Dr Chandra Kanneganti is the Chair of North Staffordshire’s GP Federation, and is a Stoke-on-Trent City Councillor.
It’s been almost six months since we have been dealing with Covid-19 pandemic. With the benefit of hindsight, it can be said that we could have handled the health crisis better.
We should have imposed the lockdown much earlier, and made sure we had enough PPE to support and protect our health care workers. We could have communicated better the precautionary measures that should be taken. As we move forward, it is critical that we evaluate our Covid-19 response. However, such assessments should be defined by empathy and humility.
I am a GP of 14 years’ experience. As medical professionals, we were never trained to handle a health crisis of this magnitude. Like military exercises during peacetime, the healthcare professionals never conducted nation-wide pandemic-response exercises during normal times. Much less, many health care professionals never even attended a single workshop on pandemic response during their careers.
This is not surprising, since we have never seen something like this in our country or for that matter, no country has ever anticipated a crisis of this magnitude. Our health care infrastructure was tested and stretched by this once in a generation health crisis. Our people and the health care professional community have demonstrated remarkable resilience in the combat against the deadly pandemic.
Over the past few months, my colleagues and I worked every weekday and many weekends in GP practices, in Covid Hot clinics and extended access clinics. Many of us had at least 40-50 contacts of patients every day as a GP. During the breaks, which were always few, we would ruminate on the experiences narrated by the pandemic infected patients, and we would think of the safety of our loved ones at home.
But there was always extraordinarily little time to pause, and we had to get back to patients to work with clinical precision. In the midst of all this, I had to respond as Chair of British International Doctors Association (BIDA), and have led campaigns to scrap the NHS Immigration Health Surcharge for NHS workforce and for research with actions into disproportionate BAME Covid deaths and infections.
As a Conservative councillor, being there with the residents in my ward provided me with the opportunity of experiencing the remarkable ‘British resilience’ up and close. I had the privilege of working with the local church to start a voluntary group that helped in distributing medicines as well as food and shielding patients. It was heartwarming to see people supporting each other in the communities. A resident in my ward collected food and kept it outside every week for anyone to come and collect it.
I am sure there are many such good Samaritans in all communities. The lockdown also provided us with an opportunity to get potholes fixed in my ward by the council. Keeping up the local business in lockdown was also an important priority. I worked with the local authorities to deliver grants to businesses quickly and offered help to vulnerable people.
While there were PPE problems in some parts of the country, Stoke On Trent and North Staffordshire never faced such issues. This was largely due to innovative solutions created by people working collaboratively to supply PPE to general practices and care homes. Indeed, one of our administrators made visors for doctors working in Covid hot clinics. Further, these clinics to see Covid-suspected patients were opened in record time. We must note with some pride that Stoke had one such clinic, which was first of its kind in the entire country.
It is essential to recognise the achievements in our pandemic response, as it will help us to build a more robust health care infrastructure. Based on my work as a medical professional and as a councillor, let me share with you four important accomplishments.
First, in terms of infrastructure, hospitals have come up with Covid wards in record time with well-trained staff ready to serve. Our health care staff was trained quickly to shield vulnerable people and protect them. Today, there are thousands of intensive care beds, ventilators ready to be used along with Nightingale Hospitals across the country. There was no problem in accessing an intensive care bed and ventilators during the pandemic in our country. Thankfully, we will be spared the experience of Italy, where doctors, unfortunately, had to choose patient’s for ventilation and treat the patients in corridors.
Second, with regards to processes, general practices have been trying to digitalize for ages. Within one week of Covid pandemic, GPs across the country shifted to remote consultations, using various digital tools and continued to be there every day for their patients. Whenever there was a perception that the decision-making process was erring in its policies, there were quick corrective measures. For instance, all doctors’ associations have united in one voice to support BAME NHS Staff who are disproportionately affected. Eight GP colleagues and a Practice Manager in Greater Manchester prepared a risk assessment tool called SAAD tool in memory of a GP colleague who unfortunately died of Covid.
Our democratic political process and the elected, as well as accountable leadership, are important assets that we have. We are one of those few countries in the world that reported Covid deaths with complete openness and transparency.
In fact, the fatality rate may have been over-reported. I have seen a number of reports of deaths, particularly in care homes that were reported as Covid deaths, based on care staff and paramedics observations without any valid medical test results. Our democratic ethos and administrative frameworks do not permit us to push inconvenient numbers under the carpet.
Third, the response of our political leadership has been brilliant throughout the pandemic. Boris Johnson has been in ICU with high flow oxygen and has recovered. The Prime Minister gave us hope and showed considerable fortitude in crisis. Rishi Sunak was fantastic, and all my constituents have nothing but praise for him. Matt Hancock’s knowledge of the issues and his engagement with scientific and medical advisors showed a mature health secretary with a reassuring presence in the hour of crisis.
We are at the forefront of vaccine development with contracts of millions of vaccines in place, which is marked contrast to some of the developed economies which are yet to sign a contract with vaccine producers.
Fourth, there was a robust societal response. The British public has demonstrated remarkable generosity with the wonderful campaign of Sir Tom Moore. His campaign collected £32.79 million. I had the first-hand experience of the British kindness, as I was able to collect 17,000 in a short time through British International Doctors Association (BIDA), and distributed this to number of stranded doctors for their living expenses. Through various symbolic measures, such as clapping, our society has shown immense appreciation to all the key workers for the work that they are doing.
Despite these achievements, we must never forget the fatalities that we registered due to the pandemic. Death is not a statistical data point, and the loss of life of a mother, a father, a child, and a key worker can never be filled. There are concerns that there may be a second wave of coronavirus in the winter. There is no time to rest. We must continue to help each other and support the government. We are in this together – and will come out of this much stronger as a country.