GPs urge government to consider indirect COVID-19 harms in lockdown decisions

The government must give greater consideration to indirect COVID-19 harms when making decisions about ongoing restrictions or risk a 'myriad' of long-term health issues, GPs have warned in a letter to health secretary Matt Hancock.

A COVID-19 information board in Middlesbrough, one of the areas affected by local restrictions (Photo: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
A COVID-19 information board in Middlesbrough, one of the areas affected by local restrictions (Photo: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

The letter, signed by 66 GPs, argued that numbers of COVID-19 deaths can ‘no longer be used as the unilateral measure of harm’.

They say that a ‘one-track response’ to the pandemic could threaten more lives than it saves - highlighting increased acute cardiovascular deaths and rising depression among the shielding population.

The letter also points out that there is a 'concerning signal that child suicide death rates in the UK increased during lockdown' and suggest restriction to education, tensions at home isolation and disruption to care and support services could be contributing factors.

It warns that damage to people's long-term health and wellbeing could outweigh the potential benefits of further lockdown measures. The GPs argue that non-COVID harms need to be 'balanced with ongoing restrictions and infection control'.

'As a group of expert medical generalists, we urgently wish you to consider non-COVID harms and deaths with equal standing as the reported deaths from COVID,' the letter said.

Long-term health

GPs among the signatories include former BMA deputy chair Sir Sam Everington, chair of the National Association of Sessional GPs Dr Richard Fieldhouse, former BMA GP committee chair Dr Laurence Buckman and several GPs with high-profile media careers, including Dr Ellie Canon, Dr Phil Hammond, Dr Rosemary Leonard and Dr Sarah Jarvis.

With numbers of coronavirus cases in the UK continuing to rise, more areas of the country have been subject to tighter lockdown rules. But GPs signing the letter warned of the long-term damage to people's health increased measures could have - insisting the country had reached ‘a critical point'.

‘Restrictions and lockdown have recognised value in pandemic control and we fully supported the first lockdown when little was known about the virus,' the letter said. ‘The position is now transformationally different: after the short, initial lockdown phase, the harms to long-term health and wellbeing begin to outweigh the benefits.

'Now is a critical pivotal point: we must recognise our duty to do no harm.'

The GPs added: ‘COVID deaths alone can no longer be used as the unilateral measures of harm. Public health goes beyond deaths and ICU beds.

‘We do not wish to undermine the seriousness of pandemic management, but the wider harm to babies, children, young people and adults of all ages can no longer be ignored’.

Excess deaths

GPs behind the letter pointed out that a total of 30,260 excess deaths have occured in private homes since March, but less than 1 in 10 were due to COVID-19.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently showed that a fifth of patients on shielding lists say their underlying condition has worsened during the pandemic - with nearly a third unable to access some or all care.

Cancer Research UK also found that around 2.4m patients are waiting longer for cancer tests or treatment because of 'enormous disruption' to services during the coronavirus pandemic.

Surrey GP Dr Martin Burnet, who signed the letter, said that GPs were right to question the government's approaching to dealing with the pandemic. In a post of Twitter he said: 'Very glad to have signed this, we must help get a debate going to question the belief that trying to control the virus must be achieved at all costs, or even can be achieved.'

Devon GP Dr Katie Musgrave, who also signed the letter, said: 'It is good to have GPs views expressed. We are the ones who visit the terrified elderly, locked in their homes. There needs to be a more balanced and pragmatic approach adopted. I am sure we are now damaging many, many more lives than we are saving.'

Expert advice

The BMA recently argued that stronger actions were needed in the short term to drive down cases to lower levels and avoid another national lockdown and its damaging impact on the health service, the economy and education.

A DHSC spokesperson, said: ‘As we have been fighting this virus, the deaths we have seen have been tragic and our deepest sympathies go to the families and loved ones of those who have died.

'Throughout the pandemic the NHS has remained open for urgent care and to help the NHS prepare for winter we have provided an extra £3bn in funding.

‘We have been guided by the advice of experts at every stage of our response and by staying at home and controlling the virus we took the unprecedented yet necessary action that has allowed us to protect the vulnerable and ensure the NHS was not overwhelmed, even at the virus’ peak.’

GPs who signed the letter

  • Dr Ellie Cannon
  • Dr Phil Hammond
  • Sir Sam Everington
  • Dr Rosemary Leonard
  • Dr Sarah Jarvis
  • Dr Laurence Buckman
  • Dr Amir Khan
  • Dr Philippa Kayne
  • Dr Ayan Panja
  • Dr David Mass
  • Dr Jamie Green
  • Dr Sharon Raymond
  • Dr Murray Ellender
  • Dr Arun Ghosh
  • Dr Jamie Hynes
  • Dr Benjamin Bromilow
  • Dr Hannah Redhouse
  • Dr Kartik Modha
  • Dr Priyank Jani
  • Dr Sonali Kinra
  • Dr Stephanie de Giorgio
  • Dr Katie Musgrave
  • Dr Bintu Fashola
  • Dr Kenny Livingstone
  • Dr Martin Brunet
  • Dr Ehsan Alkizwini
  • Dr Birgit Curtis
  • Dr Kevan Ritchie
  • Dr Annie Lynch
  • Dr Satpal Singh Shekhawat
  • Dr Anthony James
  • Dr Sara Kayat
  • Dr Darren Simpson
  • Dr Michael Casey
  • Dr Bella Smith
  • Dr Laurence Gerlis
  • Dr Dan Bernstein
  • Dr Nicole Howse
  • Dr Gita Sunthankar
  • Dr Timothy Sephton
  • Dr Sandra Fenn
  • Dr Joanna Rose
  • Dr Caroline Rance
  • Dr Trefor Roscoe
  • Dr Richard Fieldhouse
  • Dr Catherine Maytum
  • Dr Yvonne Duthie
  • Dr Liz Reddy
  • Dr Adrian Wayne
  • Dr Nick Alexander
  • Dr Jamie Wallis
  • Dr Naomi Beer
  • Dr Neal Tucker
  • Dr Naureen Bhatti
  • Dr Kate Adams
  • Dr Phill Bennett-Richards
  • Dr Selvaseelan Selvarajah
  • Dr Ray Montague
  • Dr Graham Balin
  • Dr Salima Tariq
  • Dr Lina McHugh
  • Dr Phil Whitaker
  • Dr Sam Robinson
  • Dr Marion Mcnab
  • Dr Anna Cumisky
  • Dr Kathy Ryan

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