Andrew Stevenson BHTA

Following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in England in March, almost all NHS services experienced disruption and Wheelchair Services were no exception.

Service users cancelling appointments, supply issues with getting hold of parts and PPE shortages were just some of the challenges facing providers, coupled with the rapid redeployment of NHS clinicians to different parts of the health service.

In an unprecedented move, leading outsourced Wheelchair Services providers formed a working group, headed up by the BHTA, to tackle the issues to ensure service continuity during the lockdown. As the UK passed the peak of the pandemic, THIIS caught up with BHTA Chairman and working group Lead Andrew Stevenson in June to discuss the current state of play.

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THIIS: What is the situation facing the working group now that the peak of the virus has been overcome?

Andrew: “The key focus in the sector – as it is across all sectors – is rebuilding confidence.

“After months of lockdown and communications focused on stressing the dangers of going outside and the need to isolate from others, it will come as little surprise that people are now apprehensive about attending clinics or having people in their homes.

“Service users are concerned about the clinical viability, cleanliness, transmission risk and more so the BHTA and our members are working hard to alleviate those worries and instil confidence in people.”

THIIS: Are the outsourced providers in a position where they feel confident to offer their services safely?

Andrew: “Most certainly. We are confident that people are very safe to have their assessment, service or whatever particular activity needs to be completed by their outsourced services provider.

“Indeed, seeing the lengths that many of the BHTA retailers have gone to ensure safety, it highlights just how well the sector has quickly adapted to continue offering their services to customers in need.”

THIIS: The guidance from the NHS to in-house Wheelchair Services providers in April was to stop medium and lower priority work; did private providers adopt the same approach and cease providing services during the lockdown?

Andrew: “No, all private outsourced providers’ services continued throughout the peak, including assessments, servicing, maintenance, repairs and clinics.

“The amount of time, effort, planning and action by the providers to continue offering services in the safest way possible throughout has been staggering and is a testament to their dedication and willingness to cooperate and collaborate.

“The working group has also taken all of these learnings and experiences and packaged them to help other providers restart their clinical services as well.”

THIIS: Now that the peak has passed, will the BHTA Wheelchair Services working group continue to collaborate moving forward?

Andrew: “Although we have cleared the peak, we are certainly not out of the woods yet so the Wheelchair Services working group continue to meet every two weeks and will continue to do so for the foreseeable.”

THIIS: What specific work has the BHTA and Wheelchair Services working group done over lockdown and where are efforts being focused now?

Andrew: “During the outbreak, the working group created an interactive provider map, pointing service users to their nearest available and operational outsourced Wheelchair Services providers.

“With many in-house services being shut, this proved invaluable for many users in need of assistance during the lockdown.

“As we passed the peak and attention turned to returning to work and what that would look like in a clinical setting, the group created an in-depth ‘return to work’ guide to help providers manage and control COVID-19 risks in their working environments.

“Now, we are finalising a new ‘Get Wise’ leaflet which will provide service users with all the information they need to know about accessing wheelchair services. This includes COVID-19 safety and social distancing measures that are in place and highlights why it is essential that people do not put off their assessments.”

THIIS: Has the BHTA seen a wave of in-house wheelchair services coming back online in recent weeks?

Andrew: “Unfortunately, we have found the amount of in-house services returning has been scant and fragmented over recent weeks.

“It is very much the case across wheelchair services that stopping the services was far easier than restarting them. Flipping the switch back to on and trying to get all the cogs turning again is creating a more diverse set of challenges.

“With so many different levers within the NHS that need to turn to get services up and running again, we are finding that not all levers are being pushed.”

THIIS: What are some of the key issues slowing this return of in-house services?

Andrew: “Despite several services putting together similar ‘back to work’ plans, there are several factors that are slowing down the process of tackling the built-up latent demand in the system.

“In particular, staffing and administration is a sticking point. Many clinicians and staff are now being brought back into their services but issues such as safeguarding of vulnerable individuals and childcare are playing a role.

“The sector needs these services and clinicians back to start addressing this latent demand.”

THIIS: Do you feel this slow restarting of services, coupled with the pent-up demand, might drive service users to the private market and retailers instead?

Andrew: “I think that is going to be a consideration for some service users that have the option to turn to private retailers. Also, the public sector may look to the private market to assist.

“There are currently questions being asked about the number of Trusted Assessors that are out there and potentially sharing clinicians across local authorities as well.

“These steps may help to get the ball rolling quicker, enabling services that have resource but less demand to help support other services that have less resource and excess demand.

“There is still a significant amount of collaboration taking place across the sector and the BHTA and the working group will continue to play its part in helping to try and get all cogs in the system turning again.”

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