One year on: Key worker families
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Lily stepped up from her role as District Commander for Tendring – an area that has seen some of the highest Covid infection rates in the county - to become temporary Superintendent for north Essex.
Mark, senior health and safety advisor for the East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust – the organisation that runs Colchester and Ipswich hospitals – took a leading role in the Trust’s tactical control room as the health service faced unprecedented pressure.
Since March last year, they’ve been re-joined by their 21-year-old son, Sam. He moved back into the family home as he was nearing the end of his final year at university. With plans for a round-the-world trip forcibly shelved, Sam applied to Essex Police and has just started his training.
Prior to working for the NHS, Mark served in the police for 30 years, rising to the rank of Chief Superintendent as Borough Commander for Waltham Forest.
He said it was clear that Covid-19 was a very different proposition to other viruses when his Trust were told to build pods outside A&E to triage people with Covid symptoms. The first confirmed case in the hospital in mid-March “made it all real”.
“We knew it was going to be different, but I don’t think we knew how different it was going to be,” said Mark.
“When the NHS said that we were now at level 4 for emergency planning, which was around the end of March, that triggered a lot of different actions in the hospital.
“I was working from home for a couple of weeks and then I was redeployed into the tactical control room as the regional liaison.
“I was going in every day, doing long days in the control room. I went from being able to go out for a walk at lunch to being in the centre of the storm.
“Because of my experience, I was able to put the tactical control room procedures in place. What changed for the hospital was that they are designed to be the recipient of a major incident. They’re not designed to be the major incident.
“They had lots of good contingency plans but not so many tactical plans for being the centre. We’ve now been running that tactical control room for a year - it’s become business as usual.”
Lily said the first signs that Covid-19 would bring significant change was the gathering pace of meetings at work and the lack of traffic.
She said: “The first lockdown was a stark awakening. It was eerie on the A12 with nobody on the road.
“There was still a bit of a thought that we’ll get through this because we’re problem-solvers. We would just do what we do, write an Op order and get through it. It didn’t faze me.”
The family instigated their own practises at home to limit the risk of potentially spreading the virus. Lily and Mark had showers and put their clothes straight into the washing machine when they returned from work, and they’d clean all the touchpoints in the house.
“We had a routine,” said Lily. “We’re police officers to our bone marrow, so we just recalibrate, readjust and get on with it. It becomes normal.”
Travel restrictions mean Lily’s contact with her family in Ireland has been limited to Zoom calls.
“All of my family are in Ireland. My mum celebrated her 80th birthday last October. That party didn’t happen.
“My dad had died the previous summer so this would have been a special time for her but I haven’t seen any of my family since a year last November. I won’t have seen my brother or nephews for two years in the summer. I’ve gone from going to Ireland six or seven times a year, and them coming to me, to nothing.”
Fears about passing on Covid-19 have also prevented the family from seeing Mark’s mother.
“My mum lives in Benfleet,” said Mark, “but I haven’t seen her since February last year. She’s 83. She won’t even let us sit in the garden with masks on, she’s that petrified. She says, ‘You work in a hospital.’ We will see her again in May.”
Lily said: “Sam was finishing university at the beginning of last summer, the final year of his economics degree at Southampton. There was a time where he said, ‘It’s all right, Mum, I’ll come back at Easter.’ But I said, ‘I don’t think so, I think you need to come home sooner.’ He packed his life into his car and came back, and that was it. He did his final submissions online.
“He had great plans and tickets bought to travel to Thailand, New Zealand, America, but that all got stopped. He used his time to apply to Essex Police.
“As I enter my final few months in the police, I’m so delighted that Sam started in training college. It’s one Benbow out, one Benbow in! We are both delighted that he has chosen such a fantastic career and know that he will do very well. He’s been listening to stories for years, so he should do just fine!”