Exhausted NHS staff at a Scottish hospital have urged the public to stick with coronavirus measures as they struggle with the pandemic’s winter spike.
The PA news agency was given access to the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley, where departments are colour-coded to warn of the Covid-19 risk.
Nurses and doctors wear masks in green areas and adorn additional PPE – a face shield, apron and gloves – when working in red wards with infectious patients.
Staff go about their tasks with good humour, chatter and an easiness that belies the dangerous circumstances of their workplace, where catching coronavirus is an ever present risk.
The new strain of coronavirus has seen hospital numbers rising to their highest level of the pandemic in January, taking a toll on staff already dealing with the annual winter strain on the NHS.
Dr Lucy McCracken, a consulting geriatrician and clinical director for old people and stroke, has her desk in a Covid red ward.
Despite the highly infectious disease around her, she and other staff joke with each other and patients in an atmosphere similar to any working environment.
But she admits the pressure does take its toll on staff.
“It’s been really, really challenging over the last couple of weeks,” she said.
“Every bed is full it feels like, and the number of admissions have gone up. But on top of that, we are all very tired at the moment because we have been working with Covid patients since March.
“I think our ward is used to having one death a month and now we can have several in one week.
“I think we are not really feeling there is an end in sight at the moment. I think we are really tired and maybe not coping as well as we did in the first weeks, if I’m honest.”
She said she is not worried about catching Covid-19 but fears taking it home to her husband or children.
Agnes Monaghen, a senior charge nurse, did catch the virus.
She said she was lucky not to experience any symptoms, and spoke of one colleague in intensive care with coronavirus.
“It’s quite hard because when you have it and you are fortunate to not be unwell, it’s hard to watch other people with it,” she said.
Ms Monaghen works in the specialist assessment treatment area – a sort of A&E for Covid patients.
She urged the public to follow coronavirus rules to avoid putting more stress on the NHS.
“You get a bit annoyed with people bending the rules to suit themselves,” she said. “And then people who don’t believe [in Covid-19] – you think come and see it because it is real and it’s hitting everybody and nobody is immune to it.
“Come and just look in the window and see these patients who are very sick.”
Tracey Millar, a senior charge nurse in the regular A&E department, agrees.
She said the simple action of wearing a mask can have a “massive impact” further down the line.
To Covid-19 “sceptics”, she said: “I’d say 100% this is real, this is happening, our hospitals are busy, we are trying our best to get through a very difficult situation.
“Please, please, please just try and do the right thing – simple measures make such a big impact for us.”
Despite the strain on their health, the hospital staff continue to make great sacrifices.
One student nurse at the hospital moved into a hotel for the duration of the first wave of the virus so she could protect her daughter who has asthma and still continue working.
Claire Harrow, clinical director for medicine in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde’s Clyde Sector, said the hospital has been struggling with coronavirus, normal winter pressure, and patients who had put off seeking treatment earlier in the pandemic.
“Really since December it has been extremely difficult in medicine,” she said.
“Staff are stretched so thin either because of sickness absence or just sheer exhaustion. It is just very challenging.
“It’s about the fact that we’ve just been worked so hard for so long that people are just, in a lot cases, just clinging on.
“A lot of what you can see of staff at the moment is just their eyes (above their mask) and what you can see in their eyes is stress.”
Claire McPake is senior charge nurse in the acute receiving department, taking a wide range of patients, some with Covid-19.
She said that since Christmas, the hospital has been almost full to capacity each day, with an increase in young people with Covid-19, and staff taking ill with the virus has added to the strain.
Choking with emotion as she spoke, she said the large number of deaths witnessed by staff have taken their toll.
“It’s not pleasant,” she said. “I can still remember the first patient that passed away in here and it was horrific because the relatives weren’t allowed to come in.
“I remember we had one patient in particular and the family were devastated.
“And quite a lot of nurses would cry.
“It’s not nice saying to a relative ‘Right, okay, I know your mum or dad is dying but we really don’t want you coming into the hospital, but if you’re coming into the hospital we have to explain you are coming into a Covid area you have to sign a disclaimer… it’s not nice.
“I really feel for the junior nurses. There’s been a lot of tears.”
A special room has now been set up to allow nurses to take some time out alone if the stresses of the work becomes too much for them.
In a passionate plea to the public, Ms McPake said: “Please just adhere to the rules. Don’t break the rules. There will be an end to this but the more people break rules the longer it’s taking.”