On the front line: From theatre performer to Nightingale porter

As a theatre performer who took a job as a porter at the London Nightingale Hospital, Martin Harding has described his move to the front line during the pandemic.

Having performed in the musical production of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert for eight months, Mr Harding had to look for work after the coronavirus pandemic forced the show to close.

In the latest of a series of profiles looking at workers on the front line of the battle against Covid-19, the 29-year-old told the PA news agency about his experience.

– What were you doing before the pandemic?

“I was an onstage swing, so I covered the entire ensemble. If anyone got sick, injured or went on to understudy one of the leads, I covered their ensemble track. It’s a bit of a weird job to explain to people sometimes! But it is one of those things that is very much necessary in theatre.

A picture of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the musical
A picture of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the musical

“We were about eight months into our contract, an 11-month contract. We all started getting ready and about 5-10 minutes into that everybody was called down to the stage.

“We were all there in various states of make-up, shaving, getting into costume, and the producers told us essentially that, as much as they wanted the show to carry on… we were forced to close on that Monday (March 16).”

– How did you become a porter at the Nightingale?

“They released a clever tool online to see if you are eligible (for self-employed help) and I am unfortunately not.

“I kind of suspected that that might be the case, which is why I cracked on applying for various jobs, mostly in healthcare, either to be a carer or to work at the Nightingale.

“Initially I applied to work on the help desk in an administration role but there weren’t that many of those roles available, so I got put into the group applying to be a porter.

“I didn’t really know what that was! We had a couple of days of training on a yacht docked next to the ExCel and then got to work. I worked at the Nightingale for about a month – we did four days on and four days off, 12-hour shifts, 8am to 8pm.”

– What did the job involve?

“I was the pharmacy porter, so when the pharmacy needed medication to go down to the ward, I would be the one to go to the pharmacy and collect that. Sometimes it was just one tiny box, sometimes it was an entire pallet.

Martin Harding, who worked at the London Nightingale hospital for a month as a porter
Martin Harding, who worked at the London Nightingale hospital for a month as a porter

“There were days when policies changed quite quickly and I couldn’t get to an area I needed to deliver medication to without being in scrubs, so I had to run back to where the scrubs were kept so I could deliver the medication to the ward. These processes were changing a lot at the beginning as they sussed out how to run this emergency hospital.

“We were very well-trained on the processes and health and safety. We were provided with a uniform, steel-toe boots and scrubs as and when we needed them. I always felt safe and looked after.”

– What were the people like?

“There were a few other actors, performers or ex-performers who were once in the industry. But because of that shared history (they were) easy to get along with. It was pretty friendly.

“To be able to sit down with three relative strangers and share a meal, communicate and bond at a time like this when I haven’t seen my friends in weeks was something I looked forward to every day. A lot of us had very different lives. It was just nice on a human level to interact with people.

“There were about four of us who got along quite well and I will definitely see two of them afterwards.”

– What will you do next?

“Because the hospital went into stand-by on Monday (May 4), we were told we would have two or so weeks of work to help wrap things up. I got a text from the admin on Tuesday saying please do come in for your shift on Friday, and then I got a phone call (Thursday) afternoon saying do not come in for your shift tomorrow.

“It’s been left open-ended. The hospital’s going into a state of hibernation in case there is some kind of second wave and they do have to ramp it up, then there will potentially be more work, but I’m hesitant to sit around and wait for that.

“I would like to continue working in healthcare. I had applied for various things and one of the other places that got back to me was a carer job, so I’m moving forward with them.”