An asthmatic NHS nurse has been awarded more than £6,000 after she was forced to work on a hospital’s Covid ward during the pandemic. Carmel O’Boyle told bosses at the hospital she worked at in Prescot, Lancashire, of her respiratory condition and asked to move wards.
But the nurse was asked to treat Covid patients and was told by a manager that ‘the thing is, we know you go out for cigs’, a tribunal heard.
During the ordeal, she told her union representative she had been made to feel ‘worthless’ and has since said she ‘felt intimidated sufficiently to put [her] own health and that of [her] family at risk’.
Now, Ms O’Boyle has been awarded £6,202 in compensation having successfully sued for disability discrimination and harassment at an employment tribunal.
Carmel O’Boyle told bosses at the hospital she worked at in Prescot, Lancashire, of her respiratory condition and asked to move wards
A few weeks later, the decision was made to transfer the orthopaedic ward into a ‘Covid Cohort ward’ for people who tested positive to the virus. Pictured: Covid ward at Royal Free Hospital in London in January 2021
The tribunal heard Ms O’Boyle started working as a nurse for St Helens & Knowsley Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust in March 2017 and worked on the orthopaedic ward.
In March 2020, at the start of the outbreak of Covid, Ms O’Boyle responded to an email questioning staff about their health conditions saying ‘I have asthma’ — but received no response.
In this period, she had to move away from her mother and son as they had respiratory problems, and she was ‘very upset’.
The tribunal, sitting in Liverpool, heard: ‘As staff members started to test positive, the hospital was in crisis with managing the influx of patients and covering staff sickness absences.’
A few weeks later, the decision was made to transfer the orthopaedic ward into a ‘Covid Cohort ward’ for people who tested positive to the virus.
Nurses could not decide what ward they wanted to work on and once allocated, ‘they were expected to turn up on the next shift and work in that ward’.
Ms O’Boyle wanted to remain at work in a Covid-free environment and was worried about the effect of the virus ward on her health.
The nurse showed her manager a text from her GP which read: ‘You have been identified as someone at risk of severe illness if you catch coronavirus*you are advised to stay at home and avoid all face to face contact for at least 12 weeks from today*’
She asked her manager for a risk assessment, referring to her asthma and the fact she had been in intensive care when young.
Ms O’Boyle did not receive a risk assessment and instead, was asked to sign a disclaimer to say she would work despite being asked to isolate.
She sent an email to her union representative, saying: ‘As far as I am concerned signing any such document will negate my life insurance and I am worried that other members of staff will feel obliged to come into work, even at risk, coerced into signing a document & into work, guilt tripped into working.’
The nurse was conflicted, according to the tribunal, between wanting to work and being concerned for her health.
She later had a conversation with one manager, Lyndsay Hamlet, who made a comment about her smoking habit saying ‘the thing is, we know you go out for cigs’.
Employment Judge Dawn Shotter said: ‘The fact [Ms O’Boyle] had asthma, was at risk and in no uncertain terms the medical advice that she should be shielding, was in Lyndsey Hamlet’s mind when she brought up the claimant smoking whatever words were used, and the reason why she brought this up was to make the claimant feel guilty so she remained working on the Ward.’
In the email to her union rep, Ms O’Boyle also said: ‘I’m really upset, I want to work but I want to be safe.
‘I feel like I’m worthless, cannon fodder, I’ve not even had a risk assessment done, no one has offered me redeployment.
‘I have been told it’s because I smoke which I know is a ridiculous crap habit, to be basically told I’m putting myself at risk so I don’t matter I’m just gutted. I’ve cried for days.’
Ms O’Boyle’s last shift was eight days after the ward had changed into a Covid ward and she handed in her notice less than two months later.
She now works as a nurse at a walk-in centre in Liverpool.
After resigning, she said: ‘To my senior staff, the decision was taken out of my hands. I feel awful and like I’ve really let my team down. I feel guilty about not being there in this awful time to help my patients and my team.’
In a statement issued by the Royal College of Nursing union, Carmel added: ‘I work hard and am incredibly committed to both my patients and colleagues.
‘I appreciate that the early days of the Covid pandemic were stressful for all involved, but I did not feel supported by my organisation and at times felt intimidated sufficiently to put my own health and that of my family at risk.
‘The RCN has provided me with incredible support throughout and I am grateful I was able to call upon my membership and get the legal and professional help and support that comes with it when I needed it. I urge anyone who faced similar issues to me to speak up.’
Judge Shotter awarded the nurse £6,202 for injury to feelings.
A Trust spokesperson said: ‘From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trust ensured that full risk assessments were completed for all staff, with the safety of both staff and patients its main priority.
‘Unfortunately, due to a change in management on the non-Covid ward where the staff member was based, it was a matter of days after the ward was converted to a Covid cohort ward that the initial risk assessment was acted on and the staff member was immediately transferred to a low-risk area.
‘Throughout this period, the staff member had requested to remain in work.’