Across the country, people and businesses are joining forces to help our frontline workers.

ONE of the toughest things for patients in hospital with Covid-19 can be not seeing their loved ones. That’s where Life Lines, an amazing ‘virtual visiting’ service comes in.

Working as an intensive care nurse, Professor Louise Rose knows all too well how important it is for critically ill patients to see their families.

But, with the risk of infection so high, coronavirus patients are only allowed visitors in very exceptional circumstances.

“During Italy’s massive surge of Covid-19 cases, I was distressed by stories of hospital patients dying without their loved ones,” says Professor Rose, who also lectures in critical care nursing at King’s College Hospital. “As nurses, we do everything we can to let families say goodbye.”

Desperate to help UK coronavirus patients and their relatives, Professor Rose teamed up with Dr Joel Meyer, who works in intensive care at Guy’s and St Thomas’ in London, to harness video technology that enables virtual visiting. They secured charitable grants and, after trialling various apps, settled on aTouchAway, which is secure for hospital situations and enables three-way bedside calls between the patient, family and medical staff.

There was just one problem – they needed tablets to run it on. “We had a few at St Thomas’ but they weren’t 4G,” Dr Meyer says. Step forward BT, which donated 50 4G-enabled tablets to get the ball rolling. So, by mid-April, patients at Guy’s and St Thomas’ were connecting with loved ones using Louise and Joel’s initiative, named Life Lines.

Now, just a month on, Life Lines has supplied 1,046 tablets to 159 intensive care unit sites across the UK, enabling 15,000 video calls bringing families together.

There have been moments of pure joy. “One man regaining speech after coming off a ventilator proposed to his girlfriend,” Dr Meyer smiles. (She said yes.) “And seeing patients sedated with a breathing tube in their throat respond to loved ones with a nod or a wink is so encouraging.”

Professor Rose adds: “Seeing their loved ones’ faces anchors them back in the world.”

There are funny conversations too – a lot of patients chat to their dogs. But, inevitably, there are heart-wrenching moments.

“We’ve witnessed the saddest final conversations and goodbyes with the chaplain and prayers,” Dr Meyer says. “But I’ve seen what peace having family present through video calling brings to patients at the end of their lives.”

Life Lines also allows medical teams to have face-to-face conversations with families, which is a far more personal way of engaging than over the phone, especially when they have to deliver the worst possible news. As Dr Meyer says: “We can show empathy over a video connection, picking up on emotional cues and body language.”

Donations to Life Lines’ JustGiving page pour in, many – touchingly – from recovered patients who found comfort in Life Lines during the most traumatic period of their lives.

“It’s an extraordinary example of what can be achieved between industry, charities, academic partners and the NHS,” Dr Meyer says. And BT continues its support, providing 4G WiFi hubs to intensive care units.

When the coronavirus crisis has passed, virtual visiting will remain a brilliant service for families unable to visit loved ones in hospital due to say childcare, distance or cost – literally a lifeline bringing hope and light into even the darkest of hours.

‘It helped him fight’

Diane, a grandmother from south London, was distraught when her husband was taken into hospital with Covid-19 in early April.

She says: “The worst moment was the phone call saying his kidneys were failing and he was on a ventilator. I felt helpless, so far away from him. So when doctors told me about Life Lines, I downloaded the aTouchAway app on my iPad – then the hospital team took their tablet to my husband’s bedside. Seeing him on a ventilator for the first time was a shock, but I found comfort in telling him how much I loved him. ‘You’re doing so well,’ I said, and even though the circumstances were strange and scary, I felt close to him.

“When, three days after he’d come off the ventilator, he could talk, his first words to me were: ‘I love you’. I cried. It was beautiful.

“One of the first things I asked him after he came home last week was whether he’d heard my voice when he was fighting for his life on the ventilator. Yes, he said, and it had given him strength.”

The best of British

As the Covid-19 pandemic began to spread in the UK, it was feared that the demand for ventilators would overwhelm hospitals.

With an urgent need to increase capacity, the government turned to the private sector.

British defence manufacturer Babcock International was one of those to answer the call. Five days after an email circulated from its head office, staff had a working prototype up and running. An ambitious target was set to design, develop and supply 10,000 ventilators, which the company is now firmly on track to meet. It has involved a huge effort, with staff working round the clock and some fine British innovation employing the legendary “Blitz spirit”.

“It’s the most difficult challenge we’ve ever faced, but it’s fantastic to be able to provide some support and feel like we’re making a difference,” says Chris Spicer, head of future support for defence systems technology. “We all have relatives in vulnerable groups so it’s been an emotional experience.”

Mission improbable

Providing facilities management for a new hospital is no small task. But Interserve managed it in just 11 days.

In early April the world-leading UK support services, construction and equipment services company was tasked at short notice with covering everything from maintenance and portering to cleaning and catering, at the temporary Nightingale North West hospital in Manchester’s Central Convention Centre.

Former Royal Marine and fireman Steve Francis is site manager on the project. He oversaw a staff of 100 for the rapid rollout necessary to have the hospital up and running in time for its first patient on April 17, and to keep everything ticking over since.

“It was an amazing experience. Everybody was enjoying their work, there were no complaints about anything,” he says, “We were just cracking on. The emotional side was seeing how quickly it was rolling out. The atmosphere was tremendous. Now we’ve got a great team here working selflessly knowing they’re making a difference.”

Mask masters

The overwhelming demand caused by Covid for personal protective equipment has been answered by a number of private businesses.

One of those is defence manufacturer BAE Systems, which responded to an urgent plea in March for face visors from local GPs in Barrow-In-Furness, where it has a facility. The company made a prototype in just two days, manufactured the order using 3D printers and delivered them direct to the surgeries.

When it saw demand was increasing nationwide, BAE then stepped up production at its other UK sites and has now made and distributed 150,000 masks. It has also 3D printed a new invention, the Door Claw, which allows staff in care homes and other places to avoid touching door handles.

“It’s amazing how many people were prepared to work really long hours to make things happen,” says technology director Dave Short. “And we’ve had a huge amount of feedback ranging from letters and photographs to videos – quite emotional responses, and that just drives everyone on.”

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