Tomorrow, England enters its second national lockdown, set to last for at least the next four weeks. Many are apprehensive about what the next month holds, and whether lockdown will even be lifted in time for Christmas. As we head into this second national lockdown, I am going to be reflecting on the lessons we learned from the first lockdown, and how we can find light in this wintery tunnel.
1. Our Capacity for Unity
During the first few weeks and months of this pandemic, including the time in and around the first national lockdown, there was a powerful tangible sense of national unity in the UK. After months of mudslinging over Brexit, the British appeared to suddenly wake up to the fact that our gripes with each other were paling into insignificance compared with the common enemy threatening all of us. Businesses turned over their production lines to meet the national supply needs of personal protective equipment. Restaurants and coffees shops supplied free food and drink to the frontline NHS staff. The weekly national applause lifted the spirits of key workers. And the political discourse between parties and across devolved administrations was calm, sober and relatively unified.
The culture of unity was even felt in the NHS. Doctors and nurses shouldered major personal uncertainty and burdens as they were redeployed and had new contracts written, driven by a desire to play their part in the national effort. And there was new solidarity between clinicians, mangers, and politicians, everyone acknowledged the unprecedent decisions that were being made at rapid pace.
But the unity didn’t last long.
In the past few months, the divisions in our country have grown sharper and wider. The nations of the UK have pulled in different directions in imposing restrictions and lockdowns. Regional leaderships have locked horns with Westminster over local tier restrictions, with the most notable being Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham. A rift is growing between the policies of the Conservative government and Labour opposition party. And there even appeared to be a public fight between the government and its own scientific advisory group SAGE, over the timing of the lockdown.
As soon as Thursday’s lockdown was announced, there also came many condemnatory exclamations from across society. Religious organisations including the Catholic Church and The Muslim Council of Britain demanded that places of worship should remain open. Many have petitioned for schools and colleges to close. And several industries, particularly in the arts and hospitality, declared their sense of abandonment by the government.
In the space of 8 months, our nation has gone from the most united I have ever experienced, to deeply divided.
Don’t get me wrong, policy and epidemiology are topics that must be discussed and debated. But I find this societal disintegration disheartening. Us fighting each other will only make this fight against the coronavirus even more challenging. I find myself often wishing we could have bottled some of the togetherness and solidarity of March and April, and take a swing of it now.
But it’s not too late. As we head into this second lockdown and what will be a tough winter, we can band together, look out for each other, support our neighbours, and unite behind those on the frontline. We have done it once before.
2. The Limits of the Health Service
One of the most frightening aspects of the first wave for clinicians was the prospect of the NHS becoming overwhelmed. We all watched in alarm as Italy’s very advanced and well-funded health system became overwhelmed by covid cases in some regions, particularly Lombardy. The consequences were doctors having to make excruciating decisions over which patients were to get life-saving interventions.
In the first wave, hospital admissions did not exceed NHS resources, but in some places, it came close, especially in intensive care departments
In the press briefing where Boris Johnson announced the lockdown, there was one graph shared by Chief Scientific Advisor Patrick Vallance that appears to have flown under many people’s radar. Shown below, this graph predicts that on current trajectories (without new measures), covid cases will exceed current NHS capacity on 23th November, and will exceed NHS surge capacity (added capacity through cancellation of elective services) on 4th December. I find this very concerning. The NHS in on track for a winter crisis like never before.
So what can we do?
Firstly, we all need to play our part and obey lockdown. I do not underestimate the pain and suffering the lockdown will cause. I know that I am so fortunate to still be able to go to work and see my colleagues in the person. But sadly, in the words of Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty during the press briefing “There are no good solutions. All the solutions are bad.” And the better we lock down now, the sooner it will be safe to reopen society.
Secondly, the NHS does need the support of the public. The meals, applause and general championing of the NHS by the public did make a big difference to staff morale during the first wave. The emotional burden on staff is high. In A&E, I use to keep a record of patients I had seen in A&E who subsequently got admitted, to follow up on what happened to them. However, during the first wave, so many of them died in hospital, that I found keeping a list too upsetting, so I eventually stopped.
And do also remember that NHS staff are putting their health on the line, and many are falling ill. The most scary and upsetting moment I experienced during the first wave was when I treated a very unwell nursing colleague who went to ITU. Treating a colleague really shook me and all the other clinicians involved in her care; if it could happen to them, it could happen to any one of us.
We need to look after those who look after us.
3. The Opportunities for the Church
The pandemic has produced a wide array of different challenges, from sickness, to bereavement, to mental health crises, to redundancy, to uncertainty, to loneliness, to relationship break down, the list could go on.
But at the same time, in the midst of this unprecedented global suffering, there has been somewhat of a spiritual awaking in our nation. In May, the Guardian published a study commissioned by Tearfund that found that since the start of lockdown, 1 in 4 UK adults have tuned into an online religious service. And anecdotally, online evangelistic courses such as Christianity Explored have seen a large spike in sign-ups.
In some ways, I am not surprised by this new interest in religion. This pandemic has shaken the foundations of modern society, and the fragile things have broken. Therefore, people are naturally asking the big questions about life and death. Many of the things that people put their security in have come crashing down, and people are asking where they should now turn.
And it pains me to say this, but I think the Church’s response to this new hunger for God, has been disappointing. We have been served on a platter an enormous opportunity to speak and live the light of the gospel in a dark and searching world, and we largely have not taken it.
As the first lockdown came into force, churches diverted much of their attention into continuing their normal church activities online. This was clearly a good and necessary priority. But I think our focus on internal church activities blinded many to the gospel opportunities knocking at our locked doors. In my social media spheres, I have come across very few evangelistic events that have addressed topics such as death, grief, sickness, financial insecurity, mental health, loneliness or even suffering in general. And yet these are the topics the whole world is talking about. In contrast, I know of two big events in my circles happening this month on “Science vs. God”. This is an important topic, but it is hardly what the world is talking about at the moment!
I think we have also missed a huge opportunity to show Christ’s practical love during the pandemic. In the past few months, thousands have found themselves in need of practical support and help, from the elderly, unwell, and vulnerable needing assistance to shop, to the isolated needing emotional support, to school children in need of meals during the holidays. And it has been private businesses, charities and local councils that have come out in force to meet the needs of their neighbours. Historically, helping the sick and vulnerable in time of crisis has been the Church’s great forte, and it led to Christians inventing the hospital and the orphanage. However, today the Church seem largely missing in social action.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that pastoring churches has been immensely challenging during this pandemic. And I am immeasurably grateful for the teaching, support and community I have received from my church in the past few months. I would have struggled without it.
But as we head into this second lockdown, I do think we as a Church need to start looking outside our virtual walls, and seek to address the unprecedented spiritual and physical needs of the suffering world around us. We won’t have this opportunity forever.
We are living in times of unprecedented challenges. I remember seeing a 100-year-old patient in A&E who lamented to me “I have never seen anything like this pandemic. I was working throughout the war, and at least then, I could still see my friends!”
This lockdown will be tough, perhaps even tougher than the first. And so now, more than ever, I believe we need to rekindle our national unity, uplift those on the front line, and speak the words of hope to those around us.