Notes from a GP: A week inside the Government’s mishandling of the Covid crisis

Our NHS staff deserve so much better than the shambles they're getting from Ministers.

When we look back at this dark period, I am sure that this past few weeks will be seen as a pivotal moment in our struggle to tackle the spread of the virus.

While England’s new lockdown was an entirely necessary and belated course of action, it was avoidable. But the Government’s penchant for repeating the same mistakes and its hesitation in responding to the new Covid-19 strain gave us little choice.

Last Monday, we heard the Health Secretary reveal that he was ‘incredibly worried’ about the even more infectious strain that has originated in South Africa. However, at the same time, we were seeing pictures plastered across social media of passengers at London’s airports being made to cram into arrivals queues with little social distancing or mask enforcement. There were also reports of checks not being properly carried out and passenger details not being recorded.

This led me to renew my calls, alongside the Mayor, for Ministers to get a grip on Covid-19 on the lax screening controls at airports and implement a proper testing and quarantine system. We eventually saw the Government move towards this a few days later.

But over the last nine months, it seems as if the Home Office have been more focussed on trying to convince us that the real threat to our country comes from refugees feeling war and destitution and EU citizens using their right to freedom of movement.

By last Wednesday, we saw the Health Service Journal report on NHS England’s stark warning that London’s hospitals will be overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients in a matter of weeks. The Mayor declared a major incident in the capital at the end of week, as it was revealed that 1 in 30 Londoners have been infected – in some places this in 1 in 20.

The situation is grave, and I have been urging my patients and constituents to take extra care, stay home for all but the most essential reasons, avoid all unnecessary contact and go further than the current guidelines by wearing face coverings in busy outdoor spaces, such as supermarket queues. We owe this to our heroic NHS staff who are working under extraordinary pressures.

In better news, last week saw our national vaccination programme take huge strides forward. The mass vaccination centre at the Excel Centre has now opened and on Thursday, I was pleased to see the Prime Minister announce that GP surgeries, like mine in Hanwell and Southall, will play a much more significant role in helping to reach the target of delivering two million jabs per week, something I’ve been calling for for a long time.

There is still a long way to go and throughout the week I was discussing the continuing issues with the vaccine supply chain with colleagues and other GPs. As a case in point, on Thursday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, went to visit a GP surgery which did not know when it would be receiving its vaccine supply.

The Government needs to ensure that it streamlines the supply chain of the vaccine so that practices can book in patients in a planned manner rather than responding at short notice when vaccination appointments are made available on ad hoc basis. It also needs to ensure that NHS staff are all vaccinated by the end of January 2021. These are the national heroes, working in the eye of the storm of the pandemic.

We also need to do more to address vaccine hesitancy. I have now written to the Health Secretary to urge him to provide cash-strapped councils with dedicated funding to push out targeted and multi-lingual messaging campaigns to boost vaccine take-up in their communities.

After we had the good news on Friday of the approval of the third, Moderna vaccine, it’s imperative that we keep up the positive momentum.

We owe so much to our healthcare workers, who have been fighting against this virus for nearly a year. Our NHS has proved just how strong and effective a healthcare provider it is, even after years of Government underfunding and unwanted restructures. But there is only so much it can take. Our NHS staff deserve so much better.

Dr Onkar Sahota is a GP, and Labour’s lead on healthcare on the London Assembly.

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