Happy New Year

As we’ve made our way through this first week of the New Year, it’s clear that we are under the extreme pressure that we anticipated as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has become the dominant strain in our communities.

This is usually the time I tend to want to plan ahead and think of the future, but if I’m honest, it’s been quite difficult to do that this year. For all of us, our patience with coronavirus is wearing thin and the new variant is taking all of our attention.

It’s important though to reflect and remember what we have achieved – not least because we stand on the shoulders of these achievements, but also because we need to maintain our optimism about what will come after this current wave has passed.

2021 was memorable for lots of good reasons, and for some that we would choose to forget. We’ve continued to be at the forefront of the NHS response to the pandemic as well as being the main provider of specialised care in the region. The care of our patients has guided our actions and our decisions as we have faced new and unprecedented challenges

I’m delighted that we were able to welcome 83 staff based in Whitehaven and Carlisle to the Trust as we opened the Northern Centre for Cancer Care, North Cumbria. We opened new clinical services including the cardiac care unit and respiratory unit at the RVI, and refurbished the emergency assessment suite at the Freeman Hospital.

We focussed on tackling the climate emergency and taking the voice of our young patients from the Great North Children’s Hospital to COP26 in Glasgow – and mum Kaja Gersinska became the first person in the UK to use climate friendly pain relief during labour after giving birth to baby Rosie at the RVI. Across our anaesthetic services we are looking hard at how we minimise and eliminate harmful gases from our activities, and this is something I’ll come back to in a future blog.

Our community services also made huge steps forward as we strengthened our joint working with partners in the city through Collaborative Newcastle. This has enabled us to support local people much more effectively, and it was great that our work to support care homes was recognised with a prestigious HSJ award.

Of course we have also become a major contributor to the NHS testing response as we opened our Lighthouse lab in Gateshead, welcoming over 700 new staff to the team at the Integrated COVID Hub North East and we’ve delivered 6,175,025 vaccines on behalf of the region through leading the Covid Vaccination programme across the North East and North Cumbria.

Many teams and individuals were recognised for their achievements over the last year through multiple awards, and also through people finding other ways to say a simple but heartfelt thank you. I hope you might all find a few minutes to reflect on the things you personally achieved last year because it’s important that they are recognised and celebrated.

Our current situation

Looking to where we are now, let me start by saying an enormous thank you to everyone for your hard work. I know that many people gave up celebrations with their families and loved ones, and sacrificed precious time off to support our patients. Everyone in our hospitals, our labs, our community services and our vaccination programme has yet again risen to the challenge that the pandemic has created.

Over the last few weeks our innovative spirit hasn’t diminished. A great example of this is the new outpatient treatment being offered to patients across the region who are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill with COVID-19. There are two treatments available: Sotrovimab, a neutralising monoclonal antibody that patients receive by infusion and Molnupiravir, an antiviral medication.

Clinical trial data has shown both treatments significantly reduce the risk of hospitalisation and morbidity. Eligible patients are contacted by the Covid medicines delivery unit and are triaged to receive appropriate treatment which begins within five days of a positive test or symptom onset.

This service is led by our Infectious Diseases team and has been rapidly operationalised thanks to the dedicated efforts of our medical, nursing, pharmacy and administrative colleagues across multiple directorates. In the coming weeks, the Covid medicines delivery unit aims to triage and treat patients who are at the highest risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 and in doing so prevent inpatient admissions and improve patient outcomes.

We’ve continued to see high levels of demand through the emergency department and assessment suite, and all of our clinical and corporate services have continued to support large numbers of patients. It was lovely to see the safe arrival of baby Jake Hancock on Christmas Day and Miyah Kate Ormston on New Year’s Day both offering a moment of hope for the future beyond the pandemic.

Our local test and trace team have been inundated with contacts over the holidays and we’ve undertaken over 200 swabs each day for COVID-19 through our testing pods. We have broken several records of the number of staff swabs over the past week. I know that some staff have needed to queue and would like to apologise to those who had an uncomfortable wait.

