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Meet the people helping to keep Northern Ireland running during coronavirus emergency


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Elaine Sharvin

Elaine Sharvin

Craig McGowan

Craig McGowan

Sean Carr

Sean Carr

David Malcolm

David Malcolm

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Robert Gallagher

Robert Gallagher

Cassie McNeill

Cassie McNeill

Elaine Sharvin

While many of us are now working at home, others in essential services continue to go out to do their jobs. Donna Deeney, Margaret Canning and Emma Deighan find out how they’re coping.

‘When we all take this seriously, we can keep ourselves safe and well’

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Craig McGowan

Craig McGowan

Craig McGowan

Craig McGowan is among those making sure refuse is collected. A supervisor at Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council's refuge department, he says that, for now at least, all black, blue and brown bins are being collected as normal.

"We still have the manpower to operate the service to its full capacity," he says. "Usually in the mornings before the crews leave the depot, they would have come in for a bit of a chat about the sport that was on the night before or whatever, but that's all stopped. Now, the men come into the depot, get straight out of their own vehicles and get ready to go out in the bin lorries right away.

"Normally for the black and blue bin collections there are usually three men in the crews and the brown bin crews are just two men.

"We have now reduced the black and blue crews down to two men in the cab and the other man coming behind in the council van.

"The crews can stick to the six feet apart rule inside the cab of the lorry and when they are out collecting the bins they can keep to that easily enough."

Craig says that most people realise the need for taking extra precautions.

"Like everybody, we are all worried about catching coronavirus. Everyone takes seriously all the precautions the council has put in place, like disinfecting the cab before and after it is used, wearing personal protection equipment and keeping your distance from others.

"The public really do appreciate us being out there collecting refuse and I'd like to remind them that when they do leave their bins out, they wipe down the handles with disinfectant too. When we all take this seriously, we can all keep ourselves safe and well."

Donna Deeney

‘We are at the frontline and will help families to get through this’

The way we say a final farewell to a loved one has changed beyond recognition during the coronavirus crisis.

But a Londonderry undertaker warns that people may have to prepare for even more stringent rules on wakes and funerals.

Sean Carr, who has run his family business in Derry for over 20 years, says that families who have lost loved ones have been trying to grasp new regulations that have put tight controls on a tradition that has endured for hundreds of years.

"The guidance coming from both the Irish and the British Association of Undertakers is pretty stark - it is basically to prepare the remains for burial or cremation without wakes or funerals. This goes against everything we traditionally do when someone dies - to view the remains, touch the remains, open the house to a wake where hundreds will come and then have a funeral again attended by hundreds of people. All that has gone - for now at least.

"Right now, a lot of people whose loved one did not die from Covid-19 are still holding three-day wakes but restricting the numbers to family only and the same for funerals, but I think that is about to change too."

Last week Down and Connor Diocese said funerals would no longer take place inside churches.

Sean adds: "In Down and Connor, when someone dies, they go straight to the graveside and I expect before long that will be the case everywhere.

"That will be very, very difficult for families to come to terms with. As undertakers we are at the frontline and it will be our job to help families through this."

As the death toll from Covid-19 rises, Sean says that people in his profession will have to come to terms that they too are at risk.

"We will have to be told when someone has died with Covid-19 but it has also been suggested that families do not put a death notice out until after the burial or the cremation to keep people away.

"We used personal protection equipment anyway but we have increased this to include face visors and obviously we already scrubbed and disinfected working surfaces, but it is still a worry that I might contract the virus and pass it on to people in my family."

Donna Deeney

‘I’ve worked here for 18 years and what we’re seeing now is new ... I’ve never seen demand like it’

Elaine Sharvin (37), who works in the Valley Moat SuperValu supermarket on the outskirts of Downpatrick, has had to respond to a rush for groceries since coronavirus first spread to Northern Ireland.

Elaine is married to David, the store's deputy manager, and they have a 10-year-old son, Ben.

She explains: "We are between some large housing estates so to say we serve the community is an understatement. We're at the heart of the community.

"Our big rush first started about two and a half weeks ago when people heard there was a patient with coronavirus in Downpatrick and there started to be a bit of a panic. Some of the schools had taken it upon themselves to shut at that point.

"Like everywhere else, there was a rush on toilet roll. We'd get orders in and they would sell out within seconds. The shop has been reconfigured to make best use of space and additional staff have been taken on.

"Of course the schools were closing as well, which affected some of our staff, but we made it work.

"Our students who work part-time were putting themselves forward for extra hours and we had a WhatsApp group for putting out messages.

"Some staff are parents who might be struggling because schools are shut, but we've had to make it work because, ultimately, we are in this together."

There has also been huge demand for pasta, but says Elaine, "overall, the 'impulse buy' end of things like soft drinks or confectionery hasn't really increased. Musgrave (parent company of SuperValu, Mace and Centra) has been amazing, almost like they have been a step ahead of every announcement by the government."

She adds: "I've worked here for 18 years and what we're seeing now is very new. I've never seen demand like it."

