'We have not forgotten you': Pledge by Shropshire hospital boss who warns of 'huge challenges' ahead

Huge challenges lay ahead as hospital services recover from the coronavirus crisis and tackle huge waiting list backlogs, a Shropshire NHS boss said today.

Chief executive Mark Brandreth at The Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital near Oswestry
Chief executive Mark Brandreth at The Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital near Oswestry

Mark Brandreth, chief executive of Robert Jones & Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital, has revealed the toll the pandemic has had on its staff, some of whom were redeployed to work in the intensive care units and respiratory wards at the county's acute hospitals.

In January, the orthopaedic hospital near Oswestry had to pause all planned routine surgery as it sent 150 staff to Royal Shrewsbury Hospital and Princess Royal Hospital in Telford.

As they are now starting to return – with Covid patient admissions falling – the trust must turn to addressing its huge waiting lists.

Mr Brandreth says it has almost doubled over the past year and a major recruitment effort will be needed to tackle the issue head-on.

He says it will take some considerable time, but also made a promise to patients today that "they haven't been forgotten".

"I think the pressure on NHS staff, particularly in terms of the amount of sick people in critical care has been significant," he said.

Chief executive Mark Brandreth

"That's impacted on my staff because many of them have been over nursing people within the effort.

"People have done extraordinary things. I think NHS staff are tired and they are disappointed with the one per cent proposed pay rise.

"It's down to people like me to make sure that in restoring our services, primarily I look after the staff."

Nightingale hospitals

Last year, at the start of the coronavirus outbreak, Mr Brandreth temporarily left his role at RJAH to become the director responsible for the Nightingale hospital programme, and only returned last November.

He said: "I oversaw the development of the seven Nightingale hospitals across the country.

"Working with colleagues right across the NHS and the military, to oversee the design, the delivery and then the running of the Nightingale hospitals.

"For the first six weeks I lived in a hotel in London and didn't come home.

"It will be one of the great privileges of my career to be part of the national team at that time, but certainly physically and probably psychologically some of the most difficult work that I've done.

"There was a real sense in those early weeks that the NHS could be totally overwhelmed by the number of patients that we were going to see, so the responsibility of working with colleagues to try and expand the capability and capacity particularly of the NHS really quickly was really quite something."

Chief executive Mark Brandreth

He says in recent months he has also seen huge optimism around the Covid vaccination programme, with almost all the trust's staff now vaccinated.

"It pulls the light at the end of the tunnel a little nearer," he added.

Some of the hospital's staff have also been working in its Covid vaccination centre, which was recently upgraded from a hub, allowing more people in.

The hub had initially been set up to vaccinate healthcare staff, but people can now use the national booking system to visit for a jab.

"My staff have just taken that on and just done it like it was a normal thing to do," Mr Brandreth said.

"I'm so grateful to them for how well they have done that with a huge energy."

The next big mission, he says, will be to get surgical work back on track.

Although non-emergency surgery was postponed, Mr Brandreth said RJAH didn't stop operating on patients with cancer and urgent needs.

The Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital

"It puts us in a reasonable place coming out of this wave because some of our most urgent patients have been operated on during the last period," he said.

"This week all of our staff will have come back from Shrewsbury and Telford, so we got half of them back last Monday and we'll get the rest back this week.

"The first thing to try and get back to is something that looked more like what we used to do before.

"That's going to take us probably until the middle of April.

"Over the next month we will be doing a little bit more each day as we return to our kind of normal type of operating."

But he is also aware that some of the staff who have been away are "exhausted".

He said: "We have a very small number of patient deaths.

"Whereas when you are working on a coronavirus ward you are often dealing with death so some of them have dealt with more deaths in the time they've been over than they would have done for many years.

"Some of them have wanted to come straight back to work so we've done it dependent on them."

He says a range of measures have been taken to support staff, including ensuring they take annual leave where needed, one-to-one psychological counselling, putting in place 'virtual common rooms' and planning events to look forward to later this year.

'No quick fix'

He described the impact the pandemic has had on waiting lists as an "international issue", but added that over the last year waiting lists at the hospital he runs near Oswestry have almost doubled.

"This is huge for us," Mr Brandreth said.

"We also still don't know what will happen with demand.

"I think this is going to take several years for us to get through this. It's not going to be a quick fix.

"My big message to patients is we haven't forgotten about you.

"People waiting for orthopaedic operations are in pain, often they can't work, they can't do social activities that they'd like to do.

"I want the community to understand that we know that and appreciate it.

"We will be doing all we can to look after them and keep in touch so they know where we are up to, and of course treating as many as we can as soon as we can."

To address the size of the backlogs, Mr Brandreth says boosting staff numbers will be key, but he anticipates it will be "really challenging".

He estimates the hospital will need another dozen consultants, 50 nurses and 30 therapists, while retaining its current staff will also be important.

"That's my biggest worry, we know there are already gaps in the NHS workforce and have been for many years," he said.

"That's going to be my limiting factor rather than kit, wards, theatres."

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