Industry expert: From the front line

Craig Smith, head of corporate affairs – key accounts for ISS, on the incredible work healthcare staff have been doing as we exit lockdown...

Who could have ever foreseen that we would be ‘celebrating’ the anniversary of our first lockdown? Historians will look back at this period with some interest; how did this pandemic manage to shut down the entire world’s economy? They will have the advantage of hindsight to evaluate what really happened, but we are all still living through the nightmare that is Covid-19.

As we enter spring, we are starting to see the easing of patients being admitted to hospitals with the disease, which is an encouraging sign. However, like the rest of the hospitality industry, the retail elements of healthcare catering are still reeling from the effects of having no customers. For in-house caterers this may mean little, other than the costs are passed onto the Covid-affected budgets. But for those who are operating on a fully commercial basis this can be causing real hardship, with some still having to deliver their guaranteed returns to the site owners, although there is little or no physical trade being operated.

To ensure service continuity during and after the coronavirus outbreak, all public sector contracting authorities were advised by the government to support their ‘at-risk’ suppliers in a range of ways to ensure business and service continuity and to protect jobs. These measures were set out in the public procurement notice PPN 02/20, which was issued on 19th March and expired on 30th June 2020. This was to ensure suppliers were in a position to resume normal contract delivery once the outbreak was over.

Clearly, at that time, this was considered a short-term issue. A further notice, PPN 04/20, was issued on 9th June 2020. It updated and built on the original notice and was valid from 1st July 2020 to 31st October 2020.

PPN 04/20 acknowledged that the outbreak was not a short-term crisis and stated that while the supplier relief provisions set out in the previous notice may still be appropriate, contracting authorities and their suppliers may also need to work in partnership to plan an exit from any support and transition to a new, sustainable operating model. This had some success, helping to ease the situation. However, since that notice expired in October there has been no additional support for those who still have no customers. Many contract caterers have tried to get some further assistance but to little avail, leaving many to consider why they have been left so unprotected while they have stood side by side with the public authorities throughout the crisis.

From a patient catering point of view, we are pleased to see that things are slowly returning to some kind of business as usual with the levels of Covid patients reducing and routine admissions starting to recover. One of the things we quickly discovered was that patients admitted with Covid-19 had very little need for conventional food. They were far too ill to be able to cope with the normal menus, so we had to adapt. Enteral feeding was usually required in the early stages, before very soft, easy-to-swallow foods could be reintroduced, helping to build up the patient’s energy levels. Sometimes this could be a long and drawn-out process, but the joy of knowing that you are helping someone recover and be discharged is probably one of the best reasons why hospital catering is such a fulfilling career. This is happening on a daily basis, but it never ceases to amaze me.

We have learnt many hard lessons throughout this pandemic, but one thing that has shone out is the recognition that the caterer is an integral part of any hospital and that they have stood shoulder to shoulder with the nurses and doctors on the frontline. That, I hope, will be something that the historians will readily accept.

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