Steve East has worked at the Thames Barrier for 34 years. In all his time there he’s never experienced a period quite like this.
“I always tell people I started when I was 12, but that’s not quite true,” he says over the phone from his office, which overlooks the barrier.
He was actually 27 when he started his first job at London’s primary flood defence, working in various roles over more than three decades. Now in his early sixties, Steve is the barrier’s engineering manager, overseeing 50 employees split into an electrical team, a mechanical team, a contracts team and an operations team.
The Thames Barrier first opened in 1984, two years before Steve got there. With its northern bank in Silvertown and its southern bank in Charlton, the barrier protects 45 square miles of London and the surrounding area from flooding. The barrier is raised when there are forecasts of high tides, which generally happens a few times a year but can occur more often – the barrier was raised 50 times in 2013. Staff are required at the barrier 24 hours a day, including during lockdown, making Steve and his colleagues key workers.
“As the key flood defence system that protects London from tidal flooding we’ve had to remain operational throughout,” says Steve. “So that’s presented challenges in managing how we’ve done that and ensuring the safety of the people who are working here.”
To adhere to Public Health England’s guidelines Steve’s workforce was split into two. Half the usual staff were at the barrier one week, while the other half worked from home, before switching the following week. “Clearly a lot of the work activities that we do you can’t do at home,” says Steve. “We’re dealing with some pretty big bits of kit and you couldn’t work on that on your kitchen table. You’ve really got to be onsite, so that makes carrying on with normal work activity difficult.”
Like the rest of the world, the Thames saw an unprecedented lull in activity during the first few weeks of lockdown. “My office overlooks the river and just at the height of lockdown there was virtually no river traffic,” Steve says.
“It would be hours and hours and hours and I wouldn’t see a single vessel go through the barrier, which is most unusual.”
‘First few weeks were challenging’
While Venice may have reported record levels of water purity as Italy’s streets went quiet, to Steve’s knowledge the Thames’s ecology remains largely unchanged.
“Occasionally we’ll see a seal in the river up here,” he says, before adding that the rare sightings of whales and dolphins on the river are usually the result of an animal in distress.
The Thames may have been quiet, but Steve’s job has been tough. “I suppose the hardest thing is pulling it all together,” he says. “Looking at the need to remain operational but also to keep people safe.” The first few weeks were especially challenging. “I’ve been on my laptop, my iPad and my phone all at once, one communication after another, thinking ‘boy, I wouldn’t want to work like this for more than a few days’. That was particularly early on in the pandemic, when we were trying to really work out what it was we were dealing with.”
As the lockdown has eased the barrier has welcomed back more staff, but it’s not back to normal yet. Steve even predicts that they’ll be working differently in some way for the next two to three years.
“The other thing I really miss is the social interaction,” he says. “So if I see someone at the photocopier we might have a chat about the weather, or we might have a chat about work. But I’m not gonna phone them up to have a chat about the weather am I?”
Yet throughout the pandemic staff at the barrier have maintained a certain togetherness. “The good thing is by providing what we hope was a Covid-secure environment at work, that gave people a purpose to get out of bed,” says Steve.
“Perhaps a distraction from the wider situation. Personally when I was working at home one week and coming in the other week, I really far more enjoyed the week I was coming into work. Because it felt as if you were really doing your bit by turning up. I would say the team spirit was good in quite a difficult overall situation and environment.”
This is one of a series of stories we are running on how people in SE London have responded to the coronavirus pandemic. Let us know if you have a story to tell.
SAM DAVIES is a freelance journalist.
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