Living with the beast that is COVID-19

Dame Jackie Daniel stood at a distance speaking to BBC journalist Fergus Walsh
I was pleased to be able to invite the BBC medical editor Fergus Walsh to our hospital

I hope you were as proud as I was to see the BBC news pieces earlier in the week which showcased our work here in Newcastle.

These were shown as the lead story on the 6pm and 10pm news (each seen by approximately 4 million people) and a different version also featured on BBC Breakfast. It was a pleasure to see our teams explaining how they are managing the challenges of COVID-19 – whether they were directly caring for patients with the illness or delivering our usual non-COVID care.

It feels like all eyes have been on the North East over recent weeks as cases of coronavirus have risen, and I was pleased to be able to invite the BBC medical editor Fergus Walsh, cameraman Adam Walker and producer Nicki Stiastny to visit us for two full days of recording so that they could see the reality of our experience.

Fergus was greatly impressed by what he saw in Newcastle, and very much appreciated the access we gave and the candour with which everyone spoke. It was notable that all of the patients he interviewed were hugely grateful for the care and compassion they received.

I was struck by comments from ITU consultant Lewis Gray, who explained how much more we know about ‘the beast that is COVID’ since the first wave’. We have all become much more familiar with this ‘beast’ we now find ourselves living with.

I was also touched by Ward 18 Sister Joanne Kerr’s description of the courage that everyone has shown throughout the pandemic and particularly when we were unfamiliar with COVID early on.

We’ve all felt the impact of the pandemic personally, in our home lives and families, as well as at work, and I hope that Fergus’s reporting was able to reassure the public and our local patients, that we are still here for them. People need to feel safe when they come to us for screening, routine appointments, emergency care or operations – they shouldn’t be afraid to come to our door.

I’m very conscious that as we approach winter, more patients will reach out to us in larger numbers so the pressure on us to deliver will become even more intense, and I know how much thought is going into delivering services differently to address today’s challenges.

At the moment we are undertaking a series of quarterly performance reviews, led by Martin Wilson, our Chief Operating Officer for each of our directorates. I’ve been pleased to be able to take part in some of these reviews which look in-depth at the broadest context of how we’re doing – activity and waiting lists, safety and patient experience but also equally importantly what steps are being taken to support staff engagement, wellbeing, training and staff experience.

We’ve been open about the pressures our services are under. As we saw on the BBC, our numbers of COVID patients has been relatively stable over the past few weeks. This week we’ve had around 76 patients with COVID in hospital with an average of 12 in intensive care.

It’s our cancer and elective pathways which cause me much more concern as we see waiting lists grow. As a trust that handles so many referrals each week, it’s inevitable that the numbers of patients waiting will be significant and I’m sure can feel overwhelming at times.

But there is positive news. By the end of September the number of people being seen within 18 weeks had started to improve, and the number of inpatient and outpatient appointments we are able to offer each week is getting closer to previous levels.

However, doing more of the same won’t be enough to recover our previous high levels of performance, and in this COVID world we will need new and ambitious approaches which I know are being established in each service and directorate.

Cataract surgery is one example of a fairly straightforward operation which has a life changing impact on those waiting to be treated. Approximately 4,000 patients were not able to have their surgery during the pandemic, and it’s important that we address this waiting list quickly. With such huge quantities of patients in need, it would be impossible for us to ‘catch up’ without taking some dramatic action.

So we’ve commissioned three ‘modular’ cataract theatres which will be based at the CAV and are currently under construction. All being well, we will be operational in January 2021. The development will enable us to see patients, complete their operation and discharge them within just 45 minutes. The ophthalmology team is designing the patient pathway to be as slick a process as possible. This will minimise the time that people need to spend in our care so that we maximise the number of patients that we see. 

Earlier this week, I met with the breast screening team for one of my regular Chief Executive check-ins. Similarly they are focussed on supporting approximately 1,000 women each week who were not able to have their regular screening during the peak of the pandemic.

However, I was very impressed to hear about the number of women from Newcastle and across the region with symptoms and concerns that they continued to see throughout.

