‘We are drowning’: Harrowing plea from Covid frontline as nurses warn hospital 'near breaking point'
- Credit: SARAH LUCY BROWN
“We are struggling, we are drowning, and it is getting worse. Please, we implore you. Keep yourselves safe.”
That is the stark plea from exhausted Ipswich Hospital staff who have warned they are at “breaking point” as they battle surging numbers of coronavirus patients on the frontline – at levels they have never seen before.
NHS workers have today laid bare how they are "struggling" to cope with a second wave which is well and truly on the attack, with bed numbers so high that some sick patients are being treated on the back of ambulances while space is found for them.
With bed occupancy rates at nearly 94% - almost 10% above what NHS England considers safe - and the number of Covid patients at Ipswich rising above 130, staff are warning people to take the pandemic seriously.
Routine surgery has been delayed again to prioritise the ongoing crisis, with Nick Hulme - chief executive of East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust (ESNEFT), which runs the hospital - reassuring people that staff are working "incredibly hard" to deliver safe care, amid "relentless" pressures affecting hospitals across the region.
But as they warn that "Ipswich Hospital is at risk of being fully overwhelmed", the dozen NHS staff - who have asked to remain anonymous - have now warned the public to "keep yourselves safe".
“We are struggling. We are drowning, and it is getting worse. We are working with limited space and equipment," they said.
“Please, we implore you. Keep yourselves safe. This is not a big hoax. It is not a ‘scamdemic’. It is very real.
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“Ipswich Hospital is at risk of being fully overwhelmed. We need to speak out now, to try and stop that from happening.
"We have no agenda. We simply want to keep you safe. And as things stand, we cannot do that.
“We want people to hear our words, to see the system through our eyes, and beg them, please, help us to help you by taking this virus seriously, using the NHS sensibly, and not taking risks such as excessive drinking or drug taking that could land you in hospital over the festive period.”
- ‘Worst I have ever known it’
Covid-19 patients currently account for around 16% of general and acute beds trust-wide, with numbers rising every day - and it is a similar picture across the east of England.
Critical care beds – of which the trust has 25 – are fluctuating between 85% and 100% capacity.
To cover the crisis, staff are being offered £10-an-hour premiums to cover a growing number of vacant shifts - with more than 80 advertised in a single day last week.
Medics are frequently receiving work offers via text, usually accompanied by pleas of “Ipswich needs your help”.
"All it is going to take, is for the regular winter outbreaks of norovirus or C. difficile, and the hospital system is going to collapse,” the medics claimed.
Sickness levels across both hospitals, averaging around 650 a day, are not as high as in mid-March when more than 1,000 (10%) of the trust’s 10,000 workers were off. Most are now tested every day, so self-isolation is less of an issue.
With a none-the-less depleted workforce and sicker patients, staff members claim it is not uncommon to have just two nurses and a healthcare assistant covering wards, treating up to 30 people with complicated needs.
“It is the worst I have ever known it,” claimed one nurse. “The nurses cannot take a break, as it will leave a single nurse on the ward, which is simply unsafe.”
Teresa Budrey, of the Royal College of Nursing, said this is impacting nurses across the east who are also working under the additional burden of nursing vacancies, with many “utterly exhausted”.
Mr Hulme said: "We keep a close eye on staffing throughout the day and our senior nursing and operational teams carry out risk assessments based on staff absence.
"We understand how challenging the circumstances are for our staff, but patient safety remains our top priority.
"The challenges we are facing are real and they are difficult, but we are doing the best we can, both for our patients and for our staff."
- How is the hospital responding?
At the time of writing Suffolk is still in Tier 2, which allows households to mix on Christmas Day only and keeps pubs open on New Year’s Eve.
Because of this, hospital staff fear there is a very real prospect of revellers overwhelming the NHS during the festive season.
Mr Hulme said the hospital is prepared for the “inevitable surge of activity” it is currently experiencing and may continue to endure for some time.
“Postponing non-urgent care while we deal with the issues affecting us at the moment is the most appropriate and safe way forward at this time,” he added.
Despite this, cancer care and urgent surgery are continuing. Mr Hulme said according to the most recent data available for September and October, his trust delivered the most first treatments for patients on two-week waits, more than any other NHS organisation in England.
- ‘I've never seen so many staff members in tears’
All areas of the hospital are being hit by this latest coronavirus wave, hospital workers claim.
An A&E nurse warned of repeated breaches of the four-hour waiting time as staff struggle to isolate suspected Covid patients.
“I have never seen so many staff members in tears before,” the nurse added.
“We are trying to isolate potential Covid patients by sending them through a different entrance, but some of them need such high levels of nursing care, other areas are suffering.”
Paramedics say ambulances are queuing outside A&E waiting for space and claim they are having to treat patients in the back of vehicles. Ambulances delayed by more than 60 minutes doubled in a week between December 6 and December 13.
Hospital bosses acknowledge the issue but stressed treatment in ambulances assesses patients’ needs so they can be admitted to a dedicated ward.
Mr Hulme apologised for A&E four-hour breaches but said no-one has waited longer than 12 hours in December.
Meanwhile, community nurses fear there just aren’t enough of them to go around, as more and more patients develop Covid-19 related ‘sticky blood’ which requires daily coagulation therapy, and people continue to avoid hospital through fear of catching the virus.
One nurse claimed it has meant some patients are dying alone in their homes: “Although we try our very best to prioritise those most in need, there are still patients that we do not get round to in time."
Hospital chiefs said they would never knowingly discharge a patient alone to their home, and added: “Our community teams plan complex discharges very carefully, alongside partner organisations, to support getting our patients home. They and we know that this is ultimately where they want to be.”
Teresa Mackay, of the Ipswich Trades Union Council, said Unite had been supporting NHS staff across Suffolk.
“The hospital is at breaking point as Covid numbers just keep rising,” she added.
“This is just the start of winter, what’s it going to be like after Christmas?”
- ‘People will die who shouldn’t’
Another nurse warned that because the death rate has gone down, the virus is being taken less seriously. When in fact, Covid is actually being treated more aggressively in Ipswich now than ever before.
Despite the pressures, NHS bosses have stressed the importance of people not avoiding hospital, particularly if they are seriously ill.
“People will die who shouldn’t," the hospital workers added.
"Not just from the virus, but from other emergency conditions. That could be your mother, father, grandparent, or even your child.
“With Christmas, cold weather, and a break in the lockdown over the festive period, please just keep in the back of your head that not all of you who need help may receive the level of care you need and deserve.
“Look after yourselves and each other, and make use of pharmacies, your GP, and 111. Wear your masks. Keep your distance. Don’t engage in risky behaviour.
"We are drowning. Help us to help you. Please.”
- For coronavirus advice, visit the NHS website.