'We have paid a heavy price in healthcare postponed': Chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty on a year fighting Covid-19

2020 was a year unlike any other, with the coronavirus pandemic upending the work of government and changing how we live our daily lives. Senior figures from across the civil service tell us how the unprecedented 12 months affected them, and look ahead to 2021
Photo: Henry Nicholls/PA Wire/PA Images

By Civil Service World

15 Dec 2020

 

What are you proudest of your organisation or team achieving in 2020?

Civil servants in the Department of Health and Social Care and across government, public-health specialists in Public Health England, the whole NHS and social-care system and the scientists have risen magnificently to the task of tackling Covid-19. A sudden global health crisis on this scale only occurs very rarely- the last one worldwide was HIV, and the last one to affect the UK this badly was the ‘flu pandemic of 1918-19 a century ago, so it is impossible to be fully prepared for it as it is a generational challenge.

There has been innovation and new ways of working on a wide scale, and an ability to learn from things that have not gone right and course correct.  A lot of people will no doubt try to be wise after the event for years to come, but those across the whole system who were actually doing the long hours under extraordinary pressure have a lot to be very proud of.

Covid has been a tragedy for many families, and it is definitely not over, but it would have a be a great deal worse without the actions of all the professionals who have contributed their skills. I am full of admiration for people across the whole civil service, NHS and social care system for their collective response.

What was the hardest part of being a leader in 2020?

Not being able to communicate with colleagues face to face. This was a stressful, and sometimes frightening, situation for many people working in the NHS, social care and civil service. Zoom/Teams meetings have some advantages, but they do not make it easy to sense the mood, hear peoples worries and deal with problems early.

"One of the hardest parts of being a leader was the constant media scrutiny, when the messages I wanted to pass on to people were often filtered"

And for me personally constant media scrutiny, especially when the messages I wanted to pass on to people who wanted straightforward information were often filtered.

What are the main challenges facing your organisation in the coming year?

We have to deal with the twin effects of getting Covid down to manageable proportions and getting all the rest of health and medical science back on track. Cancer, heart disease and other serious health problems have not gone away, and there are backlogs as a result of Covid we will need to deal with rapidly.

These two themes of Covid and non-Covid health will dominate 2021, and whilst an exit is in sight it is still some way off, and we have paid a heavy price in healthcare postponed.  

People will have to be more creative about celebrating this year. How will you make the festive period on Zoom special?

One of many downsides of Covid is that it has made being close to people hazardous to them and wider society. The upside of a Zoom-based social life (and there are not many) is that it makes distance irrelevant. It has been as easy chatting to friends and family across the UK and in Europe, Africa and Asia as people who live a bike ride away.

So seeing people I want to spend time with but normally would not be able to meet over the Christmas period is a plus. But I hope this is the only Christmas I have to do this way.

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