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President’s update: July 2020

Professor Sir Simon Wessely hands over the reins

It’s not a great time for ceremonies. Next week my son gets married. Originally there were going to be 120 of us, then it was cancelled, but now it’s back on. Apparently we could have 30 for the ceremony (but no reception), probably masked and certainly socially distanced, but the social repercussions of deciding who would be the “lucky” 30 would have dragged on for longer than the 100 Years War, so it’s ten - bride, groom, parents and siblings. No arguments possible. It will be lovely.

And another ceremony that will also have to be reduced to its bare essentials is the one marking the end of my Presidency. No admission of the new honorary fellows, no speeches, no dinner. I will most likely hand over the Chain of Office to Roger Kirby in the RSM bar – which I am delighted to say will be re-opening on Monday 3 August.

They say time passes quickly, and that is certainly true of the majority of the last three years, since the day Mr Sethia handed me the chain of office, admittedly with a bit more razzmatazz than this time. “Don’t worry” he told me. “Plenty of time to get used to it and nothing much happens in August anyway, just one easy meeting to chair.”

The meeting was neither small nor easy – the place was packed, not surprising since the guest of honour was the late Stephen Hawking. And we also had the world’s press – so many TV vans outside that Wimpole Street was grid locked, because Professor Hawking was engaged in a Twitter war with the then Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt, over his speech. A National Treasure, no, an International Treasure, versus a politician who was none too popular with the medical profession at the time, it was only going to end one way. Global press coverage that just ran and ran.

And so my three years began. The next 30 months passed swiftly. We had our ups. The Duke of Cambridge came to receive his Fellowship. The Duchess of Cambridge spent an afternoon with us at a meeting on the mental health of school children. But there was a down when I saw the photos of me greeting the Duchess across all the front pages the next day, in which I looked like a leering idiot. The Conservative Party managed to buy up all the pictures of David Cameron and Boris Johnson looking uber-privileged at the Bullingdon Club – if only I could do the same.

There have been great events – the RSM showing why an organisation rooted across the health professions was in an ideal position to debate and shape responses to medical manslaughter, civil emergencies, falling vaccination rates, assisted dying, knife crime, quarantine, to name just a few. CMOs, Secretaries of State, Presidents of the most learned societies, heads of the NHS and more seemed to accept and enjoy our invitations to lecture, and then press the flesh afterwards.

And there were also some unexpected treats. Stephen Fry, Henry Marsh and Rachel Clarke sharing a platform and talking about medical writing; Alastair Adams on the secret life of the medical portrait; Ken Loach on how he made that gut wrenching scene in I, Daniel Blake; Sally Davies struggling to remember what she and Jeremy Clarkson had in common; not one but two Nobel Laureates in as many days (Paul Nurse and Greg Winter); Adam Kay leading a sing-a-long; Jed Mercurio revealing to whoops of delight that there would be another series of Line of Duty; and more. There have been exquisite exhibitions in the Library and I hope as many of you as possible managed to take a little time off to indulge yourselves in these delights of medical history. People keep declaring that the library is dead – well, ours most definitely isn’t. And it will be re-opening in September.

We had our behind the scenes troubles. Afficionados of the causes of the First World War will recognise what I mean when I talk about our own July Crisis, which led to changes at the top of the organisation, but I hope that most of you weren’t ever aware of it. You probably were more aware of that cliché that affects every organisation – a smooth change of IT which becomes anything but smooth, but we muddled through.

And then time changed. At least it seemed to. For the first time in my life I understood what prisoners had told me when I was doing Forensic Psychiatry – that days are interminable, but weeks seem to pass swiftly. Yes, we were in lockdown. There was an unprecedented run on the word “unprecedented”. The word “uptick” seemed to replace “increase” without anyone noticing. And if I ever hear the words “Simon, you are muted” again I shall resort to violence.

