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Retired NHS Medics Who Returned To Covid Frontlines Issue Stark Warning About Second Wave

Aasma Day
·North of England Correspondent, Senior Editor, HuffPost UK
·10 min read

Former NHS staff who came out of retirement to join the frontline to fight coronavirus have warned that hospitals could face an entirely different staffing crisis in the looming second wave.

At the height of the pandemic in Spring, medics worked alongside furloughed staff from other professions including dentists and airline staff, as well as doctors redeployed from routine procedures.

“It is absolute nonsense for the government to say they have got the Nightingale hospitals on standby,” Graham Sabino, a clinical perfusionist, who returned to the frontline told HuffPost UK. “Who is going to staff them?

The NHS’ rallying call in April to former medics to return generated more than 60,000 applications for roles, and within a couple of weeks, they had heard from more than 20,000 health workers. Of these, 9,000 have been deployed so far.

But medics who joined that effort have revealed a second wave of coronavirus is less likely to see as many former and retired staff join the ranks, and that many current NHS workers will struggle to take on more patients.

Sabino, 58, feels “beyond despair” at the current surge in coronavirus rates, and fears there will be “lots more deaths” this winter.

“If things carry on the way they are, I fear we’re going to be in a situation which is as bad as it was in March and April,” he said.

Graham Sabino, a clinical perfusionist who returned to the NHS from retirement to help out during the coronavirus crisis (Photo: )
Graham Sabino, a clinical perfusionist who returned to the NHS from retirement to help out during the coronavirus crisis (Photo: )

Sabino retired from the NHS after 41 years in May last year, and was enjoying time with his grandchildren, holidaying with his wife and playing golf.

But when coronavirus hit, the specialised medic returned to the frontline at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool.

“After retiring, I decided to carry on working one day a week at the hospital to keep my registration active as I did some charity trips abroad to help with heart operations on children and I wanted to still be able to do these,” he told HuffPost UK.

“But when the true scale of how coronavirus was affecting hospitals became apparent, I knew I had to come out of retirement and go back to working for the NHS full-time.”

Graham Sabino, a clinical perfusionist returned to the NHS from retirement to help out during the coronavirus crisis (Photo: Graham Sabino)
Graham Sabino, a clinical perfusionist returned to the NHS from retirement to help out during the coronavirus crisis (Photo: Graham Sabino)

Sabino returned to the NHS as head of department and worked full-time throughout the peak of the crisis before retiring again at the end of August and going back to just doing one day a week.

“When I retired the second time, I jokingly said: ‘Don’t expect me back for the second wave!’ he said.

“But in all honesty, I know I would go back again as I have a skill and a service that is needed.”

I jokingly said: ‘Don’t expect me back for the second wave!’ But in all honesty, I know I would go back again as I have a skill and a service that is needed.” Grahan Sabino, who returned to the NHS from retirement during coronavirus

Sabino, who told HuffPost UK how angry he is at the “shambolic handling” of the coronavirus crisis by the government, added: “Unlike the politicians, people who work or have worked for the NHS actually give a damn about our fellow people.”

The dad-of-three and grandfather-of-three told HuffPost UK that the coronavirus situation is getting serious once again and hospitals in Liverpool are at about 95% capacity.

“In the last few weeks, things have really started to ramp up and the impact is affecting hospitals again,” he said.

“What happened was that we saw an increase in younger people who tested positive for coronavirus. At first, we didn’t see an increase in hospital admissions as younger people were not as badly affected by the virus.

“But now we are getting an older cohort of people who are contracting the virus as all these younger people and university students have parents and grandparents.

“However, I am not blaming the students at all. The blame lies with the government as it has been a disgrace and never got a grip of testing and tracing and spent thousands on systems that haven’t worked.”

We are getting an older cohort of people who are contracting the virus as all these younger people and university students have parents and grandparents. However, I am not blaming the students at all. The blame lies with the government." Graham Sabino, who came out of retirement to help the NHS.

Sabino told HuffPost UK he believes the government should have imposed another national lockdown to get a grip of the infection and he now feels “beyond despair” as he fears there will be “lots more deaths.”

He is also deeply concerned about the staffing situation as he knows the majority of staff who returned to the NHS have now re-retired.

“It is absolute nonsense that they have got the Nightingale hospitals on standby,” he said. “Who is going to staff them?

“The NHS are going to have to get more staff somehow – but I don’t know how they are going to do it and I think they’ll start taking in vastly reduced numbers of non-covid patients.”

Professor Judith Ellis, who ended her 42-year NHS career as chief executive of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, is worried NHS staff are already “weary”, and that the workforce this time around will look different.

Ellis, 60, who trained as a general nurse before going into paediatrics, came out of retirement to work at the temporary Nightingale Hospital in Manchester.

Professor Judith Ellis , who came out of retirement and worked at the Nightingale in Manchester (Photo: NHS Professionals)
Professor Judith Ellis , who came out of retirement and worked at the Nightingale in Manchester (Photo: NHS Professionals)

Although Ellis, from Great Eccleston, Lancashire, retired in June 2018, she was still a registered nurse, as registration lasts for three years. She used her retirement to do more voluntary work in low income countries such as Uganda, Ethiopia and Somalia.

