Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK, Dr Alex George has been working on the NHS frontline. At the moment, along with campaigning and talking about the crisis on TV, the former Love Islander is working 2-3 ten hour shifts a week at Lewisham Hospital's A&E department. And with a mounting number of infections - 1,449 people died yesterday - Alex, 30, has witnessed the impact on the NHS firsthand.
‘The daily deaths are very scary,’ Alex tells Grazia. ‘[There’s] a huge number of patients coming to the A&E department, it just puts so much pressure on us. It’s really hard as well, because obviously staff are feeling fatigue. Doctors and nurses are off sick, either with Covid, or long Covid, or with burnout - so it’s been pretty tough.’
‘[When we did] the first round, there was a lot of adrenalin and a huge amount of public support. You forced yourself mentally to get through, but it’s hard now, because we've all been so tired for such a long time,’ Alex adds. ‘We're fed up, just like the public is. We just want the back of it. And it’s relentless - I think what's difficult is the emotional toll of it, each patient who is sick requires a really high level of care.’
Coronavirus has completely transformed how hospital staff work, and the doctor says the biggest challenge has been a lack of contact when things take a turn for the worse. ‘I think the most difficult thing has been end of life care,’ Alex adds. ‘If someone was dying with us in A&E, we would arrange for families to come in as much as physically possible.’ Now, we all know this sadly can't be the case. ‘It’s really hard because you feel like a bad cop a lot of the time,’ he says. ‘And we're not used to being like that, we want to help and be caring, and that is really, really tough. PPE undoubtedly takes away a lot of our social interactions, like squeezing the hand, and the sort of stuff we'd usually do to support someone - it’s just not the same.’
While the doctor is cautious of lockdown three restrictions being lifted too early - ‘as Prof. Chris Whitty said in the briefing the other day, there is no flex in the system, the NHS cannot cope with any more strain’ - Alex says there is a light at the end of the tunnel thanks to the vaccine rollout. ‘We just need that vaccination rollout absolutely ramped up, 24/7 around the clock,' he adds.
One of the things Alex is most passionate about is advocating for better mental health awareness and structures in schools. Alex spoke to Grazia last month, but since, he has been appointed young mental health ambassador by the government. It’s a cause close to his heart, as his younger brother Llŷr tragically lost his life last year, at the age of 19, following a battle with mental health. ‘I think everyone can say that this year has affected their mental health that we've all been put under strain,’ Alex says.
‘But I think, as adults, we are able to cope with things much better than children. Children don't have the same coping mechanisms, or the understanding necessarily, to be able to deal with some situations,’ he adds, 'so they need support more than ever. And if you look at mental health, in children and young adolescents, we were facing a crisis before the pandemic. Rates of suicide are on the rise - anxiety, depression and eating disorders are all on the rise - so it was time we did something anyway.'
As part of his campaign, Alex wants mental health to stand on the curriculum alongside core subjects, along with better training and mental health care for teachers, and a mental health counselor at every school. ‘I want to make sure the government follows their promise of putting a mental health lead in every school in England, which they are nowhere near doing at the moment,’ he says. ‘Two years ago, they made a green paper which said every school in England would have a mental health lead [but at the government's] current rate, we won't hit 25% of that target until 2023, which is ridiculous. We're miles off, so we want them to stick to what they're already saying.’
You can listen to Dr Alex's podcast, The Waiting Room, here