London has suffered the highest Covid-19 infection rates and almost 6,000 deaths during the coronavirus pandemic. For two months, a city of almost nine million people was shut down as most Londoners self-isolated while the streets fell almost silent.
Yet, along with London’s doctors, nurses, emergency and carers, an army of the capital’s key workers – train and bus drivers, shop workers, refuse collectors and support staff – kept at it for our benefit. What toll that perseverance has taken on Londoners‘ mental health is unknown, but even for those in relative safety and comfort this has been a period of anxiety, stress and, for some, depression.
GQ spoke to mayor of London Sadiq Khan in connection with the #LondonTogether initiative about what the capital is doing to cope with the emotional fallout of such a gruelling and unnerving experience.
Sadiq Khan: Yes.
The health and wellbeing of Londoners is so important to me. I’ve always said I want London to be a city where everyone can speak openly about their mental health and get the right support when needed and I’ve been working closely with health and care leaders, emergency services, charities, schools and community activists for the last four years to develop this.
It’s never been more vital for Londoners to support and be kind to one another and go that extra mile to protect the most vulnerable in our city. There is no set way to deal with the mental toll of Covid-19 or social distancing, which is why it’s so crucial we talk about our mental health, because it encourages others to speak out and reminds us that no one is superhuman.
Thrive LDN is coordinating London’s public mental health response to Covid-19. They have produced some brilliant, practical resources to help if the crisis is harming your mental health and I would encourage everyone to visit their website.
London’s digital mental wellbeing service, Good Thinking, has partnered with Thrive to create a coronavirus guide to staying happy and healthy at home. It includes ideas on how to stay connected while you’re physically apart from friends and loved ones, as well as tips on self-care.
I have to admit, as someone who thrives on meeting people, lockdown has been an emotional rollercoaster for me, with good days and bad. And I’ve got to acknowledge I’m incredibly fortunate to have a decent-sized home, with a garden, a loving family I get on with and a dog, Luna, who keeps us entertained.
I know the stereotype is that as men we’re not always the best at talking about our feelings, but it’s so important to do so. If you are feeling down or worried, tell someone.
It really does help in my experience.
What steps are being taken not just to ensure physical safety but to address the potential distress caused by travelling on packed trains and buses?
A lot has changed in recent months, more than any of us could have predicted, so it’s no wonder that many people are feeling anxious about the future. I cannot emphasise this enough, but, due to the need to adhere to social distancing, unless you absolutely must use public transport you should continue to avoid doing so wherever possible.
Everyone who usually relies on public transport but is now walking and cycling is creating space for people who can’t. Public transport is a precious resource and even when we get back to the point where all services are running at 100 per cent, we need people to be thinking of others.
That’s why we are doing what we can to support walkers and cyclists by announcing our plans to transform parts of Central London into one of the largest car-free zones in any capital city in the world. Some streets are being converted to walking and cycling only, with others restricted to all traffic apart from buses.
We are making real progress on our plans to build up public transport services, with more than 90 per cent of tubes running in rush hour, and are working hard to make it safer for people who have no alternative but to use public transport by introducing one-way systems in stations and reminding people of the need to stay two metres apart. Hand sanitiser points were installed at around 600 locations across the network last weekend, including Stratford, Waterloo, Kings Cross and Westminster Tube stations, with a further 350 points being installed in the next fortnight.
This is a deeply personal issue.
My dad was a bus driver, so I can’t help thinking about how he or his colleagues and friends would have found this challenging time.
TFL has a range of measures to help staff and it has been sharing them throughout the workforce.
This includes its dedicated occupational health team, a peer support group, a confidential 24/7 telephone helpline with access to counselling – which also supports their immediate family – online help and mental health training and health and wellbeing champions. It also trains staff as mental health first aiders and links to a range of external organisations that can also provide support if workers want to speak to someone outside of TFL.
School closure is creating distress for children and many parents, especially those without the resources or time to home school. What’s your stance on how soon London’s schools should reopen and how this should be done?
Meanwhile, children have been cooped up for weeks and are really missing their teachers and friends.
More than 1,500 primary schools across London have been taking pupils of key workers during this period and talk of them taking more pupils is welcome, but it must be done in a phased manner when the time is right.
I know there is anxiety among many parents about some whole classes potentially going back at the start of June.
There is no one size fits all approach for London schools and there are a wide range of factors to consider, including the availability of school staff, the size of the school, the number of pupils, as well as the physical size of its classrooms and corridors.
It’s vital that the government makes sure schools are safe places for the children and staff and that the journey to and from school is safe. What we also don’t want is children and their parents and carers suddenly using public transport at the same time during rush hour, leading to social interaction and to the virus spreading.
With the likelihood that there will be a huge increase in outdoor activity in the summer – bars, clubs etc – what steps are being taken to ensure this does not cause distress to those exposed to anti-social behaviour – in particular the concerns of the elderly and vulnerable?
As we move towards the next phase, it will be even more important that we all abide by the guidance and act in a socially responsible way.
I want to assure everyone that we’ll continue to work with all our partners across London to make sure that the latest guidance is adhered to and we continue to protect the most vulnerable in our society.
What are you planning to do to tackle homelessness and addiction-related behaviour (including drug-related crime) when the lockdown ends and going forward? It involves vast numbers of people with serious mental health problems.
Meanwhile, outreach services have been working around the clock since this crisis started to get people who are on the streets or in shelters into safe, secure accommodation.
This week I relaunched my Homelessness Change fund, making £40m available to providers of homeless services to allow them to refurbish and remodel hostels in order to make them Covid-19 safe.
Homelessness service providers across London have risen to the unique challenges posed by the pandemic but, with social distancing and self-isolation requirements set to continue for some time to come, many organisations are looking at making permanent changes to their hostels.
We simply can’t go back to the way things were before this pandemic.
We’re also ensuring that all hotel residents benefit from our “In For Good” principle. This means that they each have a plan in place for when this crisis is over to move them into a secure form of accommodation where they can get the help they need to resume their lives in safety.
Is London able to learn anything from other cities around the world about dealing with the pressures and stresses of living and working in a huge metropolis, especially in the context of the recent crisis?
The experience of other countries has shown that new outbreaks are highly likely and that without a rapid test-trace-isolate and support system in place these clusters can quickly spiral out of control. Germany, Singapore and South Korea adopted extensive testing and contact tracing at an early stage in the crisis; New Zealand and Australia have put enhanced measures in place as part of their lockdown easing plans; and New York State is rolling out America’s largest ever contact tracing scheme ahead of the easing of measures.
We must learn from them and continue to stay vigilant.
Honestly though, I have never been so proud to be a Londoner.
I’m grateful to everyone for the huge sacrifices they have made and continue to make during this time, particularly those essential workers on the front lines who have gone above and beyond to treat our sick, care for our elderly and keep our city running. Although this has been a challenging time for everyone, I’ve also been so encouraged and inspired by stories of communities coming together across our city to support not just their family and loved ones, but offering kindness to those who need it the most.
#LondonTogether invites Londoners to highlight great examples of positive community action and gives much deserved appreciation for the work of our health and care staff, emergency services, key workers and volunteers.
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