COVID-19 Inquiry Backtracked on Lockdown Mental Health Probe, Say Charities

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Charities and health organisations warn that failure to adequately examine the impact of lockdowns on mental health support ‘risks failing’ millions of people.

Health care groups and charities have accused the chairwoman of the COVID-19 Inquiry of backtracking over the probe’s examination of how lockdowns affected access to mental health services.

Mind, Rethink Mental Health, and other organisations have warned that the inquiry “risks failing” millions of people who were turned away from services if Baroness Hallett does not devote more time to examining the wider mental health impact of lockdowns.

In an open letter to Baroness Hallett and inquiry staff published on Wednesday, the groups said, “The Covid-19 Inquiry’s refusal to examine the mental health consequences of the pandemic risks failing the people with pre-existing mental health conditions who died at five times the rate of the general population.”

The letter continued: “It risks failing the eight million people who sought help with their mental health and were turned away.

“And it risks failing future generations by not allowing a proper examination of what can be done better in the event of another pandemic.”

The groups, which include the Centre for Mental Health and the Association of Mental Health Providers, said the chairwoman had initially said she would consider the request that Module 3, which examines the impact of lockdowns on health care systems, should include the impact of lockdowns on wider mental health services and not just focus on inpatient psychiatric care for children.

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Baroness Hallett since ruled, “Module 3 cannot include the issue of the impact of the pandemic on adult mental health services within its broad provisional outline of scope and the hearing time available.”

The chairwoman has said the subject can be covered by other modules and through the inquiry’s wider listening exercise, Every Story Matters.

‘Serious Questions’ Won’t Be Answered

“Despite positive indications from the last Module 3 hearing that mental health would now be fully considered by the inquiry, we are deeply disappointed by this U-turn,” the letter went on.

The groups warned that the “exceptionally narrow focus” on the small number of inpatient beds provided to children and young people means “serious questions will not be answered.”

The letter outlined some of those questions, including: “Why was there no public mental health plan? Why did those with pre-existing mental health conditions die at five times the rate of the general population?”

The groups warned that lessons will not be learnt “without an in-depth examination of both the physical and mental health consequences of the pandemic. It must urgently reconsider its position.”

Head of legal at Mind, Rheian Davies, said the inquiry needs to “look at what happened to the nation’s mental health and what political decisions—or mistakes—were made that we wouldn’t make again.”

Ms. Davies gave the example that at the same time almost a quarter of psychiatric beds were emptied, “community services were virtually shut down.”

Members of the public are seen out on Princess Street during the COVID-19 pandemic in Edinburgh, Scotland, on April 17, 2020. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Members of the public are seen out on Princess Street during the COVID-19 pandemic in Edinburgh, Scotland, on April 17, 2020. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

She pointed out that people had been released “who wouldn’t have normally been discharged,” or who would not have been discharged without “quite heavy community input,” and were released into “nothing or next to nothing.”

“These are serious questions that the inquiry should be grappling with. Would we do that again? Is there anything to be learned from from that?” Ms. Davies said.

“So, we’ve gone from what looks like a promising situation back to nothing again and [Baroness Hallett] has said ‘We don’t have time,’ which we actually don’t agree with,” she added.

Inquiry ‘Will Cover’ Lockdown’s Impact on Mental Health

In response to the letter, a spokesman for the COVID-19 Inquiry said: “The chair, Baroness Hallett, has explained that the inquiry will cover the pandemic’s impact on the mental health of the population throughout our investigations, including Module 3, as well as our UK-wide listening exercise, Every Story Matters.

“Public hearings for Module 3, investigating the impact of the pandemic on the UK’s health care systems, will start in September 2024. They will include consideration of inpatient Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services—now referred to as Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services. Other module hearings are scheduled to run until 2026.”

The COVID-19 Inquiry is an independent public inquiry which aims to examine and learn lessons from the UK’s response to and impact of the pandemic. It is divided into topic-based modules, such as “Resilience and Preparedness” (Module 1) and the “Impact of Covid-19 Pandemic on Healthcare Systems in the 4 Nations of the UK” (Module 3).

Increased Suicide Rate in England

Last week, the Office for National Statistics released data on suicides which revealed that in 2023, coroners registered 5,579 suicides in England, equivalent to a rate of 11.1 suicide deaths per 100,000 people, a rate “statistically significantly higher” than the rates in 2022, 2021, and 2020.

The number of suicides last year was 6 percent higher in 2022, when 5,284 suicides were confirmed by coroners.

Mind suggested that the rise could have been partially owing to the ongoing effects of lockdowns.

COVID-19 messaging is seen on the advertising hoarding at Piccadilly Circus during the UK's third national lockdown, in London, on Feb. 3, 2021. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
COVID-19 messaging is seen on the advertising hoarding at Piccadilly Circus during the UK’s third national lockdown, in London, on Feb. 3, 2021. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Jen Walters, executive director of social change at Mind, said in a statement: “It’s very concerning to see an increase in the number of suicides in England since 2022. Even one suicide is one too many. The causes of suicide are many, complex, and vary from one person to another.

“What we do know is we are still feeling the seismic effects from the pandemic, and the cost-of-living crisis is continuing to have a devastating impact on society. We must do much more to reverse this.”

PA Media contributed to this report.

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