Images of healthcare workers in full PPE treating critically ill patients have come to define the past 12 months.
Covid-19 has been the greatest challenge the NHS has ever faced. It placed frontline doctors and nurses under intense pressure and transformed hospitals overnight.
Katie Peaker is a paediatric nurse in children’s A&E at Basildon Hospital. She lives with her dad, her stepmum Debbie Martin - Essex Police’s chief finance officer - and her brother Adam, a driver with Police Transport Services.
During the peaks of the pandemic Katie was redeployed into the hospital’s critical care until to look after the sickest Covid patients.
“In the initial lockdown, the numbers in children’s A&E went from a normal winter, seeing 70-80 patients in the space of an hour, down to about two a day,” said Katie.
“Children weren’t mixing and families were petrified of going out. However, the opposite was happening on the adult side. Numbers were going up because people feared they had coronavirus.
“The PPE was probably over and above what we needed – we were in the full suits with hoods. But then as the numbers started to increase the PPE began to reduce. That’s when we were more concerned. It (Covid-19) could now actually be on my uniform.
“Then I was asked to work on Covid ITU (intensive therapy unit). The PPE there was incredible.”
Katie would change her clothes at work and then have shower and wash her uniform as soon as she got home. The family were extra diligent about sanitising and tried to reduce contact indoors.
“Even though I was changing at work but you are still conscious that you’ve just been 12 and a half hours in a room with Covid pumping around because these people are on ventilators,” Katie said.
As well as the anxiety about the virus, Katie and her colleagues had to content with the challenge of looking after adults.
“As a children’s nurse, I don’t have the qualifications to look after an adult. I know how to save a life but in terms of an adult and a child it’s very different. We were all very nervous.
“After the first lockdown, we weren’t needed but when the wave stuck just before Christmas they told us we didn’t have a choice (about working in intensive care) it’s just a matter of when.
“Every single member of the paediatric team at Basildon did at least three to four shifts in Covid ITU. There was no arguing it, there was no ‘Sorry, I don’t want to.’ You’re a team, you have to offer your support, it’s only three shifts, get on with it, and deal with it after.”
Debbie said that the family were concerned that Katie would be exposed to Covid and that it was “evident at home that Katie felt nervous at being asked to deal with adults”.
“I did a couple of shifts in adult A&E, and I was left to crack-on. A&E is such an unpredictable environment.” said Katie. “But when I was in adult ITU, the support was amazing.
“I did cry a lot, but I did enjoy it and it’s something I’d do again if asked.”
Adam has also continued to work through the pandemic. He is part of the transport team based in Boreham that are crucial to keeping the force moving around Essex. They pick-up broken-down police vehicles and get them back on the road as quickly as possible.
Adam said that after the initial apprehension of not knowing what impact Covid would have on him or his family, his truck became his “little haven” and a strict sanitising regime introduced at work helped protect the drivers, workshop staff and technicians.
There was also an unexpected bonus that helped make his working day a lot easier.
“The roads were lovely,” said Adam. “During the first lockdown it was like a ghost town, and it was good to see everyone following the rules… although on a couple of occasions I saw a Mercedes going 140mph followed by a police car!”
For CFO Debbie, the most difficult part of lockdown has been the lack of contact with family and colleagues.
She said: “I’ve not seen my dad at all. He’s 85 and my stepmother has dementia. He used to go swimming four times a week and he’s found it hard without that outlet.
“But we probably are stronger as a family. Katie and Adam’s dad was away on business a lot and now he said he doesn’t want to be on the road all the time as he’s liked being at home with us.”
Debbie has still been coming into the office one or two days a week and said it’s been strange without her team. “I’m looking forward to getting them back together. I’ve seen them all on Teams and some of them individually but it’s not the same.”
With lockdown restrictions slowly lifting, Adam is looking forward to getting back out on the golf course and seeing his grandparents again, and nurse Katie said the reopening of gyms, restaurants and pubs will help her unwind from the pressure of work.
Katie said: “The biggest issue has been having a release. I’m really into the gym because I need something I can really put my stress and anger into. You notice the change in your emotions when it’s been taken away from you.
“If we’d had a bad shift, we’d go to the Harvester or the pub, get some dinner and have a drink. We used to call it our ‘debrief’. As that doesn’t happen anymore you take that feeling home with you. It’ll be good when we can go out again and can talk things through, have a laugh together and forget the day.”