Emily Carver is a broadcaster and commentator.
Here we go again. Covid testing for Chinese travellers. The return of stay-at-home guidance. Health officials advising mask-wearing. And an NHS overwhelmed.
Protecting the Health Service was, as we all remember, the justification used for lockdown policies. Ease the spread of the virus, and the NHS would be able to cope. The rationale, while disputed, was clear.
The same case could, if desired, be made now. Three years on from the initial outbreak, and with what some are calling a “twindemic” of flu and Covid cases in our hospitals, the NHS is unable to fulfil its basic functions to any acceptable standard.
Sir Chris Whitty’s warning that we face a “prolonged period” of high death rates due to delayed diagnoses and treatment during the pandemic reflects not only the ill-judged decisions made, but a deeper problem in our healthcare system that can no longer honestly claim to be universal.
A tremendously bleak picture is being painted of an NHS hopelessly unable to keep up with demand.
We’ve read stories of patients waiting up to 99 hours to receive emergency care, we’ve noted one senior medic’s claim that A&E delays are causing hundreds of unnecessary deaths a day splashed across the front pages, and the papers are reporting Labour Party analysis of NHS data showing five million people a month are unable to book a GP appointment when they want one.
Against this backdrop of chaos, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the Government might go further with its public health guidance and that many of us might once again accept the idea that dramatic lifestyle changes are needed to protect the ailing Health Service.
Indeed, one thing we learned from the pandemic was the willingness of most Brits to accept restrictions on their basic freedoms and embrace new and alien norms, from testing and mask wearing, to lockdown policies and travel restrictions – all on the assumption that this would allow us to control the number of people falling ill, save lives and keep our NHS on life support.
Of course, we now know that such measures only delay. Indeed in China, despite an inhumane and draconian Zero Covid policy, the virus was only temporarily suppressed, and at an enormous cost. And now, if reports are to be believed, the virus has very much spread like wildfire and the death toll is rising rapidly. They only put off the inevitable.
Back in this country, the old pandemic guidance is being ramped up by health officials. Susan Hopkins, of the UK Health Security Agency, this week issued a statement urging parents to keep their children home with cold symptoms, and advising adults to do the same and to wear a face covering if they “have to go out”.
Some of this could be considered common sense. Those who are obviously unwell should avoid making others unwell. But Rishi Sunak is under acute pressure to act. He is also at risk of looking hopelessly out of touch, insisting that he is “confident” the Government has provided enough funding to the NHS to cope with the ongoing winter crisis.
Yes, considering the record sums of money the Health Service continues to receive, it should be able to cope, but the reality in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries suggests very much the opposite is true.
It all feels a bit déjà vu. And as the pressure on the NHS becomes more and more visible, the clamour for more public health interventions may well increase.
But, if it does, we risk learning the wrong lessons from the pandemic. The rehearsed argument seems to be that restrictions on the Chinese, or public health measures like mask-wearing, will prevent us from having to repeat the draconian measures of the past.
To many, the case is compelling. Others, including myself, would argue that there is no such choice to make – neither travel restrictions nor mask-wearing seem to have made the blindest bit of difference.
Yet, we seem to have slipped back into the mistaken belief that we can stop the spread of Covid and other respiratory diseases through such interventions, interventions that appear to be more about creating an illusion of safety than actually preventing people from falling ill. Let’s remember, we have vaccines for flu and Covid available to us all.
In an interview with the Spectator not too long ago, Sunak claimed that he had been a lone voice in the Cabinet against lockdown measures; that he wanted to talk about the trade-offs of the Government’s policies, and that the “fear” narrative was wrong from the beginning.
But the pressure to be seen to act can be immense. Only a couple of days ago, we saw how quickly the Government followed the herd and changed their tune on bringing back travel restrictions for Chinese travellers.
Now is the Prime Minister’s chance to show he will not get swept in a panic all over again, and allow fear to dictate policy.
Instead, he should turn his attention to addressing the real problem. There is no escaping the fact that the NHS is in crisis; thirteen trusts have now declared critical incidents and the backlog remains stubbornly and dangerously high. Even before the pandemic, the NHS was regularly in crisis mode, and patient outcomes were slipping down the international league tables.
It may be that the Government has left it far too late to make any meaningful healthcare reforms ahead of the next election.
But he could do the ground work, sow the seeds for reform. He could build a consensus, in his party and across the House, that the NHS in its current form is no longer able to cope with today’s pressures, and that something radical needs to change.
We’ve seen murmurings from the Labour Party that suggest they are becoming more comfortable with the idea of reform. With public trust in the NHS at a record low, surely it’s time to at least try?