Max Pemberton

The horrifying toll of lockdown on the poor and mentally ill

The horrifying toll of lockdown on the poor and mentally ill
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I start the week with someone throwing faeces at me. I thought people were supposed to clap for doctors these days, not hurl poo at them? Never mind. Thankfully I’m fast on my feet despite it being the early hours of the morning, and dodge the mess, which hits the wall behind me. I’m working a week of nights covering A&E for mental health and this kind of mayhem is not as unusual as you might expect. The naked man, covered in excrement, runs around screaming. The nurse with me doesn’t even flinch. I love A&E nurses. They’ve seen and heard it all. I’m sure if there were a nuclear Armageddon, it would only be cockroaches and A&E nurses who would survive. The A&E nurse, along with security guards, wearing gloves and flimsy plastic aprons, grapple the filthy young man to the ground. They’re going to want to wash their hands for more than 20 seconds after that. He’s sedated and, after many hours, a bed in a psychiatric ward is found. He’d become psychotic after spending the weeks of lockdown sitting in his university digs alone, smoking skunk. I’ve seen quite a few of these patients with pretty much the same story in recent weeks, particularly overseas students who have been stranded here, alone and bored, doing drugs and frying their minds.

I’m horrified at the effect lockdown is having, particularly on the poor. A young woman recently sat in my outpatients clinic and asked me to take her children away. She was calm and at first I thought she was joking. ‘Why?’ I asked. She simply couldn’t cope any more. Then, as she began to sob, she confessed she was worried she would end up killing them and then herself. ‘I love them so much,’ she repeated as she begged me to take them into care. You have to be pretty desperate to try to give your children away. She lived in two rooms, and shared a bathroom and kitchen with another family. One child had autism, the other had behavioural problems and developmental delay. She has no family in this country. Day in and day out she sat in the room while her children screamed and wailed. I sat blinking at her, literally speechless. There were no day centres, no drop-ins — all sacrificed in the rush to lock down. She hadn’t seen her social worker for months. In the pandemonium of the pandemic, her community mental health team had effectively shut up shop and left her without any support. Now they just phone her occasionally. How she has lasted this long I have no idea. It’s easy for people in big houses having Zoom cocktails with their family to claim they know what’s best and insist that restrictions are imposed which mean others go stark-staring mad.

I come home to find an email from a famous actress I greatly admire taking issue over something I’d written a few months ago. I’d simply said that I’d been really irritated by the outcry after a minister suggested those in the arts might have to retrain as nurses and social workers. Millions are facing financial ruin, unemployment and the prospect of retraining; why does it only provoke outrage when it happens to ‘creatives’? Why was there not an outpouring of sympathy or grief from the chattering classes when taxi drivers had to start retraining as couriers or hairdressers went bust? Anyway, this didn’t go down very well. We have a very civil email correspondence about it. She’s a National Treasure and has just been made a Dame so I congratulate her on that and we agree to disagree about whether being an actor is more of a vocation than being a cab driver.

On the Friday I go to have my vaccine in the hospital, which is a far jollier affair than one would imagine. There’s a long orderly queue mostly made up of elderly and frail people and everyone seems in very high spirits. This is probably the first time many of them have left the house in months, so it’s understandable. There’s quite a bit of chatting and it’s bordering on being quite raucous. Nurses bring down some very unwell-looking people from the wards in wheelchairs. The queue rearranges itself to allow them to the front, with people giving a thumbs-up as they are wheeled past. When my time comes, a nurse fills out some details on a very slow computer system. The vaccine itself takes about ten seconds. After the jab you have to wait 15 minutes in case you have a reaction so I go to the waiting area. The atmosphere is quite electric and a line of old ladies applaud as I take my seat. Then someone else comes through and I join in the ripple of applause. This continues until a nurse says I can go. I’m a bit disappointed to leave all the excitement. It was the most fun I’ve had in hospital all week.