Introduction

The SHA has produced a weekly Blog on the Covid-19 pandemic for the past 2 months. In these Blogs we have looked at many issues but the overriding finding is that the UK Government has been much too slow in responding to the pandemic, which has cost lives, stressed the NHS and severely damaged the economy. We are now one of the countries in Western Europe with the worst outcome in terms of reported deaths and deaths/million population.

This is a scandal, and as we have learned more about the background to the response we learnt about the emergency scenario planning exercise in 2016 Operation Cygnus (Swan flu). This exercise, which involved the devolved nations and over 900 participants, made recommendations on the need for more PPE to be stored, more ITU ventilators to be procured for an enhanced ITU provision and robust planning for the social care sector which was at risk of being overwhelmed. The recommendations seem to have been largely ignored by the Tory government during its declared policy of disinvesting in the public sector and the policies of economic austerity. At that time Boris Johnson was a senior Cabinet Minister as Foreign Secretary and Jeremy Hunt, now Chair of the Health Select Committee, was Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Who will take responsibility for not acting on the advice?

The other issue that has become even more obvious is that public services such as the NHS have been starved of resources over the 10 years of austerity and while the service has made an extraordinary response to the pandemic it is against the background of poor capital investment and major staffing pressures such as medical and nurse staff vacancy levels. Similarly the Local Government sector has been pared down during the Tory years with massive disinvestment, floating State Education to unaccountable Academies and Free Schools, and running down many of its former functions including environmental health and trading standards. Local Authorities who have been driven to cut services and their budgets year on year are now being asked to stand up and take responsibility in an emergency while also trying to cope with the social care scandal. It sticks in the throat to hear government Ministers speak appreciatively about public sector workers, often in low paid jobs, who they have in the past criticised as a burden on the taxpayer.

In this week’s blog we want to raise the issues about re-building the public health system so it can run the test, trace and isolate campaign from neighbourhood, local authority population, region, nation and central government. We are also concerned about the evidence of further privatisation using the Covid Trojan Horses and the excellent examples from other countries about how they have handled the pandemic successfully and published coherent plans to get out of their lockdowns.

Test, track and trace, and isolate

Since the beginning of the pandemic we have been calling for Covid-19 to be contained by using tried and tested public health measures of communicable disease control. Even without access to swab testing of suspected cases local public health workers would be able to establish whether someone was a suspected or probable case from taking the history of their illness. With swab testing this would convert the suspected/probable case to become a confirmed case and the local public health team would build their information base and start to map out the spread of the infection in their locality. Notifiable disease works in this way and at the start of the pandemic this could have been done in all areas. Contact tracing and recording demographic details as well as presenting symptoms would have built up a local picture of the manifestations of the infection, the demographic details and travel histories involved.

A history of fever and continuous dry cough would have been sufficient to be a suspected case. It was a serious error to not start contact tracing and local notification in all areas to build up the knowledge and skills of local PH teams. Obviously when community spread became overwhelming such detailed work on contact tracing might reduce but a local record of test positive cases should have continued to be built us. Laboratory test results are still collected but this should have fed into the local teams databases. The variation in new cases and deaths across the UK has been very marked and in some areas this task would have been comparatively easy to sustain and in the process train new people under the watchful eye of experienced Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) supported by their Local Authority based public health colleagues.  Expert advice obtained from Laboratories and Public Health England would support the local teams under the leadership of Directors of Public Health (DsPH). Similar networks exist in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The reason for spelling this out at this stage of the pandemic is that at long last the government have rumbled that testing, tracing and isolating is part of the strategy to get out of the blunt tool of total societal lockdown. South Korea’s success was wholly dependent onrigorous testing including basic approaches being supplemented by mobile phone data and other digital systems. They have shown how they can monitor community infections and step in quickly to contain new cases as they arise. They did not have to resort to society lockdown and their economy has continued to function – as well as coping with voting in a general election during this time.

To get testing scaled-up from its hospital base, the government has defaulted to their prior preferences and have turned to their friends in the private sector: Deloittes, Serco, G4S and Sodexo.  Rather than building local public health teams in Local Government and enhancing PHE reach from their regional organisations, we now have a mix of inexperienced private contractors. So rather than start the process of using the pandemic to re-establish public health capacity locally and regionally we see short-term contracts with the private sector. These private contractors are advertising for contact tracers at £8.72/hr. Sodexo, which is running many of the Covid-19 drive-through testing centres with minimal staff with clinical experience, are paying testers £13.50 /hr and trainers £17.50 /hr and all jobs are offered on a casual basis.

These political decisions have already led to communication problems with poor reporting back to primary care and PHE, and who knows how, or whether, the data will be integrated into the system in a consistent and reliable way? To everyone’s astonishment, pop-up testing pods appear in local areas without anyone knowing that they were planned, and samples then have to be sent to the USA (yes the USA) to be tested when really results should be back quickly, and within 2 days to be useful. This is a huge lost opportunity to try and re-establish public sector public health services from local to regional levels and so build system resilience and independence rather than inexperienced private sector for profit organisations.

