'I'm full of dread': Doctors, nurses and cleaners on risking their lives for their job

Many Guardian readers are facing the coronavirus crisis close up, as frontline workers in hospitals, care homes and supermarkets. They describe how they are coping

The accident and emergency doctor

Gus Khan, Greater London
I have been treating coronavirus patients for the past month. A few weeks ago, when we were seeing the odd patient who had come back from China or Italy, we were being very cautious. We put on aprons and gowns and took all the right precautions. Then all of a sudden that stopped.

We have been given flimsy aprons and were told surgical masks were OK rather than the N95 masks we had been using previously. No one has given us a satisfactory explanation for the change. It’s obvious they are in short supply, but nobody wants to admit it. Yesterday, when I went into the “dirty zone”, which is where all the coronavirus patients are, I was told to use the flimsy apron and a surgical mask. That’s like having a piece of paper in front of you to protect you, and I was in there for five hours.

Remember that if we get sick when you get sick, we can’t help you. That’s our biggest concern. We don’t care about ourselves. We worry about your mother, your brother, your father, your sister.

‘I’m usually seen as ice cool, but I’m full of dread and foreboding.’
‘I’m usually seen as ice-cool, but I’m full of dread and foreboding.’ Photograph: shapecharge/Getty Images

I’m usually seen as ice-cool, but I’m full of dread and foreboding. My wife is pregnant, so we are having to live on different floors of our rented house. We have some contact through a glass door. I don’t go into the kitchen in case of contamination. If I need food, my wife leaves it on the stairs for me. There is going to be an epidemic of stress among healthcare workers. There is talk of bringing back 72-hour weeks, and people are terrified. I haven’t felt this way for a very long time.

Procedures have been changing daily and we have been getting information by email. Clinicians are really confused about the pathways for getting people into hospital, and their managers are not being updated with the latest guidelines. We are only seeing a handful of patients at the moment, but we are struggling with the protocols, we are struggling with equipment, we are struggling with staff. Hospital workers will become ill and, when healthcare workers are themselves hospitalised, the service cannot function. When this really hits, it will be like nothing we have ever seen before. I wish I was exaggerating.

The supermarket worker

‘We’ve had to bring in a security guard to help us enforce the limit of two items on every product line.’
‘We’ve had to bring in a security guard to help us enforce the limit of two items on every product line.’ Photograph: webphotographeer/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sheila Greig, Glasgow
I’m 20 and work on the checkout at a Tesco in Glasgow, in one of the smaller stores on the outskirts of the city. I’m a student at the university and have been working there for three years. I’m contracted to work for 10 hours a week, but I have been working about 25 hours a week during the crisis. I was worried that I wouldn’t qualify for sick pay because it only applies to staff who work a minimum of 12 hours, but last week we got a company email to say that if we were ill they were going to pay us regardless of our sick-pay qualification.

It has been unpleasant working here with people breathing over you and having to handle money. The company was slow to put in any safety measures considering we have to touch people’s bags and have high levels of contact with customers. They have given us hand sanitiser but no gloves or mask. I have been starting my shifts 20 minutes early to clean the place where I sit.

The company is taking more measures now. They have put tape around the tills so that people can’t come within a metre of you, but it’s difficult because they have to make card payments and hand over cash, which is hard to do from a metre away. We have got a lot of older customers and you worry about them getting the virus, especially when they are mixing in the store with younger people who may have it without showing symptoms. My mother has loads of health problems, so I have been avoiding seeing her and my gran.

The panic buying has been appalling – we have introduced a limit of two items on every product line. We’ve had to bring in a security guard to help us enforce it. We have had abuse from customers because of the empty shelves and had to put a sign up warning people not to abuse the staff. Some make a joke about it, but there’s a lot of anxiety.

The nurse

Jennifer Hayes, south-east England
I’m a children’s nurse and in the third trimester of my pregnancy. From the beginning we were made to nurse children who we thought might have coronavirus – they were nursed in A&E without a mask and in open bays. It was not taken seriously. Gowns, masks, visors, gloves, handwash and sanitiser are all running low.

