From NHS nurses on the frontline to courageous Amber Heard, the women who made a difference in 2020

From NHS nurses on the frontline to courageous Amber Heard, the women who made a difference in 2020

December 13, 2020

WHEN York nurse Dawn Bilbrough got into her car in March this year, she broke down.

On the way home from her fourth gruelling 12-hour shift in a row on the critical care wards in the middle of the pandemic, she’d expected to be able to pick up some fresh fruit and veg to feed her family. But when she got into the supermarket, it had been ransacked by shoppers needlessly stockpiling.

“People who are just stripping the shelves of basic foods, you just need to stop it, because [it’s] people like me, who are going to be looking after you when you’re at your lowest… just stop it, please,” Dawn pleaded in a video that went viral, urging the public to think about the NHS staff left unable to feed their families after a long shift caring for Covid patients. 

Dawn represents all the brave, selfless and inspirational women who have worked tirelessly on the NHS front line during the pandemic and are top of our Women of the Year list.

At the height of the first wave of the virus, staff worked tirelessly even with severe shortages of PPE, putting their lives in the balance.

At the peak of the pandemic, 45% of staff were reportedly infected with the virus, though it’s hard to know the full extent due to a lack of testing at the time. And front-line healthcare workers are thought to have a threefold chance of catching the illness.

To date, it’s estimated that more than 650 NHS and social care workers have died from Covid-19, though the true number could be higher. And around 60% of health-worker deaths have occurred in staff who come from a BAME background.

NHS workers like Dawn risk everything to help others, suffering stress, emotional trauma and the physical challenges of working in full PPE. “It feels really surreal to be representing all of the female front-line workers in Fabulous’ Women of the Year,” Dawn, 52, a mum of one who’s worked in nursing for 20 years, tells us.

“I’m just getting on with my job each day. 

'If I want to cry then I’ll have a cry'

“I first wanted to become a nurse when I watched Casualty as a child, and after years as a support worker for people with visual impairment, in my early 30s I decided to retrain. I went into critical care because I wanted to help the sickest of patients.

“It’s not an easy job, but it’s one that I love. I’d like to say that I – and all nurses – are resilient, but this year coronavirus has blown us out of the water. The patients I’ve cared for have been so unwell.”

Dawn reveals that during the first wave of the virus, when we didn’t know much about the disease, it was the sheer volume of patients that was most overwhelming for her.  “It was unpredictable, and that was what was so scary,” she remembers.

“Patients weren’t responding to the usual treatments. But, personally, I felt like I bonded even more deeply than usual with them. I’m not sure if that’s because the people we were caring for often weren’t allowed visitors for obvious reasons, but we became very protective of their wellbeing.

“And when patients that we’ve cared for have died, it has been very difficult as we’ve felt so close to them. 

“So many NHS staff members have been suffering with their mental health as a result of the long shifts and seeing so many people dying around them, so I make sure I talk to my family and friends when I can and express my feelings. If I want to cry then I’ll have a cry. When we do see patients leaving the unit it is wonderful, though it is a rarity. But we are on a high when a patient in intensive care is able to leave.”

For Dawn and other NHS staff, there’s no getting away from wearing PPE, which she still grapples with on a daily basis. “The masks are painful and you have to make sure it is sealed. You feel as if you’re constantly breathing in your own air. It’s hot and tasks become so difficult, plus it’s hard to communicate. It’s very unpleasant.” 

Then there’s the added stress for NHS staff of balancing their home lives with working gruelling shifts on Covid wards, including the fear of passing the virus on to their nearest and dearest.  “I had days when I felt very alone and vulnerable,” Dawn says, her voice full of emotion.

“I haven’t had a hug in a very long time. I’ve not been able to hug my family since the start of the pandemic – we’ve been very careful about that. I’m a very independent person, but that’s been difficult, especially when I caught Covid myself in March and had to isolate for three weeks. To protect my family, I wash my uniforms on 90°C as soon as I get home from work. But I’m determined that doing this job won’t change how I am as a mum and I spend as much time with my family as I always did.”

So when Dawn got to the supermarket after a shift and saw there was no fruit or veg to feed her family in March, she snapped. “The issue wasn’t that I couldn’t afford to buy food. The issue was that there was no food for me to buy in the supermarket to begin with.”

But the kindness of many has been touching for her and other front-line staff. “We’ve had deliveries of food sent to us on the wards, and Clap for Carers was amazing. It’s lovely to know how appreciated the NHS is by people. I just hope that people will go on appreciating us after this is finally over.” 

