What it's like to work in a Covid-19 ward

Staff working at Royal Papworth in Cambridgeshire Credit: ITV News Anglia

By ITV News Anglia's Graham Stothard


Through the mask, the muffled but constant noise of machines keeping people alive.

Beeping, whirring, pumping, the sound of technology doing the jobs the body is failing to do.

On the Covid ward at Papworth Hospital the ambient noise is relentless. And above the hum, the phone ringing and the sound of voices as nurses check on the progress of patients.

This is not an intensive care ward but everyone we spoke to had had their brush with death. They could not remember their worst moments. Probably for the best. The first-hand knowledge of what Covid could do was etched on their faces, and betrayed itself in the way they spoke of it. Like an assailant they had barely managed to survive.

On the day we visited, one patient, Dell Canham, was due for discharge. He scarcely looked well enough to stand, but was eagerly anticipating going home, and seeing his sister, his dog and rabbit!

The first person we spoke to on the ward, Erica Donnelly, burst into tears as we began to chat. It was hard to tell if they were tears of joy, relief or fear - perhaps a mix of all three. 

Just days before, her family were told to prepare for the worst. The outlook was bleak, particularly as she has cystic fibrosis, a condition that heavily affects the respiratory system. The same system, the virus attacks so savagely.

The thing keeping her going? The thought of her first Burger King when she gets out!

For Claire a couple of doors down, it was the thought of the mundane, a return to normality. A trip to Sainsbury’s. A walk outside on a bright Spring day.

The reason we were allowed into the ward was so the public could be shown first hand what it was like. Good news of the vaccine, and ten months of freedom-curbing lockdowns has led to complacency in following the rules. Hospital bosses and staff are worried what more Covid patients will do to their services.

They are doing everything they can to keep patients alive, and in the main, succeeding. Respiratory, cardiology and surgery wards are being repurposed.

A day ward’s been changed into an Intensive Care Unit. As more nurses move into Covid care, the hospital’s pharmacists, physiotherapists and healthcare scientists fill the holes left behind.

Everyone pulls their weight and more. The strain is real, but so is the willingness to take on the challenge. Each day they make more decisions on how to increase capacity, and relieve pressure on the region’s hospitals that are struggling to cope.

At Papworth there is no Accident and Emergency. It means they know what’s coming through their door. They realise how lucky they are, and how hard it is for hospitals that do not have that luxury. They are doing as much as they can, but from one doctor I spoke to there was a sense of guilt they could not do more.

Before we entered the covid ward we disinfected our kit and were given full face respirators (known as tornado masks) and scrubs. These were the conditions on which we were allowed to enter. We socially distanced inside the facility and when we left, we followed rigorous instructions to ensure we, and those around us, were safe.

Scrubs off first, followed by gloves. Hands washed and sanitised. Masks kept on as we left the ward. Into a new room. A new pair of gloves on. Mask off. Mask sanitised and boxed. Camera, tripod, microphones and kit sanitized. Everything sanitised. Even down to the shoes we were wearing.

A rigorous but necessary process, that had become like a ritual for many of the staff. 

But then we left. The staff will too at the end of their shift, but they’ll be back for more of the gruelling same the next day. 

Some patients who enter such wards, don’t leave alive.