has volunteered to be redeployed at a drive-in COVID-19 community testing centre, set up for public service workers.

“It’s carefully done,” she says. “People drive in and then two nurses will check their details and do the swabs through the car window. You don’t even need to get out of the car."

The volunteers for the swabbing service come from a variety of roles within the CCG, from managers to admin and clerical and receptionists. UNISON and management worked together to ensure they are given the training and support they need.

Katie, who is also chair of UNISON's operational services committee, notes that many people are now working seven days a week. “They’ve really stepped up. It’s just what’s needed and they’re getting on with it. And that's the great thing about the NHS and its staff – we’re all cogs in the wheel.”

July 4. Bars reopen as lockdown eases. But the fight continues...

Victor Tapah, critical care nurse, Cambridge

Victor came to the UK as an asylum seeker from Cameroon in 2012 and finished his nurse training in October. “For the first six months after training, there’s always someone behind you,” he says. “Then you have to be independent.”

For Victor that independence came in March, when everything changed.

His 46-bed intensive care unit at the Royal Papworth Hospital would normally have up to 36 patients. By April, the beds were full, and the unit had been extended into other wards, with around 50 COVID-19 patients, on top of a number of non-COVID patients needing critical care.

“You had to wear full PPE all shift and you’ve gone from one or two nurses per patient to one nurse for up to three patients. Between the time you start a shift and when you end it, new care guidelines have been published so you never had time to get used to anything.”

Victor was providing medication, performing assessments and operating high-level life-support systems such as the ECMO machine, which replaces the function of the heart and the lungs. When he discovered that one of his patients on an ECMO machine was also a critical care nurse, he asked him how it felt to go from providing care to being the one cared for.

“He said it was another world, that it was unbelievable. I was so emotional. When you see a colleague like that, you go home and cry. You know that a lot of BAME nurses have passed away and think ‘it could be me and I haven’t seen my parents in 10 years’. I try not to think about that too much, because it’s a bit too deep.”

He describes how the hospital adapted as the crisis progressed, introducing dedicated teams for things like personal care and communicating with families, taking huge pressure off the critical care nurses.

“It was like a jigsaw coming together. You see senior staff, who usually work in the offices, helping out on the wards. You see everyone in the trust pulling together and it really gives you the motivation to keep going.”

Reflecting on his feelings about this period, he says: “I don’t like to say proud – you can’t be proud when a lot of people have lost their lives. You sit down and say: we couldn’t have done this without teamwork, we have pushed ourselves to the limit. Whatever comes to me, I feel prepared.”

July 14

Nad Ikram, PCSO, Leicestershire

Nad Ikram has been a PCSO with Leicestershire Police for 17 years, always working out of the same county station. But in March this year his familiar beat took on a surprising new hue.

“It was a very surreal situation,” he says of the early days of the lockdown and the suddenly empty streets. “You think, is this really happening? Then you have to quickly adjust to a different kind of life.”

At the same time as adapting to the ever-changing lockdown himself, with his wife and two teenage children, Nad had to persuade the less enthusiastic members of the public to do the same.

His principal role has been to respond to reports of lockdown breaches – inappropriate house visits or public gatherings – engage with those involved and encourage them to abide by the rules. The aim for himself and his police colleagues was to be positive, to work with the community, “because if we haven’t got the community on our side, then it's not going to work.”

It helped that he sometimes felt as confused, even fearful as everyone else. “As a PCSO you have to have some empathy with other people,” he says. “With COVID-19, if we didn't have an understanding of how others were feeling then I think it would be difficult to engage.”

And as a British Muslim of Pakistan origin, Nad did have personal concerns. “When we started to see the increase in deaths, particularly among the BAME communities across the country, I was definitely worried. About a couple of months back I discovered that someone on the beat, from the local Sheikh temple, passed away as a result of COVID-19. When you hear of people you know who have died, it brings it home.”

But he remains undeterred. “You need a police service that functions and responds to emergencies. I wouldn't have it any other way. I want to be here to serve my community.”

Nad admits that it was “certainly surprising and a bit disheartening” when Leicestershire became the first part of the UK to experience a second spike, with selected areas – including his own – returning to full lockdown.

“I think people eased off a bit too enthusiastically,” he reflects. “We're not going to have a normal way of life again until a vaccine is found. This is a long haul and as a nation we’re going to have to accept that.”

Life in the UK would have been far, far worse had it not been for the efforts of the country's public service workers – saving people's lives, keeping society on its feet

Dave Prentis

They were last and now they've got to be first

Keir Starmer

Saving the nation

Interviews by Janey Starling, Demetrios Matheou and Simon Jackson

Editing and design: Demetrios Matheou

Photographs: Marcus Rose, Jess Hurd, Jon Super, Mark Pinder