We have been split into two wards: a “clean ward” and a “coronavirus ward”, with nurses and doctors moving from one to the other and potentially cross-contaminating. Meanwhile, management are nowhere to be seen and are dictating through email. There have also been cases where children have been admitted who then develop symptoms, so they have to be moved from the clean side to the Covid-19 side. I put these in my incident reports, but I’ve heard nothing back.

Staff in contact with coronavirus patients have been told that self-isolating “does not apply to healthcare workers – if it did there would be none left”. They don’t even want you to self-isolate if you have a family member who is showing symptoms. I am seven months pregnant, but have been told by my managers that pregnant women are not exempt from caring for coronavirus patients. I’ve asked to be reallocated to a safer working environment, but this has been denied.

My mental health is now horrific and my doctor has signed me off sick for two weeks – but the hospital still wants me to go back. I feel they don’t care about me. I’m going on maternity leave soon, and after that I plan to leave. I have lost all respect for the management. If I need anything or I’m in danger, I’m the least of their worries. They just see me as a number.

The care home cleaner

Brian Crowne, Lancashire
I’m 42 and have been working as a cleaner in a care home for two years. I moved up north a couple of years ago, and it was the only job I could get. The home I clean in is for dementia patients, many of whom have very challenging behaviour. The owner of the home is fantastic, and has been working really hard to find out how she can limit the impact of this. Most of the residents are over 70 and if it gets in the house, everyone’s a goner. With all the attention on hospitals, the work going on in care homes to keep the vulnerable safe often gets forgotten.

Lots of the residents here have one-to-one care, so there are many carers coming in. Their temperature gets taken before they enter the building and, if it’s high, they get sent home straight away. If we start losing staff because of illness, it will be exhausting for the ones left because it’s very hard to isolate the residents. Some have to be watched the whole time and would tear the place apart if they were left alone.

I usually clean the bedrooms, but am also working in the communal areas during the crisis. You have to use a second-stage cleaner (cleaning and then sanitising) and make sure you clean every door handle and anywhere likely to be touched, twice. They have very few cleaners, so often I’m there by myself, fighting the invisible man, trying to imagine everywhere that’s being touched, going round and round in circles wiping and rewiping. I’ve got a herniated disc, which is slowing me down, but I’m working a couple of hours more every day and doing weekends. If there’s something I can do, I have to do it to be able to sleep at night. That sounds melodramatic, but these are people who can’t care for themselves and the little bits may matter. I’d like to think society might value cleaners’ jobs more after this, but I don’t suppose it will.

The paramedic

Martin Meadowcroft, south of England
I’m a 53-year-old paramedic practitioner, trained to do things a doctor would traditionally have done. I’m working in an urgent treatment centre – a satellite of the main hospital designed to take the pressure off it and off GPs.

I live alone and am avoiding people as much as I can, because I’m terrified the virus could be on my uniform. I wash my scrubs every day; I wash my hands assiduously; every time I get in and out of my car it’s a risk; if I stop at the shops on the way to work to buy some food, it’s a risk. It’s a pretty sad and lonely life outside of work. It’s stressful being on your own after a long shift. It’s just work and sleep; it’s relentless.

It’s a really strange atmosphere. I would call it a phoney war. We were mobbed until a few days ago and I was working 14-hour days, but now people have stopped turning up, either because they are scared of getting coronavirus here or because they are taking NHS advice not to bring it into a hospital. But we know that is going to change when the confirmed infected numbers begin to rise. Probably the main hospital will cease doing all minor injuries, and we will have to carry the can for that. Plus, the population panics more and wants to be seen and reassured, so we’ll get a lot more people coming in.

The GPs in this area are now doing only telephone and online consultations, so we are taking all the risks right now. If you come in with a broken wrist but you have also got coronavirus, we still have to treat your broken wrist. We ask people at reception if they have any coronavirus symptoms and, if they do, they are seated in a separate area and given a mask. If the triage nurse then thinks you have coronavirus, we are warned and don full PPE [personal protective equipment] while we examine and treat that patient.

