"The mainstream media and the general public crave simple answers to complex and unknowable scenarios."
After all we’ve been through, and are still going through, I hesitate to be too glib with my ‘Happy New Year’ greetings this time round.
Here we are again in full lockdown. It’s hard to overstate just how challenging a situation our health and social care system is facing.
The much-anticipated vaccine roll-out has begun. We have an unspoken national contract: the government will ensure the vaccine ends up in people’s arms. But the public must play their part too.
It is important that people comply with the law on the current restrictions. Also, whilst getting vaccinated is voluntary, my hope is that people will take up the opportunity to protect themselves and others.
Meanwhile, the government has returned to its original message of “Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives.”
That’s a welcome move as our recent research with Ipsos Mori stressed the importance of clear pubic health messaging. Our study found that the call to “stay alert” merely confused people.
So how do we ensure public adherence to lockdown 3 rules? For a start, public health messaging needs to be clear. And that means clear enough for people to understand that this ongoing disruption to ‘normal’ life and business will not end immediately once all vulnerable groups have been vaccinated.
Another question is how do we all embrace the long-term changes that have happened? Changes to the way we work, perhaps a new and refreshed public understanding of the true value of NHS, care and other key workers. A new perspective on the need for more compassionate leadership in general.
Those in leadership positions have come in for criticism. But everything is changing at such a pace, and so frequently, that it is an enormous challenge for leaders.
Sometimes they seem to have learned little from lockdown 2. This is lockdown 3, yet some institutions like schools and universities are still having to react to decisions that appear to be communicated to the media before the institutions themselves.
That is patently wrong. And as a parent, I personally believe that the latest lockdown announcement should have happened sooner.
Those calling the shots are clearly not always getting it right, but I accept that they are doing their best. So where do we go from here?
As I see it, the immediate challenges for health and social care are:
And then looking further ahead:
The data about vaccines and their relative efficacy is still emerging. But I support the proposed longer interval between vaccinations.
For one thing, because it’s fitting that the UK (with its popular support for risk-pooling in health) should blaze a trail to safeguard as many vulnerable people in the shortest possible time. It might also help struggling developing countries sooner.
What they call ‘known unknowns’ have never been greater and yet the mainstream media and the general public crave simple answers to complex and unknowable scenarios.
Lack of ‘scientific literacy’ is a real drawback among some (if not many) communities, given the information we are being asked to take on board.
We need more than graphs from medics and slides from Sir Patrick Vallance to improve our understanding of why decisions are so very difficult at present.
As the saying goes” “there are no good decisions in a pandemic” – at least, not at this stage.
It’s a truly daunting picture and things are likely to get worse before they get better.
Everyone is concerned about death in this crisis. But I’m also worried about the number of people who might have to live with a long-term, limiting condition due to Long COVID.
I also fear that hundreds of thousands of working-age people might never return to work and may need care for the rest of their lives. That would certainly transform the social care proposition.
Also, too few people are talking about the long-term implications for the health and care workforce. Staff are exhausted and they may leave and not return.
We have already seen that the widely publicised Nightingale hospitals just don’t have the staff to draw on from the NHS in order to resource them properly when needed.
And what will we do if we need an army of staff over the coming years because the vaccines don’t work as well as we hope they will?
We need to urgently address the inequalities that exist in our society and that have been exposed again during this crisis. I’m thinking about those who have caught COVID, those who can’t work from home, those children who have an unsuitable home environment to learn effectively remotely.
Having said all that, I’m very positive that 2021 will turn out to be a good year. In spite of the challenges ahead, I believe there is clear will on behalf of policy-makers, as well as the general public, to do what is required to come through this.
In the meantime, we can only be grateful that the many NHS, social care practitioners (including unpaid carers) and key workers continue to give their all and I salute them for that.
And I wish them, and all of you, a happy new year!