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    This is the 7th week that the SHA has published a Blog tracing the progress of the Coronavirus pandemic globally but more specifically across the UK. Over this time we have drawn attention to the slow response in the UK; the lack of preparedness for PPE supply and distribution; the delay in scaling up the testing capacity and system of contact tracing; a too early move away from trying to control the epidemic and poor anticipation of the needs of the social care sector.

    However we need to start to look at how we can reverse the situation we find ourselves in being one of the worst affected countries in the world. Our deaths in the UK now exceed 20,000 and we have been following Italy and Spain’s trajectory. It is true that while the lockdown came too late – London should have gone first – it has had an impact on suppressing the first wave and the NHS has stood proud and able to cope thanks to the unflagging commitment from all staff. It is good that Parliament has been reconvened so proper scrutiny can be given to government decisions on public health as well as the economy. We look to the new Shadow Team to pursue this energetically.

    It is no surprise that Trump’s USA is a lesson of the damage disinvesting in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has had. It has led to poor emergency preparation and poor leadership at handling the pandemic at a federal level. From a SHA perspective an example of the superiority too of a nationalised health system as compared with a private health care model in the USA. Compare how it looked in New York City during their peak and the relative calm in London on the 8th April. From his rehabilitation home at Chequers it was concerning that one of the first phone calls PM Boris Johnson allegedly made was to Mr Trump. They share many characteristics but let’s hope that we do not end up second only to the USA in the international table of deaths/100,000 population and tie ourselves too closely with the ‘Make America Great Again’ nationalist neo-conservative movement.

    1. Scientific advice

    One of the characteristics of this pandemic has been the UK Government Ministers repeated claim that they have been making decisions on the best scientific advice. This claim has mystified some commentators who feel that the decisions being made by Ministers has not been in line with WHO advice (test, test, test) and not consistent with comparable EU countries who seem to have managed the pandemic more successfully (Germany and Denmark). We have never said that we cannot compare data published in Germany and Denmark before now!

    Sometimes Governments make bad calls during an emergency and wanting to keep the membership of SAGE secret was one such. There has been mounting concern about the provenance of some of the advice leading to Ministerial decisions. For example the early misunderstandings about ‘herd immunity’ and the fear that the nudge behavioural psychologists were having undue influence leading to the crucial delay in lockdown. Some of these scientists work in government units, which is not good for an independent perspective.

    The mixed messages about the modellers and their estimates of the likely deaths (20,000 to 500,000) which also surfaced before one modeller was allegedly responsible for pushing (thankfully) the belated decision on the lockdown.

    Many public health trained people have begun to wonder who on SAGE had any practical public health experience in communicable disease control? These concerns were prompted by the sudden abandonment of testing and contact tracing, the lack of airport or seaport health regulations used by other countries such as Australia and New Zealand (Australian deaths so far 80 for a population of 25m and NZ 18 for a population of 5m).

    Recently we have also been bemused by the inability to recognise how homemade cloth facemasks might play a part in easing lockdown. While there might be a relative lack of ‘gold standard’ evidence there is ‘face validity’ that a mask will stop most droplets and this will be important as we are finding so many people are infected for days before showing the classic symptoms and signs of fever and cough. Homemade cloth masks would not compete with NHS and Social Care supplies and these do seem to have been part of the strategy that countries that have been more successful at containment than the UK. We suspect that in time the recommendation to wear a cloth mask when going outside your home will become a recommendation!

    After the initial planeload of British nationals from Wuhan, who had been appropriately quarantined, there are no measures in place at all at our airports. The explanation about incubation period does not hold if people are quarantined for 14 days. The precision of temperature measurements should be seen as part of a screening regime, which would include risk assessment of country of origin, symptoms reported on a questionnaire or observed as well as temperature measurement. It is obvious that if a passenger causes concern the less accurate thermal imaging technique can be augmented by other more reliable ways of taking a temperature! It does not seem right that such measures are discounted for the UK and we are one of the worst performers while other countries with competent public health professionals take it seriously. It is estimated that nearly 200,000 people arrived from China to the UK between January and March 2020 with no checks at all apart from general Covid advice. Empty hotels would have been suitable for quarantining people at risk of having the virus. This matters as it is a very contagious virus and can spread before symptoms appear. Such symptoms can also be minimal and hard to detect.

