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Influencing the pandemic response

This article is one of a short series looking at how the RCP has worked with, for and on behalf of its fellows and members during the pandemic.

COVID-19 has presented huge challenges for RCP members and fellows, and their colleagues. When it began, they suddenly faced a dramatically increased workload as they cared for patients in unfamiliar, difficult and distressing circumstances, while also not always being able to get the protection for themselves that they needed.

Having obtained real-time insights, including through a series of surveys, the RCP took members’ concerns to the highest levels of government, on issues such as provision of PPE, risk assessments and testing, and later the need for time off. This effort was underpinned by media work, which saw the RCP’s profile raised and enhanced as never before. 

Expertise within its Medical Workforce Unit enabled the RCP to conduct nine member surveys between April 2020 and March 2021. Each attracted high-profile media coverage, including five national newspaper front pages. The survey results were cited at Prime Minister’s Questions and in meetings with ministers , select committees and all-party parliamentary groups. The results,  brought to life with infographics from the RCP’s in-house design team, were shared in the president’s bulletin, on the RCP website and through Facebook Live Q&As and other social media.

For the first survey, the media team worked with the Sunday Times, which published the results on its front page and in a leader on 5 April, highlighting that one in five doctors was off work. The figure was three times that cited by Matt Hancock, the then Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, in a Sky News interview.

When our second survey, on 27 April, showed shortages of PPE worsening rather than improving, coverage included front page lead stories in the Independent and Daily Mail, which also published a comment piece from RCP president Andrew Goddard. The findings were used by Rachel Reeves, Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and the Scottish National Party in response to a Commons statement by Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Next day, Sir Keir Starmer, Leader of the Opposition, highlighted members’ ongoing concerns about PPE. He quoted the survey and comments from Andrew Goddard to Dominic Raab, First Secretary of State, during Prime Minister’s Questions. This followed the RCP providing a briefing to Jonathan Ashworth, Shadow Health Secretary.

The Medical Workforce Unit analysed responses to the third survey from members of different ethnic origins. The results, published on 18 May, showed that over three-quarters of ethnic minority doctors feared they would contract COVID-19. We again achieved strong media coverage, in the Guardian, Times, Daily Telegraph and Sun, and in The Voice. National Health Executive noted that the results of the RCP’s three surveys were “successfully building up a more detailed picture of the workforce, impacts on it and its continuing concerns around COVID-19”.

The media team worked with the Daily Mail for the fifth survey and secured another front-page on 5 August, shedding light on the true extent of harm suffered during lockdown by patients with conditions other than COVID-19. The Times, Sun, BBC Radio 4 and LBC Radio also covered the results.

The president was interviewed live on BBC Breakfast on 26 September about the sixth survey and wrote an opinion piece for the BMJ, highlighting that it was getting harder for hospital doctors to get COVID-19 tests quickly.

Concern was growing at the start of 2021 for the wellbeing of members after 9 months of dealing with COVID-19. The eighth survey, in January, looked at mental health, and the ninth, a month later, at sleep. The policy and campaigns team met with Helen Whately, Social Care Minister, and discussed the findings of both, as well as sharing them with all MPs.

National and local newspapers, magazines, and dozens of broadcast outlets reported that almost one in five respondents to the eighth survey had sought informal mental health support during the pandemic, while one in ten had sought formal support. The media also reported that almost half of respondents to the ninth survey were not getting enough sleep, and almost two thirds said there had been no discussion in their organisation about timetabled time off.

These last two surveys contributed to a national narrative, with the Minister and the NHS’s Chief People Officer among those talking about enabling health staff to have time to recover from the pandemic.

The RCP’s surveys have not just enabled it to push hard on issues of most concern to members, but also to urge others to do so. They include the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, which recommended COVID-19 testing be available to frontline workers and their households as a priority, reflecting the RCP’s oral evidence to their inquiry.