We stayed home to protect the NHS last time

“Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.”

The slogan was emblazoned on the Prime Minister’s lectern for the first time, three days before the country entered total lockdown. 

In Government circles, the mantra was seen as one of the most successful in modern political history, driving compliance with the most draconian of instructions.

However, senior figures in the health service had misgivings. There were fears about the “weaponisation” of the NHS to support a strategy which might later prove divisive.

And there was concern that the public’s desire to “do right” by the health service could backfire, if those in need of medical help were deterred from seeking it. 

Both were to come to pass.

As Britain endures a second wave of coronavirus the slogan has not been dusted off.

However, is the NHS prepared for what the coming months will bring? 

On Friday, the health service launched a new campaign – Help Us To Help You – reminding patients that they are not “a burden” and urging those in need of help to get it. 

While the NHS is battling a mammoth backlog of cases whose care was delayed by the pandemic – including an 100-fold rise in those waiting a year for surgery – it is “open for business,” senior figures insist.

The first wave of coronavirus saw a national diktat from NHS England, ordering hospitals to empty almost a third of their beds, in order to avoid a situation like that seen in Italy when hospitals were overwhelmed.

Accident & Emergency attendances dropped sharply, and the number of deaths from causes such as heart attacks soared. Latest figures show A&E attendance is still a fifth down on normal levels. 

This time, no such instructions have been issued. 

As pressures mount, health officials say the NHS is better prepared.

Much was learned during the first few months of the pandemic; partly about how to treat the most severe cases, with treatment breakthroughs with steroids such as dexamethasone, and the circumstances in which to use ventilators. 

The nature of the spread of the virus, and it’s concentration in some parts of the country – most notably the North West – means that instead of a blanket national response, different regions are expected to make their own arrangements. 

Health officials are expecting trusts to work within a system of “mutual aid” – with hospitals asked to assist each other, in order to keep services for non-Covid patients running for as long as possible.

However, some hospital managers in the worst-hit areas say they are under pressure to “hold the line” and avoid cancellations of surgery, as part of efforts to demonstrate that the NHS is working, when they think such measures are necessary. 

All NHS trusts have been told to draw up contingency plans to cope with a worst case scenario where 35 per cent of beds are devoted to coronavirus patients. 

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