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Smells like pandemic spirit

As we stagger into the New Normal that they have these days, where packed waiting rooms and energy-sapping f-2-fs are replaced by packed remote consultation lists and battery-draining video-links, I find myself oddly nostalgic for the New Abnormal.

By which I mean that first few weeks of the pandemic, when professional and personal life was turned upside down. Yes, of course, it was utterly awful and, yes, I’m touching wood regarding the second wave threat.

But in the midst of that nightmare, something interesting and gratifying did happen: patients stopped bothering us. Specifically, punters who wouldn’t think twice about insisting on an emergency appointment for a broken nail decided that an hour of crushing central chest pain radiating into jaw and left arm, with sweating, breathlessness and a feeling of impending death was, on reflection, nothing to make a fuss about.

I’m not condoning that type of behaviour, and I’m aware that half the recent excess mortality may have resulted from delayed presentation of non-Covid illness, yada yada. But what those tumbleweed weeks demonstrated is that, at the drop of a pandemic, all the minor subacute stuff – the UTIs, D&Vs, rashes, emotional crises, sinusitises et al – mysteriously vanishes.

Then you’ll remember, even during the trickiest bout of constipation, that this too shall pass

But where did those patients go? They didn’t divert to 111 or the pharmacy – or, if they did, they’d have given up after the first hour or two of queuing. They didn’t go to A&E departments because, by all accounts, they were having a Marie Celeste moment too.

And they didn’t all sadly succumb, not unless I’ve always seriously underestimated the prognosis of the average episode of conjunctivitis.

Unless you hold the view that Covid-19 is a punishment from a disgruntled deity who is nonetheless merciful enough to think, maybe I’ll cut them some slack by knocking cystitis on the head for a bit (and I don’t hold that view), there is only one logical conclusion you can draw: minor, self-limiting illness is just that.

Yet it has always been the bulk of our day-duty work and, post-lockdown, is fast becoming so again, because patients demand instant gratification and we provide it. Throw a spanner in the NHS works via a perceived door-locking, and they have to get on with it. And, apparently, they can, and do.

Which, of course, explains lesser examples of this phenomenon. For example, the first thing I do on day duty is check the weather forecast, because a gloriously sunny day inevitably prompts the trivially ill to decide their ailment can be adjourned in favour of some serious UV. Cue empty triage list.

If only we could bottle this pandemic spirit and dispense it as necessary, preferably OTC. So, patients, go back to your funny lockdown ways – your jigsaws, your shaven heads, your all-day pyjamas, your wild clapping, your painted rainbows and most of all your tolerance of even the most major minor symptoms.

Then you’ll remember, even during the trickiest bout of constipation, that this too shall pass. Though it might need some Movicol.

Dr Tony Copperfield is a GP in Essex. Read more of Copperfield’s blogs at