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    This is now our 13th weekly Socialist Health Association Blog about the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of our observations and predictions have sadly come true. The leadership group of the UK Tory government remains extremely weak, without a clear strategy or plan of action. Policy announcements at the Downing Street briefings are aimed at achieving media headlines. The Prime Minister has declared that he is taking charge but on questioning in Parliament was unclear who had been in charge up to this point!

    In this Blog we look at the poor political and scientific leadership and lack of a credible strategy; the faltering start of Test Trace and Isolate (TTI); the demands for an urgent independent inquiry of the pandemic and financial audit of government investments in the private sector; and solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

    Lonely Ministers

    The last Downing Street briefing on Friday the 5th June found Matt Hancock (the Secretary of State in charge of the nation’s health) on his own, reading out the slides and reporting on the continuing high number of new cases and relentless roll call of COVID-19 related deaths. The PMs ‘sombrero’ epidemic curve’ has been suppressed but not flattened as it has in other countries in Europe. Deaths remain stubbornly high here as care home outbreaks continue to spread with 50% now affected and there is belated recognition that hospitals and care homes are places of work where transmission occurs. Transmission occurs between staff, patients/residents, within households and the local community.

    The UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) has challenged the way that statistics are presented at these briefings, and are arguably MISLEADING the public. Remember the international evidence presented on deaths, which was fine when we were on the nursery slopes of the epidemic but became embarrassing when we overtook Italy, France and Spain? World beating in terms of total deaths was probably not what the PM had in mind. Last week the total number of deaths in the UK exceeded that of all the EU(27) countries put together. We are now flying alongside Trump (USA), Bolsanaro (Brazil), Modi (India) and will shortly be joined I expect by Putin (Russia) as a group of the world’s worst performers.

    One of the areas of misrepresenting statistics that has exercised the UKSA has been reporting the number of daily tests. We have drawn attention in earlier blogs to how ridiculous it is to snatch a large round number out of the air and declare it as a target. And so it was with the 100,000 tests per day target and more recently the PMs 200,000 target. The challenge of meeting the Government targets meant that officials and private contractors started to count tests sent out in the post to households rather than completed tests. This was rephrased as test capacity. A similar change in data definition happened when we approached the end of May grasping for the 200,000 target. Suddenly antibody tests and the swabbing antigen tests were both included in the total figure. Ministers did not mention that that these tests have different applications and many thousands are used as part of epidemiological surveys rather than diagnostic tests on individuals as part of track and trace.

    What is the strategy?

    There are calls from politicians and in the media for there to be an urgent and time limited independent inquiry into what has gone wrong here. This is not to punish individuals but actually to help us learn lessons urgently and maybe make changes to the way we are conducting ourselves ahead of a possible second wave. One thing that is missing is a clear strategy that government sticks to and criteria that are adhered to in decision making. The Cummings affair has been a disgraceful example of double standards but the acceleration of changes in opening up the economy, increasing lockdown freedoms and reopening schools are examples where the scientific advice and the published 5 stage criteria are being disregarded. Wuhan eased their lockdown when RO was 0.2. (RO or R zero, where R is the reproductive value, the measure used to track how many people, on average, will be infected for every one person who has the disease.)

    Led by the science?

    The other noticeable change has been the change of mood amongst the scientists advising government through the SAGE committees. Many of them now seem willing to speak directly to the mainstream media and engage in social media interactions. The Independent SAGE group that we referred to last week has become the preferred source of scientific advice for many people. It has been interesting to see how many Local Authorities and their Directors of Public Health (DsPH)have not been urging schools to open up if not ready and the local RO is near or at 1.0. The Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) has lost control and must be reflecting nostalgically back to when he was at GSK earning his £780,000 pa salary (Ref. Private Eye). But he has managed to shovel a shedload of resources to old colleagues and friends in the industry involved in the endeavour to develop a safe and effective vaccine ‘game changer’.

