Justine Hodgkinson, CEO, Advocacy Focus.

One of the most worrisome legacies of shielding and self-isolation during lockdown has been the impact on people due to limited preventative care and support. The key people and services who do so much, often in the background.  Health Visitors for example, whose main focus is to improve outcomes for children and families. Visiting homes and quietly assessing whether a child is progressing through their ‘ages and stages’ and hitting their speech and language milestones, whilst observing the all-important family dynamic.  As COVID-19 took hold, so many of these key professionals were re-deployed or removed from the front line to stop the spread of the virus.

Gone were the lifelines for new mums, who were struggling to bond with their baby, or finding it hard to breastfeed.  The universal source of support for families, which had been in place for so long, diminished. Babies being born into a lockdown world and additional pressures on parents to get it right from the get-go.  No trips out with baby to their usual social support circles.  No rule book for navigating parenting during a global pandemic.

And if one partner is less than supportive – well – a health visitor can spot the signs of a relationship breaking down. The wave of domestic abuse during lockdown will, for some, create emotional, physical, and social scars that will last a lifetime. Children will have been subjected to abuse, will have witnessed violence, or have been trapped within an unsafe home.  The usual school safeguards gone and replaced with Deliveroo drivers, trained to spot the signs and symptoms of abuse.

COVID-19 has been impactful in so many ways. This realisation has not escaped us, particularly those of us working in health and social care. There are those who have lost loved-ones and have faced the trauma of not being able to say goodbye, or perform the usual religious rituals.

‘Online funerals’ being the norm when people’s health, geographical location or social distancing measures, meant they could not say goodbye in the traditional way and mourn the loss of their most treasured people.  Grief often manifesting itself in anger.

Many people were afraid to visit their GP or go to hospital because they were worried that they would catch Coronavirus. And we are now hearing that delayed cancer diagnosis and treatment could lead to between 7,000 and 35,000 deaths in the UK within the year.  Because routine screenings, urgent referrals and treatments were delayed or cancelled.

The nation went online during lockdown – it had to.  Working from home was the ‘new normal’, but this was dependent on having good Wi-Fi access and the right equipment to continue working. As demand increased with so many people working remotely, internet connection dropped. Office chats and lunchtime get-togethers between colleagues became a distant memory; the social aspect of work, lost. People who had always worked were furloughed, redundancies were to follow.  Livelihoods and businesses disappeared overnight.

We have known for some time that systemic problems in health and social care disproportionately affect certain groups of people.  From Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities, people with learning disabilities, people with mental health conditions, living on low incomes, or with low digital skills. But COVID-19 brought this into clear focus.

Advocacy Focus plays a vital role in helping people to live the lives they want to live. Our advocates help people to hold on tightly to their basic human rights and dignity, sometimes when they are at absolute rock bottom.

By being there for the person, independent of health and social care, they provide a unique lifeline in our communities. Our team found ‘workarounds’ and new ways to keep in touch with people, despite lockdown restrictions. They knew that at a time when we had to isolate, connection was more crucial than ever.  We were lucky we could continue to do that when so many keyworkers were not able to. The lifting of lockdown has enabled us to announce it is ‘business as usual’, and we will continue to work hard to tackle what is happening in our communities and plan future change with our partners. Whatever that looks like and whatever we find.

Lockdown has undoubtedly offered opportunities to look at life through a new lens, but it has not been without its challenges and personal tragedies. It is a little like taking down the shutters in a seaside town which has been closed over a long, hard winter – you do not really know what state it will be in until they are removed. 

Many members of our community have been hidden away, invisible and alone. Protected from a virus, but exposed and vulnerable to so many other things. 

Over time we will come to understand what this really means and how to rebuild.  At the start of lockdown, we saw how people were ‘in this together’, standing on doorsteps clapping for keyworkers and our NHS.  Those are pretty good foundations on which to build, are they not? So it’s time to pull down the shutters, roll up our sleeves, and re-open our community for living more fully once again.

Because love it or hate it, we truly are in this together.