The Socialist Health Association (SHA) published its first two Blogs on the COVID-19 pandemic on the 17th March and 24th March 2020. A lot has happened over the past week and we will address some of these developments from our political perspective.

  1. A global crisis

The pandemic continues to spread around the world and we are seeing that while Europe remains a global hotspot the epicentre is now shifting to North America. It remains to be seen how the Trump administration ‘handles’ the situation but global leadership and best practice will not emanate from the White House and we will need to look to those progressive State and City level leaders in New York City and California for examples of political leadership in a crisis.

The astonishing successes in tackling the pandemic seen in the Far East should still be sources of practical evidence of good practice. Despite the concerns about transparency in the Chinese system it remains an extraordinary achievement to have controlled the spread from the centre of Wuhan (population 11m) to be contained within Hubei Province (population 58m). A bit like London and the rest of the UK! The 1.4bn population of China have so far been exposed to relatively minimal spread. Some of the urban populations in China are huge such as Shanghai’s 24m people and the density and housing would be vulnerable to the spread of C-19. Our government talk of ‘contain’ and ‘delay’ and ‘suppress’ the coronavirus – well there is much to learn from Asia.

Whenever we see TV footage of the Chinese control measures, staff in public places are gowned, have masks and/or goggles and gloves. Clearly there is no shortage of PPE in China! Frequently you see officials challenging people in the streets and checking temperatures with the thermal imaging meters. Of course these screening measures are imprecise and the scientific evidence to support them is thin but we were told in the UK that the two key questions were – have you got a fever or a dry cough? We know that many people are symptomless when they first contract the virus and can be infectious but this does not rule out basic questions such as these delivered by lay workers to protect others in the streets/shops/surgeries/workplaces? People who have symptoms of a cough or fever are referred to diagnostic pods for advice and further testing. This does seem to be good public health control and is also used at airports and seaports, which have been pretty absent in the UK.

Test, test, test was the refrain from WHO leader Dr Tedros A. G. and one of the countries that has shown success in controlling the spread of C-19 is democratic capitalist South Korea where the population of 52m has had 9,583 confirmed cases with only 152 deaths by the 29th March. They have led the world in PCR testing for the presence of the virus with an estimated 316,000 tests done by 20th March. Germany is close behind with 167,000 tests done and the UK trails behind at 64,000 by the 19th March. It is basic communicable disease control methodology to identify probable cases by the history (symptoms/signs) and then have a test to confirm the case. If positive then there is contact tracing and cases are quarantined. It is still not clear why the PCR testing capacity was not scaled up in the UK during the time between the middle of January when the RNA code of COVID-19 was shared worldwide and March when demand for testing and containment accelerated. This is one of the key questions for the enquiry after the pandemic is over.  The relative lack of testing capacity has made the control measures here more difficult. The cases recorded here have, since abandoning the contain phase, been those presenting to hospitals rather than measuring the incidence in the community.

Attention is now moving towards rolling out the second test – the ‘have you had it?’ antibody test. This will not help in the early stages of the illness but will help confirm that people have actually had C-19 and will in most cases have immunity to the virus. This will give more confidence for NHS and Social Care and other essential workers to return confidently to their workplaces. This is in the evaluation stage but should be available soon and hopefully will not be held up. Getting scarce NHS and Social care workers, and other essential workers back to work is extremely important as is protecting them at work from contracting infections.

The pandemic is gradually spreading to India and down the African continent too. This will expose more at risk populations living on the edge economically, often in poor and unsanitary housing. We know that infection control measures will be difficult to undertake and the health services remain relatively weak in LMICs. As ever, social determinants of health and wellbeing will emerge as factors and the mortality will reflect the global inequalities we already know about.

So it was good to learn on the 25th March that the G7 countries have stated their support for the UN and WHO and committed some resources to help tackle the pandemic. The UK has offered £240m which if mirrored by other G7 countries will not get very far towards the WHO target of £71 billion for the immediate public health response and priority research. Lets hope that sufficient resources will flow but sadly the richest country in the world (USA) has had a recent track record of disinvesting from global organisations such as the UN and WHO.

As in the previous Blogs we support the research into novel treatments and the development of a vaccine but not to let that divert us from trying to delay the spread of the virus across our country by enforcing the stay at home and lockdown measures. We should continue to apply basic public health control measures, even within households, of isolating symptomatic people, strengthening hand washing and hygiene measures.

We also welcome the action that has been taken by some Local Authorities to provide accommodation for the homeless and rootless and also providing them with food and places to stay during the day, which reduces spread amongst this very vulnerable population. Lets make some of these initiatives set the pattern for tackling this issue in the post pandemic age.

