Former nurse takes the lead as city battles Covid third wave

Mel Pickup started as a trainee nurse on the wards, now she is running Bradford’s hospitals during the most challenging of times. Catherine Scott reports.

Mel Pickup, Chief Executive of Bradford Teaching Hospital Foundation Trust. Picture James Hardisty.

“Being a nurse has changed a lot since I was a trainee, but the dedication remains the same,” says Mel Pickup.

Mel has worked her way up from that trainee nurse in Barnsley to be chief executive officer of Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust at one of the most challenging times in the trust’s history.

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She may no longer be on the coal face all the time as she puts it, but she is now the person making the difficult decisions as staff struggle to cope with rising Covid-19 cases.

Mel Pickup when she was a staff nurse in Barnsley 1990

But this pragmatic Yorkshirewoman is taking it in her stride.

“For us this is the third wave and each time it has been worse than the one before,” says the 52-year-old grandmother and mother of two.

“We do really feel for our colleagues in London and the South but we had it badly in November. But we have a plan and we are organised so I am confident that we can handle what ever is thrown at us.”

She said that the way West Yorkshire’s health services had pulled together during the pandemic has been one of the highlights of her career.

Mel is now busy planning to cope with the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic in Bradford Picture James Hardisty.

“When I was working on the other side of the Pennines we would look at the innovation and research over in West Yorkshire always presumed it came out of Leeds, but when I came to Bradford I realised what an incredible place it was for research and development.

“Then when the pandemic hit, the way people across the healthcare community have pulled together has made me extremely proud.”

It was while she was still at school that Mel Pickup decided she wanted to become a nurse.

“Me and my best friend decided that we wanted to go into nursing together,” she recalls.

“In the end I had the choice of going to university to do theological studies or becoming a nurse, I decided to become a nurse. Ironically my friend never did, she ended as a solicitor instead, although we still keep in touch and she is now a medical secretary at Bradford District General.”

Mel became a trainee nurse and qualified in Barnsley where her career started.

“I did three years at Bradford School of Nursing but after six weeks intensive training you are out on the wards in your uniform with you little hat doing personal and intimate care for patients,” she recalls. It’s strange looking back to think how I ever got where I am today, interviewing consultants for jobs and one of the questions I always ask is what three words would a patient use to describe them. To me kindness is the most important. But being a nurse on the front line is often what people remember and is so important to the patient experience.”

Over the years Mel’s career has taken her either side of the M62.

“When I first started out, I didn’t really know what a chief executive did. As a student nurse, the most important person in your job is the staff nurse and when you’re a staff nurse, it’s the ward sister. I didn’t set out to become a chief executive, I’ve only ever looked a couple of moves ahead.”

Born in Monk Bretton, Barnsley, she was one of three sisters raised by parents, Barry from Bradford and Marylin, who long harboured ambitions to be a nurse but did not realise them, instead running a successful hairdressing business which is still in the family after 40 years.

Mel did eventually decide to do a degree in the end in health studies from Sheffield University, before going on to study a Master’s in independent practice in Leeds, completing the course while still working.

“I worked my way up, becoming a junior sister and then sister, and later, chief nurse, chief operating officer, deputy CEO and everything in between. I’ve had a lot of varied experience in professional leadership and management. What that background does is give you an innate skill of asking the right questions and being really inquisitive and getting to the heart of the problem.

“In many ways, the skills needed for managing a ward and managing a hospital are the same. The numbers are different but you are still leading a team of people, it’s an exercise in doing things the right way, it’s about organising, giving direction and supporting people. A shift almost becomes a microcosm of an organisation.”

Prior to moving back across the Pennines to Yorkshire, Mel was first a CEO in 2007 at the Walton Centre in Liverpool, ‘The Brain Hospital’, and then CEO at Warrington and Halton Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which she describes as having very similar values to Bradford.

Her first year back on home soil has been nothing short of momentous. Shortly after her arrival, the trust received a favourable ‘good’ rating from the Care Quality Commission, and then Covid struck, creating unprecedented challenges, which continue today, especially with the high BAME population of Bradford.

“During the first wave, it was more about ensuring the organisation was adequately equipped and had sufficient staff. We know much more about the disease now, so we’re better able to respond but we still have to contend with getting on top of routine care, an increase in demand because of winter and a resumption of cases which were paused during the first wave. It’s not without its challenges.”

She was recently awarded an honorary professorship by the University of Bradford.

“It’s my mission to help this city be the best in the country. The ingredients for that are having really good education, public services, hospitals, a great local authority, and everyone working toward the same goal.”