More restrictions will exacerbate our health service's woes
The NHS is once again in trouble. A mix of “bed blocking”, staff shortages, and increased presentations to A&E (from both Covid and non-Covid causes) have all conspired to push our healthcare service closer to the brink. 18 months on from the first lockdown to “protect the NHS” — and with nearly 90% of adults vaccinated against Covid — the NHS finds itself struggling once again.
More frightening is that talk is once again returning to “firebreak” lockdowns, ignoring the fact that lockdowns themselves are partially responsible for much of the increased attendance to A&E. Now we are seeing soaring weight gains, a doubling of children’s mental health referrals, delayed presentations and treatment for hundreds of thousands of cancer patients, and a spike in RSV in young children — thought by some to be due to an “immunity debt” brought about by lockdowns — it is becoming increasingly apparent that lockdowns themselves are hazardous to health. Then there are, of course, the huge economic costs. So where does this leave us? And what does this mean for the winter ahead?
It’s worth remembering that even in recent years, the NHS has struggled but survived through the winters. As recently as 2018, NHS England postponed all planned surgery for a month in order to cope with winter pressures. Consequently, 62,000 fewer operations were performed. Throw in a bad flu season, combined with Covid and 18 months of restrictions and lockdowns, the NHS could hit breaking point this Winter. We should therefore think very carefully before introducing another lockdown because it could hurt the very thing that it was designed to protect.
After all, the premise of the first lockdown was to flatten the curve and allow the NHS time to increase capacity, which was unsuccessful. Not only did the NHS go into this crisis with one of the lowest number of beds per capita and lowest number of doctors per capita in the EU, it also had longstanding issues with retention of staff. Many of these fundamental problems are still there, despite the government’s massaging of statistics (counting medical students as doctors, for example). This is despite record public levels of support for the NHS, and £13 billion of NHS Trust debt being written off.
Over 18 months on from the emergence of Covid, restrictions cannot be used as a sticking plaster to save a faltering NHS. Maybe it is time to have a conversation about what we can reasonably expect from our healthcare system, and the resources and management we need to achieve that.