COVID-19 Pandemic

The SHA wants to contribute to the tremendous national and international debate about controlling and mitigating the worst effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. We will base these thoughts through the lens of a socialist society, which advocated politically in the 1930s to create the NHS in the UK and for other socialist policies, which see the social determinants of health being as important as the provision of health and social care services as we strive for a healthier and fairer society.

This blog will be the first of a series and will cover

 

  1. A global crisis
  2. The Public Health system
  3. The NHS, Local Government and Social Care
  4. Funding for staff and facilities
  5. Staff training, welfare and support
  6. Vulnerable populations
  7. Assuring Universal Basic Income

 

  1. A global crisis

This COVID-19 pandemic has already been cited as the greatest public health crisis for at least a generation. The HIV/AIDS pandemic starting in the 1980s had a much slower spread between countries and is estimated to have caused an estimated 25-30m excess deaths so far.  The potential scale of this type of respiratory viral infection pandemic with a faster spread means we should probably look back to the 1957 Asian flu pandemic and indeed the 1918 post war ‘Spanish flu’. The 1918 pandemic led to an estimated 40-50m global deaths and was when there was also no effective vaccine or treatment for the new variant of flu. So basic public health hygiene (hand washing), identifying cases and quarantining (self isolation) are still important. We recognise this as a global challenge, which requires global solidarity and the sharing of knowledge/expertise and advice.

The WHO, which is part of the United Nations, needs our support and is performing a very beneficial role.  This will be especially important for those Low Middle Income Countries (LMICs) who often have unstable political environments and weak public health and health systems. Remember the Democratic Republic of the Congo who have only just seen off their Ebola epidemic, war torn Syria and the Yemen.

The USA and other high-income countries should be unambiguous about recognising this as a fundamental global pandemic requiring collaboration between countries along the principles of mutual aid. The UN and WHO need our support and funding and we look to international financial organisations such as the IMF/World Bank to rally around in the way that the world banking system showed they could in their own self inflicted 2008 financial crash. The WHO has recently referred to Europe as the epicentre of the pandemic and we urge the Government to put aside their ideological objections and co-operate fully with the EU and our European partners.

 

  1. The public health system

The UK itself is in a relatively strong position with a national public health service, which has focus at a UK level (CMO/PHE), scientific advisory structures (SAGE), devolved governments, municipalities and local government. The NHS too still has national lines of control from NHSE to the NHS in England and the equivalents in devolved countries. The Tory ‘Lansley’ reforms in England destroyed the health authority structure below national levels (remember the former Strategic and District Health Authorities) but at least PHE has a regional organisation and Local Government have Directors of Public Health. We regret the fact that the 10 years of Tory austerity has depleted the resources in PHE and Local Government through not funding the PHE budget adequately and not honouring the public health grant for local authorities. We hope that the recent budget will mean that the public health service and local government does receive the financial and other resources required to help lead the pandemic response. Pandemics have always been high up in the UK risk register.

 

  1. The NHS, Local Government and Social Care

We are grateful that despite the privatisation of many parts of the NHS in England we still have a recognisable system and a culture of service rather than profit within our one million or so staff and their NHS organisations. We were pleased to hear the open ended funding commitment from the Chancellor at the last budget and urge that leaders within the NHS in England and the devolved countries use this opportunity to try to mitigate the underfunding over the last 10 years and implement the emergency plans that exist and calibrate them to deal most effectively with this particular viral threat. Any debates about further privatisation of the NHS needs to be taken off the agenda and let’s not use the budget money to prop up the private sector but requisition capacity if that is what is needed and compensate usage on an NHS cost basis. We want to protect the NHS from the risk that the NHS Long Term Plan proposals for 44 Integrated Care Schemes opens up the risk of US styled private insurance schemes.

 

  1. Funding for staff and facilities.

It will of course be difficult as a result of the staffing crisis that has been allowed to drift over the past 10 years with shortages of NHS workforce of 100,000 of which 40,000 are nurse vacancies but also includes doctors and other key staff. We and our Labour Party colleagues have been reminding Tory Ministers  that it takes 10 years to train a medical specialist so you cannot whistle them up or poach them from other poorer countries. The government needs to abolish their proposed points based immigration regime and indeed the compulsory NHS insurance of £650 per adult which is a huge disincentive to come here and work in the health and social care system.

Hospitals and other health facilities in the UK take time to plan, build and commission. We can of course learn from Wuhan in China where they built a 1000 bedded hospital in weeks! Our own war preparation in the late 1930s when industry shifted production rapidly from civilian to military supplies is another exemplar. Despite the negative impact of 10 years of Tory austerity we urge the NHS to embrace this opportunity to invest in staff, supplies and facilities needed to manage the effects of the pandemic. Creating strategic regional NHS bodies will ensure that capital and revenue resources committed from the centre are used optimally and equitable to meet population needs in collaboration with local authorities.

