The Hospital Caterers Association (HCA) is urging caterers not to lose the momentum that has started to build around the response of the NHS to the pandemic and the growing awareness it has brought of the role of vital support services - in particular, food and nutrition.
Speaking in a recent webinar*, National Chair, Craig Smith said: “I hope that we will come out of this a lot stronger – not only as a catering service but all soft services across the NHS. Over these last few months we’ve been able to demonstrate the importance of what all of our people are delivering into the NHS. It’s been recognised by the general public - maybe for the first time – we’ve always known that we play an important role and I hope that will not be lost.”
The HCA's media and PR Advisor, Gail Walker of Open Door PR agreed that the recognition of frontline workers across the board - including delivery drivers, supermarket workers, cleaners, porters and caterers - many of whom are in minimum wage roles, is higher than ever.
Gail added that now is the right time for hospital caterers to engage with stakeholders and Chief Executives within their own organisations to ensure the ‘food as medicine’ message is high profile, is understood, and catering services are properly funded. “As we come out of lockdown, our job now as communicators is to keep that pressure up and use this opportunity to escalate that recognition and keep that status really high.”
Other lessons learned
“These are extraordinary times, but we’ve lived through them now and we have to learn the lessons,” said Craig. A number of points were discussed by the panellists.**
Retail. Throughout the pandemic the retail sector has moved towards cashless and contactless payment – even for very small transactions. This is a move that should be made by retail units within hospitals – it’s a lot safer and a lot cleaner.
Resilience & the supply chain. The supply chain has supported the hospital caterer to a very high level throughout the pandemic. “It’s one of my highlights of this whole crisis that the supply chain has stood right beside us. It’s been rock solid,” said Craig.
However, the pandemic has highlighted some weak points where the caterer could be left exposed. For instance, as a result of loss of business through COVID-19, a major supplier of sandwiches to the hospital catering sector (Adelie Foods) has already gone into administration. This is a double blow to the sector following the impact of last year’s listeria outbreak which saw another major sandwich supplier fail and others withdraw from the hospital supply chain. It highlights the need for supply solutions that are sustainable and safe.
Part of this is a renewed focus on buying British. The virus has challenged supply chains that rely on goods being moved around the world, with travel services by air, sea and rail severely curtailed or suspended. British suppliers have demonstrated their flexibility, ability and willingness to get involved and ensure continuity of products into the hospital catering service.
Resilience & the workforce. The catering team is vulnerable to further outbreaks of COVID-19. If one worker in a large CPU tests positive, how many more people in that environment will be forced to self-isolate for 14 days? Will the service be brought to a standstill? It’s a sobering thought.
Menu choices. Some hospital catering teams have reduced menu choices during the pandemic. In part this has been to guarantee supply. There is a school of thought that such wide menu choices are not necessary. This is likely to be a topic for debate as we emerge out of the pandemic and issues such as plate waste against the wider sustainability agenda take higher priority. Ensuring all patients receive the same choice and keeping waste down is something of an oxymoron, which requires more innovation in the process of capturing the patient’s meal requests.
Hospital Food Review
A huge amount of work has gone into the ‘root and branch’ review of hospital food ordered by the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock a year ago as a result of the listeria outbreak. The review was delayed by the General Election initially and then, as it was due to be released, we had lockdown. The report is now being adapted to incorporate lessons from COVID-19. Publication is now expected in September.
If anything, the pandemic has strengthened the need, and support, for this review. As the recognition that food is medicine grows, so too must the understanding that for catering teams to deliver the best, they need the best environment to work from.
Feedback from hospitals visited during the review process was very clear – their biggest concern was for significant investment into equipment and catering infrastructure.
Phil Shelley, Chair of the Hospital Food Review said: “I believe there will be a two-year implementation plan so we can work with associations and our colleagues to help make the right decisions. There is no doubt that we need funding, but I don’t believe it is all about the money. A lot of it is about the way we work, within our establishments and with each other.”
In conclusion, Craig said he has “nothing but pride” for the efforts of hospital catering teams around the country. “What I’ve seen across the Four Nations is that the caterers have been involved right from the outset in terms of the contingency planning - what had to be delivered, how it was delivered – they got on and did it. Our teams are as integral to the NHS as the doctors and nurses and that’s a very important message. Hospital catering is an exceptional element of the hospitality industry and we really can – and do – make a difference.”
* Hosted by Public Sector Catering
** Panellists were: Craig Smith, National Chair of the HCA and Head of Corporate Affairs, Key Accounts for ISS; Brian Robb, Vice National Chair of the HCA and catering lead for NHS Lothian; Gail Walker, MD of Open Door PR, Foodservice Marketing Specialist and a member of the Hospital Food Review panel; Phil Shelley, Facilities Manager at Taunton & Somerset NHS Foundation Trust, currently seconded by NHSI to support the team nationally, former HCA Chair and Chair of the Hospital Food Review; and Andy Kemp, Group Sales & Marketing Director of Bidfood.