 

  1. 2. The NHS and Social Care

The NHS has been ramping up their preparedness and we welcome the use of private facilities as part of the national response although we prefer that this is seen as requisitioning and not a favourable commercial contract for the private sector. We also welcome the creation of the emergency Nightingale Hospitals built in Conference centres and sports stadia in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Belfast and Cardiff . These new beds will be purpose built for COVID-19 caseloads but we note that they will need to be staffed by trained nurses and doctors. These new beds must be seen alongside the closure of an estimated 33,000 beds since 2008/9, which has weakened the NHS resilience and made the UK one of the European countries with the lowest beds/1000 population. For example Eurostat data for 2017 identifies ‘curative beds/100K population’ and shows that Germany had 601, France 309, Italy 262, Spain 242 and the UK 211. It is no surprise then that we see intensive care patients being airlifted from Italy and France to Germany. Germany’s testing control measures and its hospital bed capacity is part of the explanation for them appearing more in control of the situation with currently a comparatively low death rate.

We have seen a massive shift in the way that GP services are provided and how GPs and patients are adapting to telephone and videoconferencing. GPs are also playing a vital role in advising and supporting those receiving community care and have long term conditions. These vulnerable patients will be well known to their primary care teams and reliant on being able to get advice. It goes without saying that out of hospital care will be vital during the time when local acute hospitals are stressed with redesigning services to deal with acutely ill COVID-19 patients.

In terms of overall preparedness one does wonder whether the NHS was more prepared for Brexit than a pandemic!

The social and residential care sector in the UK will be a vital player as the pandemic rolls out with its particular risk for older people. The dynamic between social care and the NHS will be important as the NHS struggles and the transfer/admitting/discharge criteria change. Already the NICE guidance on criteria for intensive care has identified frailty explicitly as an issue to assess suitability to admit a patient.

As with other key services social and residential care staffing will be a challenge as recruitment and retention issues increase and staff stay off work to self isolate. The guidance on personal protective equipment (PPE) is being actively reviewed and both NHS and Social Care staff in the Community must be provided with appropriate protective equipment to match the cases that they are assessing in the community or actually caring for. This will become more important for primary care clinicians as well as social care staff asked to look after acute COVID-19 patients or those discharged for hospitals.

 

  1. Jobs and income

Clearly the pandemic has driven a coach and horses through the economy. The Chancellor’s proposals have been helpful and the proposals for the self -employed has moved a long way toward providing some security for this sector. The gig economy however is more difficult and the benefit system has been shown to be inadequate as a place to go for this group of workers. The SHA still feels that there is an opportunity to trial universal basic income as a mechanism to provide all citizens with assurance of having enough income for their health and wellbeing.

There are also concerns that without close Parliamentary scrutiny there are risks that the Tory government will award contracts to their people and the State revenues will be subject to fraudulent claims from off shore companies and global players who have been able over the years to duck paying tax. The SHA has always viewed a progressive tax system to be the route to funding necessary services and that tax dodging should be rooted out.

There may be a case now for a form of  Parliamentary scrutiny so Labour Shadow Ministers have sight of the details around awarding such huge amounts of public money to companies run by the Bransons and Dysons of this world. There is a positive movement underway shown by the selfless work of health and social care services and other essential workers. It is also exhibited by the clapping applause last Thursday and the 750,000 volunteers.

There should be an opportunity as we come out of this crisis to lay the foundations for a different type of society in the same way that after WW2 the incoming Labour party brought in such great reforms as creating the NHS and introducing State Education.

 

On behalf of the Officers and the Vice-Chairs of the SHA.

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2 Comments

  1. This blog post is interesting and makes the key point that there must be an independent enquiry after the disaster over.

    As I understand it, it was the wartime government which made the key progress with regard to upgrading education:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/schoolreport/25751787

    The Labour Party is going to have to do a remarkable job if it is to emulate the reforms of Attlee, especially as the climate crisis will be unfolding. Let’s hope that its most radical members stay indoors as much as possible.

  2. Jon says:

    There is an important employer social and health care provider group who are not mentioned at all. Direct Payment recipients who us monies form Local Authorities and combine this with their own resources and disability benefits to employ their own carers. They are employers and have responsibility to their employees including the provision of Protective Clothing. They and their employees are overlooked and ignored. They are prohibited from accessing supplies by agencies acting for the government because they are not register by the Care Quality Commission. They are providers and they are employers and they are vulnerable by definition. If their care breaks down they have nowhere to go. The Department of Health and Social Care need to change the policy to permit them to access vital equipment for themselves and their carers .

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