The volunteers keeping our NHS staff fed

By Sian Bayley, Local Democracy Reporter

It’s been a busy morning in Furzedown, Wandsworth, as husband and wife team Janneke Diemel and Niall Barrett prepare packages of loo roll to give to doctors and nurses at St George’s Hospital.

They heard that front line staff were struggling to access it after finishing their 12-hour shifts at the hospital and finding empty aisles in the supermarkets.

It’s the latest addition to their volunteer service, known as Critical NHS, which they started last week.

They’ve already made more than £36,000 to purchase food and essentials for staff at St George’s, in Tooting, and have spoken to everyone from the BBC to Reuters about their innovative community action group.

Janneke, 50, said she was inspired to help after her friend, Anthea Allen, a senior sister at St George’s, sent her message asking for some sweets to cheer up the teams on the wards.

She said: “We got an email from Anthea with a bit of a plea, saying it’s going to be really tough over the next few weeks. It would be really lovely if the community got together to help support us. Even if it is just a box of chocolates or a tin of cookies.”

So Janneke set to work, messaging the WhatsApp groups she manages in her community roles across the borough.

Husband Niall, the deputy chairman of the Wandsworth Safer Neighbourhood Team, also rang around, and together they created a PayPool page to collect donations.

“Literally within two hours we had £600, and by lunchtime we were delivering our first lot of food to 20 people,” said Janneke.

“It snowballed from there. Within 24 hours she had three huge bin bags full of chocolate and sweets. At which point I said, ‘Anthea, you can’t live off sweets, why don’t we get you something a bit more substantial?’”.

Teaming up with family business Mustard Foods in Wimbledon the couple created a backbone supplier of food to give to the nurses and staff at the hospital.

With the money raised they were also able to buy food from local restaurants and cafes who were still open to support businesses as well as front line staff.

“The idea is simple – we’re raising money to feed the nurses,” said Janneke.

“Anthea then sent us an email saying Pret was closed at the hospital. When the nurses were going out to buy food from the local shops that were at that stage still open, they were actually being refused because people were scared to serve them. It was this whole scenario where all of a sudden we were doing something that was a nice idea, and then it became an actual need.

“The nurses at the end of the day were going home and going to the supermarkets after the late shift and everything was empty.

“They’re working long shifts. They don’t to have to be worrying about finding bread and if they can’t find bread not being able to make a sandwich to bring into work with them. Or toilet roll.”

Now Critical NHS, just over a week old, has between 40 and 50 volunteers picking up food from local stores.

But in order to avoid close contact, and maintain social distancing, only one person a day now goes into the hospital to deliver the food.

They hope they might be able to set up a portacabin at St George’s in the near future to provide staff with basic provisions such as loo roll and sanitary pads to take home with them.

Janneke says there are three daily food deliveries, at 12.30pm, 6pm and 10pm, and volunteers take up to 100 portions of food each time.

“It’s been amazing, the good-will stories of generosity and offers of help. We’re all doing this for nothing,” she said.

“It has been a rollercoster of emotions. There has been some sad stories, one of the core team members, a person on his road died earlier on this week. It’s really hit home how real this is.

“There hasn’t been a day go by where I haven’t welled up and almost been in tears. It’s the gestures and the comments that come back from the nurses.

“Last night at about 11pm, we were all knackered, the team were exhausted, and a nurse sent through eight images of all the wards receiving the food we sent and all of them were smiling and happy.

“It made me feel that what we are doing is making a difference and helping those nurses and doctors and frontline staff.

“They are going to be hit so hard in the next couple of weeks, they are going to have to make the most horrendous decisions, and knowing that we’re behind them and backing them is so important.”

To donate to Critical NHS click here  and follow the team on Twitter @CriticalNhs

Pictured top: NHS staff at St George’s Hospital in Tooting with some of the food

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