Covid: The NHS workers ‘still recovering’ as second wave looms

By Chris Morris & Oliver Barnes
BBC Reality Check

Publishedduration23 OctoberRelated Topics

  • Coronavirus pandemic

"I still have nightmares most nights about being completely out of my depth."

Gemma, a ward nurse in Northern Ireland, was redeployed to a critical care unit at the end of March when the first wave of coronavirus struck.

"I had never looked after a critically ill intensive care patient in my life," she says.

"I just thought, I'm coming in here and I'm going to die. I'm going to catch Covid and I'm going to be one of those patients in the beds."

As the second wave of the pandemic takes deep root across parts of the UK, thousands of NHS workers are struggling to recover from what they have already been through.

"We were all in PPE all the time," recalls Nathan, a senior intensive care nurse at a hospital in the Midlands. "All you can see is people's eyes, you can't see anything else."

He describes trying to help junior members of staff survive long and difficult days.

"And I'd see these eyes as big as saucers saying help me, do something. Make this right. Fix this."

"The pressure was insane, and the anxiety just got me," he says. "I couldn't sleep, and I couldn't eat, I was sick before work, I was shaking before I got into my car in the morning."

Nathan ended up having time off with severe anxiety, but he is now back at the hospital, waiting for the beds to fill up again.

We've spoken to a number of nurses and doctors across the UK who are deeply apprehensive about what lies ahead this winter.

We're not using their real names because they shared their views on condition of anonymity, in order to speak freely.

All believe it is important that the general public hears first-hand about the enormous strain the health service and its staff have been under.

It has not just been about coping with the devastating effects of a new and deadly disease.

Pressure to deal with the huge backlog of other medical treatments, which had been put on hold, meant some health care workers didn't have much of a break during the summer either.

"I finally went on holiday in September and it was like I came out of a fog," says Danny, an intensive care doctor and anaesthetist based in Yorkshire.

"Almost the last six months of my life was just some kind of haze that I don't remember very well. You just became all about Covid and nothing else," he says. "And I think that got us through the first wave, but obviously it isn't a sustainable mechanism to carry on."

That widely shared feeling of exhaustion has been heightened by long-standing concerns about staff shortages, and by deep resentment – particularly among nurses – about pay and conditions.

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