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Tes, formerly known as the Times Educational Supplement, recently featured the DFN Project SEARCH site at Whipps Cross Hospital, London, and highlighted the success and importance of the programme and, amongst others, told the story of one of this year’s interns, Nouman Bhatti.

Nouman is one of 12 young people on the supported internship at Whipps Cross who have been working on the frontline during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite understandable concerns, Nouman was determined to continue working throughout this challenging time, not doing so, he told Tes, would have meant giving up on full-time employment forever.

“[Covid] has made life difficult, having to sanitise my hands more than usual, wear masks all day and socially distance on the train as well. It's much, much harder. I was nervous when I was first asked to come in, but I’m not giving up on this because it’s the only shot I’ve got,” he said.

“As long as I’m helping my team, that’s all I care about. I want to put smiles on their faces, so they can hopefully help me, too, so I can do more work. It’s more stressful as well, but that’s OK.”

Nouman also talked to Tes about the future and how he believes the skills he has developed by working during the pandemic have given him confidence.

“I have no doubt [of working in the hospital long-term]. I’m sure if I can go this way and not give up, I hope to see me working for five years here and hopefully until I die, I guess,” he laughed.

“The thing I think about [for my future] is getting a job, finally doing something I can do, like an adult can do for the family and also help out with my little sibling, who's 7, with school. That’s all I can think of. Oh, and if I was to get a family, I’d probably want that as well.”

The DFN Project SEARCH programme at Whipps Cross is one of 70 across the country and the partnership between the hospital site and the charity began in 2013. Since then, it has seen hugely successful results with around 60 to 70 per cent of the 81 interns to take part so far progressing into full-time employment.

Claire Cookson, chief executive of DFN Project Search, explained that Whipps Cross Hospital is a “shining example” of an inclusive employer that is able to see the benefits a diverse workforce can bring to an organisation.

“The big thing we measure ourselves against all the time is how many people go on to secure full-time, integrated, competitive paid employment. That’s what is very special about this site: so many of the interns have actually secured employment at Whipps Cross,” she said.

“There's one good reason for that: they are the best people for the job at the time. Whipps Cross are willing to walk the talk, and not only partner with us to provide the training opportunity, but also benefit them from this talent pool coming through.

“We've got interns who are patient-facing, who are in clerical roles, as well as interns doing things within facilities, in x-ray departments, in distribution, right across the careers within the hospital. [The programme] gives them the very best opportunity because they can thrive in the direction they choose.”

The 2020/2021 intern cohort initially started their placement as normal in September of last year but with the number of Covid cases rising dramatically in December and January, the programme switched to online learning. However, this wasn’t for long and now the interns have returned to work after being invited to have the vaccine.

“We had worked all the way through from September to December, so they had actually been here during the time of the Covid and seen it. They were really glad to be back actually. They wanted to help the hospital, they wanted to add value – they really wanted to work,” Janet Wingate-Whyte, the DFN Project SEARCH manager at Whipps Cross said.

“Many of them, 10 out of 12, had the vaccine, and we also had the [Covid] lateral flow tests. We had our room designed so it was Covid-secure, and we went through wearing the masks, the social distancing, what it was going to mean for them. So when they came on to the programme they really hit the ground running, and they were so happy just to be together as a team."

In the group interview, chief executive at Whipps Cross Hospital, Alan Gurney, explained how the benefits of DFN Project SEARCH extend far beyond the impact on the interns themselves.

“I would encourage any hospital chief executive to look at this opportunity. The NHS is the biggest employer in the country and most hospitals tend to be the biggest employer in the town they are based in. And actually, we will always have workforce requirements and we are growing, and we should always be looking at where our future pipeline of staff are coming from," he said.

"We look at ability rather than disability. In my experience of the many, many interns I've seen and have got to know personally, they all have a very unique contribution to make in the running of our hospital.”

“As you can imagine, when the pandemic first hit this time last year, I didn't recognise my own hospital. We were literally transforming overnight. We had to rapidly expand our critical care functions and everything else. The whole hospital has been transformed.”

“Project SEARCH is part of our fabric, and, to me, it was so important it continued as we have everything else through the pandemic. I was delighted when in August, following comprehensive risk assessments, we were able to reinstate the programme, and I think we are one of very few who has gone back in full pelt with a full cohort of interns.”

After speaking with Tes, Janet [DFN Project SEARCH manager] talked to DFN Project SEARCH and expressed how “proud” everyone at Whipps Cross is about the success of the supported internship programme.

“I think everyone at the Whipps Cross hospital site is really happy to be part of the DFN Project SEARCH programme and to play a role in improving employment opportunities for young people with learning disabilities and autism. The commitment and work ethic of these young people is inspiring, especially throughout the frontline during this time. DFN Project SEARCH is a high aiming programme and so to see the success of our site recognised by Tes is wonderful,” she said.

Read the full article on TES