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July 2022

Government continues to understate impact of COVID on the NHS

The Government must be honest about the threat the pandemic still poses, say the editors of two of the UK’s leading journals, the BMJ and the Health Service Journal (HSJ).

Now is the time to face the fact that the nation’s attempt to ‘live with COVID’ is the straw that is breaking the NHS’s back, argue Kamran Abbasi, Editor in Chief at The BMJ and Alastair McLellan, Editor at the Health Service Journal (HSJ) in a joint editorial published today.

They warn that at no other time in the last 50 years have so many parts of the NHS been so close to ceasing to function effectively – ‘the heart of the problem is the failure to recognise that the pandemic is far from over and that a return to some of the measures taken in the last two years is needed.’

This year, 2022, was meant to be the year of full speed recovery, they write. Instead, the NHS has already experienced two further COVID waves, and weekly admissions to English hospitals, for those who test positive for COVID-19, have so far averaged just over 9,000 compared with just under 6,000 in 2021. The average in 2020 was just under 7,000.

By now the NHS had also hoped to be operating better than before the pandemic; instead, elective activity is around 10% below 2019 levels.

Along with the pressures created by the heatwave (18-19 July) and that ‘most visible’ sign of healthcare failure – ambulances queuing outside hospitals – they say last week may have seen the most difficult daya the NHS has ever experienced.

The Government is responding to this crisis largely by pretending it is not happening or implying it is all under control, they argue.

In the House of Lords last week, for example, government health spokesperson Lord Kammal repeated the spurious line: ‘We managed to break the link between infections and hospitalisations and hospitalisations and death.’

But the link between infections and hospital admissions has clearly not been broken, even if you just consider those being treated ‘primarily’ for the disease, explain Abbasi and McLellan. As for deaths, the latest ONS figures indicate just under 24,000 fatalities involving COVID in the first six months of 2022, a substantially smaller number of deaths than the 66,000 recorded in the first half of 2021, but considerably more than the 21,000 people who died in the last six months of that year. 

Excess deaths from all causes are also still running above five-year averages before the pandemic, they note.

They call for a return to some of the measures taken in the last two years, such as advising people to wear masks in crowded places, ensuring good ventilation, and re-introducing free tests for the public. Efforts must also be made to improve the population’s immunity through vaccination.

And the government must work out how it will support the sections of the population and the economy that will be affected by those measures, they add.

‘Above all, the government must stop gaslighting the public and be honest about the threat the pandemic still poses to them and the NHS. Being honest with the public will have two positive results, it will encourage the public to modify behaviour and, we hope, provoke urgent reflection about how the NHS is in such a mess so soon after the nation was applauding it on their doorsteps,’ they conclude.

Abbasi K, McLellan A.

Practice Nurse 2022;52(6):online only