Hospital, a BBC Two documentary, tells the story of doctors and nurses stretched to the limit as the hospital filled up with patients during September and October while the £4 million new Rainbow ward lay empty and unused.
Covid-19 infections across the Borough of Barnet had tripled within a week and much of the hour-long tv broadcast charts heroic efforts to manage the hospital’s chronic bed shortage and its success in treating elderly patients.
One of a BBC series about the work of the Royal Free Hospital Trust, the programme is a fitting tribute to the long history of Barnet Hospital which in November celebrated the 100th anniversary of the official opening of what in the 1920s was known as the Wellhouse Hospital.
The broadcast opens with scenes recorded on September 2 when staff were facing a resurgence in Covid-19 infections and the hospital was admitting more patients than it was discharging; 21 patients were waiting to be moved from the emergency department.
Staff took immediate action over the following days to try to increase discharges but were hampered by delays to the completion of the new Rainbow ward.
One of the hospital’s main wards for elderly patients had to be cleared to make room for infected patients who needed to be isolated.
The shortage of beds at Barnet was clear from start of the first wave of the pandemic when together the Royal Free at Hampstead and Barnet Hospital treated nearly 2,000 positive covid-19 patients.
In March, NHS England provided the trust with £4 million to build a new 35-bed unit, with 15 side rooms for isolation, to cope with the pandemic.
This single-storey ward has been constructed on the south-east side of the hospital, facing Bells Hill, and was finally opened after a two-month delay because of concerns about asbestos, electrical faults and fears about possible contamination to its water supply, perhaps by legionnaires disease.
The closing sequence to the programme shows the new Rainbow ward getting the all-clear to open and the first covid-19 patient being moved across, the first of the transfers that allowed the ward being used in the main hospital to be deep cleaned and returned to elderly care.
Sarah Stanley, divisional director, expressed her delight that finally Rainbow was open for use.
By having a new covid-19 secure ward available outside the main hospital building, the staff would be able to protect infected patients during a winter crisis, as well as protect the rest of the hospital’s patients.
She admitted staff were exhausted by the pressures of Covd-19, but the pandemic had forced Barnet Hospital to test procedures which the administration had not thought were possible – a point echoed at the start of the programme when the commentary describes how the Royal Free Trust had overcome challenges as extreme as they were unprecedented.
The Borough of Barnet had one of the oldest populations in London, with nearly 100 care homes, and five of Barnet Hospital’s wards were dedicated to elderly care.
At the start of the second wave of infections there was no space for new Covid-19 patients and patients in the emergency department were waiting up to 15 hours for a bed.
Specialists teams began to assess older patients to see if they could be discharged but there were added problems because it was taking two days to get the result of a covid-19 test and patients could not be moved from isolation without negative swab.
At one point an entire bay of a third-floor ward had to be shut down for 14 days because a patient had tested positive.
Much of the footage follows step-by-step the care of several patients, including Sheila, aged 78, who had been admitted after a heart attack and who had to be treated in isolation until a test showed she was negative.
At this point, divisional director Sarah Stanley reflected on the fact that a bed shortage had been a long-term problem at Barnet; even if all the hospital’s side rooms were used for isolation the hospital was full.
Because it lacked a covid-19 secure assessment area, NHS England had provided the money for the construction of Rainbow ward but it was already four weeks behind schedule and infected patients were moved into a ward for the elderly – a problem that was exacerbated when an additional four patients arrived after an outbreak of Covid-19 at a local care home.
Tim Gluck, consultant geriatrician, described the steps that had to be taken before returning a patient who remained positive but who could be cared for in a separate room at a care home.
The challenge was to establish a “new normal” for managing infections in care homes.
A sequence filmed on September 28 illustrated Sarah Stanley’s frustration that Rainbow ward still was not ready for use.
As she walked along its corridor, she said it was like the Marie Celeste and without the much needed extra capacity the hospital was struggling when Barnet had highest number of covid-19 patients and more patients than any other borough; cases had tripled in the preceding two weeks.
Anastasia was another patient whose treatment was featured. She had been isolating at home for covid-19 when she collapsed and dislocated her ankle.
Consultant orthopaedic surgeon Paddy Subramanian led the team which managed to manipulate the ankle back into shape without surgery.
When she continued to test positive, she became the first patient to be moved into Rainbow ward on the day it was opened for use. She had the first choice of the new beds.
Sheila’s recovery, due in large part to the efforts of physiotherapist Katie Faulkner, provided an emotional final sequence as she left hospital through the main entrance to Barnet Hospital and was seen being greeted by her son, his wife and grandchildren.
Daughter in law Sarah said her mother in law’s recovery was an “NHS miracle”.
Throughout the programme there are numerous aerial shots of Barnet Hospital and the surrounding area. Shots from inside the hospital look out on the neighbourhood, across the Totteridge Valley towards Whetstone.
Seeing the ward names Juniper and Palm as the cameras move around the hospital will perhaps remind viewers of their visits to see elderly relatives and patients.
Barnet Hospital, with its clean, modern lines, is a far cry the old and often decrepit buildings that have been demolished over the years and have left no trace of its earlier incarnations.
Barnet Union workhouse was built in 1836 and in 1914, despite the outbreak of World War I, the Barnet Guardians built a new infirmary, only to have it taken over by the Army Council when it was renamed Barnet War Hospital.
In October 1919, the infirmary was handed back to the Guardians, it was renamed Wellhouse Hospital, and officially opened in November 1920 by the Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire, Lord Hampden
Hospital (30.11.2020) was a joint BBC production in partnership the Open University and is available on iPlayer.