I’m a nurse. I work in a child and adolescent mental health service.* Like all health services, we’ve had to adapt to the covid crisis. We’ve had to rekindle half-forgotten lessons in infection control and PPE. Where I used to carry out crisis assessments in casual clothes, now I do it in scrubs, mask, apron and gloves. We’ve started providing therapies through the sort of telemedicine applications you’d associate with the Australian Outback or Falkland Islands rather than Wales.
We’ve adapted, and we’ve managed. But every crisis takes more resilience out of the system. A little less petrol in the tank. Austerity sucked a lot of resilience out of the NHS, and covid took out more. The NHS has coped with the pandemic, but at an appalling cost. Aside from the death toll from coronavirus itself, deaths from dementia have surged in the UK. Appointments for cancer treatment have dropped 60.%.
But with the resilience of the NHS depleted by austerity, then coronavirus, what happens if another crisis hits? There are some things we know are coming. An economic crash is upon us, and the effects on both physical and mental health will be dire. Vulnerable families, who were already struggling before the pandemic, will suffer first and worst. A second wave of coronavirus is likely, and will hit a society and an NHS that has already been battered by the first. Will we cope?
What about Brexit? The UK government insists it’s going full steam ahead with a hard Brexit, even if it means leaving with no deal. What will that do to a health system that’s already gone through one, maybe two or three waves of a pandemic, plus a recession? We already know that stockpiles of medicines, built up in case of a no-deal Brexit, have now been emptied.
What will it do to the physical and mental health of people who have spent the past year living through a global nightmare? How will people react when they see the supermarket shelves emptying again?
We healthcare workers know about prioritising. Who can safely stay on a waiting list to be seen? Who needs to be offered an urgent appointment? Who needs to be advised to drop everything and head to the A&E? If I assess a child and they tell me about a safeguarding issue and their sleep problems, the safeguarding issue is the priority, not their sleep.
Enacting some purist version of Brexit is not the priority. Coronavirus is.
I won’t pretend to have ever been a supporter of Brexit, but it’s happened now. There’s little prospect of the transition period being extended, and I don’t think there’s currently any public appetite for a campaign to rejoin the EU. I get that, and I’ve come to accept it. The only question is what sort of relationship we have with the EU.
Compromise on the final Brexit deal is not just a practical imperative, but also a moral one. I have worked with many excellent doctors and nurses who came from both inside and outside the EU to work in our NHS, and that’s before mentioning the many unsung roles that keep the NHS going – cleaners, admin staff, porters. Or, for that matter the keyworkers outside the NHS – shop workers, delivery drivers, farm workers – who kept us alive and functioning during the worst crisis of our lifetime. Many of them are migrants too, and some of them have made the supreme sacrifice. They deserve more than a couple of minutes clapping on a Thursday evening. Bringing in harsher immigration rules will kick them in the teeth, and shoot ourselves in the foot.
So let’s agree a sensible deal that keeps the free flow of goods, services and people across the Channel and the Irish Border. A deal that maintains close links with the EU on science, health and universities. One that continues to welcome our European neighbours to come here to work and build their lives here.
Now is simply not the time for, “Righto chaps, let’s go off on a jolly old Brexit adventure.” Our NHS, our nation and our economy all need time and space to recover and heal. We need to work constructively with other nations to defeat the virus. There must be nothing that distracts us from the task. Because whether we’re from the UK, the EU or elsewhere in the world, right now we really are all in this together.
*views expressed are in a personal capacity
Photo credit: Jeremy Segrott