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A 999 call centre staffer in the East Midlands has described being “terrified” to go to work after raising concerns about coronavirus social-distancing measures.
Questions have also been raised after pictures were published publicly onto the East Midlands Ambulance Service’s Facebook page, showing staff members standing and sitting closely together – despite guidelines from Public Health England stating that “spaces in the workplace… [should be] optimised to allow social distancing to occur, wherever possible”.
One employee, who works at the service’s Lincoln operations centre, said: “I’m terrified, to be perfectly honest. I’ve spoken to colleagues who have been in tears – not just out of worry for themselves, but their loved ones who they’re going home to every day.
“Some adjustments have been made, but the way the office is set up in some areas you’re well within two metres from the nearest colleague.
“We all hot-desk, so you have to just sit wherever you can and wipe down your desk with an antibacterial wipe. All day there’s a constant movement of people starting and finishing their shifts.”
A spokesperson for EMAS said the service was “responding at pace” to the rapidly evolving situation.
Attention has also been drawn to posts on the service’s Facebook page, which show operation centre staff sitting or standing well within the two-metre range advised by the government to maintain social distancing.
A spokesperson for the service has apologised for the “mixed messages” conveyed by the pictures, which show workers clearly stood or sat closely together despite social distancing guidelines.
EMAS’ director of operations Ben Holdaway: “In our attempts to boost staff morale and thank individuals and colleagues for their generosity and kindness during this incredibly difficult time, we recognise it was a mistake to take photographs of staff together with donated items and to publish them on our social media.
“We apologise for the mixed message they gave, particularly in light of the changes we have and are making across our organisation to respond to the national guidance.”
The employee, who spoke to HuffPost UK about their worries, said: “People at the lowest grades don’t feel as though they can raise concerns and be taken seriously.
“Frontline staff are forced to take huge risks without the proper protection, which is a disgrace, but it feels like the fact that behind-the-scenes workers are also in precarious positions hasn’t really been discussed.
“We’re constantly told that everybody loves what they do because they are helping people, and nobody wants to let their colleagues, or the public, down.
“The situation is changing so quickly – it’s unprecedented. I understand that it’s difficult, but I do feel that more needs to be done to protect workers like us.”
It’s not the first time issues around conditions in NHS operations centres have emerged. Concerns have also been raised about other NHS call centres, with the BBC reporting in March that 111 call handlers in Plymouth had also been left “terrified” to go to work, with dozens of staff working “desk to desk”.
Holdaway explained: “Twice-weekly staff briefings are helping us to answer our staff’s questions, explore their ideas, and respond to anxieties shared with us, alongside the promotion of details for formal and informal support networks that are available.
“Together, across our NHS ambulance service, we are responding at pace to new and updated national Covid-19 guidance and measures. Some steps can be taken quickly, and others need a bit more time where building and technology infrastructure work is required.
“Last year, our control centres were refurbished to improve the working environment. Recently we announced additional steps to our control room staff at both of our centres, including the remodelling and use of recently vacated corporate areas to enable greater self-distancing and segregation of staff.”