We don’t talk about Covid: the danger of viral complacency.

‘We don’t talk about Bruno’ from the amazingly successful Encanto children’s animation has dominated my personal airways for months – like all ‘earworms’ I have found it impossible to stop humming or silently singing it.

It was a song that I’ve kept thinking about in the last week. My week started with a train journey to Aberdeen in early Monday morning. Because of the impending rail strike the carriages were deserted and there was just a smattering of folks in the carriages, some with masks and some without. I was in Aberdeen both to visit the exciting collaborative work being undertaken by Scottish Care colleagues and members alongside the local HSCP, not least their care technologist work, but also to attend the annual NHS Scotland conference where I took part in a couple of sessions on the Wednesday. At the conference the vast majority of the several hundred delegates were unmasked and after years of not seeing folks social distancing was most certainly not in evidence! It felt natural and normal but if I’m truthful I also had an undercurrent of anxiety and caution.

The primary reason for my caution was the emails and messages, the calls and conversations I was getting from social care providers including hearing about our weekly member surgery. They were telling me a very different story, presenting voices of concern rather than celebration. It was a hard story to hear.

It was a story of growing numbers of staff being off with Covid, of organisations especially homecare ones struggling to cover shifts because of staff shortages and long-term absence from conditions such as fatigue, depression, burnout and traumatic grieving; it was the story of the impossibility of recruitment with one provider recounting that 22 people were called to interview for a homecare post and only 3 turned up and that out of 12 organisations delivering homecare and housing support all of them had lost over a dozen staff in the previous few weeks because of the cost of living and fuel crisis. It was a story of growing anxiety that folks were not able to go on their summer holidays because they felt the need to cover shifts, in particular managers were saying their staffing crisis was now as bad as it had been at the peak of the Omicron wave a few weeks ago.

Now I am not naive – I know that the nature of a pandemic is of peaks and troughs – but at the moment it feels we are in a very challenging place and at a time when the social care sector is already stretched and exceptionally fragile.

The data published by Public Health Scotland on Wednesday underlined what I think is a change in the Covid story which we would do well to pay attention to. Last Wednesday there were 2,200 cases in the week to the 22nd compared to 1,181 positive cases a fortnight before which is a 30.5% increase on the previous 7-day period. Again, the numbers are likely to reflect a substantial under-recording and reporting. From what I hear many people are not testing, going to work or activities with what may be a common cold, hay fever but could equally be Covid19. The number of Covid re-infections stood at 15.5% compared to the 12.5% previous fortnight. There are now 948 people with Covid in hospital compared to 637 a fortnight ago – again another significant increase. There were 17 people in ICU which is more than double the 8 people a fortnight before.

In the week to Thursday 23rd June there were a total of 41 Covid19 deaths compared to 20 people the previous fortnight.

Again, there is evidence of an increase in the number of deaths in the Care Inspectorate data when for the week to the 21st June there were sadly 12 deaths including from suspected Covid compared to only one a fortnight before. Outbreaks have also risen sharply with a total of 131 in the week to the 21st June compared to 61 homes in outbreak a fortnight before.

This data should not be ignored. I really hope it is a blip and a result of activities such as the Jubilee long weekend but if it is not, I feel we need to start considering how do we respond.

Amid all this I am sure I am not alone in having a sense of conflicting and sometimes contradictory voices and thoughts in my head.

I hear the voices that say that this is a mild virus, that it is just a cold and that we need to learn to live with it. But tell that to those hospitalised or who have a really bad response, despite being vaccinated.

I hear the voices – and not least in a powerful workshop at the NHS conference – of the impacts of Long Covid – now affecting at least 155,000 people in Scotland according to a recent ONS estimate but which campaigners argue is much much more. These are lives limited, changed, altered, and diminished by what others describe as a ‘cold’ or ‘just like the flu.’  And we do not even know the impact of the new strains in terms of Long Covid risk or likelihood.

I hear the voices that say that vaccination has changed everything, and people just need to get protected. They are right – imagine a world without the protection of vaccination – but we know with distance of time that protection is waning and lots of us are not as protected as we once were.

I hear the voices arguing that we can never go back into restrictive lockdown, and I agree as long as vaccination protects the majority that we need to find other measures to ensure those most vulnerable are safe from harm, that their rights are upheld and that their independence, citizenship and contribution remains valued.

I hear the voices that express anxiety that they will be shut out from care homes. I am very aware a tweet I put out about growing Covid numbers in the community and its impact on staffing levels together with a suggestion of the need for more restrictions was interpreted as a request to return to care home restrictions. For that anxiety I apologise but agree we can NEVER lock people out of our care homes again. That is what Anne’s Law now part of the newly published National Care Service Bill is going to make sure alongside existing protections. No one I know wants to go back but rather think about how we can better involve and empower families. Care homes are amongst the safest places now – we have enough protection – the fear is the loss of staff as the virus gains ground in the communities in which they live.

I hear the voices that say that ‘life has to be more than existence’ and I agree that we need to bestow much more autonomy onto people to balance the harms in their life – protection from the virus against personal restriction; the emotional and psychological trauma of isolation and separation against being together with others even if there is a risk in that belonging.

I hear the voices of those who say they cannot cope with the psychological harm caused by measures which restrict their freedom and choice; that they are not prepared to be directed and told anymore.

But this last week in at least two meetings I heard the voices and was moved almost to tears by the stories of isolation and a sense of forgottenness, of felt abandonment and lack of priority that so many with long-term conditions, that so many informal and family carers are feeling at the current time. The newspaper piece by Dr Sally Witcher this last week was a powerful description of that sense of marginalisation and felt discrimination.

It has been a week of lots of voices, lots of conflict and lots of contradiction. By the end of the week as I travelled to meetings yesterday on the train, I had my FFP2 mask back on and I’ve started to test again.

But it is also a week where we saw the publication of the Bill to create The National Care Service. There is a lot to read and its emphasis on co-design and collaborative involvement is good but as with all things the proof will be in the consumption. But to be truthful it’s hard to get overly excited about a future prospect when the present reality is so precarious. I’ll reserve for another time further comment on the NCS but right now as I have described it before it feels like we are enduring a perfect storm – rising Covid cases, a unique recruitment and retention crisis, an energy and fuel cost nightmare, a cost of living breakdown and an inflation rate of 9.1%, together with staff fatigue and breakdown and so on.

There are some levers of influence and change beyond our grasping but why for instance has Scottish Government decided that next Friday they will stop paying social care providers and others sustainability payments for critical tools necessary to ensure infection prevention and the enhanced use of PPE? A fuller statement details our concerns. Timing is everything and during growing Covid community cases, a very fragile sector, and a depleted workforce this is one piece of timing in which is a huge and dangerous miscalculation.

I would dearly love to believe that Covid19 is over, that its threat has so diminished that concern is misplaced and that anxiety is unnecessary and inappropriate – but simply failing to face up to emerging challenge, to address these and to prepare for autumn and winter resurgence, will not result in safety. Pretending threat is not there because you want to get on with other priorities and address other issues and challenges is naïve and dangerous. Simply not talking about Covid will not stop it still impacting on our lives. We cannot stop talking about (and addressing) Covid even if we can about Bruno!

Donald Macaskill