Earlier this week, I received an angry email – not the first, and certainly not the last. But this one stood out. A local resident, who I’d spoken with before about the coronavirus pandemic at length, proclaimed this national lockdown will cost more lives than it will save. We should stop crippling the economy just to save a few lives of the elderly, the obese and the already infirm, he added. Enough is enough.
There are a few ugly myths that keep rearing their head during the pandemic. This gentleman’s concerns and his natural scepticism of these tough restrictions are widely shared and I can understand why. But it is born more out of frustration we all feel rather than closely looking at the evidence and what’s happening on the ground in our local hospitals and surgeries.
The first tough truth is the virus and its new variant are spreading faster. We also begin this lockdown with more cases locally than the last. Devon has a 7-day case rate per 100,000 people at 170.9, higher than the 95.1 at the start of the November lockdown. The positivity rate – the percentage of tests coming back positive – is 6.2%, compared to 3.9% last November. Belief that more cases are due to over-testing and false positives is completely mistaken. We would expect the positivity rate to fall if that were the case. And it’s not backed up in ONS surveys, where the proportion of people reporting no symptoms among those testing positive has remained stable over time.
The second tough truth is sadly Covid deaths are going to rise. I often read comments on Facebook when the figures are published for our area: “Only two died today, what’s the problem?”; “Bored of it now, stop the lies!”. Posting this is insulting to the families of those loved ones who’ve tragically lost their lives. We often forget that we better understand how to treat coronavirus in hospital than we did last Spring. The steroid drug dexamethasone has been largely out of the news since approval last June. It’s helping thousands to survive in intensive care and requiring oxygen or ventilation. One life is saved for every eight patients on ventilators as a result.
The third tough truth is our NHS is facing extraordinary challenge now. Devon’s NHS leaders have told me that things in our hospitals including the RD&E could get worse before they get better as they battle to treat patients and save lives.
Sceptics repeatedly point to NHS bed occupancy stats, which are 90% in England. These don’t take into account the extra burden of Covid on heroic NHS staff, nor our ability to treat urgent non-Covid conditions such as cancer.
With all this said, it can be easy to blame people around us. Shoppers not wearing masks without good reason. People congregating in groups. Joggers forgoing social distancing rules. Personal responsibility is crucial. But if someone does come down with the virus, don’t necessarily assume it’s because they weren’t careful. We can all be kinder to those who do, and offer a helping hand with the shopping or prescriptions if they face isolation. A regular call helps too.
The route out is rapid vaccination. As the JCVI have said, it must first be prioritised to those most clinically vulnerable. I want to pay tribute to the sterling efforts of Dr Paul Johnson, Dr Barry Coakley, and Dr Simon Kerr in East Devon to accelerate the Pfizer and Oxford rollout, and GPs and their reception staff working on the huge administrative challenge to contact those in line and get their formal consent. Along with MPs from all parties, I’m pushing the government to cut the bureaucracy and red tape so former healthcare staff can quickly join the vaccine effort. We need to look at creative solutions to speed-up the rollout.
When frustrations tip over that lockdowns are a waste of time, we have to look at the bigger picture. We have to look at what’s happening in our hospitals in Devon and across the UK. And we have to look at what part we can all play to keep this cruel virus at bay.
This column first appeared in the Exmouth Journal on Wednesday 13th January 2021.