On the frontline: essential workers keeping the country running
Thursday night at 8pm, all around the country people will be outside their front doors or at their open windows clapping, banging saucepans, maybe even playing bagpipes, to celebrate and thank NHS staff for the work they’re doing.
In the space of just a few weeks it has become a new tradition, the norm to clap for NHS workers.
But while NHS staff are certainly going above and beyond, working long hours and risking their health, and even their lives, there are many others in the country for whom working from home is not an option and without whom the country could not go on.
There are those at every stage of the food supply chain, from farmers and fishermen, to those working in processing and packaging, transport and deliveries to retail; other areas of manufacturing and retail too; those working in utilities and trades, from gas, electricity, water and broadband to plumbers, electricians, central heating engineers and car mechanics.
There are those in the emergency services and armed forces, police, fire and rescue, coastguard and lifeboats; the bus drivers, train drivers, taxi drivers, ferry crew and port workers, pilots, cabin crew and airport staff; the posties, vets, dentists, banks, laundrettes, petrol stations, call centre staff, prison officers, court officers, funeral directors, journalists and pharmacists.
Out there too are many council staff whose work cannot be done at home, from those working in housing and welfare services to binmen, as well as the many in the voluntary sector in areas such as domestic abuse, homelessness and foodbanks.
There are the social workers and social care workers, in care homes and out in the community still visiting people at home.
And of course, there are many in the health sector who have had less attention than doctors and nurses, the receptionists, cleaners, pathologists, those carrying out the COVID-19 testing and those working in research in universities and hospitals trying to find solutions to the virus pandemic.
All are facing different challenges, some with staffing, others with availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) and others with carrying out the job at all while also social distancing or wearing PPE.
Holyrood spoke to some of the different sectors about what working life is like for them just now.
Stornoway-based road haulage company D. R. Macleod is responsible for delivering around 90 to 95 per cent of the goods that arrive in the Western Isles, serving companies such as Tesco, Co-op, Iceland, Spar, Boots and Superdrug, as well as collecting goods on the islands for transportation to the mainland and road haulage for the construction industry.
The company has around 120 staff, mainly lorry drivers, at its bases in Stornoway, Uist, Inverness and Glasgow.
“It’s a game of two halves, really,” D. R. Macleod tells Holyrood when asked how the business is going.
“What I mean is the food-related side of things, essential foodstuffs – and we’re carrying livestock feed as well, animal feed – that side of the business is still busy, but the general haulage side of it is effectively come to a complete standstill over the course of the last fortnight because naturally with everybody having to stay at home, all the contractors who were working on various jobs locally, such as there’s a major new care home getting built in Stornoway and a new housing scheme beside that, so that basically the job is come to a stop.”
So far the company has managed to keep on its full-time staff, although it had to let go of agency and part-time workers and those who are still working have had to do jobs they wouldn’t normally be doing, but the nature of the work has meant social distancing is not too much of a problem.
“The nature of our job kind of involves that anyway because the life of long-distance lorry driver is a solitary one,” says Macleod.
The one struggle though, which he hasn’t heard from his own drivers but has been raised within in the industry, is the sudden lack of toilet facilities on the road.
“Apparently a lot of the basic services won’t be available to them, whether that be in public rest areas or whatever, have been basically taped off, closed up and they’ve been having difficulty accessing basic toilet facilities…
[That] is something that’s been reported to us through the trade association, that particularly say, for example, if we go into distribution centres and we’re picking up goods and they would normally have public toilet facilities, I think a lot of these places and even supermarkets have been closing off their public toilets.”
“We’re having to continue to see the emergency cases that happen,” says Lara Wilson, lead veterinary surgeon at the Vets Now animal hospital in Glasgow.
“So the sort of things we’re seeing is we’re still unfortunately seeing wounds from dog fights. We’re still seeing cats and dogs that have been hit by cars, vomiting, bad bouts of diarrhoea and on a number of occasions, cases that would normally have been picked up earlier, but the clients maybe will have delayed going in because of the situation, so something that could have been less difficult before by the time it’s presented to us can be quite hard to manage…
“We’re seeing things like heart problems, respiratory problems and age-related disease as well and pets just coming to the end of their lives, cats with blocked bladders that aren’t able to urinate, you know, lots of things that are still going on as normal despite the COVID-19 situation.”
