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NHS Voices: #1 What staff are saying about the NHS during Covid

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In one of his final acts as Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed that there are now not 5 million – but 12 million – people on NHS waiting lists. Add the usual pressures and there is genuine risk we will be locking down to save the NHS forever – because every lockdown just makes the long-term problem worse. 

Campaign group Recovery has taken the testimony of NHS workers concerned about the way our NHS is being run during the pandemic. In this series of articles Thinkscotland.org is publishing a selection of staff comments about the reality of the NHS during the pandemic. 

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“I WORK for NHS England and have been at the heart of the monitoring of the NHS response to Covid right from the very beginning.

I was reported to NHS England for highlighting potentially missed cancer diagnoses… the focus really has been on coping with Covid to the detriment of most other conditions… the waiting list numbers are so staggering it’s hard to envisage how normal services can ever be recovered… we were openly warned not to speak to the press or write anything on social media…

There has been a prevailing narrative throughout the last year plus, and no-one openly challenges that.

I tried initially to strike a different tone; as a member of the analytical team with the organisation, I felt it was incumbent on us to provide some balance to the overwhelmingly negative tone coming from NHS senior management. If there are others who felt the same way as me then they played their cards very close to their chest.

After one colleague collaborated in the writing of an article published in the Telegraph back in October, we were openly warned not to speak to the press or write any on social media as this would constitute a breach of policy.

Our media policy says no such thing and indicates actually that we are encouraged to engage in public debate as long as we don’t bring the organisation into disrepute or seek to represent our own opinions as those of the organisation.

Shortly after this I was engaged in a conversation on social media about rising cases of Covid and whether there should be another lockdown (this was in early November) and I quoted some publicly available cancer data showing the current running total of lost referrals and potentially missed diagnoses. In that post I included my job title to lend weight to what I was posting.

Someone reported my comments to the NHS England media team who, rather than verify the validity of the data, and make a comment, set off on a hunt to track down my identity.

The next thing I knew I had a call from my director asking about what I had posted. In the course of that conversation it became clear that someone from the media team had commented to my director about my pattern of social media use, meaning someone had taken the time to look through my timeline and take note of when I was active. My manager also engaged in her own sleuthing going back through things I had posted in an attempt to make a case against me.

It was really shocking and felt like a massive breach of trust. I complained both internally and to the Information Commissioner but my complaint was denied.

After that I was determined to continue to promote the “other side” as I feel it’s important. When even your own CEO is engaging in selective use of data and statistics to promote a one-sided narrative, it is fairly soul-destroying.

The focus really has been on coping with Covid to the detriment of most other conditions. There are some well-meaning people who have worked hard but there is no real strategy in place to tackle the fall-out and the collateral impact on waiting lists that this has had.

It really did not need to get to that point.

My colleague went to work with the Bringing Back Staff team for a few months back in April and May 2020. Thousands of people signed up to return to practice. They were mostly designated initially for the Nightingales but obviously we know those were never used but the staff weren’t then deployed to other hospitals or care settings; most were just let go again.

I have two nurse friends who currently practice outside the NHS but signed up to come back. One’s application never went anywhere past the initial screening stage and the second was deployed to a Nightingale and even issued with all her PPE but was never actually used.

They had MONTHS to prepare properly for the Winter but as soon as the first wave was over, the management went hell-for-leather into recovery mode, setting all these ridiculously optimistic targets for how quickly we could “get back to normal” so when the autumn/winter surge happened the hospitals were already full of elective patients so, of course, they ran into capacity pressure.

There’s a real sense of almost futility about it now. The numbers are so staggering it’s hard to envisage how normal services can ever be recovered.

It has been a frustrating, enlightening place to have been working over the last year but as far as the NHS is concerned it’s all very one-dimensional.”

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