The British Geriatrics Society (BGS) has published Lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, a report reflecting on the experience of older people and the healthcare professionals supporting them during the pandemic.
Further pandemics are predicted to arise in future and it is likely that those with long-term conditions and frailty will be vulnerable again. This report highlights both the positive and negative aspects of the handling of COVID-19 and draws out ten vital lessons for governments and healthcare organisations.
In early 2020 the World Health Organization Emergency Committee advised that it was still possible to contain the virus, if countries put in place strong measures to detect it early, isolate and treat cases, trace contacts and promote social distancing.i This warning was not heeded and the virus spread rapidly across the UK and most of the world, particularly affecting older people. In the UK, more than 85% of the deaths from COVID occurred in the over-65 age group.
The report highlights how the pandemic exposed weaknesses in the UK healthcare system, from the failure to protect care home residents to the challenges of limiting hospital-acquired infection. Expert advice on the main group vulnerable to COVID-19 – older people – was not sought early enough in the pandemic. Plans for rationing care and treating COVID exposed the limitations in evidence arising from older people not being included in clinical research trials. There were also positive things to come out of the pandemic, including more integrated working and speedy decision-making within the NHS for the good of patients. UK vaccine development demonstrated what properly funded and collaborative science can do, while the quick rollout of the vaccine on the basis of need was highly effective. This was particularly significant for care home residents who had been so neglected at earlier stages of the pandemic.
Members of the BGS were at the forefront of the NHS response to COVID-19, caring for older COVID-19 patients both in hospitals and in the community. Even taking into account their considerable training in end-of-life care, BGS members experienced death on an unprecedented scale and the impact on their mental and emotional wellbeing was significant. Lockdown had a major effect on older people’s wellbeing too, with many reporting feelings of isolation and loneliness, coupled with a decline in physical and mental health. Care home residents were particularly affected by prolonged restrictions on family visiting. This report highlights these psychological effects on both older people and those caring for them.
As the COVID inquiry gets underway, it will be important to acknowledge these important lessons in handling a public health emergency of this scale.
Dr Jennifer Burns, President of the BGS, commented: This report sets out key lessons from how the COVID-19 pandemic was handled, with advice for what could be done differently in terms of older people’s healthcare, should we find ourselves in a similar situation again. We call on Governments and NHS decision-makers across the UK to take heed of the lessons of the last two years, to ensure that avoidable harms are minimized in future pandemics.’