Our lives are becoming more ‘normal’, but behind the scenes an army of professionals is working to stop a second wave of Covid
Shops are open, hairdressers fully booked and beer gardens will soon be packed… our lives are becoming fun again.
But behind the scenes, an army of trained healthcare experts is working diligently to prevent a second wave of infection sweeping across Britain. NHS Test and Trace is tasked with finding out who anyone with coronavirus had been in contact with before they were diagnosed. These people are then texted, emailed or called, and asked to self-isolate for 14 days to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Here, we talk to some of the health professionals behind the invaluable service and one woman who self-isolated on hearing her friend had tested positive for the virus.
At first it appeared to be a routine case – someone had tested positive for coronavirus and Atif Hussain was trying to establish who they’d been in contact with.
But then the conversation suddenly became more serious. ‘
It came to light that two weeks prior, they’d had 24 to 36 hours of a very high temperature and sore throat,’ says the NHS Clinical Contact Caseworker. ‘However, they thought that with coronavirus you had to have a cough, so didn’t think anything to it.’
But 32-year-old Atif, normally a locum optometrist, knew differently, and realised the person had potentially been spreading the virus for more than a fortnight. The question was – where?
‘I asked about what they did and realised they were working in a homeless shelter.’
The potential for harm was huge, so Atif immediately alerted bosses, who closed and disinfected the shelter and warned everyone connected to it to get tested. Without NHS Test and Trace, Atif believes they’d never have realised the potential dangers.
‘Without the telephone service, we wouldn’t have identified that person had potentially put others at risk unknowingly. They didn’t think their symptoms were significant but, as healthcare professionals, we know there’s a wide variety of symptoms.’
Being able to help and prevent a second wave of infection was one of the reasons Atif, from Rochdale, signed up.
‘I thought I could put my skills to use. On a day-to-day basis, I have to deal with things that are as serious – I have to tell someone they won’t be able to drive or are losing their sight – so I’m comfortable having difficult conversions.’
After around a week’s training, Atif began his new job in mid-May.
‘I’ve had a range of interesting cases – no two calls are the same,’ he says. ‘I’ve come to realise that this service is offering a lot more than tracing contacts. We’ve managed to help people in different ways.’
A lot of the call can be spent making sure the infected person is OK and advising them on what support is available. ‘For many, we’re the first port of call after they’ve been tested, so they have a range of questions about what they can and can’t do, or concerns about family members.’
Atif uses ‘memory jogging’ techniques to help people remember what they’ve done, including checking receipts and social media posts.
While his heart may sink if someone may have unknowingly infected many others, it’s the help he can offer that means the most.
‘It’s not just about contact tracing’
When Sarah Hartle finally qualified as a dental hygienist earlier this year after two years’ hard study, it should have been the beginning of a whole new career for her.
But it wasn’t. Because the 34-year-old discovered the good news on March 23 – the day the UK went into lockdown – and all her potential work dried up.
‘I had nothing, no means of earning,’ says Sarah, from Manchester. ‘Then I got an email from the professional dental council, asking for healthcare professionals to join the virtual frontline.’
So she signed up as an NHS Test and Trace Clinical Contact Caseworker, calling those who have been diagnosed with coronavirus.
‘There’s not a typical day,’ says Sarah, who works eight-hour shifts. ‘They’re all so different, and need different types of help.
‘One of my first cases was a poor mum, whose whole family had coronavirus. She’d had symptoms and everyone else tested positive for it – the dad, a toddler and a baby. Her partner couldn’t get out of bed he was so ill, and the whole family was struggling.
‘She was convinced she had given it to all of them and felt so bad about it. She was so emotional and just needed some support.
‘I told her it was OK that the whole family wasn’t having proper meals – and that just grabbing something to keep them going was fine during this time.’
Sarah quickly learned she wasn’t simply there to trace people’s contacts, but to provide practical and emotional support, too.
‘An elderly lady, who lived on her own, took about ten minutes to answer the phone as she had to get herself out of bed. When she finally did, she was so out of breath and coughing, I thought we might have to call an ambulance.’
Thankfully, it wasn’t needed, although a sympathetic ear was.
‘She simply hadn’t been anywhere, so could not have passed on the virus,’ says Sarah. ‘Our call became much more about reassuring her that everything was going to be OK.
‘It’s times like that when you know you’re really making a difference with this role.’
Sarah has also had to support a new mum who tested positive for coronavirus just before she gave birth, and another woman who wanted a call every day because it made her feel better. ‘Doing this role has opened my eyes to what is going on. It really hits home when you hear the suffering that’s going on in households. It stays with you.
‘But I know that what I’m doing is a valuable job, and I’m enjoying being able to help.’
‘The contract tracer was friendly and reassuring’
When Emily heard her phone ring as she was cooking dinner one evening in May, she had no idea of the impact it would have on her life.
The caller, from NHS Test and Trace, told the 25-year-old events manager she’d recently been in contact with someone who’d come down with coronavirus and had she to self-isolate for two weeks.
‘I was in shock, especially as I’d been sensible and followed Government social-distancing guidelines,’ says Emily. ‘But the contact tracer was professional, friendly and reassuring, and put me at ease.’
While they wouldn’t tell her the name of the infected person – the service is confidential – they did run through the symptoms she should be on the lookout for, including a new, continuous cough, a fever or loss of taste or smell.
‘Later, a friend I’d had a picnic in the park with a few days earlier – sitting two metres apart – rang to say she’d been diagnosed with the virus, and had passed on my details,’ says Emily.
Living alone in London, she found self-isolating difficult. ‘I suffer from anxiety, so I was worried both about developing coronavirus, and being alone for 14 days.
‘My family and friends supported me with grocery deliveries to my door and daily video calls to check on my wellbeing and suggestions for new hobbies. I couldn’t have done it without them.
‘Having a routine helped, too. Every morning I got up and did some exercise, from Joe Wicks to a YouTube yoga session. I’ve never been fitter! I cooked new recipes, baked bread and signed up to do my first ever online course.
‘A few days after the initial call, I received a text from NHS Test and Trace, reminding me of the advice I had been given and the importance of self-isolating. I found that contact reassuring.’
Emily didn’t develop coronavirus, and the friend who had tested positive only suffered mild symptoms and quickly recovered.
‘We’re both out of isolation so we’re able to go for a picnic again – but we don’t share cutlery, plates or food,’ she says. ‘I know how effective isolation is in stopping the transmission of coronavirus.
‘During my isolation, I reminded myself that I was playing my part and doing the right thing for the greater good. The sooner everyone plays their part in NHS Test and Trace, like me, the quicker we can get back to normal.
‘I would do it all again in a heartbeat if I had to.’