Labour has called on the government to enact a mental health and wellbeing guarantee this winter, warning that failing to act could lead to a crisis for thousands of people suffering from stress and anxiety triggered by a second wave of Covid-19.
The number of people suffering from depression nearly doubled during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic and there are fears a second lockdown over the coming months will see the problem “explode”.
The Duke of Cambridge warned last week of a “mental health catastrophe” caused by further lockdown measures while Alsatair Campbell, a campaigner on mental health issues and Independent columnist, has suggested mental illness could become a second pandemic.
Millions of Britons are now living under the tighest Covid-19 restrictions, with residents in Manchester, Liverpool and Lancashire among those facing curbs on movement.
Wales is under a two-week firebreak that restricts people to only leave their home for limited reasons, such as to buy food and medicine, provide care or take exercise. They must also work from home where possible.
A study by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on Friday revealed levels of anxiety, worry and loneliness are at their highest in months while life satisfaction has fallen.
Anxiety levels remain at the highest recorded since April, while almost half (49 per cent) of adults said their wellbeing is being affected by the virus – the highest since mid-April.
More than three quarters of adults (76 per cent) are very or somewhat worried about the impact of Covid-19 on their lives - the highest proportion since April, the ONS said.
And more than a quarter (27 per cent) of adults said they feel lonely often, always or some of the time - the highest proportion since May.
The NHS has also reported a rise in staff sick days blamed on mental ill health, with almost a third (32 per cent) of all absences in June for mental health reasons.
Anxiety, stress, depression and other psychiatric illnesses were blamed for more than 475,000 days lost in that one month alone – a 3 per cent increase on May. Strikingly, mental health related absences were three times higher than for Covid-related sickness over the period.
Labour claimed the health secretary, Matt Hancock, and Nadine Dorries, the mental health minister, only met with two mental health organisations and did not meet with a single mental health trust during the first three months of lockdown in the spring.
Now, the party is calling for a mental health and wellbeing guarantee which would see the government actively promote ways to improve mental health as people face restrictions, ensure continued access to services and treatment that might be affected by lockdowns, commit to ensuring data is regularly collected on mental health and referral times and regularly meet with experts from the sector.
Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, Labour's shadow mental health minister, warned on Sky News’ ‘Sophy Ridge on Sunday’ programme that the UK faced a “long, dark winter” and said the number of referrals to mental health services had dropped after depression rates had “skyrocketed” during the first wave of the pandemic.
In a statement released on Saturday night, Dr Allin-Khan called for action to protect the mental health of frontline health and care staff, including through a 'Care for Carers' package, which would provide a 24/7 phone line for the UK’s three million health and care staff and would provide specialist mental health support where needed.
She said: “The government has turned a blind eye to the mental health crisis that has exploded following the government's response to Covid-19.
"People's mental health across the country has been hugely impacted by Covid-19 and the government's lack of action.
“The time to act is now – we need a concerted government strategy for mental health this winter.
“As the clocks go back this weekend and the days grow shorter, people's mental health needs to be at the centre of the government's response to Covid-19.”
The Independent contacted the Department of Health for comment.