The SHA started to publish its Covid-19 Blogs on the 17th March and since then have issued weekly blogs. It is extraordinary to reflect on this being our sixth commentary on the socialist health view of the unfolding global pandemic.

In earlier Blogs we have covered many different topics and each Blog reflects on particular issues that have sprung up over the past week and identified as emerging issues. In this week’s Blog we will look at social care, testing, and possible steps out of lockdown.

  1. Social Care

This has rightly hit the headlines over the past week as the plight of our care services and their residents have been under the media spotlight. We knew from the early data from China mid January that the C-19 virus seemed to particularly harm older people and particularly adults with underlying conditions such as obesity, diabetes, heart and lung disease. Mortality rates in these at risk groups is comparatively high and 90% of deaths in the UK have been in the over 60 year olds with half of these deaths being in people over 80 years old. This has led the UK government to define vulnerable groups and also those ‘very vulnerable’ people who need to be ‘shielded’ from exposure to the virus. The very vulnerable shielded groups are estimated to a number 1.5m and are self isolating indoors for 12 weeks. Many but not all of these very vulnerable people will be in residential or nursing homes.

Having identified these at risk populations, attention needed to be directed towards those sub populations of older or vulnerable people who were living in residential or nursing homes. These institutions are high risk as ‘closed communities’ accommodating a group of high-risk individuals who would be at risk of an outbreak of C-19 within that setting.  Decisions have had to be made by the management of these residential and nursing homes to, in many cases,  exclude relatives from visiting.  Some brave and extremely committed care staff have decided to move themselves into the nursing or residential homes to reduce the risk of them bringing C-19 in from their own homes and local community. It cannot be a surprise to hear now about outbreaks in these establishments causing disease and death to workers and their residents. Again like other aspects of this pandemic response – we had early warnings from Italy and Spain about the isolation and risks that this sector faced. Did we do enough quick enough?

SHA President Prof Allyson Pollock published an Editorial in the BMJ on the 14th April, which identified that social services in the UK are amongst the most privatised and fragmented in the world, and have been underfunded for decades. Between 2010 and 2018 local authority spending on social care in England fell by 49% in real terms. The UK has 5500 providers operating 11,300 care homes for older people and 83% of these care home beds are provided by the for-profit sector, it is more privatised than the US.

She also reports that care services employ 1.6m care staff (1.1m full time equivalent) of which 78% are employed by the independent sector. Pay is low; 24% of people working in adult social care are on zero hours contracts, and in March 2019 around a quarter were being paid the national living wage of £7.83 an hour or less. The sector is 120,000 workers short, and agency staff, are commonly employed and move from care home to care home. Social care has been a low priority for PPE supplies despite the high risks for residents and staff.

Valiant efforts have been made by the sector with heroism shown by these low paid workers as well as stoicism by residents, many of whom may well be bemused and depressed as to why they no longer have visitors as well as the unusual PPE equipment being used by staff. It will have been difficult to plan for the various contingencies when cases emerged in homes, to access testing of staff and residents, to successfully isolate cases and discuss whether residents should be moved to hospital to obtain extra levels of care. Such admissions to more resourced NHS facilities should be an option even if cases would not meet eligibility for ITU care or wishing to be subject to that level of intrusive care. There should be options available, rather than simply assuming appropriate care will be delivered in that setting by stretched staff with relatively few registered nurses, no medical presence on site and few resources of PPE and other equipment such as oxygen supplies, oxygen delivery equipment and monitors such as oximeters.

The SHA has been concerned about the social care sector for years and has developed policies to transform the sector under the banner ‘rescuing social care’. At the 2019 Labour Party Conference the SHA called on a future Labour Government to legislate for a duty to provide a universal system of social care and support based on a universal right to independent living. This should be based on need and offering choice; be free at the point of use, universally provided and fully funded through progressive taxation. This new National Care Service (NCS) should ensure that there are nationally agreed qualifications for staff, a career structure and enhanced pay and conditions of service. Recognition of informal carers is needed too with clarity about rights and support. The policy proposal has many other facets and stops short of integrating the NCS with the NHS. However close working would be built in and integrating data and information into a common system would be expected.

As for many of the issues that have arisen so far with the pandemic the social care sector has not been in a strong position to push back C-19. The underpaid staff, the high vacancies and the often unsuitable, adapted accommodation is rarely fit for modern care needs. The fragmentation of the sector with ‘for profit operators’ finding it hard with constrained funding has led to vulnerability in the sector as well as the residents. Maybe this will be the time that showed how, rather than a shiny green badge, the social care service should be taken into a publicly funded national care service.

  1. Tracking, Tracing, Testing, and Treating (isolating)

One of the criticisms we have made of the Government’s pandemic response has been the decision on the 12th March to pull back from testing for cases in the community and contact tracing. It may turn out that this was a policy decision driven by the lack of availability of tests rather than a decision made not to control community spread. On the 24th February there had been 9 confirmed cases of C-19 in the UK and the WHO had announced that countries should ‘ prioritize active, exhaustive case finding and immediate testing and isolation, painstaking contact tracing and rigorous quarantining of close contacts

By the 22nd March there were 5683 confirmed cases and yet even then the WHO advice was ‘ find those who are sick, those who have the virus and isolate them. Find their contacts and isolate them’.  In outbreaks you do not always have confirmatory tests available but can make public health decisions based on the history and observation in the context of the unfolding epidemic. We seem to have forgotten the cardinal symptoms of continuous cough and fever.

