Living with COVID-19 long term

Chris Hopson profile picture

11 February 2021

Chris Hopson
Chief Executive
NHS Providers


In recent weeks, the NHS has come under a degree of pressure it has never experienced before in its 72 year history. Frontline staff have risen to an extraordinary challenge and given their all. At times it was touch and go.

There was a brief period when NHS leaders seriously feared the service was about to overwhelmed. But thanks to the NHS' flexibility, rapidly doubling its national level critical care capacity, and its nature as a national service, quickly increasing mutual aid and collaboration in local health and care systems, the NHS continued to provide care to those who needed it.

Much current commentary concentrates on how the NHS will come out of this phase of the pandemic. There's an understandable focus on staff support and recovery, tacking care backlogs and meeting the increases in mental health demand we are now seeing. There has been remarkably little commentary on what the NHS needs to do to live with COVID-19 long term. However, that's what's required. As HIV has shown, we can inoculate ourselves against the effects of viruses and manage their impact through ever more effective treatments. But viruses have a nasty habit of persisting in the community for a long time. This will have profound consequences for the NHS for many years to come.

Viruses have a nasty habit of persisting in the community for a long time. This will have profound consequences for the NHS for many years to come.

Chris Hopson    Chief Executive

Take five areas – vaccination, test and trace, infection control, NHS estate and NHS buffer capacity.

As COVID-19 mutates we are likely to need an annual rolling COVID-19 vaccination campaign, with an annually tweaked vaccination that takes account of the latest mutations. NHS staff are doing a brilliant job with the current vaccination programme. But this is using an unsustainable workforce model. We are taking huge amounts of time from GPs, diverting them from normal primary care work. Trust staff, particularly in community trusts, are being redeployed from existing roles. We are using an army of volunteers who may not be available in future. The NHS needs to quickly develop a sustainable workforce model to deliver a national COVID-19 vaccination campaign, year in year out, for some time yet. That is a huge undertaking.

The biggest COIVD-19 risk we probably now face is from a mutation that has a high vaccine evasion rate.

Chris Hopson    Chief Executive

The biggest COVID-19 risk we probably now face is from a mutation that has a high vaccine evasion rate. That risk would be magnified enormously if the mutation had a higher mortality rate – for example 5%, rather than the "less than 1%" rate we currently see. The only way to manage this risk is through a highly effective test, trace and isolate system capable of genomically sequencing large numbers of tests in a few days' turnaround time. Test and trace's capacity has grown significantly but there's still some way to go for it to reach the level of capacity and capability required, that we see in the most successful South East Asian countries and countries like Canada.

If the COVID-19 virus continues to circulate, it's likely there will be significant numbers of COVID-positive patients needing hospital treatment, meaning we will need to maintain strengthened infection control measures. As we've discovered over the last year, these have a major impact on NHS bed capacity. The NHS was already short of capacity before the pandemic, as we saw in the traditional winter pressures the service struggles with at this time of year. Living with COVID-19 will require us to invest in further capacity to cope with all the demands the service will face, including the increase in mental health demand we are now seeing.

Another lesson of the last year has been how the virus tends to surge in regionalised waves, creating peaks of demand that can potentially overwhelm healthcare services in particular areas.

Chris Hopson    Chief Executive

Another lesson of the last year has been how the virus tends to surge in regionalised waves, creating peaks of demand that can potentially overwhelm healthcare services in particular areas. The key, as we've seen over the last few weeks, is to have sufficient surge, and super surge, capacity to cope with peaks of demand and ensure that the provision of mutual aid across trusts and regions works effectively. That has profound implications for NHS estates – how do we create community, hospital general/acute and ICU capacity that can be easily flexed up and down? How do we create reserve ambulance capacity that can be called on? The same argument applies to funding and support for the NHS workforce – do we need to create a standing reserve, as in the armed forces?

Sir Simon Stevens has also argued eloquently that the NHS now needs a buffer to function sustainably. NHS Providers has argued consistently that we have been trying to run the NHS permanently in the red zone for several years now. Whichever per head of population number you look at – beds, nurses, doctors, diagnostic equipment – the resources available to the NHS compare poorly with key European comparators like France and Germany. But how big this should this buffer be and what should it look like?

Reconfiguring the NHS to meet these challenges will require investment and leadership time.

Chris Hopson    Chief Executive

These are just five examples of how we will need to rethink our NHS to enable it to cope with COVID-19 long term. There are many more. Reconfiguring the NHS to meet these challenges will require investment and leadership time. These will need to be factored in alongside the bulging bag of other priorities the NHS has now got to deliver. But this has become a vital task we need to turn to quickly.

This blog was first published by the BMJ.

About the author

Chris Hopson profile picture

Chris Hopson
Chief Executive
@ChrisCEOHopson

Chris Hopson is the chief executive of NHS Providers. He joined in September 2012 after a career in politics, commercial television and the civil service. Read more

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