For a time, it seemed as if the RSM, alongside so much else, had vanished. The building emptied, the doors locked, the lights off, and the staff scattered to the four winds. Some of us seemed to find time to finally learn a musical instrument, or to cook like Gordon Ramsay, but I suspect many if not most of our members ended up working harder than ever before, with new pressures, responsibilities and anxieties threatening to overwhelm, but without the intervening good bits. On it went – for me, each day much like the one before or the one after – staring at Zoom or Teams, but without the consolation of an evening event to look forward to, a convivial meal with friends, or a trip to the theatre or Stamford Bridge.

But all was not lost. Despite the tremendous constraints of working from home, our largely new senior team re-grouped, and rose to the occasion magnificently. We decided to set up a new series of webinars, drawing again on our position across the whole of the health sector, and not just one part of it, with the strap line “For Health Professionals, By Health Professionals”, focusing on Covid-19, and broadcast twice each week.

The wonderful Dr Rachel Clarke got us off to a flying start, and we have never looked back. One senior journalist admitted to us after a few weeks that “I’m a fan of the YouTube show, which is developing something of a cult following”. And just as our journal was able to announce an increase in its impact factor, so did the RSM overall. We attracted the top experts, gave them the space to talk and not be interrupted, answered your questions, and both you and the journalists came flocking either live or to watch the YouTube repeats. We received feedback the like of which I have never seen before. Even the occasional intrusion of a motor mower or fridge alarm (I plead guilty to both) was taken in good spirit. Our rotating panel of interviewers gained in confidence, aided by a backroom team that put even Question Time to shame.

Our weekly programme of longer and more reflective In Conversation webinars likewise grew from strength to strength. If you haven’t seen them, please do – again you’ll find them on YouTube.

There was no doubt that the RSM was back, and back in style, with bigger audiences and more press coverage that we were getting before the lockdown struck. And it is still going strong. My last day as President will end with a bang and not a whimper on Monday 27 July, when we host our most ambitious meeting yet, bringing together an extraordinary galaxy of international talent to discuss the clinical lessons of COVID-19.

Nearly all our Sections are now running their programmes online, and again, numbers are up compared to before. But it’s not all good news - it can’t be. Like every similar organisation we have been haemorrhaging money. We did all the COVID-19 Series for free, but that’s not sustainable in the future. Our hospitality business, one of our main revenue generators, ceased to exist. Yes, it is coming back as you read this, but the only way we will avoid more job losses is if you, our members, decide that it is worth visiting. We sold Chandos House – which we were planning on doing in any event. This gives us breathing space but it does not secure our future. The need to develop a sustainable financial model remains.

So, our new President, Surgeon Extraordinaire Roger Kirby, and our Chief Executive, the incomparable Michele Acton, have a lot to do. It will be for them to re-shape our offering, and develop the Society in a new way. But I am confident that they will, with the support of our excellent Council members. We have been around a long time and have weathered other storms. I believe that the RSM is as relevant as ever but will need to find some new ways of fulfilling its mission.

But at the same time, I am not one of those who believe that all is changed, and nothing will be the same again. I do not subscribe to a dystopian socially distanced mask-wearing future stretching on forever. Yes, we will do less of the things we never much liked – being crushed in the morning commute, queuing in the supermarket, crowding into department stores.

But there will still be a place for the now fashionably derided office (read Joe Moran in the Guardian), and there will definitely be a place for the physical as well as the virtual RSM. There will be events that afterwards people will again start to say, truthfully, “well, you had to be there”. And most of all, our deep instinctual need for company and companionship will never fade. Society will learn to accommodate the different tolerances for risk that we have, with or without the Deus ex Machina of the vaccine.

And so, I will shortly hand over the Chain of Office to Roger in person, wish him luck, tell him that being President of the Royal Society of Medicine is an honour, a privilege and great fun, and then we will toast each other together in the Lounge Bar, with no Zoom or mute button in sight. And we both hope that as time passes, more and more of you will join us, virtually and also in person.

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