NHS worker who died from Covid 'was not put at risk', manager claims

Mark Woolcock who died from Covid-19 on April 20, 2020 at Newham University Hospital

Mark Woolcock died from Covid-19 on April 20, 2020, at Newham University Hospital following suspected exposure to coronavirus patients - Credit: PA

The managers of an NHS employee who died from Covid-19 were scrambling to put policies in place to ensure the safety of staff and did not believe workers were put at risk, an inquest has heard.

Stratford man Mark Woolcock died on April 20, 2020 at Newham University Hospital – where the 59-year-old had worked moving discharged patients to their homes or care homes for more than 17 years.

The inquest at Barking Town Hall, which is examining the staff safeguarding systems installed at the hospital, previously heard that Mr Woolcock felt unsafe at work and was worried about being exposed to the virus without adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).

In line with national guidelines at the time, drivers were equipped with gloves and aprons, but not with face masks, the inquest heard on Monday (February 28).

Abida Khan, who was one of two general managers working within the patient transport service at the time, told the inquest: “Our crews were concerned but at no point did we think there was a risk to them.”

In a message dated from March 2020 revealed to the hearing, Mr Woolcock wrote to a colleague that the hospital was “all corona” and that he was “scared s***less”.

Ms Khan told the inquest she was trying to protect the workers, including Mr Woolcock, acknowledging that she was "aware that staff were quite anxious".

“We were doing everything we could in the background to try and get systems and processes in place."

They were “waiting desperately” for pan-London guidance for patient transport drivers, which was not issued until March 27, she said.

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Ms Khan, who works for the Barts Health NHS Trust which runs the hospital, said that at those early stages of the pandemic non-emergency patient transport (NEPTS) workers such as Mr Woolcock were not required to carry anyone with Covid symptoms.

“According to our processes, I’m 100 per cent clear that we weren’t knowingly asking them to move Covid patients,” she said.

Patients that were due to be transported to hospital were screened via a call the day before, when they were asked whether they had a cough or fever, she said.

Ahead of transporting people from hospital, NEPTS drivers were expected to confirm with nurses on the ward that they did not have symptoms.

Any Covid-suspected patients were instead transported by the London Ambulance Service or a third-party private provider, Ms Khan explained, adding that NEPTS staff only started to drive them in April once they had been trained to do so.

Pressed by Adam Wagner, counsel to Mr Woolcock’s family, on why the policy that NEPTS staff did not transport coronavirus patients had not been put in writing, she acknowledged that “in hindsight” that would have been better.

Ms Khan, who is now communication and engagement lead within NEPTS, said she did not know how Mr Woolcock was infected.

She said: “It was a time where it wouldn’t be easy for anyone to say how someone contracted Covid”.

That sentiment was echoed by another witness, Deborah Whittle, a patient safety and quality adviser.

She said it was “very difficult to establish with absolute certainty” how Mr Woolcock caught the virus, but that it was “likely that the source of his Covid came through his work”.

The job required him to be physically close to patients, lifting them and accompanying them in the back of the vehicle.

Ms Whittle identified a patient Mr Woolcock transported who did not have any Covid symptoms, but tested positive several days later.

Mr Woolcock worked his last shift overnight on March 23, developing coronavirus symptoms within days that progressively worsened.

By April 3 he was struggling to breathe and was admitted to hospital.

His daughter, Tania Woolcock, told the inquest last week that her father was unhappy about collecting patients from hospital wards, where infected patients were not clearly segregated.

Ted Purcell, a national officer at the Community trade union, also argued drivers were being “put in danger” by being exposed to the virus on wards without enough PPE.

The inquest is set to last until Friday - March 4.