    The CSA was absent from duty last Friday and so too the CMO and his two deputies. One wonders whether this is a short lived change but maybe they too realise that that they are being set up with the SAGE advisers to take the blame for the UK’s dismal record. The CMO needs urgently to catch up with his public profile and face the media on his own and build some trust with the population, now anxious to be able to believe in someone at the centre of government decision making. Finally there is the NHSE Medical Director who could not be there – no doubt to be the one to remain standing when the SoS announced at 5pm on a Friday evening that all staff in the NHS should wear surgical face masks and all visitors to wear face coverings! An impossible  logistical and supply issue for an organisation which employs over a million workers in many different settings of care. And there was no consultation with the leaders of the NHS or Professional bodies such as the RCN and Medical Royal Colleges or Trade Unions like the BMA/Unite. What a shambolic way to run things – you couldn’t make it up!

    Test, Trace and Isolate (TTI)

    Test, Trace and Isolate (TTI) continues to have a difficult ‘rebirth’ from when it was put down in mid March with a comment from a deputy CMO as a public health approach more suited to third world countries. Baroness Dido Harding (past Talk Talk CEO and wife of Tory MP John Penrose) is meant to be leading this.  She had an uncomfortable time at the Health Select Committee when she had to admit that she had no idea how many contacts had been traced by the 25,000 tracers who had been fiddling on their home computers for days after having self administered their on line training. Typically Ministers had announced the launch of TTI to the usual fanfare and she had to admit that the end of June was a more likely date for an operational launch.

    It is extraordinary that the programme is being run by private contractors, who have had no prior relevant experience. We are already witnessing the dysfunction in passing timely, quality assured information to Public Health England and local DsPH. Local public health contact tracing teams need information on names, addresses, ages and test results to get started on mapping the spatial location of cases, exploring their occupations and contact history. Local contact tracers may need to actually visit these people to encourage compliance after the Cummings affair. They should really get this information straight from local laboratories and be resourced to employ local contact tracers familiar with the local area.  Local DsPH would then look for support from the regional PHE team and not be dependent on the PHE or the GCHQ- sounding Joint Biosecurity Centre.

    This is what happened in Germany, where local health offices (Gesundheitsamter) were mobilised and local furloughed staff and students were employed to form local teams. We have positive examples of local government being proactive too such as in Ceredigion in Wales where rates have been kept extremely low. In the post-Cummings era local teams will get drawn into discussions about the civic duty to disclose contacts and of adhering to isolation/quarantining. Difficult for an anonymous call handler to undertake against the background sounds of Vivaldi.

    Auditing misuse of public funds

    One aspect that an independent inquiry will need to look at is the investment of public funds into private companies without due diligence, proper contracting and insider dealing. We have already referred to the vaccine development and governments and philanthropic organisations have provided over $4.4bn to pharmaceutical organisations for R&D for COVID-19 vaccines. No information is available about the access to vaccine supplies and affordability as a precondition of the funding. The deal with the Jenner Institute at Oxford and AstraZeneca has received £84m from the UK government. Apparently AstraZeneca owns the intellectual property rights and can dictate the price (Ref: Just Treatment). We gather that the company has refused to share the trial data with a WHO initiative to pool COVID-19 knowledge! National governments cannot manage alone this longstanding problem with global pharmaceutical companies who are often unwilling to invest in needed but unprofitable disease treatments, even though they often receive public funds and benefit from close links with University Researchers and Health Service patients and their data. There need to be global frameworks to govern such investment decisions.

    BAME communities and COVID

    We have referred in previous Blogs to the higher risks of developing severe illness and death in Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups. The Prof Fenton report was finally published this week as a Public Health England report. The report is a useful digest of some key data on COVID-19 and BAME populations and confirms the higher relative risks of severe illness and death in these populations. The report steps back from emphasising the extremely high risks of death by accounting for other factors such as age, sex, deprivation and region. Even taking these factors into account they find that people of Bangladeshi ethnicity had twice the risk than people of White ethnicity. Other South Asian groups such as those of Indian, Pakistani or Afro-Caribbean descent had between 10-50% higher risk of death.

