When Piotr Chodzko-Zajko decided to step down from a long and successful career as a global corporate executive just over a year ago and join a busy community transport charity near his home, he didn’t necessarily expect a quieter life.
What he didn’t foresee, however, was that he would be spending his first year as General Manager of Ealing Community Transport’s operations in Greenford, west London, navigating the challenges of a global pandemic.
The last few weeks have been particularly demanding for Piotr. For starters, ECT has needed to drastically increase its delivery of crucial food parcels – twenty-five thousand of which it had already distributed since the first lockdown.
But the big additional change over Christmas and the first weeks of the New Year has been a potentially life-saving task that the charity has taken on in providing access to the new Covid-19 vaccine, now available at special centres in the borough.
“Normally we have a full break from 24th December to 2nd January but two things happened,” explains Piotr. “First, Ealing Foodbank said they were going to be open and people were still going hungry over Christmas. And secondly, we were asked by the GP Federation to take patients to the vaccinations centre who couldn’t get there any other way – and we were warned that they could be doing vaccinations on Christmas Day!”
Just as ECT embarked on a life-saving operation to support thousands of families and elderly people with the delivery of emergency food parcels during the first months of the coronavirus crisis – now, the team has been tasked with a game-changing role transporting hundreds of elderly people who have received letters inviting them for their vaccination but who have no easy means to get from their homes to where the vaccines are being administered, often many miles away across the borough.
“As you know, the first vaccine from Astra Zeneca is very difficult to store and move – whenever it arrives you have 3.5 days to use it,” says Piotr. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a little label on it saying ‘3.5 days ignoring bank holidays’!”
So, as soon as supplies were confirmed for the vaccination centre at Ealing Town Hall in mid-December, ECT began taking patient bookings passed through from the 75 GP surgeries around the borough.
Within three weeks over the Christmas period, ECT had transported nearly 50, local 80+year-olds from their front doors to the vaccination centre and back again for their life-saving jab.
A week later, with another vaccination centre having opened up at the Dominion Centre in Southall, patient numbers using community transport increased to 250. On Thursday, the charity had 14 minibuses allocated for patient transport, including routine health appointments, which have continued as per usual. Piotr anticipates demand will only grow over the coming weeks and months as patients require their second dose and other priority age-groups receive their vaccination appointments. At time of writing, the number of patients using ECT to access their vaccination appointments stands at over 450.
“Our first job was to find people who were willing to step up, which to be honest wasn’t difficult. I had enough volunteers for any eventuality, including weekends, both among our drivers and the office team,” says Piotr.
“The surgeries were open between Christmas and the new year and they were getting in touch to book transport. So it wasn’t just bringing people to be vaccinated but also we had to receive the bookings from the GPs, schedule a route and work out how we were going to get them there. To begin with there was only one vaccination centre but now that we have two it’s getting interesting”
Despite the surge in activity, however, Piotr’s team has clearly got things well organised. “For the surgeries, the vaccination requests are actually quite simple: they send us a form by email, we reply confirming a date and a reference number, then they just leave it to us. We then ring the patient and it’s off their hands completely – so all the surgery has to do is send us an email.”
As Piotr explains, the charity has not had to create the links with local surgeries completely from a standing start. Fortunately, ECT has already established a strong and busy relationship with local GPs through its long-standing PlusBus for Health service, run in partnership with Ealing Clinical Commissioning Group. “Any surgery can get in touch and say, this person has an appointment, can you bring them. We’re actually still getting many of the normal GP appointments – the podiatry requests, the blood tests, the dressing changes – so it’s really very busy. Having said that, we are excited to see surgeries get in touch who haven’t engaged with community transport in the past.”
Piotr also has some impressive experience of his own that has put him in an excellent position for running the transport service to GP surgeries. Alongside a career spent running large commercial contracts for customers such as Microsoft and B&Q, Piotr also spent nearly 20 years as a volunteer for the St John Ambulance – leading the charity’s operations for big events such as the London Marathon as well as being its officer in charge for five years at Chelsea Football Club.
“The next few weeks will be a challenge as the Covid vaccination appointments rise – but it’s a little bit like running a major treatment centre for the St John Ambulance,” he says. “I used to do the finish line at the marathon in London, with four intensive care beds, eight high-dependency beds and probably about 20 others, and every marathon, we’d run out of space, we’d run out of ambulances, we’d run out of stretchers.
“But there’s no point jumping up and down; you do the best you can and you find a way to make it work. You deal with the challenges calmly and think creatively about how to find solutions. You know – there’s always a way around if you think calmly and sensibly about it.”
At the same time as setting up the vaccination service, the lockdown restrictions have once again signalled an extremely busy time for food parcel deliveries across the borough.
Tens of thousands of food items are being stored next to ECT’s main depot in Greenford, and twice a week the charity is ferrying supplies to Ealing Food Bank’s distribution centre in Hanwell, before then re-loading the minibuses with bags of food to distribute from the Food Bank to individuals and families in need.
“Today, we loaded up 300, one-kilo porridge bags, 300 carrots and 300 soups. Tomorrow we go and distribute from the food bank – so on our way there, we will take them what they are short of.
Most recently, ECT has also re-started deliveries for the charity food service for families in Southall, which originally began last April in the wake of footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign to end the issue of schoolchildren going hungry at home during the first lockdown.
“We’ve also just agreed to restart the Southall food deliveries,” adds Piotr. “So that will be five buses, twice a week – the same as Hanwell. The good news is that Dial-a-Ride have agreed that we can repurpose five of the buses we run for them twice a week for the Southall food runs.”
Piotr reflects that even before the most recent food and vaccination activities got going, the pandemic does not seem to have reduced the need for the charity’s services in Ealing. Checking records for a random date back in November as an example, he counts 46 separate services delivered during that day alone, including adult day centre transport services and SEND school routes which have needed to stay open during the crisis.
“Everybody has stepped up to the plate,” says Piotr of the Ealing team. “To be honest, no one has come to me and said, ‘It’s too scary I’m going to stay at home,’.
“It’s a challenge on resources but we’re doing what we’re meant to be doing as part of our charity objectives – we’re feeding the borough!”
“What’s great is you’ve got somebody who’s a passenger assistant for a school, for example, who has not batted an eyelid at going up three flights of stairs with eight bags of food – even though it’s not her usual job, and probably not something she finds easy. But the drivers help and – to have that kind of dedication is great.
“And as well as the drivers and passenger assistants, we have office staff who go out and are marshalling the traffic at the food centres, and who load up those 300 bags of porridge – it’s not their job but you know, it’s all hands to the pump – it really is a team.”