Meet the woman looking after the health of frontline hospital staff in Norfolk
- Credit: Danielle Booden
“People are very scared...They are desperate to be vaccinated.” As hospital staff struggle through another onslaught of coronavirus the woman in charge of keeping them safe talks about a year of fear – and getting everyone vaccinated as soon as possible.
This weekend hundreds of frontline hospital staff will get their coronavirus vaccine at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.
By the end of January all Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals Trust staff, which also covers Cromer Hospital, should have received their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
As the huge surge in the pandemic brings hundreds of seriously ill patients into the hospital a major escalation of the vaccination programme is underway today.
The hospital began vaccinating over 80s on December 9 and from today a team will be working seven days a week to deliver up to 500 vaccinations a day to hospital staff. It has been supplemented by retired nurses, and workers redeployed from other departments or volunteering for extra shifts.
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“People are very scared,” said nurse Hilary Winch who is head of workplace health, safety and wellbeing for the Trust. “We want all of our staff vaccinated by the end of January. They are desperate to get their hands on it.”
She said the situation is particularly precarious again as staff cope with an unprecedented number of desperately ill patients, leading to the return of an atmosphere of fear and anxiety. “My job is looking after the health of the staff of the Trust” said Hilary. “For me it’s just been relentless. We haven’t had a lull.
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“Boris would announce something at 8pm and then by 8am our department phone would be ringing with scared and anxious staff and I felt I had to have found the answers to their questions.
“We are expecting a very tough first quarter of the year. It’s going to be difficult for the next few months and we will all wobble but hopefully we will wobble at different times and get through. We will have days when it just feels like we can’t go on and then there will be other days when we feel more robust. I think like any community we pull together and we do what we need to do.”
And she said the relief as vaccinations began was palpable. “Day one of vaccination was an absolutely amazing day,” she said. “It felt like we were doing something so valuable, really contributing to the whole community.”
She first saw a phial of the vaccine on December 6. “It was an emotional moment,” she said. Just three days later enough staff had been trained to prepare and deliver the precious doses.
More than 1,000 staff have already been vaccinated at the hospital, plus thousands of over 80s with some already receiving a second dose although advice has now changed to get more people protected as soon as possible. Hilary said instructions are fed down from the government to NHS England and then individual Trusts and have to be implemented very swiftly. She was preparing to be able to vaccinate staff when the emphasis switched to over 80s. She has been carrying out vaccinations herself as well as overseeing the roll-out, and in addition to her responsibilities for the staff of the Norfolk and Norwich and Cromer Hospitals she also looks after occupational health for the thousands of staff at the James Paget Hospital, the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust and the Norfolk Community Health and Care NHS Trust.
The Norwich hospital vaccination centre has the refrigeration capacity to use the Pfizer vaccine and Hilary does not know whether it will receive the Oxford vaccine too. “They need to deploy that out in the community,” she said. “As more community sites are rolled out they can do more of the general public.”
Hilary, who lives in Attleborough with her husband wanted to be a nurse from childhood and has worked in healthcare for more than 30 years, initially training as an A&E nurse. She said the past year has been by far the most difficult of her career. “We had swine flu; we have had scares with Ebola elsewhere in the world but that never hit here. Undoubtedly this has been the hardest thing I’ve had to face.”
Personally, she said she had been particularly anxious about long covid. “We have a number of members of staff who are still very poorly with long covid. There are others who have had coronavirus and are back at work 10 days later. There’s no rhyme or reason as to who gets badly affected.”
Her own low point came just after the first lockdown was announced. “I just felt this huge responsibility for my team and the thousands of staff, literally thousands I needed to look after. It just felt an overwhelming responsibility. Even talking about it now I can feel myself getting quite emotional,” she said. “On Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, I ended up doing a very, very long day. I got home, feeling very emotional, the shops were closing early at the time and all I wanted was to get to the supermarket to buy a hot cross bun for my breakfast before going back into work, because it’s what I always have on Good Friday.”
The following morning she used her job with the NHS to get to the shops before work and buy that hot cross bun. “I felt guilty about jumping the queue but it was a simple thing which really helped me go back into work,” said Hilary.
Now, like so many key workers, she is continuing to put in long days through the third national lockdown. “While some people are enjoying a period of calmness and rest and getting outside for their bit of exercise, for us that’s a real struggle. Other people are enjoying time off and we’re not really getting any,” she said. “However, I also know that I’m very lucky. I’m in a job. It’s demanding a lot of me but I don’t have the financial worry of people who have lost their jobs or are worrying whether their business will survive, so there are some reasons to be thankful and grateful too.”
Hilary is a keen singer and set up the hospital choir seven years ago (which has not been able to meet since March.) “I miss it for the community spirit and how it releases tension. People are desperate to get back to singing,” she said. She is also a member of a Salvation Army choir and it was while helping lead a music residential course for children last February that she remembers first wondering whether the new virus identified in China might become a threat to Britain.
She feels overwhelmingly proud of what her team has achieved with the roll-out of the vaccine and other initiatives including an electronic risk-assessment tool which went on to be used across the country.
Now she is looking forward to getting thousands of NHS workers protected against the pandemic within days. And then her personal ambition is a holiday.
“I’m really, really looking forward to getting on a plane and having a holiday,” she said. “I love to travel and I’m looking forward to a holiday with guaranteed sunshine and really switching off.”