A watershed moment

Through the stress and upheaval of COVID-19, working and personal lives are being changed forever. London GP Alice Bell gives The Doctor her account of coping with a pandemic and what it means for her, her family and the world’s future

Location: UK
Published: Friday 15 January 2021
alice  bell

As a GP, I would have expected to see a great many changes to my working life during the coronavirus pandemic.

However, having spent the entire period to date on maternity leave, I have been viewing some aspects of the pandemic from the sidelines, whilst experiencing other aspects first-hand.

I have not been part of the systemic changes within the NHS and have not witnessed the rationing of healthcare that has occurred at the cost of coronavirus: the stalled cancer referrals, and indeed all hospital referrals.

I have, however, been able to experience lockdown as patients have, looking after two children, for a portion of it only being able to leave the house for an hour at a time with them, and crucially, at its peak, not knowing the end point.

Having replaced the rigid routines of daily GP surgeries and meetings with the daily routines of early parenthood, the indefinite nature of lockdown proved quite challenging.

In March, when my social media was rife with pictures from Lombardy intensive care units with patients ventilated prone, and fellow doctors advising us to beware as this was coming to the UK, the sense of panic was palpable.

Initial panic

My husband, who is also a doctor, was pulled off his research into a central London teaching hospital that was acting as a super-surge centre. There was a definite sense of war spirit and a dawning realisation that our lives were about to change.

Among clapping for carers, rationed pasta, and rainbows appearing at every home’s window, he started to go into work, while I stayed at home. The sense of panic and fear within us dissipated on his return from the wards, as the known enemy appeared less scary than the media portrayal which seemed to play heavily on fear.

A calm can-do attitude permeated with the understanding that this condition offered no diagnostic uncertainty, that there was only one treatment available at the time, and that this sometimes failed despite the best efforts of all staff involved.

I was very conscious of a dilemma within me
Alice Bell

As the pandemic and lockdown unfurled, I was very conscious of a dilemma within me: I had skills which could be useful in this pandemic, but I was choosing to remain at home.

With a young baby, nursery closures, and a second child to look after, I made the decision to continue my maternity leave as planned, to allow myself to be part of a refreshed workforce in time for a possible second wave.

Admittedly, one might feel I am fortunate to not have worked during the pandemic and to not have been on the front line when some were, and others tragically lost their lives.

Part of me does regret that I will never be able to say that I was there when the seismic shifts within our healthcare system took place and when the well-oiled cogs of the gargantuan machine suddenly slowed and changed gear.

Opportunity for change

The other part of me, the mother, feels grateful that I was able to look after and protect my family during this time. But as a woman, I felt frustrated that I was having to choose between caring for my family and doing a job for which I have trained for years.

Sometimes a crisis becomes an opportunity for change. The pandemic has accelerated the progression of telemedicine and other integrated technology, but let us not forget the recent challenges that the medical profession faced even before the pandemic muddied the water: chronic underfunding of the NHS; an undermining of professional identity among doctors after the imposition of the junior doctor contract; and the loss of trust from patients that we all felt after Harold Shipman.

We will feel the repercussions for years to come
Alice Bell

As we now face the prospect of local lockdowns and more restrictions, and I face the prospect of returning to work, there is a dawning realisation that we will all feel the repercussions of this pandemic in our personal and professional lives for years, possibly decades, to come.

The road ahead is fraught with anxieties. Let us hope the positives that have come out of the pandemic can continue to be borne out despite the inevitable economic downturn, the need to raise taxes and to continue austerity to fund the Government bailout schemes.

We must brace ourselves for the increased health needs of a population who have been unable to maintain their chronic health conditions, their mental health, and their worrying cancerous growths, whilst together we all adjust to the new normal way of life. 

Alice Bell is a GP in London