 

  1. Staff training, welfare and support

Front line NHS and social care staff will need our support over this time. We must ensure that working practices protect staff as much as possible from the risks in the workplace. Training and provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is vital and employment practices will need to adapt to the changing situation. Lets not forget social care workers, dentists, optometrists and district nurses who are part of our front line. Staff will need retraining if doctors and nurses are to be diverted to unfamiliar roles as we will need A&E, pandemic pods and intensive care unit capacity to be enhanced. Sadly, we now have a significant workforce who work for private contractors as part of the Tory privatisation of the NHS. We need to ensure that they have the same employment safeguards, minimum pay levels, sick pay and the health and safety entitlements as NHS staff. This is the time to renationalise such services back into the fold.

 Patients with existing long-term conditions remain in need of continuing care as will patients presenting with new life-threatening conditions such as cancers, diabetes and circulatory diseases. NHS managers will need support to organise these different services and decisions to postpone non-urgent elective surgery to free up resources. What also makes sense is testing novel ways of supporting people digitally and by teleconferencing to reduce attendance at NHS premises. This can be rolled out for Out Patient provision as well as GP surgeries. The NHS 111 service, and other online services  and the equivalents in the devolved nations can easily be overwhelmed so pushing out good health information and advice is being done and needs to continue. The public and patient engagement has always been at the heart of our policies and can be rolled out in this emergency utilising the third sector more imaginatively.

 

  1. Vulnerable populations.

In our assessment of what needs to be done we must not bypass the urgent needs of some of our most vulnerable populations. The homeless and rootless populations, many of whom have longstanding mental health conditions and/or substance dependency, are particularly at risk. They need urgent attention working closely with the extensive voluntary sector. Also those populations with long term conditions who will feel at risk if services are withdrawn due to staff redeployment or staff sickness need planning for. Primary care needs to be the service we support to flag up those in need and ensure that their medications and personal care needs continue to be met even if we need to involve volunteers and good neighbours to help out with daily needs such as shopping/providing meals and other tasks.

Undocumented workers such as migrants and refugees are often frightened to use health services for fear of police intrusion. The government needs to make it clear that there will be no barriers to care for this population during this crisis and beyond.

Social care is in need of particular attention. It was virtually ignored in the budget. This sector is at risk in terms of problems with recruiting and retaining staff as well as the needs of the recipients of care and support.. While business continuity plans may be in place there is no question that this sector needs investment and generous support at the time of such an emergency. They will be a vital cog in the wheel alongside home-based carers in supporting the NHS and wider social care system. Those most at risk seem to be the most neglected. Disabled people with care needs have received little advice and no support. Already carers are going off sick and can be replaced only with great difficulty. Those paying for their own care with Direct Payments seem to get no support at all.

With the COVID-19 virus we are seeing that the older population and those with so called ‘underlying conditions’ are at particular risk. We must ensure that this large population do not feel stigmatised and become isolated. Rapid assembly of local support groups should be encouraged which has been referred to as ‘local COBRA groups’. Local government can play a key role in establishing local neighbourhood centres for information and advice on accessing support as we move toward increasing quarantining and isolated households. Again wherever possible the use of IT and telephone connectivity to share information and provide remote support will make this more manageable.

 

  1. Assuring universal basic income.

Finally the SHA recognises that the economy will be damaged by the pandemic, organisations will go to the wall and staff will lose their jobs and income stream. We have always recognised that the fundamental inequalities arise from the lack of income, adequate housing and the means to provide for everyday life. This pandemic will last for months and we think that the Government needs to ensure that we have systems in place to ensure that every citizen has access to an adequate income through this crisis. We pay particular attention to the 2m part time workers and those on zero hours contracts as well as the 5m self-employed. There have been welcome changes in the timely access to the insufficient Statutory Sick Pay but this is not going to be the answer. People will be losing their jobs as different parts of the economy go under as we are already seeing with aviation, the retail sector and café/restaurants. The government needs to reassure those fearful of losing their jobs that they will stand by them during the pandemic. It may be the time to test the Universal Basic Income concept to give all citizens a guarantee that they will have enough income for healthy living. We already have unacceptable health inequalities so we must not allow this to get worse.

 

  1. Conclusion

The SHA stands ready to support the national and international efforts to tackle this pandemic. We assert our belief that a socialist approach sees universal health and social care as an essential part of society. That these systems should be funded by all according to a progressive taxation system and meet peoples needs being free at the point of use.  We believe that a thriving state owned and operated NHS and a complimentary not for profit care sector is essential to achieve a situation where rich and poor, young and old and citizens in towns, cities and in rural areas have equal access to the best care.

We recognise that the social determinants of health underpin our health. We agree with Marmot who reminds us that health and wellbeing is reflected by ‘the conditions that people are born, grow, live, work and age and by the inequities in power, money and resources that influence these conditions’.

The pandemic is global and is a major threat to people’s health and wellbeing. Universal health and public health services offer the best means of meeting this challenge nationally and globally. Populism and inward looking nationalism needs to be challenged as we work to reduce the human suffering that is unfolding and direct resources to meet the needs of the people at this time.

On behalf of officers and vice chairs

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