The pandemic has cast many jobs in a new light and redefined what ‘essential’ means.

We spoke to three key workers away from the medical frontline who have worked throughout lockdown.

Jonathan Byers was inspired to become a bus driver by his grandad, but he never had to deal with working during a pandemic.

The 33-year-old from Carlisle switched from working at Center Parcs to training as a driver for Stagecoach in 2017, following the example of his grandfather, Robert.

“My grandad, who passed away a few years ago, enjoyed it and always had good things to say about the company so I thought why not follow in his footsteps and become a bus driver?” said Jonathan.

He was on his way to becoming a mentor and training other drivers when the world changed last March. Unsure of how the virus would spread and concerned for his partner Charlie and their young daughter, he took a three-week furlough at the start of the first lockdown, but has since worked throughout, mostly on country routes from Carlisle to Dumfries, Silloth and Annan.

“I took three weeks off and then I asked to come back and there were no quibbles about coming back to work. The safety of my family was more important than anything else. But I’ve never felt unsafe at work during this at all.”

Jonathan added: “Health and safety for staff was done pretty quickly. We’ve got the assault shields in the cabs which are used for night-time driving and what they did was cover the holes people speak through to prevent the spread; it gives you that barrier. They also gave us cleaning equipment, sanitiser and spray to make sure the cab area is clean for the next driver.”

When Jonathan, who lives in Boundary Road, Currock, returned to work, buses were operating at Sunday service levels, but have reacted to demand according to fluctuating lockdown restrictions.

He said passengers have mostly understood and appreciated the safety measures put in place.

“I’ve spoken to a few regulars who do feel safe being on the bus. There are guidelines of the maximum capacity we can take, social distancing, wearing masks, we even keep windows open to allow air to ventilate.

“Stagecoach has got these exemption cards so if someone does have a medical issue and can’t wear a face mask, they can go to the bus station and get one which they show the bus driver.”

With the vaccination programme offering some “light at the end of the tunnel”, Jonathan feels he and his fellow drivers will be able to look back and say they did a good job during the pandemic.

“I take pride in my job and I believe a lot of my colleagues would agree that we do provide an essential service. There’s always got to be buses regardless of what’s going on out there. People still need to get from A to B, whether it’s shop workers, NHS staff, school kids, people who need to go to the shops to get their essentials. We’re the ones who, if people haven’t got their own transport, they rely on.”

Kev Robson wants shopworkers to get more recognition for keeping food stores open during the pandemic.

A customer service manager with one of the big supermarkets, he spent six months during the first lockdown working at stores in Cumbria, mostly in Carlisle and Whitehaven.

He was in the county as part of a recruitment drive for the shopworkers’ union USDAW, but his role quickly changed as lockdown was imposed and supermarkets had to drastically adjust the way they operated.

“In March, we started to count how many people were coming into the store. We had to get customers to queue outside which was causing issues,” he said.

“We would do sweeps of any big queues, just trying to prioritise our customers. And then policing how much they had, to make sure people weren’t taking too much loo roll, rice, coffee, basic essentials.”

With the situation changing daily, Kev said his colleagues “went above and beyond” to make sure stores kept functioning.

He added: “People think it’s a stacking beans job, but there’s a lot more that goes into it that makes sure we are safe for customers to come in.

“The majority of the time it wasn’t safety around Covid, it was more safety around customers’ attitudes toward retail workers. Understandably, they were panicking as much as we were, but we were coming into work to make sure they got whatever supplies they needed.

“Verbal abuse was quite regular, shouting and bawling at colleagues who were just trying to do their work. I’ve seen on several occasions a colleague get verbally assaulted and be taken off the shopfloor to get themselves together.”

The 46-year-old from Gateshead fears abuse is returning to the levels seen at the start of lockdown, mainly over mask wearing.

“The general public just need to know we are trying to do our job and to keep us safe as well as them so we can carry on opening the shop. It’s all about safety. We’re not making people wear them for the sake of it. The main purpose is the protection of colleagues and customers.”

Some key workers are more obvious than others. Gas, heating and plumbing engineer Adrian Sandall began the first lockdown unsure whether he’d be able to work and ended 2020 having had his busier year ever.

“We are classed as key workers because everybody needs hot water,” said the 53-year-old who runs his family business API Mechanical Services Ltd based in Cumwhitton.

“We’ve done more installations than we ever did before due to the fact that nobody’s gone on holiday and people have got a bit of money to spend. When you go to fit a boiler they say, ‘Tell you what, we’ll have a heating system done as well.’ It’s just escalated.”

It’s all a stark contrast to the uncertainty of a year ago.

“To be honest I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I was a little bit apprehensive,” said Adrian who runs API with son Lewis.

“Everyone was saying ‘Oh you’ll be furloughed, you’ll have to stop’ and then the next thing we know we’re working even more. We’ve had to do a lot of Saturdays and work late. It’s just got busier and busier.”

Covid-19 precautions have meant Adrian and Lewis changing the way they work, although they already often had to wear masks depending on working conditions. To that has been added hand sanitizers, extra wiping down and social distancing. But there have been some benefits.

“A lot of people have just said we’ll disappear for the day and let us get on with it. Actually, it’s been a lot easier that way,” said Adrian.

He added: “It’s all about being careful and safe and doing the right thing.

“I’ve got a partner who’s a key worker. She’s got two sons who are only allowed to go in [to school] two days a week because she’s not NHS. I don’t want her to get it, I don’t want my own son to get it.

“But we not had one day [off sick] - we’ve done more hours and more weekends than before. 2020 was probably our busiest year.”