Staff at Whittington mourn two colleagues after porter and nurse die from coronavirus
Campaigners plan demonstration outside hospital over testing and PPE shortages
16 April, 2020 — By Tom Foot
A sign thanking NHS workers hangs from a house in Highgate Road
A WHITTINGTON nurse on maternity leave and a porter at the hospital died this week with coronavirus, amid a fresh warning that NHS workers are “desperate” for protective gear in their fight against the pandemic.
The cases have left colleagues at the hospital in Highgate in mourning once more, as they face the biggest challenge of their careers.
The Whittington, which has been in the thick of the fightback against the coronavirus in north London, said it had the grieving families in their thoughts, although insisted it did have enough personal protective equipment, known as PPE, for staff.
Angry insiders, however, said the spreading virus, which has led to at least 73 deaths at the Whittington, has exposed how hospitals have been under-funded and how the NHS supply chain has been dangerously cut.
Yesterday (Wednesday), the government said 761 more deaths had been recorded in hospitals across the country, taking the national toll from the outbreak to 12,868. The exact amount of infections in the UK is not fully known as many people showing signs of the coronavirus are self-isolating at home without being tested.
Early symptoms are a fever or a persistent cough. While these turn out to be mild for many patients, others face breathing difficulties and need hospital treatment.
At the other hospitals serving Camden patients, 105 deaths have been recorded at UCLH and 335 were at the Royal Free, although it is understood that number is higher because the Hampstead hospital has more beds for patients.
More encouraging figures on the success stories of those whose lives have been saved have so far not been released by the government’s statisticians, although each step of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recovery from the disease has been widely publicised.
The lockdown – the order to stay indoors to slow the spread of the virus – is due to be extended today for another three weeks and may go on into the summer.
Another clap for NHS workers is due to take place at 8pm – the now weekly ritual of loud applause and pot-banging – for frontline staff. But beyond the celebration of their hard work and bravery, campaigners say that government promises delivered at daily press briefings do not match up with the challenge on the ground.
In solidarity with staff, the Defend the Whittington Hospital Coalition is organising a demonstration outside the hospital on April 23 at 5pm, during a shift change, which is planned to observe social-distance rules.
The coalition’s chairwoman, Shirley Franklin, said: “We are responding to calls from health workers to not just clap support, but also to demand PPE for all. “If hospital workers, whoever they are, are suffering from a lack of PPE, we need to call for it. It must be incredibly frightening for people going into hospital – there are all these deaths, I can see why people want the equipment.”
She added: “The government says ‘let’s protect our NHS’, but they don’t say let’s protect our staff. That is what we should be talking about.”
The Whittington said last night it could not comment on the two deaths as they had not yet received approval from the porter’s and the nurse’s next of kin. But, in an internal email sent to staff, Whittington managers had praised nurse “Shamilah” who had been at the trust since 2004.
She was described as “instrumental in helping to develop the biological service for our gastroenterology patients”. She had “formed close relationships with many of her patients who knew that they could always rely on her for advice. She was loved, respected and admired by her patients and colleagues alike.”
A separate message to staff said that the porter, Nick, had worked at the Whittington since 1993, adding: “He was a gentle and humble man who took significant pride in his work. He has been described as the nicest of people and so many people in the hospital knew him.”
The email added that Whittington chief executive Siobhan Harrington had spoken to Nick’s colleagues and had been “touched that they shared with me some of their memories of the person they called ‘The General’.”
Books of condolence have been opened for both colleagues. Hospital workers have raised concerns that in prioritising ward staff for supplies of masks, gowns and gloves, the lives of patient transport workers and porters have been put at risk. Porters carry equipment up and down lifts and onto patient wards, while transport workers pick up and deliver patients to hospital, and often have to enter homes.
The New Journal reported last week how porters at the Royal Free had refused extra shifts due to concerns over safety and a lack testing of non-clinical staff.
A source inside the Whittington said that “the situation on the ground is that it has been desperate for PPE”, adding: “This is the situation in the hospital, and other trusts. People are running short of basic kit. They are buying pairs of goggles online, using swimming goggles. “It is caused by inadequacies of the supply chain that has been fragmented for years, and farmed out to private companies.”
They added: “The suggestion that health workers have been using too much PPE, that has invoked real wrath among health workers. They [the government] have been back-pedaling on that, but it shows they are out of touch with reality.” The Whittington has 4,000 staff on its books, of whom 296 have been tested for Covid-19.
This was largely staff who drove to a testing facility in the car park of Ikea in Wembley.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said on Saturday there was “enough PPE to go around” if it was used like the “precious resource it is”, and said there had been a “Herculean” effort to make sure everybody was protected during a “global squeeze” on the kit – such as gowns, masks, visors and sanitiser.
He added that a new PPE supply plan was being put in place, and that it would be distributed with the help of the military.
“We’ve brought together the NHS, private industry and the army, in fact, the armed forces, to create a giant PPE distribution network,” he said. “We’re using up PPE on an unprecedented scale, so we’re constantly buying more from abroad and now making it at home.”
Labour’s shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, said there had been a “mismatch between statements at Downing Street press conferences and the realities facing health and care staff on the ground”, and promises to NHS staff must not be broken.
The hospital is not releasing the names of those who died while working for or at the Whittington, or how they may have become infected.
Staff had, however, already had a close-up view of the harrowing nature of the spread of coronavirus. A former doctor, Alfa Saadu, who had answered a government call for medics to come out of retirement, died at the hospital earlier this month. He had been working in Hertfordshire, but was treated at the Whittington.
In another traumatic case, a mother died in labour – a tragedy which left staff distraught.
Long-serving porter Matt Scannell said: “A lot of us have worked here for a long time so we support each other, but some days are more challenging than others. “There was a day that was really traumatic. There was a lot of staff in tears, nurses, doctors, porters, house-keeping.”
The hospital has reassured expectant mothers that having births in hospitals remained the “safest choice”, recommending that they attend antenatal and scan appointments. It said: “This case has been referred to the coroner to determine the cause of death.”
Like nearly all hospitals, the Whittington has launched a donation appeal to help staff treating coronavirus. New Journal readers can also send supplies directly to staff by buying items from an Amazon wishlist that has been drawn up. These include essentials such as toothpaste and deodorants, as well as energy bars needed for staff who are working long shifts.
Earlier this month, Dr Janitha Gowribalan, an intensive care doctor at the hospital, told Grazia magazine staff were worried “how we’ll cope” as the crisis continues. But she added that the historic nature of the Whittington inspired her.
“On my way out I walk past an old building still standing in the grounds here,” she said. “It reminds me that the Whittington hospital used to look after smallpox patients during the epidemic in the 1800s. “It feels like a powerful reminder that we’ve survived this before, and we will get through it again.”
On the PPE issue, a spokesperson for Whittington Health NHS Trust said: “All of our staff – including our porters – are provided with PPE when dealing with positive or suspected Covid-19 patients. “We continue to work hard with suppliers and the national supply chain to ensure that we have enough stock to meet demand.”
l Almost £90,000 has been raised for NHS staff at the Whittington through its Coronavirus Relief Fund. To donate visit www.justgiving.com/campaign/supportwhittington