We have pointed out in earlier Blogs that countries that have been successful so far in controlling C-19 such as South Korea and Taiwan have been ones that have used widespread testing, tracing contacts and quarantining them. Germany has also been an example of a Western European country that has used this traditional communicable disease control methodology to save lives and protect their health service. Such a public health approach is most important in epidemics like this where there is no vaccine and no effective therapeutics other than sophisticated intensive supportive care.

It is symbolic that the data that is presented at the daily press briefings has in the main used hospital testing data, hospital admissions and until recently exclusively hospital deaths. TV crews have been crawling over ITUs to get extraordinary footage of these wonderful NHS teams doing outstanding and stressful work. The incredible success of building Nightingale Hospitals in record time has been a reminder of the extraordinary efforts made in Wuhan to meet urgent need.

However outside hospitals we have had the social care sector relatively unprepared, people self isolating in their homes and having to gauge the seriousness of their symptoms with intermittent telephone calls to NHS111. The disease has been spreading across the country from London to other metropolitan centres and then into smaller towns and rural areas. We could and should have shutdown London earlier as this has been our Wuhan. Local surveillance is limited and active contact tracing thought to be irrelevant even when many areas across England, Wales and Scotland had few cases. Environmental Health Officers in Local Government have not been mobilised. An opportunity missed.

We have also seemed content to keep our airports and seaports open with little if no border health security. Again other countries who have managed to control this pandemic stopped and controlled air traffic, quarantining arrivals from high risk areas and making basic investigation on history (?cough) and taking travellers temperatures. Not difficult to do and look at Australia and New Zealand for actions on this source of new infections of a virus with high levels of transmissibility. In the UK it is estimated that over 190,000 people flew into the UK from China between January and March with no testing/quarantining.

  1. Evidence of unpreparedness

The UK seems set to be one of the countries in Western Europe with the worst outcome in regards to mortality rates from C-19 despite the effectiveness of the NHS, which has withstood the pressure. We are often said to have an exemplar emergency planning system, the government had a pandemic as No. 1 risk on the national risk register, kept stockpiles and has computer modellers of world class.

Yet we do not seem to have acted on the emergency planning exercises such as the 2016 Operation Cygnus (‘swan’ flu). We are now aware that in Sept 2017 the National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies reported that “There is a high probability of a flu pandemic occurring with up to 50% of the UK population experiencing symptoms, potentially leading to between 20,000 and 750,000 fatalities and high levels of absence from work’.

There have been disclosures recently that are worth referring to that set out the timelines which showed the Prime Minister distracted and absent from COBRA meetings in January/February (A comprehensive countdown to how Britain came to have one of the highest COVID-19 per capita death rates – http://www.bylines.com). Also there has been an Insight team report for the Sunday Times on the 19th April 2020 (Coronavirus: 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster). The current Secretary of State is an actor in this drama and the former Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt who has been a critic of some aspects of the Governments response was of course in power during this time. We are told that ‘pandemic planning became a casualty of the austerity years when there were more pressing needs’ and ‘preparations for a no-deal Brexit sucked all the blood out of pandemic planning’

  1. Getting out of lockdown

There are various scenarios that are being set out about how to get out of lockdown once the number of new cases decline and the first wave is thought to be ‘over’. This is likely to take time as the curve is flat and the proportion of the population with resistance is thought to be quite low. The government are hesitating about setting out the scenario and talking too much about the delivery of an effective, safe and tested vaccine. This usually takes 12-18 months and can never be guaranteed. They also are talking up the possibility of an effective drug therapy but we all know that viral illness do not lend themselves to highly effective drug treatments as we know with the Tamiflu debate after the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. So really we should again consider more immediate and classic public health control measures that have been shown to work in this pandemic.

This will need health scrutiny and effective border controls that New Zealand and Australia have used successfully. There will within the country need to be effective systems of testing, contact tracing and quarantining with every day life respecting physical distancing and the use of facemasks. South Korea has shown the way that this can be enhanced and made more bearable by using mobile phones loaded with new technologies. These will warn people if at risk and disclose red, amber or green status. This will allow the economy to restart and people begin to get out and about again. The very vulnerable will in the early phases of this need to be protected.

Prof Pollock in a recent BMJ editorial (Covid-19: why is the UK government ignoring WHO’s advice) states that ‘this means instituting a massive, centrally co-ordinated, locally based programme of case finding, tracing, clinical observation, and testing. It requires large teams of people, including volunteers, using tried and tested methods updated with social media and mobile phones and adapting the guidance published from China’ and other countries who are implementing such systems.

This will require a change of mindset in government and from their medical and scientific advisers but as J.M.Keynes said:

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

20th April 2020

Published by Jean Smith on behalf of the SHA Officers and Vice Chair’s

Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

2 Comments

  1. Edith Dyas says:

    Surely it is only common sense to protect Migrants, apart from the humanitarian aspect. Unprotected Migrants can become carriers, and the virus is not going to discriminate between Migrants and non-Migrants. Therefore anyone who is not protected is a danger to everyone they may come in contact with. Surely the answer to this strange question is self evident.

  2. Jim Gralton says:

    As a first step towards bringing social care back into the public service, should all social care workers be transferred from their present private sector employment to local social services or NHS employment? And all local authority / NHS employers should be paying the Real Living Wage as a minimum.

    After this initial step, social care owners would still own their buildings and the public sector could pay a reasonable rent pending their ultimate nationalisation.

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 617 other subscribers.

Follow us on Twitter