Derbyshire key workers share their experiences of the coronavirus
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Across Derbyshire we continue to be indebted to key workers across many sectors. Here, we talk to six of them about their experiences.
Derbyshire’s eerily empty towns and villages and its unpopulated hills and dales are testament to the obedience of its people in staying home for the past few weeks. But that wouldn’t have been possible without the army of people who have continued to go to work in the city and county and whose jobs we have, in many respects, often taken for granted.
We pay tribute here to some of these local heroes and heroines. A critical care nurse on the front line at Chesterfield Royal Hospital, Erin Allen only qualified last September and chose to work in an area she could never have imagined would get so busy and attract so much attention. This really was coming in at the deep end, she tells Derbyshire Life.
Kate Birch, a care home manager in Shirebrook, has so far managed to keep the home free from Covid-19 and intends to do all in her power to see it stays that way - something that entails a great deal of sacrifice on her part and that of her staff in what she describes as their extended family.
There’s Colin Swindell, a postman walking the empty streets, driving through deserted rural villages and often being the only friendly face an isolated person may see in a day. Others, like shop worker, Kerry Benfield, have also found themselves playing a very different role as they take shopping to those who have previously been able to do it themselves.
Meanwhile, deliveries have become important in all our lives and Derby businessman Tom Sharp is proud of the essential service his couriers are providing.
And what’s it like to be a policeman at a time when the law is one thing and the Government advice is another? Sergeant Mark Church and his Safer Neighbourhoods team have been at the thick of it all, with normal policing going on at the same time as the crisis.
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‘Grit’ is a word often applied to Derbyshire people: something to do with the stone and the Edges, perhaps, and a resilience that comes from the trades and crafts that are plied across our county. It seems particularly appropriate in some of the instances here.
Critical care nurse - Chesterfield
Erin Allen could not have foreseen that just six months after starting work as a critical care nurse at Chesterfield Royal Hospital, she would find herself in the middle of a pandemic. She qualified in September last year, and having enjoyed a placement in critical care, applied for a job on the unit and got it.
12.5-hour shifts in the heavy protective equipment can be uncomfortable and hot: breaks are an oasis. Her world is daunting to the outsider - which of us isn’t in awe at the panoply of machines and monitoring that surrounds very sick patients? ‘It is a bit scary when you come on to a unit like this,’ Erin acknowledges. ‘But you get loads of support, which is lovely. I was thrown in the deep end really, as this wasn’t expected, so it’s been quite a journey.
‘It’s been really difficult emotionally and physically. You just don’t know what you’re going to walk into. We all help each other emotionally – work has been like an extended family and we have all just been there for each other.’
Some Covid-19 patients are anaesthetised on ventilators. Others are conscious, and for these, the agony is compounded by not being able to see their families. ‘We talk to them on the phone and if patients are conscious, they have been Facetiming. You can see them brightening up when they can see their families on their phones,’ Erin says warmly. A good day on the ward is when the staff see patients getting better, and the slowing-down of admissions has been good to see.
For herself, yes, she does get anxious and so does her partner. They have a three-year-old at home. ‘We try to relax but it is hard to shake it off sometimes,’ she says. She doesn’t watch the news as it happens anymore: the updates are enough. Days off are for shopping and exercise and she tries to keep up with running and cycling. ‘I think it’s the not knowing how long it’s going to be like this. It does get very surreal,’ she concludes.
Shop assistant - Darley Dale
Kerry Benfield works in her local shop, Go Local Extra, in Darley Dale. Small stores, in common with supermarkets, had to rapidly adjust to a new way of working under lockdown, and their staff found themselves even more at the heart of the Derbyshire community as people began to self-isolate and could no longer go out to shop for themselves.
‘We have quite a few regulars who’ve had to isolate and haven’t had family round them. They’re quite vulnerable, so we’ve been delivering to them, which has been really good,’ says Kerry. ‘They’re missing coming into the shop and they’re missing the company, so when we turn up, they love a chat on the doorstep – at a distance, of course.
‘We have one old lady who is quite vulnerable, but she won’t stay in. I tell her she really shouldn’t be here, but she says she just loves looking round and having a chat, so all we can do is tell her to look after herself.’ Some come out of their houses and others stand in the window and wave when the delivery comes – ‘Five of them in one window on one day. That was lovely,’ says Kerry.
In the shop itself, it’s been busier than Christmas on some days. Customers have had to get used to staying behind the lines and following a one-way system that irks those who ‘just want to get a chocolate bar and go straight to the till’, but most have been very accepting of the measures. Stocks are good but ‘flour has been flying off the shelves’ as everyone in Darley Dale appears to be baking more, even Kerry – ‘And I never bake,’ she says in wonder.
Perspex screens, masks, hand sanitiser and the rest have become a way of life and what they have noticed in this local shop, she observes, is the gratitude of customers: ‘As the weeks have gone on, people thank you for working as they go out of the shop. They say thanks for staying open, and that’s really nice to hear.’
Care home manager - Shirebrook
For Kate Birch, manager of Richmond Care Home at Shirebrook, it is a matter of pride that the home has had, to date, no cases of Covid-19. ‘It isn’t coming in here,’ she says determinedly. ‘We keep saying that to each other every day.’ If it did, the home is prepared for it, even to having enough PPE. ‘As soon as the virus was knowledge, our director, Hanif Ladhani, really stepped up and started buying it, so we have enough stock and an emergency stock as well,’ she says. Preparations have included stringent measures to social distance, a complex thing in a home for 35 residents, some with dementia.