    Now that the membership of SAGE has been leaked we can see that one of the Deputy CMOs is the only person who has had any ‘on the ground’ experience of communicable disease control in communities. This is important when we start to consider how we can get out of lockdown by using the new testing capacity optimally, contact trace effectively and introduce control measures locally. This will require Public Health England (PHE) to begin to strengthen its relationship with local Directors of Public Health (DsPH) located in Local Government. These DsPH can provide local leadership and work with Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) who to date have not been drawn into the pandemic management system.

    The presence of Dom C in SAGE meetings raises concerns. Of course civil servant officials have always attended the meetings to ensure that they are properly organised, agendas circulated and minutes recorded. It is quite a different thing to have an influential Prime Ministerial adviser like Dom C attend the meeting and no doubt interject during discussions and help shape the advice. That should be the Chief Scientific adviser’s (Prof Vallance) job and his role to brief the PM. The trust in SAGE has been damaged by the disclosure of membership, the lack of jobbing public health input as well as the presence and influence of these special advisers (SPADs).

    1. Easing lockdown

    One of the problems in the management of the pandemic in the UK has been the centralised London perspective, which has dominated the options and led to a one-size fits all approach. We have said before in these Blogs that Greater London was our Wuhan (similar population sizes). We should have shut London down much earlier and stopped the nonsense of those crowded tube trains and buses. We have seen from the Ministerial briefings that London has had an almost classic epidemic curve – rising steeply and then levelling off and declining. The devolved nations and English regions have lagged behind. Scotland and Wales got their first cases about 4 weeks after London and the South East. Regions such as the SW region in England, Northern Scotland and the Islands, rural Wales and parts of the North of England have been slow to have cases and even now have had few cases and few deaths. These areas did not need to be locked down at the same time as London and the South East and could have instituted regional testing and contact tracing which would have helped flatten the curve and protect the NHS.  Such a strategy would have built up experience of doing this which we now have realised we need to do to get out of lockdown. However we have an asymmetric situation with the regions showing gradual and flat epidemic curves, which will be prolonged and frustrate a UK alone approach.

    The challenge of easing lockdown will be quite different in metropolitan urban areas with heavily used public transport and metro trains and a more dense housing with fewer green spaces. The picture in more rural areas and small towns is quite different. There is a serious need to engage with local government more appropriately, pull back from central control and set out a framework as has been started in Scotland and Wales which local government partners can start to address via their Local Resilience Fora (LRFs) and emergency control structures.

    There does still need to be a UK wide COBR approach but the strategy needs to be more nuanced to set out the UK framework and allow devolved nations who are a similar size to New Zealand and Denmark and English regions to plan locally sensitive approaches drawing on expert advice from Public Health organisations such as Public Health Wales, Scotland and PHE. Metropolitan areas such as London, Birmingham and Manchester will also want to be able to adapt measures to fit their local complexities. This will be particularly important as we start a system of community testing, contact tracing and control measures. National testing standards and quality will apply and any mobile apps that are developed will need to be agreed at a national level with all the safeguards on privacy and information governance.

    Children have been remarkably resilient to this virus and it seems that back to school is something worth considering as an early venture as long as schoolteacher’s health is safeguarded by not exposing ‘vulnerable’ teachers, and implementing systems to make physical distancing more feasible. It is urgent to look at international best practice and be flexible in our approach.

    Pubs and restaurants will be further down the list as will mass sporting events but widening the retail sector and getting some workplaces back should be planned. Again travel to work should only be necessary for some workplaces and physical distancing, masks and health and safety regulations will need to be updated to suit each work environment before permission to reopen is given. All these steps require enhanced local public health capacity.

    1. Recovery planning

    An important part of emergency planning frameworks is the need immediately an emergency is recognised to begin the ‘recovery planning’. This will depend on the characteristics of each emergency. In the case of Covid-19 we will need to look at the build up of elective care, especially surgical waiting lists. It will also need to urgently review those people with long-term non-Covid conditions who may have had their continuing medical care disrupted. There will also be those casualties of the pandemic who have been traumatised by the pandemic and have mental health issues, burnout, faced economic hardship and PTSD. People who have had Covid-19 and survived a period in ICU and ventilation will also need weeks and sometimes months to recover. So all this adds up to a load for the NHS and associated services to address.