The vets have had to “very significantly” change the way they work, with staff divided into three teams “that should never meet”.
“Each team will manage the hospital for three or four days and see all the emergency cases… we run the hospital 24/7 as one team and then hand over to a different team.
“And in terms of how we’re managing the clients, for our protection but for their protection as well, we’re generally not bringing them into the building at all.
“We’re taking the patients from them outside, taking histories and then doing our consultation over the phone rather than in person… Then if we are having people into the building [which they would do, for example if a pet needs to be put down], we’re wearing PPE, so that there’s not a risk of passing infection between them and us.”
But Wilson is keen that if people are worried about their pets, they should still speak to their vet.
“Their vets will have somebody covering for emergencies and they shouldn’t hold off calling. There’s always somebody there to be able to get advice and help if it’s needed. Just because you pick up the phone, it doesn’t mean you’re going to have to go into the vets.”
Pharmacists are on the frontline of dealing with health problems, and even more so since GP practices stopped allowing walk-in appointments. There have been long queues, and in some cases, anger and abuse towards pharmacists.
Jonathan Burton runs Right Medicine Pharmacy on the university campus in Stirling. He is also chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in Scotland.
He tells Holyrood: “My workload has not been nearly as heavy as some of my colleagues out in communities that have got larger elderly populations, larger high-risk individual populations, but effectively what hit community pharmacy in the last few weeks has been… completely unprecedented prescription volume, and that really was driven by human behaviours.”
This, he says was caused by an understandable response to the situation for people to “batten down the hatches” and make sure they had supplies of everything, but it had a very serious effect.
“It was literally like a tidal wave that that hit GP practices and community pharmacies, just the sheer volume of prescriptions.
“On certain days it might have been four or five times what we’re used to dealing with.
“And, of course, what happened at the same time was that we started to see the early signs of [staff] having to self-isolate or develop symptoms, so you’re caught in the perfect storm of having more work to do but potentially less resource to deploy to do that work.”
Burton experienced this himself four weeks before the interview when the university medical practice closed its busy walk-in morning clinic.
“Overnight, I became the only walk-in point of access available locally. So when we opened our doors, we literally had a queue of patients around the corner, not with prescriptions but wanting a consultation because they couldn’t get into the GP practice.
“And about a quarter of the people that I saw in the first hour had symptoms that warranted isolation. And at that point, there was no talk of PPE, we just didn’t know what we were dealing with.”
The feedback they are getting now is that things are getting better – although there are challenges with working in PPE in small pharmacies – but Burton has two key messages for the public: not to go to a pharmacy if they have coronavirus symptoms and not to stockpile medicines.
“The system works well if we order what we need when we need it. The supply chain struggles when we all try and get a little bit more a little bit sooner than what we need it.”
Scottish Water staff are out and about working to maintain the water supply, deal with sewer blockages and prevent pollution and flooding, with a few modifications to working practices, such as one person per van, social distancing and staggered breaks where staff are working on the same site.
Laboratories team manager Angela Dignan describes some of the changes in the company’s Inverness testing laboratory.
“To quote someone in the team, they see the scientist role as the ‘doctor or nurse’ of the water cycle. I feel this is a very accurate description and I have never appreciated the role our team carries out more than now.
“We are only really still beginning this, and the importance of our work will only grow as we prepare to contend with higher levels of absence throughout scientific services.
“The major challenge we face is to keep our teams in the laboratory at a safe distance. Our working space was not originally set up with social distancing in mind – but the specialised analysis we do can’t be carried out from home.
“We had to act fast, going from a very busy environment with everyone working either from 8am until 4pm or from 12noon until 8pm, we now have three teams that should not see each other.
“We have agreed new working arrangements stretching from 6am right through to 10pm, with only one team allowed in a lab at a time.
“Changes have been made to the reception area where samples are received too, with access now closed to all but essential people.
“We have really stretched the team by asking them to do this, however every single person was willing to do what they could to get through this.”