    There has been some controversy about whether this report was edited heavily by Ministers, and in particular whether sections that might discuss structural issues of racism had been cut. Certainly by taking ‘account of’ deprivation and place of residence or region it is possible to choose not to see racism as part of health inequality. Many people will remember the early evidence from Intensive Care Units, which showed that while BAME communities make up 14% of the overall population they accounted for 35% of the ITU patients. How can we forget in the early stages of the pandemic, seeing the faces of NHS workers who had died from COVID? You did not have to be a statistician to notice that the majority of the faces seemed to be BAME people. The BMA have pointed out that BAME doctors make up 44% of NHS doctors but have accounted for 90% of deaths of doctors.

    To be fair, the NHS was quick to send a message out across the health system asking that risk assessments be done taking account of individual risks such as ethnicity, co-morbidities such as obesity/diabetes as well as occupational exposure to risk of transmission. Adequate supply of PPE and good practice does work as very few if any ITU staff have succumbed. As ever it is likely to be the nursing assistants, cleaners, porters, or reception staff who get forgotten.

    The recent demonstrations of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter campaign in the light of the dreadful murder of George Floyd under the knees of US policemen is a reminder that there is a global and long standing issue of racism. The government and all organisations including the NHS need to reflect on the findings of the McPherson report (1999) following the death of Stephen Lawrence that defined institutional racism as:

    The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people’.

    We must work to rid our country of racism in individuals, communities,  organisations and government. It will only be achieved through commitment throughout the life course and by stamping out racism and inequalities to achieve a fairer society for all our people.

    7.6.2020

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

    2 Comments

    This is the twelfth week of the SHA COVID-19 blog in which we have responded to emerging issues in the pandemic response, from a politics and health perspective. As it stands the UK has performed “like lions led by donkeys”. The NHS and care home staff, plus all the other essential workers in shops, delivering mail and answering phones have been heroic, risking their lives, working long hours and generally going well above and beyond the call of duty, supported by armies of volunteers, delivering food to neighbours, sewing protective clothing, organising suitably distanced entertainment, and generally rising to the occasion. While the Tory Government, led by Johnson “advised” by Cummings, on the other hand, has done very badly in comparison to the governments of some of our European neighbours as well as many countries further away in Asia and Australia/New Zealand.

    Germany and Greece 

    UK government advisers have told us that the UK could not easily be compared with Germany. This was a surprise to most people as Germany, France and the UK have over many years had comparable levels of social and economic development. We have drawn attention in earlier Blogs to Germany’s quick response to lockdown, how it closed its borders and uses test and trace widely with leadership in regional Public Health departments. The latest data shows that Germany, with a population of 83m people, has had 8,500 deaths which is a crude death rate of 10/100,000 population. This compares very favourably to the UK, with a population of 68m, which has had 38,400 deaths with a crude death rate of 58/100,000. The UK was slow to lockdown, has not closed its borders but promises to introduce quarantining in a weeks time and is struggling to introduce test, track and isolate having not developed its local public health capacity.

    So if we don’t compare well to Germany – what about relatively poor Greece which has in recent years been ridden with national debt? Greece locked down in early March, before many cases were identified and ahead of any COVID-19 related deaths. They enforced lockdown vigorously, closed schools and for their population of 11m, they have had 175 deaths at a population crude death rate of 1.6/100,000. They have now been opening up in comparative safety with shops on May 4th and shopping Malls on the 18th May along with Archaeological sites. They are now advertising for summer tourists to come from countries like Germany and Eastern Europe: but from the UK only if we get COVID under control!

