COVID Lessons Learned from the UK
Will Omicron be the last major COVID wave? Experts say it’s too early to tell. But they do recommend looking to the immediate past to uncover COVID lessons learned to prepare ourselves better for future pandemics. The UK did just that, releasing a parliamentary report into the Government’s performance. What can we all learn?
Lessons learned from the first COVID wave
Well, the UK handed down its verdict on the key decisions, structures, and underlying factors contributing to the extent of the pandemic’s first wave.
Highlighted in the lessons learned to date report is an evaluation of the country’s level of preparedness, as well as assessments of “non-pharmaceutical interventions,” such as lockdowns.
What stands out?
Like most countries, the UK has had a rough go of it during the pandemic. Case levels and deaths have consistently been higher than those in peer nations in western Europe.
Still, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) earned plaudits for its performance, including the recruiting of thousands of former staff to boost capacity in Nightingale hospitals.
Social care in crisis
But not everything went well. The report contrasts the NHS’ performance with that of the social care sector.
According to Amnesty International, 28,186 excess deaths were recorded in care homes in England between 2 March and 12 June 2020. More than 18,500 care home residents were confirmed to have died with COVID-19 during this period.
Between 10 April and 19 June 2020, deaths of people receiving domiciliary care were more than 120 per cent higher than the three-year average over the same period between 2017 and 2019. Almost 13 per cent of that total involved a confirmed case of COVID-19.
People were rapidly discharged from NHS hospitals into care homes without adequate testing or rigorous isolation. The report contrasts that to the practice in places like Germany and Hong Kong.
More precisely, around 25,000 people were discharged from hospitals into care homes between 17 March and 15 April 2020, a stark increase in the number of discharges to care homes compared to the previous year.
Preparing for crises entails addressing long-standing issues
The question is why.
The report concludes short-term factors exacerbated longer-term issues.
There was a profound failure to recognise the significant risks to the social care sector at the beginning of the pandemic. The sector suffered from staff shortages, insufficient testing, and lack of PPE. Meanwhile, the design of care settings themselves contributed to case spread.
These issues came in the context of a longer-standing failure to accord social care the same public health attention as that given to the NHS.
In the words of Consultant Geriatrician, Professor David Oliver: “Protect the NHS essentially meant protect the acute hospital bed base, with everything else a bit of an afterthought. That was a mistake.”
Even before the pandemic, though, social care had suffered from workforce shortages, funding pressures, and provider instability. The sum of these factors meant that the sector entered the COVID crisis in a weakened state, hampering its ability to respond to the impact of COVID-19.
The report does acknowledge that the Government shifted course after the first wave. Between 31 October 2020 and 5 February 2021, the total number of all COVID-19 deaths occurring among care home residents dropped when compared to the same amount during the first wave.
And so, going forward, the Department of Health and Social Care must raise the importance of the social care sector within its ranks, while implementing much-needed reforms to promote parity between health and care sectors.
Nor are these just lessons for the UK. Critics also cite the examples of Australia and US whose care sectors were also battered by early pandemic.
Indeed, the pandemic has tested public health systems around the world.
The key to doing better next time is recognising what went wrong and making much-needed improvements. To delve deeper into what happened in the first wave and where actors can improve, download our guide, Five Things We Learned about the UK’s COVID-19 Response.