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Coronavirus: Northern Ireland consultant hopes public are heeding her stark warning

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Mum of three Dr Julia Courtney, respiratory consultant at Ulster Hospital

Mum of three Dr Julia Courtney, respiratory consultant at Ulster Hospital

Mum of three Dr Julia Courtney, respiratory consultant at Ulster Hospital

I'm scared, of course I'm scared. I have that fear of what is coming just like everyone else."

Similar thoughts are going through the minds of many at this time of crisis.

The difference, though, is that Dr Julia Courtney, a respiratory consultant at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald, knows she will be there, face to face with Covid-19, day in day out until the emergency is over.

That is why she is delighted that her simple, harsh message to the nation over social media reached so many.

Her video, shared tens of thousands of times on social media since last Friday, made UK-wide headlines.

Urging people to stay at home, she pleads in the 40 second clip: "Huge numbers of people will die and the only thing that will have any impact on this impending catastrophe is slowing the spread of this virus."

A few days later and events have moved on considerably since Julia felt compelled to share those fears.

Remove the 'Dr' from the front of her name and Julia Courtney becomes much more, a mum, a wife.

She has a husband at home, and three beautiful, blonde-haired young children. She is a Christian and now she is preparing herself mentally to be away from them until the battle against coronavirus is won.

"I have to place my trust in God that he will get me through this," she said. "That's a comfort. That reduces the anxiety.

"I know, when this virus really hits, that I won't be going home to my children at the end of the shift. We've already decided that's far too dangerous. I'll have been exposed to the virus.

"Medical staff will be staying away, probably in a hotel, to protect our families.

"How long for? We don't know. That all depends on the success of the measures we are asking people to take. The more people who follow the instructions, the more it will help us.

"But NHS staff in our hospitals, no matter how well prepared we are, we're afraid of what's to come.

"We will be exposed to this. We've seen medical staff die in Italy. The fear is real."

For Dr Courtney, there is a fear that if the number of cases overwhelms the system, it will not have enough equipment to cope.

She added: "We're all trained to look after, care for every patient to the best of our ability. If the equipment runs out, if we can't do the job, if we start seeing people suffering around us who we just can't help, that's all hard to think about. That plays on our minds all the time."

Dr Courtney, who qualified as a doctor back in 1996, said she has never seen anything like this.

"You would think all that time, 24 years with the last 12 years as a consultant, would prepare you for anything. That you'd seen all you could see. Nothing has prepared me for this," she added.

"Every day for the last two weeks I've woken up with a knowledge and a fear. That's hard.

"We've spent the last two weeks getting as prepared as we can as professionals in the NHS.

"We've done as much as we can do to be ready for this. But we know the surge is coming. That's what causes the fear.

"We have to trust the processes we put in place run as smoothly as possible when this comes."

Images of other countries' health systems being overwhelmed give an insight into the chaos expected to come.

She added: "We're used to scenes of chaos, that comes with the territory in the NHS, but having seen what we've seen in Italy, and knowing this has the potential to be even more catastrophic here in Northern Ireland, well, that breeds anxiety.

"You can sense it. You see it on the faces of doctors and nurses, all the support staff around the hospital. The atmosphere is tense.

"Everyone around the country realises something is coming, but the NHS feels it more. We're very, very apprehensive."

That is why, however reluctant she may have been to go in front of the camera, Julia was delighted at the response to her Facebook video, posted last Friday, as a warning to people.

"That was never meant to go the way it did," she added. "But I'm so glad that it caught on and reached so many people. The more people who saw it, were affected by it and changed their habits around social distancing, around helping us in the NHS try to cope, the better.

"I was asked by my church at Newtownbreda Baptist if I would put a short clip together to go out on their social media page, just to make sure the congregation were aware of what needed to be done.

"I thought at the time it was going no further than that."

Dr Courtney's video was quickly seen by the Public Health Agency who shared it. Then the Department of Health did so. It struck a very public chord.

"There were things that needed said and I've seen a real change in attitude over the past five days," she added.

"If me saying a few harsh words to camera helped, then great, but the message had to get out there. Now it has to get through to the public.

"There's still more to do. We can all always do more.

"Government measures have been helpful in making people sit back and think, yes, this is serious now.

"But as an NHS we need everyone out there who is still at work to start to think is this really essential work?

"I know everyone thinks their job, their business, is among the most important, but sit down for a moment and think is your job more important than your life for the next few weeks. Most, when they really think about it, will say no."

In a direct plea to people, she added: "Health, the lives of the people you love, those are more important than finance right now.

"By taking that decision, stepping back from work and staying at home everyone can help save lives, for many will die if the NHS becomes overwhelmed with the number of cases in the very near future."

Dr Courtney said she is looking forward to a time when normality will be restored.

She added: "Every so often I think about how lovely it will be when I head to a caravan at the seaside with my family when all this is over. That keeps me going."

Belfast Telegraph