A difficult year – with hope for the future

A joint New Year message from Steve Brown, director of public health Devon County Council and Dr Rob Dyer, NHS medical director for Devon.

Dr Rob Dyer, NHS medical director for Devon Steve Brown, director of public health Devon County Council

A year like no other

It is customary at this time of year to reflect, to look at the last 12-months – and then to look ahead.

This year has certainly been like no other for many of us.

What we expected at the beginning of the year – the usual trials and tribulations of normal times – were suddenly and significantly turned on their head in March.

The worrying images on our TVs screens first from Wuhan in China, then Hong Kong, Russia and then closer to home in Italy, France and elsewhere in Europe, suddenly became very real.

Lockdown, facemasks, social distancing, regular handwashing, Zoom and Teams calls – just 9-months ago terms that were so unfamiliar – entered our everyday.

Many people, including those here in Devon, lost their lives. Our thoughts are with their family and friends and we send our most sincere condolences to all who have suffered the loss of a loved one.

Celebrating essential workers

We have always viewed health and social care staff as essential workers together with the police and fire service, however, we all soon realised, if we hadn’t before, that retail staff, lorry and bus drivers, teachers and others were essential and we celebrated and applauded them all.

We know that there were those who were isolated and lonely, who couldn’t see family as they were in care homes, who lost their jobs and whose lives now are not as they expected.

Opening the Nightingale

Nightingale hospitals were opened – including ours in Exeter. A range of services were established to support those who were “shielding” and we prepared to manage the emerging situation.

And then after months of lockdown, the disease made a temporary retreat, only for it to return in the Autumn for a second wave that even now remains higher than any of us would want.

Delivering the vaccine

In December 91-year-old grandmother Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

Hundreds of thousands of people in the UK have now received it and it is being  rolled out across Devon as soon as we can. The speed of programme depends on vaccine approval and supply, so please be patient – the NHS will let you know when it’s your turn.

Looking forward

As we look towards 2021 there is genuine belief that things are going to get better. A future where we can cuddle our grandchildren, meet our friends and relatives in their houses or at a pub, go out for an evening meal with friends. Get back to some sense of normality.

But we are by no means there yet. The recent announcement that a new fast-spreading strain of the disease has taken hold in London and the South East is a worrying development for us all – including for us here in Devon.

Preparing for the months ahead

It will certainly be at least the spring before the vaccine has a real effect on transmission. And so, there are difficult weeks and months ahead for us all – but especially our health and care services.

January, February and March are usually the most difficult times for the NHS and caring services – but even before we enter Mid winter it’s hard. Many of our staff are very tired. Some wards are full and we have fewer beds so that we can maintain social distancing while people are in in hospital.

During the first wave we were forced to temporarily stand down many planned operations and treatments so that we could prioritise emergency and urgent cases.  We have since restarted routine surgery, taking thousands of people off waiting lists.

We are now looking at how we might reschedule some services again, in case it’s necessary to increase capacity whether that be beds or staff, for those people whose treatments cannot wait and to save lives.

We are already using Nightingale but are planning to increase capacity there if needed. Anyone who is asked to go to the Nightingale Hospital can expect equivalent care that we would all expect in Devon’s other excellent hospitals. Feedback from patients who have been in the hospital is excellent.

As before we would continue non-COVID emergency and urgent appointments.

It is therefore important that if you become unwell or have an urgent but not with a COVID-related illness you seek help and attend any appointments you are asked to do. We are here to care for you in any urgent or emergency situation.

As previously, it may be that we invite you to have your treatment at a hospital or other site that you would not normally expect. We are grateful for your understanding if this were to happen to you.

Help us help you

But just like so many have done before, you will want to help us. How can you do this?

While cases are rising again in all ages groups in Devon and Plymouth, most concerning is rising cases in older people as it is older and more vulnerable people who are likely to suffer the most from COVID-19.

This means that it is vitally important that whatever you are doing over the festive period, you continue to follow Tier 2 rules. Act as if you have the virus.

Now that there is a fast-spreading variant, we cannot afford to lower our guard. It is that simple. Remember ‘Hands, Space, Face’ and do not take any risks.

Failing to follow the guidance means someone’s grandparent or mother, someone’s son or daughter could be admitted to hospital. What you do directly affects others.

And what happens over the festive break if you are feeling ill or have been injured, but it’s not life-threatening and you are not sure what to do? Even if you think you need to go to A&E, call 111 first or visit 111.nhs.uk

So, our message to you in many ways is a traditional one. Take care, think of others. And thank you.

We have come so far. Let’s now prepare for the coming few months, so we can get through them together and look ahead to a happier, healthier year ahead.