Introduction

This is the tenth SHA weekly blog on the COVID-19 pandemic. We are at an interesting phase of the pandemic when we are moving from Response to Recovery and uncertain how to navigate the tricky waters without the charts and the data dashboard to guide us.

We have a government that was ill prepared for the pandemic and has been playing catch up from the early days of denial, then delay and a too early departure from building local systems of community testing, tracing and isolating. We are beginning to hear of possible COVID-19 cases in the UK and neighbouring European countries emerging before Xmas so the virus could have been around longer than we have thought. Even so we wasted precious weeks in February and then had the damaging delay between the 10th March to the 20th March, when lockdown proper started during which time the viral spread had been exponential. We now note that England has one of the highest rates of excess deaths of the 24 European countries analysed by Euromomo.

Game changers

The government have, in the turmoil, grasped at ‘game changers’ such as the so called home based antibody blood spot test which was scientifically unproven and nevertheless succeeded in getting the Government to buy 3.5m on ‘spec’. We need to know how much Taxpayers money was wasted on that contract and demand a greater scrutiny on such wild contracts without basic safeguards.

The next ‘game changers’ were the treatments such as chloroquine, which Trump was allegedly pushing on the NHS to treat Prime Minister Johnson. Again these drugs have been shown to be ineffective and potentially harmful treatments. The US Federal Drug Administration (FDA) issued a caution against its use in COVID-19 on the 30th April! There are other drugs being trialled such as remdesivir and favipiravir and some show promise but need properly conducted clinical trials and not be pushed out too soon by politicians anxious to grab a game changer. Remember the risk of Thalidomide, which was used in early pregnancies with disastrous consequences. We have seen with HIV/AIDS that therapies can be successful in controlling a viral disease but the process takes time and effectiveness trials and safety are paramount.

The other ‘game changer’ is the vaccine which has always been a long shot because there have never been vaccines developed for Coronaviruses such as SARS or MERS. Other viruses such as HIV have also proved impossible to develop a vaccine for and remember each year the Influenza virus ‘flu jab’ immunisation contains three variants which experts assess are the most likely to be circulating during the coming winter months. The effectiveness of the Influenza vaccine is much less than others such as measles in the highly effective MMR vaccine. Furthermore while there are hopeful signs of successful vaccines being developed and some moving into human trials very early on there needs to be clarity about the time these trials take and the manufacturing process as well as mounting an effective vaccination programme. It is not part of the immediate pandemic control measures and with preventive vaccines you need to be very sure of safety as well as effectiveness. We know how the anti vaxxers mislead the public about risks of vaccination and do not want to damage the high uptake of vaccines across world populations.

Matt Hancock has during his time as SoS for Health and Social Care promoted digital solutions to many NHS issues including promoting companies who in effect were competing as privateers with NHS primary care (Babylon Health). His latest ‘game changer’ application will be the apps being trialled in the Isle of Wight and others elsewhere to assist in contact tracing.  Big players Apple/Google stand ready with their apps to step in! Of course countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore have been using such apps for months and have shown the benefit they confer in the process of Test, Trace and Isolate which the UK government abandoned on March 12th.

It does seem unbelievable that South Korea has not been subject to lockdown and using testing, tracing and isolation has only had 262 deaths from COVID-19 by the 17th May with a population of 51m people. Their epidemic started several weeks before us and it is not clear what attempts the UK government has made to properly understand their system and learn from it.

Local Authorities and Public Health

Local Authority public health capacity has been reduced over the 10 years of Tory austerity and the public health grants reduced in the period leading up to the pandemic. While the Directors of Public Health, through their national body the Association of Directors of Public Health (ADsPH), have been involved with the CMO’s office and Public Health England (PHE) they have not been placed at the centre of the Test, Track and Isolate planning. Again the Government’s default position is to ask their consultancy mates to help design a system from scratch which we have seen with the national testing centres and the Lighthouse laboratories by Deloittes. This is a top down approach rather than a collaborative bottom up development.

