"We should be celebrating the people in Sheffield": Health chief looks back after a year of lockdowns

One year on since Sheffield first entered lockdown, the Director of Public Health who coordinated the city’s response to Covid has taken a look back at the busiest year of his career.

Thursday, 25th March 2021, 11:58 am

It feels like an understatement when Sheffield’s Director of Public Health says that he has had a ‘long year’.

It has now been a year since the city first entered into lockdown in response to the exponential growth of coronavirus in March 2020, and since then there have been two more lockdowns and the development and nationwide rollout of vaccines.

Looking back, Mr Fell said that the impact of the virus took everybody by surprise.

Sign up to our public interest bulletins - get the latest news on the Coronavirus

Sign up to our public interest bulletins - get the latest news on the Coronavirus

Sheffield 9 weeks into the first lockdown.

“I didn’t think it would last a year actually,” he admitted. “Going back a year I remember feeling relief as the Prime Minister announced lockdown and I knew we were about to start exponential growth, and I knew that was going to be bad news.

“There was an element of trepidation, as nobody knew what was coming. Nobody in the country had ever done this before. We didn’t know how long it was going to go on for. I remember originally thinking it would last for about six to nine months. I did not anticipate being where we are a year later.

“But I suppose the lesson from history is that the 1918 flu pandemic reverberated for 18 months.

“A year ago we were all looking at what was happening in Wuhan and parts of South East Asia, Northern Italy and Southern France, but nobody expected the virus to be what it was. We were all just crystal ball gazing, and we were all wrong.

“It has been a hard year. That is the understatement of the century. 1100 people have lost their lives and that is a huge number. That is 1100 personal tragedies and it has been incalculably difficult for so many. No words can be said to make it any easier.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel now, although I do still think we are in a bit of a tunnel. But even I – the harbringer of doom – am feeling optimistic now.

“The vaccination effort was always going to be a route out of the pandemic and it has proven far more successful than we ever hoped it would be.

“We are seeing the light now, but the virus will be reverberating around the world for years to come. Anybody who thinks we can achieve zero covid is dreaming. Those days are gone.”

And with the benefit of hindsight, it’s not difficult to see how things could have been done better.

However Mr Fell – who at times when speaking to The Star has said that local authorities needed more power to deal with the pandemic regionally – has said the situation has improved in recent months.

“It is very easy to see with hindsight that lockdown should have been implemented earlier. The research from Imperial shows that if it had been earlier there would have been fewer deaths,” he said.

“I remember people were calling for the council to lock down Sheffield earlier but that power was something only the national Government had.

“Whether we locked down early enough is a question for an enquiry, but the research is clear.

“The dial on local authorities not having enough power has thankfully changed. Local government asked for this repeatedly and the Government, credit to them, eventually granted it.

“The local authority has demonstrated that it knows the local population better. For example, for months now we have had the local contact tracing system, and we have been able to get in touch with 80 per cent of the local people the Government was not able to through Test and Trace,

“We are able to do things that a national orientated system would not be able to do.

"What we should be celebrating and talking about is the response of the people in Sheffield – the ones with ‘public health’ in their job title and the many thousands of people in the city without.

"We have demonstrated that there is plenty of community spirit in Sheffield.”

He added: “The first lockdown was inevitable and the second could have been a bit sooner. The third one was also inevitable as it was in response to the Kent variant, which is so much more transmisable.

“What is critical going forward is that we make financial support available to people who need to be isolating.

“People are avoiding being tested because they can’t afford the consequences of testing positive and having to isolate.

“If you are on minimum wage and a zero hours contact, and you have kids, you can’t afford not to work. So if people are in that situation and they are feeling ill, they tough it out.

“In the north there is more face to face industry, where people cannot work from home. So is it particularly important here that people are supported if they should not be going to work.”

Looking forward, Mr Fell is cautiously optimistic.

He said: “I think this summer will be similar to last summer, with some restrictions but it will feel moderately normal. We want to reopen Sheffield the best we can.

“I might not get to go to any thrash metal concerts this summer, which I would dearly love to do. But at least I’ll likely get to go to the pub.”