NHS 111 call centre was unsafe, says worker who nearly died from Covid | World news

Stephen Poore was a healthy, hearty, hardworking family man before he got a job at an NHS 111 call centre in early March, as the pandemic was extending its grip across the country. He became a Covid-19 service adviser, handling 111 calls from anxious members of the public.

That is where he believes he contracted the virus, crammed together with other recruits in the call centre. Poore is now blind in one eye, has blurred vision in the other and has to use a walking frame, having come close to death as he spent 42 days on a ventilator in hospital.

Since the start of the pandemic, the government and the NHS have directed people to use the 111 telephone or online service if they fear they have coronavirus, to help keep GPs and hospitals clear to cope with more serious cases. NHS England says 111 has helped millions of people receive the right care and advice.

But in recent weeks the Guardian has uncovered alarming questions about the 111 service, the training it gave call handlers and the advice it gave to people who had coronavirus. The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Group estimates that a fifth of its 2,000 members’ relatives died after calling 111 and being told to stay at home.

Approximately 6,000 people were rapidly recruited to work in the NHS’s new 111 coronavirus response service (CRS), mostly contracted to private operators. NHS England has said that they were carefully selected, screened and trained. But some recruits to the CRS have told the Guardian they had no experience and negligible training before beginning to handle calls. Two people who worked for the French corporation Teleperformance, at call centres in Gateshead and Ashby, also said there was no social distancing there. Teleperformance insists it has adhered to government guidelines at all its call centres and provided the requisite training.

Poore, 63, had been helping his daughter, Alyshia Richardson, run a pub until their contract ended in January. They both found work as temps at a 111 call centre in Ashford, Kent run by the South East Coast ambulance service (Secamb), paid £9.17 an hour.

Secamb is a regular NHS 111 provider. It says it did not become part of the CRS and it has taken on 149 new call handlers to deal with additional workload since the start of the pandemic.

Unlike new CRS call handlers who could be giving advice to the public immediately, guided by a flowchart or algorithm, at Secamb the service advisers’ role was to take initial details from callers and, if they appeared to have Covid-19 symptoms, pass them on to an already trained 111 health adviser.





NHS call centre in Ashford



The NHS call centre in Ashford where Poore and his daughter worked. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

It was a stressful job. “We had people calling up very distressed, some saying they wanted to end their life,” Richardson said. “It really affected me; I worried about them, whether they got the help they needed.”

Yet for the 111 call centre staff themselves, she and her father said, there was no robust protection.

“There was no social distancing,” said Poore, who has diabetes which he was then managing through his diet. “The biggest distance between people was half a metre to a metre. People were sitting close together at the workstations and directly facing opposite; they could be coughing and spluttering.”

He believes he must have contracted Covid-19 in the call centre, first calling in sick on 30 March, because as lockdown had been announced on 23 March and some restrictions a week earlier, he had only been driving to work and then home again and not going anywhere else.





Stephen Poore discharged from hospital



Poore was discharged from Canterbury hospital in August. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

By 7 April, struggling to breathe, he was taken by ambulance to the William Harvey hospital in Ashford. Within three days he was put into a coma and on to a ventilator. He came out of hospital in a wheelchair on 19 August. “The next day was our 43rd wedding anniversary,” he said. “I’d missed the wife’s birthday, so I wasn’t going to miss that.”

The virus has taken a heavy toll. “I was fit and fine before; now it’s more or less clear I’ll never work again. It’s a long road ahead. My stamina and fitness are out the window. If it weren’t for my wife and kids, I wouldn’t be here. They fought for me tooth and nail.”

Richardson also contracted the virus, but did not suffer as severely as her father.

“They only put social distancing in place at the call centre after my dad was in hospital,” she said. “My mum phoned them up and said it was disgusting.

“My dad went in there healthy; now he’s blind, in a wheelchair. His lungs failed, his kidneys failed, he needs insulin for his diabetes. We couldn’t go and see him in hospital, which affected his recovery and my mum’s mental health. It’s been horrendous.”





Stephen Poore and his wife, Louise, in 2006



Stephen Poore and his wife, Louise, in 2006. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

A Secamb spokesperson insisted that social distancing was in place at the call centre when Poore and Richardson worked there, as well as temperature checks, a testing policy and alcohol hand gel and disinfectant wipes at work stations.

However, four other people who worked at the call centre at the time told the Guardian there was no social distancing before Poore became ill. Sandra Dyson, who joined in early March, said staff were all sitting closely together at workstations. “One day after Steve had gone to hospital, they came and put yellow tape across every other desk, so we had that space between us then,” she said.

Samantha Fisk, who worked in the same team as Poore and Richardson, also recalled no social distancing until the tape was put across the workstations in April. “We were crammed in together,” she said, “and we all used the same coffee and small seating areas too. I had Covid symptoms myself in early April and was off sick.”

Do you have information about this story? Email david.conn@theguardian.com, or (using a non-work phone) use Signal or WhatsApp to message +44 7584 640566

Secamb said in a statement that “significant numbers” of its workforce had not become “seriously unwell” during the pandemic, and it had supported those who contracted Covid-19.

“Our thoughts are with Mr Poore and his family as he continues his recovery. We take staff welfare extremely seriously and have acted quickly in line with national guidance and government advice throughout the Covid-19 pandemic to protect both our staff and patients,” it said.

“From early March we introduced infection control measures at our NHS 111 contact centre in Ashford and other worksites. We have continued to adapt our workplaces throughout the pandemic to mitigate against the spread of the virus.”

Poore is doing his best to maintain his sense of humour. “We got a job in NHS 111 to give advice to people about the coronavirus, and I’m pretty sure that’s where I caught it,” he said. “This will be my party story for the rest of my days.”

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