A hospice is virtually empty because fear of COVID-19 has discouraged terminally ill patients and their families from turning to them.

St Kentigern Hospice in St Asaph say one of the cruellest impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic is that it has left people deeply afraid to reach out for help at a time when they need it most.

Instead some families are struggling desperately to cope at home through the heart-breaking trauma of end-stage illness.

As a result, a £2.8 million new extension at the hospice has been able to help very few  patients since it was brought online in early spring.

Hospice management and clinicians are now extremely anxious to reassure the community that the hospice services remain available, fully operating, with robust measures in place to keep people safe.

Chief executive Iain Mitchell said: “We are still here, accepting patients and we do not want people to hesitate for a moment to come to us. That is a message we must broadcast loud and clear.

“We do not want people to endure any additional suffering when they are already having to bear the hardship of living with incurable illness.”

St Kentigern’s  lead clinician, Consultant Nurse Dinah Hickish, said it was understandable that people have deep-seated fears after a lockdown situation the like of which we have never seen before. But it is distressing for the St Kentigern medical team to think that people feel they have to go without help.

She said: “This is unprecedented, and an extremely complex situation. People are not just afraid of catching COVID-19 themselves, but families fear that if their loved one goes into a hospice they may never see them again. They fear being unable to visit towards the end-of-life and they can’t bear the thought that a loved one may die alone.

“It’s such a sensitive issue. But we need to impress on our local community that measures are in place so they can see patients, they can visit in safety. We want to calm people’s fears and reassure them that help is still at hand.”

St Kentigern is not the only hospice confronting the community fear factor brought on by the pandemic. Palliative care practitioners around the country are working all out to answer people’s questions, create guidelines and advice for those going through the double anguish of a pandemic and serious illness.

Dinah said: “Research has revealed that the situation has seriously exacerbated people’s already heightened emotions, but it’s hugely important our community retain confidence in our facilities and knows St Kentigern Hospice is still here for them.

“St Kentigern belongs to the community, it is they who have supported us over the years and our goal will always be to do the very best we can for that community.

“We don’t want carers, patients or families to feel they’ve no alternative but to struggle on at home without our valuable support mechanism. We’re here operating in a safe environment, more equipped than ever to help them through difficult times.”

She said: “We’ve been lucky in a way that the design of the extension has enabled us to more easily adhere to social distancing and hygiene safety rules.”

Following the extension residential patients are in a secure bubble area where staff wear PPE at all times. Strict cleaning protocols are in place and staff uniforms are sterilised at the on-site laundry. The scrubs never leave the premises, with staff wearing clean ones each time they enter the bubble.

The medical team is tested weekly for Coronavirus and access to the bubble is off limits to visitors and unauthorised staff.

But, because the new bedrooms each have patio doors leading to the garden area, patients can still see their loved ones in person.

Dinah said: “We provide families with PPE for their visits and they can access the garden area without having to come through the main building. If a patient is too ill to get out of bed then the visitor can enter the room through the patio door – all the time wearing PPE – and they do not have to go in any other part of the building.”

“The architectural design of the extension enabled us to do this. But we were very forward-thinking about its structure, consulting with our architects on just about every scenario, from getting enough light in, to providing patients with the utmost privacy, dignity and technology requirements. That rigorous consultation process has now paid off.”

The 930 square feet extension increased residential accommodation from eight to 12 beds. To date only two of the additional rooms have been occupied, but this is hoped to increase in line with raised awareness that the facility is on stream and operating in as safe an environment as possible.

Iain Mitchell added: “There is no question these have been challenging times causing sleepless nights for everyone involved. But in the end it’s been an incredible achievement to be back up and running, supporting our community at such a crucial time.

“It’s true that we do provide vital end of life care but not all our patients are terminal. We offer a vast range of other services including residential respite care, and day care, dementia therapies, pain management, physiotherapy, advice and bereavement counselling.

A formal function unveiling the new extension had to be put on hold due to health and safety constraints of the pandemic.

But people are invited to celebrate in a smaller, socially distanced way by visiting the new hospice cafe which has just opened its doors to the public.

Caffi Cariad chef, Ian Gray, and catering manager, Delyth Edwards-Roberts, are taking bookings from diners who they invite to sample snacks, hot meals and afternoon teas. Hopes are high that the cafe will boost a fundraising drive for the hospice.

A second floor terrace was also constructed to offer an outdoor functions area and new upstairs educational lounge can be used for staff training or hired out as a conference venue, bringing in extra revenue for the hospice.

The improvement work also saw the patient gardens transformed and enclosed courtyards built to offer space for reflection.

Iain revealed maintaining services costs about £1.4 million a year – £4,000 a day.

“That’s pre-pandemic, but with extra PPE and social distancing, costs are now more like £2 million yearly.

“We’ve suffered from lockdown closures of our charity shops and fewer summer fundraising events. So it’s extremely important to have sustainable revenue sources such as our new Caffi Cariad. I urge people to try it out.”