Hospitals slowly return to normal but fear of second coronavirus wave hangs over staff

As I walked into Heartlands Hospital in Birmingham, I felt something profoundly different to what I'd experienced on recent hospital visits.

There was no tension.

From acute wards, to the emergency department and on to the intensive care unit, staff were busy, but relaxed.

There was an air of normality in every department. Gone are the separate Green and Red (Covid) zones, gone is the running around and the anxiety imprinted on every face.

The operating manager for University Hospitals Birmingham told me that A&E is back up to pre-Covid levels, but the reorganisation of the hospital since Covid has meant patients flow through the hospital much quicker.

Jonathan Brotherton also said they had started non essential surgery again and turned one of the Trusts' hospitals into a 'clean' hospital to enable safe operations. 

In that sense, it seems things really are beginning to return to normal.But, and it's a big but, things won't ever really be back to 'normal' since the spectre of coronavirus is always hovering over the NHS, and the affect the virus has had on other patients is enormous.

Staff at Heartlands told me they are now having to deal with high volumes of emergency patients as well as suspected Covid patients.

Staff at Heartlands Hospital in Birmingham Credit: ITV News

They can do this better now because of a much better understanding of the virus. They also said they are seeing more patients presenting with worse ailments than perhaps is usual, their explanation for this is people had put off coming to hospital during the outbreak and are now coming in with more advanced needs.

To add to that, there is a huge backlog of patients who need non urgent care, surgery and treatment. Jonathan said it will take years to clear the waiting list now - yes, years.

This new normal, though, could be about to get worse.

Saturday sees the first significant easing of lockdown measures, which includes the opening of pubs and restaurants.

The A&E department at Heartlands has brought in more staff to cover the day and night shifts and is anticipating a surge in patients who've overindulged on drink or drugs or who have got into fights.

Frankly, that's the last thing any of them need after the last four months and their exasperation at the government changing the 'rules' on a Saturday night is palpable.

Saturday night will be Saturday night though and their main concern is the fear of a second significant outbreak of coronavirus.

"No one is going to socially distance once they've had a few drinks," said one nurse and another told me bluntly, "there will be a second wave, I guarantee it".

In fairness all of them agreed lockdown had to ease at some point and all of them said they were ready for whatever happens.

But you have to sympathise. Very few of them have had a holiday or time off since the outbreak began and they're now dealing with the demands of two challenges: Covid patients and near normal volumes of other patients.

Staff at Heartlands now having to deal with high volumes of the usual emergency patients as well as suspected Covid patients. Credit: ITV News

How the NHS copes with the easing of lockdown will take time to establish as will the question of whether easing measures will allow the coronavirus to take hold again.

As the prime minister Boris Johnson pointed out on Friday morning in an interview with LBC, we're not out of the woods yet - and indeed we're not.

He's pleaded with the public not to blow it. At the moment he has the NHS on side but if this goes wrong he may lose their support in trying to manage and cope with this horrific pandemic in the future. 

'We were a bit naive as to what was going to happen...if there is a surge again, yes, we are more prepared' - Critical care matron, Colette Isles, tells ITV News Health Editor