Feeding the Frontline Hospital Workers During the Crisis

Critical NHS providing food and supplies to staff at St. George's

Husband and wife team Janneke Diemel and Niall Barrett with volunteer Morris Tolaran
Husband and wife team Janneke Diemel and Niall Barrett with volunteer Morris Tolaran. Picture: @CriticalNhs

Last March husband and wife team Janneke Diemel and Niall Barrett set up Critical NHS to provide daily food and essentials to doctors and nurses at St George’s Hospital.

They were interviewed by everyone from the BBC to Reuters about their innovative community action group – which recently started back up again to help keep NHS heroes going during the second wave.

We caught up with them to hear how things have been going during the latest lockdown.

Janneke Diemel, 51, from Furzedown is busier than ever, helping to co-ordinate or deliver food packages for more than 10 hospitals in London and the South East.

Over the summer, Critical NHS focused its attention on the homeless and other people made particularly vulnerable by the impact of the pandemic.

But when the second lockdown came in November, they set to work again to feed staff at St George’s with a Friday treat to boost their mental well-being.

“It was just to say ‘look, we haven’t forgotten about you. We know there’s still Covid patients. We know you’re still working in PPE and doing long shifts’, so it’s more of a thank you to the NHS.”

In the run up to Christmas they helped to provide hampers to staff, but by New Year’s Day, it was clear that the situation had escalated.

With only about £6-7,000 left in their PayPal account, they set up during the first wave, they feared they didn’t have enough money to step up again.

But then they were approached by ITV for a feel-good segment at the end of their programme on the announcement of the third lockdown, which helped to raise another £35-40,000 pounds. Critical NHS was back.

Co-founder of Critical NHS Niall Barrett delivering Christmas meals to Covid-ward staff
Co-founder of Critical NHS Niall Barrett delivering Christmas meals to Covid-ward staff

This time around, hospitals were a bit more organised and were already providing meals for their front-line workers, with Critical NHS there for extra support.

“We know, they’re working 12-13 hour shifts, they’re wearing claustrophobic Covid PPE, and they’re exhausted because they’ve been on their feet for hours on end,” said Janneke.

“[The food we can provide] it’s to say, ‘we know you’re working your butts off, so here’s something either to take away and bring home with you at the end of the day so you don’t have to think about what you’re eating tonight, or something that you can eat during the day that’s healthy and nutritious and again just makes life easier for you.'”

This time Critical NHS is partnering with other groups and helping to fund them to provide meals and treats to front-line workers.

Like the first wave, Critical NHS is also purchasing from and supporting local businesses and caterers to help them keep going.

Janneke says the team were “much slicker this time” because a lot of the stuff was already in place and just needed to be ramped up again.

Although it took a couple of weeks to get all the drivers back and the rotas organised, the team already had a presence on Twitter to help them mobilise.

“We had our website, we had our PayPal, we had a lot of stuff which was non-existent the last time round,” she said.

But there are a few differences..

“We’re not feeding every day. St George’s still remains our most active, we’re feeding them four times a week, whereas for instance, in Croydon, we’re doing one big drop, but that food will last three days,” said Janneke.

This is because their partners, Mustard Foods, help to provide chilled meals which can sit in the fridges for staff to collect and take home.

Janneke says one of the best parts is still seeing the excited faces of the doctors and nurses when they drop off a treat like a pizza or a curry.

“You can tell that they’re just, you know, like kids in a sweet shop. And that’s nice. You know, it’s just lovely to see smiles on their faces when we know the reality of what’s going on in the wards.”

Staff have told her that recent weeks have been the worst it’s ever been, as staff were stretched, leaving teams in ICU “absolutely ragged”.

Critical NHS is currently planning to run until the end of March, but this will be reviewed nearer the time.

During the first wave, they ran from March to May, but Janneke says they may have to help for slightly longer as the patients are living for longer this time, meaning they need more care.

“We’ll continue to do what we did last time, which was to support the vulnerable and those who we felt needed it most – those suffering from Covid poverty.”

If they have any large sums of money left they are planning to donate it to the charity Mind – and ring fence it for NHS staff and those affected by coronavirus.

Sian Bayley - Local Democracy Reporter

January 27, 2021