The round of applause for health workers has been just the tonic for staff working at the Royal Berkshire Hospital.
At 8pm last night, millions across the country took part in the minute-long sign of appreciation for those in the NHS and other care workers dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
The chief executive of the Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust, Steve McManus, was in Reading town centre at the time and heard the cascade of noise.
“It was just amazing,” he says. “There was loud applause and cheers. It made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
“It is really fantastic to know we have such support in our community.”
And it’s not just polite clapping. Steve says that there has been ‘overwhelming’ gestures over the past few weeks including offers of help from members of the public and donations from businesses.
It goes some way to helping the teams know that their efforts to save lives of those admitted to the hospital with the coronavirus are being appreciated.
This has been something of a whirlwind month for the nation.
On Saturday, February 29, it was confirmed that a staff member of a Woodley infants school had tested positive for the virus – one of the first cases of its kind in the country.
A few days later, a woman in her 70s became the first person in the country to die with the coronavirus. She had been a patient at the Royal Berkshire Hospital and, while she had contracted the virus, she had had underlying health issues.
Since then, the number of cases has soared and the nation has gone from normal life to a near lockdown, with schools, shops, bars, theatres and churches all closed and many of us working from home.
And today, it has been announced that prime minister Boris Johnson and health secretary Matt Hancock have tested positive for Covid-19.
Throughout it all, the health service has to keep calm and carry on, despite knowing that the situation will get worse before it gets better.
Steve says that the RBH is ready, but its work can be helped by people staying at home and avoiding friends or non-immediate family members.
“I’m feeling really good about our team and how they’re coping and preparing for what’s to come,” he says. “We feel well supported by our community.
“We’re also anxious about what’s to come.
“We want to serve our community as best we can and there is one thing that people can do to really help us out: observe the rules on social distancing.”
To help minimise the virus’ spread, the hospital has seen many routine appointments cancelled in a bid to minimise footfall and reduce the risk to the number of people entering the Craven Road site.
Some things are carrying on as normal: those special deliveries in maternity will continue, for example. But, in a bid to further reduce the number of people coming on to the hospital site, some services may be deferred, and others may be moved to alternative private hospital settings.
Children under the age of 12 will no longer be able to go to the RBH as visitors.
And to increase capacity to deal with Covid-19 patients, there are plans to increase intensive care beds to 56 and health managers are in talks with the independent sector to move urgent surgery to private hospitals.
Demand in A&E has seen a fall recently but more needs to be done to ease the pressure on staff and an ‘Ask A&E’ online helpline service is being explored.
More is also being done:
“We have introduced new visitor guidelines which were put in place from last night,” Steve says. “I understand how difficult this will be for the public, but we need to suspend visitors to the Royal Berkshire Hospital.
“There are only three exceptional circumstances where we’ll allow immediate family or carers. They are end of life care, a woman who is in labour can have a birthing partner, and the parent or responsible adult of a child in care.
“We have had to cut footfall in the hospital.”
This has an effect on the site itself: “It’s quite an odd environment,” Steve admits. “It’s quieter now.
“But this has released essential staff to get the training and updated skills for what they need to do.”
This includes training physiotherapists and chest physios to be ready to help patients with coronavirus with their recoveries.
While the normal day-to-day outpatients work has been curtailed, “the emergency teams and the intensive teams dealing with Covid-19 are very busy”.
Steve says that they are getting protective equipment, praising the distribution team who are now working “seven days a week, getting goods to departments and ensuring they are well stocked”.
Despite all the disruption to normal routines, Steve says that the teams are coping well.
“Our team is absolutely outstanding,” he says. “They might be individually anxious and, at times, fearful. They’re coming to work, being put into this environment and then going home and seeing what’s on the news and social media.
“They are balancing professionalism with having anxiety for themselves.
“We are trying to rustle up as much support as we can.”
There have been concerns in recent days over the availability of respirators, needed for those Covid-19 victims who are struggling with breathing. But Steve thinks the hospital is as ready as it can be – there are 39 critical care spaces available.
“We’ve got a very clear plan for available ventilation machines,” he says. “We’re working with national teams to get the equipment we need beyond that; we have some more we can call on.
“In the short term, we have sufficient machines.”
Dealing with Covid-19 is, Steve says, “a marathon, not a sprint”. Indeed, projections suggest that the virus may come back again towards the end of the year.
“We have to maintain the energy to see us through over the months,” he says. “I have a responsibility to make sure that 5,500 staff and volunteers at the Royal Berkshire Hospital can sustain it. I feel that responsibility every day.”
And he also appreciates the efforts that the national teams in government and the NHS have been going through.
“I know the national teams at all levels are working flat out to do the right thing,” he says. “We are feeding back in areas where we have concerns, and our ideas, and we’ve seen them responding to that.”
But right now, Steve wants every reader to follow government guidance to stay at home to save lives – something more important than a clap for carers.
“I can’t stress the fact that we will see the pandemic peak in the UK in the middle of April,” he warns. “The length of that peak and how long that continues is directly related to the public.
“The more they practise social distancing, the faster we can come down from that peak.
“The one thing they can do is comply with these restrictions.”