LIFESTYLE FEATURES

Coronavirus doesn’t stop for Christmas: Meet the people keeping Britain running

From a shop owner and care worker to a Samaritan’s volunteer, Gillian Fisher speaks to those working through the festivities in 2020

Thursday 24 December 2020 14:09
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<p>Shop owner Jasbir Singh says he provides a ‘vital service’ over Xmas&nbsp;</p>

Shop owner Jasbir Singh says he provides a ‘vital service’ over Xmas 

On Christmas morning, care home assistant Trudy Dixon will get up at 6.30am, put the kettle on and prepare for a big day ahead. After donning a pair of reindeer antlers, the 37-year-old will say goodbye to her 12-year-old son and make her way to a private nursing home, where she'll begin an eight-hour shift.  

Dixon, who lives in West Sussex, will start the holiday by getting 19 elderly residents their breakfast. “We’re always running around like headless chickens on Christmas Day, she says, and describes working holidays as “part of the job”.  

Her team always does its best to lift residents’ spirits with Christmas films and festive treats. Normally, family members would come for Christmas lunch. This year they’ll only have staff to pull crackers with.

“We’ve just had a screened area installed, so we’re hoping [some] people will come to visit on the day at least.” The home is in tier 2, so hugs are permitted but have to be kept to a minimum, which Dixon describes as “heart-breaking”.   “Having to police physical contact and cuddles feels inhuman, but we need to keep our residents safe,” she says.  

Under current legislation, care home residents in tiers 1-3 can have two visitors twice a week, provided they test negative for coronavirus and wear full PPE. Close contact such as hand-holding or hugs are also permitted but should be kept to a minimum. Visits to care-homes in tier 4 however, will be conducted entirely behind substantial screens with any physical contact between loved ones off the Christmas menu.

“The hardest part of working through Covid-19 has been trying to explain to residents why their family can’t visit, and being their only link to the outside world. It’s been mentally and physically exhausting and we’ve all shed tears.” When asked if people appreciate her role more since lockdown, Dixon says: “We’re still mostly seen as unskilled bum wipers. Except for the NHS, frontline workers are mostly forgotten about.”

West Sussex care-home assistant, Trudy Dixon, will be working on Christmas Day

While most of us have been worrying about the coronavirus restrictions stopping us seeing family this Christmas, for thousands of people across the UK, 25 December will be business as usual. It’s not just determination and hope for better times that’s helped the UK keep safe and carry on in 2020. The dedication of more than seven million key workers, from builders to Deliveroo drivers, has kept the world turning.

Like Dixon, Jasbir Singh, 45, who owns a convenience store in Acton, will be opening the shutters as normal at 7am on Christmas Day. Far from being deserted, Singh says 25 December is a “busy time for the shop”. “It’s good to be here for people if they need things. During the first lockdown, the supermarkets ran out of things so lots of people came here,” he says. 

Singh says shops like his are “a big part of the community” and that he “feels happy helping people”, describing his shop as a vital service. He will celebrate Christmas "with family later, in the night-time”.

Lots of patients come in because they’ve run out of their medicine or have food poisoning

Pharmacies are another local service that has been heavily relied upon due to GP surgery closures, and more people having been diverted to their local chemist by NHS service 111. This year will mark pharmacy manager Susie Evans’ 25th Christmas shift. She says it’s rarely a peaceful yuletide.

“Lots of patients come in because they’ve run out of their medicine or have food poisoning and we also dispense addiction-maintenance-therapies like methadone to people who have to take it daily,” says Evans. As a public service, her pharmacy is legally required to stay open over public holidays. Without this service, people would suffer at home or visit their local A&E, increasing their risk of contracting Covid.

Based in Redhill, Evans, 63, says some staff were furloughed during lockdown due to being high-risk, while others contracted coronavirus and were forced to quarantine, resulting in her working 90-hour weeks.

“It’s been quite a year. Some people have been very frustrated that they can’t see their GP and we’ve been especially busy with our prescription delivery service, but the priority shopping times for NHS staff has made juggling things easier.”  

Our physical health has been a focus this year, but our national mental health has also become a primary concern. As we enter the worst recession in over 300 years, depression now accounts for almost 40 per cent of all fit notes issued by GPs.  

Jean Edwards* 59, has been a Samaritans volunteer for 12 years and will be working in her local branch on Christmas Day. “Christmas is the hardest time of year for a lot of people,” she says, “they might be missing loved ones, feeling isolated or anxious about the year ahead. It’s a very reflective time so people need someone to listen more than ever.”

Working two shifts a month, Edwards says the phone has been busier this year, with coronavirus and its related issues of unemployment, money and loneliness being common themes.  “Loneliness has been the main thing people have talked about, feeling cut off and like things will never get better,” she says. Edwards often feels emotionally drained at the end of a shift, but says volunteering is rewarding work.

“Sometimes the phone is very quiet, but over the years I’ve listened to people who are struggling with chronic illness, or who are on the brink of suicide. We can’t directly give advice, but often having us as a sounding board enables people to figure things out. One caller sent Samaritans a private tweet saying that after her call with me, she had left her abusive relationship. That was such a rewarding moment.”

Edwards adds: “Being there to listen is sort of my Christmas present to the cosmos.”

Reverend Ruth Burge-Thomas getting into the festive spirit during after a tough year

Reverend Ruth Burge-Thomas, 54, will be giving a very different Christmas mass on the 25 December, as usually her Christmas starts at about 9am on Christmas Eve. “Usually I’d be in the church, preparing the Christingles and rehearsing the nativity before the service that evening,” says Reverend Burge-Thomas of the Church of the Holy Spirit Clapham.  

“Then it’s a mad rush to clean up before having midnight mass, getting home by 2am and helping St Nicholas with the stockings and finishing off the Christmas Day sermon. Then, of course, it’s the big festival mass on Christmas morning.”

The mother of three teenage daughters says festive activities have been cancelled, and socially distanced worship is the order of the day. Reverend Burge-Thomas explains that after mass, she usually visits a parishioner spending Christmas in hospital or a hospice.

“Those Christmas visits are probably my favourite part of the day.  Being able to share in that experience and embrace their love and their spirit and return my own is just amazing.” A vicar of 16 years, Burge-Thomas believes her role during these visits is to offer spiritual support and reassurance. “People often people become quite prayerful, it’s a truly holy time,” she says.

Sunday services have still gone ahead, while being streamed from the empty church. Burge-Thomas has also been making use of YouTube to lead the Sunday school in virtual prayer. But while digital communication has been a massive boost, the Reverend says it has still been a “hard and heart-breaking year” and not being physically present in the community was especially challenging.  

Looking back over 2020, Burge-Thomas will remember how the pandemic galvanised our community spirit.

“What’s been heartening is seeing people volunteering to ring up and check on parishioners. The pandemic has prompted people to take responsibility for their neighbours and care for one another, so it’s lovely to see those relationships blossom,” she says.

If this 2020 catastrophe has shown us anything, it’s that we each play an essential role in the world around us. Whether you’ve spent the last nine months Zooming from your sofa or ordering your shopping online, everyone has contributed to the overall goal of keeping each other safe. 

But we have only been able to do our bit because our key workers have done theirs, and while we're tucking into our turkeys, no matter how small our bubbles, we should spare a thought for those who continue to work on Christmas Day, and feel grateful for the sacrifices these people have made.

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