Four weeks ago, I downed tools at the private clinic I own, called Skin Aesthetics, and rejoined the NHS workforce on Accident & Emergency at a south London hospital. It was gearing up for an influx of coronavirus patients and I wanted to be there to help.
We weren’t far into the crisis, but the problems were already stark – staff and equipment were in short supply. I watched as A&E was slowly taken over by Covid-19 cases. One patient came in with suspected bleeding from the bowel, but the resus bays were taken up with Covid-19 queries, so I had to see him in a nearby assessment area.
On an almost daily basis, there were reports of colleagues falling ill and going into self-isolation. The hospital started testing symptomatic staff a few days ago, but it has already reached capacity so it is now prioritising those who work on the frontline and in intensive care.
In part, this could be because it doesn’t have enough protective equipment – a problem worsened by theft. After two boxes of face masks went missing in one day, we have had to lock them in the medicine cupboard to keep them safe. Other London hospitals report people stealing hand sanitiser, while toilet paper is also a target.
The main gap is in Covid-19 testing kits. Without rapid testing, it is hard to protect staff and patients from asymptomatic coronavirus cases. Our current test takes 48 hours – in that time, the whole hospital could be infected. To try and fix this, I personally ordered 500 Covid-19 rapid test kits, validated in China as effective, that can test for an immune response to the virus in 10 minutes. I spent thousands of pounds on the kits, which I planned to sell to colleagues at a cost price of around £25, so they could test themselves and their families. The Government has since announced that it has bought 3.5 million similar antibody tests, but it is not clear when these will become available.
Then, last week, I developed a fever and a dry cough. I cancelled my shifts and went into self-isolation while I waited for the tests to arrive. In a way, it was a relief to think I had Covid-19 – getting immunity at this early stage would allow me to be at the hospital as things escalate.
The test is quite fiddly – you take a prick of blood from your finger, add a few drops of buffer solution and wait for a line to appear. It is similar to a pregnancy test, but I am concerned people without medical experience will find the test difficult to use.
My reading came back negative. I am disappointed because I was so convinced my symptoms fit Covid-19 and wanted to be able to return to work feeling less anxious. It is difficult to know whether I should stay at home, where I am safe, or go back to work, where I am putting my family’s life at risk.
At home, my husband and I have agreed that we won’t send our children, aged three and six, to school under the government scheme, but will share their care. It is too high risk – if one child in the group has the virus, they will pass it to all the children and their key worker parents, worsening the crisis in hospitals.
When I come home from a long shift, exhausted, my kids are no longer allowed to jump up at me, because I am worried the virus could be on my clothes. Limiting affectionate contact with them is difficult, as I normally hug them all the time.
My mum is scared I will get coronavirus. It is almost inevitable that I will, but I don’t want to give it to my family.
That said, I can’t just sit at home, I have a professional duty to do.
So tonight, after seven days of isolation, I am returning to the hospital. It is a different place from when I left – A&E is now classified as ‘amber’ and staff are advised to wear masks all the time.
As told to Cara McGoogan