Work Hard

HLN meets… Helen Ray, North East Ambulance Service

We caught up with NEAS Chief Executive to find out how we can help to relieve the pressure over the festive period.

Written by Rachael Nichol
Published 23.12.2021

‘Tis the season of festivities, when we go out and enjoy ourselves celebrating with our colleagues and friends and maybe have one too many drinks.

But for hundreds of NHS emergency workers, this is the most hectic time of the year.

With drink-fuelled accidents mixed with the recent rise of Covid cases, we can’t thank the North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) team enough for their dedicated work on the frontline.

We caught up with NEAS Chief Executive Helen Ray to find out how Covid has impacted her team’s work, how she’s working towards reducing waiting times and the part we can play to relieve the pressure over the festive period.

What made you want to get into this industry?

 I’ve worked in the NHS all my adult life, starting as a student nurse back in 1983. If I’m honest, I didn’t really see myself doing this for as long, but once I began to see the difference that the NHS makes every day to people’s lives, I was hooked.


Can you tell us about your career progression to the top?

I spent the first 18 years of my career in nursing posts. My specialist interest was in orthopaedics and I worked with spinal injuries patients, patients with multiple trauma and patients who were having elective procedures to improve their daily living. Over those years, I moved through the grades to become a ward sister. My first post as a sister was one of the proudest moments for me.

I then began to explore other opportunities in wider management, and I’ve worked in clinical management, commissioning and estates and facilities. My heart, however, has always lain in operational management and my senior management team. Before my current role, I mainly spent my time in operational roles supporting the teams to deliver under ever-increasing pressures and with ever-diminishing funds.

What does a typical day look like for you?

No two days are the same for me. My role is wide-ranging and in a typical week, I’ll spend time with my senior team focussing on the job at hand for the here and now. Making sure we have enough resources in terms of people, equipment and vehicles etc. which takes a lot of focus.

The world of work has changed around us, and I spend a lot more time in virtual meetings now, which was very difficult to adjust to at first. Those meetings might be with national teams, other ambulance trusts, MPs, regional colleagues, regulators and commissioners of services. I try, as often as I can, to get out to see our staff.


How do you cope within your stressful role?

My role is to make sure our services are as safe as possible and that isn’t always the case. When we fail a patient or their family or when our care for a colleague isn’t great, I feel that very personally as it’s my job to make sure we achieve our best all the time.

I cope with this by making sure we’re constantly working to improve, share our ambition with others and have a concrete plan for the future. I also have the very best care and support at home with my lovely husband and two daughters. Time with family and friends and time to look after ourselves should be something we all see as a necessity.

We’ve seen the impact that Covid has on NEAS. What was it like working during lockdown and have things now improved?

I became Chief Executive of NEAS in September 2019 – just before the Covid-19 pandemic swept the world. It’s been a huge privilege to lead the Trust through these turbulent times, focusing on the quality of care and support to our outstanding teams.

It was very tough. There were many moments where I felt frightened personally and worried for our teams. We had to change our ways of working hugely to protect patients, colleagues, our families, and loved ones. I think we have to be very careful not to forget that the world has rarely, if ever, seen something of this magnitude and whilst things have improved somewhat, we haven’t recovered yet and the NHS needs time to do that over the coming years.

I want to say a huge thank you to all of the NEAS staff. They’ve shown such courage, commitment and compassion over the last couple of years and I know how hard that has been for them. The North East is extremely lucky to have such a fantastic team looking out for it.


We see a lot in the media about increased waiting times for an ambulance. How are you working to improve this?

Our waiting times have increased over the last 18 months for many reasons. Our activity levels are, understandably, very high and our capacity in terms of people, vehicles and equipment hasn’t been able to keep pace with this. Our hospitals are also very pressured, as are all care services teams. Many of our staff have been and continue to be unwell with Covid, and, of course, the stress they’ve been under during these most difficult times has led to exhaustion for some too.

We’re working to attract additional money that we need to expand our workforce to meet the demands placed on us and are recruiting across all of our teams to help us recover our waiting times. We want to make sure every person who needs us has a timely response.

How can we help to relieve the pressure over the festive period?

Our critical message is to only dial 999 in a genuine life-threatening emergency. For all other conditions, we would ask that people use their local pharmacies as they have the expertise to help with the vast majority of minor illnesses, that people contact their GP early for repeat prescriptions or check-ups associated with ongoing conditions and use 111 online first to check the most appropriate course of action.

We want everyone to enjoy their Christmas safely, so also look after each other if you are out socialising, manage your alcohol intake sensibly and always have a plan for getting home. And lastly, please get your vaccinations for Covid and flu. If people really want to help the NHS recover and continue to be there for them, this will be a huge help.


For more information, volunteering opportunities or how to donate to NEAS, visit their website.

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