Covid one year on: How the director of health in Northamptonshire suddenly found herself at the centre of the pandemic

Lucy Wightman reveals the challenges, frustrations and what has made her proud of the last 12 months

Monday, 8th March 2021, 3:50 pm
Updated Monday, 8th March 2021, 3:52 pm
Lucy Wightman, director of health in Northamptonshire

To say that in the first four years of her role as director of health Lucy Wightman has had experience of crisis management would be somewhat of an understatement.

Lucy took the role in 2017 at a time when Northamptonshire County Council was in freefall. The authority was in financial meltdown, heading towards bankruptcy. Her predecessors had left and Lucy had been brought in one of several consultants as part of the team charge with rebuilding the council, its services and its reputation in the community.

Her work was largely internal to the authority, managing change and bringing services back to the level the county expected and deserved.

But nothing could have prepared Lucy for what was to follow.

The first case in Northamptonshire was reported in March last year. It quickly snowballed into the global pandemic, the impact of which will be felt for years to come.

For Lucy, she suddenly found herself in the media spotlight, the face of county's battle to control the spread of the virus.

"We are trained for outbreaks but you don't imagine you will be dealing with a global pandemic that has the impact and duration that this has had," Lucy said.

"It has been the most challenging period of my professional career. It has been exhausting. The initial adrenaline that kept us going through the first wave has very much waned. It has gone from a sprint to one of the most gruelling marathons we have experienced," Lucy added.

For Lucy herself there were many professional challenges, not least the sudden public well the responsibility of leading the community at large through the pandemic and making some uncomfortable, and unpopular at times, decisions.

"I've tried to be honest and credible, that is what I would want. When there has been a risk, I have said there has been a risk but I am never going to get it right for everyone. It has tested my own personal resilience but it is a job that I signed up to," she said.

The loss and tragedy experienced by thousands of families across Northamptonshire is one that weighs heavily on Lucy's shoulders, not least because of Lucy's own personal experience.

"I lost my father [last year]. I went to the funeral in the morning and came back to work in the afternoon because the first case had been reported in Northamptonshire. I didn't get the chance to mourn my father properly. I can only imagine how people who have lost someone during the pandemic have felt - the ability to mourn has been so hindered," Lucy said.

The impact of personal grief for people in Northamptonshire, as well as the economic impact and social isolation is one that concerns Lucy for the future in terms of mental health, but there is hope too.

"There is the here and now impact, as well as the long term - there are relationships that have been broken, not being able to say goodbye to the people they love but there have been new relationships forged and that is the counter to the sorrow. We as communities have never worked so closely," she said.

Lucy is not ashamed to admit that the weekly clap for the NHS brought tears to her eyes.

"Everyone was doing 17 and 18-hour days, seven days a week - the feeling of appreciation and support was lovely," she said.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, so how does Lucy look back on some of the decisions that were taken during the last 12 months?

"If we knew then what what we know now - and I am talking about at a central government level - we would have done some things sooner...border controls, providing more financial support. It is not just about health protection, the economic impact is something that will affect health for many years," Lucy said.

The longer term effect on the population was also something that was not recognised in the early months of the pandemic, Lucy added, and this may have deepened the impact.

There have been many lessons learnt during the pandemic, many of which will help support the public more in the future.

Outbreaks in warehouses has been one of the most challenging aspects during the past year with the outbreak at Greencore the most high profile. Many of the people affected did not have English as their first language, making communication challenging.

"Since I started here we have changed the services we provided but I have never put anything out in any other language that English - we clearly don't do enough to make our services understandable and accessible and I have to take responsibility for that," Lucy said.

So what of the future, what does the next year, two years, five years hold?

"Clearly Covid is something that we will have to live with, like flu - we have to start accepting this as business as usual and start to manage it. We have to reopen some of the services that have been affected, we have to address the issues around public health and do it in such a way that people are provided with support,"Lucy said.

"We won't understand the long-term effects for many years. The mental health issues will be very personal to individuals and there is the whole impact around people who have lost jobs and lost out on education. It could be generational," she added.

One thing that Lucy hopes will remain is the community spirit that shone throughout the pandemic.

"The way the public have responded and the kindness they have shown each other and the way the different agencies have supported each other - I have never seen the power of the people in the way that we have.

"It is important to recognise what we have achieved. Aside from the keyboard warriors and the trolls on social media, it has restored my faith in humanity."