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Coronavirus: A nurse speaks from the frontline

PUBLISHED: 14:13 27 March 2020 | UPDATED: 14:13 27 March 2020

Sharon Bissessar is a senior regional officer for the Royal College of Nursing. Picture: Royal College of Nursing

Sharon Bissessar is a senior regional officer for the Royal College of Nursing. Picture: Royal College of Nursing

Royal College of Nursing

How are London’s nurses coping on the front line of the war against coronavirus? More qualified to answer that than most is Sharon Bissessar, a senior regional officer for the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).

A registered A&E nurse herself, Ms Bissessar’s job is to fight the corner of 15,000 nurses in her North West London patch who are RCN union members.

Since the outbreak, the media has been challenging the government over Covid-19 testing for NHS staff and whether they have the protective equipment they need.

But Ms Bissessar’s message is that despite the many difficulties – from empty supermarkets to fewer trains and buses – nurses remain focused on caring for the sick and “putting society first”.

Asked whether her members are being tested for the virus, Mr Bissessar wasn’t able to comment on specifics at different hospitals, but she said: “There are inconsistencies across the picture.”

On Monday, March 23, the RCN sent an open letter to the Prime Minister, saying “priority COVID-19 testing for health and social care workers is an absolute must... to do their job while keeping themselves, and their patients, safe”.

The 58-year-old said: “There’s no silver bullet. Part of it is about availability of tests and the scale of it – the number of people who need tests, and trying to spread the resources.

“The focus has been on testing people who have been symptomatic and who need care.

“It’s a challenging time and no-one expected to be in this position.”

Despite the danger they are facing, with fatalities increasing around the world, Ms Bissessar said her members “are not particularly worried”.

“They are focussing on looking after the critically ill patients who have the virus,” she said.

“It’s inherent in them to think about others first.

“They have been focusing on the public and providing the best care for patients.

“If you’re not in the nursing profession it’s hard to imagine that, but nurses always think about society first.”

Ms Bissessar confirmed national reports that extra supplies of protective masks and equipment, brought in by the armed forces, are now filling the stores of London’s hospitals.

“I’ve spoken to members today and yesterday and have been informed that supplies are back in place. Large amounts have been provided by the Army and they have been informed they have enough,” she said.

However there are concerns about “critical-care capacity” – whether there will be enough space, enough beds, and enough staff to treat the growing numbers of life-threatening cases.

Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow declared a “critical incident” after reaching full capacity on March 20.

On March 26 it was reported that 21 patients with coronavirus had died at the hospital in just four days.

Ms Bissesser said: “I’m aware that hospitals are finding that intensive care is an area where they don’t have extra capacity.

“They are already at capacity and are having to transfer critical-care patients to other hospitals because they are full.”

With cases predicted to keep rising, the government announced on Thursday that 11,788 retired medical staffers will return to work across the UK, including 2,660 doctors and 6,147 nurses.

“This is very welcome,” said Ms Bissessar. “Anything that increases capacity for people on the front line.

“We don’t believe anything has hit the ground yet so people haven’t started in these roles.

“I have friends who are retired and have volunteered.

“This is forward planning for the predicted massive hit.”
For all the highly technical detail behind the country’s effort to help the NHS, it was everyday necessities like food shopping that nurses suddenly had to shout for help with.

Amid scenes of panic buying and empty supermarket shelves, many nurses “struggled to buy essentials from shops”.

“Access to food shopping has been a big concern.

“If you turn up to Tesco or whatever after a 12-hour shift and can’t get basic stuff... that’s something we have been hearing from our members right across London.

“That’s having a genuine impact on their well-being.”

Ms Bissessar added: “The public need to support us.”

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