On PPE – and why we’re asking the wrong questions

Every day we see a slew of reports and opinions about the effectiveness of personal protection equipment. PPE has entered our vocabularies in a way that none of us anticipated and everyone seems to have an opinion on why we should, or shouldn’t, be using it. The debate heats up daily and it is clear that the confusion about its use has spread into our lives and is leading to mico-aggressions. I’ve been insulted and mocked for wearing a mask and have been bullied by people coming too close to me and invading my personal space.

We are moving rapidly towards the reopening of more public and shared spaces like libraries, community buildings and schools and this has raised the discussion about the “need” for PPE. Many organisations and employers are carefully picking over the evidence about how effective PPE really is, but are they asking the right questions?

Over many decades we have seen improvements to working spaces and practices that are designed to make the quality of our working lives better. Thanks to persistent campaigning by unions and good employers (and enlightened MPs) many bad or discriminatory practices have been removed and replaced with ones more suited to supporting the real needs of employees. We still have a very long way to go, but overall we have seen a steady pattern of improvement in working practices and in the spaces in which we work. Many of these improvements have been ostensibly small, but have made huge positive differences to employees.

CV-19 is not going anywhere and we should accept that any workplace changes we make now may need to be in place for years. The long period of furlough and isolation has left us all feeling confused and scared. Most of us are grieving, or scared, or vulnerable, or shielding, and are now worried that we will have to step back into the world of work as if nothing happened. There is a significant risk of not taking these mental and physical health issues seriously. When we ask “is PPE effective against the virus?” employers are actually asking the wrong question. What they should be asking is, “what do my employees need to feel safe enough to return to work?”

Yes, this may well be costly (and this is why we need to campaign for Government support for this equipment) but that is almost irrelevant. Once upon a time, it was costly to remove asbestos from workplaces, or to install fire escapes and fire safety equipment, but everyone would agree that this was absolutely necessary to ensure safety. I remember the huge upheaval and expense of installing fire safety equipment in one of the buildings in which I worked. That was over thirty years ago and that equipment has never once been used, but if it was ever needed it would save many lives and it made us all feel safer working there. If the argument is only about cost, then this should be clear. If it’s about money, say it’s about money and don’t try to say it’s about what’s right for your staff. Going around and around in circles examining conflicting reports about the effectiveness of PPE is doing workers a disservice because it ignores one key question – “would PPE help you to feel safe at work?”

This is the most important question of all. People are scared, and with everything that has happened over the last few months those fears are deep and real and to ignore them is to throw out all the good work we have done to recognise issues surrounding mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. Repeatedly telling your workers that they are wrong and that their fears are not valid is bullying, and it dismisses all the progress that has been done to push back against bullying in the workplace.

We need to stop asking, “is PPE necessary?” If PPE makes employees feel safe in the workplace as well as supporting their mental health and wellbeing, it’s absolutely necessary.


Dawn Finch is a writer and activist.


Food in Slow Motion, Episode One – Sourdough

All things considered, 2020 is definitely the year to start thinking about the food you eat, and where it comes from. Ever since I was small I have enjoyed cooking and have found it calming and relaxing. Baking gives me a sense of control over things, and I’m guessing this is particularly important for a lot of us right now.

This brings me to the magic that is the sourdough loaf. Okay, so more chemistry than actual magic but there is something wonderful about the slow process of creating a beautiful artisan loaf from such simple ingredients. Flour, water and a bit of salt – that’s all. I’ve been trying to bake the perfect sourdough loaf for years and recently went on a workshop where I discovered I had been missing one essential ingredient – patience. I’d been rushing through the process and not allowing those friendly little bacteria the chance to do their thing.

Photo 16-03-2020, 18 13 22The results have been so good that I thought I would pin it down and share my recipe with you. Lots of people have different versions, and when you get used to it you’ll probably find things that you prefer. You need to begin with a healthy sourdough starter. Here’s a recipe to make one, but it’s even better if you can get some from a friend. You do need a good set of weighing scales – no guesswork allowed! This is a no-kneading version (I have a bit of arthritis in my hands so prefer not to knead), but it does take three days.

Trust me, it’s worth it!

