On the NHS front line

Grim reality of Covid revealed by top news photographer

Tim Thursfield is the award-winning chief photographer at MNA Media, aka Express & Star/Shropshire Star. Here he tells CATHY DOBBS about what it’s been like covering the pandemic – from the desperate scenes at intensive care at Wolverhampton’s New Cross Hospital to growing hopes for the vaccination programme at Lichfield Cathedral

ICU staff battling the pandemic at New Cross Hospital. Pictures: Tim Thursfield, courtesy of MNA Media

Tim is used to having to keep his hands steady – whether he’s taking a picture of a raging fire or snapping a convicted murderer. But nothing could stop his hands from shaking on a recent trip to New Cross Hospital in Wolverhampton.

“It was nerve-wracking thinking about going onto the intensive care unit because, naturally, you worry about how safe you are going to be,” says Tim, who is group chief photographer for the MNA. You know you are going to an environment that is full of Covid-19 and no matter what you wear and what you do, you know there is a risk.

“As you walk through those double doors onto the ICU it suddenly hits you, the enormity of what we are dealing with. Staff are rushing around and shouting to each other as buzzers are going off – they are saving lives, and to be allowed to see that was an incredible privilege. Afterwards, when I got in the car to send my pictures back to the office, my hands were shaking – it was a shocking experience I will never forget.”

Since March last year Tim and the other photographers who work for the MNA have been documenting the pandemic, through all seasons and with each change in the public’s perception.

“When this hit us in March the newspaper did portrait shoots with the emergency services, as we knew then the pressure they were under,” says Tim, who has won photographer of the year at the Midlands Media Awards for the last two years.

“It was closely followed by getting pictures of families and school children painting rainbows to show their support of the NHS. People spoke about how they were passing the time in the nice weather and enjoying a break from the daily grind.

At the hospital there was an urgency that I’ve never seen before and the amount of staff there was unbelievable – everyone working their hardest to keep the patients alive

He added: “That first lockdown was filled with hope that we would soon see the end of this – if we knew it was going to last a year I don’t know if people would have been as buoyant.”

During the second lockdown, in the lead up to Christmas, Tim noticed that people saw the seriousness of the virus.

“There were more deaths, but at the same time a lot of people had their sights set on seeing their family at Christmas,” he says. “I often spoke to people who hoped that if everyone behaved themselves during that lockdown they would be able to celebrate at Christmas and New Year – but we all know that wasn’t the case.

“I think the current lockdown has been the hardest on everyone – January is often a tough month for people, but also the number of deaths is at its highest.

“The main bit of hope people are clinging on to is that we start to see results from the vaccinations.”

Photographers need to be out on the road every day, but Tim says the whole team has had to re-think how they take pictures.

“Taking photos with social distancing in place has been tough as you can’t group people together – and that doesn’t look great on photos,” he says.

“It has changed the way we approach photos, keeping it to just one person or a couple if they live together. Also, wearing PPE and taking a photo comes with its challenges – you have to hold your breath to stop the view finder from misting up.”

Tim, who has spent the last three decades taking photos for newspapers in the Midlands, says there are two photo shoots he will never forget – his recent visit to the ICU and seeing the vaccination programme at Lichfield Cathedral.

Divine hope in place of despair as the vaccination programme is rolled out at Lichfield Cathedral
The symbol says it all at Lichfield Cathedral

“At the hospital there was an urgency that I’ve never seen before and the amount of staff there was unbelievable – everyone working their hardest to keep the patients alive,” he says.

“There was no doubt those people were in hospital because they had Covid, they didn’t just have a cold or the flu, they were seriously ill.

“The ICU and Lichfield Cathedral were two extremes. In the hospital I saw anxiety and despair, and for the staff it was every hand to the pump. In the cathedral I saw hope and camaraderie between the staff and patients – a feeling of ‘let’s get this sorted’.

“I’ve photographed Lichfield Cathedral several times, but this time it was completely out of this world and was like I was walking into a different place. The pillars and stained glass windows gave away the fact that it was Lichfield Cathedral. However, just looking on ground level it feels like you are in a huge clinic with medical staff walking around. You have a feeling that you are in living history.”

The world is still battling with the virus and Tim says that he believes that Covid-19 is the story that generations will be talking about for years to come.

“I tell my daughter Freya ‘you have to remember this as you will tell your grandchildren about it one day and you will go into schools and tell other children about how you lived through this’,” he says.

“It has been a privilege to document the pandemic – I’d never wish to experience this, but it’s something that none of us will ever forget. This virus is the biggest event in our lifetime and I’m sure I’ll never cover something of this scale again.”

To see how the Express & Star reported on the intensive care unit at New Cross Hospital visit https://www.expressandstar.com/news/health/coronavirus-covid19/2021/01/18/inside-icu-behind-the-scenes-in-the-heat-of-the-battle-against-coronavirus/

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