We’re doing all we can to maximise capacity, including extending opening hours so that we can meet demand and minimise waiting times. Another phenomenal effort has come from our Lighthouse Lab which has been processing over 40,000 Covid tests per day to support the national testing effort.

Of course our vaccination programme also had a specific challenge, to ensure that every adult was offered a booster vaccination, as well as maintaining the evergreen offer for first and second doses. I know that the staff and volunteers responded remarkably to that renewed call to arms and have been pulling out all of the stops to do as much as possible to keep our communities protected.

I’m grateful to everyone who has contributed over the holiday period, both clinical staff and those in equally essential supporting roles. The fact that we are able to respond so well, even in the hardest of times, is because everyone is part of the team and brings their best efforts. It’s also good to see so many messages of support to different teams and individuals – the enduring spirit of camaraderie and teamwork shines really brightly from each part of our organisation. I’m conscious that this hard work comes at a cost. I know that people are working hours and shifts that are not sustainable, and the exhaustion that everyone feels has not gone away.

Today we have over 100 patients in the trust with COVID-19. Around half of them are ‘incidental’ contacts – meaning they are in hospital for a different reason, but have tested positive rather than being admitted to hospital due to their Covid symptoms.

The ability of the Omicron variant to spread so quickly and easily means that we have seen an increase in transmission of the virus in hospital. In Newcastle we have had incredibly low levels of hospital acquired Covid infection throughout the pandemic, thanks to the exceptionally high standards of advice and support from our infection prevention control specialists and because of everyone’s vigilance in keeping each other safe. We need to redouble our efforts here to make sure that we maintain the highest standards of mask wearing, eye protection when necessary and social distancing at 2 metres – both in our work environment, and also importantly during breaks.

It’s important not to let our guard down because we are busy. Alongside this, we know that other infections spread when there is pressure on services, so good hand hygiene and other basics of care remain vital.

It’s good to see our partnership working with care homes and the local authority paying dividends as we have relatively low rates of delays in getting older people discharged from hospital. The support of our community services is essential in achieving this. We also need to play our role in the wider regional system, making sure that we continue to minimise ambulance handover delays so that we can support the North East Ambulance Service.

In these difficult times, it’s important we try to keep a degree of optimism and perspective, even though that feels incredibly difficult. We can try and keep ourselves as well as we can, and be kind to those around us. Even now there are sparks of optimism and looking at how much has been achieved to support our local population in the last 12 months gives us real hope for the future. I’m sure we have all achieved things that we wouldn’t have thought possible – and we will do that again. Thankfully the current strain that we are facing is very different from the one we were confronted with 22 months ago – it’s much less virulent, and we know so much more now that we did.

When the time is right (and hopefully that won’t be too long) we will be able to get back to doing what we love and what we get up in the morning to do – delivering much more comprehensive care, treatment and support for our patients and their families. The time when we can connect more easily again with colleagues, friends and networks will come and we know that in itself will make a difference to our health and wellbeing.

For now I know that everyone will continue to do the best they can with the tools they have, and as an executive team we will support you in that.

Day Service treatment centre

Towards the end of last year, I shared our plans to build a new elective day surgery treatment centre at the Freeman Hospital to help us address some of the waiting list challenges and backlogs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

We have embarked on this fast-track project which will see the development of four new theatres (as well as day case assessment and a recovery area), enabling our teams to carry out more than 3,000 additional low complexity procedures in specialties such as MSK, urology, surgery and some cardiothoracic services.

We’ll be able to transfer thousands more day case treatments from existing theatres which, in turn, will free up our existing theatres for more complex work, as well as support the Trust’s programme to increase our planned (elective) surgery and reduce long waits in the most challenged surgical specialties.

Doing this also allows us to transform procedures that have traditionally required an overnight stay into a day case, achieving our aim of reducing days away from home, while the centre will also provide ‘ring-fenced’ capacity, meaning operationally it will not be impacted by covid, flu or other winter or service pressures.