    As we have seen the economy has taken a big hit and many businesses have found themselves having to close down or reduce their workforce/suspend manufacturing output. It is unclear how we measure what has happened to our economic base but we have seen the growth in unemployment, the rise in welfare applications and the stories of those caught out with a sudden loss of employment and income. We know that 12 years after the 2008 financial crash that the legacy remains. This is far bigger so we need to begin to agree how the economy can be rebooted safely while protecting those vulnerable populations and safeguarding the children returning to school or workers to the factory floor. Trade Unions must be key partners of this economic recovery planning challenge.

    The other aspect of a recovery plan is to take advantage of good things we have experienced such as the reduction of air pollution with a reduction of car use and aviation and other transport. The global satellite pictures of Beijing, Delhi and Milan tell the story that life can be better if we reduce our carbon footprint. Working from home, the benefit of fast broadband should all lead to a reappraisal of environmental and other life changes. The growth in cycling and physical activity in green spaces should also be built on.

    Finally the pandemic has once again thrown a light on inequalities with the risks of occupational exposure (bus drivers), risks in hospital environments (porters, receptionists to nurses and doctors) and retail shops (shop assistants/cashiers). Many manual workers have had to go out to work still and in the process through travel and the work environment been at higher risk. Those who live in over crowded households have been at greater risk with fewer opportunities to self-isolate. Many of those in poorer urban housing estates have also been exposed to risk and found safely going to shops, medical centres or exercise much more difficult. We know about the health inequalities gradient and when this pandemic is analysed fully these social economic and environmental determinants will show through. It is pretty clear that BAME communities have been more susceptible to the virus and while this may have some biological features such as cardiovascular/metabolic risks it will also be socioeconomic, cultural and reflect occupational exposure.

    So recovery plans need to be set out to ensure that we do not revert to business as usual but grasp the opportunities that there are to build a better future after the C-19 pandemic. The Beveridge Committee was established relatively early during WW2 and the report was published in 1942 setting out the vision of an NHS and State Education for example. We have an opportunity to push for similar progressive changes after Covid-19.

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

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    The Socialist Health Association (SHA) published its first Blog on the COVID-19 pandemic last week (Blog 1 – 17th March 2020). A lot has happened over the past week and we will address some of these developments using the lens of socialism and health.

    1. Global crisis

    This is a pandemic, which first showed its potential in Wuhan in China in early December 2019. The Chinese government were reluctant to disclose the SARS- like virus to the WHO and wider world to start with and we heard about the courageous whistle blower Dr Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan, who was denounced and subsequently died from the virus. The Chinese government recognised the risk of a new SARS like virus and called in the WHO and announced the situation to the wider world on the 31st December 2019.

    The starter pistols went off in China and their neighbouring countries and the risk of a global pandemic was communicated worldwide. The WHO embedded expert staff in China to train staff, guide the control measures and validate findings. Dr Li Wenliang who had contracted the virus, sadly died in early February and has now been exonerated by the State. Thanks to the Chinese authorities and their clinical and public health staff we have been able to learn about their control measures and the clinical findings and outcomes in scientific publications. This is a major achievement for science and evidence for public health control measures but….

    Countries in the Far East had been sensitised by the original SARS-CoV outbreak, which originated in China in November 2002. The Chinese government at that time had been defensive and had not involved the WHO early enough or with sufficient openness. The virus spread to Hong Kong and then to many countries showing the ease of transmission particularly via air travel. The SARS pandemic was thankfully relatively limited leading to global spread but ‘only’ 8,000 confirmed cases and 774 deaths. This new Coronavirus COVID-19 has been met by robust public health control measures in South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore. They have all shown that with early and extensive controls on travel, testing, isolating and quarantining that you can limit the spread and the subsequent toll on health services and fatalities. You will notice the widespread use of checkpoints where people are asked about contact with cases, any symptoms eg dry cough and then testing their temperature at arms length. All this is undertaken by non healthcare staff. Likely cases are referred on to diagnostic pods. In the West we do not seem to have put much focus on this at a population level – identifying possible cases, testing them and isolating positives.

