Covid: NHS doctor tells of stress from working on the frontline during 'gruelling' coronavirus pandemic

  • Video report by ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan

An NHS doctor has told ITV News of his "tough experience" of working on the "gruelling" frontline amid the rising Covid cases during the second wave of the pandemic.

Dr Mohammed Abbas-Khaki told ITV News' Health Editor Emily Morgan: "I feel quite tired to be honest, I think it's been a tough experience so far. I'm coping okay but it has been really, really gruelling. We have been working, it feels like non-stop. I can't believe it's October, we're at the end of the year almost."

He added: "We're in the Winter season which is the busiest period of the year anyway and we're seeing a rise, we're seeing more people sick."

"We're wearing our PPE again and we know this is probably the foreseeable for the next few months and that prospect is really daunting."

When asked how he is prepared for the Winter period, he said: "It's going to be exhausting, it's going to be tiring, it's going to be draining. I think the real challenge is that so many of the coping mechanisms we have are taken away from us. Going to see your friends, going to see your family."

The NHS doctor also told ITV News of how he has been unable to switch off from his job and he often stays up late thinking over things.

  • Health Editor Emily Morgan speaks to Julie Etchingham on News At Ten

Dr Abbas-Khaki said: "I'm often up until one or two in the morning because my mind is just thinking about 'have I looked at that guideline, have I responded to those messages of friends who can't get hold of a doctor, who are worried to go into hospital or how is my mum doing, how is my dad doing, I hope they're ok, I haven't had chance to catch up with them today'."

When asked about if he is burned out or worried he will be burned out, Dr Abbas-Khaki said; "I already feel it and I know that I am passed that point and at this point we are just doing what we can to support the NHS."

He continued: "I mean there was a point when we were lauded, we were clapped and really at that point we should've been thinking about being proactive and supporting health care workers. And actually, a lot of us are exhausted, we were talking about this just a few days ago in the hospital, we were all on a break and we just wanted to be somewhere else, talking about something else."

"We just feel exhausted all the time - mentally, physically, emotionally." 

Dr Abbas-Khaki's comments come as experts have warned the government of their concerns of "debilitating" work stress for NHS staff.

Plans have been proposed to support the NHS workforce, but without a detailed workforce strategy the plans are like a "new car without an engine", said Professor Michael West from the King’s Fund think tank.

Prof West told the Health and Social Care Select Committee that one previous survey found that 27% of staff had minor psychiatric illness compared with 18% of the general working population as a whole.

New research looking into the effect of the pandemic on NHS staff - which has had a particular focus on staff in intensive care units - suggests "significant impacts upon wellbeing," he added.

But he said an "extraordinary" number of NHS staff have accessed support services set up as a result of the pandemic.

NHS officials told MPs about the support package available to NHS staff throughout the pandemic, including a new funding boost for those in need of rapid assessment and care.

"Back in January stress levels in the NHS were at their highest since we began recording stress levels and the kind of way that we do," Prof West said.

"We know that around 50% more staff in the NHS report debilitating levels of work stress compared with the general working population as a whole."

He said that workforce gaps were already putting “enormous pressure” on existing staff before the pandemic.

Prerana Issar, chief people officer for the NHS in England, told MPs that staff health and wellbeing is a "priority".

She said that work was under way to try to "normalise" help-seeking behaviour among staff.

Since April, a package of measures have been introduced to support NHS staff throughout the pandemic, including a range of free mental health apps which have been downloaded by 150,000 staff, and new resources specifically created as a result of the pandemic, such as how to talk to a child about Covid-19, which have been accessed a quarter of a million times.

Staff also have access to a text support service and a helpline created in partnership with Samaritans.

"We have tried to normalise help-seeking behaviour because research shows that healthcare professionals are the last to seek help for themselves," Ms Issar said.

NHS England’s national mental health director, Claire Murdoch, told MPs that £15 million was being put into creating a new service for staff who need rapid assessment and treatment for mental health conditions over the "particularly challenging" winter period.

"For a small number of our staff, they will experience a level of mental distress that means they need access to rapid assessment and treatment, and I’m delighted to announce we will be investing £15 million in a special winter support.

"In every part of the country for all NHS staff, wherever they work, we’re launching a service that will get them rapid assessment and treatment, if they need it for mental health conditions. And that’s an incredibly important addition to the plethora of interventions and initiatives that we’ve put in place."

Mental health problems are one of the main reasons for staff absences, with latest data showing that anxiety, stress and other psychiatric illness accounted for 28.3% of all sickness leave in May 2020.