At only 19 years old, Adult Nursing student Sophie Moore has been pulled away from her university studies and plunged into the dark world of the Covid-19 wards. As a Healthcare Assistant (HCA) her typical shifts are 12.5 hours long, usually consisting of physiological observations, bed baths, toileting, feeding, and rolling patients who cannot leave their beds to prevent pressure sores. “Desperate to help in whatever way [she] could”, Sophie says she will never take anything for granted again.
After the abrupt end the Coronavirus pandemic brought to her first year at University, Sophie returned home to start work on the fast-track scheme for student nurses at James Paget Hospital. Despite her best efforts to select wards carefully, valuing her personal safety by avoiding the virus, by her third shift she had been transferred to the respiratory ward due to a lack of staff.
On a day-to-day basis, Sophie has to face “faeces, urine, vomit, and blood so much that it becomes normal”. People are avoiding admittance to hospital if at all possible so as to limit the risk of contracting the virus, meaning the patients who are there are very ill indeed. This makes her job role particularly prominent, as many patients struggle to carry out even the most basic of personal functions; they rely on the help of a HCA to be comfortable.
Having spoken to Sophie during the first lockdown, she explained how understaffed the hospitals were, adding there were problems with being able to source enough PPE for staff. Now, with the death toll reaching its highest point since the start of the pandemic, they are still struggling with these problems. If a ward has an outbreak, many of the staff contract the virus and are forced to take time off work. Other, more vulnerable staff are moved to ‘clean’ wards to reduce their chances of exposure, meaning many areas are left with large numbers of their permanent staff unavailable. As a result of this, they rely heavily on staff from other wards and banks staff to fill in the gaps – this is where Sophie comes in.
Describing the hospital during the pandemic as “a scary, lonely place”, advice from Health Secretary Matt Hancock, instructing people to act as if everyone has the virus, takes on different meaning here. On the ward, Sophie has to treat every patient, even those who have tested negative, as though they have coronavirus. From the beginning, masks were compulsory, along with scrubs, a gown, hair net, gloves, and a plastic apron. Providing an update to this situation further down the line, in the midst of a third national lockdown, Sophie says lack of PPE is just as bad an issue as it was in the first lockdown, if not worse. She has found herself in unsafe conditions, expected to treat Covid positive patients with only a surgical mask to protect her mouth and nose.
As Sophie was living at home during her first stint at her local hospital, she had to take strict measures to protect both herself and her family. To avoid contamination she changed out of her uniform before leaving the hospital and packed it into a washbag; she also left her work shoes in the car, bleaching them whenever possible. Her parents ensured the doors were open and the shower was switched on upon her arrival to steer away from unnecessary contact. Sophie expresses her appreciation for the support of her parents, even though she “risked bringing this virus into their home”. Despite all of these measures, Sophie still attempted to keep her distance but sometimes found this an impossible task: “it wasn’t always possible to maintain a two meter distance, especially after a hard day because all I wanted to do was hug my mum”.
Prompted by the start of the academic year, Sophie transferred to Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, living in a student house with a few of her fellow undergraduate nurses. Her role has proven to be much the same as it was in the spring, other than the more effective approach hospitals have adopted in an attempt to contain the virus. She has been unable to return to on-campus lectures and labs, being taught essential skills such as cannula insertion, taking blood, and catheterisation online. As her course requires a certain number of in-person assessments, she has hopes to return to campus soon.
In October, Sophie started the 12-week placement necessary for the first year of her Adult Nursing qualification, by the end of which she should have been signed off as completing her first year. Having finished ten weeks, her course directors pulled students out of practice until the middle of February. Officially, this means students on her course won’t complete their first year at university, which they started in September 2019, until at least April 2021 – a severe delay.
When addressing government action in response to the pandemic, Sophie is quick to highlight Prime Minister Boris Johnson missed five consecutive COBRA meetings called as an emergency response to coronavirus. She argues: “a lot of the devastation we have faced as a country could have been avoided if action was taken earlier”. The relaxing of containment measures, including the fated ‘eat out to help out’ scheme, was met with widespread displeasure from NHS workers who criticised government legislation on the grounds of a lack of clarity, guidance, and support for those returning to work.
As a front-line worker, Sophie is more well-placed than most to say the third lockdown was a completely necessary move and should have been implemented much sooner. Every day, she witnesses hospital wards overflowing with Covid patients, a situation which only continues to worsen: “it is upsetting to see that our government didn’t learn from their mistakes in March and yet again left it devastatingly late” – a mistake that has cost and will continue to cost many lives.