'We're breaking' - Lister Hospital staff 'tearful' and 'on their knees' as COVID cases double
- Credit: PA
Lister Hospital has become so overwhelmed by severe coronavirus cases that it may ask admin and clerical staff to help wash patients, staff have told this newspaper.
One broke down in tears as she described colleagues’ battle to treat more and more patients with dwindling staff numbers.
Operating theatres have already been converted into intensive care units and pharmacists have been placed on wards in an effort to dish out prescriptions and free up beds more quickly.
“It’s relentless,” said one hospital worker. “It’s madness in there. It’s just so overwhelming. There is support in place for staff but it’s not enough. People are breaking.”
Chief executive Nick Carver said the hospital was under such “unprecedented” pressure that "staff are experiencing a degree of stress that is outside the experience of professionals in peace time."
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NHS data shows that by Sunday, January 3, the trust’s critical care beds were already 95.5 per cent occupied.
Demand on the trust more than doubled over the Christmas period. On December 22, 80 beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients – already double the figure two weeks earlier. But by January 5, it had more than doubled again, to 171.
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On Friday, January 8, staff were told the number could soon hit 250. A plan has been drawn up to send patients to Cambridge and Norwich.
Staff claimed a national NHS body had issued instructions that nobody was to tell the press what was going on inside hospitals. However, some spoke to this newspaper on condition of anonymity.
“We are seeing so many COVID patients that the beds can’t keep up,” said one. “The staff are on their knees. They are tearful. They are having a job being able to take a break. This is not because the trust is not trying. The managers are doing everything they can – but the COVID is too fast for them. I don’t know how much longer the NHS is going to hold up, to be honest.”
Before the pandemic, the NHS already had a shortage of 45,000 staff, caused in part, Lister staff said, by European nurses leaving the UK after the Brexit referendum.
Now sources said, more staff are quitting the East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust.
“Their conscience is saying that they are not able to deliver the sort of care that they should be,” said one worker. “You hear it all the time, walking through the hospital: ‘I’ve had enough. I’m off to Tesco. I would get paid as much for stacking shelves as I do for being put through this’.”
In addition, the number of Lister staff either off sick with COVID-19 or having to isolate was around 300 by late last week.
“They can’t even get people in for bank shifts,” a source said. “They are on the phone all day, pleading with people - ‘Could you come in and just do three hours or four hours for us’?”
Staff said the age of patients being admitted with severe COVID-19 was “drastically down”.
“Before, we were seeing older people with co-morbidities,” said one. “We are now seeing younger, healthy people. We are taking people in their 20s and 30s. We weren’t seeing any of those before.”
“The mortuary is overwhelmed,” said another. “They are coming to pick the bodies up at all times of the day.”
Staff were “concerned” at the prospect of schools reopening in February, which they believed would drive cases.
They said morale has collapsed, with many staff “too tired to be angry”.
“They’ve just had enough of struggling every day,” said one. “People are leaving the profession.”
Staff praised the hospital’s vaccine delivery, saying approximately 500 workers per week were being vaccinated, in addition to elderly residents.
“But the figures haven’t hit anything like Boris Johnson said they would,” one added. “It’s not so much whether the vaccine is available – it's the vaccinators. We don’t have the staff. But we are doing exceptionally well with the staff we have.”
The trust did not dispute any of the claims made by this newspaper’s sources.
Mr Carver said: “I am immensely proud of our phenomenal staff and committed to doing all I can to support them.”
He agreed that “pressure is likely to continue for some weeks” but added: “Even under immense pressure, we remain here for our community. Please do seek emergency care if needed. We are here for you.
“I would urge the community to ease the burden by strictly complying with government advice about staying home to protect our healthcare services, so that we can continue to care for those in our community who need us.”
UPDATE - 5.15pm: The East and North NHS Trust initially did not make any comment on the interviews with its staff, but later asked to make two clarifications.
It said that its operating theatres had not been converted into ITU areas, but some of its operating theatre staff had been asked to care for patients in its critical care unit.
The trust added that it was using 70 per cent of its mortuary “surge capacity”, but that the mortuary was not “overwhelmed”.