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18 November 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 12:37pm

Rosena Allin-Khan’s Diary: Pandemic loneliness, and my shifts on the NHS front line

At food banks, people aren’t just turning up for food, but company too.

By Rosena Allin-Khan

Last weekend, I was distributing food parcels in Tooting, south London, and was startled by how many people were arriving for a hot meal. Numbers have been rising week on week, and people are not simply turning up for food; they are ­looking for a conversation, warmth and human company. The volunteers do much more than hand out parcels – they make people feel valued.

The widespread ­loneliness in our communities cannot be forgotten. People need help – and it should not be the sole responsibility of our fantastic community initiatives up and down the country to offer it.

Data found that from April to May of this year, 31 per cent of people in the UK had experienced loneliness, with as many as one in five feeling chronically lonely. And ­isolation is not the only problem to have come out of the pandemic. Rates of people suffering from depression have doubled. By June, one in five adults were experiencing the condition in some form.

Some are experiencing these feelings for the first time, and they are unsure of where to turn. The government has ignored the mental health crisis emerging in the wake of Covid-19. Not only have people felt fear and uncertainty around contracting the virus, but they have also felt anxiety over job security, how to feed their children and whether they will be able to see their loved ones in care homes. It was not ­unexpected: mental health professionals have given warnings about the knock-on effects of the ­virus since the spring.

Our communities are suffering. While they deserve to be celebrated for the work they are doing to support those most ­affected by the virus, they should not be ­expected to shoulder the burden alone. The government must put mental health at the heart of its Covid-19 response this winter.

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Open for business

It has been enlightening to witness the different atmosphere in A&E during this lockdown compared to the first. Working during the spring lockdown, I found it shocking how few people were visiting A&E with non-Covid-related illnesses. This time around, it is clear that more of us are attending A&E with illnesses other than Covid-19, but what is concerning is the desperation of these patients when they enter the hospital.

It’s clear to me just how many people have struggled, having not seen their GPs for months. Whether this is due to changes in how appointments are accessed, a fear of contracting Covid-19, or simply not wanting to burden the NHS at a time of national crisis, patients have not been engaging with the primary healthcare that they so desperately need.

On my last couple of shifts, I have been quick to place patients on to cancer pathways so they can have symptoms promptly ­investigated. A combination of putting off trips to the doctor because of Covid-19 and long waits to be seen has meant many ­people have ignored symptoms. They ­cannot afford to lose more time. Their ­distress can be palpable, and it is heart-breaking to witness. At the hospital I work at, there is capacity for fast referral, but not everywhere is as fortunate.

[see also: “The applause felt hollow”: How Covid-19 exacerbated NHS staff burnout]

After years of underfunding, bed cuts and staff shortages, our NHS was left exposed when the coronavirus epidemic hit. With waiting lists for specialist care – ­including cancer treatment – growing nationally over recent months, the government must ­address the health needs of our most vulnerable, who are feeling forgotten as we head into winter.

The NHS is open for business – please do not put off calling your doctor or visiting A&E. Our health services are here for all who need them.

Bridging the Covid gap

Coronavirus has illuminated the health inequalities in the UK, and shown where the government has been content to turn a blind eye. We entered this pandemic with these inequalities widening and life expectancy declining for the poorest in society. Covid-19 has thrived on these inequalities, disproportionately impacting poor and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities.

The poorest areas in the UK have had higher death rates and a higher number of excess deaths during the pandemic compared to the very richest. Black and Asian people are disproportionately represented in intensive care admissions and many of the front-line staff who have passed away from Covid-19 were from a BAME background.

[see also: We can’t breathe]

As Doreen Lawrence recommended in her ­review into the impact of coronavirus on BAME communities, the government must urgently implement a national strategy to tackle health inequality.

Culture under threat

Many people across the country are feeling forgotten by this government, particularly those who have lost their jobs during the pandemic. Many workers were laid off before the Chancellor announced an extension to the furlough scheme at the beginning of the month. Aside from the Kickstart initiative for younger workers, most of the measures to support those out of work do not start until next April.

Those in the wedding industry and talented arts professionals have been written off as not viable by the government, and it has cut to the core of who they are.

[see also: What I’ve learned on the front line against Long Covid]

These hard-working people make the UK as culturally rich as it is – no government should treat them in this way. Artists, creatives and entrepreneurs need a government on their side; showing them that it cares not only about their livelihoods, but also about their mental health. 

Rosena Allin-Khan is Labour MP for Tooting and shadow minister for mental health

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This article appears in the 18 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Vaccine nation