I used to work in Africa but became ill with something viral that destroyed my pancreas, so now I’m very high-risk myself. If I get coronavirus, I’m in a lot of trouble. That’s makes doing this job very worrying for me, but your sense of duty and pride in the NHS kick in. We are pulling together and looking after one another. We have got WhatsApp groups so we can keep an eye on each other. You’re not fighting for king and country. You’re fighting for the man stood next to you in the trench.

The teacher

Jing Li, Bristol
I teach maths at a secondary school in Bristol. My mother is Chinese and at the very beginning, when the coronavirus was first breaking in China, she came to the UK to look after my son. She had recently had surgery for lung cancer and was wearing a mask – less because of the virus than because she found it very cold in the UK. But a man passed her in the street and shouted to her: “We don’t wear that in England.”

She was upset and so was I, because I didn’t think the fact she was wearing a mask should have bothered anybody. It was her choice. A lot of my Chinese friends have had similar experiences to my mother, and I’ve heard racist language been spoken to Chinese kids about the virus.

My mother and son are both coughing, so I’m self-isolating at the moment. I was working up till the final week before my school was closed, by which time you could feel people were worried. More and more staff and students had stopped coming in. Even though my school has now closed, I may have to go back to teach the children of keyworkers and children with special needs. I would be very worried if I did have to go back, especially with my mother being in a high-risk health category.

In the UK there is a reluctance to wear masks. People don’t think they are useful. But something has to be done. Otherwise we are risking our lives to look after the kids. The school needs to help us teach safely. This is something we all have to get through together.

Names have been changed and ages have been withheld to prevent identification


Stephen Moss

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Is the UK government ready for a Covid winter?
A scientific report in July made several recommendations to avoid a resurgence. We look at the government response

Haroon Siddique

18, Sep, 2020 @11:25 AM

Article image
A tribute to key workers and those lost to Covid | Letters
Letters: Readers on how to memorialise the thousands who have died in the pandemic and healthcare workers who risk their lives


22, Mar, 2021 @5:20 PM

Article image
Foreign NHS workers are risking their lives for us – and paying for the privilege | Nesrine Malik
They are battling on the coronavirus frontline but still liable for the NHS surcharge, says Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik

Nesrine Malik

19, Apr, 2020 @2:00 PM

Article image
‘I’m wearing a face mask’: how doctors deal with the coronavirus risk in their daily lives
What should we all be doing to stop coronavirus from spreading? High-profile medics on how they have changed their everyday routine

As told to Sirin Kale

10, Mar, 2020 @10:00 AM

Article image
Doctors and nurses are dying for lack of equipment. Is Johnson up to this? | Gaby Hinsliff
In 1915 a shortage of shells for soldiers brought down the government. A century on, the prime minister faces a similar challenge, says Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff

Gaby Hinsliff

02, Apr, 2020 @2:47 PM

Article image
Joven Flores worked long hours in a care home. Was he too rundown to survive Covid?
He came to the UK from the Philippines to create a good life for his family, but his job was demanding and relentless. Should he and other migrant workers have been better protected?

Sirin Kale

20, Apr, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Myths and realities of public sector pay hikes
Letters: George Binette says less than a quarter of workers will benefit, while Vic Rayner decries the fact that care home staff have been forgotten and Angela Pickering believes the headlines are just government spin. Plus Marc Boix Codony, a consultant neurologist, is clear where the money should go – and it’s not to him


24, Jul, 2020 @3:17 PM

Article image
Covid vaccine take-up lower among health workers, says Hancock
The health secretary said 80% of NHS staff received jabs, compared with 90% of those in top four age groups

Peter Walker Political correspondent

15, Feb, 2021 @9:48 AM

Article image
Prince William and Kate speak of coronavirus impact on NHS staff
Duke and Duchess of Cambridge say daily stress of helping critically ill patients is not normal

Caroline Davies

17, Apr, 2020 @8:11 AM

Article image
Why shut nurses out of decision-making? | Letter
Letter:Jane Salvage, a fellow of the Royal College of Nursing, asks why nurses have been rendered invisible in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic


27, May, 2020 @4:55 PM