Ingredients – makes 2 x 20cm boules

A healthy sourdough starter

800g flour (I like a mix of 600g organic unbleached white and 200g organic rye)

600g room-temp water

Half tablespoon of sea salt

Day 1
Feed starter in the morning as usual.

Late afternoon/evening refresh 100g of starter with 100g of water and 100g flour. (Levain stage) I use white flour at this stage because rye takes longer to ferment.

Cover and leave overnight at room temp to ferment. It should look nice and bubbly on day 2.

Day 2
Take 200g of the levain, add 500g room temp water and whisk together. (You can discard the rest of the levain or refresh your main starter with it. That’s what I do.) Always add the water first as it allows an easier mix.

Add 700g flour to the levain and water and mix together. I use my hands to mix because I can feel it’s all mixed in. The dough will feel quite wet and sticky. Best to use unbleached organic flour because it aids fermentation to have flour that’s a bit more alive! I like a mix of 500g strong white and 200g wholemeal at this stage. Rye is good too but needs a bit longer at the final prove (more on that later)

Let the dough sit aside in the bowl for an hour (Autolyse stage) This is when the flour is mixing with the water and the starter is getting going on doing its thing. Be patient and leave a proper hour. If it’s a really hot day, pop the bowl in the fridge.

After the autolyse stage add half tablespoon ground sea salt and mix in with your hand. I like to add it at this stage as it seems to make a better rise. (Tip – Don’t use flour on your hand as that will thicken the mix with raw flour. Use water on your hand instead. It’s much easier to work the dough with a wet hand.) Don’t worry too much about mixing the salt all in because it will be well mixed by the end of the folding stage.

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Patience (and all these steps) will allow the starter to do its job and create the characteristic sourdough bubbles and crisp crust.

Next is the folding stage. You’ll need to grab a corner of the dough in the bowl and fold it into the middle. Repeat all the way around making about four folds into the centre.
Let it rest for 45 mins, then repeat. You’ll need to do that about six times to make the dough nice and stretchy. That means this stage takes about four and a half to five hours. Lots of people have different opinions about this stage, and you might find you prefer a different number of times. This is the one that I find works to make the loaves you can see in the photos on this blog.

After you’ve done about 6 goes of folding and it’s nice and stretchy, leave it aside in the bowl for another hour and you should notice bubbles forming in the dough. Cover with a lid (I tend to use a clean tea towel topped with a plate) and pop in the fridge overnight.

Yes, a long slow cold-rise is best.

Day 3 – morning
Wet your kitchen surface and with a wet hand gently coax the dough out of the bowl. Divide into two pieces and carefully shape into two balls. Fold the edges under to create a surface tension. Leave it to sit for about 30 mins. This is called the bench rest stage.

After 30 mins the dough will have flattened a bit but that’s okay. Nothing to worry about.

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The dough looks a bit splat at the bench rest stage

After the bench rest is when I do things like fold in seeds (or chocolate if I’m feeling indulgent).

Prepare 2 clean tea towels (or bannetons if you have them) with lots of flour. I use a gluten-free flour for this stage as it’s a rice mix and doesn’t stick. You want to be pretty heavy with the flour. Line bowls with the floury tea towels. I use standard-sized colanders in place of bowls because I like the size and shape. Bowls need to be about 20cm wide.


This is a banneton. They leave a nice spiral on the loaf, but I haven’t bought them as they are quite expensive and you don’t really need them.

Gently shape your dough back into tidy balls (with that surface tension on them again) and plop them top-side down into the floury cloth bowls or bannetons. Dust the wrinkly bottom of the dough with flour. Loosely cover and put in the fridge for the final rise. This will take around 3-6 hours. White flour takes around 3-4 hours, and the heavier the flour the longer it will take. Rye and spelt flours I’d leave for up to 6. You’ll need to leave it for about 6 hours if you’ve folded in other ingredients like seeds or chocolate too.

Day 3 – afternoon

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My bread crock (Dutch oven)

I bake in a lidded terracotta pot (like a Dutch oven – no jokes please) but you can bake on a tray if you don’t have one. Get your oven nice and hot and pre-heat your Dutch oven or tray (around 225 fan). Preheating the oven and your cooking pot is vital. Most of the rise happens in the hot oven. You need that oven proper hot.