Privatisation – the Trojan Horses

The privatisation of the testing services is also being matched by the opening up of NHS data and information systems. NHS England and NHS Improvement (NHSE & I) (now merged in practice, though without the necessary legislation) is creating a data store to bring multiple data sources together including data from NHS111 calls, NHS digital and Covid-19 test results, and NHS and Social Care data. We are told that NHS data will remain under NHS England and NHS Improvement’s control!

This data is very operational looks at occupancy levels in hospitals, capacity in A&E departments and statistics about length of stay of Covid-19 patients. The dashboard will provide a public health overview and supply operational data across the NHS. The partners in this include private sector multinationals  Microsoft, Palantir Technologies UK, Amazon Web Services (AWS), Faculty (an AI company), and Google. We are told that data and information governance will be strictly controlled.

Apart from the private sector “entrism” into NHS data and information, we have seen KPMG being commissioned to build the Nightingale warehouse hospitals, which are having to be redesigned or mothballed. The NHS was only able to stand up to the extreme pressure through the dedication, commitment of health workers and their administrative and management staff embued with public service ethos. Another private sector stablemate, Deloittes, was handed the contract to provide PPE and to commission vaccine development. All this without the need for tendering.

The risk that derives from the 2012 Lansley Act, the 2015 NHS guidance in England and the more recent Coronavirus Act, is that it eases privatisation of our NHS. And privatisation with even more stealth than that recommended by Nicholas Ridley’s Tory Research Dept proposals  to Margaret Thatcher in 1977, before she even became Prime Minister. Much commissioning of NHS services now takes place at national levels with very little if any scrutiny from publicly accountable local Boards. All these changes, brought in by the Tory Government before the pandemic, are now being used to privatise services and potentially set up the NHS for deeper intrusions into its role as a publicly funded and delivered health service.

Exit out of lockdown

Although some countries such as Korea and Sweden have avoided lockdown, many others  have had to use this blunt but too often necessary strategy. We are now seeing that countries that acted early and fast with containment measures, are planning the steps needed to safely reduce the constraints on everyday life and the economy.

We have seen an excellent visual map of the five stages to be taken between May-August in the Irish Republic, which has so far been doing extraordinarily well in containing the infection with relatively few cases or deaths. New Zealand, which has been a beacon to other countries, seems to have succeeded with their policy of eliminating the virus. Under the excellent leadership of Jacinda Ardern, they too have set out their plan for freeing up movement of people and the economy. Neighbouring Australia have also done well with their policy on restricting air travel and quarantining arrivals, closing State borders and undertaking lockdown. They have only had 92 recorded deaths in their 25 million population and now have their staged plan published. No doubt we will be able to watch international sporting contests between NZ and Australia inside their Anzac bubble!

On the European mainland Italy and Spain are taking their first cautious steps out of lockdown, which in their cases have pulled back the out-of-control spread. France has colour coded their regions and the red areas will remain under tougher conditions, but the South and West will see greater relaxation of controls. All these countries have published clear plans with criteria in easily understood diagrams of each phase and steps clearly laid out.

The UK government has so far failed to set out the plan clearly and is at risk of confusing people by changing the message from “Stay at Home” to “Stay Alert”! They risk division across the devolved nations of the UK and misunderstandings about any new freedoms. Workers will need proper risk assessments of their workplaces before returning safely to work and this must include considerations about their journey to work, canteen and welfare facilities in the workplace, and that they that meet the standards of social/physical distancing and PPE provision where required. This will take time and many partners such as Trade Unions will need to be involved in aspects of the risk assessment in the workplace as well as facilitating transport to work.

Conclusion

We are at a critical point in the pandemic where we are still suffering from a comparatively high level of new cases being identified, with the social care sector suffering from particularly serious epidemic spread, risking the lives of thousands of very vulnerable residents. The government has rather belatedly recognised the WHO advice to test, test, test, and has successfully increased testing capacity but has failed to invest either in rebuilding the capacity of local public health teams in Local Government or in more local Public Health England teams.  In its struggle to get on with the response it is choosing to invest in private companies who have over the past decade already profited from NHS contracts in support services and laboratories, but now seem to have been also given access to NHS data. There is a serious risk of even further and deeper privatisation of NHS provision while publicly extolling the virtues of the NHS. And possibly the opportunity of using the data to try and sell private health insurance directly to individuals , or advertise private services in many more areas currently covered by the NHS. Finally, exiting lockdown will not be easy to achieve, as the epidemic has not declined in a persuasive manner, with the first wave suppressed and therefore prolonged. What people need is a clear staged plan for the steps to be taken and the data that will monitor progress rather than a statement of intent.

As cardiologist Dr Banerjee notes in the Observer: “We were not humble enough to look at other countries and learn a lesson from them and lock down quickly – it is as simple as that. We were arrogant and thought that we had nothing to learn from other countries and thought that we were an exceptional case. In fact we had a lot to learn but didn’t take the opportunity”

11.5.2020

Posted by Jean Smith on behalf of the Officers and the Vice Chairs of the SHA.

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