    Test, trace and isolate

    The COVID-19 SARS virus has many troubling characteristics, such as its infectivity while people are not showing symptoms and its ability to cause serious systemic illness in adults and particularly older people. However it behaves much like other respiratory viruses; transmission can be blocked by isolating infected people, hand washing, cleaning surfaces and maintaining physical distance from others to prevent droplet/aerosol spread. Facemasks have also been shown to reduce spread from individuals hosting the virus in their nose and throat. These control measures are not ‘modern’ or technically complex – they are basic public health interventions to prevent infectious diseases spreading and they have been shown to work over many years. The government’s belated control measures, such as stay at home, isolate and maintain social distancing, use these infection control measures. They have worked as infection rates have reduced but are in danger of now being undermined.

    The testing process has been problematic, as we have said before, not least in the slow pace of increasing capacity. In order to try and catch up politicians have plucked large round numbers out of the sky, announced them at the Downing Street briefings without any explanation as to why that number and how it all fits together strategically.  They then commission inexperienced private sector consultancies and contractors to try and build a new system of testing de novo, which has also involved Army squaddies to deliver. This has led to serious organisational and quality problems, results taking too long to be useful, and not being fed back to the people who need to know other than the patient, namely GPs, local Public Health England teams and local Directors of Public Health. The big question has always been why did they not invest in the PHE system to scale up and at the same time invest in local NHS laboratories to tool up? Local NHS laboratories could have worked with university research labs and local private sector laboratories in the area to utilise machinery and skilled staff. This new capacity would have built on established NHS and Public Health systems and avoided the confusion and dysfunction. The answer is they decided to save the money! They chose to ignore the findings of Cygnus, which foretold all this, because they were intent on cutting the funding of the NHS to the bone and privatising everything that could be turned into a profit-making enterprise.

    Tracing contacts is a long standing public health function often done from sexual health and other NHS clinics but also in local authority-based Environmental Health departments, which are used to visiting premises where food is handled, and following up outbreaks of food poisoning and infectious diseases. GPs are also used to being part of the infectious disease control procedures with Sentinel Practices, set up to provide early warning of infectious diseases such as meningococcal meningitis and helping to track e.g. influenza incidence in the community. It should NOT have been left until LAST WEEK to start seriously engaging with local public health departments and their local microbiology laboratories and primary care! These local leaders and partners should have, as in Germany, been what the community control of the pandemic was built on. This did not need to wait for SERCO to set up a telephone answering service and train people on you tube videos with a malfunctioning (and in some areas totally non-functioning) IT system.

    Typically the Government made an announcement that Tracing was going to start before arrangements were in place, and local Directors of Public Health were left to make bids for investment after the starting gun had been fired! To this day the data that ‘comes down’ to local level is from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) and Public Health England (PHE) and is on a Local Authority population level. There is no postcode or other data that would help local surveillance and understanding where infected people live or indeed where deaths have already taken place.

    The NHS has data by GP practice and hospital, but again there remain issues about identifying where those individual patients reside, who have been hospitalised or, sadly, died. These data could be analysed but that job has not been undertaken and so Directors of Public Health do not have the “Information Dashboard” (or data visualisation software) they need to be credible local leaders in the testing, tracing and isolating work that needs to be done to monitor the local situation and intervene with control measures. Hopefully we are on the road to getting a more balanced approach with national standards and the introduction of a mobile app to support contact tracing. Why did the government not learn lessons from South Korea, Singapore and Germany where they have been successful?

    Independent SAGE

    SAGE is the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies which is supposed to be independent. The SHA is delighted that Sir David King has taken the initiative and established a credible Independent SAGE group. We are pleased to see that SHA President Professor Allyson Pollock has been invited to contribute as well as others known to be supportive of our approach such as Professor Gabrielle Scally a former regional Director of Public Health and public health adviser to Andy Burnham.

