It’s now a full year since the Prime Minister made a televised address, instructing us all to stay in our homes. It was an extraordinary moment, when the severity of the coronavirus pandemic was made crystal clear, and the start of disruption to daily life on a scale not seen in this country since the Second World War.

How should we reflect on the past 12 months? Where we must start is with the terrible loss of life: over 120,000 people have died from COVID-19. Such a death toll was unimaginable this time last year: each death is a personal tragedy, and together they are a national tragedy. It can be easy to focus on the people who are still here to raise their voices, and overlook those who are gone – but we must not overlook the fact that so many have been lost.

It will take a public inquiry to determine whether loss on such a dreadful scale could have been avoided, but there are certainly legitimate questions to be asked about the timing and nature of measures to control COVID-19, and what the result might have been if different decisions had been taken, or the same decisions taken sooner. As a nation, we should begin planning soon not only for a public inquiry to secure a common and true understanding of what happened, but also for how we will remember those who have died.

Other patients have also been badly affected by COVID-19: while it would be wrong to draw comparisons too easily between those who have died or been seriously ill and other patients’ experiences, the consequences have certainly been real and significant. Indeed, for some, they have been of the utmost seriousness: disruption to care has led to more illness going undiagnosed, and delays in treatment that have resulted in some people dying who would otherwise have lived. Beyond this, changes in what care is available and how it can be accessed have had a huge effect on many patients, as our Pandemic Patient Experience report showed last year.

The impact has been wider still. Lockdown has proved absolutely the right policy: while the population was unvaccinated, it proved the only way to bring down infection numbers, and halt exponential spreading of the disease that was truly terrifying. But lockdown was not a cost-free option: it brought consequences for mental and physical health, minor for many people, serious for some, but amounting to a substantial burden across the population as a whole.

For some people, the impact has been more profound than of merely having to lock down. A large cohort, crassly and patronisingly labelled ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’, have had to ‘shield’ themselves. For some, this has been so alarming that they have not left their homes for the past year year, and will face a difficult challenge to re-enter society. Visiting people in hospitals and care homes has been heavily restricted – at times this has been a necessary measure, but at other moments it has seemed unnecessary and callous. We have heard from patients how the communication of these arrangements and instructions was often inconsistent and unclear, adding to the distress of the situation.

We are nearing a time when we can look to the future with at least some confidence. The vaccination programme has, so far, been a remarkable success for the NHS and for the taskforce that secured the supply of vaccines. Rebuilding will be an enormous challenge across the NHS and care system, whose staff have worked astonishingly hard under tremendous pressure, often putting others’ wellbeing before their own. The challenge to rebuild extends across society and the economy as a whole: many aspects of our daily lives will have changed permanently, in ways that are still hard to predict. But, although a path is starting to emerge, that is for the future. Today’s anniversary is a moment to reflect on what has happened over the past year, consider the monumental impact it has had for so many people, and remember those we have lost.

Rachel Power
Chief Executive