A snapshot of our sheroes

When exhausted Yorkshire intensive care nurse Aimée Goold took a photo of the painful red marks caused by her mask in April, it sent shockwaves through the country.

Aimée posted the heart-breaking photo to show the realities of life on the wards along with these words: “This is the face going through hell. This is the face full of pressure damage from wearing PPE for almost 13 hours a day.

This is the face of someone who hasn’t seen their own family for nearly a month. This is the face of someone who holds your dying family member’s hand, so they’re never alone.”

The Duchess of Cambridge went on to nominate the photo for the Hold Still photography project, saying that it represented “resilience, bravery, kindness – all those things that people are experiencing.”

2. Professor Sarah Gilbert, 58 & Dr Özlem Türeci, 53, Covid vaccine scientists

It’s the ultimate gift to the world – a treatment giving people immunity from Covid-19.

The UK has struck several deals for vaccines including one developed at Oxford University by British mum of triplets Professor Sarah Gilbert.

The scientist from Kettering, Northamptonshire, has devoted her career to fighting pathogens capable of causing a catastrophic pandemic.

The hero behind another vaccine is Turkish-German scientist Dr Özlem Türeci. She and her husband Dr Ugur Sahin sprung to action in January and joined forces with US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

Dr Tureci, the daughter of a surgeon from Istanbul, says they felt morally inspired to help the world. And, finally, we all have some hope.

3. Little Mix: Jesy Nelson, 29, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, 29, Jade Thirlwall, 27 & Perrie Edwards, 27

It’s been a bittersweet year for Little Mix, who have worked their socks off since winning The X Factor back in 2011. Last month they officially became the most successful group in UK history when their single Sweet Melody hit the top of the charts, plus Confetti became their sixth consecutive Top 10 studio album.

But Covid forced them to cancel their tour and spend four months apart, although they each remained brilliantly entertaining on social media. On TikTok. Perrie’s dances with boyfriend Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain went viral, while Jade tapped into the nation’s mood, posting self-penned poetry during Mental Health Awareness Week.

In response to Black Lives Matter protests in July, Leigh-Anne posted a video about her experiences of racism and has signed a deal to make a BBC3 documentary. 

The band reunited for BBC TV show The Search, but the finale was thrown into disarray with the announcement Jesy will be taking a break from the band due to health reasons. Girls, we hope it’s not long before you’re back doing what you do better than anyone else in the biz.

4. Kamala Harris, 56, vice-president elect of the United States

Last month, Senator Kamala Devi Harris made history by being elected America’s first female and first woman of colour vice-president.

The challenges she faced as 78-year-old Joe Biden’s running mate as they worked to defeat Donald Trump were huge, but this political powerhouse has a history of changing the game.

At 13, she and her sister Maya protested against the owner of their apartment block who’d banned kids from playing in the garden.

She went on to become the first African American to represent California in the Senate, as well as the first African American woman to be that state’s attorney general.

Now, there’s a possibility that she will one day become the country’s first-ever female president. After Biden’s victory, Harris made a moving speech referencing the influence of her late-mother Shyamala, who moved to America from India aged 19.

And she memorably added: “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last, because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”

5. Kate Garraway, 53, Good Morning Britain presenter

In celebration of their 15th wedding anniversary this year, Kate and her psychotherapist husband Derek Draper were planning to renew their vows.

Yet tragically, on their special day in September, Derek, 53, was in a coma fighting for his life after contracting coronavirus.

Derek, now thought to be the longest surviving Covid-19 patient in the UK still receiving treatment in hospital, was admitted on March 30, and Kate has been a pillar of strength for their children Darcey, 14, and Billy, 11. After four months off screen, she bravely returned to the ITV studios. 

6. Annemarie Plas, 36, founder of the UK Clap for Our Carers  

It was the Thursday-evening ritual that united Britain from the start of the pandemic – applauding front-line NHS staff, carers and health workers from our doorsteps.

Dutch mum of one Annemarie Plas came up with the idea after seeing similar events in her home country.

The whole nation got behind the first event on March 26, including the Prime Minister and the royals. 

Annemarie, a part-time yoga teacher and software saleswoman from south London, hopes to resurrect the initiative in 2021 and make Clap For Our Carers Day an annual event.

7. Amber Heard, 34, actress

She took on one of Hollywood’s most powerful men – her ex-husband Johnny Depp – in a libel case that exposed the horrifying depth of domestic abuse she suffered during their explosive two-year marriage.

