In this week’s blog we will look again at the emerging Blame Game which is attempting to divert attention away from the PM and Health Secretary, raise again the unbelievable issue of the national Test and Trace scheme not sharing information on test results with local Directors of Public Health, salute the letter to the National Audit Office about PPE procurement and applaud the Vaccine Research group at Imperial College for creating a Social Enterprise company committed to sharing the vaccine globally.

Blame Game

The Prime Minister’s innate self-interest is exercising his mind at present and with the support of his political adviser Dominic Cummings is casting around to identify who he can blame for the very poor outcome of the pandemic in the UK, particularly in England. Commentators have pointed out that if a man/woman from Mars dropped in they would struggle to work out whether Cummings or Johnson was the Prime Minister (PM). Dom will do whatever it takes to insulate the PM from criticism says a senior civil servant.

Local Authorities and their Public Health teams

Once the PM and Secretary of State, Hancock realised that the COVID-19 first wave ‘sombrero’ had not been flattened, we have not eliminated the virus and the population are likely to continue to suffer from local upsurges of COVID-19 cases. They want to shift the blame onto others. The Local Authority based public health teams had been left out of the loop from the start of the pandemic and their role has been as a local megaphone for central guidance or to help out regional Public Health England with local outbreaks.

The Department of Health started to get involved in Local Outbreaks and twiddled their thumbs when they noticed increasing positive test results in Leicester. Rather than share the data and engage local leaders they wondered what actions they could take from their Whitehall village and became alarmed and made an emergency announcement in the evening to Parliament declaring a local lockdown. At the same time they passed the buck to the surprise of the local Director of Public Health (DPH) and Local Authority leaders.

With more test result data ‘passed down’ to the local team things have started to settle and local tracing and community engagement has blossomed. The local DPH and Mayor of Leicester have stood up and accepted the challenge and are dealing with it with the support of Public Health England and local communities.

Local data

The whole pandemic response has been top down and now that has been shown to be ineffective and expensive they are shifting the responsibility onto local teams, who welcome the recognition that they should always have been the place for an effective population response. However there remain issues to do with sharing fully and quickly all the necessary information for local teams to plan their prevention campaigns specific to the at risk populations. The national test and trace scheme has been shown to be very expensive and has poor outcomes in terms of speed of test results and their contact tracing efforts. Despite that there seems to be reluctance still in proper sharing of test result details on the basis of information security, which the government in England have failed to comply with.

Public Health specialists have worked with person identifiable data for decades and the system is compliant with data security. Just get on with it and don’t put the spotlight onto Leicester, Kirklees, Blackburn and Pendle without sharing the data that is available from the testing sites.

It is estimated that in June a quarter of the 31,000 people who had their case transferred to the Test and Trace scheme were not reached. Almost a third of those who were did not provide any contacts. Compare this to the success rate of local so called Pillar 1 NHS hospital testing system where nearly 100% contacts are traced.  It is time that the Test and Trace budget be devolved and that local DsPH manage the testing arrangements they require and ensure that the most useful information is obtained when samples are taken and ensure that the local public health department gets the results as well as the GPs who need to be drawn into the campaign. In Wales and other devolved nations much better systems are in place.

Remember the hype about the Isle of Wight phone app? Lord Bethell, the Health Minister responsible for the Google and Apple technology, is now quoted as saying: “We are seeking to get something going for the winter, but it isn’t a priority for us at the moment”.

If this wasn’t enough the government have had to recall thousands of Randox test kits as a health and safety risk. These were contracted by the Baroness Harding Deloitte’s Test and Trace outfit and used in Care Homes and for home testing. Another embarrassment to add to all the rest!

Why didn’t they invest in local NHS laboratories linked to local GPs and Public Health teams, who would have got the results back quickly with the information required for effective locally based contact tracing? Centralisation and Privatisation have not worked and have cost the taxpayer billions.

