In the bleak midwinter, dare to be the Spring - President's blog

It is important to acknowledge the challenges we face, but Camilla reminds us how amazing our members are and how grateful children and their families are for the work you do.

Happy New Year to you all! I trust that you have managed to find some time over the last two weeks to rest, relax, and spend time with friends and loved ones. I recognise that for many of us it is very difficult to switch off at the moment. There just seem to be a seemingly endless number of pressures and asks of each of us.

As we approach the beginning of the third year of the global pandemic, we continue to face an enormous public health emergency. The NHS is being required to respond, yet again, to a terrifyingly huge wave of the Omicron variant, while simultaneously trying to recover and catch up on two years of lost work. Our patients need us like never before and yet we know that you and I, and our whole workforce, are exhausted and ground down by the perpetual need to “go yet another mile”. Amanda Pritchard, Chief Executive Officer for NHS England, was correct to say “Staff are not machines”. We certainly are not, but incredibly, our teams have worked under immense pressure for the last two years to meet the needs of our patients, often despite facing huge personal turmoil, challenges and stress.

I know very well that none of us chose a career in Medicine for an easy life!  Nevertheless, the pandemic has put huge pressure and strain on each of us, and we now find ourselves in the depths of a very difficult Winter. Most paediatricians are accustomed to tough winters, but the combination of staff sickness, sheer numbers of patients, and the legacy of the last two years, really does make this winter feel exceptional. Acknowledging how tough it is, I believe, is a really important step.

The next important step is to reflect on just how amazing we and our teams are! I cannot thank you enough for continuing to dedicate yourselves to the safe care of our patients. None of us takes this for granted. I recognise that there is a sense that public gratitude demonstrated by the “Clap for the NHS” on Thursday evenings is something in the past. However, I know for certain that there are parents and children and young people across the world who are undyingly grateful for our efforts. Let’s not forget that.

The final step, in my view, is to recognise that things will get better. Despite the difficult times we live and work in, our efforts today give us hope of a better world for children tomorrow. This idea is touchingly and beautifully encapsulated in a reworked Christmas carol sent to me by the team at Creative Connections.  It’s called “In the Bleak Midwinter” and sung by the awesome Tim Casswell. Please treat yourselves and listen, you won’t be disappointed. A line from the carol really made me pause to think – “In the bleak midwinter, dare to be the Spring.” It reminds us that not only does Spring follow Winter, each of us can be part of that future and together we can work to realise our ambitions for our own worlds of work as well as the health and wellbeing of children and young people. So, let’s dare to be part of that future!

Staff vaccinations

I think it is important to raise the issue of mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for most staff working in the NHS in England. As I am sure you are aware, it is now a national requirement for the vast majority of health and social care workers to receive two doses of a COVID-19 vaccination. Trusts in England are required by law to implement this and so anyone who does not comply is at risk of losing their job. As a College, we took part in the Department of Health and Social Care consultation on mandation of vaccination and I articulated as clearly as I could that we did not support mandatory vaccination.

Nevertheless, as a representative of the College and you all, I am unequivocally of the view that every paediatrician should be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, unless there are clear reasons they cannot. We owe this to our patients and their families, and it is part of our professional responsibility to first do no harm. If any of you have not yet been immunised, I implore you to reconsider and to seek help and advice from your Occupational Health team to inform that decision.

Omicron in children

It won’t have escaped those of you who work in acute services that there has been an apparent rise in the numbers of babies and young children presenting with fever, who test positive for Omicron. The UK Health Security Agency’s latest briefing is available on their website, published today. Talking to colleagues around the UK, I am not hearing any reports of serious disease and in fact the pattern mimics many of the other respiratory pathogens we typically see in the Winter. We are watching the situation closely and liaising with colleagues in the Chief Medical Officers’ teams. I recognise that many parents will be anxious to hear about this and so we have issued a College statement and reposted links to useful resources for families.

Member survey results

Finally, thank you very much to the many Members who completed our Membership Survey in late 2021; it was incredibly valuable to get so much feedback from you. We published the findings this week; the results certainly echo my own experience, that we are all working under severe strain. Despite that pressure, it is heartening to see that 90% of you are satisfied with your career choice of paediatrics. We know that child health services can’t be propped up by goodwill alone, so will continue to push for more tangible action from policymakers to alleviate the inevitable impact on child health caused by the pandemic and other issues like climate change.

Liz Marder, who leads our membership committee, has written about the findings – you can read her blog on the RCPCH website.

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