    The way that the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) have been played into the Downing Street briefings has been problematic and the secrecy behind who was giving the government scientific and public health advice and what specifically that advice was has been exposed as unacceptable. The CSA has belatedly started to share the membership and minutes (suitably redacted of course) but this has only come about because of political pressure. The SHA were not alone in expressing horror that Dominic Cummings (Johnson’s senior special advisor or SPAD) and his sidekick Ben Warner were allowed to attend these meetings and in fact intervene in the debates! It is the job of the CSA to Chair the meetings of SAGE and discuss the advice for Government, and then summarise the advice for the politicians.

    The independent SAGE group has a very different outlook and its aims are to:

    1. Provide clear and transparent reasons for government policy
    2. Remove ambiguity – messages should be very precise about what behaviours are needed, how they should be carried out and in what circumstances.
    3. Develop detailed, personalised advice that can be tailored to specific groups of people and specific situations depending on their risk from infection.
    4. Messaging should emphasise collective action, promoting community cohesion and emphasising a sense of civic duty and a responsibility to protect others.
    5. Avoid any appearance of unfairness or inconsistency. Any easing from lockdown must be clearly communicated and explained to prevent loss of trust in the Government.

    By adopting this SAGE Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviour (SPI-B) terms of reference it is hard for government to be critical! In response to recent government decisions on easing lockdown and opening primary schools further the independent SAGE group finds that:

    “We have already been critical of the recent change in the content of the messages from Government, from the clarity of ‘Stay at Home’ to the vagueness of ‘Stay Alert’ (breaching recommendations 1-3). Now there is a clear risk that the gain delivered from the long period of lockdown will be lost as a result of recent events, further breaching recommendations 4 and 5, with the potential that many take less seriously current and further public health messages from the Government.  The recommendation about collective action is especially important in rebuilding trust that has been eroded.  Working in close and respectful partnership with organisations across society including those representing disadvantaged communities and working people will be vital in this process”.

    The new group will also work in a more transparent way by engaging in:

    “an open debate on the topics on the agenda. This evidence session was live streamed on Youtube so the public can see the evidence presented and understand the debate within the scientific community on the most appropriate course of action for the UK government”.

    We will “provide a series of evidence-based recommendations for the UK government based on global best practice”.

    When should a School Reopen?

    The Independent SAGE group have published their report on school reopening after their public hearing:

    “We all found hearing directly from the public incredibly valuable, and have updated our report accordingly by:

    • Developing a risk assessment tool to help schools and families work together to make return as safe as possible
    • Emphasising further the importance of providing a full educational experience for children as soon as possible – including the many children who will not be returning to school soon. This should include educational opportunities for children over the summer holidays, through a combination of online learning, summer camps and open-air activities. Teachers cannot be the primary workforce for such activities and other options such as scout leaders, sport coaches and other roles should be explored.
    • Explaining further the risks of reopening for children, staff and communities based on our modelling and taking into account SAGE modelling released on 22nd May
    • Emphasising the need to support black and minority ethnic (BAME) and disadvantaged communities, whose members are at higher risk of severe illness and death from COVID19.

    The group went on to say that the decisions to reopen schools should be done on a case-by-case basis in partnership with local communities. They pointed out the risks of going too early while recognising the needs of children who remain at home and their right to education.

     

    What is the strategy, the science and where are we going?

    There is increasing concern that the government have lost the plot and are now making sudden decisions based on the Prime Minister’s wish to move the debate on from the appalling behaviour of Dominic Cummings his adviser. We have lost the step-by-step changes undertaken with care, built on the published science and giving time for organisations to adapt and respond to the new requirements. There is a pattern of behaviour – policy announcement incontinence – amongst Ministers asked to attend the Downing Street briefings. Announce on Sunday evening, flanked by advisers, and expect delivery to start on Monday morning!

    The English CMO seems locked into this format, which has disabled him from establishing a rapport with the public. His advice and the advice of other CMOs across the UK is meant to be independent professional advice on public health and health care. Similarly the CSA should be there to report on the SAGE findings and recommendations. There is no reason for them to both attend as sentinels at these briefings. Indeed it would be welcome for the CMO to illustrate his independence to have regular slots with the media to explain some of the findings and the rationale for his recommendations. He should have become a trusted adviser – the Nation’s Doctor – and steer clear of the shady political manoeuvring.

