COVID testing

THE NATIONAL Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) and Fire Minister Lord Stephen Greenhalgh discussed their ‘pride’ in the UK fire and rescue services’ (FRSs’) response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the early stages of lockdown, the NFCC, Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the national employer confirmed that additional activities to assist other key services during the pandemic had been agreed for FRS staff, including mask face fitting, delivering personal protective equipment (PPE), administering tests, and driving as well as training on driving ambulances.

In April, a further agreement saw 300 London Fire Brigade (LFB) firefighters drive ambulances and assist paramedics in London’s pandemic response, after news that firefighters would aim to protect the vulnerable in society by avoiding hospitals and care homes, as part of an agreed ‘critical risk-based service’.

Prior to this, FRS staff had been confirmed to be undertaking COVID-19 antigen testing, driving non blue light ambulance transport and non COVID patients, and training others to drive ambulances for the same services. Other activities ‘requested by partner organisations’ were ‘still under discussion’. Also in April, it was revealed that over 4,000 FRS staff had volunteered to assist the other key services, while a further 10,000 staff were ‘on standby to assist as and when required’.

In May, the three bodies agreed firefighters could build protective face shields for frontline NHS staff and care staff, and transfer patients from and to Nightingale hospitals, alongside packaging and repackaging food supplies. That month, the NFCC confirmed FRSs would ‘work with local partners to support care homes’ and stop the spread of COVID-19, and then confirmed that the FRS agreements have been ‘extended’ following ‘extensive negotiations’ that lasted ‘a number of days’.

FRSs ‘remain at the heart of the response’, and continued to undertake the agreed activities, with the potential to ‘extend further if joint work on reviewing assessments is agreed and concluded’. In June, it pointed out that with the pandemic potentially continuing ‘for the next few months, even years’, there will be changes for FRSs, before the NFCC shared FRS staff experiences during the lockdown.

The agreement was extended again in late July, though in August the FBU warned about an outbreak at Surrey Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS), which ‘wipe[d] out’ FRS cover, and it noted that FRSs ‘are required to plan for major emergencies like pandemics’, especially on the ‘impact they can have on staffing’. Most recently last month, the FBU announced that the agreement had been extended again, with FRSs preparing for the ‘second wave’.

As part of the extension of the agreement, FRSs had been asked to risk assess all COVID-19 response activities, ‘including those that haven’t been requested by Local Resilience Forums’, so that they are ‘ready for a second wave’, with that most recent extension lasting until 29 October but latterly extended again, and risk assessments for the nationally agreed activities were implanted locally, with the agreement able to be extended further beyond then.

The NFCC has now reported that chair Roy Wilsher and Lord Greenhalgh have appeared in a video to speak ‘about their pride’ in UK FRSs’ response to the pandemic, including the ‘350,000 activities carried out’ to assist. Lord Greenhalgh discussed his ‘appreciation’ for UK FRSs and Mr Wilsher gave his views on ‘the difference the additional activities have made to communities up and down the country’.

The NFCC shared that to date, FRSs have delivered over 111,000 essential items; assembled 68,135 single use face masks; transported nearly 25,000 items of PPE; fitted 4,135 face masks for frontline NHS and clinical care staff; trained staff to drive ambulances; packed 22,500 food parcels; taken over 1,000 antigen samples; transported 1,446 COVID-19 patients and 3,337 non COVID-19 patients to hospital; and assisted with moving over 2,000 bodies.

Mr Wilsher added: ‘I was delighted to be joined by Lord Greenhalgh to voice our gratitude in the unfaltering dedication of [FRSs], during these unprecedented times. Over the last few months staff volunteers from the entire [FRS] have shown how they want to support and help people during the pandemic. It just goes to show these extraordinary people are ready, willing and able to support communities, especially during times of crisis.

‘These are people who are taking on additional work, while maintaining emergency response, statutory duties and other vital work that the public have come to expect from their local fire service.’

Lord Greenhalgh said: ‘I was delighted to be part of this video, to share my absolute pride in how the UK’s [FRS] has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. I have heard many incredible stories over the last few months of staff volunteers going the extra mile to help the most vulnerable in their local communities, which goes to show just how [FRSs] are ready, willing and able to put the needs of local people front and centre to everything they do.”