I suppose the impact of COVID-19 really hit home on my 40th birthday.
At the beginning of the year we were all hearing about a new virus spreading around the world and we’d started planning from a business perspective, but it didn’t seem real somehow. But on 13th March I went away on a surprise birthday break to Berlin and whilst there, restaurants and bars started closing.
The atmosphere was very strange at that moment.
I ended up getting one of the last flights out of the country on the Monday before all planes were grounded. By the time I returned to work in Glasgow on Tuesday things had really started to take off in the UK too.
Every day became a bit of a blur, the advice changed hourly and it was a real challenge adapting to what we had to do to keep ourselves, our patients and colleagues safe.
We had to make physical changes to our warehouse and provide clear guidance to all colleagues. Who would have thought I would be talking about hand washing the whole time and posting reminders everywhere?
We identified the main areas where social distancing would be difficult, separated tables in the canteen, staggered breaks and finishing times and asked drivers to have lunch in their vehicles where possible. There were new floor markings showing two metre spacing, more cleaning and new protective equipment such as visors for drivers.
At night on TV we watched the scenes from Italy with hospitals overwhelmed and the number of people dying increasing every day. The impact on my colleagues was significant; they were fearful. Some were concerned about their level of vulnerability, or that of their families.
It took its toll emotionally on everyone.
Group communication was more challenging with social distancing. We had to think quickly and creatively as we had lots of important messages to get to our teams. I created a WhatsApp group to keep people in touch and I recorded a weekly video. I tried to reflect the government message and talked about staying safe, treating each other with respect and reminding everyone of their important role in helping patients.
And then the workload suddenly rocketed with three or four weeks of a continuous demand that we’d never experienced before. The volume was like that of the Christmas period, but every single day. The government had asked people with symptoms to self-isolate so we didn’t know who was coming in to work from one day to the next and we couldn’t plan ahead with any certainty.
Sky-high volumes and a diminishing workforce…
We took on temporary workers, but we were able to prioritise friends and family of our colleagues to help those that had lost their job or were suffering financial hardship.
Ordering patterns changed rapidly with never-seen-before demand for some products. We had to quota paracetamol and we were selling strange formulations and quantities – everything was flying out of the door. GPs started prescribing for longer periods to help those shielding and self-isolating which caused a spike. There was an extremely challenging two weeks when we were unable to satisfy all the demand from our site and we had to stop supplying non-critical products to prioritise medicines.
The team rose to the challenge and stepped up beyond our expectations. Everyone came together, starting earlier, finishing later. All understood that every packet they dealt with represented a patient that was depending on them.
I am proud that we never failed the NHS for any product.
We all looked after each other and learnt as we went along, adapting and improving our new ways of working.
Although we were classified as key workers, we weren’t able to have priority at supermarkets as we weren’t NHS workers. I was concerned when the panic buying started that my team wouldn’t be able to get essentials such as toilet roll or hand sanitiser. I contacted local suppliers and bought supplies for everyone, so they didn’t have to worry. It was a small thing to do that gave them peace of mind. People only took only what they needed and now things have calmed down, we’ve been able to donate the surplus to the local food bank along with Easter eggs that we normally give as a thank you to the workers. It says a lot about the team that even in these times they thought of others.
We’ve got a whole new language now. Who’d ever heard of ‘furlough’, ‘self-isolating’ or ‘social distancing’ three months ago?
I’m thankful that no one from our Glasgow site has tested positive yet for the virus and I hope everyone continues to keep safe.
It was tough. Many of us are exhausted. But actually, it was incredibly rewarding. We got critical drugs to patients and the NHS. It’s what we do.
Gavin Curran is an AAH regional general manager working in Scotland.