Nesta Lloyd-Jones, Assistant Director of the Welsh NHS Confederation
The NHS in Wales is going through one of its darkest winters in memory. The pressure on all our services due to the Coronavirus pandemic continues to be immense and for many of our staff working in our hospitals, GP surgeries, ambulance service or in the community, it will feel like there’s no end in sight.
As infections in the community rose sharply in December due to a mutated strain of COVID-19 that was sweeping the UK, so did hospitalisations throughout much of Wales and tragically, so too did deaths.
Because community infections were so high over the Christmas and New Year period, we also saw an even greater number of staff having to self-isolate or suffer from the direct impacts of the Coronavirus itself. In some areas of Wales, we had departments with 40% staff absence rates, and across Wales that figure was around 10% (10,000 people) of the total workforce, with many of those working on the frontline.
It is important we remember that staff who treat and look after us and our families also live and take part in our communities. That means they don’t just face pressure on the hospital wards or in other healthcare settings, they also face them at home.
We are still seeing the impacts of this in the NHS today. While there are some green shoots starting to appear in terms of infection rates dropping in some parts of Wales, there are still many patients in our hospitals with COVID-19 and high staff absence rates.
Those staff who can come to work, tirelessly continue to provide the best care they can, even when they are doing the job for two or three of their colleagues as well, and while wearing full Person Protective Equipment.
Staff wellbeing has suffered immensely. While the NHS in Wales is doing all we can to give our staff the resources they need to get through this difficult time, we know for some the impacts of the pandemic will be felt for a long time.
Now, as we move into February, we find ourselves still in a full national lockdown. Unfortunately, these restrictions are necessary while we come through another difficult time with this virus. We need to bring the number of cases, hospitalisations and deaths down once again.
It is integral we all pull together to keep Wales safe, so the NHS has the capacity to look after you and your families. By making this huge national effort, we can give the best care for all those suffering from COVID-19 and help support as many people as we can with other significant health issues.
The NHS in Wales is clear, we know there are terrible consequences to the lockdown, including challenges for the economy, livelihoods, people feeling lonely and isolated and the significant impact on their mental wellbeing. However, this time, it does look like we have light at the end of the tunnel.
As part of Wales defence against Coronavirus, on the 8th of December, the NHS in Wales started the largest vaccination programme we have ever undertaken. And, despite negative media coverage and political posturing, we have made a positive start.
That is not to say there have not been bumps in the road, and we know there will be further challenges ahead as we protect the most vulnerable in our communities. But the figures do not lie, Wales alone would have the 6th highest vaccination rate in the world, and as of 8thth February we have given over 600,000,000 doses of the vaccine.
To put that in context, that is already more than we would vaccinate in an average flu season. The message from NHS leaders is clear, nobody will be left behind and everyone who wants the vaccine will receive it.
While we have made that positive start, NHS organisations in Wales cannot emphasise enough how crucial the next weeks and months will be if we are to come out of this crisis.
We currently have one-third of our resources directed towards treating patients suffering severely with COVID-19 and now we have committed further significant resources to the vaccination programme.
Meanwhile, we continue to work with local authorities and the wider public sector to deliver a comprehensive testing programme.
This puts us in a precarious position. Should any of us falter, and infection rates go up, the NHS will have to adapt and treat more people with COVID-19 and this could disrupt the vaccination programme as well as our other key services.
The NHS stands ready to vaccinate as many people as possible, as safely as possible in as short a time as possible. That means we are training up huge numbers of staff to deliver the vaccine, we are making more places available for people to get the vaccine and we are staffing mass vaccination centres across Wales.
We know many families have suffered personal tragedy and loss during this pandemic and it is key that we prevent more pain and suffering. To do that, we continue to need your help and support.
While it may be difficult right now to look towards that brighter future, we must also look ahead to what we will need to get Wales back on its feet.
We have seen some welcome increases for health and social care in the last Welsh Government draft budget, but we know a significant portion of that money needs to go on dealing with the backlog of patients who have been waiting, often in pain, for their operations or treatment to go ahead.
The NHS is also clear we need to provide greater support to our mental health services, and we are already beginning to see demand increasing in some areas as a result of the pandemic.
And, we will also need to commit to solving the crisis in social care. That means we need to look at how we design services around individuals needs, keeping people happy, healthy, independent and in their communities for as long as possible.
The COVID-19 pandemic has meant the NHS has had to pause its vision of becoming a preventative healthcare service and once again we have absolutely had to focus on the here and now.
However, this cannot be the future of our health service.
That means we need to help people maintain their own health for longer. It means we will need to facilitate a greener environment, so future generations can live happy and sustainable lives.
It means that when we look at the health of the population, we need to look wider than the NHS and to other areas such as housing, education and the economy.
As Wales’ single largest employer, and as the Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted, the NHS and our staff have a huge role to play in the communities we serve.
So, while the Coronavirus pandemic rages on in Wales and we all have to come together by staying apart for perhaps just a little while longer, rest assured the NHS will be there for you on the other side.
We all hope the vaccines will lead to a better and brighter 2021.