Though the evidence base is still evolving it is clear that those most profoundly affected by the pandemic, either directly or indirectly, are those who already face significant health challenges. Changes in lifestyle as a result of lockdown and social distancing measures have been felt by many but are most acute amongst shielded groups. A new study co-led led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, has found that a disproportionate number of adults with chronic diseases, such as obesity, hypertension and lung disease, reduced their physical activity levels during the first weeks of the UK COVID-19 lockdown. This not only has long term implications but could further increase their susceptibility to COVID-19 and negatively affect their prognosis if they were to become infected.
It is not just the most vulnerable that we should think about when it comes to good wellbeing. There is the very real prospect that many more people will develop long term mental and physical health problems as a result of changes to their lifestyle in response to COVID-19, with emerging data showing some worrying trends in relation to mental health, diet and physical activity.
It is not all doom and gloom. COVID-19 has presented some enormous challenges but it may also offer some unique opportunities to elevate the conversation about health and wellbeing. There is evidence to suggest that COVID-19 has raised people’s awareness of their own wellbeing and helped to alter their decisional balance, shifting people from contemplation to preparation, and from preparation to action. The BMJ recently highlighted a study co-produced by the stop smoking charity Ash and YouGov which suggests as many as 300,000 smokers may have quit during the lockdown, with a further 550,000 trying to quit and more 2.4m cutting down.
Similarly a survey by the charity, Alcohol Change UK, indicates that through lockdown as many as a third of UK adults have reduced how much they drink compared to a fifth that have increased consumption.
Health has always been a universal issue that people can relate to but it is my view that COVID-19 has heightened people’s awareness of their own wellbeing in a way that no public health campaign or intervention has ever managed to. I believe that this will be a critical juncture for all of us in terms of our long term health, particularly those that are most vulnerable. Boris Johnson’s own experience of COVID-19, and subsequent departure from a non-interventionist stance on obesity being perhaps the most high-profile example of this.
Public health is often considered a local authority responsibility but I believe that it should be an issue that transcends organisational boundaries in the same way that we would view child or adult safeguarding. One the main attractions of joining MPFT was its forward thinking outlook when it comes to health and wellbeing, with my role and an ambitious long term corporate strategy being the obvious manifestations of this.
With the scale of its operation and the breadth of its services, MPFT is uniquely placed to seize this opportunity and make a huge contribution to improving the wellbeing of the people and communities that we work with. The question we have to ask ourselves is, if we can’t elevate our thinking and action on health and wellbeing now, then when will we?
With that in mind, now might be the right time to start the conversation with our friends, family, colleagues and our communities and patients about their wellbeing.