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Getting your voice heard

Life at Work
Jen Trueland

It’s vital that doctors’ experiences of the pandemic are heard and learnt from. But giving evidence to the COVID inquiry requires a huge amount of work behind the scenes

The UK COVID-19 inquiry is a major enterprise expected to last until at least 2026. The BMA successfully applied to be a core participant in the first four modules – meaning the voice of doctors will be heard throughout.

BMA council chair Phil Banfield has already given evidence to the inquiry twice, sharing first-hand testimony from doctors about how the pandemic affected them, and showing how the BMA raised concerns with ministers and Government officials directly, as well as through public statements, from early 2020 onwards. He also detailed how so much of this was ignored or disregarded. 

But these high-profile appearances – although important – are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the enormous amount of effort which goes into the BMA’s contribution to the inquiry, says Professor Banfield. 

‘BMA staff across the organisation have been working incredibly hard collating and presenting evidence held in thousands of documents, emails and reports which reflect BMA members’ and staff’s central roles during the pandemic, to make sure the authentic voice of doctors is heard throughout the COVID-19 inquiry,’ he says. 

‘Doctors and other care staff risked their lives simply by going to work – it’s morally and professionally imperative the BMA ensures their testimony isn’t ignored and that this is recorded so preparedness and responses to future pandemic threats are improved. It is not a matter of whether but when these will most certainly come our way again.’

Members’ testimony

The BMA’s COVID steering group – chaired by Prof Banfield and including representatives from the main branch of practice and  professional committees – has played an important role in shaping the BMA’s response to, and involvement with, the inquiry. However, the process and work behind the inquiry is also a huge enterprise for BMA staff across a wide variety of departments.

There are also challenges with communicating this to members, because being a core participant means much of the work the BMA is doing to feed into and influence the work of the inquiry is confidential and successes cannot be shared with members, says Lena Levy, the organisation’s head of public health and healthcare.

‘The BMA is playing a very active part in the COVID inquiry, and it’s taking up a huge amount of staff time and resource,’ she says. ‘We’re doing it for a very good reason – because we want the voices of doctors to be heard – but we’re not really able to shout about it and tell members about everything we’re doing.’

She believes it’s vital for the BMA to be closely involved in the inquiry process.

‘The pandemic affected all our members – their work changed significantly, they put themselves in harm’s way – often unprotected. This inquiry is about setting the record straight on what happened and ensuring the profession and wider public will be better protected going forward. That’s why we’re part of it.’

Doctors and other care staff risked their lives simply by going to work – it’s morally and professionally imperative the BMA ensures their testimony isn’t ignored

Phil Banfield

BMA senior research adviser Duncan Bland believes the BMA’s position as the largest membership organisation for the profession gives it a unique responsibility to represent doctors during the inquiry.

‘We want to represent the issues that we know are important to doctors, where they feel they have been badly exposed and let down and poorly protected throughout the pandemic,’ he says.

It’s also important to demonstrate that the BMA’s advice and warnings throughout the pandemic, albeit not always listened to, were right, he adds, including on when to impose and unlock restrictions, for example. 

‘We were also very vocal throughout the pandemic around the lack of PPE – and we’ve got evidence that this lack of protective equipment led to doctors being exposed and possibly harmed as well. 

‘We want our members to have confidence we are an authoritative voice, and that we will reflect their views and experiences. And we know we are being seen as an authoritative voice in the inquiry, speaking for doctors.’

Elements of the inquiry

The UK COVID-19 inquiry has five active modules. These are:

– Resilience and preparedness

– Core UK decision-making and political governance

– Effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare systems in the four nations of the UK

– Vaccines and therapeutics

– Procurement.

Future modules – the first of which will be the care sector – will be announced in the coming months.