Shadow minister for mental health Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, who has continued working shifts at St George’s Hospital in Tooting, London, during the pandemic, said she had worked in war zones, in refugee camps, and following natural disasters, but nothing had prepared her for the coronavirus pandemic.
And that while during the first national lockdown there was “a real sense of people being in it together – there was an energy in people supporting one another”, this had now shifted.
She said: “Working on the frontline in A&E, one could sense the energy coming from people across the country – there was real hope.”
But now - nearly a year on since the first lockdown - with the death toll from Covid rising and “growing confusion in recent months on lockdowns and tiered restrictions”, people were losing hope.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post yesterday, she said: “I’ve seen people come into A&E since the start of the crisis scared and in a far worse situation than we would have expected previously – people have been delaying contacting GPs and attending A&E for fear of contracting Covid-19 and because they don’t want to bother anyone. Please, please, please, if you’re worried about your health, or the health of a loved one, call up your GP or attend A&E – we are here to help.
“For the people that do come to A&E, the fear they have about contracting the virus is palpable – the impact that this virus is having on everyone’s mental health must not be ignored.”
This newspaper today revealed how mental health charities had seen calls made to them drop as the message that the NHS was under strain permeated.
But Dr Allin-Khan said: “For those who are hunkering down alone this lockdown, I want them to know that there are people and services available for them.
“This is very different to living alone and being able to go for a walk on a lovely sunny spring day. We have to be honest – winter is difficult at the best of times – it’s okay to ask for help when you need it.”
Dr Allin-Khan was also concerned about the impact on NHS staff, after a Sheffield nurse spoke of the pressure he and his colleagues felt after a relentless 10 months battling the pandemic.
“Staff burnout is evident on the wards,” she said. “Month after month, we see the rate of NHS absences for mental illness rise. These days, every time NHS staff go online, they’re seeing stories about how this virus is a hoax – that hospitals are quiet and they’re lying.
“Staff exhaustion is high and morale unbelievably low, across the country. We have these careers because they’re a calling, not simply just a job.
“Every day, people are risking their lives, and then they log online and see people accusing them of making it up. It’s despicable.
“I’ve worked as a doctor in war zones, in refugee camps and following natural disasters, yet nothing prepared me for this crisis and for the huge loss of life – surely the Government should have learnt lessons by this point?
“Why is mental health still not a priority? We know that experts are warning of a mental health crisis – where’s the guidance to ensure that everyone knows how to access the help they need? Where’s the support for mental health trusts?”
On Tuesday, in response to a question from a member of the public regarding her mother’s mental ill health, Boris Johnson said: “I’m very sorry for the extra anxiety the pandemic is causing [...] I totally understand why people are concerned.
“We’ve put a huge amount, obviously, into NHS mental health care, I think about another £12bn or so, directly during the pandemic.
“What we’re doing now is trying to support some of the wonderful mental health care charities that reach out and work with people like you mum and I think we put about £19m or £20m into that. That’s what we’re doing at the moment but clearly the best thing for your mother and everybody is that we get through this as fast as possible.”
The next day, the Prime Minister told MPs: “We are investing hugely in mental health provision - another £13bn, plus £18m in support for our wonderful mental health charities across the country.”
While last month, Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg said: “It is vital that we do not forget the impact that this pandemic has had on people’s mental health. Overall mental health funding increased to £13.3bn in 2019-20. The Government has provided £10.2m of additional funding for mental health charities during this crisis, including £1m donated to charities across the country, inspired by ITV’s “Help our Helplines” campaign.”
But Dr Allin-Khan said: “People are slipping through the cracks and let’s be clear – there are stark health inequalities in our society. Those with underlying health conditions are most likely to experience some form of depression during the pandemic – the Government needs to recognise now that physical and mental health are connected, and social inequalities play a huge factor in people’s life chances.”
While she also pointed to bereavement services for those who had lost loved ones, or those whose jobs and businesses were under threat due to the slump in the economy.
“The uncertainty that a lockdown brings to businesses and workers should be offset by interventions by the Treasury – yet the Chancellor remains absent,” she said.
“The UK has had the sharpest recession of any major economy, and is on course for one of the slowest recoveries in the world. The long-lasting damage to people’s livelihoods is having a massive impact on people’s mental health – it’s just common sense. People’s mental health must be supported through this crisis.”
And she added: “These failures to offer adequate support only lead to less compliance with public health guidelines and are fuelling mental health problems across the country.
“Too many people have been forgotten in this pandemic, despite severe warnings of a mental health crisis. Mental health must stop being a mere afterthought for this Government – they need to get a grip on the hidden crisis that is gripping our communities.”