Category Archives: Health Inequalities

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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While we welcome the £5bn emergency fund for the NHS and other public services and the open ended commitment made by the Chancellor that the government will provide whatever the NHS needs to meet the challenge of COVID-19; we are concerned to point out three big issues on sustaining an NHS, social care and protecting all workers including those in the gig economy.

The Chancellor re-iterated the discredited election manifesto statements about 50,000 more nurses while we know that there are already 43,000  funded nurse vacancies. He repeated the mantra about 50 million more GP appointments while recruitment of young doctors to become GPs remains poor and it is not clear how this can be achieved in the short term. He reiterated the discredited election slogan about 40 new hospitals. Both staffing promises ignore the fact that it is not only money that is needed – the legacy of austerity cannot be reversed by a cash injection alone – training a GP/medical specialist takes 10 years. Turn the tap off for 10 years and turn it back on expecting accolades is not good enough.

We are very concerned too about the immigration health surcharge, which is being increased to £624 per person. The NHS needs to continue to ethically attract health workers into our country for training and service. The surcharge will apply to EU citizens from January next year. This health surcharge is a serious disincentive and opens another pathway for Tories to introduce insurance charging into the NHS. The cost of collection as with all insurance schemes will be prohibitive.

Social care has been ignored. Everyone involved knows that we should be investing in health and social services and even Jeremy Hunt who presided over NHS austerity is on record as saying that this is a glaring omission in the budget. You need to invest in health and social care and the budget is silent on social care. The budget statement of 8,700 words mentions social care twice only and the manifesto commitment of £1bn/year for 5 years seems to have been lost. Local government leadership role has been ignored such as their role in housing, childcare and social support in communities. The attention given to cars, roads, potholes, red diesel and fuel tax does not signal that the other existential emergency on climate change is being addressed.

Finally we welcome the steps taken to move entitlement to SSP to day one but worry that the 111 service is already over stretched and should not have the burden of certification forced on them. The health and wellbeing of those who are not eligible for SSP, such as the estimated 2m part time and zero hours workers and the 5m self-employed is inadequately protected: the ESA is probably too small a compensation. Many will feel they have to continue to work, putting their own health and that of their families at risk.

The SHA campaigns for health and social services to be free at the point of need and to be funded by general taxation. We know that the 10 years of Tory austerity has damaged the fabric of our NHS and we need to invest in capital and training of staff with confidence in long term growth and sustainability. In a modern society the social care services need to be an integral part of our system and should be planned together with joint investment. This budget has missed an opportunity to make this change.

 

On behalf of the Officers and Vice Chairs

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It is truly shocking that life expectancy has stalled in England, and for poorest women it has fallen.  The Marmot Review: 10 years on[1] published this week, shows us in detail how we have failed to improve on most of the indicators that were highlighted in the original review[2] 10 years ago. It points out that this can be clearly linked to the lack of implementation of those evidence-based recommendations.

The report looks at five of the six domains that were used in the 2010 report:

  1. Give every child the best start in life
  2. Enable all children, young people and adults to maximise their  capabilities  and  have  control  of  their lives
  3. Create fair employment and good work for all
  4. Ensure a healthy standard of living for all
  5. Create and develop healthy and sustainable places and communities
  6. Strengthen the role and impact of ill health prevention

It is interesting that they chose not to look at the sixth domain, on the grounds that plenty has been written on this area since 2010, and review was not necessary. This will ensure that there is no opportunity for Government to respond with messages about what it done in this domain, while evidence shows this to be the least cost-effective approach, and hence should have been lowest priority for policy and action.

We know that the top priority should be our children and young people. It is very worrying that infant mortality has increased in the poorest families, that child poverty has increased and now stands at over 4 million. It shows how tax and benefits changes have been deeply regressive, pushing many families into the poverty trap. Knife crime is more common in those areas where youth services have been cut the most. A positive finding is that poor children appear to thrive better in poorer areas than in richer ones: either they are more socially excluded and stressed in affluent areas or that children and education services are doing something right in more deprived areas.

Income is a massively important determinant of health. This report highlights how work is good for health only if it is good quality work. So, although employment has increased, this isn’t enough for people to feel the benefits. The report notes that the average weekly earnings at 2015 prices were £502 in September 2019, only £5 higher than in 2008. The UK is one of only five of the 35 OECD countries where the purchasing power of the average wage has fallen since 2008. Since 2008 there has been a large reduction in benefits available for working age people and children. This, together with the rise in housing costs, has been the driver for huge increases in food bank use. The most deprived households would now have to use over 70% of their disposable income on food if they wanted to follow the Eatwell guide for healthy nutrition.

The report highlights social cohesion throughout, and describes forgotten communities:

“there are   more   areas   of   intense   deprivation   in   the   North, Midlands   and in southern coastal towns than in the rest of England, whilst other parts of England have thrived in the last ten years, these areas have been left ignored. Since 2010 government spending has decreased most in the most deprived places and cuts in services outside health and social care have hit more deprived communities the hardest”

We welcome this report. It confirms the SHA conviction that austerity kills and that the policies of the Conservative-led governments since 2010 have directly led to a heavy burden of increased mortality, ill health and misery that is largely carried by the poor. The most effective actions should have been to address the wider determinants of heath rather than individual behaviour change. Polices have in fact done the opposite of this, including the Government Prevention Green Paper a year ago. This report shows how investment for most things that affect the wider determinants of health has instead been reduced in more deprived communities.

It would be of interest to compare the data collected here with similar analyses in the other devolved nations which have attempted to mitigate the impact of UK wide austerity policies from Westminster.

Prof Sir Marmot says:

‘If health has stopped improving, it’s a sign that society has stopped improving. When a society is flourishing, health tends to flourish’

The SHA realises that there is a very powerful lobby that will undermine this report and all the other emerging evidence, for political reasons.  We know that this report will be challenged by those who support right wing policies, and its conclusions ignored by those with an agenda that doesn’t believe in equity.

We must do all we can to reach agreement again on what a flourishing society looks like. We must change and strengthen our democracy to be more accountable to the multiple views in our communities. The report says

“Our vision is of creating conditions for individuals to take control of their own lives. For some communities this will mean removing structural barriers to participation, for others facilitating and developing capacity and capability through personal and community development”

And as socialists, we believe that the state does have a crucial in protecting and improving the health of its people. For the last 10 years, our Government has been actively undermining the wellbeing of all but the most affluent.

[1] The Marmot Review; 10 years on, Institute of Health Equity http://www.instituteofhealthequity.org/the-marmot-review-10-years-on

[2] Fair Society, Healthy Lives, 2010 Institute of Health Equity http://www.instituteofhealthequity.org/resources-reports/fair-society-healthy-lives-the-marmot-review

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The Marmot Review 10 years on is being launched today, and is making headlines

Key messages:

  • Over the last decade health inequalities have widened overall, and the amount of time people spend in poor health has increased since 2010.
  • #Marmot2020 confirms an increase in the north/south health gap, where the largest decreases were seen in the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods in the North East, and the largest increases in the least deprived 10% of neighbourhoods in London.
  • The 10-year on review discounts the theory that the slowdown in life expectancy increase can be solely attributed to severe winters or flu.

You can see the report here

Follow twitter tag #Marmot2020

 

Kathrin

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