During the coronavirus pandemic, experts warned of the indirect effects of a population fearful of going to the doctor for other conditions, as well as highlighting the potential impacts of redistributing medical attention away from areas unconnected to the pandemic, such as cancer treatment.
Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ latest poll found a majority (56%) of respondents saying their physical health had neither improved nor declined since the imposition of lockdown. Meanwhile, the 14% whose health had improved was somewhat outweighed by the 22% who felt their health had worsened. This 22% nonetheless constitutes almost a quarter of respondents saying their physical health declined in a matter of months, which should be of concern to public health authorities.
Whereas a majority (52%) saw neither an improvement nor a decline to their mental health during lockdown, over a quarter (28%) consider that theirs has declined over the course of the pandemic. Only 11% of respondents saw improvements to their mental health during the lockdown period. Many have highlighted that lockdown increased feelings of anxiety, as well as loneliness. Moreover, charities and non-profit organisations have emphasised that their ability to provide services and answer calls has come under intense strain during lockdown.
Demographic examination reveals that younger respondents were more likely to see improvements in their physical and mental health. Daily exercise was one of the few activities permitted at the height of lockdown, and it may be the case that younger people adopted more intense exercise regimes than elderly respondents. London saw the largest improvements in health, which could correlate to the fact that the capital has seen the highest proportion of inhabitants working from home. This group may feel healthier without their daily commute and the ease in pollution levels. Indeed, our previous research suggests independence and comfort can boost employee morale. Interestingly, mental health problems during lockdown appeared to disproportionately affect women and Labour voters. 33% of women and 34% of Labour voters experienced a decline in their mental health, compared to 23% of men and Conservative voters.
Despite Government pleas for people to continue to use non-coronavirus health services, many have been alarmed at the declining level of hospital admissions. Some estimate that for every three deaths from Covid-19, lockdown inflicted another two deaths from unrelated conditions including patients not attending A&E or being discharged back into care homes too soon. Altogether, 43% of respondents to our poll said they had visited a health service since lockdown began.
Despite public fear about visiting health services, a large majority (63%) who have visited a health service since the start of lockdown claimed they felt safe when doing so, while less than a fifth (18%) did not. Surprisingly, despite their higher risk of infection and death from coronavirus, older respondents were more likely to feel safe. This high rate of respondents who say they felt safe is possibly as a result of the additional hygiene and social distancing measures that many medical facilities have taken to ensure the safety of patients and staff.
Notably, a significant minority of respondents (22%) said they or a family member had put off some sort of medical treatment because of the coronavirus pandemic. This procrastination may stem not only from a fear from contracting coronavirus at a medical facility, but also from a fear of diverting needed attention away from the treatment of coronavirus (i.e. from a desire to ‘protect the NHS.’)
The standard of healthcare, however, provided does not appear to have declined, as an overwhelming majority (84%) of those who have visited a health service since the start of the pandemic approved of the quality of the service they received, while just 5% disapproved. Ultimately, concerns that other services may become overwhelmed due to the surge in demand created by Covid-19 have not materialised, which in part appears due to many putting off treatment in the last several months.
Despite the Government’s recent focus on tackling obesity in the UK, a slight plurality (31%) of respondents to our poll believe mental health issues are the most urgent health problem facing the country at the present time besides coronavirus. Slightly over a fifth (22%) believe obesity and cancer are the most important health issues the country faces, excluding coronavirus.
Cancer and obesity were more of a concern for the elderly, while mental health issues were the primary concern of young people, likely because different ages see themselves as more vulnerable to particular illnesses. More striking divisions were observed along party lines: 41% of Labour voters believe mental health issues are most important, compared to just 21% of Conservative voters. Labour leader Keir Starmer has called for more provisions for mental health services, describing the issue as the “hidden cost” of the pandemic.