Further work now under a Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) is again focused on the digital app and how the information provided can be analysed and communicated. This has all the tenor of a security service GCHQ venture rather than a public health pandemic response! If the testing roll out is anything to go by there will be major glitches in communications with organisations at the heart of it not receiving information and the people themselves left waiting.

It seems to us that local public health teams under the DPH leadership should have been involved from the beginning working with Public Health England/Wales/Scotland,  and Environmental Health departments to help facilitate test, track and isolate policies locally. They have not been closely involved since containment was abandoned prematurely across the UK despite wide variations in the spread of the virus at that time.

The government announced that 18,000 staff will be taken on to work on the national test, trace and track initiative run by SERCO but Local PH departments were not asked to build local teams as part of the local response but prepare to help implement the national response. Primary care has also not been part of the model which is another wasted opportunity of bottom up work using local knowledge effectively. The GP surveillance system has shown its worth over many years with respiratory viruses like Influenza and patients know their GP practice as a trusted point of contact.

We have seen that COVID-19 has spread across the UK unevenly and a UK wide response designed in Westminster has not been appropriate elsewhere where case numbers may have been very low with risks quite different from metropolitan London, Birmingham and Manchester. Of course there needs to be national leadership in the design and procurement of such an app and Public Health England with their counterparts in the devolved nations be part of the design team. However for it to be an effective system there needs to be local leadership and engagement which builds links between partners and particularly with local primary care teams to use test results and develop the capability of mapping clusters and initiating further local investigations within national case definitions to ensure testing is done, contacts traced and people are isolated swiftly as there is a risk that the virus will persist for weeks to come. There are signs that devolved governments such as in Wales may be approaching this in a more joined up way.

Social Care

In earlier blogs we have talked about the vital role that the social care sector plays, how their staff often work in difficult conditions on low pay. The impact of the pandemic now has shifted to this sector, which has 17,000 homes and look after 400,000 elderly or disabled people in need of care. This sector is where many of the excess deaths have been occurring and thanks to statisticians outside government who have signposted the excess deaths measure we know that they have accounted for 20,000 deaths so far. Weekly deaths in care homes have tripled in the past month. In Scotland recently it is estimated that 57% of deaths from COVID now come from deaths in nursing or residential homes.

We have heard case after case of social care providers not having the PPE they require, having to accept hospital discharges who may have been infectious, not being supported in the way you might expect from external agencies. They have had to introduce infection control policies, which seem inhumane when considering the resident’s end of life experience and the memories of their survivor families. We should have a quick look at the risk assessments/processes to allow named next of kin to visit their relatives and be there at the end of life. It does feel that this is the time to grasp the nettle and create a new National Care Service which is publicly run and which does not require rental payments to ‘off shore’ bodies, who have invested in the land and properties rather than the commitment to care. Not all care homes are owned and run by business interests of course but all suffer from chronic underfunding, staff shortages and service gaps between the NHS and their own provision. The CQC is unable to bridge the gap.

Moving out of Lockdown

We are all getting tired of having our lives constrained by lockdown while at the same time pleased at the social solidarity shown by most of the population. The trade unions are quite right to ensure that the workforce is not endangered by a hasty return to work without rounded risk assessments.

Take the school debate for example. It is relatively easy to look at children themselves and declare that they as an age group have been relatively spared the harms of COVID-19. However we know that they do seem to get the infection and harbour the virus in their noses and throats too. We don’t know how contagious they are but there is obviously a risk and scientific studies are understandably scarce. European countries such as Norway and Denmark have had far less cases and deaths than the UK and have got down to very low levels. For example Norway has had 8,244 cases with 232 deaths and Denmark 10,927 cases with 547 deaths. Their schools have had to implement big changes in the way they mix outdoors and indoors classes and have had to physically distance children in classrooms and for school meals. Halving class sizes seems the likely way we would need to go in the UK which might mean two day sessions which would have huge implications for schools.

