Adapt to Overcome: perspectives on Covid-19

Andrew McCracken and Paul Burstow

Research organisations such as the King’s Fund have been forced to adapt their offering, but this has created opportunities to better serve existing audiences and reach new ones.  In a second piece for this week’s Insider, MHP Adviser Paul Burstow considers how we can avoid a looming mental health crisis post-pandemic.


Head of Press and Public Affairs
The King’s Fund

COVID has forced the King’s Fund to adapt, but the result is a more user-led organisation

Covid-19 posed some big challenges for the comms team at The King’s Fund. The government’s policy agenda was fundamentally refocused in a matter of weeks, the virus quickly dominated the time and attention of our core NHS and social care audience, and many of our usual ways of bringing people together were not possible in lockdown – no conferences, no roundtables, no leadership programmes.

At the same time, media demand for commentary went through the roof. At times we have been inundated with reactive media bids, and although it has felt unnatural for a press office eager to help journalists, we have turned down many of those bids. ‘Experts’ may be back en vogue, but trust in authoritative bodies is fragile and should not be abused. We’ve had to remain disciplined – only engaging in debates where the King’s Fund offers genuine expertise and where our contribution can be constructive.

As well as a shift in our media relations approach, the pandemic has brought about a refocusing of our proactive content. Much of our content is usually focused on national health and care policy, but our audience now had other things on their mind. We took the decision to pivot towards more practical, short, user-informed content. We launched ‘Leading through Covid-19’ to support health and care leaders though the crisis. It’s an ever-growing online library of (very) short and practical tools.

We knew we had to listen to what our audience needed, so we asked them. So far we have received over 700 responses. Health and care leaders told us they needed help coping with anxiety, so we published guides to managing anxiety about loss and breathing exercises. They told us it was hard to keep pace with the sheer volume of new information, so we published a three-minute guide to managing your energy. And they told us about the struggle adapting to the broad-ranging changes to ways of working, so we created a three minute summary of research into forming effective new teams.

The response has been phenomenal, with a 20% increase in web traffic and 40% increase in social media engagement compared to pre-Covid times.

We have had to innovate through necessity. It has, I think, taught us the value of a more a user-led approach, and catalysed new ways to share our leadership development expertise. The pandemic has posed many challenges, but also brought some very positive change.


MHP Advisor and former social care minister

Renewing the Social Contract: Key to preventing a mental health catastrophe

We humans are a resilient and hopeful species. We have survived pestilence, floods and other natural and manmade calamities. Is it because we are optimists at heart?

Our hope can be a powerful balm in times of trouble. But our ability to cope and capacity to recover from difficulties are under attack by Covid19 and the societal trauma – economic and psychosocial – it has triggered. We face a cascade of compounding risks which will be felt for years to come and will further compromise our resilience.

Amongst the deepest and most damaging impacts of Covid19 are those that undermine human capital – our individual and collective knowledge, skills, competencies, health and habits. These are amongst the most precious assets we have. Strengths that are essential to our resilience, recovery and renewal as we suppress, contain and tame the virus.

The way in which the first wave of Covid19 has been fought has suppressed the spread of the virus, saved lives, and prevented our NHS from being overwhelmed, just. But at the price of placing our economy in an induced coma.

We are just at the end of the beginning. We need to understand, mitigate and respond to the collateral damage that the pandemic continues to wrought.

The social contract between government and people of voluntary self-denial, which has saved millions of lives points, to the possibility of a renewal of social solidarity. It is said that we are all in it together, and that sense of solidarity should be nurtured. But it must not blind us to the fact that not everyone is experiencing this pandemic equally.

We may all be doing our best to ride out the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat. Some people have no boat at all not even a seaworthy raft!

As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has reported the health effects caused by an economic downturn or depression will be complex, will differ across generations, geographies and social-economic groups and last a long time maybe even longer than the Great Depression. These inequalities must be acknowledged in the design of any plan to come out of lockdown. Resolution and rehabilitation will last years if not decades.

Unemployment in the UK doubled to 3 million in a matter of days after the lockdown, some forecasters say the final tally could reach 5 million. On top of this are the 4 million people who have been furloughed who face an uncertain future.

Designing the right strategies to protect and renew our human capital and social infrastructure are as vital as the right economic policies if we are to avoid a mental health catastrophe. The UK needs a psychosocial recovery strategy that minimises and mitigates the risks to our nations mental health and wellbeing. Only by making this a priority now can we hope to flatten the curve of this 4th wave impact of Covid19.

Previous disasters and economic shocks give us clues to the likely short, medium and long-term effects on the mental health of both the front line responders and the public due to Covid19 and the global recession it has triggered. There are lessons history can teach us about how we might best respond. It seems likely that the mental health of our whole population will have suffered, with the vulnerable and the least resilient most affected.

This response must not just be seen as a matter for the NHS or for individual responsibility, it’s a collective one. We must see the promotion of mental wellbeing put centre stage in the workplace, in education and in other aspects of our communal life.

The lockdown has led us all to seek shelter at home. For some the lockdown is causing harm. For example, the Police in London are reporting a 24% increase in charges and cautions for domestic violence and this is just the tip of the iceberg. At the same time the Children’s Commissioner has expressed concern that “at risk” children are facing increased danger in the lockdown, with only a tiny fraction of vulnerable children in England taking up the emergency school places kept open for them.

Designing the right support for rebooting complex eco-systems, like schools, or enabling businesses to bring their safely workforces safely out of furlough are all part of the challenge. The way it is designed, introduced and delivered will be critical at a number of levels. All of which is against a background of continued public health measures to suppress the spread of the virus and avoid the risk of a second wave of infections.

The challenges posed by the pandemic require a whole-of-society non-pathologising approach that combines top-down and bottom-up leadership and action.

Any strategy that aims to protect and invest in human capital and social infrastructure must be non-stigmatising, inclusive, equitable, adaptive and collaborative in the design and testing of promising national and place-based solutions. It must build trust and legitimacy by co-designing the solutions with those affected.

It is vital that action is taken now to mobilise this whole-society response. The social solidarity so evident in recent days must be harnessed to support a collective response, a new social contract that restores our personal and community resilience, rebuilds our human capital and renews our social scaffolding. That is my hope.

Rt Hon Paul Burstow, is a former Minister of Mental Health and now Chairs the NHS Tavistock and Portman Clinics in north London.