By Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind
A moment’s pause. As Covid restrictions ease and events in Ukraine dominate the headlines, it is natural that our thoughts have drifted away from the pandemic and what we have all just experienced.
No wonder then the announcement of the long-anticipated Covid Inquiry and its draft terms of references has struggled to register in the news. But this matters. We cannot let our focus drift. It matters because Covid hasn’t gone away. We remain in the mid of a health crisis – a physical and mental health crisis.
After two years, now is the moment to reflect and consider the dilemmas, choices, and actions taken in response to one of the greatest challenges this country has faced outside of wartime.
So, it’s crucial that the scope of the inquiry is correct, and the inquiry team are rightly asking “what’s missing” before the work starts in earnest.
The crucial and unexplained missing element is mental health. It so obviously has a place in every section of the inquiry, but the remit is bizarrely silent on this key element of our preparedness, response or recovery. An inquiry has to ask questions but there are three it hasn’t yet posed which must now be answered.
Three questions need to be answered
The first is were we prepared? Were the mental health impacts of a pandemic part of the civil emergency planning process and to what extent were these ever implemented? In the early weeks of lockdown, Mind’s Covid information was downloaded over a million times by people struggling with their own, or their children’s, extreme anxiety. Almost every major lockdown announcement at a Number 10 press conference – whether about the increase or the easing of restrictions - was immediately followed by a surge in calls to our and other mental health charities’ helplines. And yet for many months there was little or no proactive advice from the UK Government.
Secondly, what planning or provision was made once we knew there would be those traumatised by the pandemic: frontline staff, those with Covid or long Covid themselves, those devastated because they couldn’t comfort a dying loved one or mourn with their family? Deadly epidemics are not new and we’ve seen the psychological impact on those directly affected in other countries.
A huge number of measures were put in place alongside lockdowns to mitigate their impact – furlough, housing for homeless people, practical support for those unable to go to the shops, online lessons for school students.
The negative consequences of restrictions have fallen disproportionately on those already living with mental health problems, already living in poverty, on people of colour, on young people and on women. To count the cost of restrictions isn’t to pit the physical health benefits against the mental health costs. But none of these impacts should have been a surprise and so much more could have been done to put preventative measures in place to protect those most likely to be affected and to intervene early when people’s health deteriorated.
The third and final missing question is what are the consequences of failing to intervene to help people back to good health? Why is it that despite the huge increase in mental health problems across society during the pandemic, that not one penny of the money announced to meet the NHS backlog is going to mental health? The number of young people with mental health problems has risen dramatically from one in nine to one in six; 1.6 million adults are on the waiting list for mental health treatment and a further 8 million can’t even get onto the waiting list. The mental health need is as obvious as it is worrying.