    To look at the global data the WHO and the John Hopkins University websites are good. For a coherent analysis globally the Tomas Peoyu’s review  ‘Coronavirus: The Hammer and the dance’ is a good independent source as is the game changing Imperial College groups review paper for the UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). This was published in full by the Observer newspaper on the 23rd March. That China, with a population of 1.4bn people, have controlled the epidemic with 81,000 cases and 3,260 deaths is an extraordinary achievement. Deaths from COVID-19 in Italy now exceed this total.

    The take away message is that we should have acted sooner following the New Year’s Eve news from Wuhan and learned and acted on the lessons of the successful public health control measures undertaken in China and the Far East countries, who are not all authoritarian Communist countries! Public Health is global and instead of Trump referring to the ‘Chinese’ virus he and our government should have acted earlier and more systematically than we have seen.

    Europe is the new epicentre of the spread and Italy, Spain and France particularly badly affected at this point in time. The health services in Italy have been better staffed than the NHS in terms of doctors/1000 population (Italy 4 v UK 2.8) as well as ITU hospital beds/100,000 (Italy 12.5 v UK 6.6). As we said in Blog 1 governments cannot conjure up medical specialists and nurses at whim so we will suffer from historically low medical staffing. The limited investment in ITU capacity, despite the 2009 H1N1 pandemic which showed the weakness in our system, is going to harm us. It was great to see NHS Wales stopping elective surgical admissions early on and getting on with training staff and creating new high dependency beds in their hospitals. In England elective surgery is due to cease in mid April! We need to ramp up our surge capacity as we have maybe 2 weeks at best before the big wave hits us. The UK government must lift their heads from the computer model and take note of best practice from other countries and implement lockdown and ramp up HDU/ITU capacity.

    In Blog 1 we mentioned that global health inequalities will continue to manifest themselves as the pandemic plays out and spare a thought for the Syrian refugee camps, people in Gaza, war torn Yemen and Sub Saharan Africa as the virus spreads down the African continent. Use gloves, wash your hands and self isolate in a shanty town? So let us not forget the Low Middle Income Countries (LMICs) with their weak health systems, low economic level, weak infrastructure and poor governance. International banking organisations, UNHCR, UNICEF, WHO and national government aid organisations such as DFID need to be resourced and activated to reach out to these countries and their people.

    1. The public health system

    We are lucky to have an established public health system in the UK and it is responding well to this crisis. However we can detect the impact of the last 10 years of Tory Party austerity which has underfunded the public health specialist services such as Public Health England (PHE) and the equivalents in the devolved nations, public health in local government and public health embedded in laboratories and the NHS. PHE has been a world leader in developing the PCR test on nasal and throat samples as well as developing/testing the novel antibody blood test to demonstrate an immune response to the virus. The jury is out as to what has led to the lack of capacity for testing for C-19 as the UK, while undertaking a moderate number of tests, has not been able to sustain community based testing to help guide decisions about quarantining key workers and get intelligence about the level of community spread. Compare our rates of testing with South Korea!

    We are lucky to have an infectious disease public health trained CMO leading the UK wide response who has had experience working in Africa. Decisions made at COBRA and announced by the Prime Minister are not simply based ‘on the science’ and no doubt there have been arguments on both sides. The CSO reports that SAGE has been subject to heated debate as you would expect but the message about herd immunity and stating to the Select Committee that 20,000 excess deaths was at this stage thought to be a good result was misjudged. The hand of Dominic Cummings is also emerging as an influencer on how Downing Street responds. Remember at present China with its 1.4bn population has reported 3,260 deaths. They used classic public health methods of identifying cases and isolating them and stopping community transmission as much as possible. Herd immunity and precision timing of control measures has not been used.

    The public must remain focused on basic hygiene measures – self isolating, washing of hands, social distancing and not be misled about how fast a vaccine can be developed, clinically tested and manufactured at scale. Similarly hopes/expectations should not be placed on novel treatments although research and trials do need supporting. The CSO, who comes from a background in Big Pharma research, must be seen to reflect the advice of SAGE in an objective way and resist the many difficult political and business pressures that surround the process. His experience with GSK should mean that he knows about the timescales for bringing a novel vaccine or new drugs safely to market.

