Inside a Covid intensive care ward where staff are on a war footing

In a makeshift intensive care ward in London’s largest hospital, a young nurse is staring intensely at a screen above one of the sickest patients in the unit.

A moment later she dashes to another bed, another set of screens and tubes, another gravely ill patient, this one “proned”, a medical term for lying on his front.

Within a few minutes, the 20-year-old will have visited a third person fighting for their life against Covid-19.

This should not be the case.

There are now 50 per cent more coronavirus patients in hospital than at the peak of the first wave

Credit: Victoria Jones/PA

In normal times she or one of her intensive care colleagues would be allocated a single patient whose side they would not leave.

But with London in the eye of this resurgent coronavirus storm, the staff at St George’s Hospital in Tooting are on a war footing, and the personal toll is beginning to show.

“There’s only so much you can come in and see an unprecedented number of healthy people die before that affects you," says Tori Cooper, head of nursing in the emergency department.

"There is very little joy in our work at the moment.

"It’s hard to find that joy when you come into work – you’re scared for your colleagues, your families and yourself."

Intensive care consultant Mohamed Ahmed said he had seen staff in tears at the end of their shift, while some decided they could no longer come to work.

10,000 patients have been admitted to hospitals in the UK since Christmas Day

Credit: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

Dr Ahmed, 40, said: "After the first wave, we had quite a lot of staff who resigned.

"They couldn’t cope. We had nurses who had all their family members abroad and of course they couldn’t see them, so they couldn’t get that support. It was extremely difficult.

"We have had a lot of sickness, so we’ve had situations where very good nurses are having to work on behalf of all of those who are unable to come in – it’s one of these situations you never want to put your staff in."

At the height of the first wave, on April 9, St George’s was coping with 254 Covid patients.

But that was a full two and half weeks after the first lockdown was imposed.

By contrast, as of January 1 – the latest date for which there are figures – the trust was already treating 286, two days before the new lockdown came into force.

Omome Etomi, a medical registrar on the hospital’s Acute Medicine Unit, said she was "shattered".

Dr Etomi, 28, said: "I think psychologically more than anything, it’s been months and months of this.

"Even in between waves, we never really went back to normal. For us it’s been a really long few months. It’s challenging."

Staff at St George's say they are working 'to the limit' of their ability, with exhausting shift patterns, and the prospect that the worst is still to come

Credit: Victoria Jones/PA

Emergency department consultant Mark Haden paid tribute to the staff for stepping up to the challenge.

Dr Haden, 36, said: "We make it look like business as usual but it’s very much not – it’s very different to our usual pattern of work.

"Everyone’s stress levels are higher than usual. Everyone is working to the limit, to the threshold of what they’re able to.

"It is stretching us and we are having to find new ways of working in order to look after our patients.

"We will always find ways to cope – I have every faith that everyone in this trust will step up."

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