Blog: Our Pandemic Year
Published on 23 March 2021 02:48 PM
Today marks the first anniversary of the UK entering national lockdown as the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
At the time it was unimaginable that 365 days later, we would still be in lockdown and that more than 126,000 people in the UK would have lost their lives to the virus. In Scotland, nearly 90% of all deaths linked to Covid-19 have been of people over 65.
At Age Scotland we felt the effects of the pandemic early. We cancelled our National Conference and awards ceremony, due to be held at the end of March, and from the middle of the month all office-based staff began working from home.
Once lockdown started, and the over 70s were advised to shield, our helpline saw a dramatic rise in calls. From around 70 calls a day earlier in the year, advisors were dealing with more than 850 on some days.
Older people and their families were calling to find out what the new rules meant, how to access service and get help if they needed it. Some of the concerns raised included how to access essential shopping and pick up medication.
To handle the increased call volume – and facilitate a massive scaling-up of our national helpline - Age Scotland staff from across our organisation were deployed to support the helpline team to ensure older people and their families were getting the advice and information they needed.
By the end of March 2020, Covid-19 cases were rising fast and the death toll was climbing. Among those who contracted the virus were the Prime Minister Boris Johnston and the Prince of Wales.
We were grateful for the support of people like footballer Andy Robertson who encouraged older people to call our helpline for information, friendship and advice.
The virus and the national response drew into sharp focus not only how important social care is, not that we needed any convincing, and how it could often play second fiddle to the NHS. We began hearing from people across the country whose social care packages had been stopped almost overnight leaving them in the most desperate of situations.
In April, there were more and more reports that social care and care home staff struggling to get adequate supplies of PPE which could leave older people exposed to the virus. Age Scotland called for social care to get every ounce of support it needed to ensure staff and older people were protected.
Around the same time, our helpline began to receive calls from older people angry and upset at being asked ‘out of the blue’ to consent to Do Not Attempt Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation (DNACPR) orders.
Age Scotland immediately raised the issue with the Scottish Government and was told that GPs and clinicians had not been asked to change the process for agreeing DNACPR.
However the calls we received - which included over 60s with no underlying health conditions, care home residents being covered by a DNACPR without consultation and older patients who discovered completed DNACPR paperwork in their hospital discharge notes – left us in no doubt that the practice was not working in the way it should.
We repeatedly called for further investigations into how “cack-handed” communication and processes were damaging the confidence of older people. We had raised this during evidence sessions at Scottish Parliament committees, wrote to the convenor of the Scottish parliament’s health and sport committee asking for an investigation.
More recently we called on Healthcare Improvement Scotland to undertake a similar exercise to their English equivalents after they uncovered hundreds of examples where poor practice had taken place.
Meanwhile in a garden in south east England, Captain Sir Tom Moore, aged 99, completed 100 laps to raise money for the NHS – and in a lab in Oxford, trials began on the first coronavirus vaccine in Europe.
By May, the UK death toll from Covid had overtaken Italy and Spain to become the highest in Europe.
With reports of older people feeling increasingly isolated and lonely as a result of lockdown and not being able to see loved ones in person, we launched the Age Scotland Friendship Line to offer comfort, support and reassurance to those feeling alone.
The campaign to raise funds for the Friendship Line won celebrity support from Fred MacAulay, Greg Hemphill and Allan Stewart.
In late spring, we had been hearing more and more reports from people across Scotland who were having great difficulty with food shopping. Our survey of older people showed us that 32% of respondents really struggled to get food supplies from a supermarket and 39% had great difficulty getting an online delivery slot.
Around half a million over 60s in Scotland don’t use the internet so improving the available options for such essentials weasvital. We worked with a range of other charities and organisations to map out the challenges facing people’s access to food and made a joint call on the First Minister to take action with retailers to address them.
As contact tracing systems went live in Scotland and England, aimed at tracking cases in the community, care home residents and the over 75s who were shielding, made up more than three quarters of those who lost their lives to Covid.
In a welcome move, Age Scotland’s health and wellbeing grant programme made £90,000 worth of funding available to 76 member groups and organisations across the country, forced to close at the start of the pandemic.
Early summer brought an easing of restrictions for some. In a rare bit of good news, in June Scotland recorded its first 24-hour period without a death from Covid for the first time since March.
In hospitals the use of a low-dose steroid, dexamethasone, to treat patients with Covid was hailed as a breakthrough.
In July the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made face covering in shops and public transport mandatory. Age Scotland backed moves for support to be made available to older people who were hard of hearing or had an underlying health condition that made it challenging to wear a mask.
There was finally a reprieve for the over 70s who had been shielding since March, who were allowed to visit holiday accommodation, outdoor markets and gardens.
For others, the reopening of pubs, restaurants and hairdressers was cause for celebration.
