Light and Faith in the Darkest Hour
2nd June by Jo Hastie
AAW have been very proud to work with the Air Ambulance ‘movement’ in the UK for several years. We’ve had a long standing relationship with London Air Ambulance and have also assisted Lincoln and Nottingham Air Ambulance and the Thames Valley Air Ambulance with key leadership search campaigns over the years.
What’s been the role of this frontline service in the UK during the COVID 19 crisis? Naturally it has varied region to region, but recently our Comms Manager, Jo Hastie, spent some time with Amanda McLean CEO, from Thames Valley Air Ambulance to help us understand the challenges she’s faced specifically during this period.
From having to redeploy clinical staff to work on the front line of COVID 19 care, to dealing with her own considerable health issues, this has been a challenging time for Amanda.
In this inspiring interview, we’ve learnt that it’s been Amanda’s passion and love for her job, her staff and her organisation that’s really pulled her through this tough and demanding period.
Impact on operations
Thames Valley Air Ambulance, although having grown significantly in the last two years, is a relatively small organisation with a close-knit team of about 100 staff split roughly 50/50 between HQ-based traditional office support and clinical staff.
For a fairly small group of people, the group’s CEO Amanda McLean has faced an entire spectrum of challenges, similar to what others are facing across the charity sector, as a result of Covid-19. Some staff have been deployed even closer to the frontline, putting themselves and their families at risk. Some others are sitting at home having been furloughed.
With travel restrictions in place in April and May, the charity saw a large drop in demand for their critical care services, parallel to a hugely increased demand on the NHS. Thames Valley Air Ambulance were asked to deploy paramedics to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford and to operate a service transferring Covid-19 patients between hospitals.
Amanda is one of those working from home. As someone with Multiple Sclerosis, she has been in protective isolation and, when we interviewed her, had been leading the organisation from her dining room since the middle of March.
This has been something of a challenge for Amanda who prides herself on her personal relationships with her staff and regular visits to the crew when they are on standby: “I've had to ask a group of people to go from what's already a frontline, demanding job to treating Covid patients, which is even more challenging and a long way outside their comfort zone, whilst I've have been sitting very protected at home. And although the team completely and utterly get that, on a personal level that has been quite challenging for me to manage, when you remove all those opportunities to touch base with people and check how they are”.
An additional challenge for Amanda as a CEO has been striking the balance between supporting staff for whom social distancing will be impossible whether that’s in an aircraft or whilst treating patients, whilst also acknowledging that there are some things she is powerless to fix: “I don’t have a magic wand to make this any less scary, I don’t know how long this situation will go on for, so on a personal level I have had to learn to accept and deal with that. Living with uncertainty is tough.”
Planning and priorities
As the scale of the crisis became apparent, Amanda and her team identified five key priorities for operational planning: continuing to provide their service, looking after staff welfare, looking after funding and supporters, and having appropriate risk management and the right processes in place to make decisions more rapidly. In the initial stages of crisis and reaction, anything that fell outside those five areas was paused.
These priorities were also guided by the charity’s key value “We do the right thing”. A pandemic clinical group was set up to ensure that crews were supported and appropriately equipped to be doing their jobs, before any secondary considerations of whether the organisation could recover or fundraise the additional costs. “Everyone has been brilliant and pulled together to make this work: the collaboration has been huge and we’ve certainly taken away learnings that we think will stay with us in the longer term about how we can work most effectively”.
For those working from home, a recent appeal for PPE gear was an opportunity to be involved in solving a very real and urgent problem, working out logistics for getting donated masks and gloves from a fantastically supportive local community to their frontline crew where they were needed.
Staff welfare has been a key part of the current operational planning, with regular surveys of staff, remote coffee mornings and a Zoom scavenger hunt where children are positively encouraged to join in. Amanda states “I am very clear that for the staff who are at home, they are not working at home, they are at home in a crisis trying to work. It’s important to recognise that everybody reacts to this in different ways. We have been trying very hard to focus on what needs to be done and when it needs to be done, rather than sticking too much to the hours”.
For Amanda that also includes staying in regular touch with staff, remembering birthdays and sending cards to people who may be having a tough time or to say thank you. As an organisation, it also means being committed to a number of months of supporting home working, until people themselves feel comfortable returning to the office.
Impact on Fundraising
Covid-19 has also had an impact on the charity’s fundraising. Whilst they have received brilliant support from their own donor base (a newsletter sent out in the first week of lockdown topped £100,000 in the first ten days), events, community fundraising and regional corporate support through employee funding have all been put on hold.
Fundraisers have adapted, offering digital fundraising activities on the charity’s website which are performing quite well, but as a small charity this translates to around 250-300 sign-ups for a digital event. As Amanda states “We’re really grateful for people supporting those activities and every penny that we raise makes a real difference, but it’s not a game changer to replace something that we have lost elsewhere”.
The charity is in the fortunate position that their reserves mean they have more space to plan and to reassure staff they are not in immediate crisis, but “we also need to be very careful to make sure that doesn’t lull us into a false sense of security and think that we can therefore just keep going indefinitely”.
The challenge now is to find and engage with new supporters and build a new pipeline, rather than constantly approaching the same relatively small group of people for help. Replacing regular givers that naturally fall off every year will be essential to avoid a long-term crisis for years to come and to help the charity weather the storm.
Getting the messaging right is part of that outreach work, promoting the invaluable work that the charity have been doing as a case for support, but also “not claiming we are heroes, sweeping in and saving the day, but that we’re stepping up alongside to support the NHS”.
The importance of peer support
As a CEO during this period, Amanda has found invaluable support in talking to other leaders: “Having an environment where you can check in with your peers and people in the same boat, gain a sense of perspective and ground yourself professionally is as important as taking good care of your welfare more generally.” Amanda sits on the board of Air Ambulances UK which has facilitated fortnightly CEO zoom meetings to collaborate, share ideas and explore collective solutions to problems. She is also involved with the Windsor Leadership organisation and is part of one of their groups which now meets fortnightly to talk through issues.
Amanda has also received a tremendous amount of support from her own Board and Chair and has ensured that they are up to date on what is happening in the organisation, to help promote organisational resilience. Part of the charity’s planning during this period has been to ensure that key senior figures know about each other’s roles, so that if someone does potentially become ill or has to self-isolate, that the charity can continue to offer its services.
Looking to the future
The charity is now starting to think about the longer-term future, although without making any firm decisions until they have some more of an indication of what the new reality will look like. As lockdown eases, Thames Valley staff may no longer be needed by the NHS, but Amanda concedes that the health sector is staying prepared in case of a second peak and it is highly likely that there will be mini or local surges of the virus.
Kept going by Zoom quizzes and dinners with friends, spending time with family in between long working days and tuning into live morning prayers on Facebook, Amanda admits ‘I do get incredibly frustrated at not being able to do the things that I want to do because I have been in protective isolation… but perhaps I’m a little better at managing that, because having MS means I’ve had to start adjusting how I do things anyway.”
Despite all these challenges, she goes on to say “I love my job and I am very proud of my staff. I've got the best job in the world. It's the most challenging, the toughest it’s ever been at the moment as I'm sure everybody would say, but I still love my job and I love the organisation and the people I work for and with.”