Workers and Employers

The Chancellor has been enjoying himself when announcing hand-outs of government resources (in Tory language tax-payers money). Public sector borrowing stands at its highest peacetime level in 300 years. Four million people could be unemployed by next year which according to the Office of Budget Responsibility will be the worst jobs crisis in a generation. The furlough scheme, which is helping pay wages for 9.4m people will end in October. The annual deficit is set to rise to £350bn and economic contraction of 25% in the last 2 months. So it is not surprising that the PM wants to get the economy going again. However his call to open up the offices again and get people spending money in town centre shops by 1st August carries with it huge risk to public health and a burden on employers to make the workplace COVID secure.

John Phillips of the GMB union has stated: “The PM has once again shown a failure of leadership in the face of this pandemic. Passing the responsibility of keeping people safe to employers and local authorities is confusing and dangerous.” Frances O’Grady of the TUC said that: “The return to work needs to be handled in a phased and safe way. The government is passing the buck on this big decision to employers. Getting back to work safely requires a functioning test and trace system and the government is refusing to support workers who have to self isolate by raising statutory sick pay from £95 per week to a rate people can live on.”

Civil servants

The third group of people who have a finger pointing at them are civil servants. The sacking of Mark Sedwill, head of the civil service, is one top of the tree example. His generous departure settlement is the same amount as he would have been entitled to if he had been made compulsorily redundant. In his letter to Mr Sedwill the PM stated that Sedwill was ‘instrumental in drawing up the country’s plan to deal with coronavirus’.

The PM has reluctantly agreed to have an inquiry into the handling of the pandemic but has lobbed the date into the long grass. He said that: “There are plenty of things that people will say that we got wrong and we owe that discussion and that honesty to the tens of thousands who have died before their time”. We all know that when the blame is distributed it will be civil servants, scientists, public health officials, and some Ministers who will be scapegoated for the outcome that has seen more than 45,000 deaths and left the British economy facing the biggest recession of any European nation. In addition the recent Academy of Medical Sciences report estimates that the risk of a second wave mid winter is of the order of 120,000 excess deaths.

National Audit Office

In earlier Blogs we have drawn attention to the potentially fraudulent way that millions of pound contracts have been awarded, sometimes to shell companies or companies that have no history of having undertaken such roles such as PPE suppliers. We are delighted that Rachel Reeves MP and Justin Madders MP of the Labour Shadow team have written to the National Audit Office (NAO) requesting investigation into waste and fraud with especial focus on the PPE procurement, which amounts to £1.5bn. The letter draws attention to many concerns such as awarding the contract to Deloitte without competition. In emergencies governments are entitled to use something called a ‘single bidder emergency procurement process’ to avoid delays that arise with competitive tendering.

It won’t surprise SHA members to learn that this, EU based measure, has been used by the UK government more than 60 times during the pandemic compared to twice in Spain, 11 times by Italy and 17 times by Germany. The sloppy allocation of contracts to best buddies in the commercial world and Tory Party supporters must be called out and lets hope that the NAO accepts the request and does a speedy audit on some of these contracts.

Vaccines and global health

We have already, in previous blogs, pointed out how Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘America First’ is illustrated in examples such as Remdesivir. This antiviral drug, which shortens hospital stays in patients with COVID, was basically bought up by the USA. It was reported at the end of June that the US had bought up virtually all stocks for the next three months leaving none for the UK, Europe or most of the rest of the world. The Trump administration has shown that it is prepared to outbid and outmanoeuvre all other countries to secure the medical supplies it needs. This has implications for the vaccines being actively developed across the world.

Geopolitics is already at work with reports of Russian cyber crime attacks on the UK based vaccine researchers in Oxford. It was therefore great news to hear that the Imperial College based researchers with Philanthropic and UK government funding have formed a social enterprise. This not for profit arrangement aims to ensure fair distribution by waiving royalties for low income countries so that the poorest get it for free and the richest pay a bit more. Human trials of their vaccine start in October and Imperial are looking for volunteers.

This group are a reminder that it doesn’t need to be profiteering and greed and stands alongside others who have come through the pandemic with gold stars such as Tim Spector’s C-19 symptoms app group in Kings College London who are using an app that actually works!

Gramsci

Finally Michael Gove caused a stir when he recently quoted from Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist intellectual:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”.

This quote is from Prison Notebooks, written by Gramsci during his imprisonment in the time of Mussolini. You could look at this quotation in a completely different perspective to those like Michael Gove and Mr Cummings.

20.7.2020

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

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