So here we are in Week 16 of our SHA Blog about how the Johnson government is mishandling and mismanaging – except where it comes to the interests of the profit-making private sector – the COVID-19 pandemic; and why the UK is “world beating” – in terms of the highest death rate from COVID in Europe!

Test and Trace

The “teething problems” with the centrally designed, and privately contracted, NHS Test and Trace scheme, continues. It is a privatised system organised through the likes of Deloitte, (Deloitte is one of the Big Four accounting organisations in the world, whose business is in financial consultancy.) These private firms put the NHS logo in their own “branding” to try to build public belief, and confidence, that what they are doing is part of the NHS, and in the public’s interest, when it is a private system making lots of money for private investors: in the way that suits them best, rather than the most efficient way it could be done.  .

It has had a huge investment of taxpayers’ money to employ 20,000 under-used telephone operators who are poorly trained in the complex field of contact tracing.  The Independent SAGE group reports that one contact tracer told them that ‘out of 200 tracers at my agency we have only had 4 contacts to call over the past 4 weeks’. Speaking to worried people and trying to elicit information about their contacts within a system which has not been able to build trust is a genuine challenge. The familiar GP practice or the local hospital and local authority – in which people really do have confidence – have in this “NHS Test and Trace scheme” had to take a back seat. (Readers will recall from previous blogs that the Independent SAGE group was set up in May to provide scientific advice independent of political pressure, after it was reported that Johnson’s “special advisor” Dominic Cummings had attended, and was believed to have influenced, the Government’s “official” Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies. )

Early problems have been identified in the initial design of diagnostic testing. No NHS number for instance, no occupation or place of work recorded, no ethnicity data and test results not being shared with the GP. The Lighthouse labs set up in Milton Keynes, Alderley Park Cheshire, Cambridge and Glasgow are collaborations between pharmaceutical industries (GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and AstraZeneca), Universities in Cambridge and Glasgow, Boots, Amazon and the Royal Mail alongside the Wellcome Trust. (AstraZeneca owns Alderley Park).

They were set up to meet the escalating government targets to get testing up to 100K (Hancock) and then to 200K (Johnson) without Ministers being clear about the strategy for testing and ensuring that results got back quickly to people and local players such as GPs and the local Public Health teams who could act. If the objective was just to get tests sent out in the mail or undertaken by Army squaddies in car parks across the country, in order to get the numbers up for the Downing Street briefings, then there was no need to worry about useful information about workplace/occupation? It is not the consortium of laboratories’ fault, as they are contributing to a national emergency, but the political leadership, which has not taken enough notice of public health professionals who have provided laboratory services and integrated themselves with NHS and local public health teams over decades. Public Health England are faced with the nightmare of quality assuring data sent to them from these laboratories.

Workplaces

One reason to worry is that incomplete information can lead to a delay in identifying a workplace outbreak. Returning the test result information started at Local Authority level which is not enough information on which to act. After some pressure the local teams have started to get postcode data. However noting a rise in individual cases scattered across West Yorkshire did not help public health officials pin down the common link: which was that they all worked at the Kober Meat Factory in Cleckheaton! These public health systems need to be designed by people who know about public health surveillance, outbreak management and contact tracing. It works best if the tests are undertaken locally, results go back to GPs and local Public Health teams with sufficient information to associate cases with industries, schools, places of worship, community events or food/drink outlets. This is the level of data that would help the public health team in Leicester who are under scrutiny with ‘knowledgeable’ politicians such as Home Secretary Priti Patel declaring the need for a local lockdown in the city. Speed is of the essence, too, as we know that COVID-19 is being transmitted when people do not have symptoms and is most contagious in the first few days of the illness.

We have known from international data that meat-processing plants are high risk environments for transmission. This is clearly something to do with the damp, cool working environment, which is noisy and so workers have to shout to each other and are often in close proximity. Toilet facilities and rest areas are likely to be cramped and how often they are being cleaned an issue. Furthermore – as we have learnt from Hospital and Care Home outbreaks – how staff get to work will be important to know, too: for example, if they are bussed in together or car sharing, both of those involve being with other people in enclosed spaces.

As in abattoirs here in the UK and in other parts of the world, jobs like this are usually undertaken by migrant workers. These workers usually live in cramped dormitory type multi-occupation residences. Low paid often migrant workers, who are poorly unionised, are particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 contagion whether they work in US meat packing factories or in Germany or indeed in Anglesey (Wales). The 2 Sisters plant in Llangefni for instance has had over 200 workers with positive test results.

The Tonnies meat processing factory in Germany has had more than 1500 of its workers infected and 7000 people have had to be quarantined as a result of the outbreak. This has had a ripple out effect with schools and kindergartens, which had only recently reopened, having to close again. Unsurprisingly there are stories of the factory being reluctant to share details of the staff, many of whom are Romanian or Bulgarian and speak little German.

Contact tracing

The importance of testing and rapid reporting of cases to local agencies was highlighted in a recent South Korean example, where a previously well -controlled situation was threatened by the finding that a series of nightclubs had been linked through one very energetic person. Tracers had to follow up 1700 contacts and be able to control the on-going chain of transmission! While South Korea, unlike the UK, has had a mobile phone app to assist contact tracing, they still depend on the local tracers to use shoe leather rather than computer software to really understand the local patch and the complex community relationships.

The Independent SAGE group is producing useful analyses and information for us all and has been promulgating the WHO Five elements to test and trace, namely:

FTTIS – Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support.

All of these are important and the recent example in Beijing shows again how a rapid local lockdown response was used to implement FTTIS and they appear to have managed to contain the outbreak to one part of this megacity of over 20m people.

Social distancing

The Independent SAGE has also recently taken a line critical of the government position on social distancing. They say that the risk of transmission in the UK remains too high to reduce the social distancing guidance. They oppose the move from a 2m guidance to 1m plus and say that it risks multiple local outbreaks, or in the worse case a second wave. The pattern of continuing waves of infection has been seen in the USA, where social distancing has been poorly enforced, and in other countries where a significant second wave has occurred such as Iran.

The Government is rightly worried about the economic impact of the lockdown and pandemic, but they are sending out mixed messages on social distancing which has led to chaotic scenes on Bournemouth beach, urban celebrations in Liverpool and street parties in many cities. In the USA it has identified the 20-44 year olds as being a group who are testing positive more frequently and we need to send the message out loud and clear that although they may not die from COVID-19 at the rate older people and those with underlying conditions, they are at risk of long term damage to their health and will transmit the virus to other more at-risk people in their families or local communities.

The Prime Minister always wants to be communicating good news, and needs to beware that the call for more ‘bustle’ on the high streets and ramping up/turbo charging the economy carries big risks of new local outbreaks that will ensure that the Sombrero curve of infection is not flattened, but that we are condemned to live with on-going flare ups across the country.

Ex Chancellor Kenneth Clarke tweeted recently, in the light of the situation in the UK and the flip flopping on air travel restrictions, that:

The UK government’s public health policy now seems to be ‘go abroad on holiday, you’ll be safer there!”

29.6.2020

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

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