Extraordinary People. Extraordinary Job. Extraordinary Times.

I want to tell you a short story about a group of extraordinary people, doing extraordinary things, during these extraordinary times. You might not have heard of them before.

If you were to meet any of the police officers (from the Met, City of London Police & BTP), firefighters and NHS staff who are members of London’s Pandemic Multi-Agency Response Team (PMART), they would no doubt try to tell you that they aren’t extraordinary at all. I suspect they would say that they are just doing their job. They might even make reference to that precious, old-fashioned thing called duty. Even so, I want to pause for a moment to acknowledge and salute them.

Each afternoon in recent times, we have been faced with the latest heartbreaking headlines – an update on the number of those who have died in hospital from Coronavirus. The official total is fast approaching 20,000, and behind every number is a name. A family. A story. But what the published total doesn’t include is the number of those who have died from the virus in care homes and in their own homes. Their stories – and the stories of their families – remain comparatively hidden from view.

It has always been the responsibility of the police to respond to ‘sudden deaths’ in the community – to attend the location, to assess whether there are any suspicious circumstances, to comfort a grieving family, to liaise with the Coroner – but never in circumstances remotely like these. Never before in the midst of a global pandemic. Never with people dying in such numbers. Never in the face of such enormous personal risks.

The Pandemic Multi-Agency Response Team was formed as a result of urgent and overwhelming need. Their first shift was on March 31st. Police officers, firefighters and medics were recruited in a hurry, trained in a hurry and deployed in a hurry. And their role is to attend every single suspected Coronavirus death reported anywhere outside of a hospital – to liaise with the ambulance crew already on scene, to confirm that life has been pronounced extinct, to confirm the circumstances in which the person has died, to carefully prepare the body for safe removal and, most importantly of all, to catch a family falling in their grief. The painful privilege of policing is so often to be there on the worst day of people’s lives. On the last day of people’s lives. On their busiest day so far, PMART officers were called out on 42 separate occasions.

They work from four different London bases – in Barking, Hendon, Catford and Putney – and each base deploys 2-3 PMART cars every shift. The cars are crewed by two police officers, a firefighter and a health worker, usually a nurse. Every time someone dies of coronavirus, they respond. And it would surely be impossible to perform their role for any length of time and to remain untouched – unaffected – by the things that they see and the things that they do.

Earlier this week, I spoke to Stuart, one of the PMART PCs. As with every other member of the new team, he has set aside his day job in order to take his place in one of the cars. 

Stuart lost his own father just last year. And it was the memory of his dad that he carried with him as he prepared to respond to his first PMART call. He wondered how it might affect him; how he might feel. Because, beneath the uniform, Coppers are people just like you and me. And I think we forget that sometimes. He described the protective clothing that he and the rest of the team are required to put on each time they are deployed – the full hazmat suit, the gloves, the mask and the goggles. He described the way in which the kit acts not just as a physical barrier, but as something of an emotional barrier too. And he described one of the early calls: to a husband who had died; to a wife who was now all alone. He told me about the eventual arrival on scene of members of her family, who came to the front of the house, but no further. Because that was as close as the virus would allow them. There were no embraces; there was no physical contact of any kind. The one thing a widow most needed was the one thing she was denied. 

Like every police officer, Stuart has no doubt lost count of the number of dead bodies he’s seen over the course of his career, but he told me that the PMART role is unlike any other he has taken on before. And when he gets home to his wife and two young children at the end of every shift, he carries with him the memories of faces and places he will likely never forget. He also carries with him the inevitable concern that he might have caught the virus too.

After speaking to Stuart, I also spoke to Ben – one of the PMART sergeants – and the first thing he wanted to mention was just how proud he is of the people he’s working alongside. He talked about the sense of purpose he felt in what they were doing – in their contribution to an unprecedented national effort. Dealing with dead bodies is perhaps the most immediate and obvious part of their role but, for Ben and his team, it is dealing with the families that represents the greatest responsibility of all. Sometimes police officers and their emergency services colleagues are the only ones with shoulders strong enough to bear the full weight of another’s grief. 

The youngest coronavirus victim that Ben has dealt with was twenty-one. The oldest was ninety-seven. And every contact leaves a trace. The older man reminded him of his own grandmother, currently living in a nursing home and as vulnerable as can be. So often, the stories of strangers have echoes in stories of our own. “It’s a grim job, there’s no two ways about it,” he told me. “But it matters.”