This £20million investment will support patients from across the city and the wider region and I’m delighted to be able to share our outline plans with you (which still may be subject to change). We hope construction will be completed in August 2022.

If you do have any comments about this scheme or our attached plans please do not hesitate to contact us at [email protected].

TV series update

I highlighted in my last blog that we will shortly feature in an exciting new six-part TV series on Channel 4. Our aim in taking part in this series was to depict our unique spirit and to capture the enterprise, compassion and joy of Newcastle Hospitals.

This isn’t a series about Covid! Instead it focusses on some of the remarkable work that our surgeons, nurses, therapists and support teams do every day. I hope that both our patients and staff featured and those watching will take pride and joy in the amazing work we do.

You will be able to watch the first episode of Geordie Hospital on Channel 4 at 8pm on Monday 17 January.

Ofsted success

Towards the end of last year Ofsted spent some time in the trust to inspect our apprenticeship service. I’m delighted that the final report shows that our apprenticeship service has been rated as Good.
The report highlights our commitment to developing a workforce that serves the needs of the NHS and wider city and commented that our curriculum is “well-structured and successfully enables apprentices on healthcare support worker and dental apprenticeships to practise and refine their knowledge and skills using specialist simulation resources.” It also praised our apprentices, their positive attitude towards learning and their understanding of the need to be able to provide a caring and compassionate service to our patients.

Our apprentices are an important and valued part of our workforce and I was pleased to see this reflected in the report: “They have carefully implemented a wellbeing strategy that provides employees with helpful support, advice and guidance about how to stay safe and well. As a result apprentices are integrated into the wider staff team and feel valued.”

Thank you and congratulations to everyone involved for all of your hard work.

Awards and Achievements

North East & Yorkshire Regional Awards apprentice of the year awards – The estates apprentices were awarded three out of the four categories, which is a fantastic achievement:

  • First Year apprentice of the Year – Albert Venables.
  • Third Year apprentice of the year – Christopher Barnett.
  • Fourth Year Apprentice of the Year – Liam Padgett.

Well done to Albert, Chris and Liam and all the many staff involved in their guidance and development

National prize – Trainee vascular scientist, Chloe Bishop, has been awarded a national prize at the Vascular Society of Great Britain and Ireland’s annual scientific meeting for her research proposal HeaLTHI, which is aimed at evaluating patients understanding of their condition of lower limb circulation problems.

KF Gould Awards 2021 – These annual awards have been introduced in microbiology and virology in memory of Professor Gould who died in March 2020 and are held on her birthday to remember her and celebrate the continued success of the department she loved. Winners of this year’s awards are below:

  • Newcomer award for dedication to professional development – Nathan Carroll
  • Healthcare science associate rising star – Mark McEwen
  • Healthcare science assistant rising star – Susan Proud
  • Team leader contribution to service delivery – Dave Saunders
  • Life-long contribution to microbiology/virology – Christine Lees & Steven Peart
  • Microbiology & virology services individual of the year – Michelle Permain

2022 New Year Honours – I was delighted to see that David Nicholson, was awarded an OBE for Services to Hospital Radio Broadcasting and to the community. The chair of Radio Tyneside is being honoured for running Tyneside’s Hospital radio station and has been involved with the station for almost 50 years, making countless hospital visits more pleasant experiences.

Little Hearts Charity Mission

I wanted to end my blog with a uplifting story about the cardiothoracic team, who at the end of last year, participated in the Healing Little Hearts Charity Mission. It was heart-warming to receive a letter of thanks from the Chief Executive Officer for M.P Shah Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya. Due to the efforts of Mr Asif Hasan – cardiothoracic surgeon, Ms Esme Shone – scrub nurse and Mr Tommasso Generali – cardiothoracic surgical fellow, 34 children underwent congenital heart surgery and without intervention would have probably not survived.