Derby funeral director Helen Wathall explains how subsequent waves of COVID-19 differed from the first one, lessons learned over the year, and what is next for the profession.
Malcolm Flanders [00:00:04] Welcome to the Partnership Podcast. Over the past year, most of our episodes have inevitably touched on Covid-19. It's impossible to discuss the funeral profession without talking about the pandemic, and how it has impacted so many of you in different ways. While we can see light at the end of the tunnel, and we've even been able to have some face to face meetings recently, reopening has paused for many of us, and the risk of a further wave of infections has been growing. So today we're going to speak to a funeral director about the current state of the pandemic, and how the profession has been using these calmer months to prepare for whatever the future might bring. The podcast last spoke to Helen Wathall of G. Wathall and Son in Derby back during the first peak in April 2020. Today we'll find out how her business has evolved in that time, and how she's preparing for the pandemic's impact on the immediate future.
Malcolm Flanders [00:00:57] So Helen, lovely to see you. How are you?
Helen Wathall [00:01:00] Good to see you too, Malcolm, all good here, I think.
Malcolm Flanders [00:01:04] Excellent. That's what I like to hear. Thank you. So look, it has been well over a year since the pandemic began, and in some ways you now have to treat it almost as business as usual, I guess. How has your business managed the challenges and changes in the last 18 months?
Helen Wathall [00:01:21] I think it's been a long 18 months, but also very quick at the same time, for all sorts of reasons. The initial upheaval was probably the busiest periods of my working life, where we had to move a business that's been trading in the same way, pretty much for 160 years, overnight. That was difficult. And then as the year's gone on, the changes in regulations have been my flashpoints, as we've had to make sure that we're up to date with all the messages, to the families and to the staff, in line with guidance. And then on top of that, there's been the various waves that have happened at the same time. So it's been a challenge, I have to say. But here we are.
Malcolm Flanders [00:02:13] Still smiling.
Helen Wathall [00:02:14] Still smiling.
Malcolm Flanders [00:02:16] Well done. When we spoke to you in April 2020, the key for you then was technology, getting the right hardware to let you do your day to day work for families under lockdown. Are those kinds of online solutions now a constant part of your business, or are they more backup solutions for when issues arise again? And generally, what do things look like right now for your business and for your customers?
Helen Wathall [00:02:41] I think, as we speak right now, I hope for the customers, things look like the swan, the upper half of the swan. There is still an element of the underwater elements of the swan, as far as we're concerned. I hope, actually, that some of the digital stuff will stay. It's made life a lot easier all round for both the families and for ourselves. And the digital form side of it. Families who still don't want to come into our office, we are able to offer a video call, or telephone call, we can do forms by e-mail. And I think that those kind of things are here to stay.
Helen Wathall [00:03:28] I think digitally wise, the first phase where the entire world wanted webcams, and speakers, and headphones was a challenge. But it's interesting to see how that is now evolving, sort of 15 months on some of the initial upheaval, and there is still new stuff coming through, we try to embrace. We're all in the cloud now. I never thought we'd get there, to be fair, we're all in the cloud there. And as I said, I think hopefully the business looks the same to the families that we look after, behind the scenes we're working really hard to not lose the momentum that we've gained.
Malcolm Flanders [00:04:14] Yeah, sure. And just a follow up question there, are you spending more on technology as a consequence? I'm just trying to understand licences, or whether you've invested at all in technology as a necessary overhead?
Helen Wathall [00:04:27] Yeah, so we have. We were very much desk bound with tower PCs, and things, and we're just about to issue everybody with a laptop, because now we're in the cloud, we can do it a lot easier, and that's the next steep learning curve that everybody's going to have, about to fully operate within the 365, and the Teams, which we've sort of always had, but never really embraced. So yes, investing heavily at the moment, specifically this month.
Malcolm Flanders [00:05:04] I see. Thank you. OK, now look, one thing I know you've been involved in is the local resilience forums. How has that helped your own work and do you think it's giving you a wider view of how the profession is coping generally with the pandemic?
Helen Wathall [00:05:20] That's a really good question. I think initially, I mean, nobody, nobody knew what they were doing initially, and then I had to fight quite hard to become the representative for funeral directors in Derbyshire, on the LRF. They hadn't got a funeral director representative, at all. I was sort of hit then with with a lot of public institutions. So there's the police, the NHS, the Council, and what have you, and of course we are private businesses. And so getting across what we could and couldn't do was interesting, along with actually getting them to speak to me as a private entity.
Helen Wathall [00:06:05] But once we sort of ironed all that out, and there was a level of trust in me, I pretty much then was the voice of the funeral directors for Derbyshire into the LRF. And I have to say that Derbyshire were brilliant. They were really quick to share information, which I could then share out with the funeral directors, quick to offer support where needed, and in time, they then did listen to us. Some of their suggestions when they thought the number of deaths was going to be higher were wholly impractical. But of course, they hadn't got the advice of those of us in it to fall back on so.
Helen Wathall [00:06:48] So all in all, I've quite enjoyed that side of it. It gave me contact with all the funeral directors across Derbyshire. I've had some really good chats with people there. So I've actually really enjoyed that side of it. And I think, for Derbyshire, the LRF worked really well. I hope what happens within central government now, is that there is a bit of a directive, so that each LRF is not reinventing the wheel, because that became quite obvious when speaking to colleagues on their respective LRFs within SAIF. None of the LRF heads were speaking to each other on a practical level.
Helen Wathall [00:07:28] So there's bit's that happened in Derbyshire that I pinched off a pal who was on the Leicestershire one. There's Kent's advice that's gone through to Derbyshire, you know? But we were having to drive that from behind the scenes a little bit. So I hope that there comes a set of instructions that LRFs would follow in a situation like this going forwards. But, I also hope that they listen to the ones that worked.
