Inside the Yorkshire hospitals battling Covid as UK marks two years since first case

  • Two years since the UK's first case of coronavirus was confirmed in Yorkshire, ITV News reporter Katie Oscroft describes her experiences of reporting from inside the county's hospitals

It's now almost two years since our cameras got as far as looking through a window into the so-called "hot zone" at Airedale Hospital.

These were the wards where Covid patients were treated. Staff in scrubs, gloves, goggles and masks tended to them. They were dealing with something they had never seen before.

It was unnerving just looking from afar.

A year later I went through the doors into that same hot zone with cameraman Simon White. Our brief was to tell the outside world what we saw, what it was like on the NHS front line.

The nurses and doctors were desperate to tell us, to show us how they had been working for a whole year.

Cameraman Simon White in full PPE Credit: ITV News

The timing was significant because the vaccines had been approved and some NHS staff together with elderly and vulnerable people were waiting to be called to have theirs. 

But the euphoria many felt about a way out of the pandemic did nothing to ease the burden inside hospitals, stretched to the limit with very sick patients.

I spoke to a matron who had spent four weeks inside an intensive care unit. She knew exactly what she needed to do when she struggled to take a breath. She was back at work even though her family had begged her not to return.

Our cameras have been allowed into Airedale Hospital several times Credit: ITV News

Then there was the doctor who spoke about being frightened when he became seriously ill, knowing how many of his patients with the same disease had not survived.

Both had been working flat out since our cameras saw them through a window and there was no sign of their workload easing. 

I had to be taught how to breathe when I pulled on a respiratory mask which staff had to wear every time they went into the Covid ward.

It was an effort to speak and difficult to see and hear beneath the personal protective equipment, or PPE, we had to wear. Goggles, scrubs, gloves, hair nets. When I watch my report I can hear myself breathing hard in between sentences.

Reporter Katie Oscroft had to learn how to breathe in protective head gear Credit: ITV News

We went through the doors to see patients struggling to breathe, and imploring everyone outside to stick to the rules.

"You don't want to end up here," was the message from all of them. The staff were doing their best to smile and reassure as, until we went in, there were only medical teams and sick patients, some dying without those who loved them by their side.

The staff were also concerned about me: Was I ok? I remember tweeting 'I don't know how they do it.'

We spent less than an hour in there, with the feeling that we were in a dangerous place. There was an exit area where we had to peel off our PPE so that we touched the surface as little as possible. 

Simon and I had also been into the Covid ward at Bradford Royal Infirmary. Patients there used what little breath they had to tell us they didn't see this coming – a young, fit man in his forties was bed-bound. Another man probably caught the virus at work, in lockdown's frontline service – the takeaway.

It was disturbing to see the fear in their eyes. Yet this was the second wave. Today hospitals are still dealing with the consequences of a third.

On both occasions we were welcomed as people who could tell the outside world what it was like on wards where people took their last breath alone. And what it was like to work so hard and for so long in the knowledge that worse times could be around the corner.

The experiences left their mark – afterwards I spent several anxious days wondering whether I had the virus.Fast forward 12 months and we went back to Airedale Hospital.

In the world outside I could be living a near normal life.  No masks in the pub. Friends, relatives or anyone I felt like meeting up with – no problem. 

Staff at Airedale are preparing for further waves of the virus Credit: ITV News

This time I saw a hospital with different problems. The Covid wards were no longer the ones which told the story.

Instead it was the vaccination clinic, where the long queues they had in the build-up to Christmas had gone away.

The patients arriving with wounds, or severe pain, who then test positive for Covid and have to isolate in valuable ward space, are alone. Or side-by-side with other patients who are also infected, but need treatment for completely different things. 

The hospital has moved on, building a new and bigger intensive care unit. The current one – cramped and dated – did its job during the pandemic, but the new one will provide a better service, should there be another wave.

There are new treatments for clinically vulnerable patients who contract Covid in a world which, outside the hospital grounds, has opened up.

There is optimism for the future, but there is also a good deal of planning for that possible next wave.

Matron Angela McGarry's father died at Airedale while she worked on another ward Credit: ITV News

I feel as though I have heard this before. I meet Angela, a matron who has the job of moving poorly people into the right place in a hospital with a tired and depleted workforce.

Angela's words take me right back to the first wave of coronavirus when we were observing through a window.

That was when she lost her father, inside her own hospital whilst she was at work, unable to see him.  

As restrictions which have affected the way people live their lives are lifted outside, Angela says the effects of the pandemic have not gone away.