Over the last few months, I have watched events with growing incredulity. So much ‘normality’ has been lost, and even when measures have been eased recently, it has always been with strings attached. This makes it feel like more restrictions have appeared; at the height of the epidemic, we were still able to get on a bus or train with our faces uncovered. Not any more. Let's be clear: the risk from coronavirus is still not zero. It cannot be for any infection. But does that risk justify the measures still in place?
While the government appears to have dropped its strategy of talking about 'following the science’, it is clear that they are still broadly following the particular scientific voices they care to listen to. But 'following the science' was always a misleading phrase for a simple reason: not all scientists (or doctors) think the same. As the lockdown continues, this is only becoming clearer.
Occasionally a murmuring of discontent is reported but it soon disappears. No-one wants to be seen as being cavalier in the face of this virus. Indeed, among some, there appears to be a competition for who can be most risk averse; some prominent voices have said that we should have locked down harder and earlier, for instance. Meanwhile, medical proportionality and the nation’s health as a whole are disappearing fast.
Surely then it is time for medics worried about the damaging consequences of the measures in place to speak out. Yes, coronavirus remains a concern. But we cannot delay the urgent reparative work that must be taken to restore our society. If we don't, social unrest, mental disintegration and missed diagnosis and treatment will dwarf anything that has sadly been visited on us during this pandemic.
It is simply impossible to guarantee that there will be no 'second wave'. Even with a serviceable vaccine in the coming months – which is, of course, far from a certainty – the virus will still continue to exist. So the answer is simple: as we 'stay alert' to the coronavirus threat, we must change to a Sweden-like mindset that understands that we should use common sense rather than have a list of do's and don't of what we can and can't do.
It goes without saying that I do not speak for all doctors or other healthcare professionals. Many medics have watched on and supported the coronavirus measures in place. But it has become increasingly clear to many of these same medics that some rules don’t add-up, and I sense a growing unease.
Two recent examples come to mind. Firstly, the order – with virtually no notice – of compulsory face coverings in hospitals and public transport; and secondly, the media hullabaloo that trumpeted Matt Hancock's breakthrough that wasn't: that dexamethasone could be useful for people with acute respiratory failure caused by Covid-19. Among doctors, there has been much scratching of heads at these and other anomalies with valiant attempts to rationalise and explain. But I believe there are a growing number within medicine who are receptive to the idea that the status quo has been taken far enough.
For some, there remains a fixation on the number of new cases appearing after lockdowns have been eased around the world. It doesn’t seem to matter that testing has massively increased in many countries, which, of course, means it is no surprise that more cases (many of which are mild) are being picked up.
Yet barely a ripple has been said about missed cancer treatments and loss of life saving screening. The British Medical Journal recently carried a piece saying that one in three UK paediatricians report ‘delayed presentations’ in emergency care of children. This for a virus that has killed only a handful of children under the age of 15. Don't get me wrong here: this is terrible for the families of those children. But we must see coronavirus in perspective: the risk to children from this illness is grossly dwarfed by harm and death visited on other children with non-Covid problems who could have been helped earlier. This has to end; someone has to say stop.
Panic ensued over a higher than expected infection rate in March but it also petered out quicker than expected and the NHS coped so well that hospitals in April and May were struggling to find patients to keep wards open. Yet we have barely moved on and have some of the most ridiculous rules you can imagine placed upon us. Yes, in laboratory settings a face mask could reduce droplet spread of a virus. But outside of the lab, a repeatedly-used piece of cloth can easily harbour germs. The medical profession has never advocated the widespread use of face coverings for a reason. And yet they are now the new normal.
I have never been moved to write before this epidemic. As it became obvious to me some months ago that more harm than good was being accrued from lockdown measures, I felt I had to speak out. I have tried – and spectacularly failed elsewhere – to get interest from media organisations to put the message out that there was another side to the equation: that people’s health was being harmed by our zealous ‘battle’ with the virus and that there was no logic or precedent in healthy people hiding from an infection such as this. There have been some other voices, but no traction on countering the overwhelming narrative that still engulfs any sort of dissension on this matter.
As doctors, we cannot allow a situation to continue whereby people’s lives are being put at risk for no proven benefit. We must, I believe, speak out in number and also officially through our Royal Colleges. The recent letter signed by over 1,500 UK paediatricians imploring the government to publish a plan for the return to school for our children is an excellent example of this. This must be repeated in order that all of us can safely pick up our lives again.