The chairman of the doctors’ union has reflected on the “unimaginable” loss of life from Covid-19, as he paid tribute to the hundreds of healthcare workers among more than 100,000 dead.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, a GP practising in north London and chairman of the British Medical Association (BMA) council, said lessons must be learned to prevent more “excessive” deaths from occurring, and that the world needed to prepare for another “inevitable” pandemic.
His comments come as new figures from the UK’s statistics authorities show there have now been 108,084 deaths where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, with 98,450 in England and Wales plus 2,186 in Northern Ireland up to January 15, and 7,448 in Scotland up to January 17.
Meanwhile, the Government’s preferred measure, those dying within 28 days of a positive test, is likely to reach the grim milestone on Tuesday or Wednesday when fresh data is published.
In reality the true death toll, based on the latest death certificate figures plus deaths known to have occurred more recently, has reached nearly 116,000.
The UK has one of the worst fatality rates in the world. According to Johns Hopkins University, only four other countries have recorded more than 100,000 deaths – the US, Brazil, India and Mexico – all of which have much larger populations than Britain.
To remember those who have died, the BMA projected a message on to its headquarters in Tavistock Square, in Bloomsbury, London, with the message “we will never forget”.
Speaking to the PA news agency, Dr Nagpaul said: “The projection at BMA house is a moment to pause and reflect on the tragic loss of life that has wreaked havoc on our nation from this dreadful disease.
“This time last year it would have been unimaginable that we would have lost more than 100,000 people from a new virus in the space of just 11 months.
“It’s sometimes hard to comprehend what these statistics mean, but behind each number is a real person – a parent, a child, a friend who has left behind grieving loved ones.”
He said more than 600 healthcare workers have died after contracting Covid-19, many of whom were from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) populations and from overseas.
Describing the huge physical and emotional toll on frontline NHS workers, he said: “Doctors that I represent have had to be on the bedsides of those on the last days of life on ventilators, holding smartphones and iPads so that patients can communicate with their loved ones as they’re struggling to stay alive.
“That’s an unimaginable situation that none of us ever thought would be part of our professional lives.
“In some cases we’ve had doctors caring for their own colleagues on a ventilator or intensive care bed, junior doctors trying to keep their consultants, who’ve been training them, alive.”
He said that while the vaccine rollout offers some hope, it will be “several months” before the UK sees an end in sight.
Asked what the death toll is an indictment of, Dr Nagpaul said: “There’s no doubt that the UK having such excessive levels of deaths compared to other nations is a cause of concern.
“We will need to, at some stage, look at this properly, understand the reasons why, but, most importantly, learn the lessons of how we can be best prepared in the future so that if we do have another pandemic, which is almost inevitable, we cannot repeat what has happened now and do much better.”
Doctors are “extremely worried” about the surge in infection, Dr Nagpaul said, as he called on the Government to provide enhanced personal protective equipment (PPE).
“The virus is now so much more transmissible and we now believe is so much more deadly,” he added.
“Because doctors and healthcare workers cannot stay at home, they go out, they’re looking after patients at close proximity, they’re at risk of infection, they’re calling for proper protection.”
Dr Nagpaul implored the public to stay at home and even advised people who cannot work from home to avoid having conversations with colleagues.
“Just because they’re familiar doesn’t mean that you can let down your guard and have a conversation with a work colleague thinking that they’re safe or you’re safe,” he said.
He also urged the BAME population to take up the vaccine, after recent news emerged that certain ethnic minority groups were hesitant about getting vaccinated.
And Richard Murray, chief executive of The King’s Fund, said a public inquiry would be needed to determine “what went wrong” with the UK’s response to Covid-19.
He said: “This time last year it would be almost impossible to believe that a wealthy island nation with a universal healthcare system would go on to have one of the highest death tolls from the emerging coronavirus pandemic.
“The pandemic has had a grossly disproportionate impact on poorer communities and ethnic minority groups.
“Many forms of inequality have widened during the pandemic, so reducing inequalities should be at the heart of the Government’s post-Covid recovery plans.
Sam Royston, director of policy at end of life charity Marie Curie, said families were grieving in “most challenging” of circumstances and that society was “ill-prepared” to respond to death on such a vast scale.
He said: “Too many people facing bereavement over the last year have not received the practical and emotional support that they need. In some cases they have not even been told about support available.
“The Government urgently needs to ensure that support for bereavement services for everyone affected by the pandemic is always available for anyone who needs it.”
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