A CUMBERLAND Infirmary nurse who contracted coronavirus says she felt she was putting her life at risk every time she went into work at the height of the pandemic.

The nurse, who wishes to remain anonymous, has criticised the PPE provided to staff and has also claimed risk assessments for both her and her colleagues were carried out too late.

She has also raised concerns about the number of staff on the designated coronavirus ward which she worked on.

Her ward began to take coronavirus patients at the end of March and within a few days was treating a dozen. Just days later it was operating at full capacity.

Risk assessment concerns

The nurse, and many of her colleagues, were not asked to fill in a risk assessment until May 19, two months after the hospital received its first Covid-19 patient.

“We should have done this at the start. Depending on how we answer that it is decided if we need to move to other areas, if they feel we are vulnerable,” the nurse explained.

“It was done eight weeks down the line – it should have been done at the time.”
Going to work was a stressful time, the nurse says.

“We all felt vulnerable throughout. You go into work and hope you come out alive. That’s how I felt. You know you’re risking your life, but you are doing it because you need to. We didn’t sign up for this, we did it because that is what we do. We just got on with it.”

Contracting coronavirus

The nurse was one of the staff members on the ward who contracted Covid-19.

“It was awful. I only had minor Covid, but I was really quite unwell. I didn’t have shortness of breath, but I had a temperature for one night, had a headache like a hangover that wouldn’t go away even with painkillers. It was scary,” she said.

“I was on my own in the house and I struggled to get to sleep at night. I was up until two and three o’clock, as I felt if I shut my eyes I may not wake up.

“People with Covid were going off really quickly, they could be okay and then could go off and become acutely unwell.

“I was telling colleagues ‘if you don’t hear from me can somebody ring and see if I’m all right’.”

Taken its toll

A large proportion of staff on her ward have tested positive for coronavirus, according to the nurse. The pandemic has taken its toll on everyone at the hospital.

“I’ve not been able to see family. I didn’t see people for two weeks, it was the most awful time,” she explained.

“I don’t think we would have got through it without being with such a strong team. It was very difficult for all of us not being able to see family.”

PPE worries

She said staff raised concerns about PPE on numerous occasions. She said there was never a problem with supply, but quality issues were raised.

“The aprons were the ones we usually wear and with Covid being spread though droplets we felt we should have been better covered. Our teams didn’t have scrubs, we were running on ordinary uniforms.

"We asked for scrubs and we were told there wasn’t enough for us all, it was ITU (intensive care unit) that had scrubs.

“We felt if we had long-sleeved gowns we would be better covered and we would have felt safer.”

One staff member wrote to bosses asking them if they were following Public Health England guidelines surrounding PPE. “We always hit a brick wall, what can you do? They said PHE said this is what we were to do,” she continued.

The nurse said staff levels would vary depending on the time of day of the shift. “On nights we were a little bit short-staffed. Bed managers were able to get more staff, but sometimes we felt we were struggling,” she said.

Communication between managers was also a cause for concern. “We were telling one member of staff ‘we are short of staff’ and at the shift takeover it falls into a dark hole and we have to start from scratch,” she explained.

Cecilia Fashanu was one of two staff members who worked at the Cumberland Infirmary to have died after contracting coronavirus. “That affected everybody; we all knew her very well. I cried for two days, it was awful. She was one of the most beautiful people ever. She would do anything for anybody. Because we knew her quite well, it really upsets you.”

Despite her concerns, the nurse acknowledges how difficult a time it was for everyone. “I think we coped considerably well really, given the circumstances. Things could have been better, like some of the PPE, but generally, they (management) coped considerably well,” she said.

“It has been a stressful time for everybody – including managers, who have had to find beds and put staff into place.”

The NHS worker says at the beginning of the pandemic staff were only allowed to be tested if they showed symptoms. “We were all in the same environment, so if staff have got symptoms they might have passed it on to other staff. People wanted to be tested, but they couldn’t because they didn’t have symptoms.”

NHS response 

Lyn Simpson, chief executive of the North Cumbria Integrated Care NHS Foundation Trust, which operates the Cumberland Infirmary, said: “Our 6,000-strong workforce have been outstanding throughout this pandemic and we’ve seen over 300 staff being redeployed into other roles and even coming out of retirement and volunteering to support the response.

“For all of our staff and our front line staff, in particular, this unprecedented event has been exceptionally challenging. In line with the rest of the country, I know staff have been concerned throughout these difficult times and that this has had a significant impact on them. The support of our communities has been important to our front line workers and others who have helped all those affected by this virus.

“One of our key objectives from the start of the incident response was to protect staff and that has been at the forefront of our mind throughout. We have provided in line with or above national guidelines in relation to PPE for our Covid wards.

"The executive team and I have visited and discussed issues each week with staff representatives to listen and respond. We have put in place a range of staff wellbeing processes and resources including a dedicated confidential staff wellbeing telephone line.

“We know there have been issues with supplies which was reported nationally however the trust has not run out of PPE and we have been able to supply all Covid wards with PHE-approved PPE throughout this pandemic.

“We have followed national guidance in relation to testing and we continue to test symptomatic staff and, based on clinical need, we also now test asymptomatic staff. We were not able to undertake this level of testing when the virus was at its peak.

“The national guidance has changed frequently and this has been challenging to communicate with staff however we have been sharing staff updates daily.

“We welcome all feedback which provides us with lots of learning and also some excellent work where we are celebrating good practice. Every story is valued by us and it is good that people share their stories so that we can all reflect on how we move forward together.”