'My nurses are battered and fatigued'

Those are the words of Watford General’s intensive care matron as she reflects on the most "terrifying and difficult" year at the hospital.

Shortly before the UK went into its first lockdown, the hospital rapidly went into the unknown - 'Covid mode' – and 12 months on, staff have yet to fully exit the second wave.

'Tired' hospital staff are clinging onto the hope of the successful vaccination programme hoping they will never face a year like no other again amid a warning from the Prime Minister that a third wave "could wash up on our shores".

Marking the anniversary of the first lockdown, Vicky Houghton, from the intensive care unit (ICU) in Watford, has described the reality of what it’s been like working on the coronavirus frontline.

'The first wave was terrifying'

Watford General Hospital has been one of the regions busiest hospitals battling Covid ever since the pandemic struck last spring.

The hospital was one of the first in the country to record a Covid death, on March 8, when a worshipper at Bhaktivedanta Manor passed away, and sadly, according to NHS data, 904 coronavirus deaths have followed at West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust – the fourth most in the east of England.

Despite the second wave bringing in more than double the number of patients than the spring, Ms Houghton says coping with the first wave of Covid at Watford General was more difficult.

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"We had our first Covid patient in at the end of February. But it was novel at the time – we didn’t know what the impact would be (of this disease)", the matron recalled.

Ms Houghton continued: "Right at the beginning, it happened so quickly. We went overnight into full Covid. In seven days, we went from having one patient to 20, 30 patients with Covid in ICU. It was such an unknown, and we didn’t know how to treat it particularly well. We were networking with our colleagues in London, who were ahead of us in the wave, and 24 hours a day, we were getting new information.

"When we had swine flu back in 2009, that’s as close at his been (comparing pressures of pandemic). But we knew how to treat flu. With Covid, it was a great unknown. It was terrifying and it was also terrifying about catching it."

It was during early April when Watford General began reaching breaking point as a surge of new Covid patients desperately needing medical treatment arrived.

For six weeks, hospital staff – some of whom lost their lives – battled something they had never experienced before, and then it just stopped after the effects of lockdown came in.

Eight months later, Watford and surrounding areas suffered an "exponential rise" in coronavirus cases, and inevitably, this piled pressure on the hospital and its resources.

At its worst, on January 12, the hospital trust was caring for 347 Covid patients, with 26 in ICU in mid-January.

Dr Andy Barlow (left) and Vicky Houghton (right) from Watford General Hospital in January. Credit: ITV

Dr Andy Barlow (left) and Vicky Houghton (right) from Watford General Hospital in January. Credit: ITV

But Ms Houghton believes the first wave still provided the most challenges for her and her despite the huge influx of patients during the second wave.

She said: "The second wave started on Boxing Day and we are obviously still having patients in now.

"The second wave has stretched out longer. But we knew it was coming and we know how to treat it. We had a lot more research and evidence to know how to treat our patients. Although we quickly had admissions, it didn’t feel like the same pressure of first time round. It was still pressured and very weary but we were seeing positives.

"The first wave, just felt like every patient we admitted, we were reacting. Normally we like to be proactive but we didn’t know. The second wave, we did know. In the first wave, our feet didn’t touch the floor. We had people at the door waiting to come in. But quickly it slowed down because effects of lockdown had clicked in. It was like someone turned off the tap. We didn’t have a trickle of patients come through.

"But the toughest thing for us all has been families being unable to see loved ones. That has been really difficult for us to see."

Covid patient Rob Orton has been at Watford General for more than 100 days. Here he is pictured in January. Credit: ITV

Covid patient Rob Orton has been at Watford General for more than 100 days. Here he is pictured in January. Credit: ITV

'One thing Covid has taught us is to be kind'

Ms Houghton is full of admiration for her nurses, both in ICU and out on the wards. She says staff are now "battered and fatigued", but through choice, they’ve kept going to be there for their patients.

"We’re in a better place now as I want to give my nurses as much support as I can. They have been amazing. Some haven’t even seen their families for a year to 18 months."

The matron was also full of praise for the community who have rallied to support hospital stuff, on their "darkest days".

Recalling when Watford General switched into Covid mode, Ms Houghton said: "We couldn’t get (PPE) supplies in quick enough. One of the nurse’s husband is a head teacher and a minibus turned up with goggles and other equipment from a school. They were like just have it. The kindness was incredible. It overwhelms me that people were so amazing."

Since then, staff have been inundated with more PPE donations, gifts, food, letters and more.

In particular, Ms Houghton paid tribute to Watford football club for giving up their stadium to provide staff with the respite they needed.

Hospital staff at Vicarage Road stadium in the spring. Credit: Anthony Matthews

Hospital staff at Vicarage Road stadium in the spring. Credit: Anthony Matthews

She and her colleagues would sit in the stands and look at the green pitch and it was the moment of "calmness" away from the frontline.

"One thing Covid has done is taught people to be kind. A letter is just like wow. Just knowing on those days when we are all down that we get a lovely letter and it perks us all up", Ms Houghton said.