Hospital restrictions lifted, but stay vigilant to viruses

The young people who are volunteering with Northumbria Healthcare as part of the national HelpForce project.
The young people who are volunteering with Northumbria Healthcare as part of the national HelpForce project.

Welcome to this month’s matron column, bringing you up to date with all of the developments in our NHS Foundation Trust in the Morpeth area.

Since my last column in December, it’s certainly been a very busy time for our teams at the Whalton Unit, across the trust and for the NHS as a whole.

Volunteers Ethan Mackey and Lauren Seabrook, both 16 and from King Edward VI School in Morpeth, with patient Audrey Greenwell at The Northumbria Hospital.

Volunteers Ethan Mackey and Lauren Seabrook, both 16 and from King Edward VI School in Morpeth, with patient Audrey Greenwell at The Northumbria Hospital.

We do expect demand to rise at this time of year, however, for us since before Christmas this has been exacerbated by outbreaks of flu and norovirus, often known as the winter vomiting bug.

We expect that when flu and norovirus are circulating in the community — as they have been, and continue to do so to a lesser extent — they will affect our hospitals, and this is exactly what has been happening across the NHS trust.

Both illnesses are unpleasant for sufferers, but most fit and healthy people do make a full recovery from them.

Norovirus, in particular, usually clears up by itself within a few days.

Flu, however, can be outright dangerous for the frail and elderly, those with long-term conditions and weaker immune systems, or the very young.

These viruses are very easily passed on by patients and visitors within hospitals.

And the most important thing people can do to help control the spread of them is regularly washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water.

In order to reduce the spread of these viruses, we took the unprecedented step of imposing visitor restrictions across our trust at the end of last year.

This meant that there was no visiting on affected wards at all.

Meanwhile, visiting was restricted on unaffected wards to one hour per day, and it was also limited to two relatives or friends per patient.

No children under the age of 16 were permitted to visit patients, given the fact that young people are more likely to pass on the viruses.

I fully appreciate that all of this would have been disappointing for relatives who have not been able to visit their family member or friend in hospital at all, or as much as they would have liked to, this winter.

However, the restrictions really did make a difference in helping us to control the virus.

And I’m pleased to say that, due to the decreasing numbers of cases, the restrictions have now been lifted.

All wards across the trust are now reverting to the usual visiting arrangements that were in place before the restrictions were imposed.

I would like to thank the public for their co-operation, understanding and patience while we dealt with these outbreaks.

Your support was greatly appreciated.

However, while our restrictions have been lifted, we must all continue to play our part in reducing the spread of viruses.

I would urge people with flu-like symptoms, or those of diarrhoea and vomiting, not to come into hospital at all, either to visit or to seek help.

The best thing for you to do if you are feeling unwell with these symptoms is to stay at home and drink plenty of fluids.

If you do feel you need help, visit your pharmacist, contact your GP surgery, or ring NHS 111, which is a free service and open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The last thing we want is for visitor restrictions to have to come back into force in our hospitals.

There’s also a reminder that it’s never too late to have an NHS flu vaccination if you’re eligible and you haven’t done so already.

Simply, contact your GP to arrange this at the earliest opportunity.

People who are eligible include adults over the age of 18 at risk of flu, such as those with long-term conditions (including everyone aged 65 and over), as well as pregnant women and children aged six months to two years who are at risk of flu.

Speak to your GP if you’re not sure and arrange an appointment.

As you may know, we have hundreds of volunteers in our trust.

These people have, for many years, played a much-valued role in our organisation, making a difference to patients and staff.

Due to these strong foundations, we have been chosen to be part of a new national drive to boost volunteering across the NHS.

We’re initially focussing on youth volunteering, and to this end, we have now recruited 28 local young people to improve patients’ experiences in our hospitals.

The pupils, from King Edward VI School in Morpeth and St Benet Biscop Catholic Academy in Bedlington, will volunteer on wards at The Northumbria hospital, Cramlington, and Wansbeck General Hospital.

Spending dedicated time with patients while they are staying on wards, the young volunteers are working in pairs to facilitate activities that aim to increase social interaction.

By no means are we asking them to take on the duties of paid staff, however, they do contribute to the delivery of high-quality patient care by enabling our staff to focus on their roles.

Young people have an incredible amount to offer society and, as a trust, we’re passionate about opening up opportunities to help them develop and to gain an insight into life in the NHS.

It’s so important when patients, particularly older people, have company and interaction while they’re in hospital.

Simple activities, such as chatting about old times, playing cards or reading out loud, can all help to improve their health and wellbeing, have a positive impact on their recovery and help them get better more quickly.

We launched the project in our trust last week and it was fantastic to see the young people’s enthusiasm and eagerness to get involved. We’re looking forward to seeing how they get on and the benefits they will bring to our patients.

Before I sign off, I wanted to welcome local GP Alistair Blair to our trust, who has taken up the role as GP Medical Director.

Alistair will lend a clinical voice to our leadership team and advocate for the patient at the top of our organisation.

Qualifying as a family doctor in 1999, many of you will know Alistair as a GP partner with Wellway Medical Group, and he will continue to work as a GP two days a week, mainly at the practice’s Lynemouth surgery.

Alistair led the county’s NHS Clinical Commissioning Group since November 2010, before being appointed as its Chief Clinical Officer in July 2012.

That just leaves me to encourage you all to take steps to stay well for the rest of the winter, and thanks again for your support while our visitor restrictions were in place.