This is an account of a professional actor/musician who became a greengrocer and of a surgeon who became an activist and cofounder of a charity. It is a telling of the incredible power and resilience of community in the face of crisis, and of political failings. Of two women, who collaborated, to create the Scottish branch of a charity (Medsupplydrive UK 1190337), that UK wide delivered over 500,000 pieces of high quality PPE donated from industry, to the desperate health and social care workers who needed it most; and to make music together, during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hannah is my best pal. In March 2020 she was touring in a show Pride and Prejudice (*sort of). It was when they were playing their 100th show in Bristol, when Scottish lockdown was announced. The tour abruptly ended and she returned home. By May 2020 she had become an “essential worker” as a greengrocer in her local. Everyone in Pollockshields now knows her, for her warmth and for her humour. She will have been potentially the only person that a person saw, when they were allowed out of their homes for their essential shop following days and days alone inside, and she will have been kind to them. I am very proud of her.
I was working as a reconstruction surgery trainee and researcher in one of the biggest hospitals in Glasgow when the pandemic hit. Many members of our team were redeployed at short notice to look after COVID-19 patients. I spent months redeployed to the emergency department, and volunteered in ICU looking after COVID-19 patients.
I was told in March that “we have two weeks of PPE left and then we don’t know what will happen”, that “the supply chains are broken”. Our anaesthetist who was intubating COVID-19 patients on the nightshift had not been given goggles to protect her from splashes in her eyes, so I brought her a pair that was donated from Innex Home Supplies. It was terrifying.
So, I gathered around me a group of trusted family, friends and colleagues, and we made new friends, and colleagues. We played to our strengths; with my Aunty Kay who is a fashion and textiles lecturer heading up a scrub hub of volunteers who made over 2,000 pairs of scrubs from donated material in an empty school, Hannah and her partner Ella (who is a teacher) coordinated volunteers, my colleague Eleanor and I engaged with politicians and experts in occupational health and PPE and my friends Ryan and Tingy who are journalists helped us gain media coverage, my friend Vicki (an IT consultant) created our website, Louise an operating department practitioner and artist coordinated media content and Rhona, a secretary, coordinated all of us. A social media call out over a weekend resulted in 400 extra people volunteering to help us. Many of them cold called industry to find high quality PPE in furloughed companies and warehouses, and directed it to the frontline where it was urgently needed. Glasgow Taxis soon began delivering the PPE donations, for free, all over Scotland. We joined forces with groups in the Highlands, and in London who were doing the same work until it became a UK wide effort (Medsupplydrive UK https://www.medsupplydrive.org.uk/).
Soon it became clear that it was the quality and not just the quantity of PPE that was dangerous. We know that the most common mode of COVID-19 infection transmission is through the air. We also know that surgical masks cannot protect people from infections spread through the air we breathe.
Yet, to this day, the majority of UK health care workers are still only provided with a surgical mask when caring for patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19. Amnesty International (2020) reported that the UK has one of the highest COVID-19 health care worker death rates in the world.
I joined with the CEOs and Chair People of 28 different UK professional organisations, Unions and Royal Colleges; providing representation for all job roles and workers in the NHS and Social Care. We met with the Scottish Chief Medical Officer, the First Minister of Scotland, DHSC and IPC Cell policy makers; we showed them scientific evidence that COVID-19 is in the air and that a mask called an FFP3 respirator and ventilation (using HEPA filters) protects people from breathing it in. Centres in other countries had achieved a 0% worker death rate from COVID-19 in care settings that used these measures, by March 2020.
There are massive equality issues with PPE to contend with; as current FFP3 disposable masks are designed for the white male face and don’t fit others well, or at all. So, in my hours outside of working in the hospital, I worked with PPE manufacturers to design better ones. Reusable P3 (FFP3 grade) respirators, that would protect the worker, be comfortable, be easy to communicate through and last for years of wear with simple cleaning so that they would be cost effective (10x cheaper) and better for the environment.
There is a postcode lottery and we are still not being listened to. So far 32 trusts in England are using FFP3 grade masks, some of them have reusable P3 respirators or special protective hoods for every worker. In Scotland, two years into the pandemic, we are still routinely provided with surgical masks when working on COVID-19 wards and we are still not allowed to use reusable options.
We are still campaigning. And we will keep campaigning.
We want to thank all of the people who have supported us during the pandemic. Those who have dedicated their time, energy, talents, knowledge, bravery and compassion to helping those around them. It gives us hope and it keeps us going.
I'm too tired...
Hannah and I started playing music together in 2017. It is our happy place and during the pandemic it gave us solace and connection. We recycled the apple boxes from the green grocers to sound proof our respective attic space and storage cupboard, to make little cosy sound booths; taught ourselves to use recording interfaces and programmes and shared with each other these love letters in song over the internet. We now have an album in the works, and hope to release it in 2022 under the collaboration name CLRTheory. Watch this space.
Lyrics and music, harmonium, percussion, field recordings by Gill Higgins
Vocals by Gill Higgins and Hannah Jarrett-Scott
Mixed by Calum Paterson
Mastered by James Grant (Sweet Wave Audio)
Album arrangement and production Gill Higgins and Hannah Jarrett-Scott
Artwork by Sébastien Sauvêtre
Music video by Bartholomew Owl
Photography by Oisín Kealy