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December 16, 2021
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Presidential Blog – The Season of Goodwill

Prof. Jim McManus, President, Association of Directors of Public Health

The coming weeks are a period for reconnecting with loved ones and reflecting on the year. A common theme at this time of year is a reminder of goodwill – for our families, friends, communities and our world. When the debate around COVID-19 sometimes feels so fractious, divisive and angry, a season of goodwill – wishing others good as we journey through this pandemic – is timely. And it needs to be year-round.

This is also a time when people practice extra acts of care for others, from donations to charities to feeding people who would be isolated or homeless over this period. 

This year, there are two extra things we can all do to demonstrate our compassion for each other. The first is to book or grab a jab, whether that’s a first, second or third primary dose or booster dose. The second is to think about the situations where you could pick up or pass on COVID-19, and how you could reduce that risk as an act of compassion to others. If you are going to socialise, how will you do that safely?  What other social interaction will you reduce? What measures like testing, masking and ventilation will you use to reduce your risk? It is a matter of when, not if, we encounter someone who we could infect or could infect us. How do we reduce that, especially if people around us are vulnerable? 

One thing we learnt from HIV is that you need to actively consider and manage how you reduce your risk. And that’s a task for the long term. It is the combination of different measures, each insufficient on their own, that will see us through. There is no magic bullet. Masking, vaccination and testing as well as fresh air all play a part in different circumstances.

The four UK CMOs have outlined how the new Omicron variant is spreading much faster than Delta and that vaccine protection is reduced – this means the Get Boosted Now campaign is critical. Data on severity will become clearer in the weeks ahead, however hospitalisations from Omicron are occurring now and these will increase rapidly. 

Directors of Public Health (DsPH) are determined to work hand in glove with NHS, local government, third sector and other colleagues to support the national mission of offering a booster to every adult in the UK. The aim is clear – preventing hospitalisations and deaths and keeping society, education and the economy functioning.

This is my first blog as ADPH President. I was going to write about priorities but, given the seriousness of the current situation, I want to offer three areas of focus on COVID-19 for the next few months.

Before that, as many cultures do at New Year, I want to offer two things to jettison. The junk science of ‘let it rip through’ needs ditching. Let’s throw out the view that this is an illness that affects only the old and vulnerable. The idea that the individual has no responsibility to others in their communities must have no place in a pandemic, especially when it suggests others matter less. It fundamentally undermines the message of this season – that our inclusion of and care for vulnerable citizens is a mark of our humanity and civilisation, or lack of it. Living safely with COVID-19 means each protects their neighbour, ensuring everyone can live safely, not just those who think they are fit and healthy. 

So, to the areas of focus:

Firstly, we must remember what we have learnt about the messages and measures that work. This is a new variant but the same old tools work against it: washing our hands, wearing a face covering in crowded and indoor settings, allowing fresh air into buildings, working from home where possible and undertaking regular testing, especially prior to socialising. The CMO’s advice to prioritise which social gatherings matter most to you and your family is sensible and we echo it. DsPH are committed to redoubling our efforts to communicate clear and consistent messages at every opportunity and to model this behaviour ourselves. 

Whilst we welcome the introduction of Plan B, we must recognise evidence on Omicron is still emerging and further action may well be needed. The pace of transmission is deeply worrying and, as we have learnt during previous phases of the pandemic, acting too slowly or too timidly can be the riskier path.

Secondly, speed and scale are often the watchwords used to describe the vaccination programme. We believe there should be a third – equity. The focus of the booster programme is understandably on ensuring all adults receive it as soon as possible, and everyone involved is doing a phenomenal job. However, nobody wants vaccination efforts to inadvertently widen inequalities, leading to certain groups and communities being overrepresented in hospitalisations and deaths. This is where the role of local government is so valuable – we know our communities and we’ll do whatever we can to ensure vaccination centres are in places which make booking or grabbing a jab simple and quick, with a particular focus on deprived and diverse groups. We should never blame communities for being ‘hard to reach’, we must keep engaging, keep trying, keep adapting our approach and keep making the case that vaccinations are safe and effective. 

Finally, ADPH has advocated a ‘team of teams approach’ throughout the pandemic. We continue to do so. Every single person in the country is part of the team. DsPH have seen the best of our communities during the pandemic – we will only make it through this coming wave by pulling together and mobilising capabilities and capacity wherever these exist. Local councils and their public health teams have a huge contribution to make in ensuring the vaccination and booster programmes are effective and equitable. We are redeploying staff to support this endeavour; however, resources are stretched, and we urge the Government to work with us to ensure we can play our full part. We also need to ensure that loss of income is not a barrier to self-isolation and that businesses can make it through the difficult weeks ahead. Nobody wants a situation where protecting our communities is hampered by a lack of resources, either in the short or longer term. I want to end by offering my heartfelt thanks to DsPH and local public health teams for their professionalism, compassion and sheer doggedness during 2021. It is a pleasure and a privilege for me to have the opportunity to serve as ADPH President. The weeks and months ahead represent yet another huge challenge for us and our communities, I know we can - and will - rise to the task together.  

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