Margaret Canning

‘Our priority is to pay people and for people to have their money’

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David Malcolm

David Malcolm

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

David Malcolm

David Malcolm is the operations director for Universal Credit, the government benefit paid to people in need, including the tens of thousands who have lost their jobs since the coronavirus outbreak.

He says there has been a huge increase in demand in recent days.

"It's impossible for me to complain about being busy at the minute because there's so many people who would love to be busy but have lost their jobs," he continues.

"What we have now is the new normal and I'm lucky to have the chance to be working."

David, who has a team of 1,800 people, adds: "About 40% of our staff are out at the minute through Covid-19, with people who are in vulnerable groups or are living with people in vulnerable groups, and then you have got the normal sick leave levels.

"But we have seen a 10-fold increase in claims for Universal Credit.

"Last week there were just over 10,000, while this week it looks like we will have 15,000. We would normally get around 1,800 a week.

"I have a great team around me. They have been a Godsend and there's no doubt what we are doing is making a difference.

"It's not business as usual out there. Our priority is to pay people and for people to have their money. Not only do our new customers have to get paid, so do our existing customers. We're constantly juggling what we do as we always need to make sure nobody gets left behind."

David says there is "no doubt" this is much worse than the last recession: "People are claiming at a much higher rate, though back then they were claiming Jobseeker's Allowance.

"But the process is nothing like it was then as Universal Credit is now largely automated and people can fill in the forms on the system at home.

"And there some customers can't use online so voluntary groups help them and work very closely with us."

Behind every claim, he adds, is a different individual with different needs.

"We can never lose sight of the fact that they are real people," he says. "No one in my family has lost their job because of what's happened but people in here have family members who have been affected. What we're doing exemplifies public service. It's guaranteed support and a safety net and we support people when they have no other means."

Margaret Canning

'In the workforce there is a sense of pride and that keeps us going’

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Robert Gallagher

Robert Gallagher

Robert Gallagher

Robert Gallagher, operations manager for Musgrave Group at Dargan Road in Belfast, says his team have worked 21 days straight to ensure essential food and non-food items are delivered to convenience stores here.

In his 10 years of working in the food distribution sector, he has never before experienced the volume of products coming and going at the warehouse, even at Christmas.

"Comparing it with our busiest weeks we are delivering 210% more products," he explains.

Robert says he has grown his distribution team from the usual 90-strong workforce to 120 since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis placed huge demand on ambient, chilled, frozen and non-food products which are delivered to the group's Centra, Mace and SuperValu stores.

"We are now in week three. In the first week we reacted by working every hour under the sun," he says. "In the second week we made the call to recruit people. We took on 30 new team members."

The majority of the new workforce had been made redundant as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic and half of the 165 applicants had warehousing experience. "We see the team growing because right now as soon as stock comes in it's going back out," he adds.

New strategies have been put in place to protect the team including social distancing, a cap on the number of people in the canteen at once, the introduction of extra smoking huts and markers on the ground as well as face masks and gloves.

The company has also reinstated night shifts and all transport staff have worked 21 days consecutively. Yesterday marked their first day off.

"Right now we want to get the food out to people. There is a sense of pride among our workforce and that's what is keeping us going. Looking back, we were almost guilty in thinking that the pandemic wouldn't be as big as it is now but it's real and we are doing what we can to help."

The Musgrave distribution team is gearing up for almost three months of the same. Robert adds: "We are assuming this level of purchasing will continue for 12 weeks to mid-June and we will work accordingly."

Emma Deighan

‘The bus depot is like a family and everyone looks out for everyone’

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Cassie McNeill

Cassie McNeill

Cassie McNeill

Cassie McNeill began working as a Translink bus driver 14 months ago after deciding she wanted a change following nine years in corporate communications.

One motivation was contact with the public - ironically the aspect impacted most by the coronavirus control measures.

While Cassie, who is based at Great Victoria Street station in Belfast, recognises the danger she is exposing herself to by being in direct contact with the public, she acknowledges the safety measures her employer has put in place to protect her.

"The company has provided us with gloves, masks and everything else," she says.

"When you are speaking to your regulars - and for some of them, you might be the only person they do speak to - you don't want to be rude.

"So when I see them coming, I get out of the cab and stand away from them rather than ask them to stand away, but if people are too close to either me or to each other in the bus, I do ask them to space themselves out.

"Generally the majority do this automatically and very few are paying with cash, which is good, but some people still don't seem to get the message. Still, the reality is that when someone gets on the bus, I have no idea if they have coronavirus or if they have been in contact with coronavirus. That does worry me and a lot of the drivers but we know a lot of people rely on us.

"Without us, a lot of elderly people wouldn't get to the shops and a lot of NHS workers use us to get to and from work.

"So we just keep saying to ourselves 'clean our bus bays, wear gloves and change them often', but of course there is still a fear there."

The risks of the job weighs heavily but sharing concerns with colleagues helps.

"While it might sound corny, inside the depot it is like a big family and everybody looks out for everybody else," says Cassie.

"Bus drivers love their tea and banter and that is especially needed now in a way no one would have imagined. It keeps the spirits up."

Donna Deeney

Belfast Telegraph