Elin Jones writes: “When the going gets tough…”

Elin Jones, Life President, Hafal

It is in a crisis that people show their true natures, and we see the real worth of any institution too. In this coronavirus crisis the courage and self-sacrifice of health service staff have earned them the admiration and the gratitude of every one of us. They are working ridiculously long hours and risking their own health in order to help us. It is wonderful to see that so many of the public are volunteering to help them too. Their willingness to share the load – and the danger – says so much about them and about our gratitude as a society to NHS workers.

How different seems to be the response of the government. At the best of times they show a shameful unwillingness to give health service workers the things they need, be these a proper wage or expensive drugs and equipment. But these are the worst times I remember, and now doctors and nurses are begging for basic safety equipment to use when caring for patients with coronavirus.

Health service workers need more than empty words of praise from the government now. They need the government to give them the essentials: personal protective equipment and tests for the virus. This storm has been gathering for months. We have the evidence from previous epidemics and pandemics to inform us. Once a new disease is amongst us, we have to use every weapon we have to lessen its effects – nothing can stop it. Why then didn’t the Welsh government or Westminster remember their lessons and prepare adequately?

Providing the virus test for health service staff would mean they would know if they really need to isolate themselves for the protection of others, or whether they were healthy, and able to carry on with their vital work. Even more importantly they would find out too whether they had developed an immunity to the virus. As things are, NHS workers are expected to carry on doing their life-saving work in ignorance and fear – which only increases the terrible strain on them.

As I write these words, it is the images of doctors and nurses at work in general hospitals that are in my mind’s eye. But there are invisible patients in our society too, and doctors and nurses caring for them. The situation in prisons and care homes gets some attention,  but I have seen little reference to the mental health hospitals or to the loneliness and fear of those patients who live at home and depend on the help and advice of mental health nurses. Many of these invisible patients live in a nightmare every day of the year. Now they see those nightmares become real in the empty streets, the masks on people’s faces, the closed shops and surgeries – and the friends and neighbours apparently avoiding them. If the medical staff of our hospitals aren’t getting the essential tests and equipment, what chance do mental health staff have?  Are they as invisible as those in their care?

Many mental health patients depend on the help of charities like Hafal. As the President and former Chair of Hafal, and as a former carer, I know from experience how dedicated and hard-working our staff are.  It appals me to think that they too are caring for patients without safety equipment or tests. Without such tests, a nurse cannot know whether a patient is suffering from the virus, or from an attack of paranoia. Even people who are entirely healthy in every respect can suffer from  health-related panic.

But there is one group of people who are fortunate enough to get tested promptly and to receive the best of care. If some patients and their carers are invisible, the royal family is on every front page. Prince Charles and his wife were tested promptly for the virus, and, once it showed that he was infected, off they went to self-isolate in one of their homes in Scotland. Yes, one of their homes. Footballers like Wilfried Zaha are offering accommodation to NHS staff. The royal family have a superabundance of homes, and are amongst the richest people in Britain. What sacrifices have they made in this crisis? What, apart from their names, have they given to the hospitals? What, apart from words, have they given to the NHS?