CORONAVIRUS preparations at the Bradford Royal Infirmary (BRI) have been put in the spotlight in a special Radio 4 series.

Professor John Wright, public health doctor and Director of the Bradford Institute of Health Research at the BRI, shared his insight on The NHS Frontline, which aired on Thursday evening. 

Through a series of recordings, the first on March 16 - the day Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave his first televised address about the danger of Covid-19 - Professor Wright paints a stark picture of what may come, particularly in the face of some of the health challenges people in Bradford face.

In one interview, he speaks with Sam Khan, clinical director of urgent care, who tells him: “I’m fearful that with our population, with our large Asian community, living together with all their multiple comorbidities – that’s a big risk.

“It’s not just living together, it’s the socialising. Events, going round to each other’s houses, eating out together, going to the mosque.

“There’s a big Muslim population here that have the quranic studies outside of school, which is almost a school in itself, they were still running up until last week despite all the advice that’s going out there from Public Health and the CCG and from the Trust, that we’re going to have a significant challenge when people start to pass away about making sure that their last rites are done appropriately.

"I think we need to make sure that community leaders are on board with this, because this potentially could have a huge impact on our population."

The programme touches on how the BRI has 16 beds in intensive care, which is usually enough, but plans were underway to ramp that up quickly, with a reconfiguration of the hospital taking place. 

Calculations have estimated that in Bradford there would be a peak need for approximately 500 ICU beds.

“Hospitals in the time of an epidemic need full blown isolation wards," Prof Wright explains. 

“One of the lessons from the hospitals in Wuhan was how much the virus contaminated the whole ward from furniture surfaces through to soap dispensers.

“So we need to start treating our covid wards as red zones of infection and get all the staff acting accordingly.

“As well as expanding our ICU capacity, we’ve identified the first two covid wards – ward seven and ward 31, but we’re also still dealing with the end of winter, dealing with acute medical patients who are being admitted with lung and heart disease.

“Exactly the sort of patients who are going to be at high risk from covid, so we need to protect these patients, but we also need to protect the staff.”

He speaks with a consultant respiratory physician who has seen a number of suspected and positive cases throughout the week.

“They [patients] are anxious, not particularly about what might happen in the future, but if they go home, are they going to give it someone else in their house," she tells him.

“One lady has said ‘how am I going to get out of hospital without being a problem to someone else’.”

Staff are also heard discussing dreadful and unimaginable scenarios, including how they will explain to families that they won’t be able to come onto the wards, even when their relatives are dying of Covid-19.

As the end of the week rolls around, with mosques asked not to open for Friday prayers, Prof Wright calls Zulfi Karim, President of Council for Mosques, Bradford, who explains he has gone into self isolation after experiencing symptoms like shortness of breath and a cough. 

He tells Prof Wright: “When you get to a mosque, especially on a Friday, you could have a congregation of anything between 500 and 2,500 people crammed into a very small place.

“The last couple of weeks, with people coughing and sneezing, it wasn’t the greatest place and people were panicking, but there was no real sense of direction coming from anywhere of what to do and how to cope in a faith setting in particular."

He adds: “The reaction is a very, very sad and sombre reaction because Friday prayers for all Muslims, in particular adults, is compulsory, so what you’re actually doing is you’ve actually taken that away from them, that freedom to go and pray.”

Saturday comes around and Prof Wright reflects on the the rollercoaster of the past week.

“A day of rest after a week where the world has changed utterly. We’ve been preparing at speed," he says.

"It may be that no plan survives first contact with the enemy.

“But as Eisenhower said ‘plans are useless, but planning is indispensable'.

“All our planning and simulations during the week have nurtured a precious camaraderie, full of humour and affection, but I know from my own experiences how quickly this will be tested, replaced by tears, despair, incomprehension."

He touches on how he is "deeply worried" about Bradford, with struggling families and poor quality overcrowded housing, paired with high rates of diabetes and other underlying health problems "that will make our communities particularly vulnerable". 

“We are a tinder box and yet the roads remain busy and the people seem oblivious.

"Three words that we need to put on every billboard and fly across the sky. Stay. At. Home.”

One day later, a major campaign was launched in Bradford city centre to hammer home that key message.