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Keir Starmer calls for boost to mental health services to help UK respond to ‘hidden cost’ of coronavirus

Labour leader: ‘Our health and care workers are heroes – but they are not invulnerable’

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Thursday 21 May 2020 21:21 BST
Keir Starmer responds to Prime Minister's U-turn on fee for foreign health and care workers

Keir Starmer has called for a boost to mental health services to help the UK respond to “the hidden cost” of the coronavirus pandemic in trauma, fear and uncertainty.

Writing in The Independent, the Labour leader warned of the “long-term effects” that will be felt by key workers on the frontline of the battle against Covid-19 in hospitals and care homes, as well as by those who have lost loved ones or forced by lockdown to live in isolation.

In a message to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, he said Britain must capitalise on the spirit of national solidarity forged during the outbreak to construct “a better future built on fairness”.

He called on the government to “step up” with immediate help for those at risk now as well as a commitment to build true parity between mental and physical health into the UK’s healthcare system.

Sir Keir’s comments came as:

- The UK’s official death toll from coronavirus rose by 338 to 36,042.

- Boris Johnson ordered a second government U-turn in 24 hours on migrant health and care workers, exempting them from a £624 surcharge to pay for the NHS.

- Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a “careful” relaxation of lockdown restrictions north of the border from 28 May.

- Constitutional experts from the Institute of Government warned that Jacob Rees-Mogg’s plans to end “virtual” sittings of parliament will make it more difficult for MPs to scrutinise the government.

Highlighting a recent Royal College of Psychiatrists survey which found a 43 per cent increase in urgent and emergency appointments during the pandemic, Sir Keir voiced concern that only 0.1 per cent of NHS workforce has taken advantage of the dedicated mental health hotline set up for them last month.

The “overwhelming pressure” faced by those working long hours day after day in hospitals filled with coronavirus patients and care homes with elderly and vulnerable residents must be recognised, he said.

“Our health and care workers are heroes – but they are not invulnerable,” said the Labour leader.

“Many NHS and care staff have been forced to face this virus without adequate protective equipment. Lack of PPE leaves those on the frontline in fear – fear for their own health and fear of spreading the virus to others.

“While we celebrate and clap our carers every week, we should remember that many are struggling, working under extraordinary pressure, and this will have long-term effects.”

Labour’s shadow mental health minister Rosena Allin-Khan wrote to health secretary Matt Hancock earlier this month to call for an urgent national package of support for frontline workers, including PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) services, talking therapies and real-time data on suicide numbers.

Dr Allin-Khan – who has herself returned to work in the NHS during the outbreak – told the health secretary then: “As I speak to my colleagues across the country and in our unions, it is clear that there is a rise in suicides, self-harm and suicidal ideation among frontline NHS and care staff. What does the government plan to do in order to help frontline workers who are dealing with suicidal thoughts at this time?”

Dr Rosena Allin-Khan challenges Matt Hancock in the House of Commons over the coronavirus response (AFP/PRU)

A recent paper from the NHS Clinical Leaders Network warned that frontline clinicians and care workers were under “enormous emotional strain” from “working in high-risk environments with changing job roles and working patterns and exhaustingly intense workload combined with a restricted ability to carry out their usual compassionate roles towards patients and their families”.

The paper warned: “Research of effects on mental health from pandemics show that clinical staff if not adequately supported are at higher risk of experiencing moral injury and developing mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Surveys of healthcare staff in China’s Hubei province, where Covid-19 first emerged, found a 50.7 per cent prevalence rate for depression, 44.7 per cent for anxiety disorders, 33.6 per cent insomnia and 73.4 per cent PTSC, the paper noted.

Sir Keir said that one in five health professionals in the UK have said they are more likely to leave as a result of their experience of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The government must ensure that mental health provision is available for all NHS workers and care staff, now and for as long as they need it,” he said.

But he said that support must not stop with health and care workers, with many of those who have lost relatives, seen their jobs and businesses disappear and enduring months of anxiety facing difficult times as the country emerges from “its biggest crisis of a generation”.

“Healthcare workers aren’t the only ones who are struggling,” said Starmer. “This is an immensely difficult time for all of us.

“The isolation which many are experiencing during lockdown is having a huge impact, particularly those with existing mental health conditions. Meanwhile, families who have lost loved ones are often unable to properly say goodbye, worsening the trauma of their bereavement.”

While every member of the community can play a part by supporting friends and neighbours, it was also “crucial” that the government delivers immediate help for those most at risk, such as “shielded” people self-isolating alone and those with existing mental health problems, he said.

And he added: “Looking beyond this crisis, we need to ensure mental health services have the resources they need to cope.

“This means having an ambition and commitment to truly putting mental and physical health on a par, and promoting the positive sources of mental wellbeing while tackling the negatives.

“I know this crisis can feel endless and claustrophobic. But do not stop hoping or helping one another. We will get through this. When we do, a better future is possible and we will build it together.”

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