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From clap to slap


As we approach the anniversary of our first national lockdown, it’s hard not to reflect on the year we have endured. As one person put it: ‘30 days hath September… but February has 10,204’.

Earlier lockdowns last year were associated with sunshine, daffodil walks, rainbow stickers in windows and adulation for the NHS. There was an atmosphere of hope and everyone was united in the same purpose. The public came out every Thursday evening to show their support for the NHS, with pots and pans and, on occasion, entire street orchestras.

Despite being among the only people with secure jobs, NHS staff were offered free coffees, pizza and clothing discounts, while all around us businesses were struggling to stay afloat. Doctors were the new rock stars, and although GPs knew we were just the backing singers, we were happy to be swept along on the tide of admiration.

The first six weeks of 2021 have seen more than a third of the total number of Covid deaths to date, yet the public doesn’t seem as understanding of the need to lock down this time round. The paused complaints from last year are coming in thick and fast to primary care and this reflects the general discontent and despair prevalent in society. This melancholy has also increased the perception of pain, and a large proportion of my calls relate to emotional distress and restlessness, masquerading as physical malaise.

And as with many people elevated to a divine pedestal, we have been toppled in the blink of an eye. Maybe hospital doctors are still seen as the courageous frontline generals in the war against the virus, but this no longer extends to GPs. Indeed, to some, we are drug barons of a toxic vaccine, messengers of death, barriers to face-to-face consultation.

The mistrust of the Government among the public – especially the minority ethnic public – has in some cases diffused into mistrust for doctors and scientists. So, it’s hardly surprising that our claps have fizzled out and been replaced with slaps. The public’s earlier devotion was short lived. Dialogues previously littered with gratitude and apologies for bothering us are now peppered with expletives, and demands are more unrealistic than in pre-pandemic times. The drive to ‘protect the NHS’  has been replaced by people’s desire to protect their own kingdom (and mental health).

Even now, as we vaccinate our most vulnerable patients at lightning speed, we need to be circumspect about any celebrity status conferred by our role in the vaccine programme, as it could have the same dire consequences faced by George Michael or Caroline Flack. Groupthink is polarised and does not see the grey, or relate to individual failures.

I was always wary about the hero worship during this pandemic, when I know the real heroes are the ones who have been quietly toiling, propping up their small businesses through the many years of financial and workforce crisis. But that sort of heroism is never acknowledged.

Dr Shaba Nabi is a GP trainer in Bristol

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