On March 23rd 2020, Boris Johnson addressed the nation and delivered the news most could hardly believe that they were expecting: coronavirus had infiltrated the UK and claimed thousands of lives, hospitalising so many that the NHS was threatened – so to keep our country safe we were to go into lockdown.
As the initial three weeks turned into months, this week we marked a full year since the UK officially went into lockdown, and paused to remember the lives devastatingly lost. Last year shops, factories and pubs closed; offices packed up computers and set them back up at kitchen tables. Children learnt through screens, and the furlough scheme was brought in to support those whose employment and finances were at risk. 2020 was a year for the history books – but what lessons could we learn from this global disaster?
The NHS balance is delicate – we must use it responsibly
The NHS is a great source pride for Britain, and the pandemic has shown that its successful operation relies on a very delicate balance. A wave of illness pushes overstretched medical workers further, which then leads to long-term but necessary treatments such as radio- and chemotherapy to be delayed. Cancer Research UK found in July last year that one third of cancer patients felt that the pandemic had affected their treatment, and Macmillan estimated in October that 50,000 people missed a crucial diagnosis as the nation did all it could to avoid adding more pressure to our healthcare system.
These figures are devastating, and the lesson learnt must be that the NHS is a ‘free at point of use’ service – but that it is everyone’s duty to use it more responsibly. In 2017, NHS England estimated that between 10-30% of A&E visits were unnecessary and could have been resolved by a GP. Hopefully, living through a pandemic and shining a light on the pressures the NHS is under will change attitudes towards careless overuse of certain services.
Children’s mental health should be taken seriously
The UK has made leaps and bounds in the past decade towards de-stigmatising mental health problems. With efforts made throughout the years to treat mental illness just the same as physical, both mental health and mental illness are more freely discussed.
However, despite the progress which has been made, less focus has been given to the mental health of children – with previous Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield stating at the beginning of 2020 that the UK was a decade away from decent mental health services for all children.
Whilst a culture of accepting mental illness and the active promotion of mental wellness in the workplace has been accelerated during the past year, the pandemic has created a worrying problem for the mental health of the younger generation. The removal of social interaction, changes in education and the stress of multiple lockdowns on young developing minds has exacerbated children’s mental health problems – leading to a 70% surge in referrals and £79m in funding from the government.
Whilst the pandemic undoubtedly increased children’s mental health issues, this has also allowed for them to be prioritised by politicians and, hopefully, protected with increased help and support.
Protection of society’s vulnerable is an immediate priority
One of the most important lessons to be learnt from the past year is how, as a country, we must do more to protect the most vulnerable in our society. The pandemic has affected every single one of us – yet it is disadvantaged and marginalised groups who have suffered the most.
Those experiencing homelessness, poverty or addiction, the BAME community, those living in underfunded parts of the country and young people in the social care system: there is an overwhelming sense of injustice that those who already faced adversity endure even more hardships during an experience which some saw as a great leveller.
However, yet again, this is a chance to learn and improve in the future. The pandemic has highlighted the very real effects of inequality and social exclusion, and the solutions. During the first lockdown shelter and accommodation was found for thousands of rough sleepers – a difficult problem was forced to find a solution in a short-term emergency, so there is less of an excuse in the future.
Let us hope that, at the end of this, privileged society and the government can reflect on their blessings and extend real, practical support to our most vulnerable.
The Whitehouse team are expert political consultants providing public relations and public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the Member States of the European Union and beyond. We work in a number of sectors including human rights and equalities. For more information, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at email@example.com.