Malcolm Flanders [00:07:55] That's fair enough. How onerous was it, just in terms of time and frequency, given that you're trying to run your own business as well at the same time during the pandemic?
Helen Wathall [00:08:04] It was initially, I had to create the list of all the funeral directors in Derbyshire. And of course, that list doesn't exist anywhere. So, I was very lucky that SAIF were able to help me. The NAFD, and I'm not a member of the NAFD, but they were able to help me too. Google helped me out a little bit. I created the list, and then we had to guage the premise sizes, and the storage capacity. And I have to say that pretty much all of the funeral directors were really helpful and supportive with that. And then at varying stages, it was an e-mail around twice a week, once a week, once a fortnight, once a month. All of these things, the rules keep changing and we're currently on reporting by exceptions. So I e-mail at once fortnight and if people are under pressure they let me know.
Malcolm Flanders [00:08:58] Okay, thank you. So look, here's an interesting one, do you have an understanding of the likely forecast or modelling for later in the year? And clearly, you know, it's in the news every day at the moment. Are you expecting another peak in your own at-need work to come with any further increase in infections in Derby?
Helen Wathall [00:09:14] So I have on the council website, the Covid testing modelling, which is currently at a nice shaped V, and the numbers in Derby are now at the same as they were in April for cases. And the line is heading in a pretty high straight line. The modelling that's been issued, there's three different types across the country, and none of the modelling was done with the knowledge of the Delta variant, and they obviously don't know as yet how effective the vaccines are.
Helen Wathall [00:09:56] I think that there will be another peak. There's not much space in the UK, is there? We all sort of live and work on top of each other. We've not got 100 metres between houses like they have in some of the larger continents. And then there's certain people have chosen not to be vaccinated. So there's a lot of variables up in the air. I personally think that there will be another peak of some form in case numbers. I think we're headed towards that now. Whether they'll transfer across to deaths that affect us as funeral directors, I don't know. I expect that there will be some more deaths, unfortunately. But yeah, I'm a bit fearful for this next winter, I think, personally.
Malcolm Flanders [00:10:49] Well, yeah, I was going to say in any case, as we run into autumn or winter, whether it's Covid-19 or flu, you know, generally you guys know that you're likely to be busier, aren't you one way or the other?
Helen Wathall [00:11:02] Yeah. And I think what was interesting last winter is that there wasn't much flu, because the same reasons you don't catch flu are the same reasons you don't catch Covid.
Malcolm Flanders [00:11:11] Fair point. Is there anything you feel the profession or your own business would struggle to prepare for now? And what is your biggest concern as you start to look forward six months, say to the end of the year?
Helen Wathall [00:11:24] I think as I've just referred to, the unknown, it would be our biggest threat. I have to say that keeping the staff safe is difficult because we're sort of in it, and operating, and carrying on as normal on so many levels and yet remembering to distance, and to follow all the guidelines, all of the time, especially when there's not much Covid about. It sort of breeds an element of...
Malcolm Flanders [00:11:58] Complacency almost, isn't it? Yeah.
Helen Wathall [00:12:00] Yes. Thank you, Malcolm. I think if I was to chuck anything out there to anybody would be to continually to remind staff to look after themselves and follow the guidelines.
Malcolm Flanders [00:12:14] And just talking staff for a moment then, have you caught up in terms of most of your staff are up to date with holidays, so you're back to normal sort of routine of summer holiday coming up?
Helen Wathall [00:12:26] Yes and no. Yeah, so what we did in the end last year is that we said to everybody, look, we couldn't have any holidays, our year runs from July to June, and historically have a lot of staff off in May, June anyway. And so we said to all of those, tell you what, we'll share your unused holidays over the next two years. Not thinking on any level that this year will be just as bad as last year. So we're just in the throes of it, seems to me everybody's on holiday. But yeah, now pretty much everybody except me has had a good holiday. I'm clinging on to the hopes of getting away some stage in July.
Malcolm Flanders [00:13:12] So we talked about that earlier. So are you definitely going to get away for a week for yourself?
Helen Wathall [00:13:18] Yes, yes. So my holiday that I booked for last year has moved to this year and is in the balance. I'm waiting for permission from Jet2. So with a following wind and everything crossed, hopefully I'll get there. And if all else fails, I will close my laptop and give it to my neighbour so that I can't work.
Malcolm Flanders [00:13:38] That was the one last I was going to ask you. We talked about technology. So does that mean when you go on holiday, you do leave your laptop and your phone behind you?
Helen Wathall [00:13:46] Well, yes. I'm a bit unsure about the phone, I've got a family connected there.
Malcolm Flanders [00:13:51] That's all right. That's allowed.
Helen Wathall [00:13:53] Yeah, but my laptop, I've already jokingly said this to somebody that if I have to stay in this country, I won't be tempted to take my laptop, I'm going to give it to them.
Malcolm Flanders [00:14:04] Quite right, too. Quite right, too. Helen, that's lovely. Good to catch up with you and thank you for sharing your insights over really how you've managed the pandemic and good luck over the next few months and beyond. And I do hope you get your week away. All right, we've heard it here on the podcast.
Helen Wathall [00:14:21] Thank you, Malcolm. Thank you.
Malcolm Flanders [00:14:28] Thank you for listening to Golden Charter's Partnership Podcast. If you have any concerns around Covid-19, for many of you, your local resilience forum will be best placed to help, as is your trade association. And your Golden Charter business manager is also available to support you wherever you feel they can. You can find our previous episodes on goldencharter.buzzsprout.com, or on a range of podcast apps. Or you can contact me at email@example.com if you have any suggestions or requests or want to get involved yourself. Thanks for tuning in and I'll talk to you next time on the Partnership Podcast.