However, when the Covid-19 situation happened and all international travel came to a halt, Ellis told HuffPost UK she watched the crisis unfold and asked herself: “Am I of use to the NHS? Can I offer anything?”

Ellis responded to the call out for former NHS staff to return and admitted her first shift in a general hospital was “terrifying”.

“Clinically, it was a long time since I had nursed adults,” she said. “I remember getting in the car for my first shift and thinking: ‘What am I doing?’

“The shift was challenging as there was no time to find out the background of patients, I couldn’t access IT systems and the drugs were vast and not the same as paediatrics.

“But I survived it and I knew the patients had compassionate care.”

Ellis then saw the Nightingale Hospital in Manchester was advertising for staff and she joined the workforce there and set up and led the family liaison team which communicated with the anxious families of Covid-19 patients.

“Every patient that came in, we made sure we asked their family all about them and we made sure every patient and family had a video call with each other daily.”

Ellis worked at the Nightingale, Manchester for around nine weeks and says there were more than 100 patients admitted over that time, with most of them being in their 80s or older with underlying health conditions as well as coronavirus.

Ellis describes working at the Nightingale as a “phenomenal experience” and that it was an honour to provide care to care for patients affected by Covid-19.

The majority of patients were admitted to the Nightingale for intensive rehabilitation following coronavirus to free up capacity in surrounding hospitals.

Ellis told HuffPost UK she worked alongside volunteer dentists who were not working, furloughed Ryanair staff and university students, as well as current NHS workers who had been diverted there.

The Nightingale Manchester was put on standby in late June and is poised to reopen.

But Ellis says she is concerned about how it will be staffed. “I think it will be a challenge to get these places back up and running,” she said.

“There has been a real drive to get the main NHS running properly again and there will have been lots of situations where people avoided hospitals.

“But last time, a lot of staff from actual hospitals were moved across as they had cancelled regular services. If regular NHS services are running, the question is how will they staff the Nightingales?

“Also, a lot of the people who helped out last time such as dentists and furloughed staff will be working again.”

If regular NHS services are running, the question is how will they staff the Nightingales? Also, a lot of the people who helped out last time such as dentists and furloughed staff will be working again.” Professor Judith Ellis, who returned to the NHS from retirement and worked at the Nightingale, Manchester

Ellis says that if she was called and asked to go back to assist during the second wave of coronavirus, she would say yes. But she said she fears many people are “weary” now and a rallying call to staff to return might not get the same response.

Dr Tijion Esho hadn’t retired from the NHS but left the service where he worked as an aesthetics and plastics surgeon to set up his own private practice.

He is now an award winning cosmetic surgery doctor with clinics in London, Newcastle and Dubai and has been on television on Bodyshockers with Katie Piper and E4’s Body Fixers.

But when the coronavirus pandemic took its hold, Esho filled in his forms to rejoin the NHS in whatever capacity needed as well as offering his private clinics to the NHS free of charge for triage and diagnostic centres.

He spent around six weeks working for the NHS around London during the peak of the crisis, mainly in A&E.

However, since June, his own clinics have re-opened and he has been working 12 to 13 hour days trying to catch up on the backlog at the clinics in Wimbledon, Newcastle and Dubai.

Dr Tijion Esho, a private surgeon who returned to the NHS to help out during the peak of coronavirus (Photo: )
Dr Tijion Esho, a private surgeon who returned to the NHS to help out during the peak of coronavirus (Photo: )

“We have been working flat out and doing extended hours and days to catch up on the backlog and are still very much under that pressure,” he told HuffPost UK.

“If the NHS wanted people to return, it would be much harder this time. Last time, there was a lockdown and everything closed down.

“But now, it is different as we are open and catching up on the backlog from lockdown.

“If there was another complete lockdown, it would be a no-brainer and of course I would return to the NHS.

“However, at the moment, the only way I could do it is outside working hours, but I also need family time with my fiancee and our son who is almost two.

“My beliefs and reasons for wanting to help the NHS are still the same, but the ability to do it is a lot more difficult.”

My beliefs and reasons for wanting to help the NHS are still the same, but the ability to do it is a lot more difficult.” Dr Tijion Esho, a private surgeon who returned to the NHS to help out during the peak of coronavirus

Esho, 39, told HuffPost UK that it was good to return to the NHS and help at a time of crisis. But he described it as a bit “weird” compared to his usual role.

“I was used to telling other people what to do rather than being told what to do. It was like going back to live at your parents’ house when you are grown up!”

NHS Professionals says the 60,000 applications in response to the Stand Up, Step Forward, Save Lives campaign came mainly from nurses, but also from doctors and a wider spread of healthcare professionals than they would ordinarily attract.

A spokesperson for NHS England and NHS Improvement, told HuffPost UK: “There was a tremendous response from former NHS staff who offered to come back when coronavirus hit earlier this year and we are grateful to all of them.

“About half of those who completed our pre-employment process have expressed interest in continuing to offer support in the medium to longer term and we are currently exploring a number of ways in which they might do this.”

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.