    There is increasing evidence too that SAGE scientists are getting restless that the finger of blame will be pointed at them – to become scapegoats when the blame game truly starts. That is why the secrecy around SAGE should not have been permitted and the role of the CSA should have been clearer – to transmit the advice to the government. The Independent SAGE group has shown how this can be done and how you can also engage the wider professional community and public voice in the discourse. The SHA has always advocated for co-production of health and wellbeing.

    The Prime Minister’s newspaper the Sunday Telegraph has today (31st May) applauded him for not sacking his adviser, admits that mistakes have been made but points the finger of blame quite unfairly on PHE. They declare that the ‘system needs structural change’ after the pandemic. The last period we had such changes were during austerity which cut back the NHS and Local Government and the implementation of the disastrous Andrew Lansley disorganisation.

    Scientists need also to beware as the government casts around to blame someone else and we have long been concerned about the claims that they have been ‘following the science’. Several senior SAGE advisers have had to break ranks to say that in their view the government is relaxing the lockdown in England too early. As we have said repeatedly the UK has not performed well in controlling the pandemic and we have had a terrible death toll. It will be shameful if politicians point to scientists, PHE and their own professional advisers as the cause of the dither and delay at the start and the poor decision making since on ‘game changers’ and digital apps. The chaotic introduction of private consultancies and contractors have hindered a joined up public health partnership response and wasted resources which could have been invested in re-building capacity in local government, PHE and the NHS.

    31.5.2020

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

    1 Comment

    The SHA has been publishing its COVID-19 Blogs weekly since the 15th March. A number of themes have cropped up consistently throughout as actual events have occurred.

    Too slow to act

    The slow and dithering response by the government has been one such theme. This has been exposed with embarrassing clarity by media investigative teams which this weekend include the Insight team. Their detailed report on the dither and delay leading up to lockdown showed that when Italy and Spain locked down on the 10th and 13th March respectively each had over a million estimated infections in their countries. In the UK we had looked aghast at the footage from Lombardy and Madrid as their health and care system was visibly overwhelmed but the government failed to heed their strictly enforced lockdown policies in the 2 weeks warning we had. During this time from the 8th March the Johnson administration allowed the Five Nations rugby matches to go ahead in Twickenham and Edinburgh, the Cheltenham races, the Liverpool/Atletico Madrid football match on the 11th March and two Stereophonics pop concerts in Cardiff held on the 14th and 15th March. All this was apparently following the science…..

    France locked down on the 16th March with an estimated 800,000 infections and Germany locked down on the 21st March with only 270,000. The Johnson government had resisted calls to lockdown at the same time as France on the 16th March. They waited until the 23rd March by which time the estimated number of infections in the community had almost doubled to 1.5m. This dither and delay lies at the heart of our comparatively poor outcome with the COVID-19 confirmed deaths of 37,000 (an underestimate of all excess deaths). This list includes at least 300 NHS and care workers.

    Protect the NHS

    Germany’s earlier decision has reaped benefits alongside their border closure, effective test, trace and isolate (TTI) policies, with sufficient testing capacity, and led by regional public health organisations. They also have sufficient ITU/hospital bed capacity without the need to build new Nightingale Hospitals. Our government did not close borders or introduce quarantining on entry, and turned out not to have used February to build our testing capacity either.

    The strategic attention in the UK has been to ‘Protect the NHS’ but not in the same way Care Homes. Because of the shortage of testing capacity we had to stop the community based test, track and isolate (TTI) programme. The NHS has stood up well through the dedication of its staff and demonstrated the superiority of a nationalised health system. However from a public health policy perspective the COBR meetings should have been thinking about the whole population and what populations were at high risk such as those in residential and care homes.

