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London’s largest health trust will likely not fully resume routine operations until April because staff need time to “recover psychologically” from the trauma of caring for COVID patients during the second peak of the pandemic.
Dame Alwen Williams, group chief executive of Barts Health Trust, said critical care staff working in the areas worst hit by the virus were reporting “high levels” of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and teams of phycologists have been brought in.
The trust, which runs five hospitals including Whipps Cross in Leytonstone, cancelled routine planned operations in late December and staff were redeployed to critical care units as the COVID-19 crisis escalated in the capital.
Now admissions are starting to slow due to lockdown measures, it is planning to resume these services.
However, Dame Alwen told the area’s Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee last week that it would be a slow process.
She said: “It is a very difficult tension to hold because on the one hand you can see the needs of the staff. On the other hand, we can see the needs of our patients that really need to be treated and brought in.
“The judgements we take on this are going to be key. If we go too fast then clearly staff may go off sick.
“We do know that staff working in critical care are self-reporting relatively high levels of PTSD.
“That is not saying they have a clinical diagnosis but in the next few weeks we need to give people rest, to give them opportunity for access to psychological support, to go back to their home teams and start to build those working relationships, debriefing and counselling.
“The health and wellbeing offer in the NHS is now much better than it was 12 months ago. We have now got psychologists in the organisation who are totally focussed on staff. We now have a team of psychologists who are working with staff who team leaders can access and bring into their teams.”
Admissions to intensive care wards in east London have slowed dramatically since the peak of the second wave in January.
Barts is currently caring for 427 in-patients with COVID-19, compared to almost 900 at the beginning of January.
Dame Alwen added: “In terms of the blueprint for resuming elective surgery, that is what we are working through.
“If critical care continues to decline at one per cent a day and what can we factor in in terms of rest and recuperation, covering annual leave for staff, then that is starting to give us a picture.
“We think it is likely to be early March for some [operations] but limited, then gradually into March and April we will start to resume.”