Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
In an interview with Channel 4 News on February 10th, Conservative MP Sir Charles Walker stated that: ‘We cannot cancel life to preserve every life’. This was in response to Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, warning people against booking summer holidays, something which Sir Walker believes has robbed people of hope that they desperately need. He has argued that national lockdowns designed to stop the spread of COVID-19 have endangered the public’s mental health, and that continued restrictions were unnecessary thanks to the vaccine.
At the time of the interview, 13.5 million people had received their first dose of the vaccine, but on that same day, 13,537 also tested positive for COVID-19, and 604 people died of it. Deaths peaked at 1360 on January 19th, before Sir Walker voted against further restrictions with 15 others.
Many of these cases and deaths were completely avoidable, the Eat Out to Help Out scheme in August and September caused as many as 17% of new COVID-19 infections. Add to this the first lockdown being eased prematurely, a delayed second lockdown, and the disaster that was Christmas. If people had not been encouraged or allowed to mix, perhaps the UK would not still be dealing with COVID-19, and we would not have the 5th highest number of deaths in the world. Sir Walker’s comments that people should be given hope and be allowed to go on as normal are dangerous, and lockdown restrictions need to continue for as long as is necessary. Yet, he raises questions about the impact of lockdown on our mental health, as well as how we prioritise mental health against physical health.
According to the Office for National Statistics, anxiety was far above pre-lockdown levels. People’s satisfaction and happiness were at a record low around the time of the interview, and in August depression among young adults and women had doubled. During the first lockdown, the Royal College of Psychiatrists found that 43% of psychiatrists saw an increase in urgent and emergency cases, 45% also reported a fall in routine appointments, and the charity Mind found that for a fortnight in April 2020, 1/4 of people who attempted to access mental health services did not receive any help.
Sir Walker suffers from OCD, and has spoken in Parliament about the need to tackle mental health alongside the physical effects of COVID. The Budget announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak on March 3rd did address some issues. With £10m to support veterans mental health needs, as well as an extension to furlough and the Universal Credit uplift which should help tackle some of the causes. However, Mind said the measures ‘fall far short of what is needed’, and the ‘chronically underfunded mental health services’ must receive government investment ‘alongside wider social issues.’
Sir Walker’s anti-lockdown position has been associated with the equally dangerous opinions of fellow Conservative MP Sir Desmond Swayne, who believed NHS figures were manipulated to exaggerate COVID-19, and endorsed an anti-vaccine group. Or with the DUP MP Sammy Wilson, who opposed the new restrictions because they had failed in the past (while ignoring the fact they had been mishandled), and were a threat to ‘businesses… jobs… education… the national debt… and remove basic liberties.’
To end lockdown prematurely for any reason, mental health included, will have the same unnecessary result: more cases, more deaths, and a longer pandemic. This would have a devastating impact on mental health. Therefore, to tackle the growing mental health crisis, more effort must be put into making services more available to those who need them, services that have declined over the last decade.