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