In recent weeks the country has changed beyond recognition. The COVID-19 pandemic is requiring that we rapidly rethink what services we need and how we deliver them to our family, friends and neighbours. Whilst we focus on slowing of the spread and flattening the curve of Covid19, the one new reality we are having to come to terms with is the rapidly rising number of deaths and the need for support for families whose lives are being turned upside down overnight. This can have similarities to cancer. But cancer is a disease which at least allows for time to be spent with loved ones.
That was our experience when my father passed away in 2014 in a hospice eighteen months after being diagnosed with cancer. At the time, the support provided to us by Macmillan Cancer Support was second to none. When he went into palliative care, we were referred to a Macmillan team in the hospital who helped join up all the dots for us and took us through every step with kindness and compassion until the day my father died. They were then there for us in the aftermath as we worked out what to do next after months of putting our lives on hold in his final period of illness.
Thousands of families today are being hit by a worse tragedy. The sudden situation of a loved one becoming critically ill and dying without being able to hold them or be with them. And then the challenge of coping with grief and dealing with the consequences for family income and well being when fewer support services are available and other public services under strain. But the need for support and guidance and counselling is greater than ever – for partners, for children and for other family members.
That’s why, following discussions with my local health service and supported by many MPs and Peers from across the House of Commons and a range of All Party Parliamentary Groups, I am calling for a new National 24 hour COVID-19 Support Helpline for service for families who have lost loved ones or who have seriously ill relatives. Patients can remain on a ventilator for some weeks and families are left unable to even console each other in person. The sense of helplessness, isolation and grief is being compounded without ways to reach out and get support.
This service could be along the lines of the support that Macmillan Cancer Support do brilliantly for palliative care cancer patients. Such a service could be a national helpline supplemented with local teams for COVID-19 families to help with advice, counselling, signposting, answering questions about funerals. It could run alongside the work of hospital chaplains and faith groups who may not have the capacity or updated information to answer all the queries or signpost for further support. The service could run by trained NHS support staff including nurses and psychiatrists aided by trained NHS responder volunteers who may not be able to be on the front line in other ways. Intervention now may also help prevent a greater mental health issues in COVID-19 families in the future who are unable to meet and grieve together. People could be referred early to the service by hospital staff.
This proposed national support line could work well with local bereavement support teams who will begin to be very stretched. It should also see coordination with and extra resource for our devolved administrations as it would be a way to deliver up to date Government guidance on funerals and memorials for loved ones, and to be able to contact families in future to check in with them.
The impact of COVID-19 will be long lasting. If the Coronavirus crisis of the last few weeks has taught us anything, it is that we have to be one step ahead of this horrific illness. I hope that the Government will heed this call and take the steps now to set up a freephone service that will be able to respond to the needs and the challenges that lie ahead.