‘Sometimes it’s easier for those who don’t realise their relatives aren’t visiting,’ she says. ‘We’re a family here: we call ourselves an extended family. They’re happy to come to us for a cuddle. We can’t social distance from them: if they want to hold our hands, they hold our hands.
It’s all a work in progress and we are doing the best we can in this situation.’ With no one from outside accessing the home, staff come straight to work from home and go straight home from work. The 35 staff members have embraced duties other than their own: it’s a boon that one of them is a qualified hairdresser. Some families visit through the window and a Facebook portal allows for such things as church services with residents and family members.
The mass of guidelines is ‘a minefield’ and the precautions to be taken exhaustive. High-touch areas are thoroughly cleaned every two hours. Kate and her staff are gratified by the many donations and offers of help from family members and others, and staff morale is high. ‘Some nights I don’t sleep very well, to be honest; sometimes I wake up and fear coming to work for what’s going to meet me.
‘But we put our big girl pants on and get on with it. I love my residents. It’s very rewarding just to see a smile and think you’ve done something good for them.’
Postal worker - Elton
Colin Swindell can walk up to ten miles a day on his rounds as a postman. One day he can be in Wirksworth or Matlock, another in Elton or Winster, and his favourite round is Riber, which takes in parts of Holloway. ‘It’s beautiful when you’re on the top by Riber Castle, though it’s also the worst round in winter when it’s icy,’ he says cheerfully.
He left retail four years ago to become a postman. ‘At the moment we’re really appreciated. People are loving getting cards and messages from grandchildren they’re not seeing – it’s very different from the times when you would go up someone’s drive and they’d say, ‘You only ever bring me bills.’ Now we’re the people who keep them connected.’
Personalised mail is up, franked business mail is down and there are more handwritten envelopes in the pillar boxes emptied on the rounds. ‘But it’s strange,’ he concedes. ‘We’ve kind of accepted that the new normal is a wave and a thumbs-up through the window when we leave a parcel, rather than the knock on the door and a hand-over. ‘You get round a lot quicker but it’s a very strange environment, like something out of an end-of-the-world movie. It’s a very eerie atmosphere that makes you feel very much on your own when you’re out there. It’s almost a novelty now when you see people, and when you do, it’s a quick hello and how are you and we make our way onwards.’
Sanitiser, rubber gloves, and masks if they want them, are part of everyday life for Colin and his colleagues now. He can touch 500 letterboxes in a single day and as he says, ‘You can’t scratch your nose once you’ve put the gloves on…’
At the end of the day, he says, you’ve just got to do your best. ‘My son is two-and-a-half, and we do talk about what I could be bringing home. I’m concerned for my own wellbeing and my family’s, but I’m happy at work. I’m out and about and people do love the reassurance of a wave at the window.’
Police sergeant - Shirebrook
Mark Church has been in the police force for 26 years, 20 of them as a sergeant. He’s currently a Safe Neighbourhoods sergeant based at Shirebrook, knows the north-eastern region of Derbyshire very well and loves working in the community – ‘I really get a kick out of the neighbourhood side of things,’ he says.
In normal times, his team might pick up 70 incidents a week of anti-social behaviour. These would likely include teenagers on the street. But the lockdown saw that figure rise to 267, many of them ‘people thinking they’re trying to do the right thing but reporting neighbours for being out of the house twice… but it comes in as a job and we have to deal with it.’
Leaving the house just once a day for exercise was for a long time the advice but not the law, and the police have had to manage the public’s expectations. ‘We have to explain it’s not something we can enforce,’ Mark says. ‘British policing is by consent. We’re very much encouraged to engage, explain and encourage, and happily, about 95% of the public want to work with us.’
Derbyshire Police had some ‘interesting’ coverage at the start of the lockdown, he says with a smile. ‘I think the Chief Constable was doing the best he could at that time: you’d look at people queuing for ice-creams and we didn’t do much more than say, just think. We want people to be happy and get through this like the rest of us.’ It can all be worrying, he acknowledges, especially for those with families at home. ‘We have PPE to wear when we think we need it, but we have had members of the team going into households where they say they have Covid.’ And he, emphasises, ‘We really want to get the message out that anyone who is a victim of domestic or child abuse does not have to stay in their house.
‘Our officers are really alert to that, because we haven’t got that safety net of teachers reporting things. Please give us or the helplines a call. That’s something really close to my heart.’
Courier director - Derby
Tom Sharp is one of the second generation of owners of a delivery business that started 30 years ago with a courier on a motorbike. One of the founding members of the APC parcel industry network, the delivery territory of Derby Express Couriers extends north almost to Buxton and south to Burton, and the company has never been so busy.
‘The biggest shift we’ve seen is the increase in business-to-home delivery rather than business-to-business. It’s now 80:20, an increase of between 60 and 70% of what we used to do before the crisis,’ he says. ‘Typically, we’d have 2,500 parcels through our depot on a Monday night for shipping nationwide. Presently we have between 4,000 and 5,000.’
He can’t speak highly enough of his staff, the majority of whom have been with the company for more than five years. It’s a far cry, he says, from the harrowing depiction of delivery drivers in Ken Loach’s hard-hitting film, Sorry we Missed You. ‘They’re very good at what they do,’ he says unequivocally. ‘We don’t overburden them – they do between 50 and 60 drops a day.’
Work practices have undergone drastic change. Most depot-based employees are working from home and the remaining workforce are successfully socially distanced. ‘We’re keeping the circle tight with no outsiders coming on site. It’s second nature now,’ Tom says.
‘The workforce we have is incredibly robust. They’re delivering on average 1,000 more parcels a day than normal. If we’re delivering to people at home they’re not going out. In that respect, we’re an essential service, and proud of it.’