Viewed from the vantage point of the latest additions to the mountain of evidence about the lack of efficacy of face masks and their harm to wearers, that anyone – let alone a health trust – would mandate their usage to patients and staff beggars belief. But even in the early days of the COVID-19 ‘emergency’ it was clearly visible from the flipflopping guidance of ‘The Science [TM]’ that, except as a means of coercion and control, they didn’t work.
Looking back, it is quite clear that when it came to their mask policies, my employer, Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust, had little interest in patient care and staff welfare. I struggled and I was bullied, as, to my knowledge, were other staff; and I know that there were clients who missed out on the care they needed. In my view, Mersey Care was all about corporate image; it had to be seen to be doing the right thing, so it could look good in front of healthcare chiefs.
I am an experienced clinical psychologist, specialising in psychodynamic psychotherapy. I am aware of the importance of relationships and the need to see a person’s face, allowing a vast amount of information to be exchanged and for patients to feel warm and comfortable.
In July 2020, I started work for Mersey Care as a Highly Specialist Clinical Psychologist and was part of a community mental health team (CMHT). At the beginning, the relationship with my line manager, also a clinical psychologist, was a very good one.
In what was to become a running theme for Mersey Care’s mask policy, when asked about masks the response was ambiguous: some were wearing them, others weren’t.
For example, as part of Mersey Care’s standard employee induction, I attended conflict resolution training. During the classroom session, mask wearing was unnecessary. But, during the practical part, masks were required. Wishing to be flexible and amenable for my new employer, I donned one, but really struggled and felt distressed.
Thereafter, in August 2020, I had a consultation with my GP and we discussed the distress I experienced whilst wearing a mask. We agreed, given some past traumas, that I should be mask exempt. My GP explained that practices had been instructed by the Government not to issue personalised letters to people who were mask exempt, but to direct them to a Government website where people could download or print off an exemption card, which I did.
I informed my line manager about my exemption and she shared this with other managers at my hub. And for a while, there was no problem. However, in late October, the hub manager began to badger me about not wearing a mask. He seemed anxious about Covid. He implemented convoluted and restrictive rules at the hub. For example, in the staff canteen no one was permitted to eat in the company of anyone else; surplus chairs were piled in a corner and then, in an attempt to maintain this rule, sellotaped together.
My line manager started to email me about my unwillingness to wear a mask. Then she phoned me on my personal phone, outside of work hours, to discuss the matter. The following day, as I approached the hub’s staff entrance, my line manager and the hub manager, appearing out of nowhere, blocked me from entering the building; they were like bouncers at a nightclub. The hub manager was aggressive in his tone and told me that I would not be allowed into the hub unless I agreed to mask up. It felt excessive, threatening and intimidating.
I had a quick decision to make. I struggled to wear a mask, I was exempt from wearing one, and my line manager knew and accepted this. However, I had a new assistant psychologist starting work and several psychotherapy clients to see face-to-face, so I complied with their request and, taking a cloth mask from a box at the entrance, put it on.
But my compliance wasn’t sufficient for my colleagues. They proceeded to follow me to my office, with the hub manager repeatedly asking if I would keep the mask on throughout the entire building. “Would you wear a mask here? Or here?” he demanded to know. The approach was over-bearing to the point that I felt physically intimidated and anxious; my knees were shaking so much, they were banging against the top of my desk.
It was a shocking experience, unnecessary, and unsupported by any rational reality. Despite knowing I was exempt, and despite being healthy and showing no symptoms of COVID-19, Mersey Care was forcing me to wear a mask. I have always been sensible and balanced when it comes to hygiene and risk, but this was way over the top and, frankly, frightening. And now the earlier decision that I could work without a mask, suddenly changed into, ‘every staff member, exempt or not, has to wear a mask at all times, unless alone in an office space’.
Over the months, I really struggled when wearing a mask but because I had a duty of care to see clients, who really needed a psychotherapy space, I continued to make compromises with those who were wielding power over me. It was made clear that, exempt or not, I had to wear a mask or work from home. Impractical and unworkable, it put me in a deeply awkward situation, one which management appeared to have no care or thought for.
