‘Calm before the storm’ at our hospitals as NHS staff prepare for coronavirus peak

Nick Hulme, chief executive of Colchester and Ipswich hospitals Pictures: ARCHANT/PA WIRE

Nick Hulme, chief executive of Colchester and Ipswich hospitals Pictures: ARCHANT/PA WIRE - Credit: ARCHANT/PA WIRE

A hospital boss has spoken of his alarm at a massive fall in people coming to A&E, as it prepares for a surge in coronavirus patients.

Nick Hulme, who heads up the biggest NHS trust in East Anglia, urged people with heart conditions, diabetes and signs of cancer to visit their GP and come to A&E if it’s urgent enough amid a 60% drop in visits.

MORE: Hospital boss tells daily podcast he’s alarmed at quiet A&E – as people avoid ‘out of fear’

Emergency departments at Ipswich and Colchester hospitals are currently so quiet they’ve dropped below levels typically seen even on Christmas Day – and Mr Hulme thinks people may be staying away out of fear of contracting coronavirus.

‘Double whammy’

“For the last 20 years of my career I’ve been encouraging people not to go to A&E, but I am concerned about this significant fall-off of people not visiting A&E,” he said.

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“I am concerned people are staying at home out of fear, and I understand that.

“They will clearly think there is a lot more coronavirus infection in the hospital than there is in the community, and I don’t think there’s anything to suggest that is true, because we know that there’s an awful lot of undiagnosed Covid-19 out in the community.

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“People are afraid to come to the hospital and afraid to go to their GP or prepared to put up with their illness for perhaps longer than they should.

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“My worry is that those people will become so unwell that they have to come to A&E, and if that happens at the same time as the coronavirus peak, it’s a double whammy really.

“So I would encourage people if they do have genuine concerns about their health that isn’t Covid-19 related, please use 111 use your GP and indeed come to A&E if you think it warrants a visit.

“That’s counter to everything I’ve said for the last 20 years, but I am alarmed by a 60% reduction in A&E attendances, which is unheard of, even on Christmas Day when we tend to see the lowest number of attendances a year, it’s even significantly lower than that.”

Amid concerns raised by workers about conflicting national guidance on protective equipment (PPE), Mr Hulme moved to reassure people that NHS staff working at the trust have sufficient PPE to do their jobs.

MORE: Suffolk NHS worker brands national coronavirus protection advice ‘woefully inadequate’

Staff also have sufficient enhanced protection such as specialist masks, long-sleeved gowns and face masks.

But he did admit there is a limited supply, with masks and visors where the trust could be at greatest risk of running out.

Though local companies and schools are in touch every day, with the army also helping to deliver equipment.

‘Not possible’ to predict when peak will hit

Exactly when the peak will hit Suffolk and Essex cannot be predicted, but a “calm before the storm” atmosphere is being felt at both hospitals, he told the EADT daily podcast.

Of seven NHS regions, the lowest number of Covid-19 infections is in the south west, we in the east are second lowest – but “we know it’s coming” and any peak will depend on social isolating and whether it’s been a success.

Being behind London and having a lower number of infections has meant the trust has been able to prepare.

More than 200 nurses have been upskilled so they can work in intensive care units and healthcare assistants are now better equipped to help on the wards.

The supply of ventilators is currently being controlled centrally which Mr Hulme believes is a good thing, to avoid a “bidding war” with neighbouring regions.

“We are fighting for our corner and making sure we get the right numbers,” he added.

Mr Hulme, who has made headlines by tweeting warnings about social distancing, is concerned about the upcoming Easter weekend.

MORE: ‘Unless you stay at home more people will die’ says hospital chief

He spoke frankly about the reality of the situation, adding: “I’ve seen families in the last couple of weeks who have lost mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, brothers and sisters.

“And it’s devastating. This is a disease that we can beat together.

“Out of all the things we can do at the weekend, we have the ability as a community as society to save the lives of each other in a way that we’ve never had.

“It is irresponsible to flaunt those social distancing rules. Forget about whether or not the police are going to fine you and catch you, it’s about a personal responsibility we need to take which is to stay home to keep ourselves safe, to save lives and protect the NHS.”

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He paid tribute to frontline doctors and nurses but also praised NHS staff who are often “invisible”, such as the IT team, which worked around the clock to install a new system helping people to stay at home and still have access to resources.

He said this is “a really frightening time for anybody, I see the fear in patients, I see the fear in staff” – but we will get through it together.

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