We remain in the thrall of Covid-19. The country continues to swing from hopeful optimism to anxious negativity, and back again. It’s a nightmare version of a theme park pirate ship: only instead of feeling exhilarated, we are left mentally reeling, exhausted and despondent. Businesses continue to be decimated by the uncertainty. Children have been in and out of school like yo-yos. Half a million people in single recent weeks alone have been pinged by the NHS app. Heaven forbid the virus carries on doing what it will do, despite our best efforts.
Have we cultivated an exaggerated view of what human behaviour can do to control the spread of this infection Scientists have, certainly, achieved remarkable things this past year. The feat of ingenuity represented by the vaccines should be celebrated. But on the other hand, the ridiculous farce that is Test and Trace must surely be lamented. Wouldn’t it have been better to simply offer paid leave to anyone with symptoms of a cold?
Humans are capable of great invention, but we are also capable of remarkable folly. We need now to choose the sensible measures, and rid ourselves of the harms. Test and Trace in its present form appears to be a hopeless example of chasing shadows. Hasn’t the time come when we should abandon the effort, and focus our energies on improving the health service? At 18 months and counting, the country needs longer-term measures, not knee-jerk reactions.
Should children continue to be isolated if they have been in a class with a Covid case? Do parts of playgrounds still need to be cordoned off? Must we sanitise our shopping trolleys? Are some of my colleagues really suggesting we should deny patients medical care, if they refuse to wear a face mask? What about the unvaccinated?
I remain concerned about the long-term damage to our society’s health and well-being, as a result of lockdowns. But, regardless of the rights and wrongs of what was done, the next steps remain fundamental. The pandemic may have passed the phase where there are excess deaths compared with the ONS five-year average. However, the future remains uncertain, and there is not a small amount of hysteria which needs to abate.
We will continue to be warned of potentially deadly variants that could wash up on our shores at any time. Hospitals, feeling the pressure from over a year of backlogs and infection control measures, will declare that they are on the brink of a crisis. But the NHS has been teetering on the precipice of a crisis for a decade. We cannot, must not, let the crisis in health care spill over into every area of public life – from education, to business, to international relations. Our children will not thank us.
I hope and pray that Sajid Javid has the tenacity to take a step back and recognise that the NHS in its present guise is failing. If we want a basic national health service, to provide decent acute hospital care and primary care services, we desperately need reform. Covid (and its repercussions) has dealt a terrible blow to the health service. NHS workers were (and remain) understandably terrified: by the knowledge that we were already close to the edge, and any extra demand could prove catastrophic. But locking down society for another five years won’t provide the solution. It will only deepen the wounds that need healing, and starve the Government of the resources they need to fund public services.
We need to rationalise what the NHS aims to provide, and to moderate demand. Our society must invest more in public health services, and education. Above all, we should provide better opportunities for people to lead healthy lives.
It is not healthy for the NHS to have an unblinking focus on one respiratory virus. But, perhaps more importantly: it is not wise.
Dr Katie Musgrave is a newly-qualified GP in Devon and quality improvement fellow for the South West