CFJ COVID-19 EXCLUSIVE: How individuals throughout the flooring industry reacted to the NHS 'clap for carers'

Just what was the response from various individuals in the flooring industry to the National Health Service (NHS) 'clap for carers' at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK? In our exclusive feature, in which David Strydom talks to people such as Sandra Lyons, project manager at Delta Flooring (pictured)

‘Clap for Carers’ started when Annemarie Plas, a Dutchwoman married to a Londoner, decided to replicate an event she’d seen in The Netherlands. She didn’t imagine it would take off like it did but social media – and the appearance of celebrities such as Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Daniel Craig, and Elton John – ensured the concept was flourishing in the UK.
This outpouring of support for the NHS was regarded by some as a slightly mawkish quivering of the stiff upper lip, not least by those in the NHS itself. At 8pm on Thursday 26 March at the first clap with many still reeling at how quickly our lives had changed, 183 people were confirmed to have died from Covid-19. On 2 April, a week later, the figure had ballooned to 652. And by 9 April, as the applause for all key workers was reaching its height, the death toll was a staggering 1,103. Those numbers – incomprehensible but powerful nonetheless – charged Thursday evenings with a national emotion that transcended patriotism. ‘The noise,’ said one person in my village who’d been in Blackheath on Thursday evening, ‘was like being at a football stadium during a big match’.
Loughton Direct’s Wayne Abbot, holed up in his central London flat with his girlfriend, seconded that. In fact, as the crescendo rose each Thursday they ran back-and-forth to the windows on either side of their flat so as not to miss any action. He said, ‘Our block of flats is four-tier high and there are 50 houses on each side of the street, so you can imagine how many people there were and how loud it was.’
With an estimated 1.7m employees, the NHS is the largest employer in the UK and the fifth largest in the world (after the US department of defence; the people’s liberation army in China; Walmart; and McDonald’s). With so many NHS staff members, it’s not difficult to come across someone who has friends or family in the NHS, and the flooring industry is no exception.
CFA ceo Richard Catt, whose wife works for the NHS in Leicestershire, said she and their son had been particularly keen about showing their appreciation on Thursday evenings. ‘I’m sure someone will have a cynical argument about it. My wife was quite embarrassed because she doesn’t feel as though she’s on the frontline. Nonetheless, she’s had three colleagues fall ill with it. She feels as I do, that the true heroes are those in the ICUs or on the wards.’
For Scott Lewis, marketing manager at Interface UK, the applause had quickly become a tradition. ‘Generally, I’m quite sceptical of mass activities but I have two family members in the NHS, so I went out as long as it lasted. It became quite a thing in our village, and quite right as the work they’re doing is amazing.’
NICF president and carpet-fitter Brian King, who lives in a cul-de-sac, relished the Thursday evening event. ‘My lad blew a horn, to make as much noise as possible. I’ve got friends in the NHS and, in fact, a friend – the 53-year-old who fits my LVT - had contracted it. His wife had it too but not badly, just a cough. My mate, on the other hand, was suddenly hospitalised with it only a few days after I’d spoken to him.’
And in their Yorkshire village, FM consultant and CFJ/CFA Awards judge Fiona Bowman and her husband, David, brought something different to the weekly party – a tuba, the lowest-pitched musical instrument in the brass family.
David, whose brass band had on 14 March won the northeast England championships, had been on a high, looking forward to endless band practice with his friends. But lockdown had brought that to an abrupt halt. David went from practising nightly with his bandmates to nothing.
‘I told him to ‘keep his lip in’,’ said Fiona, ‘and that led to a decision to start playing after the two-minute clap each Thursday. Our event was charged with emotion anyway because our neighbour was a doctor at St James’s Hospital in Leeds, so when David played ‘Over the Rainbow’ people were curious and loitered with intent.’
The Bowmans’ neighbours started to look forward to each week’s song and asked David in advance what he was going to play. Fiona was pleased at how David’s music drew the elderly – understandably reticent to come into the street – to their windows. ‘From a mental health perspective, it was hugely important. We waved wildly at them, to let them know that although they couldn’t physically join us, they were still very much part of the event.’
CFJ’s Stuart Bourne found that as each day of the week and the weekend merged into one long period of time, the weekly clap became a highlight. ‘They put their lives at risk without question and the ones who decided to retire or change jobs have felt compelled to return to the frontline knowing there’s every chance they could fall seriously ill or die.
‘I thank God we’re not on the frontline and are so privileged that all our staff can work from home and stay safe. It brings a tear to my eye and each week I wonder why it hurts my arms so much to clap for just one minute.’
Delta Flooring’s project manager Sandra Lyons thought the NHS clapping was ‘fantastic, it brought a tear to my eye every week although it’s a bit hypocritical when our NHS staff are some of the worst paid anywhere. I participated, however’.
One of Sandra’s closest friends had contracted the disease in the early days and although she was tested, the results were lost. ‘I think we’re slightly better at that process now.’ She also lost two neighbours during the lockdown from two apartments next to hers and although one of the deaths was attributed to Covid-19, Sandra isn’t convinced that was the case.
During those strange spring days, she was in the middle of a very different NHS-related reality – and not just because of Covid-19. In fact her world had been turned upside-down in December when she’d been diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer following a routine mammogram. She asked whether she could be treated privately. ‘You won’t get better treatment than with the NHS,’ her surgeon told her, so she followed his advice and underwent a lumpectomy in January. She took two weeks off work to recover.
Sandra became aware of the rumours about a virus in February. ‘The week before my first round of chemotherapy in March, I’d heard all treatment was cancelled which was a bit bewildering but a few days before the treatment had been due to start I was advised it would proceed.’
When lockdown was announced, she’d been ‘hiding at home for a week already with other things to worry about for the immediate future’. She found the seriousness of the situation difficult to comprehend under the circumstances.
Sandra had her first treatment at her local NHS hospital but was then moved to the local private hospital for the remainder, where she underwent six rounds of chemo, three weeks apart and a week of radiotherapy daily.
As if that wasn’t challenging, she was having to juggle other personal issues that few people could understand. ‘I’m the single parent of a severely handicapped 26-year-old daughter, Daisy, who has a personal assistant who looks after her weekdays between 8.30am-5.30pm. Due to my compromised immune system, it was decided she’d live with her father for the duration, while still having her assistant during the day. This was for my safety - and my bald head would’ve probably scared the life out of her!’
The disruption weighed heavily on Sandra, who nonetheless dealt with it as the fighter she clearly is. ‘Apart from a two-week holiday I take each year, Daisy is with me every single day. I guess it was a massive shock to the system for her dad, too, but he stepped up when I needed him, and was marvellous.’
Having been furloughed and with nobody else around, Sandra was able to focus solely on her treatment and wellbeing, which was paramount for her speedy recovery. ‘For me,’ she said, ‘Covid-19 and lockdown came at exactly the right moment.’