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Boris Johnson visits an NHS hospital, Photo: Number 10 Flickr / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, linked at bottom of article

Boris Johnson visits an NHS hospital, Photo: Number 10 Flickr / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, linked at bottom of article

Privatisation and underfunding of the NHS has exacerbated the Tories' mishandling of the pandemic, argues Caitlin Southern. 

During the coronavirus ‘lockdown’ NHS services, usually so busy, became eerily quiet as operations and appointments were cancelled to allow the service to focus on contending with the demands of the pandemic. There were no visitors to the wards and fewer staff in the halls as everyone did the best they could to abide by the inconsistent government advice to suppress the spread. The complete failure to provide concrete guidance has caused unnecessary confusion and more than a few otherwise preventable deaths.

The struggle to run both usual NHS care and respond to the crisis is a damning indictment of the government’s ability to do either. The delays this caused in treatments for non-Covid illnesses – as people did what they were told and did not report symptoms to their GPs in order to free up services for Covid patients – mean that the service now has a backlog of an estimated 10 million cases along with stockpiling problems further down the line.

By pursuing a ‘flatten the curve’ policy rather than an elimination strategy. the government has put an intolerable strain on the service as it allowed the infection to spread.  By allowing businesses to decide for themselves whether or not they were classed as essential, they allowed greedy bosses to continue to exploit their employees at a time when they should have been locked down in order to eliminate the virus. The complete failure to create a functioning test, track and trace system, or to restrict travel into the UK, also undermined any attempts by individuals to suppress infections.

The government has made constant missteps, wasting money on contracts handed out without any consideration for practicality.  In addition, there was the PR exercise of the ‘Nightingale hospitals’ that were always lacking the necessary staff, the failure to procure the correct amounts and types of PPE, and the woefully vague and inconsistent advice from the initial ‘Stay At Home’ to the current ‘wear a mask, unless you don’t feel like it’.

All of these things have undermined public confidence and compliance, making the possibility of achieving an elimination strategy much more difficult. The botched handling of this crisis has exposed the weakness of this government and its callous attitude towards the health and welfare of the population that it claims to represent and protect.

In the increasingly likely event of a much more severe second wave, we cannot afford to respond in the same way, as we cannot stop other services again in order to focus on the crisis without causing further preventable deaths through the neglect that this would force. Before the next surge in cases (and we must remember that they haven’t dropped significantly) we need to know that the supplies of PPE are adequate and are being replenished, that Covid wards have the capacity to expand rapidly without impacting other services or putting staff and patients at risk, and that there is a swift, reliable testing system in place to allow for the accurate assessment of patients and separation into appropriate areas without tying up isolation beds unnecessarily.

None of these issues have been adequately addressed to assuage the lingering feeling that we are no better equipped to combat a second wave than we were the first.

Public trust in the official response is already shaky.  Another wave handled so poorly by the government and with such poor communication will only erode this further and let the government off the hook for failing to actively pursue either effective elimination or curve-flattening policies. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the only strategy they have ever had is that of misplaced herd immunity.

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