Which is why I want to pause for a moment to acknowledge Stuart and Ben and all the rest of them – police officers, firefighters and nurses going where most wouldn’t, doing what most couldn’t. The very best of people in the very worst of times. And it’s not just the PMART officers and their colleagues of course. It’s every other police officer and member of the emergency services too – people who are out there right now, the length and breadth of the country, putting themselves in harm’s way on behalf of the communities they serve.

I have often heard it suggested that policing is an extraordinary job done by ordinary people. The same has no doubt been said about being a medic or a firefighter. But it’s a description that has never quite sat right with me. It’s the ‘ordinary’ bit that doesn’t add up. I was a police officer for more than twenty-five years and, now more than ever, I find myself thinking about the women and men I used to serve alongside. When I think of the best of them, I realise that, in order to be able to do the job of a police officer – and do it well – you need to be extraordinary in the first place.

In these unprecedented times, I want them to know how grateful I am.

 

Footnote

When it comes to media coverage of the policing response to the pandemic, it seems to me that so much of the focus has been on the negative – on isolated instances of individual officers misinterpreting or over-reaching their new powers. The headlines have been about Easter eggs and shopping bags and park patrols and the rest. By comparison, far less attention has been given to accounts of police officers being coughed on, bitten and spat at. Or to tales of Coppers visiting the elderly, doing their shopping and filling their fridges. Or to stories of the thousands of officers who are simply getting on with the day job – protecting the most vulnerable and confronting the most dangerous in society. When it comes to policing, bad news travels much further and far faster than good news. And when it turns out that some of the negative stories weren’t even true in the first place, the damage has already been done.

I’m no blind apologist for the job I used to do. Sometimes police officers – both individually and collectively – get things dreadfully wrong. We must never shy away from that fact – or from holding policing up to the light. But there has to be balance. For every negative story occupying the news pages, I could tell you a hundred extraordinary ones – about the extraordinary people who do this extraordinary job. One of my old bosses had it right: they are the everyday heroes and heroines who police our streets. And theirs are the stories that demand to be told.

 

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31 thoughts on “Extraordinary People. Extraordinary Job. Extraordinary Times.

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  1. Thank you Sir for your great comment, I wonder if I might share it on Facebook if only to try and stop some of the negativity towards the thin blue line.
    My blood boils when I see the attitude of certain members of the community towards one of the services that are in the front line.
    Can I just mention an incident the other day regarding my Sister who is not in the job but, just to show an example of the attitude of some of the general public.
    She is the carer for our Father who is a sprightly 95 and, was going to collect his prescription from the Pharmacy, kitted out in mask and gloves.
    On arriving at the chemist, in her words “a burly man” was blocking the doorway into the shop so, she asked politely if he could move.
    His reply was, “Oh, here we go” and proceeded to sneeze at her !!
    Because of the chance of infection and, infecting others, she returned to my Dads, isolated him in the lounge and, cleaned herself up before returning to the Chemist where the man had now disappeared. The shop staff were horrified and sympathetic towards her. This was not some young you but, a mature adult shopping with his wife.
    It buggers belief.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you , once again, John. You have a beautiful way with words and this strange world we are living in at the moment is the better for your kind, considerate and above all incisively accurate comments. Stay safe John.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. John this is an excellent article. Very well written from your perspective. Thank you. I retired last year but a close friend is in the team. I am proud to know her and there is no other person better equipped to deal with this. She has a loving family to support her after her day at work but I know she will do her utmost to support.the family in the best tradition of the Met. This is being shared far and wide. Stay safe.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. John, this is such a moving piece and had our whole family crying. Why? Because my daughter Jenny (who I think you worked with in Islington) is on the PMART team in North London, and I know how hard it is for her, but she never complains and just gets on with the work. And I know the the hardest things is sitting with bereaved relatives and trying to give love and care from behind a Hazmat suit and facemask. You’re right – ‘every contact leaves a trace’. I know this from working as a therapist, but Jen and her colleagues really do it at the sharp end. Many, many thanks.

    Best wishes,

    Steve (Jenny’s Dad)

    Liked by 1 person

      1. She is a hero! Your writing is so good and heartfelt – its hard sometimes, to convey something like this in words – and you’ve done it so well. I like it when the hidden corners are illuminated!

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Our Daughter, Suze, is a Clinician working with the PMART team out of Hendon. We know it is hard and very sad but we are very proud of Suze and all the other teams out there doing this necessary work.

