David Newell, Gemserv’s Head of Health, believes it’s important not to let the upcoming easing of lockdown restrictions detract from the vital need to start planning for the restoration and recovery stages of restarting our health services.
The significance to many of the largest relaxation of lockdown rules since March has seen 4 July branded as our ‘Independence Day’.
It certainly has the potential to make a big difference to social lives as pubs and restaurants reopen, subject to social distancing measures.
But how profound are the changes that will be introduced on Saturday – and soon likely to follow in other parts of the UK – and what will be their impact on the health service in the months that lie ahead? The short answer is that I believe changes are generally superficial and will have a greater impact on the economy than on the health system.
While the immediate impact is unlikely to be felt in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries, the easing of restrictions may go some way to start addressing the impact that the lockdown has had on people’s mental health; I hope it will begin to help ease anxiety and increase hope for the future.
Fighting pandemic will be an endurance race
Yet I fear that a future of hope remains some way off. There is no evidence to suggest that the virus will burn out over the summer – as some commentators had predicted – and that instead we need to hunker down for the long haul. Fighting this pandemic will be an endurance race, not a sprint as the Chief Medical Officer has repeated on many occasions.
While the first steps towards the development of a vaccine have been encouraging, timescales of the frontrunner – the University of Oxford – have slipped back by at least a month so that it can recruit more candidates into its trial. Thankfully – though perhaps ironically – the infection rate is so low in the UK that recruitment has apparently become a challenge.
We have recently seen a major breakthrough in terms of a treatment, with the repurposing of a 60-year-old steroid treatment being used to great effect. But as yet there is still no cure in sight.
That means we cannot turn our backs on lockdown. All we need to do is look at Germany, where dense housing and cramped conditions within meat processing plants have highlighted the frightening reality of localised outbreaks. Closer to home, Leicester has in recent days been forced to step back, rather than following the rest of the country into the Independence Day easing.
It is clearer than ever that contact tracing will be critical in tackling local outbreaks. Let us not be distracted by the lack of an “app” – that’s simply a sideshow to real ask of contact tracing. Instead, it’s crucial to focus on the human intervention, mass testing, identification of infection, risk assessment of contacts and overall containment.
Importance of getting the basics right
Linked with track and trace, we also need to get the basics right: social distancing in the right places; wearing face coverings when appropriate; and heeding the message to wash our hands. For those who are shielding, continued care and protection will be needed for some months to come.
Then there’s the debate about the risk of a second outbreak. That’s why it’s vital to have robust contact tracing in place ahead of the winter flu season, otherwise the contact tracers will be overwhelmed by people who simply have traditional cold and flu symptoms and not Covid-19.
However I cannot help but feel that the real issue is the backlog of untreated and undiagnosed diseases that has developed during the lockdown; a six-month backlog. That’s why I believe the most critical thing we can do against this backdrop is to restart our healthcare service as quickly and efficiently as possible.
We need to embrace some of the new technologies that were rolled out so quickly during the initial stages of the pandemic and embed them into the health service, particularly when it comes to speeding up elective care pathways. The UK Government’s ventilator challenge, the construction of the Florence Nightingale field hospitals and greater use of technology to enable video consultations has demonstrated how quickly we can move.
We need to emulate that dedication and focus during the current response phase and then into the restoration and recovery stages. That planning for the future must start now as the fight against Covid-19 continues.