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Coping with divergence: opening up, but not for all

It’s been four months since the start of lockdown in the UK. As the restrictions lift, we are starting to see pubs and shops reopen, people are starting to gather, some cautiously, some less so, and there’s a real drive to get the economy moving again. For those who’ve been furloughed or who’ve been able to work from home, this reopening may feel largely welcome – a chance to see loved ones, to start feeling a bit more normal – and there’s a sense that the threat of Covid-19 (coronavirus) may have passed.

But not everyone feels this way. People working in health and care are telling us that, for them, Covid-19 has far from gone away. The workers people applauded from their doorsteps are still seeing patients who have the virus (though perhaps in smaller numbers), are still taking all the precautions they have been for months, and are still fearful for their own safety and the safety of their loved ones.

For example, one nurse we spoke to described the contrast between the stories she heard in the media of a decline in prevalence of the virus and her own experience of working in intensive care, where the workload seemed unchanged and full personal protective equipment was still required. A doctor told us he barely went out except to work and felt uncomfortable going anywhere likely to have lots of people, as he didn’t trust them to keep to social distancing guidelines.

For others, while work may be returning somewhat to normal, the pandemic still looms large in their lives. A group of workforce leads we spoke to, who’d worked day and night through the peak of the pandemic to ensure that the trusts in their area could keep going through waves of emergency planning and demand for new capacity, told us of their horror at finding people acting as if Covid-19 was yesterday’s news, strolling through shopping malls, queueing for cut-price trainers, with scant regard for social distancing; this struck them as horribly frivolous and reckless as well as disrespectful to those still fighting the disease.

Perhaps this is a necessary divergence – we can’t stay locked down forever, and if we did there would be consequences for the health and wellbeing of the UK’s population from an even greater economic downturn. Indeed, we are already seeing local authorities having to reduce support services due to stretched budgets, and there will be further implications for public services unless people start spending again. And yet, for the people who continue to care for those affected by Covid-19 – who are very much still ‘in the middle’ and likely will be for some time – this divergence may be an additional source of pressure.

Experiences will of course vary from person to person – there will be health and care workers who are also glad to see lockdown rules being relaxed, and people who have had nothing to do with service delivery who may be reluctant to go out after lockdown. Others may feel ambivalent: both wanting to enjoy the summer and the freedoms being offered, and feeling wary about doing so.

For leaders, there is, therefore, a difficult balance to strike between creating a sense of optimism and hope, while at the same time acknowledging that staff and teams may be going through a wide range of responses, just as they have been since the start of the pandemic. The resources we have provided on our Leading through Covid-19 pages speak to some of these conflicts, and we’ve highlighted a few that may be useful to revisit during this liminal period.

Leading through Covid-19

Short resources and shared experiences to offer some help in supporting leaders working in the NHS, social care, public health, local authorities and the voluntary and independent sector.

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