Dr N – Personal protective equipment

Dr N is a consultant who worked in different departments during the first wave of the pandemic. They described being particularly worried about a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) in certain specialties, ill-fitting PPE and a lack of COVID-19 tests for patients. They were also highly concerned about the disproportionate impact COVID-19 was having on BME healthcare workers.

Initially, a lot of PPE resources went to Intensive Care because it was thought that’s where the sickest and most contagious patients would be. Eventually, face masks and other PPE filtered through to further departments.

Dr N noted, ‘initially nobody in the hospital was wearing face masks. Even at the height of the epidemic [pandemic] in the wards nobody was, and if you're not in actual theatre working with a patient, just walking through, nobody was wearing face masks.

‘The only place that face masks were mandatory, and this is just then normal surgical face masks, was intensive care. If you went into a room or ward where there was somebody who was known to be COVID-19 positive, then you put your PPE on. All of that has changed. Face masks have been a really late addition in the NHS.’

At one stage, Dr N was working in another unit, which wasn’t considered a COVID-19 ‘receiving unit’ – even though people were coming in off the street – so, in Dr N’s opinion, they weren’t given sufficient PPE. This was compounded by a lack COVID-19 tests, so it wasn’t known if patients were positive or negative.

Even if doctors had a mask, some did not fit. When that happened, not everyone had the option to get a respirator mask. ‘Lots of people went through with ill-fitting masks for a long time until the respirators became available,’ Dr N said. Dr N also felt that PPE not fitting was more problematic for black and minority ethnic (BME) staff.

Dr N said that ‘Initially, because the tests were not readily available anywhere in the country, we couldn't swab everybody coming in. We only had to swab symptomatic patients.’ So, it was harder for doctors to know who had COVID -19 and who didn’t. As a result, they worked as if all patients were positive for COVID-19, but they didn’t really have enough PPE to support that.

Dr N said generally everyone felt scared and confused. As a minority doctor, Dr N was ‘absolutely petrified’ but made a decision to get on with it. ‘I said, "Look, I've still got to go work. One of three things will happen: I won't get it, I'll get it and I'll live, and I'll get it and I'll die.” You had to come to terms with that.’

Towards the beginning of the pandemic, the hospital set up a wellbeing room and a drop-in centre when they realised how stressed people were. Dr N said, ’I made an appointment to see one of the psychologists because there was a point where things were really grim. I decided this is not working.

‘I went in and I made use of it, but the follow-up is quite difficult. Yes, you can go talk to somebody but what do you say after that? The follow-up needs a bit better because it's still left in the same situation with the same people and there's nowhere, really, to go.’

Dr N didn’t want to discuss their work with non-medical friends. ‘The last thing you want to do is to be that person who goes on and on and on. If things are bad, you just don't want to be that person.’

Dr N described that their colleagues think the gratitude shown towards the NHS would be temporary − ‘I think ordinary people…realised that they were protected from the things that we were going into. I think that they felt plenty grateful for that. I remember one of the people I work with, she was like, "Yeah, this isn't going to last long." She said, "They'll be coming in and swearing at me soon.”’

Dr N is hopeful about the preparedness for the second peak, though. ‘If we need to go and upscale again, and have more people on, we've already got the kit. We've already had the practice. So I think it will be better this time around.’

What of the future? Dr N said ‘I hope that we take the positives out of this. The way that we work together and come together and realise that we're stronger together. I hope that the Government will realise what we're worth.’