Two years on

It’s remarkable to think that COVID-19 has now been with us for two years. Since that cold winter’s morning in January 2020 when we received the first patients in the UK into our care, we have worked together to tackle challenges that once seemed unimaginable.

We’ve now experienced five waves of this virus in the North East, each of them bringing new and unexpected challenges. I’ve been thinking back to those early days when our hospitals were re-purposed to provide care for critically ill patients, many of whom required ventilation.

In those early days we had no real treatments for covid and little knowledge of this new disease. We focussed on keeping each other safe with PPE and by keeping physically distanced, while learning new ways to stay virtually connected with our families, friends and patients. Already those memories are becoming more distant.

As I’ve reflected this week I’ve remembered the eerie quiet of the streets as I drove to work, and the emptiness of our hospital atriums; the socially distanced chats with neighbours from several metres away and our repeated surprise at the daily government press conference announcements.

Over the past two years, we have all experienced highs and lows. Few of us will have escaped covid illness in our homes, and many will have experienced tragic loss and heartbreak.

This week I re-watched the ‘I lift up my eyes’ poem by Martin Wroe, which brought back so many memories of lockdowns, both of the distress of so many, but also of the magnificent support that everyone provided to colleagues, patients and family members. It has been a time when we came together like never before and we go forward stronger because of our shared experience.

Healthcare worker drawing up vaccination in PPE

Over 4,000 people with covid have been inpatients in our hospitals, from different parts of the UK, but many who were from our own communities.

Each of them has been provided with exceptional care, expertise and compassion. Sadly, despite us having one of the lowest mortality rates in the country, over 500 patients have died. Each one of them a loved family member who will be greatly missed.

Across the region we have delivered well over 6 million vaccines since December 2020, bringing hope and helping us to take practical steps towards normality. I still believe that there are few places in the NHS more optimistic than a vaccination centre!

Black and white photo of scientists next to lab machineSince the earliest days of the pandemic, our laboratory teams have shone. Out testing arrangements have been among the best and the fastest, and the skill of our staff from the very start has been exemplary. The rapid creation of our Lighthouse Lab has meant that we could support the whole UK and we’ve already provided over 7 million test results.

In these two years we have also had around 365,000 people attend our Emergency Department and we’ve supported over 10,000 new cancer patients. This has been a time that needed everyone’s best.

Each member of staff and all of our volunteers have contributed to our covid response – clinicians and corporate staff equally, those working in our hospitals, in our communities and in our offices.

I was delighted to see a reflective piece from Claire Train, Mick Bowman, Chris Waugh, Denise Allen and Ashley Price in this BBC video – it really emphasises that this is something that has affected each of us, and that everyone’s contribution was vital in our response.

Other media pieces include:

Director of Infection Prevention Control Lucia Pareja-Cebrian in the Chronicle Covid-19 in Newcastle, two years on: RVI experts reflect on the pandemic and urge ‘optimistic caution’ as virus still circulates – Chronicle Live

Why the Omicron wave may be the biggest challenge yet to the region’s NHS | ITV News Tyne Tees

So, how would I sum up the last two years?

Firstly, and most importantly, I would raise a glass to you – our staff – for what you have achieved. Your positivity and perseverance has been remarkable and I couldn’t be more proud. The need for a long-term workforce plan which supports, encourages and nurtures staff is more important than ever and that is something that I raise with NHS leaders and politicians whenever I get the chance.

Secondly, the pace of innovation was, and continues to be, second to none. Both the speed at which we did things differently and our attention to detail meant that we delivered things we wouldn’t have imagined – to a high standard.

That leaves us with a wonderful legacy to build upon. The success of virtual appointments, the speedy creation of the Nightingale Hospital and the successful and safe roll-out of new treatments give us a renewed confidence as we continue innovating at pace.

Finally, the pandemic has highlighted the crucial importance of building in resilience to our health services. It’s not enough to think about the requirements today – we need to be prepared to respond again, maintaining health security infrastructure but also protecting capacity for the future. We must be ambitious so that we can get ahead and make sure that we don’t fall into the trap of being one variant, or one bad winter away from disruption.

