How the NHS coped with COVID-19 by Dr Ellen Welch
Pen and Sword History, £15.99
ISBN : 978139900611
Review by MJA member John Illman
This is, I am glad to say, an angry book. Angry because while acknowledging the dedication and professionalism of healthcare professionals during the pandemic, it highlights the gaping cracks in the NHS and the huge health inequalities between different communities.
A GP in Cumbria, Welch describes, to quote one of many examples how NHS and social care staff were left woefully unprotected by a lack of PPE. A pandemic simulation exercise in 2016, she adds, revealed a shortage of critical care beds, ventilators and PPE. The then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt reportedly voted against stockpiling gowns and visitors because of the expense. This was the age of austerity.
Welch adds: “It is convenient for those leading the country to line up scapegoats for the failures during the pandemic — to deflect blame away from their own shortcomings. GPs have been in the filing line. Public Health England was axed and even patients have been blamed for not following ever-changing government advice.”
She makes a telling point in suggesting that if the government can siphon millions into untried ventures such as test and trace, it can spend money on such basic areas such as staff welfare – so that staff can eat, drink and take a break during shifts. This may sound obvious, she says, but is often lacking.
“Rested staff provide a better service for patients.
“Go one step further and make the workplace appealing so staff stick around and workloads can be shared – enable flexible working, embrace telemedicine and tap into a whole new workforce such as those with caring responsibilities or those based overseas…Invest in digital technology so that all NHS providers have access to the same systems.”
But this book is far more than a polemic. It is hard to imagine in the ever-increasing library of Covid-19 books any title book reflecting so many different perspectives.
It includes dozens of personal stories: The Covid frontline —a paramedic’s experience; A patient in my own ICU; Returning from retirement; Mental healthcare for older adults during the pandemic; Being a new GP partner during the pandemic; Dentistry and Covid-19; The vaccine roll-out (GP perspective); The Australian experience; How Singapore coped with Covid-19; A siege within a siege — Covid-19 in Gaza.
The overseas stories, of course, have nothing to do with Welch’s central theme — how the NHS coped with the pandemic — but they introduce a
a poignant dimension to the text. Welch used to be a cruise ship doctor; thus it may not be a coincidence that her first contributor is Ines Fernandes Antunes, chief nurse on a cruise ship.
Antunes says: “As I write this I have been on board for almost seven months without touching land for 208 days.”
Crew from different cultures, she explains, had different ideas how to treat the illness. Those from the Philippines typically believed drinking hot water with lemon would kill the virus. A crew member from India believed that only starting dahl would cure him. Crew called the medical staff daily, crying that they would die on board without being able to say goodbye to their families.
Antunes describes starting work at 8am in full PPE — ‘then suddenly it was 10pm and I hadn’t stopped…We were blessed with good food but…it was delivered on a paper plate, and always eaten cold in between work, work, work….Going to the bathroom in full PPE was a nightmare.’
As Welch observes, we all have own Covid-19 stories, but reading her book made me appreciate how mundane mine are. But the big question now is whether or not the NHS will receive the money to implement the changes Welch is calling for. The perilous state of the economy and the cost of living crisis do not bode well for the future. John Illman
Declaration of interest: Ellen Welch is a former student of John Illman.