Very carefully plop your dough onto a piece of baking paper with the round bottom facing up. Dust with flour (but it might already be floury enough) and then slash it deeply at least twice. If you don’t do that it will burst unpredictably. Best to have it burst where you want it to! You can see the slashes in the photo of the splatted dough on this blog.

Lift the parchment and put it onto a hot baking tray or into your very hot Dutch oven. If you’re baking on a tray (or hot pizza stone) you should put a shallow tray of water in the bottom of your oven to build up some steam. You don’t need that in a Dutch oven as it traps the steam from the bread.

Bake in the Dutch oven for 30 mins covered, and then 10-15 mins uncovered. On a

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Nestling in the crock fresh out of the oven

baking tray for about 40 mins. It should sound hollow when tapped underneath.

Then do the same with the other loaf! I cook one at a time so they can be alone in the oven, they seem to work better that way.

Let them cool on a wire rack and try not to slice until it’s cooled down because you want to keep the steam in so that it makes the inside lovely and moist.

The bread lasts a couple of days, and you can freeze it if you want to bake in advance.

Good luck with your own slow-baking!

Dawn Finch is a writer, baker and allotmenteer with a bit too much time (and flour) on her hands right now.




Making the invisible visible

I live with pain.

Most people will still be reading this article after that comment. I think I will probably still have some readers who are curious to know what sort of pain I live with.

I suffer from endometriosis.

There it is. That’s the switch-off for many because now they know that I am about to talk about the unseemly things, the “women’s things”, the “downstairs” stuff, the things that should be unspoken. I’m going to plough on, hopeful that people who also suffer will identify with this, and people who are curious will feel better informed.

1 in 10 people born with a uterus suffers from endometriosis. If you’re reading this on public transport, look around you. Do those sums in your head. Chances are a good percentage of the women around you are in pain right now. If you are not sure what endometriosis actually is, best have a read of the details on the website of Endometriosis UK. But what is it like to live with it? For me, it predominantly means pain.

What do I mean by “pain”? I had nightmarishly heavy periods right from thirteen years old. I bled through my clothes and often couldn’t afford to leave the house as period protection was too expensive. With those heavy periods came crippling pain. I fainted a good few times at school but managed to keep it a secret. For roughly ten days every month, I spent more time in the toilet than the classroom.

I finally got my courage up to talk to a doctor about it, and he put me on the pill.

That was all he did. He told me that heavy periods are “normal” and at 16 he put me on the pill.

Over the next couple of decades, the periods got worse, and the pain too. It was only after I had a child that I realised the pain I was in was exactly the same as the early contractions of birth. I’d realised with some horror that I’d grown used to dealing with pain that was every bit as bad as having a child (and I did not have an easy birth).

After my daughter was born, the pain became worse. It no longer only came monthly, it was all the time. I kind of dragging ache as if my organs were being pulled downwards by hot hooks. Sometimes it was so bad it made me vomit. Sometimes I couldn’t walk. I had warnings at work about sick days, but how could I work when I couldn’t stand upright? How could I work when the pain came in waves that made me faint?

I kept going back to the doctor, but each time was told it was “just bad periods”. I was given stronger painkillers and told to “try yoga” and various other things. Hot water bottles. Long walks. Running. Stretching. Acupuncture. Hypnosis…. Then more drugs to arrest the bleeding in the hope that would also stop the pain. It didn’t. Norethisterone is normally prescribed to arrest periods for 4-6 months. I took it for over five years.

I wasn’t sent for any further tests for another five years.

Five more years in constant dragging pain. Five years in pain that some days would literally take my breath away. Five years of bloating, and backache, and anger and exhaustion and the depression associated with feeling as if I couldn’t take the pain for a moment longer.

Finally, I found a doctor who agreed to send me for tests. Blood tests first, then scans. Standing alone in cold rooms in backless hospital gowns while faceless men told me to “lie still, turn over, on your side, the other side, thank you, you can go.” Only to have “inconclusive” results. Then internal scans, scrapes, biopsies, more blood tests, more scans… Told repeatedly that it “probably isn’t cancer”. With the pain eating away at you for years it becomes increasingly difficult to believe the “probably” in that sentence.

