Leadership diaries: "I am reminded that the pandemic is not the only risk we face"

David Ellis is the chief executive of National Star, a national charity that provides education support and care for young people and adults with complex disabilities and learning difficulties. He records a week of leading the charity which has stayed fully open throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

National Star, like many charities, is experiencing one of the most challenging periods in its 53-year history. Its priority throughout the pandemic has been to stay open providing education, care and support at its education sites in Cheltenham, Hereford and Wales and in its long-term living in Cheltenham, Gloucester, Hereford and Malvern. Many of the people National Star supports are medically vulnerable so the charity has had to develop robust infection control procedures. In the past year, the charity has provided 540,000 hours of education, 64,000 hours of therapies and 757,000 hours of care.

David Ellis, chief executive, divides his time between working at the charity’s base in Cheltenham and at home. That flexibility of working has been adopted by all of the charity’s. non-frontline staff as part of the charity’s aims to lower footfall and the risk of infection for those at the heart of its services.

Monday

My day starts, as every day does, with me chairing the Covid-19 Response Group online meeting. We recognised very early on that we needed to be ‘fleet of foot’ in implementing urgent actions and required different ways of communicating and working. We launched the group on 27 February and it has met almost daily ever since. The rationale was to keep the group small to enable quick decision-making in an environment where government information and Public Health England and Wales guidance was changing daily. The group makes considered decisions and dynamic risk assessments with the focus on the health and wellbeing of students and residents, supporting staff and maintaining operations.

The government has had the uncanny knack of announcing new guidance and policy late on a Friday so Monday’s meetings are always busy. Today is no different and includes the ‘stopping movement of staff between care settings’ consultation and updated guidance on aerosol generating procedures in education and children’s social care settings.

Tuesday

The Care Quality Commission has notified us of an inspection tomorrow at our residential student accommodation in Gloucester. We will be the first in Gloucestershire to be inspected in the new monitoring of infection procedures by the CQC, which is ironic as our long-term living accommodation in Gloucester – rated Outstanding – was one of the last inspections they did before lockdown in March. Our approach has been, and continues to be, what do we have to do to keep the young people safe while providing the full National Star experience of learning, therapies and support. All students are assigned to clusters with dedicated education, care and therapy staff. National Star employs a multi-disciplinary approach and this has been crucial in developing innovative solutions to keep working during the pandemic.

My day ends with an online meeting of the finance and investment committee. At the moment, we meet monthly to keep a close eye on any unexpected Covid-19 related expenses.

Wednesday

The day started with a lovely message from a parent who said National Star balanced ‘institutionalised robustness with individual need’. Her son, who has complex medical needs has not only survived Covid-19, but has also undergone chemotherapy for testicular cancer.

She says it was their goal of him returning to National Star, which he loves, that has kept them going. This mother wanted me to know how much she appreciated the young member of care staff who stayed in the hospital with them for 12 hours just in case the young man and his parents needed anything. I am constantly humbled by the fact that parents entrust us with their children – well young adults. If you ask any one of the staff about why they love their work, they will say it is because of the residents and students.

My day is dominated by the weekly communications for staff, students and parents. At the start of the pandemic, we felt that it was crucial to be transparent and consistent with one clear communication channel. That is why we have invested so much time keeping staff and parents informed.

Thursday

Yesterday’s CQC inspection was a success with the inspector telling us that “National Star has set the bar high”. This is a real tribute to the teams who have worked tirelessly and proves that our high level of infection control is working. We test up to 900 staff a week in whole home testing and we use more than 5,500 facemasks per week.

To minimise the risk of infection we have sadly had to close our sites to the public, which has had a big impact on the students and our social enterprises, including our bistro, which is run by the students. Yet it is vital we continue to provide meaningful work experience and the education team have been doing just that.

Whilst visiting the bistro to get a sandwich, one of the tutors told me about a group of students working with a community association to organise food hampers for the local community. Part of the philosophy at National Star is to inspire the young people we work with to become active citizens within their communities – this is a great example of them doing just that.

Friday

My morning is spent letting our local MPs know about our concerns to the government’s proposal to stop the movement of staff between care settings. Whilst we are working hard to limit staff movements between clusters, we, like many care providers, have over 100 staff who have a second job in health & social care elsewhere in the county. If this proposal goes through, they may have to choose between working at National Star or working elsewhere. We can continue working through the pandemic by having robust infection control procedures in place – we cannot continue to operate without staff.

I am also reminded that the pandemic is not the only risk we currently face. Ten per cent of our care staff are non-UK EU nationals and they remain concerned about what happens to them because of Brexit. They are an important part of our community and we are supporting them as much as we can but the anxiety remains.

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