While Depp denied claims in a 2018 Sun article, which labelled him a “wife beater”, Amber stood firm and in solidarity with our paper to ensure that the truth prevailed. 

Which it did. On November 2, following a four-week trial, a judge ruled that the allegations against Depp, 57, were “substantially true” and that he was violent towards Amber.

Domestic violence charities have hailed the outcome a victory that will hopefully encourage other victims to speak out and seek justice.

Karen Ingala Smith, CEO of domestic violence charity Nia, praised Amber’s courage, saying: “I would like to acknowledge the bravery of Heard in naming the abuse that she was subjected to.”

8. Clara Amfo, 36, BBC Radio 1 DJ 

On June 2, Clara delivered a searing anti-racism speech live on Radio 1 in response to the police murder of George Floyd in America, the tragedy which sparked global Black Lives Matter protests.

Explaining she had been deeply affected by the incident in Minneapolis when a white police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck during an arrest, Clara told listeners of her mid-morning show: “I didn’t have the mental strength to face you guys yesterday. I was sat on my sofa crying, angry, confused… stuck at the news of yet another brutalised black body.”

She went on: “We – black people – get the feeling that people want our culture but do not want us.”

Clara’s words saw an outpouring of support on social media where she was commended for her honesty.

9. Vicky Pattison, 33, reality star and founder of Help The Elderly

At the start of lockdown, when supermarkets were stripped of food by stockpilers, the former Geordie Shore star and I’m A Celebrity! winner was reduced to tears seeing pictures of pensioners carrying empty baskets and staring at ransacked shelves.

In response, Vicky launched her Help The Elderly campaign in association with Age UK to support those shielding and struggling.

Over 10 weeks, she helped supply 10,000 care packages to seniors and vulnerable people. Queen Vic!

She joined Radio 1 in 2015 and as well as holding down one of the biggest broadcasting jobs in the country, was competing in this year’s Strictly Come Dancing.

She has dedicated her appearance to her microbiologist father Emmanuel, who died from a heart attack five years ago.

10. Jess Phillips, 39, Labour MP

During the first lockdown, the MP for Birmingham Yardley slammed the government for not acting fast enough to protect victims of domestic abuse.

Jess, who spent years working for domestic violence charity Women’s Aid before becoming an MP in 2015, was appointed the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding earlier this year.

On International Women’s Day, she poignantly read out in parliament a 100-plus list of women killed by men in the last year, describing “an epidemic of violence against women and girls.” 

11. Chrissy Teigen, 35, model, author and TV presenter 

The emotionally raw images of Chrissy and her husband John Legend cradling their stillborn son sent shockwaves around the world when she posted them to Instagram.

She was widely applauded for throwing open the conversation about stillbirth. The tragedy happened on September 30 while she was carrying her third child, a son they had named Jack.

Chrissy later explained that she asked John to take photos capturing the pain of her crying on her hospital bed after learning Jack would not survive and then nursing their baby boy, who was born at 20 weeks due to complications with the placenta.

Chrissy, mum to Luna, four, and Miles, two, says she needed to record the dark moment of her life in “the same way I needed to remember us kissing at the end of the aisle, the same way I needed to remember our tears of joy after Luna and Miles.”

12. The Duchess of Cambridge, 38

Alongside husband Prince William, this year Kate has stepped it up a notch as a senior royal following Megxit – AKA the departure of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry to America.

As well as 19 patronages, including hospitals, galleries and museums, Kate is committed to the royals’ Heads Together charity, which launched in 2016 to break the stigma around mental health.

Like most of us during lockdown, Zoom became Kate’s go-to and every one of her video-call engagements has underlined her generosity and kindness.

From playing bingo with care-home residents in Cardiff to checking in on a new mum at Kingston Hospital and sharing lockdown stories with primary school pupils in south London, she has invested all into helping those affected by the pandemic.

Kate’s down-to-earth nature makes her one of the most relatable royals in history, especially when she speaks out about her own parenting challenges.

13. Nicola Adams MBE, 37, Olympic boxing hero

Nicola was one half of Strictly’s first-ever same-sex couple, and the boxing star, who is openly lesbian, praised the Beeb.

“It’s amazing to be a part of the movement for change, diversity and breaking boundaries in the entertainment industry,” she said.

Trailblazing is part of Leeds-born Nicola’s DNA. She won flyweight gold at London 2012 and Rio 2016, making her the first British boxer to retain an Olympic title in 92 years.