Eventually, the doctors (so many by now that I’d lost track) gave me a diagnosis of endometriosis. I have two ovarian cysts, and some polyps, and some scarring. It took me over eight years to get that diagnosis.

I wish I could say that with a diagnosis came a solution, but that would be a lie. I was fitted with a coil to prevent bleeding and that helped a bit. The other things I’ve been offered included hysterectomy and uterine ablation. If you’re not familiar with these options, feel free to look them up. It’s definitely making a choice between a rock and a very very hard place.

I’ve lived with this for so long and heard so many terrible things from friends who have taken the surgery route, that I’m living with the devil I know. Me and this pain are old adversaries. I know what it will do. If I have surgery there is no guarantee I’d be better off, so for now (like many sufferers) I think I’ll stick with the pain. I’ve had it for so long that I don’t think I’d remember what life is like without it. I understand this pain.

I know that I can’t stand for long, or sometimes at all. I know that if I sit for more than an hour I will limp for a while as my pelvis will seize up. Cramps can often make me limp. The cysts press against my bladder, so I can’t go for long without visiting the toilets. When the endometriosis flares up badly, it can also give me diarrhoea, so long distance travel is definitely a challenge. When the pain is at its worse it is like a hot blade in my guts. The pain at times is literally breathtaking and I’ve often wondered how it is possible to bear it. Most days it’s like a dull ache, a lurking bear of pain waiting to take a savage bite of me when I least expect it.

There are also the days I breathe through it – panting through contractions. The days I walk and walk (slowly, shuffling, limping) because there is no comfortable sitting position and I’m afraid my hip bones will seize up. You can always tell which women have endometriosis because they probably own a number of hot water bottles. On the bad days, I sit with one on my lap, and two tucked behind me. I avoid painkillers until it’s absolutely necessary because I don’t want to become accustomed to them. I did that once, and breaking the painkiller habit was awful.

I know that when we try to talk about the pain, people still don’t believe us. How can it possibly be that bad? If it’s really that bad, how can we cope?

Because we have learned to, and because we have had to.

We have been told our whole lives to “deal with it”, and for those of us of a certain age being born with a uterus has been a complicated journey. We have this complex set of monthly conditions that dominate our lives, but for some reason, we are raised to feel shame talking about it. Our blood is dirty and we have carried that shame since our early teens. We didn’t talk about our periods, we bled in secret and when we felt pain, we had that in secret too. We felt it was our cross to bear because we were encouraged to be that way. When the doctors told us it was “just one of those things”, we believed them.

This is why this conversation is so important. We have to break the silence. We have to give the future generations more options and better choices. Education is essential so that young people no longer have to feel as if this is some kind of a private shame.

When I was asked if I would endorse a new exhibition supported by Endometriosis UK and sponsored by Standard Life UK, it didn’t take me long to agree.  These exhibitions in London and Edinburgh, Beyond the Invisible, are part of the greater plan to create a wider conversation about endometriosis and its sufferers. The photographer, Rankin, has taken a series of photos around which the exhibition is based. These highlight real life stories of endometriosis sufferers, and hopefully, this will help people to talk more openly about their plight.

Join the conversation, share #RealLifeStories about #Endometriosis, and visit the exhibitions if you can (full details below). Those of us who feel comfortable talking about issues like endometriosis and periods can do a great deal of good simply by not hiding away any more. The next generation coming up behind us will, perhaps, grow up not hiding natural bodily functions and illnesses. If they feel more comfortable about talking about their periods, maybe their openness will have a positive impact on things like medical awareness and diagnosis.

Let’s all work hard at making the invisible, visible.

Dawn Finch is an author, librarian, and activist.

This post has been sponsored by Standard Life UK who are in collaboration with Endometriosis UK in creating the Beyond the Invisible exhibitions in London and Edinburgh.

Admission to both exhibitions is free. Please share and use #RealLifeStories

London – 21* – 28 March, 2019
La Galleria Pall Mall
Royal Opera Arcade
5B Pall Mall
Open 11am-5pm each day

Edinburgh – 1 – 8 April, 2019
Stills Photography Centre
23 Cockburn Street

Open 11am – 5pm each day

*Open 12pm-5pm on launch day to public