London volunteers feed nurses for free as virus deaths surge

Nurses and staff carry food delivered by volunteers outside Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in London, Britain, March 23, 2020. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

LONDON – As coronavirus deaths surge in Britain, a group of London volunteers has set up a catering service to provide free meals for hard-pressed nurses at a major public hospital fighting the pandemic.

The group, called Critical NHS, gets food from local businesses and delivers it three times a day to nurses and other frontline staff at St George’s Hospital in south London.

Many British people revere the National Health Service and the free care it provides. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned on Sunday that the NHS could be “overwhelmed” by the coronavirus in just two weeks.

As of Sunday, 281 people with COVID-19 had died in the United Kingdom. The government said there are 5,683 confirmed cases, with London hardest hit.

Critical NHS, the volunteer group, was set up on Thursday by husband and wife Niall Barrett and Janneke Diemel, who were responding to an appeal from a senior nurse at St George’s to “drop off a box of biscuits or something the staff can snack on.”

“Our first run was 20 pizzas,” said Barrett. “The nurses loved that, they were so appreciative. And then it kept growing and growing.”

Barrett and Diemel, who run a golf travel company, were quickly joined by two part-time coaches from Battersea Ironsides, a local rugby club. Other local people have offered to drive, donate, and run the Twitter account. 

A crowdfunding account set up on PayPal raised 22,000 pounds  ($25,500) in just four days.

Barrett said many nurses were too busy to buy food, or found their usual eating places had closed.


Local pubs and restaurants donate meals or sell them cheaply. Then the volunteers at Critical NHS deliver the meals to the hospital’s general intensive care unit, where it is distributed to nurses, ambulance crew, porters, and other staff.

By sourcing the food locally, he said the group hopes to help hard-hit small businesses stay afloat.

“Part of the ethos is to buy from local businesses,” said Barrett. “Then, we can support them and support the nurses at the same time.”

A Chinese restaurant and a pizzeria sold the group food at half price, while a pub gave it 40 Sunday roasts – a British tradition – at cost.

“The support has been beyond incredible,” wrote Anthea Allen, the senior nurse at St George’s who made the original appeal, in an email thanking the community.

She said the staff “have been kept afloat by this support. They no longer have to bring their meals to work. We have shared food with the wards who are also caring for Covid patients.”

Covid is short for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

Flush with donations, the volunteers plan to set up a food bank at St George’s where nurses can get pasta, eggs, milk, tampons, and other basic supplies.

Last week a video on social media showed an exhausted nurse-driven to tears after finding shelves bare after her shift at a critical care unit in York.

Critical NHS is also earmarking money to pay for hotels for nurses who can’t get home between shifts. It also said it had received requests to extend its services to another London hospital.

With over 9,000 staff, St George’s University Hospitals, the NHS trust that runs the hospital, says it is the largest healthcare provider in southwest London.

At the back of its sprawling grounds in Tooting is a special unit to deal with cases of the coronavirus.

Another group, called Clap For Carers, is calling for all Britons to applaud at 8 p.m. on March 26 to show NHS staff “our appreciation for their ongoing hard work and fight against this virus.”

—Reuters/US World

By Andrew R.C. Marshall

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