Our hearts broke when her Strictly journey ended after her pro partner Katya Jones tested positive for Covid, but we can’t wait to see what she does next.

14. Lauren Ezekiel, 37, founder of We C U 2020

After seeing the tireless efforts of front-line NHS workers fighting Covid-19, Fabulous’ former Beauty Editor Lauren launched a campaign to distribute more than 300,000 beauty goody bags to 200 hospitals nationwide.

We teamed up with Lauren to create the Fabulous Care Package and source over £1million worth of products for NHS staff.

“Our bags provide the virtual hand on the shoulder to individuals with the clear message – we are grateful for them, we are here for them and we see them,” said mum-of-two Lauren. Now a freelance brand consultant, she’s even been praised by Boris Johnson.

We see you, Lauren!

15. Alex Light, 32, journalist and body – confidence campaigner

Self-acceptance, body-confidence, and self-love advocate – and deserved winner of the Love Our Bodies category at our Fabulous Good Influence Awards – Alex says her aim is to make “every woman feel better about their body.” 

An estimated 1.25 million people suffer with an eating disorder in the UK and as someone who battled anorexia for seven years, Alex knows first-hand the importance of encouraging women to feel good about their bodies.

Via her Instagram feed, she regularly opens up about her difficult past and the ongoing struggles she faces, supporting others experiencing the same ordeal.

She also shares unedited photographs of herself, showing cellulite and skin folds in the hope of dismantling diet culture, redefining so-called beauty standards and stopping us comparing ourselves to others. Alex deserves follows and applause in abundance.

16. Tess Daly, 51 & Claudia Winkleman, 48, Strictly Come Dancing hosts

The euphoric return of BBC1’s Strictly in October was exactly what the country needed after the pandemic tipped the world upside down. And hosts Tess and Claudia are the dream team carrying us through the toughest winter in living memory.

While former model Tess is polished telly gold, Claudia is more mischievous and together they’re the perfect match.

Style icons, fizzing on-screen chemistry and a genuine friendship to boot, the pair have also upended the age-old cliché of female presenters being backbiting opponents.

The first-ever female duo to present a weekend primetime show, they united six years ago when the late Bruce Forsyth stepped down from the Strictly helm.

This year, it really doesn’t matter who lifts the famous Glitterball – to us, Tess and Claudia are Strictly’s true 2020 winners.

17. Bernardine Evaristo, 61, Booker Prize winner 

The British-Nigerian author of eight books became the first black woman to win the Booker prize in its 50-year history last year – an accolade she described as “bittersweet” because she “shouldn’t be the first”.

The co-founder of Britain’s first black women’s theatre company, Bernardine jointly won the prestigious literary prize (alongside Margaret Atwood) for her novel Girl, Woman, Other.

A TV adaptation is expected in 2022. Plus, this summer, she and Reni Eddo-Lodge became the first black British women to top the UK’s fiction and non-fiction chart at the same time.

Bernardine hopes the Booker win will signal a breakthrough for black British writers and that the publishing industry will diversify.

“It really is quite simple,” says Bernardine, the daughter of an English teacher and a Nigerian welder, who struggled with her racial identity as a child. “Open the doors and bring us in, not as a philanthropic exercise, but because we will add all kinds of value to the industry.”

18. Steph Houghton MBE, 32, Manchester City FC and England captain

She has an MBE for services to football, 120 caps for the national team and led the Lionesses to the semi-finals of last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, so Steph Houghton was already a role model in every sense.

But she has also thrown her weight behind raising awareness of period poverty – the lack of access to sanitary products due to financial constraints.

A 2017 report by children’s charity Plan International UK revealed that one in 10 women in the UK aged between 14 and 21 can’t afford sanitary products, and nearly 50% of girls have missed a day of school due to periods.

This not only impacts on academic studies, but participation in PE and extra-curricular activities.

Thanks to Steph and her work with Always, from the start of the year, the government has provided free sanitary products to all schools in England and Wales.

19. Malin Andersson, 28, reality star and domestic abuse campaigner

There’s no way to imagine the pain former Love Island star Malin has endured over the past three years.

As well as losing her mum to breast cancer, her baby daughter Consy was delivered prematurely at 33 weeks and later died from a heart defect.

Then in October, Malin told Fabulous how she had survived a two-year emotionally and physically abusive relationship with Tom Kemp, her baby’s father.

Malin bravely pressed charges and Kemp eventually admitted assault occasioning actual bodily harm and was locked up for 10 months. 

