The countess battling the PPE crisis: Towels begged from Primark and scrubs so scarce she’s asked the Queen’s couturier to help her team… how the Countess of Bradford – obstetrician Dr Penelope Law – is battling the shortage of protective equipment
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The last time the Countess of Bradford wore a Stewart Parvin creation, it was on the day of her wedding. It was also a very different look from the Parvin ensemble she has been wearing this weekend, though she is equally thrilled with the result.
‘These aren’t any old scrubs. They’re Stewart Parvin scrubs,’ she tells me at the end of a hectic 48-hour weekend shift at London’s Hillingdon Hospital. ‘They’ve even got proper pockets so you don’t drop your phone or your pen.’
Penelope Bradford is one of the capital’s most respected obstetricians. However right now, when she’s not delivering babies, she’s foraging for help during a crisis which is seeing NHS storerooms stripped bare because of the demands of coping with Covid-19. And very good she is at it too.
The Countess of Bradford, Dr Penelope Law takes delivery of scrubs donated from Dennys Brands which would usually be for chef for Hillingdon Hospital in west London
Having dragooned everyone from supermarket chains to the local curry house into action, she then had the idea of asking the Queen’s dressmaker for help. Mr Parvin has been only too happy to help out his former client, producing a first batch of 20 outfits (which Lady Bradford has already distributed to her team). More are on the way.
But she’s not stopping there, as I discover when I find her in the hospital car park unloading a mixed cargo of cakes and chef’s trousers.
The Countess of Bradford, Dr Penelope Law wearing Stewart Parvin scrubs
‘If you run out of scrubs, chef’s trousers are very useful. We’ve now got a thousand of them,’ she says proudly, adding that they are not to be treated as disposable. ‘People can stick them in the machine at 60 degrees and use them all over again.’
As Britain faces unprecedented demand for hospital kit of every kind, there will be those who complain (often with good reason) and wag fingers. And there are also those who do something about it.
So, when Hillingdon recently started running out of towels for staff, Lady Bradford was soon on the case.
‘I had just come out of [performing] an operation, had a shower and had to use a neonatal baby’s towel,’ she recalls. ‘They’re not very big!’
She decided to act. Through a friend of a friend, she got on to a sales director at Primark. ‘Suddenly this lorry turned up at the hospital with ‘We love the NHS’ on the side. Out came all these trolleys loaded with great big towels. It cheered everyone up.’
She insists that she is not on the Covid-19 ‘frontline’. Yet maternity units like hers are as busy as ever (there’s been no drop in the birth rate). And the virus is a daily hazard in a busy hospital like Hillingdon.
The Countess of Bradford, Dr Penelope Law holds up a delivery of scrubs donated from Dennys Brands which would usually be for chefs
Dr Law has rallied together companies to send much needed scrubs for the Hillingdon Hospital
This weekend, once again, Lady Bradford was dealing with Covid-positive patients in a sealed-off section of her unit.
‘You don’t have time to worry about it,’ she says.
I ask her about testing and she just rolls her eyes. She has been given two tests (both negative) at the Portland Hospital, the private maternity hospital in central London where she works one day a week, but has not been offered one here at Hillingdon. Four years ago, the BBC did a documentary on the famously upmarket Portland (where the Duchesses of Sussex and York gave birth) and the producers were thrilled to find a bona fide Countess working on the wards.
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They rehashed an in-joke – that the hospital for mothers who were ‘too posh to push’ also had doctors who were ‘too posh to pull’ – but Penelope just chuckles when I mention it.
This Countess does not do gloom and she does not do airs and graces, either. Her hospital pass is in the name of Dr Penelope Law, her name before her 2008 marriage to Richard, the 7th Earl of Bradford, and hospital colleagues know her simply as Penny Law.
Nearly all her time is devoted to Hillingdon where she spends any off-duty moments either cajoling or charming anyone who might be able to chip in. ‘We all just try to help each other out,’ is her way of putting it.
Hence the chef’s trousers. She already had impeccable contacts in the hospitality industry through her husband. For many years, Richard Bradford was the proprietor of Porters pie restaurants (spawning another strand of ‘upper crust’ jokes) and is a former chairman of the Restaurant Association. So last week the Earl got on to his friends at Dennys, outfitters to the restaurant trade, and secured a generous discount on trousers.
Meanwhile, Penelope’s brother Fraser is using his design company, IDology, to reproduce a simple plastic device for pushing staff badges against door-scanners without touching a thing.
The Countess of Bradford, Penelope Law, A Consultant at Hillingdon Hospital (pictured) has rallied round company to provide protective equipment for the staff including visors and a new pass holder
She recalls the early stages of this crisis when it was clear that staff were going to have to change their whole way of life. ‘Some people live quite a distance away or with vulnerable people so they needed accommodation,’ she says. ‘I talked to a lovely sales director at Staycity who had lots of Heathrow apartment suites at a peppercorn rate.’
What has gone down particularly well with the staff is the luxurious vehicle in the corner of the hospital car park. It is a tour bus which usually spends its time driving rock stars across Europe, with a big downstairs lounge area and bunks upstairs for a spot of shut-eye.
The Queen’s dress maker Stewart Parvin stepped in to help make scrubs
Penelope was already asking a favour from doctor-turned-comedian and best-selling author Adam Kay for help with a PPE training video when he mentioned that a company called Vans For Bands had a fleet of empty buses.
‘I called up the boss and he could not have been more enthusiastic,’ she says. ‘Our hospital managers sorted it all out and the staff love it. I talked to three intensive care nurses on the morning they lost their first Covid patient and they were very down.
‘But once they could get away from it all and have their sandwiches in the bus, they were so much better after that.’
Two weeks ago, during a shopping trip to Marks & Spencer, Penelope noticed the staff wearing head visors. These have been in short supply at the hospital, so much so that she recently had to borrow one from intensive care for a caesarean operation. ‘We stuck the visor in a bucket of bleach, did the operation, stuck it back in the bleach and sent it straight back,’ she says. ‘So I wondered how M&S had got their hands on some.’
They had come from a Loughborough-based company called SDI who instantly promised her 100 of them free of charge.
The Countess of Bradford, Dr Penelope Law with her husband Richard Bridgeman, 7th Earl of Bradford on their wedding day
Come her next day off, she hit the M1. ‘My brother lives in the Midlands so he drove to Loughborough and picked them up, I met him in a layby near Luton and they were on the wards that day. I gave 60 to the ICU [intensive care unit] teams and we now have 40 in the maternity wing.’ She reels off a long list of benefactors – like Denise, the midwife who has been arranging hot evening meals, or the Desi Dhaba restaurant, or Sherrie Bodie and her team of cake-makers. Meanwhile, the Bradford family estate up in Shropshire, now run by Richard’s eldest son, is supplying industrial goggles.
Penelope and Richard were both divorcees with children at the same school (Rugby) when they met.
Penelope’s daughter, a Cambridge classicist, is training to be a teacher while Richard has three sons and a daughter. The latter is now a psychotherapist married to a GP serving on a London Covid ward (both have had the virus and recovered).
Penelope has seen none of them for weeks, living in semi-isolation at home in Chiswick, west London, from where she can be at either of her hospitals in half an hour. ‘It’s lovely on the bike at the moment with nothing on the roads,’ she says.
So any thoughts on a holiday when this is all over? She bursts out laughing. ‘I can’t even begin to think about holidays now. Anyway, I need to think about tracking down some more masks.’
And I have no doubt whatsoever that the ever-resourceful Countess of Bradford will find them.
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