The following month further easing of restrictions on those shielding threw up new challenges. Many older people reported feeling anxious about getting out and about again, safely. Five months of lockdown had impacted on their physical and mental health and we heard of some older people who felt cut off from their friends and community.
At the same time, there were heartwarming stories of volunteers who worked throughout the pandemic to ensure older people were supported with food parcels, socially-distanced chats on the doorstep and regular check-in phone calls.
It became apparent that for many older people, the kindness of strangers helped them survive lockdown and a timely reminder that we all have a role to play in making older people feel valued and part of society.
Our research highlighted that around 94,000 older people believed that they wouldn’t have got through the last year without the kindness of strangers. A staggering amount of people helped immeasurably.
As outdoor visits to care homes were resumed, we understood more about the grim toll Covid had taken on residents, including those living with dementia. Families reported an alarming deterioration in the condition of loved ones after not seeing them in person since March. We made public calls for care homes to be given everything they needed to support safe visiting.
By the end of the summer, Scottish schoolchildren began to return to the classroom. A Covid outbreak in Aberdeen forced the city back into lockdown. And scientists warned of a second wave of the virus in the autumn as a result of schools returning and overseas travel without quarantine.
September saw a rise in Covid cases across Scotland. The First Minister reduced the number of people who could gather to six in a bid to stem the acceleration of the spread. Warnings that a second lockdown would be disastrous for the economy were being weighed against concerns that more people would end up in hospital, putting strain on the NHS in the run-up to winter, if cases continued to rise.
The first human trials of two Covid vaccines began.
In October, with cases still on the rise, the First Minister announced the closure of all pubs and restaurants across the Central Belt as a ‘circuit breaker’ to reduce the spread of the virus.
In the same month Scotland entered a 4 tier system with non-essential travel between tiers forbidden. Weeks later the First Minister put 11 council areas in the west of Scotland into tier 4 after cases continued to rise.
At Age Scotland, our health and wellbeing professionals launched Around the House in 80 Days – a gentle exercise programme to help older people stay active at home.
Meanwhile trials of the two Covid vaccines are shown to be 90% effective, and given approval to be administered in the UK.
Eight months after it had to be postponed, Age Scotland held its first virtual Awards Ceremony via Zoom to celebrate the charity’s national award winners.
In December Margaret Keenan, 90, from Coventry became the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer Covid vaccine as the country’s biggest mass vaccination programme got underway.
Age Scotland called for an inquiry into the experiences of care home residents, their families and care home staff after an Equalities and Human Rights Commission report found that their basic human rights were not met during the pandemic.
A new variant of Covid emerged for the first time, with nine cases recorded in Scotland.
New figures from our partnership with Age UK, found that 157,000 over 65s in Scotland expected to feel lonely over Christmas. With isolation and loneliness at record levels, Age Scotland’s Christmas appeal invited people to support older people with the gift of friendship by donating to the Friendship Line.
Elsewhere, medics warned that the one-day Christmas ‘restrictions holiday’ agreed by the UK and Scottish Governments, could end up overwhelming the NHS during the challenging winter months.
The start of 2021 saw a rise in Covid cases again and mainland Scotland was put back into full lockdown with schools closed and non-essential travel banned.
In Scotland the Covid death toll exceeded 6,000 – almost 90% of those were over the age of 65. A stark reminder of the toll the virus has taken on older people. Across the UK the number of deaths linked to Covid reached 100,000.
There was some light at the end of the tunnel – the vaccination rollout continued with care home residents, the over 80s and healthcare staff in the priority groups.
In February the Age Scotland Big Survey went out to older people across the country with questions on everything from their experiences of lockdown and social care to media representation to help shape the charity’s policy priorities during the Covid recovery period.
Visiting restrictions at care homes were eased, allowing residents to choose two visitors who can visit once a week.
We published Age Scotland’s latest housing research which showed a need for more accessible and adaptable housing for older people.
And following a report from the healthcare watchdog in England that more than 500 people may have had their human rights breached by the way DNACPR was used, Age Scotland called for a Scottish inquiry into the issue.
On the eve of the first anniversary of lockdown, it was announced that half of the UK adult population has now had a first dose of the Covid vaccine. It is expected that all adults will have been vaccinated by the summer.
This, of course, is a far from exhaustive list of issues that have affected older people in the past 12 months. But it highlights some of the key subjects that Age Scotland will continue to campaign on to help improve the lives of older people as we embark on what will hopefully be a period of recovery.
One year ago today we entered uncharted waters. We have navigated and overcome unprecedented challenges. But as we pause on this National Day of Reflection, it is to remember the lives of more than 126,000 people who have been lost in this pandemic and take a moment to send support to the countless numbers who mourn.
As part of our reflection on the last year we have spotlighted three specific issues which haven't always made headlines but nevertheless have had a profound impact on the lives of older people in Scotland.