Behind the scenes: The Covid battle at Winchester's Royal Hampshire County Hospital

Video report by ITV News Meridian's Charlotte Briere-Edney

Staff across the NHS have been working in unprecedented conditions over the last two months, during the second wave of Covid-19.

Hospitals have risen to the challenge of coping with huge numbers of Covid inpatients, while keeping other essential services running.

Now, with inpatient numbers finally coming down, ITV News Meridian has been given exclusive access to the Royal Hampshire County Hospital in Winchester to find out how staff across its departments have been affected by this wave of Covid cases.

  • The Covid wards

The surge at the Royal Hampshire County Hospital began just after Christmas. Since Boxing Day, staff have looked after more than 440 inpatients with coronavirus.

Susan Wheeler who is a clinical matron, has worked at the hospital for six years. Her ward is usually for rehab, but it has been turned into a 'hot Covid' area. She says it is always busy, but it has never been quite as busy as this.

Susan (seen here on the right) has worked at the hospital for six years Credit: ITV News Meridian

Susan said: "We've got a 26-bedded ward, so it was full. Every bed was full of really really sick patients.

"When we were really busy, when the other wards were full, we moved our ward beds into the back of the physiotherapy department behind us and put beds there, so we went up to 30 beds there. It was just really really busy.

"It's just felt a bit like climbing a mountain I guess, and thinking when is it going to stop, when is it going to stop. You start getting to the top, you're tired and you're thinking oh god where's the peak?

"The difficulty for us was not knowing when was the peak and how long it was going to go on for. So I guess when you're working like that you're running on adrenaline, and when that adrenaline runs out you're kind of running on empty."

Covid patient Jimmy Robert says the staff are "unbelievable" Credit: ITV News Meridian

A Covid patient at the hospital, Jimmy Robert, said that seeing the staff working first-hand is "unbelievable".

At one point Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust was admitting enough patients to open a new Covid ward every few days.

It is only now, as wards quieten down, that there is time for staff to process and reflect on the challenges of the past six or seven weeks.

Like so many others, this team has dealt with the heightened emotions Covid brings, as well as staff sickness.

The pandemic has taken an emotional toll on staff Credit: ITV News Meridian

Susan said: "We all had periods when we had a bit of a down day, or it became particularly challenging, but there's a really strong team on this ward and we're able to support each other.

"So we never felt completely stranded or on our own, it was happening across the hospital and it felt like you were a part of a big machine looking after all of the cogs, rather than being left to flounder."

  • The kitchens

With hundreds of people working at the hospital at any one time, it takes a 24 hour kitchen to keep them fuelled.

Staff are getting a free meal during the Covid surge, making chefs even busier, cooking 2,000 hot dishes a day for both colleagues and patients.

The hospital chefs are cooking around 2,000 hot meals a day Credit: ITV News Meridian

Daniel Hampton is a chef at the hospital, he said: "I think it's knowing that I helped in some small way in a patient's road to recovery.

"Obviously the medicines and doctors do their bit, but without food and nutrition, it's sort of part of the recovery process. If one part fails we all fail."  

  • The microbiology department

The microbiology department at the hospital has been working overtime. Staff analyse diagnostic tests as well as handling the hospital's 200 daily Covid swabs.

With most other patient services still running, they have had to employ more staff to work around the clock, just on Covid testing.

Many staff in the microbiology department are working overtime Credit: ITV News Meridian

Gemma Lockyer, a senior biomedical scientist, said: "This time we've seen a huge increase in work across all the services.

"It's been a delicate balancing act, because obviously the staff are fatigued and there's been a lot going on, but that's what we need to do."

  • The wellbeing team

Laura Flower works for the wellbeing team at the hospital. She has been worried about the impact the relentless workload has had on staff right across the hospital.

Laura has been organising sessions for staff to talk about what is going on.

"We're obviously really encouraging people to take leave, to have breaks, to take rest."

The wellbeing team have been working hard to help staff through the pandemic Credit: ITV News Meridian

However, Laura says that often people say even when they are at home, they cannot do many of the things that they enjoy such as go on holiday and see family and friends so it is a case of "supporting staff across all of those things".

Laura says she is gearing up to help more staff, as the impact of this wave on staff wellbeing has not yet hit.

Despite the growing number of empty beds, the flow of patients through the hospital continues.

Even after this Covid wave has passed, there will be a huge backlog of patients waiting for other treatments.

A reprieve is in sight, but there is still a long way to go.