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Coronavirus: Experience now ‘worse than the war’

OPINION: 'I do find the glowing tributes paid to the NHS by Conservative ministers infuriating'

20 April, 2020 — By Wendy Savage

Professor Wendy Savage

THOSE of us in our 80s are often used in vox-pop snippets, some saying the Covid-19 experience is not as bad as World War II – but I disagree.

As a child I remember my father bringing home a choc-ice and saying “this is the last time you will see one of these,” and he was right. Rationing did not impinge much on me as a child as we were expected to eat what was put in front of us. We only had orange squash as a treat for birthdays and we did have a small sweet ration.

I was not evacuated on my own but our family went to an isolated house in the country in Horsham and aged five I walked a mile to school along a deserted road by myself as my mother had two other younger children to care for.

At the end of the war holidays in Streatham from boarding school were punctuated by the sound of the doodlebugs and one held one’s breath when the noise stopped, as that meant it might fall on your house.

We were lucky as the aunt we were staying with was not hit, but further down Palace Road another aunt was injured severely and being a voracious reader she asked for penicillin in hospital which has just been discovered and she survived. Of course, the blackout and the blitz were frightening and many people lost their lives.

But in between you were able to carry on normal life even if steak was replaced by whale meat.

And everyone had ration books and coupons to buy clothing. Probably the diet was the best we had ever had as a people, as everyone had a nutritious diet and the rich no longer over-indulged.

What is different about the current pandemic is that we do not know who is carrying the virus as some people are symptomless and it appears it is very infectious.

While 80 per cent of people have a mild illness and do not need hospital care it appears that about one in 20 will need hospital care and about 1 to 3 per cent will die from the infection. It is this unpredictability of this new disease that makes it so different to me from the war.

I do find the glowing tributes paid to the NHS by Conservative ministers whose party has presided over the longest sustained underfunding of the NHS in its history and who backed the 2012 Health and Social Care Act infuriating.

Public health has been severely weakened by Andrew Lansley’s non-evidence based restructuring, which has led to loss of public health laboratories; and the transfer of public health to cash-strapped local authorities has led to a loss of personnel and the status of the directors of public health, which may be why the government strategy does not include tracing contacts of those infected.

This is a crucial step in the efforts to stem the pandemic which is not being done now.

Tributes to the front-line staff are being paid on all sides but the lack of forward planning and the ongoing logistical difficulties has led to shortages of protective personal equipment (PPE) in the NHS and in the community.

I find the lack of any reference to dentists in the media stories astonishing, as it seems the 60,000 dentists in the community have not had any supplies from NHS England and my dentist told me two weeks ago, at an emergency appointment, that they had been unable to buy PPE from private suppliers.

Some idea of what else is going on behind the scenes in the NHS is shown by this extract from one of the administrative staff at a mental health trust:“I am focused on supply issues around PPE, hotel bookings for key staff to ensure we have as many healthy staff available, all with effective laundry services and access to healthy food. I am dealing with taxis for the rest and for between sites and hire of vehicles to allow pharmacists and community staff to get to clients who we have asked to remain at home.”

“We have established hostel places for the homeless as well, with our teams visiting. I even secured design codes for printing safety goggles on 3D printers last week which we are asking the Crick to consider producing at scale for us.”

I am sure all readers will thank not only dedicated NHS staff but the other workers in supermarkets, pharmacies, London Transport, taxis the post offices and all the drivers and couriers delivering online purchasers which are easing our physical distancing. l

Professor Wendy Savage is a consultant gynaecologist and campaigner for women’s rights in child­birth and fertility, the first woman consultant to be appointed in obstetrics and gynaec­ology at the London Hospital, and a former chair of Keep Our NHS Public.

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