“Expectation and Anxiety”: A front-line medic talks about two years of infection with the Covid virus


Years before this Sunday, Peter Atwood became Britain’s first known victim of Covid-19 at the age of 84.

He had spent weeks at Midway Naval Hospital in Kent struggling to breathe, although doctors initially put his death to bronchial pneumonia and secondary heart failure. Seven months later, an autopsy based on samples from his lungs found evidence of Covid-19.

While his family was grieving, the respiratory virus that was initially discovered in the central Chinese city of Wuhan was spreading across Europe. Hospitals in northern Italy have been pushed to the brink, with doctors forced to triage patients and more than 700 people dying a day.

In the UK, scientists looked nervously and ministers flicked off anti-epidemic strategies long shuttered in Whitehall offices. It was another six weeks before Boris Johnson ordered the country to “stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives”.

As the rest of the nation grapples with working from home and walking once a day, staff at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in west London braced for a challenge on a scale they had never imagined before.

“We’ve done a lot of work over the years to deal with pandemic influenza, but Covid came and surprised us a little bit,” says Eileen Manderson, chief critical care nurse at Chelsea and Westminster NHS Trust.

“We were dusting off the plans we made, but we didn’t know much about the disease. There were a lot of questions we couldn’t answer.”

Chelsea and Westminster NHS Trust

Manderson, 48, contracted Covid before the first national shutdown and spent two weeks in self-isolation. When she returned, the hospital was “completely transformed” as staff in intensive care were recruited from other wards.

“We were dealing with a great deal of uncertainty,” she says. “There was a constant flow of patients coming in through A&E and a lot of employee absences. You never knew from day to day how many employees you had.”

But she says nurses and doctors “come together” in a time of crisis.

We’ve never dealt with anything like this before. In my 30 years of nursing, I’ve never seen anything like this before.