As we look back on what must have been one of the most momentous years in living memory for most of us, somehow, words just aren’t enough. Words aren’t enough to describe the ‘unprecedented’ and heroic commitment of NHS staff to put others first before their own safety. At a time, when none of us could see a way out of the pandemic, NHS staff were out there risking their own  lives to save lives.

Admittedly, as a lay member within the ICS, I have been more of an observer than a frontline worker. However, what I and my other lay colleagues across Yorkshire have been able to do throughout the pandemic, is to continue to act as advocates or ‘voices’ for service users, patients and the public. Where we could, we provided input into local and national campaigns to promote Covid safety messages. More recently, I have been privileged to support national campaigns targeted at communities affected by ‘vaccine hesitancy.’

Throughout 2020, the ICS lay member group met frequently to discuss ongoing regular business. However, as Covid took its grip and changed all our lives, we continually focussed on how the virus was affecting different groups. For example, back in November 2020, we made national concerns about care homes our concern too and it was a special agenda item for our monthly meeting.  We also had many discussions about health inequalities. In and amongst all that, some members of our group were diagnosed with Covid. They were therefore able to give first person accounts of its impact on their health and their lives.

Looking back at our agendas over the last year, we covered everything from Covid to cancer waiting times. However, we also discussed some good news stories such as  Rotherham’s launch of  a new digital platform called RotherHive. See The rollout of RotherHive in 2020, a resource designed to promote good mental health and well-being was very timely and remains timely. Rotherham clearly got ahead of the proverbial curve because it is only now that we are beginning to realise just how much the mental health of the nation, particularly children and young people has been affected by social isolation. Even if you don’t live in Rotherham, the tool provides brilliant signposting to national resources. What I particularly like about the resource is that it provides information about common mental health conditions but also provides helpful tips for family and friends on what to say and do if you detect symptoms of mental illness in someone else.

As we adjusted to the new 2020  version of ‘normal’, one other key change for our group was that we held our monthly lay member meetings virtually. This gave us the opportunity to reflect on the wider implications of virtual meetings. We recognised for example that virtual meetings presented a new opportunity for members of the public to engage and become more involved in CCG meetings than previously, when meetings were face to face. In some instances, virtual meetings ‘widened participation’ as it meant that barriers to attending meetings such as travel time, parking facilities and cost of travel had been removed.  However, as a group we also recognised that ‘digital exclusion’ is another inequality exposed by Covid. For those of us with the technology, the smartphones, the tablets, the PCs, the broadband and equipped with even basic digital literacy skills, we have simply adjusted to a new way of working and learning. Meanwhile, in many deprived or disadvantaged communities, existing inequalities have been exacerbated by the ‘technological response’ to the new ways of working and learning.

Now, as we embark on the next stage of the Government’s ‘road map’, we can, we hope, look forward to coming out the other end of the pandemic, Lessons we have learnt will travel with us. This includes a greater understanding of health inequalities in all its manifestations. It also includes a more determined commitment from all of us that are working within the health system to promote ‘levelling up’ and to do whatever we can in our respective roles, to promote better mental and physical health for all.

Visit the Get Involved section for more details on being a Lay Member or joining one of our patient representative roles