Fighting coronavirus on the frontline

Richard has worked as a paramedic for 20 years. While it's always been a pressurised job, he says nothing has come close to what he’s experiencing now.

Things were busy enough before, but now, Richard is working overtime, often doesn’t get time to eat lunch, and his rest breaks have been suspended. This is his account of working on the frontline in London on 7 April, when 29 deaths from corvonavirus were recorded.

“When the Covid 19 virus hit, we were unprepared. Currently, in London, over a third of our frontline staff are off sick, with testing kits only being distributed this week. These staff are at home, worried about spreading infections to the people they live with, wanting to come to work but unsure of their Covid 19 status.

“We have no mechanics, so we’re relying on the AA to service and repair our vehicles. The call takers and dispatchers, as well as frontline staff, don’t have the luxury of keeping two meters apart. Management are asking retired staff to come back to work; and many will be high-risk due to their age.

“When we were first exposed to Covid 19, our vehicles were taken for a deep clean after each possible Covid 19 patient, and we were wearing masks and gowns that had to be tested to fit correctly. But that’s all changed.

“There’s no more deep cleaning a wipe down between patients is enough now, I failed my mask testing because we only had large sizes left, so technically I can't go to confirmed cases of Covid 19, but as the patient testing is done in hospital, you can see where this leaves me.

“We wear one-size-fits-all surgical masks, and an apron that blows up into your face. We should be tested for masks every three years and carry them as part of our kit, but I’ve never been tested. The advanced PPE - including a white boiler suit, FFP3 mask, and goggles - is reserved only for confirmed cases of coronavirus – but there’s no testing in the community.

“The majority of patients we treat have all the symptoms of Covid19, but they’re not confirmed cases as they haven't been tested. We’re walking in on patients who've been dead for days. They're wrapped up in plastic with a bag over their head, sealed up, ready for the undertaker to collect. It’s horrendous for relative to see. We are also seeing an increase in suicide in the community, because the fear and isolation is exacerbating existing conditions.

“The patients we do take in have to travel alone, unless they’re children or vulnerable, so patients are dying in hospital without their family nearby. When I’m taking vulnerable patients in and the family is waving them off, I often think about how that’s probably the last time they will see their relative.

“Patients then get tested on the ward, where paramedics often perform invasive procedures such as full CPR. Chest compressions – where breath is forced from a patient's body - are not considered invasive enough to warrant advanced PPE, according to guidance from our management. The unions have signed us off to work in these conditions; they haven't fought for staff at all.”

(After weeks of pressure, the London Ambulance Service says it will now provide full PPE for staff resuscitating patients.)

“I don’t think the community is completely aware of how bad this virus is, since the parks were full on the sunny weekend, but we must self-isolate. But I can’t blame people for going out. The majority of my patients are the poorest, the most disadvantaged; it's not uncommon to see a family in temporary housing confined to one room, a single mother and several young children in bunk beds. They don't have the luxury of other rooms or a garden.

“The support from the public is overwhelming, we're really proud to support our communities, but it does all get a bit much. Companies have delivered drinks to the ambulance stations and people have bought us food – it’s very kind, but we’re doing the job we're trained to do.

“The first episode of clapping the NHS coincided with me telling a family our resuscitation attempt on their relative was futile. I also wonder how many clappers voted for this government that, not so long ago, cheered at blocking the pay rise for NHS staff.

“When Boris Johnson went to an NHS hospital to be treated, I nearly blew a gasket. This is the man whose party had waged a war with junior doctors, who promised £350 million a week to the NHS on the side of a bus, who said that patients should pay for NHS treatment to stop them abusing it.

“But when it comes to an emergency, he needs to rely on the NHS because there was nowhere else for him to go. There’s no private emergency care, no private A&E, and very few private intensive care beds. When they do have medical emergencies in Harley St. Hospitals, they call for NHS paramedics to sort it out. Johnson should've been booted out and taken his chances in the private sector. No doubt he sat in St Thomas hospital charming the staff that he and his party have systematically abused.

"In normal circumstances we barely tread water, thanks to low morale, underfunding, poor staffing levels and high workloads. Over 80 percent of the London Ambulance Service has less than two years' experience. They’re very young and inexperienced, fresh from university. A culture of bullying from management, harsh working environments and poor staff welfare means the working life of a paramedic is about five years, leaving a broken young person quite often with mental health disorders and £30,000 of student debt.

“On a more positive note, I’ve seen mutual aid replace charity, and communities supporting each other. Let's hope that our communities continue to grow and strengthen long after this crisis is over and that key workers are recognised as the heroes they are.

“Our hearts go out to our working class colleagues, who are keeping everything afloat. The bus drivers and transport staff, the shop workers, the bin men; the unsung heroes who get no PPE. They’re the backbone of our society."

London Ambulance Service doesn't wish to comment at this time.