I know that all of us worry about patients on our waiting lists. We want them to be seen as quickly as possible, and to get the best possible care to reduce their anxiety and get them well.

Thank you for everything that you do to support our patients, both to those of you who see patients directly, and also those working behind the scenes, managing waiting lists, getting the best out of clinic attendances and tracking those who are waiting. This is a job which relies on everyone in the team, and I’m very grateful for your hard work.

Christmas is coming

Let me be one of the first to mention Christmas. I know that things will continue to be unusual over the festive season, but we should try to celebrate as best we can.

Our chaplains and others are thinking about how we can introduce some festive spirit safely this year and also to ensure that we mark other celebrations from different faiths.

Our Christmas lunch is usually a highlight of the season but due to COVID and social distancing we are unable to offer our usual staff Christmas lunch in the same way.

However, the catering team is not to be defeated by a pandemic! They’ll be providing a festive packed lunch as an alternative, so from Monday 14 December through to Sunday 20 December (including two nightshifts) you’ll be able to collect one packed lunch per staff member (all dietary requirements will be met).

Managers should look out for further details by email from the catering department.

I’d also like to thank health records services manager Sue Kelly and her team. After moving just under 1million sets of case notes off the CAV site, they have now cleared 100,000 sets of records from the front library at the Leazes Wing at the RVI. This will enable this area to become a rest area for staff which is expected to open in December and I’m grateful to everyone involved for making this happen.

Flu – not just any yearA shield which reads 2020 flu protected in place

I would like to thank each and every one of our staff who has had their flu jab. As we know, this year is not just any year and we have the possibility of flu and COVID-19 co-circulating together.

It is absolutely essential that make sure we do everything we can to protect our patients, staff and colleagues, whilst also supporting the resilience of our health and care system.

So far, we have vaccinated over 9,700 staff. Last year, we were only at this point much later in the year. This is an incredible achievement, and this is thanks to a fantastic effort from colleagues across the Trust.

We are releasing blocks of appoints in weekly slots. The first week in November has booked up fast, but we still have some appointments left for Thursday 12 November and Friday 13 November. If you haven’t had your vaccine yet, please make sure you get it booked in. You can find the link to book an appointment on the Intranet.

Staff Survey – we each have a voice

We’re now almost at the half way point with nearly 5,000 members of staff filling in the staff survey so far. This is your chance to have a say about what it’s like to work here, what we’ve done well and where you think we need to improve.

Feedback this year is more important than ever as this year’s survey includes a section asking about your experiences working through the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Your feedback can help inform real change for our organisation so if you can find the time, please do fill it in. You can find out more about how to fill in the staff survey here.

‘Taking Care of Yourself and your Future’

Our first of two sessions with Steve Head took place in October and I was pleased to hear it was enjoyed by over 100 staff. The impact of COVID-19 can be felt Trust wide, not just in clinical roles, so I would like to reaffirm that this session is for everyone to take a moment – pause, think and take control.

Steve’s two-hour sessions are designed to offer tools and practical ways of thinking to help you cope with the emotional and logistical challenges that COVID-19 has created.

The next session is on Thursday 5 November from 3.30pm. We have booked some rooms across the Trust to live stream the sessions if you do not have easy access to a computer. If you are interested in attending please email [email protected]


Lecture Theatre – CRB Education Centre
Training Rooms 1 & 2 – CRB Education Centre

Freeman Hospital

Function Room 137
Lecture Theatre 2

Leadership congress

Finally, our next leadership congress will be virtually held on Wednesday 18 November at 2pm. This will be facilitated by Chimp Management. Chimp Management’s aim is to help people in all walks of life get the best out of themselves and others by understanding the way that they think, feel and behave, using the ‘Chimp Model’.

During the congress, a series of mentors will run different breakout sessions, to teach and facilitate the ‘Chimp Model’. If you are a senior leader and interested in further information, please contact: [email protected]

Radio Ombudsman podcast

I was delighted to take part in a podcast hosted by Ombudsman Rob Behrens about the challenges of being a senior leader in the NHS. You can listen here.