Malin has become an ambassador for domestic violence charity Refuge and also hopes to initiate a change in common assault legislation, which currently states that assault charges can only be brought within six months of an alleged incident. Her ongoing strength and courage are incredible.

20. Emma Revie, 44, Chief Executive of the Trussell Trust

This superwoman mum of two heads the UK’s biggest food bank network, supporting over 1,200 food bank centres – a lifeline for millions during the pandemic.

Within the first six months of the Covid-19 crisis, the Trussell Trust distributed 1.2 million food parcels and this winter expects to give one out every nine seconds.

She has spearheaded the charity’s largest ever research project into hunger in the UK, and earlier this year launched a five-year strategy to put herself out of business by trying to end the need for food banks.

21. Melanie Maynard, 57, mum of England football ace Marcus Rashford MBE

Melanie has been an integral part of Manchester Utd hero Marcus’ efforts to end child food poverty in Britain, since he forced the government U-turn on free school meal vouchers.

After MPs rejected a motion to extend the free school meals scheme until Easter 2021, Marcus, 23 – who relied on them as a child – then got the government to promise to supply kids with free meals during the Christmas holidays.

Proud Melanie has been volunteering with him at food bank charity FareShare, which has now named a new depot after her. 

22. Michaela Coel, 33, award-winning British actress, screenwriter and director

What a year it’s been for this super-talented woman. Michaela turned down a million-dollar deal with Netflix to maintain ownership rights for I May Destroy You, the frank and confrontational drama exploring the issue of consent that she wrote, produced and starred in.

The powerful series, which was inspired by Michaela’s own experience of sexual assault in 2016, premiered in June on HBO and the BBC, who gave her full rights and total creative control. 

Raised on an inner-London estate by her single mother Marion, Michaela burst on to the scene in 2015 when her play Chewing Gum Dreams became E4 series Chewing Gum, which went on to win two BAFTAs.

She has spoken of the challenges she’s faced as a black woman in TV and her determination to stop industry oppression, and looks set to become one of the most influential voices of her generation. 

23. Claire Balkind, 36, founder of Family Lockdown Tips and Ideas Facebook group

By the end of lockdown week one, frazzled parents were all asking themselves the same question – after painting, colouring, banana loaf baking and an hour of CBBC, how on earth do we entertain our kids?

In March, amid looming school closures, history teacher and mum-of-two Claire from north London set up the Facebook group family lockdown tips and ideas, initially to find activities to keep her own children busy.

As well as offering craft, baking and educational tips, the group became a community for parents, providing mental health and wellbeing support. Within a month, it had amassed 1.1m followers from 120 countries.

Claire created an ebook of family tips and ideas to raise money for Barnardo’s, plus recently signed a book deal with Bluebird and released Great Family Days In. On behalf of parents nationwide – Claire, you’re one in a million!

24. Beth Rigby, 44, political editor, Sky News

Plain-speaking, no-nonsense and brilliantly empathetic, Beth is the political journalist with a reputation for holding MPs to account.

Rewind to May and in the rose garden at 10 Downing Street, Beth tore strips off the PM’s aide Dominic Cummings over his decision to travel from London to County Durham in lockdown, asking: “People are not going to funerals, people are not going into hospital when their kids have been having cancer treatment, why are you so different?”

With her signature red lip and her “estuary accent” – she was born in Essex and grew up in Buckinghamshire – Beth is a breath of fresh air, bossing it in an arena traditionally dominated by former public schoolboys. 

25. Holly Avis, 35, #ButNotMaternity campaign supporter

In June, expectant mum Holly realised she could go to a pub with five friends but couldn’t attend an ultrasound scan with her partner Ricky. She was even facing the possibility of going through childbirth without him.

With Covid maternity restrictions causing anxiety, stress and heartbreak for women who’ve received devastating news about their pregnancies while alone at scans their partners have been banned from, Holly sensed injustice.

After launching a petition calling for hospitals to allow partners at scans and labour, she joined forces with birth-preparation organisation BirthBliss and #ButNotMaternity was born.

The petition amassed more than 546,000 signatures, and a coalition of BirthBliss, Pregnant Then Screwed, Aims, Birthrights and The Fatherhood Institute are now working together on the campaign. The government has supported an easing of restrictions, but inconsistency remains among NHS Trusts, with 75% not letting birth partners to support expectant mothers through their whole labour. 

“How on earth is it justifiable to keep partners from labour, appointments and births and to risk mental health issues?” asks Holly.

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