    Best wishes

    Marilyn (Step-Mum to Suze)

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Sir,
    Thank you for shining a light on the exceptional work of the PMART crews.
    I am incredibly proud of my husband and his extended blue light family colleagues as they day in, day out, deliver extraordinary service with compassion and tenacity. They are a dedicated and professional bunch who don’t complain and rightly deserve thanks and praise.
    Thanks again and take care.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Thank you SO MUCH.
    I am one of the clinicians with the Putney team. This is so beautifully written and I have shared on FB and Twitter as you have described the work of PMART more eloquently than I ever could.
    I feel so privileged to be working with amazing colleagues from the met and the LFB. The barriers that can do often make cross agency working difficult are just gone and we are learning from each other, supporting each other and sharing tears and laughter too! In fact I suspect some friendships are being made that will last a lifetime.
    The support is incredible.
    My particular passion and area of expertise is post-death care (normally with children). I was worried we wouldn’t be able to overcome the PPE to be able to convey kindness to the relatives but we can. It’s the tiny things – attention to detail – little touches and kind words that can make all the difference . We can’t give these people back their loved ones but we can be kind.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. As a side note I’m interested to see that police still attend sudden deaths within the Met, same as when I was in the Job in the 80s. Here in West Mids it is the ambulance crew (such as my wife) that make an assessment and pronounce life extinct and police rarely attend. That sits very uneasily with me. I thought it must be a national change of policy. Evidently not!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve shared and posted a comment to FB but wanted to praise you for such a splendid article. Well said – and it constantly needs saying – but I especially liked how balanced your article is. It’s great to know that you’ve got their back but that sort of goes with the territory. Be safe.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. John, my wife is currently deployed on Hendon PMART, people need to know what is being done with respect and dignity, sadly without posts like these the only people who will ever realise the tremendous effort of these teams are sadly those directly affected by this dreadful virus. The age parameters she has met are between thirty four and one hundred. In general, those subjected to lockdown, who go out to public areas, associate, sunbathe and picnic do not appreciate the danger they place themselves and others in. Sadly, they or their loved ones may yet meet the PMART and the abolute sadness that surely accompanies their encounter.
    I had the privelidge of working with you, I know of your own compassion, integrity and professionalism which makes this article all the more impressive. The job is a lesser place without you. Thank you.
    Mark McGee.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Please give a shout out to everyone who is also working alongside the pmart cars in the support team who take the details fir the paperwork freeing the crews up to do their difficult job but equally the support team have the unenviable task of contacting the next of kin to get the details which is no easy thing when you are talking to someone who has just lost their loved on. Many thanks

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Thanks for that article. I have every respect for the people carrying out this task and hope they get the proper support and understanding. I’m wondering how many deaths are taking place in the community at the moment and how many poor unfortunates have died alone and un noted and are yet to be discovered. For what it’s worth I have a son who is a GP in the West of England, the main effects don’t seem to have arrived there yet but he said the mortality rate in care homes is through the roof. The work of the NHS in reorganising so quickly hasn’t been recognised.The GP’s have changed the way they work- more remote consultations etc and he is really worried that lots of conditions are slipping through the net and that these will have an effect on mortality figures later on as treatable conditions become untreatable.
    BTW I have little time for our current government but this is a situation none of us thought we would live through. I can only hope they make the best decisions possible with the best information available.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Hi Sir! I am a wife to a police officer in Malaysia. Its almost same scenario here the negative news heading more further than the good news!
    Anyway I loved to read your posting! Love from Malaysia!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Hi John. I Iive in South Africa, and my 3 children and 4 grandchildren are settled in the UK. My younger son is a Met Police Officer and is a member of one of these units. He says that the worse part of the whole experience to him is the inability to comfort family members … no comforting hugs etc. This weighs heavily on him, and the emotional stress to all members is enormous. I am a retired 45 year veteran of the nursing profession, and understand how bad it is without the Covid situation. I know that the Met takes great care of all of these team members, and am comforted by that. However the concerns are ever with me and your article , although bringing tears to my eyes [ tears of gratitude and pride], was an enormous boost to My mental health. Thank you so much! I salute you Sir! You have made it all easier to bear, It is not a happy situation to be so far away…and also in lockdown. Best wishes to you and yours and keep safe! Jenny Drummond

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Jenny – thank you so much for taking the time and trouble to drop me a line. I really appreciate it… And please tell your son that I think he’s a hero. With very best wishes. John

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