Life on the NHS front-line: 'It's harder to watch patients die when they can't see their family'

Frontline NHS workers, such as Matt Smith, have described the challenges that the pandemic has brought. (PA)
Frontline NHS workers, such as Matt Smith, have described the specific challenges that the pandemic has brought. (PA/Matt Smith)

It’s been a year since ‘Clap for Carers’ saw the nation stand outside their front doors and applaud healthcare workers battling to control the spread of COVID.

Protecting the healthcare system has been critical to fighting the virus. Daily updates on the number of patients have highlighted the pressure faced by frontline workers, while ‘Protect the NHS’ has been the primary slogan used by the government to urge people to obey emergency restrictions.

The subsequent outpouring of support for NHS staff among the public has been evident. But behind hospital doors, the pandemic has also had an impact on the dynamic between NHS staff and patients, with nurses and doctors taking on a more familial role than ever before.

Madeline Santulu, a therapy assistant who joined the NHS in 1996 and works with stroke and surgery patients to help them regain their mobility, says it’s been difficult going to patients’ homes during the pandemic.

She said: “I love working with people - it is my nature. I joined the NHS because it can give me a vast ground of working with people. We are all aspiring to serve the community."

She told Yahoo News UK how the pandemic has changed her relationship with those she cares for: “There are people that you did not expect to die. Their relatives are not there, so we just comfort each other - comforting them, and each other [the staff]. You have to be strong for them. Staff shed tears as well. It’s hard, it’s hard, but by God’s grace, we have pulled through.”

Watch: Doctors protest during 'Clap for Carers' on Whitehall

Madeline, who works in East London, often visits patients in their own homes so they can be as independent as possible. She says many of them haven't been able to have relatives visit because of the pandemic.

She recalls one of her patients asking her: “'Madeline, how do you people do it?' I said we do it. That could be me. I could be sick as well and I would love somebody to help me when I am not able to.”

Matt Smith is an advanced nurse practitioner at a paediatric intensive care unit in a central London hospital. He joined the NHS in 2004, and has faced similar challenges.

He said: “The fact that we were looking after the adults and they couldn’t have their relatives in, it’s very distressing. We’ve had adults who sadly died with us, which is always distressing anyway, but when they can’t have their family in with them it makes it even more so.

“With children’s intensive care we’re lucky that we don’t have the same number of children that die as we do when working with adults.

“Not being able to communicate effectively with the family because they weren’t there, having to have conversations via FaceTime on iPads, it was just very distressing. We become a lot closer to the patient to support them more. We like being with the children. They can be distressed because their parents aren’t around.”

The public’s support has been evident, with a recent survey commissioned by Patient Claim Line revealing that 81% of Londoners appreciate the NHS more now than prior to the pandemic.

However, many NHS workers feel this support isn’t reflected by the government’s actions and have been left angered by a proposed pay rise of 1%.

Madeline said: “It is a kick in the stomach, really. They have frozen NHS pay for a number of years, and to now come and give 1% is an insult. It sent shockwaves. Some people won’t come back, they are thinking why should I work in the NHS when they don’t value the staff?"

She explained that this was not enough to cover rising living costs, and believed the government could have waited to give a "proper percentage" rather than 1% now. She believes a 10% rise minimum would compensate.

NHS staff are angered by the 1% pay rise after their hard work over the past year. Staff from University College Hospital protested with a slow hand clap in March 2021. (Getty Images)
NHS staff are angered by the 1% pay rise after difficult conditions during COVID. Staff from University College Hospital protested with a slow hand clap in March 2021. (Getty Images)

According to the Trades Union Congress, the pay offer means nurses’ pay will be down as much as £2,500 in real terms compared to a decade ago. They have also warned that NHS workers across many occupations and pay bands will actually suffer a real-terms pay cut in 2021-22, and described a potential “hammer blow” to morale.

The British Medical Association launched a pay campaign for ‘Fairness for the Frontline' last week, in which they revealed the results of a BritainThinks survey, stating almost three quarters of the public felt the pay rise for doctors should be at least 3%, as opposed to the 1% on offer.

In Scotland, NHS workers were given a 4% pay rise last week, with first minister Nicola Sturgeon describing the 1% rise in England as “miserly”.

The UK's Department for Health and Social Care has said that “anything higher would require re-prioritisation” due to the pressure of the pandemic on the economy in general.

Smith says he believed Boris Johnson’s experience of contracting COVID could have meant he would show more appreciation for the NHS: “For us to be told that there is no money but we’ll clap for you instead, it’s the biggest slap in the face.

"A 1% pay rise is just the most insulting thing that could ever have been done. If [they] had said there’s no money, you’re not going to get anything, I think would have been better than being told, you’ve done an amazing job, you’ve had the worst year of your lives, lots of your colleagues have died because we failed to provide you with the appropriate equipment, we reacted slowly, but here’s 1% extra - it’s just deeply insulting.

Matt thought the prime minister's experience with COVID would lead to greater appreciation for the NHS. Here Boris Johnson takes part in Clap for Carers with fiancée Carrie Symonds in 2020. (AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson takes part in Clap for Carers with fiancée Carrie Symonds in 2020. (AFP via Getty Images)
Matt Smith at NHS pay and conditions protest
The 1% pay rise has been branded "a kick in the stomach" and "a slap in the face" to many NHS workers. NHS worker Matt Smith is pictured here at a protest in Trafalgar Square over NHS pay and conditions. (Clare Archer)

“What Captain Tom did was amazing, it shows how much the public value the NHS. The NHS is grateful for the money, but it shouldn’t be needed, the government should be funding the NHS appropriately.”

Yahoo spoke to another NHS worker, who asked to remain anonymous, but wanted to share the amount of her work that goes into coordinating the safe set-up of wards to keep them as COVID secure as possible.

She started working in the NHS in 1988 and is now an infection prevention and control matron, making sure staff understand PPE procedures. She also works with teams to upgrade ward areas as well as co-ordinating the cleaning and management of equipment.

She said: “Before COVID, all these things were easily managed, but in COVID times the number of patients coming into hospital tripled, and the majority of them were severely ill, and so equipment can be very limited.

“I was proud to be part of the clapping, knowing that I was also clapping for my colleagues. Some staff members could not go home, so the cleaners cleaned [the side rooms] and some staff stayed in there.

“We were clapping for their bravery, for their efforts, for their passion for the profession. One staff actually said, ‘my husband collapsed in front of me, the ambulance came. Just because he was well, I left him at home, the next day I came to work.’

“We lost a few from our trust, we still have people who have not been able to come to work from the very first day they got COVID because it brought so many other illnesses in them. It’s just too much to even talk about.”

But, for Madeline at least, the groundswell of public support has made a lasting impact.

“Clap for Carers was emotional for me. Everybody came out, I couldn’t believe what I heard, all the balconies were full. When I help somebody at work and I give them a good service, it makes me feel like tomorrow is a good day.”

It's been just over a year since Clap for Carers started in the UK. Here NHS staff at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital participate in the clap in May 2020. (Getty Images)
NHS staff at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital participate in the Clap for Carers in May 2020. (Getty Images)

Watch: Life with COVID on Scotland's remote islands