Healthcare Security During the COVID19 Pandemic by John Currie

                There is little or no chance of escaping the fact that COVID-19 has created unparalleled challenges and demands on the whole world but rather than talk of the global impact or the socio economic issues we are all facing, this article discusses some of the experiences, challenges and situations Healthcare Security Officers have had to deal with.

                In the early part of January, the news reports of this new and unknown ‘killer virus’ were becoming the only headlines on our news channels and before long we saw our first COVID positive patient in the UK.  Discussions on how this could impact on the UK were being ramped up as were the Business Continuity and Emergency Planning activities in preparation for what we knew was coming.  Hospital supply chains and staff recall plans were mobilised and it was not long before the Military stepped in to assist and RAF Brize Norton became the destination for a flight returning UK citizens from China.  We all know only too well how this developed and how the situation snowballed and before long we went into Lockdown.  The right to go where you like and when you like was put on hold and Security professionals across the country mobilised and activated their security protocols and locked down their own locations.  It could be argued that Healthcare Security may have had an easier task in implementing Lockdown as this is a well-practiced process and protocol and ensuring we can lockdown and secure a department, Emergency Department or Hospital is nothing strange to us.  Our plans and protocols are fully developed and in the vast majority of Hospitals, these have been well tested and exercised with some NHS Trusts being able to say they have tested their plans in real time.  As the UK Lockdown took effect and the NHS suspended all visiting in Hospitals, some of the following questions were being asked:

How do we refuse access to relatives who only want to see their loved one?

How do we deal with relatives who only want to say goodbye to their loved one as we are being told we cannot let anyone in? 

                In the vast majority of instances, Security Officers had to refuse all visitor access which is really difficult and hard for people to understand and so conveying this very difficult message takes skill but more importantly, it relies on empathy, a clear and unambiguous stance and exceptionally good communication.  However, there were occasions and exceptions with some relatives being allowed in to see their relative or partner but when this was authorised, the visitor had to wear full PPE – gloves, apron, eye protection, facemask and even visors.  Touching and even holding their relatives’ hand was extremely limited due to the risks associated with transference of this new disease, however, this aspect of the interaction was dealt with by the amazing Doctors, Nurses and Health Care Assistants who worked tirelessly to ensure their patients received the best possible care going.

                Another question and topic that caused us all grave concerns was the one below:

We are experiencing an increase in violence towards Healthcare staff – Incidents of spitting in the face of Security Officers by people stating they are COVID positive.  What are you doing to keep us safe and what can we do to address this?

                Spitting is abhorrent in my view and after having a face full of spit whilst at an East London Health Centre a few years ago, I fully appreciate and understand how disgusting this is.  We must remember that this is a criminal assault and where a Security Officer is working for an NHS Trust, they are covered by the Assaults on Emergency Worker (Offences) Act and as such, this offence should be prosecuted as such.  No one should ever have to accept or tolerate being abused, assaulted or threatened, however, I have received reports of some Security Officers around the Country refusing to prosecute physical assaults and even more shockingly, refusing to prosecute spitting assault accompanied by the most racist abuse going. 

                What were we doing to protect our Security Officers? – The importance of Healthcare Security and the need for Security Officers to support COVID-19 was very quickly recognised and their involvement and interaction with patients was clear.  The use of PPE including face shields became the norm very quickly but as the virus was a complete unknown, there was a degree of confusion amongst the public on what they should do and whether or not a face mask was necessary.  We will all remember the Wash your Hands message; I even tweeted this message out to my followers and @NAHS_UK followers, but is still extremely good advice and forms the basis of the standard Security and Safety briefing given to staff.

                We (Security Officers) have to restrain patients who are COVID positive or suspected to be COVID positive.  How can we do this safely? 

                I think we will all agree, restraining a person is not a pleasant event and is something that all Security Officers try their best to avoid but it is something that we have to do on occasion.  Add dementia to this scenario and things become even more complicated and challenging for the Security team so adding the risk of COVID-19 to the event and this is something that no one wants to do.  In short, the protocol was to, where possible, avoid physical contact but where Security were deployed to a COVID-19 positive treatment areas there were in full PPE and any patient contact was only ever undertaken with the correct protection.  Nevertheless, this did not remove the fear of contracting COVID-19 and so colleagues around the country were ensuring their Security teams were fully briefed, trained in the correct use of PPE; none of this wearing the face mask below the nose and especially, reminding staff not to touch the mask as this increases the risk of introducing the virus onto the fabric of the mask. 

                As you can see from this very limited selection of some of the key issues we faced during the Pandemic, our Healthcare Security officers and Managers had to be PPE experts, advisers, counsellors and mediators.  They had to be able to de-escalate conflict along with managing the frustration and grief of relatives, employing empathy and compassion as well as being able to restrain safely to ensure the removal of difficult, abusive and violent individuals from NHS premises.  Add to this a requirement to maintain crime reduction patrols, general security of NHS services and locations, staff safety and managing the dreaded issue of car parking and you are some of the way to skills required of our Healthcare Security professionals.

                One aspect of the job that saw a significant increase was the theft of NHS property.  We have seen an increase in theft but rather than the ‘usual’ items, we have seen thieves targeting PPE.  Thieves were stealing face masks, hand gel and even plastic gowns and goggles which they sell on at greatly inflated prices.  A quick check on that well know auction site and other similar marketplaces will bring up a myriad of items for sale that should have been in a Hospital.

                What this pandemic has shown me and many of my colleagues from around the country is that we have exceptional Healthcare Security Officers, Managers, Reception and support staff who have stepped up in time of national crisis.  They have worked closely with our medical and clinical staff to ensure they are able to deliver the best and most appropriate healthcare to our patients 24/7.  Our Healthcare Security staff have unfalteringly delivered a well-rounded, caring yet robust and professional service whilst maintaining our ultimate aim of keeping our patients and staff safe and secure.

Thank you to each and every one of you out there. 

You have done, and are continuing to do,

an absolutely fantastic job!

John Currie

John Currie: NAHS Executive Director for Publicity, Social Media, IT and Membership & Head of Security and NHS Accredited Local Security Management Specialist (ASMS) for Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust

John is a former Royal Air Force Police Special Investigator (CID and Drug Squad). He ran the Drugs and Criminal Intelligence cell and left the military in 2006. He gained his NHS Security Management ASMS accreditation in 2007 and has worked across all sectors of the NHS. He has a particular interest in the integration of SBD, BREEAM, Security Master Planning and incorporating proven target hardening measures into new build and redevelopment projects. Experienced in Mental Health Acute and Forensic services, he now works closely with two Mental Health Trusts who are hosted on his acute hospital sites. In addition to the ‘normal’ day job John delivers Lone Worker Training, Personal Safety skills and PREVENT and Counter Terrorism awareness training.