“My worst day in 18 years”: A year on high alert in Yorkshire’s pandemic-hit care homes

With the elderly particularly vulnerable to coronavirus, care homes across the country have been devastated by the pandemic. A year on from the first lockdown, Yorkshire care home managers look back on 365 days like no other.

Elizabeth Hancock (L), Manager of Fulford Nursing Home with resident Julia behind the window .

When Hopton Cottage care home manager Joseph Martin was told his staff and residents would soon receive coronavirus vaccines, he was, naturally, over the moon.

By December 2020, when Joseph received the news, Hopton had gone eight months without a positive coronavirus case, following a devastating first wave in April that claimed several lives.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Residents, and the majority of staff, were given their first vaccine dose shortly after Christmas. Before it had a chance to take effect, however, Covid struck again.

“It’s an awful thing to watch someone die of Covid”, says Joseph, recalling the distressing moment he sat with one of his residents - “the sweetest old lady you could ever meet” - as she passed away in January 2021.

“It was about minus five degrees and the window was open but she was just burning up.

“I took a huge card her family had sent her and sat there fanning her with it for so long my arms started to hurt.

“She looked up at me smiling...but not long later she died right there in front of me. It was just heartbreaking”, he recalls.

Having been admitted to the home in June, adds Joseph, “she wasn’t even here long enough so her family could come and see her”.

In the year since the pandemic took hold, personal tragedies like these have accrued in numbers hard to comprehend across UK care homes: a section of society hit more brutally by Covid than perhaps any other.

Since the first nationwide lockdown was called on March 23, the public have seen some - albeit fleeting - pockets of freedom here and there: picnics in the park, cocktails (until 10pm) and even some indoor dining.

In care homes, however, vigilance has been near-constant and unwavering, with staff hyper-aware that even one small slip-up could cost the lives of everyone in their care.

They’ve battled outbreaks, ever-changing guidance and many of the instincts they’d previously relied on, and, 365 days later, “still have [our] foot on the gas,” says Elizabeth Hancock, manager of Fulford Nursing Home in York.

In early March 2020, Elizabeth recalls standing in the doorway to the communal lounge watching a Sky News report on coronavirus when the severity of the situation struck her for the first time.

That night, she drove to her parents’ house and advised them to start shielding. Shortly afterwards, she locked down the home. Around two weeks later, the entire country followed.

Though her team had a stockpile of PPE accumulated in anticipation of Brexit, they had “no idea what we were fighting,” says Elizabeth, and took to Amazon, frantically purchasing everything from “shower caps to goggles and shoe covers” just in case.

Staff endeavoured to keep things light as new restrictions curtailed ordinary activities. PPE “fashion shows” were held, socially distanced sing-alongs took the place of close contact and a penpal scheme saw residents receive bagfuls of letters from strangers around the world.

At Hopton, says Joseph, the approach was similar, with staff “trying from day one to keep life as normal as possible.” The necessity of isolation, however, was “the hardest thing for residents.”

“The most difficult thing was definitely residents being isolated in their rooms, especially with dementia sufferers”, Joseph recalls.

“They couldn’t live their life as they normally do...people forget that a care home is a community in itself”.

Such adjustments have been hard on staff too, says Elizabeth, with the necessary “clinical” approach to coronavirus stripping away the “years of work I’d done to make [Fulford] a homely home.”

“Within a couple of weeks, all that work was wiped out. The friendliness isn’t gone but the practice of living well together...that’s just gone.

“We can’t share a drink, have a hug or huddle together laughing about something. I’m asking staff to do the opposite of what I’ve previously taught them”.

Attempts to keep coronavirus at bay involved constant hypervigilance; constant reminders “not to let yourself get complacent,” says Elizabeth. When, early on in the crisis, hospitals began discharging patients into care homes without testing, both Elizabeth and Joseph put their foot firmly down.

“I had nurses pushing me, telling me it was government guidance,” recalls Joseph. “I just point-blank refused - I told them, ‘I’m not going to kill my residents’”. It was an instruction, feels Joseph, that many younger, more inexperienced care home managers probably felt unable to refuse.

In spite of their superhuman efforts, however, coronavirus battered down the defences and crept into Fulford and Hopton at various points throughout 2020 and 2021.

Being hit by a first wave early on, when “nobody knew anything and there was no testing,” says Joseph, marked “the very worst period” of the entire year.

At home one night in April following several coronavirus deaths in the home, Joseph’s phone lit up around 3am with yet more unwelcome news: another one of his residents had died of Covid.

After a short, fitful sleep, his wife woke him up in the early hours to tell him a resident had died. “I told her, yes, I already know about her,” he recalls.

“But it wasn’t the resident I’d been told about...another one of our residents had died half an hour after her”.

Several months later, in November, Elizabeth would suffer the same crushing experience, with Covid taking the lives of two Fulford residents within just half an hour of each other.

“It marked the worst day in my entire 18 year career”, says Elizabeth. “I lost half a stone in a week”.

Staff, says Elizabeth, were devastated - but they soldiered on, caring for and protecting remaining residents. “We all wobbled,” she explains, “but none of us wobbled at the same time,” recalling how she herself “found moments to myself, tears in the shed or a nap in a layby” as an outlet for her emotions.

In the wake of their experiences, both Hopton and Fulford upped their infection control practices even further, and, while waiting for second doses and lockdown easing, continue to do all in their power to shut further infections out.

Like Joseph, Elizabeth is raring to return to some kind of normality the second it’s safe to do so. Residents usually arrive at Fulford, she says, “during the last 1000 days of their life.” Coronavirus, she points out, “has stolen a third.”

“People’s daily living experiences are what’s really got lost in all this,” says Joseph, who continues to make family visits a priority in whatever Covid-safe format is possible. “An 89 year old has to see their family - it’s what they live for”.

Echoing Joseph, Elizabeth is now looking with optimism to the spring and summer months ahead, hoping to get “residents back in the sun and out on trips” as soon as it’s safe to do so.

“I think what residents need most of all right now”, she adds, “is to get back to really living.”