‘Every time you think it's getting better it gets worse again’
Healthcare staff shortages were an issue before the pandemic - now workers fear they’re at ‘breaking-point’
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By Natalie Bloomer
Staff shortages and growing demand on services due to Covid have led to a system-wide major incident being declared by Northamptonshire's Local Resilience Forum. The move is likely to see staff being redeployed to help fill the gaps, additional help from the police and fire service with things like driving ambulances and could also include assistance from the military.
In the week up to January 2, 11,643 residents in the county tested possible for Covid - an increase of 53 per cent on the week before, with the highest rates being seen in Corby and Kettering. As of January 4 there were 139 Covid patients in the county's hospitals, an increase of 45 per cent compared to the previous week.
The situation is expected to worsen in the coming weeks which is why plans to tackle it have kicked in now. Speaking to LBC, chief executive of West Northants Council Anna Earnshaw said:
"This allows us to trigger support for each other with the police and fire helping us and potentially the military in terms of national support. We're expecting it [the major-incident] to be in place until the back end of January. We're doing it now so that we can respond immediately...but also trigger other plans which will build up as the demand builds up."
Even before the pandemic, staffing issues in healthcare have been a major concern. Last October, Earnshaw joined forces with the chief executive of both Northampton and Kettering General Hospitals to call on the government to increase funding to help recruit and retain carers. In a joint statement at the time they said:
"Care worker shortages in Northamptonshire are already resulting in delays to patient discharges in our hospitals. This is of extreme concern because experience tells us that the situation in the coming winter months will only worsen. When we don't have enough care workers to put care packages in place for people who need support at home after leaving hospital it leads to delays, and that means patients have to stay there longer than necessary.
“This can often slow down patient recovery and lead to more care being needed longer term. That’s not what we want for residents and we know people want to stay in their own homes and stay independent for as long as possible. Care worker staff shortages also ultimately impact on patients waiting longer in A&E, as well as planned hospital care because without enough patient beds available in hospitals, operations and procedures may need to be delayed.”
Over the weekend we spoke to a number of healthcare workers in the county about the current situation and their concerns for the coming weeks.
The district nurse
"We've been on our knees for at least 18 months. There have been so many warnings about staff shortages, lots of nurses are doing extra shifts. There are patients waiting for continuing healthcare for long-term conditions like MS or for palliative care who have been assessed as needing care but the care is not there. I know of patients who have ended up in hospital because they haven't received the care they should have at home.
"We're seeing a higher intensity of need now - because of the pandemic people are often more seriously ill because they haven't been treated as quickly. It's just pressure on top of pressure, on top of pressure.
"It makes your heart sink, we're all trying our best and in the coming weeks we'll pull out all the stops but there comes a point when you run out of resources to keep going. What used to be just winter pressures are there all year round now. I often visit care homes and the staff there are telling me they can no longer remember a time when it wasn't bad. Everybody is working their socks off and we don't even get a clap now, we just get a pat on the back and told that things will get better."
The hospital healthcare assistant
"I've worked throughout the pandemic and each wave has been different. This time round it seems to be mainly affecting staff levels. We've had a lot of people off which means we all have to try to step in to fill the shifts. It's been hard to see the toll it's taken on my colleagues, some are finding it very hard as it's been going on so long now. We try to keep our spirits up and that of the patients but this Christmas it was particularly hard to do that.
"We have the worry about bringing the virus home to our families - especially if anyone is vulnerable, but we also worry about taking it into the ward and passing it to the patients. There's a lot of anxiety all the time. None of us know what the next few weeks will be like, we've been told about the major incident but we don't really know how that will play out on our ward. We're just trying to get through each shift."
The care home workers
"I have been a care assistant for 20 years and I can't remember a time as bad as the last two years. Every time you think it's getting better it gets worse again. The first wave was awful because nobody really knew what was happening and how bad it could get. Now we know what can happen, we've seen the outbreaks in care homes and how quickly it can spread, that's always a worry.
"We've had a lot of staff off because they are self-isolating, it means we all have to juggle things round and try to cover the shifts. What happens if it gets worse and we can't do that though? They're saying the next few weeks are likely to get worse before they get better and that really worries me. I already feel like we’re at breaking-point.
"I would love to get back to the days when we didn't have to keep thinking about Covid.”
"We lost some staff when the rules came in about carers needing to have both vaccinations but we managed to fill those roles. Now, with Covid rates being so high at the moment we have had a lot of staff off sick. We generally can always get staff to cover, if we're short we send out a message and people do come in, everyone works as a team to do what's best and to help cover the shift.
"This wave is definitely feeling closer to home as I know a lot of people that have had it recently compared to any time before.”
Both the West Northamptonshire Labour group and the union Unison say more should have been done to tackle the staffing shortages before now.
"This is devastating for Northamptonshire. Sadly, our members knew that this was coming. As we said in the summer the staff across Northamptonshire, in our hospitals, and care services were already on their knees. They were understaffed before the pandemic. After two years on the front line they are completely exhausted, and more is being asked of them. They are attempting to cover the shifts of colleagues who are poorly or self isolating and are left feeling guilty that they can’t provide the level of care they know that patients and clients need," Cathy Symes Unison Regional Organiser said.
"The Government could have averted this crisis in the summer. We knew then that the situation would be unsustainable this winter. An inflation busting pay rise would have told NHS and care staff that they were valued. It might have meant that staff who are facing rising bills, had stayed. By not preparing for this the government has abandoned the staff giving the care, they have abandoned those who need the care and abandoned the families who support them. "
Deputy leader of the West Northamptonshire Labour group Emma Roberts said:
"We knew this summer that we were in for a tough winter and the government could have acted with planned redeployment programmes, allowing real training and more importantly time to implement measures.
For 11 years local services have been reducing further and further, as funding is cut by a Government in London who care very little about the lives of people in areas like West Northants. The pandemic has only exposed the gaps left by the reduction of those local services and the real consequences felt as a result.”