Hospital boss ‘proud’ of pandemic response

Alan Gurney (inset) is chief executive of Whipps Cross University Hospital in Leytonstone
Alan Gurney (inset) is chief executive of Whipps Cross University Hospital in Leytonstone

Whipps Cross chief executive pays tribute to staff, reports James Cracknell

The boss of Whipps Cross University Hospital has thanked the community for its support during the Covid-19 pandemic and paid tribute to the efforts of NHS staff.

Alan Gurney, chief executive of the Leytonstone hospital, spoke to the Echo about how Whipps had coped over the last few weeks and the challenges that still lay ahead. He said it had been “uncharted territory” for everyone, but that staff had managed to provide the extra capacity needed when coronavirus infections reached a peak in early April.

“We had to restructure the whole hospital,” Alan said, describing how Whipps Cross adapted when the pandemic began. “We knew we had to rapidly expand our critical care capacity – in the end we managed to quadruple it, which was nothing short of immense.”

At the peak, there were around 200 patients being treated at Whipps Cross for Covid-19. Up to 35 intensive care beds were available, although only 29 were occupied at any one time. Before the pandemic there were just eight such beds.

“We had to split our wards into Covid-19 areas and non Covid-19 areas, but we were able to free up beds because we stopped doing a lot of elective operations. We maintained emergency surgeries and a level of cancer surgery. That was really important.

“We had a plan and we knew we had to implement it at pace.”

A key part was providing staff cover. As many as 500 employees – 20% of the total – were forced off work at the peak of the pandemic, either because they or a family member had Covid-19, or because they were deemed a vulnerable person.

“We weren’t able to go out and recruit additional staff, but we brought back those who’d recently retired, as well as bringing in medical students and nursing staff with critical care backgrounds. Other staff such as orthopaedics were redeployed.

“I am so proud of how everyone stepped up to what was needed.”

Alan said employees were able to get tested for Covid-19 when they needed to be and that all wards of the hospital had “adequate” staffing levels throughout the pandemic. NHS Nightingale, the temporary hospital created at the ExCel Centre in Newham solely for treating Covid-19 patients, is being run by Barts Health NHS Trust, the same organisation that runs Whipps Cross. However, only one patient to date has been transferred from Whipps to NHS Nightingale.

A chief criticism of the government’s response has focused on the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for key workers. Last month a porter at Whipps Cross spoke out and claimed the hospital was struggling to provide PPE, with some staff forced to use masks that had passed their expiry dates.

Alan insists there has been sufficient PPE at Whipps throughout the pandemic. He said: “It has been an ongoing challenge, but I am pleased to say we have always had adequate supplies. Sometimes we wondered if we would have enough for the next morning, but we did.

“Protecting staff is a top priority. We have teams working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on procuring PPE.”

The Waltham Forest community has also played a big part, says Alan. “We have been overwhelmed by the community response. It has been phenomenal. We have got a team just managing voluntary contributions – donations of hand cream, food, gowns – the staff have been humbled by the support. I would like to thank everyone who has contributed.

“There is a great community spirit – we are one big family.”

Sadly, Alan confirmed that one worker at Whipps Cross, a doctor who has not been named, died last month after contracting Covid-19. “It rocked the team,” he said.

Although the worst would appear to be over, Alan warned: “There could be a second peak. We are at a stable position now but that is only thanks to the lockdown. We have to monitor it carefully.

“The best thing people can do is continue to stay at home.”

A Covid-19 emergency appeal launched by Barts Charity, supporting Whipps Cross as well as the trust’s other five hospitals, has raised more than £300,000. Among those fundraising has been Ritesh Mistry, an admin clerk at Whipps Cross who raised £750 after having his head shaved. “I want to support our key workers however I can,” said Ritesh. “Staff are working tirelessly.”

Donations can be made at justgiving.com/campaign/barts-charity-NHS-appeal.