    1. Local government and social care

    Local government (LAs) has been subject to year on year cuts and cost constraints since 2010, which have undermined their capability for the role now expected of them. The budget did not address this fundamental issue and we fully expect that in the crisis, central government will pass on the majority of local actions agreed at COBRA to them. During the national and international crisis LAs must be provided with the financial resources they need to build community hubs to support care in the community during this difficult time. The government need to support social care.

    COVID-19 is particularly dangerous to our older population and those with underlying health conditions. This means that the government needs to work energetically with the social care sector to ensure that the public health control measures are applied effectively but sensitively to this vulnerable population. The health protection measures which have been announced is an understandable attempt to protect vulnerable people but it will require community mobilisation to support these folk.

    Contingency plans need to be in place to support care and nursing homes when cases are identified and to ensure that they can call on medical and specialist nursing advice to manage cases who are judged not to require hospitalisation. They will also need to be prepared to take back people able to be discharged from acute hospital care to maintain capacity in the acute sector.

    Apart from older people in need there are also many people with long term conditions needing home based support services, which will become stressed during this crisis. There will be nursing and care staff sickness and already fragile support systems are at risk. As the retail sector starts to shut down and there is competition for scarce resources we need to be building in supply pathways for community based people with health and social care needs. Primary health care will need to find smart ways of providing medical and nursing support.

    1. The NHS

    In January and February when the gravity of the COVID pandemic was manifesting itself many of us were struck by the confident assertion that the NHS was well prepared. We know that the emergency plans will have been dusted down and the stockpile warehouses checked out. However, it now seems that there have not been the stress tests that you might have expected such as the supply and distribution of PPE equipment to both hospitals and community settings. The planning for COVID-19 testing also seems to have badly underestimated the need and we have been denied more accurate measures of community spread as well as the confirmation or otherwise of a definite case of COVID-19. This deficiency risks scarce NHS staff being quarantined at home for non COVID-19 symptoms.

    The 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic highlighted the need for critical care networks and more capacity in ITU provision with clear plans for surge capacity creating High Dependency Units (HDUs) including ability to use ventilators. The step-up and step-down facilities need bed capacity and adequate staffing. In addition, there is a need for clarity on referral pathways and ambulance transfer capability for those requiring even more specialised care such as Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO). The short window we now have needs to be used to sort some of these systems out and sadly the supply of critical equipment such as ventilators has not been addressed over the past 2 months. The Prime Minister at this point calls on F1 manufacturers to step in – we wasted 2 months.

    News of the private sector being drawn into the whole system is obviously good for adding beds, staff and equipment. The contracts need to be scrutinised in a more competent way than the Brexit cross channel ferries due diligence was, to ensure that the State and financially starved NHS is not disadvantaged. We prefer to see these changes as requisitioning private hospitals and contractors into the NHS. 

    1. Maintaining people’s standard of living

    We consider that the Chancellor has made some major steps toward ensuring that workers have some guarantees of sufficient income to maintain their health and wellbeing during this crisis. Clearly more work needs to be done to demonstrate that the self-employed and those on zero hours contracts are not more disadvantaged. The spotlight has shown that the levels of universal credit are quite inadequate to meet needs so now is the time to either introduce universal basic income or beef up the social security packages to provide a living wage. We also need to ensure that the homeless and rootless, those on the streets with chronic mental illness or substance misuse are catered for and we welcome the news that Sadiq Khan has requisitioned some hotels to provide hostel space. It has been good to see that the Trade Unions and TUC have been drawn into negotiations rather than ignored.

    In political terms we saw in 2008 that the State could nationalise high street banks. Now we see that the State can go much further and take over the commanding heights of the economy! Imagine if these announcements had been made, not by Rishi Sunak, but by John McDonnell! The media would have been in meltdown about the socialist take over!

    1. Conclusion

    At this stage of the pandemic we note with regret that the UK government did not act sooner to prepare for what is coming both in terms of public health measures as well as preparing the NHS and Local Government. It seems to the SHA that the government is playing catch up rather than being on the front foot. Many of the decisions have been rather late but we welcome the commitment to support the public health system, listen to independent voices in the scientific world through SAGE and to invest in the NHS. The country as a whole recognises the serious danger we are in and will help orchestrate the support and solidarity in the NHS and wider community. Perhaps a government of national unity should be created as we hear much of the WW2 experience. We need to have trust in the government to ensure that the people themselves benefit from these huge investment decisions.

    24th March 2020

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