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Covid-19 patient speaks out: fantastic support from under-resourced health workers
Steve Nally, a support worker in the housing sector, was among the first Covid-19 patients at St Thomas' Hospital in south London. Steve spoke to the Socialist about the problems in provision - clear even before approaching the peak.
When the pandemic hit, your employer sent you home?
They had to ask me to self-isolate because their policy was that anyone with conditions such as asthma, which I've got, is at risk. It's the right thing for an employer to do.
It was still like being whacked round the head with a cricket bat, feeling that my life has been chugging along quite nicely and suddenly it's stopped. But on the other hand I thought: they do actually seem to care about the employees.
Initially I had to apply for Universal Credit. Luckily, my employer has been very supportive, and I'm now part of the government's furlough scheme.
What happened when you applied for Universal Credit?
I applied for Universal Credit. They had everything, all the boxes were ticked.
When you're in the hospital, I could hardly use my phone. I had an oxygen mask on and I couldn't use my glasses. Then, when you read the emails, they demand a list of things - all your income, month by month, for the last twelve months, which is complicated. You need to do this, you need to do that.
You're writing back to them saying: I'm in hospital with Covid-19, I can't respond. I sent three messages like that to them, because I know if you don't respond they can sanction you.
I did a complaint via the PCS, the civil servants' union, and I got a message when I came home saying 'we're very sorry to have bothered you'. But when you're getting these messages and you're seriously ill, it's very stressful.
You started to develop symptoms while in self-isolation?
I was in self-isolation from 17 March. Before that, I had been following all the government guidelines in terms of keeping myself safe at work, but I still had to go on a busy tube every day.
So despite all of that I started to become very unwell on 23 March. I must have picked up the virus in my block, or prior to self-isolation in my travels around London.
I was in a lot of pain for two weeks, then I became short of breath. By 3 April I was struggling. I rang 111. A health professional called me back later and immediately called an ambulance.
I can't explain the shock of an ambulance arriving and paramedics at your front door. You suddenly realise: this is serious. They took me to St Thomas' - they were two young Australians, working as paramedics here. I went straight into A&E.
What was it like in the hospital?
On Friday 3 April, A&E was deserted. I was the only patient there. It was fantastic. I had all the attention anyone could require. Once they do all the tests, they have to send you to an individual room at the top of the building - just below the luxury rooms, the private rooms.
On the Saturday, the nurse had to tell me I had Covid-19. She was more upset than me. I felt for her. She's probably having to tell this to loads of people and it must get harder and harder each time. It can't get easier because you know what's going to happen afterwards.
I was transferred down to a ward. I was their first patient. The lead nurse said they'd literally been training for the best part of two weeks for the wave to come in, and they didn't know how it was going to affect them, but there were as ready as they could be.
I got very, very ill. In my bay, I saw people being taken down to intensive care and I didn't see them coming up again. Young men with young families having to go down to ICU, you could see the fear in their faces. There's images I'm trying to blot out.
There's not much banter among the patients. People are very quiet.
They decided not to take me down, and that was a great relief - but you can imagine in the run-up the conversations they're having with you. They're quite honest and frank with you, which I think is good.
You are, in your head, thinking: this could be it. But some people did come back up and they were in a much better condition.
What were the staff like?
In our bay of six, you'd have one fully trained nurse and one assistant. That nurse was making all the decisions - about oxygen, everything - they're very highly trained professionals.
All very young, all in their twenties, from around the globe, and working night and day. Twelve-hour shifts, I don't know how they did it.
Some are staying downstairs in the nurses' accommodation, so they're cut off from their families. Others are going home. One said to me that when they went home, they just literally crash out.
They get home about nine, ten in the evening. They start at eight in the morning but they're in about seven to get ready. Some of them are having no more than eight hours at home. It's two days on, two days off - but even so, that's a tall order.
They're utterly exhausted, you can see it in their faces. They're dealing with very ill people - and, like I became, very frightened people. The nurses have to counsel you for ten, 20, 30 minutes.
That must be difficult - when you're having to reassure someone, and also be quite honest with them. They're multitasking beyond belief.
Boris Johnson was in at the same time as you?
The difference between me and Boris Johnson, who was in at the same time, was that he was in the luxury private rooms at the top. He was transferred down to the basement (so he lost his view!) in case he became very ill, because it takes a few minutes to get you from the top to ICU.
It wouldn't make much difference but I think because he's the prime minister they felt they couldn't risk it. But he was getting a lot more attention, I'd imagine. It'd be one-to-one support for him.
You can see the difference between private and public healthcare. But I can't criticise the support I got, it was perfect.
A couple of the nurses, I spoke to about Boris Johnson being in there. They weren't opposed to him being in hospital, of course. They're carers, they want to save lives.
But some felt uncomfortable. Feeling like he's said all these things about us, we've had our pay suppressed, our jobs cut, and now he wants our services. Now when he needs us, he's full of praise for us. The hypocrisy.
Was there enough PPE?
All the staff had gloves, a mask (some more robust than others) and then a visor or glasses (some better than others). I didn't see any staff wearing the gowns you see in other countries.
They had plastic bibs - some would just have one, some would have people tie a number around them. But gowns would have been much more covering.
Coming in and out the ward, you could see the hygiene was tip-top. But I did feel for them, thinking: I wish they had more protection.
Everyone was wearing a different kind of 'uniform'. There wasn't one standard. But they're all taking the same risk in the ward.
What's the care been like afterwards?
Well, there's no care. Until discharge, it's wonderful care. Then the ambulance crew take you home - and they're absolutely fantastic, they give you gloves and masks and chat to you about what you need to do next.
And that's it. You get a bag of medication and a discharge letter, and you realise after a day or two that there's no follow-up. Who's going to chase me up to see that I'm getting on OK?
Once you're past 'peak Covid', they need the beds, so off you go. The only people left on the ward are the elderly and those with disabilities who need a care package.
The only follow-up I received was when I rang my GP surgery. They were very good, but I had to do that myself, which I think is a big failing. A lot of people going home will be very isolated and may be still very unwell.
If we had the number of hospital beds we had 30 years ago, people could have been gently eased home. But I don't blame the staff, I blame Tory and Labour cuts over the past decades. And no follow-up afterwards - again, it's lack of resources, it's cuts.
In my block - it's quite sad - there's notices down the bottom saying be respectful of how you behave because there's a number of people recovering from C-19 or self-isolating. So clearly this block of 90 flats has been quite badly hit.
It's a working-class block. Lots of key workers. People like me; people who work in transport; people who work for the council.
What would you demand for the workers and patients?
World-class PPE is a must - and lots of it, now. I saw people 'mend and make do'. I don't think that's good enough for our health staff, or the cleaners, or the people providing food and stuff like that.
Building of more hospitals and more beds. Mass stockpiling of all the things we need as this unfolds over the next 12 to 18 months.
All the staff, whoever works in the hospital, should have a serious pay increase.
There's people who were supporting me who were paying their way through a nursing degree. That should be scrapped for all students, but as a starter all health workers should have fees scrapped and reimbursed immediately. There's no other sector of workers who have to put their lives on the line and pay for the privilege!
There needs to be proper support after you leave hospital. Clearly there's not enough resources for local surgeries, district nurses, that sort of thing. Even a phone call would be enough for me, but they haven't got the resources to do that.
In The Socialist 20 April 2020:
Frontline workers speak out
Lenin at 150