As for the clients themselves, even though Mersey Care had announced that clients who were exempt could access our services maskless, this policy was applied inconsistently and often with devastatingly bad outcomes. There were occasions when I was walking to therapy rooms with clients when nurses would approach me and demand to know why clients were unmasked. It was an invasion of privacy for people who were already struggling psychologically.
There was also the matter of people being coerced into wearing masks in a therapeutic environment. People in psychotherapy have often experienced trauma and the need for a safe space is vital. A therapist’s face can convey understanding and containment; masks impede this and they also spell danger and discomfort. A therapy room should be a safe and comfortable space. That Mersey Care persisted with this draconian mask policy for some time was extremely troubling.
With regards to my personal mask wearing, I repeatedly asked for an individual risk assessment and every time I asked, my communications were ignored by my line manager and beyond. Mersey Care even ignored a letter sent in by an employment solicitor who had advised me on the situation. No discussions, no rationale, no compassion.
Sometimes, I took the mask off. On one occasion I walked alone, for all of 10 seconds, from the bathroom to my office. The hub manager saw this. He said nothing to me, but instead submitted a datix incident report. Such reporting exists for serious clinical incidents involving staff or clients, for example those involving “falls, violence, needlestick/sharps, equipment failure and medication errors”.
As well as being disproportionate and a waste of NHS time and money, it was a staggering abuse of power and a form of bullying. The hub manager submitted two more datix reports and visited me in my office, alone, to intimidate me about this. He was like the mask police and seemed to revel in pursuing me and making me feel uncomfortable; he and Mersey Care did not seem bothered about the impact upon patient care or staff welfare. All that mattered was total compliance with mask policy.
In early February 2021, I was ordered to work from home. This was troublesome and difficult because, whilst waiting to move into a new property, I was temporarily living with my parents. I did not have a conducive home working space. Whilst some clients adapted to use of telephone or video-based therapy, some clients said they would only attend face-to-face psychotherapy and so, because of Mersey Care staff’s ruthless application of unscientific and harmful rules, they missed out on vital psychotherapy.
I have no doubt that I was being punished for being the squeaky wheel, the nail that stuck out and needed to be hammered down. At one point the chair I was using gave me back pain, but Mersey Care refused to offer me any new equipment. And upon enquiring about the cost of increased use of electricity in my home, management informed me that staff were just expected to ‘get on with it’. They simply did not care.
Notwithstanding, I adapted to home working and provided good client care. Communications to senior managers that they needed to be flexible with their mask policy elicited only a flat refusal to engage in any kind of discussion. The standard response was, “it’s the policy”. The rigidity was startling.
Eventually, after several requests for an independent assessment concerning masks, a manager referred me to occupational health. I had used its service before and it had been excellent, with caring and compassionate staff. This time the doctor assigned to my case had a cold and dismissive manner. Our telephone call lasted 17 minutes and culminated in him asking me if, so that I could overcome my fear of masks, I wanted therapy.
I worked from home until June 2022, when Mersey Care’s mask policy changed and staff did not have to wear masks any longer. However, within a month the mask rules changed again. It did not go back to the rigidity and vacuity of mandatory mask wearing, but it was “strongly recommended”. Sadly, most staff did acquiesce to this ‘request’. It seemed to me that coercion was at work here. I remember during meetings senior managers would come and tell staff who were maskless to put one on. Everyone, apart from me, would comply. At this point, my exemption was accepted. But it was sad to see managers in a mental health institution lean on staff to cover their faces. As a clinical psychologist, taught that ‘everything is relational’, it made me extremely uncomfortable seeing a colleague wearing one; how can things be relational when you can’t even see the person’s face? Masks are horrible and divisive things.
In December 2022, I left Mersey Care to start my own private practice, Wilde Psychology. At Wilde Psychology, mask wearing is not mandatory.
The author is a supporter of Smile Free, which campaigns for the end of mask mandates and masking.
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