HCSA President: Extraordinary Covid-19 efforts will have a lasting impact on staff

HCSA President Dr Claudia Paoloni explains why the unprecedented health service response to Covid-19 will mean we need to care for NHS carers now and for many years to come.

Within just a few months of the emergence of a new respiratory illness in China, everyday life in countries across the world has been transformed beyond measure. The scale and pace of this new threat has posed the greatest challenge to our National Health Service in its history.

The response of clinicians, support staff and volunteers has been exemplary. Without the unparalleled commitment and flexibility that staff have shown, our health service would have been overwhelmed and pushed to the point of collapse.

The NHS has been able to maximise its capacity through a range of initiatives including postponing planned care, cancelling annual leave and training, introducing high-intensity rotas, incorporating private sector capacity, and encouraging the return of thousands of retired clinicians. It should be acknowledged that this response has so far focused solely on the short-term and cannot continue indefinitely.

While political leaders have joined the public in applauding key workers, including those on the NHS front-line, we must be clear that these extraordinary efforts have not come without a cost. A number of our colleagues have already tragically lost their lives and scores more have made the journey from carer to patient.

Staff have been working long hours at high intensity in a profoundly distressing environment, while facing worries about their own safety. There are significant questions to answer about whether governments and NHS bodies did enough to keep NHS staff safe, particularly around the initial approach to testing and ongoing concerns about Personal Protective Equipment.

In April, the Health Secretary said that workers “must treat protective equipment like the precious resource that it is.” He was wrong. The precious resource is our people and we should never again face pressure to work in an environment that is unsafe without the protection that they need.

In coming months, the NHS will have to catch up on thousands of postponed procedures and appointments at the same time as continuing to cope with the challenge of Covid-19. It will need to grapple with the challenge of providing care to a highly vulnerable group with complex healthcare needs, who will continue to require shielding from the virus. As we move towards winter, we will have to manage new outbreaks alongside winter pressures including seasonal influenza.

These challenges must be met by a health service which did not start from a position of strength. But perhaps the greatest challenge of all will be supporting the number of staff affected by this crisis over a longer period. We cannot simply move to a “new normal” and continue as we are in perpetuity. We cannot allow the legacy of Covid-19 to be a wellbeing crisis among NHS staff.

The purpose of HCSA's new paper Covid-19: Learning from the first wave is to learn the lessons from the first stage of our response to the virus and to set out some of the key challenges that we will face. It does not seek to attribute blame in hindsight, but rather provides an honest assessment from the front line of the challenges that we have faced and those that we are likely to face in coming months and years.