Considering the air of calm and positivity she conveys during a telephone conversation, it’s surprising to learn that when Sharon Renner got the operations controller job at Ealing Community Transport nearly six years ago – after several years running operations for a property management company – she says she was a bundle of nerves.
“When I joined I was very nervous, I didn’t think I could do it,” Sharon admits. “But my other half said to me, just relax, you can do it; basically it was the same job as I was doing before but just in a different format.”
Perhaps this personal experience of overcoming her own anxiety is partly why Sharon has become so good at supporting ECT’s passengers when they are worried about travelling, particularly during the Covid pandemic.
The team at Gordon House Surgery, where ECT has been providing transport for elderly and vulnerable patients for both regular health appointments and Covid vaccinations, also point to a special warmth and helpfulness in the way Sharon communicates that instils trust and confidence for ECT’s partners and passengers alike. Lead administrator Ruby Jamil recently made a ‘special mention’ of Sharon in another of ECT’s Hidden Heroes features, describing her as “amazing… because she is so efficient and helpful and always tries her best to meet our requests”.
Sharon runs the bookings for ECT’s ground-breaking PlusBus for Health service, co-ordinating patient transport for 73 GP surgeries across the borough. As we tick past the anniversary of the first lockdown, she reflects on how – before the pandemic – PlusBus for Health had succeeded in creating huge benefits both for the health centres across Ealing and for the individuals who found it hard to get transport for important check-ups.
“They used to have a lot of people cancelling or not attending but when we came along, those vital appointments for blood tests or flu clinics weren’t being missed anymore,” says Sharon. “They’ve seen a rise particularly in the older generation who can now get to the surgeries with ECT instead of struggling to get there on public transport.”
When Covid hit the borough a year ago, however, it knocked things for six.
“Everything was up in the air,” Sharon recalls. “The effect was just enormous – from lots of people going to the doctor’s to no one. I was very worried, especially for people who needed diabetic eye screening and tests for blood clotting, and particularly for the older generation, it was awful it really was.”
Sharon knew there was an important job to do both in letting the surgeries know that transport from ECT was still available – and also in persuading nervous patients that there was a ‘Covid-safe’ way to make these crucial healthcare journeys.
“You can’t tell when you get onto a public bus whether the handrails have all been sanitised. But with our buses, every time a patient or passenger gets on - it’s sanitised, and when the driver gets back on, he wipes everything down again,” Sharon says.
“The surgeries that knew us and used us regularly asked if we were still running and if they could book us to bring someone in. We said yes we can, as long as the patients didn’t have covid symptoms and all precautions were followed. Slowly the patients started coming back.
“Some of them were very nervous but I said to them – honestly you’ll be fine, there’s nothing for you to worry about, we’ll be picking you up from home and taking you straight to the surgery, and then we’ll wait for you and take you straight home again.”
When the first lockdown was lifted, ECT was also able to offer a chance to get out and about to some of the most isolated people in the borough – with a programme of outings to local beauty spots such as Kew Gardens and Chiswick House.
“I said to them – you’ve been facing the same four walls, day in day out. With our outings you will get to see different scenery, getting out just for an hour or two, and it will do your mind good.
“We had such positive feedback, they just loved it and told us they’d had a fantastic time,” Sharon reports. “There was one family, a daughter looking after her mum and her sister, who were over the moon just to get out and get some fresh air.”
“There were still some people that couldn’t go out – and that breaks my heart,” continues Sharon. “But we still try and do a regular call with all of these people, which they absolutely love. They are very precious to us our customers, and we just want to make sure that they are ok. Even if their family were doing shopping for them we would call to have a chat – it’s important just to have someone to speak to, whether for 30 seconds or 10 minutes. They would worry that they were keeping me from my work but I would rather have a chat – at the end of the day if it’s cheered somebody up, then my job is done!”
When the second and third lockdowns came into force in November and January, the day trips had to be put on hold. But ECT soon found itself delivering another vital role – ferrying scores of vulnerable patients to vaccination centres around the borough.
This was an extension of the PlusBus for Health work – but on almost an industrial scale.
“The bookings started to come through slowly in early December when we took the first patients for their injections at Ealing Town Hall. From there it got busier and busier. It’s run very smoothly and has been a massive team effort,” says Sharon.
The strength of ECT’s team-working – both with each other and with partners – has been a key success factor during the Covid situation, Sharon emphasises. “You’ve got to have a good team who all know what to do, who work together and have a good team morale, which we do.”
Sharon observes that while many of ECT’s elderly passengers maintained a ‘can do’ attitude during the early months of the pandemic, the continuous isolation has taken its toll both mentally and physically: “For many their health has deteriorated and they are just fed up, I am very worried about them,” she says.
For the ECT team too, there’s no doubt that keeping services running and stepping up to the new challenges of the past year has demanded both physical and emotional resilience.
Sharon shares a recent conversation with one regular passenger who used to book ECT to go shopping every Friday: “She’s been having radiotherapy in Charing Cross hospital so I gave her a call to ask how she was doing. She very sadly told us that her sister had passed away, and it absolutely threw us because her sister was a regular on our bus as well. It broke our hearts and it kind of brings it back home to you, and so when you get home on some days you do give your loved ones a bit of a hug.”
However, news that the pandemic might finally be subsiding has helped bring back hope – and bookings. The lady having radiotherapy has already reserved her place on a shopping trip: “When I asked her if she would also like to go on an outing, she said she really wanted to come, so I said – don’t worry, you’ll be on that list!” reports Sharon.
“We’ve actually got quite a long list of people at the moment – so hopefully, once things slowly open up we’ll be getting in touch with everyone and the outings will resume.”
“We’ve also got quite a few new customers who’ve been going for their Covid vaccine or GP appointments on the PlusBus for Health, and when I mention our outings they say, ‘Oh I can’t wait - it will be lovely to get out in that fresh air!’
Then there’s the highly anticipated reopening of another important service: “Once the hairdressers open – oh my word, we will be flooded!”
From vaccinations to long awaited trips to the hairdresser, it’s clear that ECT will continue to play a key role in making ‘normal life’ possible as the pandemic turns a corner.
“You’ve got to feel positive,” says Sharon. “Things won’t go back as they were but they definitely will pick up, maybe slowly at first but they will.
“ECT does go above and beyond – it’s what we’re here for,” she adds. “But I have to say it is a big team effort here. You feel very proud to work for ECT, very proud.”