COVID-19 is the biggest challenge our public healthcare system has had to face. NHS staff are working with incredible fortitude to treat those infected by coronavirus. We hear stories from hospital doctors and GPs and their experiences are helping shape our national response.
But healthcare doesn’t stop in hospitals and a virus doesn’t wipe out other needs. Immense pressure is being placed on emergency rooms and their staff but the coronavirus is affecting other services too. Workers in every health specialism are putting themselves at risk to continue doing their daily jobs and we must not forget this. Nursing home staff or mental health workers can’t just down tools because of the coronavirus: their patients still desperately need them. But this high level of contact required increases their exposure to the virus.
This higher risk of infection means health workers across the NHS are also having to face staff shortages. As illness and self-quarantine reduce staff numbers, those who remain must manage the same workload with dwindling teams. In many areas, however, the workload isn’t just the same – it’s increasing. For example, social care workers are acutely feeling the strain as coronavirus cases multiply and support systems are needed more than ever.
The mental healthcare system will also be facing unprecedented demand over the coming weeks and months. The mental health impact of the coronavirus outbreak must not be underestimated. Fears over the virus, the pressure of self-isolation and grieving loved ones will have a great effect on people’s mental health. These factors may cause them to develop mental health conditions, trigger relapses or lead to crises. This isn’t a problem for the future, it’s one occurring in the present – the eating disorder charity BEAT registered a 30% spike in helpline calls over the past week.
It’s clear that the mental health workforce and social care community is under immense strain from coronavirus. So, how can we better protect and support them?
One of the most obvious ways to support healthcare staff – of every discipline – is ensuring their access to Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). Masks, gloves and gowns won’t make someone immune to the virus but they are an essential way to protect health workers and reduce the rate of infection. The issue is many still don’t have access to this vital equipment. This weekend over 6,000 frontline NHS staff wrote to the Prime Minister, describing how the lack of sufficient PPE has left them feeling unsafe at work. If the UK wants to weather the storm it urgently needs to address this.
However, PPE isn’t the only equipment that needs attention. Now is the time to explore new technology to help health workers complete tasks faster and more easily, granting them vital extra time to help patients. New video consultation tools are being used in GP surgeries and in hospitals doctors are sharing advice instantly through clinical messaging apps. Mental health and social care workers should not be left out and part of our coronavirus response must involve looking at new tools to support them in their work. This isn’t a secondary concern, to be dealt with once case numbers fall. It’s vital that we revolutionise our work practices as we fight the disease so we can keep up with healthcare demand.
Finally, everyone can support the mental health and social care workforce simply through kindness. Creating strong support networks with friends, family and neighbours enables us to provide each other with physical, mental and emotional support during this confusing and difficult time. Of course, these networks can’t replace medical professionals but they can go a long way in helping people get the aid they need and so lessen the strain on services. Donating to charities who provide mental healthcare and social care is another way of helping people gain support and assistance.
We can also show kindness and appreciation to healthcare workers themselves. An extra smile and ‘thank you’ when using a service or a personal message can be incredibly encouraging in the face of this challenge. We can also show kindness to health workers by following isolation rules and helping reduce case numbers and death tolls.
COVID-19 is affecting every healthcare discipline and we can’t afford to forget this. Mental health and social care workers are particularly feeling the strain and we must do all we can to prevent them being overwhelmed. We need their skills to help us through this epidemic but they need us to support them first.
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