But its not just children! Teachers and school staff are at risk and there needs to be proper occupational health assessments to assess individual risks in the staff. Then there are parents and grandparents who may be involved in bringing children to school and mingling with others at drop off. Children may in turn bring back the virus to the home where there may be vulnerable others living there. So rather than the hurried declaration made to reopen fully on the 1st June there needs to be proper discussion and agreement with trade unions and parents and staff/school Governors on the risk assessment and plans. Remember too that schools have been open during this time for children of essential workers and vulnerable children many of whom have not attended. Oh, by the way, Eton pupils will return to school in September and they already have small class sizes!

Scrutiny of Public Expenditure

It is estimated that the Government has now built up £300 billion national debt through its Pandemic investments. The furloughing scheme has been widely welcomed, as has the cancellation of NHS (England) historic debt. However there have been some decisions made by harried Ministers that have been misplaced (such as the home based antibody test) as well as some of the spend on ventilators and Nightingale hospitals when it was already apparent that the NHS was coping somehow with the huge demand on ITU capacity. The decisions to contract out some of the tasks on testing, track and trace have been questionable and the investments in the pharmaceutical industry for vaccine production/drug development need to be scrutinised. Contracts worth more than £1bn have been awarded to 115 private companies dealing with the pandemic, without allowing others to bid for the contract. This has been under fast track rules which suspend normal procedures and include contracts to provide PPE, food parcels, COVId-19 testing and to run operations rooms with civil servants. This latter group includes Deloitte, PWC and Ernst & Young!

The last thing we want is to be plunged back into austerity at the end of the pandemic. Already we hear of withdrawal from the rough sleepers investment in accommodation before alternative plans are in place and indeed before realistic resurgence in tourism happens. The new normal needs to preserve the advances that have been made. Similarly simple calls for people to drive to work risks the modal shift that is possible towards walking, cycling to work if public transport is deemed too crowded for social distancing. Electric cycles can be promoted for those with further to travel or in hilly areas. The reduction in air pollution while helping the carbon load is still not at levels this year required if we want to meet the goals of the Paris Accord and keep global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.

The Chancellor and his advisers will be wondering how to get more money into the Treasury. Now is the time to look at a proper wealth tax and to deal with off shore tax avoidance. Dyson tops the Sunday Times Wealth list and remember Sir James moved his head office out of the UK to Malaysia during the Brexit debates. He is sitting on £16.2 billion wealth. The Duke of Westminster has had 300 years in the top spot of property wealth  (£10.3 billion) built on their portfolio of 300 acres of Mayfair and Belgravia (remember the Monopoly Board!). Others in the top 10 include the Coates family who have accrued £7.17 billion through gambling business such as Bet365 and we know the damage to public health that gambling does. Finally lets call out Richard Branson who sought a government subsidy of £500m for his furloughed staff in Virgin Atlantic with his £3.63 billion. He has apparently not paid any personal tax in the UK for 14 years. These super rich need to be taxed on their annual earnings as well on inheritance transfers, which by using Family Trusts subvert the process.

Finally

As we think of US billionaire David Geffen on his $590m yacht, who posted on Instagram that he was isolated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus – lets consider a better fairer future.

The pandemic can be an opportunity for progressive change to reduce inequalities but we know that there are entrenched and powerful interests. The rich are often supporters of entrenched interests as they benefit from the status quo. In the light of the pandemic they should reflect on how sustainable the status quo really is. We also need to clear set out a new road map for a fairer future.

17th May 2020

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

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2 Comments

  1. Mervyn Eastman says:

    These Blogs have been brilliant. Thank you so much for the postings. Keep it up. I have also been impressed with those coming from The British Society of Gerontology.

  2. Maureen says:

    Mervyn Eastman, how very right you are they are brilliant.
    Thank you for bringing attention to us of British Society of Gerontology.
    Please do keep it coming.
    Maureen Erdwin

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