I’ve said many times, that I wouldn’t have wanted to be part of any other team during these unprecedented months. What we have achieved together will stay with me forever, and I want to once again express my sincere and heartfelt thanks to every single member of the team.

I’d like to use one more statistic to end this piece.

In these two years, 12,000 babies have been born here in Newcastle. 12,000 bundles of hope and joy which help us all to refocus on the future. I know that the things we face next will be no less challenging, but I truly believe that we will continue to be successful together.

Blurry photo of nurse at hospital bed

Operational update

I’m pleased to say that the number of patients in our hospitals with coronavirus continues to reduce and is now around 50 patients. The numbers of staff absent has also reduced from a peak of 12% to just over 7% this week. Thank you to everyone who has worked flexibly and taken on additional hours to get us through this period.

Our attention will increasingly turn to reducing our backlog of planned operations and procedures and we know it will take months and years before this is fully addressed. Our first priority is to focus on the longest waiters, particularly the 250 people who have waited over 104 weeks and over 4,000 who have waited over 52 weeks for their operations.

Many of those waiting a long time need particularly complex procedures which can only be provided at a tertiary centre like Newcastle, and I’m grateful to the directorate and operational teams who are working through the details to support each patient as quickly as possible.

Vaccination as a Condition of Deployment (VCOD)

I believe very strongly that vaccination is the best way to protect staff and patients from serious illnesses like COVID-19 and flu. You will be aware that the Government announced a rethink about the requirement for staff to be vaccinated, and will be holding a further consultation.

We will share more information about this as soon as we receive it. However I would still strongly encourage everyone to protect themselves. A number of colleagues are able to help if you have any question or queries, or if you are struggling to access a vaccination of any type – they can be contacted at [email protected]

A warm welcome

Welcome to Sam Allen who has been appointed as Chief Executive for the Integrated Care Board of North East and North Cumbria. Sam will take up the post at the end of January, ahead of the ICS becoming a statutory organisation from July 2022.

Collaborative Newcastle Newsletter and ICHNE newsletter

  • The Integrated Covid Hub North East is playing an important role in tackling the pandemic, putting the region at the forefront of a coordinated response. You can read more in their latest bulletin here.
  • Collaborative Newcastle is an innovative partnership which brings together the NHS, local government, higher education, and the voluntary and community sector. You can read their latest news and updates here.

Caroline holds the rainbow flag, as the estates team hoist it up the flag pole, and mark stands next to the flag pole

LGBTQ+ history month

This month is LGBT History Month and throughout February we are flying the rainbow flag above our hospitals to show our visible commitment to LGBT+ equality for both staff and patients. This year’s theme centres on ‘politics in art’ recognising the creativity, imagination and innovation of LGBTQ+ creators throughout history and in my last blog, I shared a number of sessions that are running virtually and open to all staff.

More recently I’ve been much more determined to talk about LGBTQ+ issues and use my position to support others. This LGBT+ History Month, I have shared my experience in the NHS as part of the LGBTQ+ community. You can read this here.

Awards and achievements

Baby Friendly InitiativeTwo of our sisters on NICU stand against a wall with a display titles 'development & bonding'

Last week our neonatal unit became the first in the region – and one of only 15 in the country – to be awarded stage three UNICEF Baby Friendly Initiative accreditation. The initiative is designed to provide parents with the best possible care to build close and loving relationships with their baby and to feed their baby in ways that will support their health and development.
The final stage of the assessment was carried out last week and is based on feedback from parents who have recently, or currently, have a baby on the unit – a testament to the outstanding care staff provide. Huge congratulations to all the team who have worked so hard to receive this prestigious award.

SBRI awards – sustainability

I am delighted to share that Newcastle Hospitals is amongst a range of organisations to receive funding from SBRI Healthcare for MedTech and Digital innovation projects which support the delivery of a Net Zero NHS.

A total of £1million was awarded to 10 projects, in partnership with the Greener NHS Programme, and we were delighted to be part of two winning bids. You can find out more here.