A year of Covid: Six ways the pandemic has hit services
- Credit: Mick Howes
A whole host of sectors and services are buckling under the weight of the pandemic. Here are some of the ways that the virus has changed the lives of people in Norfolk and Waveney.
Delays in routine surgeries
As hospitals across the country scrambled to deal with the first wave, most routine surgery was put on hold, with growing numbers of patients facing waits of up to a year for operations.
In all, 9,381 patients had been waiting for at least a year for an operation in Norfolk and West Suffolk by the end of December, up from just 194 in March 2020. The numbers peaked in November, when almost 15,000 patients had been holding on for at least a year.
Carly Cleveland, 32, was one of the patients facing an agonising wait for surgery to treat her endometriosis, a painful condition that affects the uterus.
In January she told this newspaper she was worried the delay might mean she wouldn't be able to have any more children.
“It’s had such a big impact on my family’s mental health,” she added.
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In January, Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) chief executive Sam Higginson warned the backlog would not start to clear before March.
To help fix the backlog, the government has pledged to "bust bureaucracy" in the NHS with plans that would see England's major hospital trusts and clinical commissioning groups split into 42 boards to control all local health services with one budget for each area.
Speaking to the Independent last month NHS England medical director, professor Stephen Powis, denied that the NHS was a "Covid-only service".
"For every Covid patient in hospital, the NHS is treating three people for other conditions - and it is obviously a disservice to the work done by our staff who have kept services going throughout the pandemic to suggest otherwise," he added.
Delays in cancer treatment
The number of people being referred for cancer treatment dipped dramatically in Norfolk and Waveney, from 569 referrals in March last year to 303 by the end of May – a fall of almost 50pc.
By the end of December, 444 patients were referred for cancer treatment by their GPs. Though an improvement, this was still a fifth lower than before the pandemic. It led to fears that cancer was going undiagnosed as people were too fearful to come forward.
Cancer treatment waiting times also took a hit last year.
Last year Amy Parkins from Norwich described getting the news that she had breast cancer during the pandemic.
Though she was seen within the NHS's target waiting time, Ms Parkins said the wait for treatment was “terrifying”, with the crisis meaning she didn't see the faces of her doctors for months.
“Even though I know why it has to be like that, it makes an already surreal and terrifying experience feel very impersonal," she added.
Ms Parkin has now had four rounds of chemotherapy and underwent surgery just before the winter lockdown.
"Things are going well," she said. "I just feel so incredibly lucky that I've received all of my treatment on time, with no delays.
"I was so lucky to get the surgery I needed just before we went into lockdown again, because otherwise I don't think it would have gone ahead."
At the NNUH 49pc of all cancer patients waited for more than two months to start treatment after being referred by a GP in December – up from 38pc in March.
Last year Norfolk hospital bosses said getting cancer treatment services back to pre-Covid levels was a priority.
All three emergency Norfolk hospitals increased surgery capacity lists and said they were supporting cancer patients.
Rise in Universal Credit claimants
The more deprived areas of Norfolk and Waveney are bearing the brunt of the virus fallout.
By the end of 2020 the number of people claiming Universal Credit (UC) was more than double the number seen in January in some parts of Norfolk and Waveney.
Norwich saw the number of claimants rise from 6,498 in January to 15,013 by December – an increase of 131pc.
Labour city councillor for Norwich's Town Close ward, Karen Davis, said there was a rise in middle-class people needing help.
“For the first time we’re seeing people that the government would see as aspiring, middle class types who are in this situation", she said in February.
The numbers of people claiming UC in King's Lynn and West Norfolk rose from 4,490 to 10,954. In Breckland it grew from 4,383 to 9,488.
South Norfolk also saw claimant numbers rise from 3,182 to 6,835.
Meanwhile in Great Yarmouth, the number of people claiming Universal Credit grew from 9,204 to 13,904 between January and December.
The court system effectively ground to a halt in March last year, and jury trials have been badly affected by social distancing measures since the courts reopened their doors for hearings in June.
Data from the Ministry of Justice for Norfolk crown courts shows a 40pc rise in the number of cases yet to be heard. There were 1,752 outstanding cases at the end of the third quarter of 2020 – the latest data available – compared to 1,257 the year before.
The type of crimes in the backlog are among the most serious, despite efforts to move more serious offences to the front of the queue.
The number violent offences in the backlog grew by 53pc between 2019 and 2020, while the number of sexual offences in the queue increased by 78pc. Meanwhile, the number of possession of weapons cases soared by 135pc.
But while lawyers have warned they don’t expect to see the impact of Covid lessen for up to five years, they also stressed that there was a huge backlog even before the virus shut courts.
Michelle Brown, 28, from Norwich, survived a horrific sex attack in May 2017.
But due to repeated court delays her attacker, 52-year-old Gary Nathan of Pottergate, was not sentenced until 500 days later.
“At the time I just couldn’t manage anything,” said Ms Brown last month. “I couldn’t start recovering. I couldn’t go to work, I just couldn’t cope.
“With the impact of lockdown causing further delays, I just can’t imagine the amount of suffering that people are going through."
Criminal defence lawyer and director of Belmores Solicitors in Norwich, Simon Nicholls, said the cause of delays was “decades of cuts to the criminal justice system”.
The mental health crisis
Mental health services and charities said they as “overrun” by requests for help.
Former supermarket worker Nikki Jefferson, from Beccles, said in January that she tried to take her own life after struggling to deal with the isolation and pressure of lockdown.
GP and clinical director of Norfolk Primary Care Network Dr Jeanine Smirl said earlier this year that mental health services have been "completely overrun" since the pandemic hit.
"Support networks have vanished overnight, and that has been really tough on people," she said. "A lot of staff are unwell themselves too. We are running quite thin."
And Beth Mosely, from the Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust, said in January that Covid had placed an inevitable strain on mental health services.
"We can’t refer 50pc of the population (for mental health services)," she said. "My small team has supported 3,200 people since September."
A recent NHS England survey revealed people from the lowest income households were 7pc more likely to have eating disorders than those from the richest families.
Norfolk-based eating disorder helpline Beat has seen its calls increase by 140pc between February and November. It said it supported 7,420 people in November, a 202pc rise on the same month last year.
Impact on children and young people
One worrying national trend is the impact the pandemic has had on the number of young people not in education, employment or training (NEET).
Statistics from the ONS suggests the number of young people who were NEET grew by 0.6pc in October to December last year, meaning there was an estimated 797,000 young people in the UK who were NEET.
The quarterly increase was the largest since 2011.
In Norfolk, it remains to be seen what impact the pandemic and economic fallout will have on young people’s career prospects.
In November last year, graduate Danielle Champ spoke to this newspaper about the difficulty in finding work after moving from South Africa to Hethersett in early 2020.
“Four hours after landing I was signing up with the nearest recruitment agencies,” she said. “Day-in and day-out for two weeks, I filled in registration forms, customised cover letters and CVs, and pestered incredibly patient recruitment agents."
Eventually, Ms Champ found work as an online English teacher.
She said students looking for work may have to "adapt to thrive" in the post-Covid job market.
“When we come out of the fog of this pandemic, students might find the working world completely different to the one they thought they would enter at the beginning of 2020 – but it will also be a world that they are better prepared for, and more eager to thrive in," added Ms Champ.