    The data in Wuhan had been published quickly and had shown that it was older people who are most at risk of disease and death. We knew all this, the Chinese data has been replicated in Europe but the Government failed to follow through.

    The Privately owned Social Care sector

    Unlike the NHS hospital sector, the care sector, of residential and nursing homes,  are a patchwork of large ‘private for profit’ owners, smaller privately owned and run homes and the charitable sector. There is a registration system and some quality assurance through the Care Quality Commission (CQC). The fact that we do not have a National Care Service along the lines of the NHS has led to operational problems during the pandemic between commissioners, regulators, owners and the staff who run the homes. As privately run establishments there were varied expectations about procuring PPE for the staff in the early phase of the pandemic response. There was also a lack of clarity about whether satisfactory infection prevention and control procedures were in place and able to deal with COVID-19. How had residential and care homes undertaken risk assessments, working out how to cohort residents with symptoms and manage their care? What about staffing problems, agency staff and policies for symptomatic staff to self isolate? It was important early on to consider in what respect COVID-19 is the same as or different from influenza or a norovirus outbreak,

    It seems that the Secretary of State for Health and his staff have been too slow in aligning Public Health England (PHE), GPs and primary care infection control nurses alongside the homes to provide more expert advice and support on infection prevention and control.  It seems also that some nursing homes took patients discharged from the NHS who were still infected with COVID-19, when on the 19th March the Department of Health announced that 15,000 people should be discharged to free up NHS beds. There was no mandatory testing or period of quarantining before these patients were discharged. In this way hospital based infections were transferred to nursing homes.

    The scarcity of PPE (caused by the Government’s failure to heed the results of Exercise Cygnus) meant that professionals felt nervous about entering homes to assess sick residents and sadly to be able to certify death and certificate the cause of death. Rationing of PPE in this sector has contributed to the risk of infection in care staff, which would cause transmission in the care home. Most homes had to lockdown too, stopping visiting and in some cases having staff move into the home themselves at personal risk and disruption to their lives. It became clear that transmission from the community to care home residents was occurring through staff. This has been very hard on these undervalued and low paid staff, who began to realise that they were transmitting infection between residents or from themselves.

    Some of the stories of care staff’s heroism and dedication to their residents is extraordinary. It is reminiscent of Camus’s book The Plague, which recounts heroism undertaken by ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Tellingly Camus also suggests that the hardest part of a crisis is not working out the right thing to do, but rather having the guts to get on and do it. Many care home managers and staff had to do just that.

    Follow the money

    A recent report looked at HC-One, which is Britain’s largest care home group with 328 homes, 17,000 residents and so far 700 COVID related deaths. The operating profits of the company are of the order of £57m but, through the financial arrangements with off shore related companies, the profits “disappear” in £50m ‘interest payments’. While global interest rates have been at historically low levels HC-One have apparently been paying 9% interest on a Cayman island loan of £11.4m and 15-18% interest on another Cayman company for a £89m loan. Apparently HC-One paid only £1m in tax to the HMRC last year (Private Eye 22nd May) through this transaction with off shore interests off-setting their profit. This is not however inhibiting them from seeking government support at this time. A better future would be to rescue social care by nationalising the social care sector, bring the staff into more secure terms and conditions of service and sort out the property compensation over time through transparent district valuations.

    Test, trace and isolate (TTI)

    At long last the government has signalled that it wishes to reactivate the community based test, trace and isolate programme that it stood down over 10 weeks ago. Of course, once the virus had been allowed to spread widely within communities, the TTI programme would have had to modify their objectives from the outbreak control of the early stages. However they could have continued to build the local surveillance picture within their communities, help PHE to control residential and nursing home outbreaks with their community based contacts and prepare for the next phase of continuing control measures during the recovery phase.

    They seem to have at last realised the potential of local Directors of Public Health (DsPH) who are embedded in local government and who, after all, lead Local Resilience Fora as part of the framework of a national emergency plan. The DsPH have links to the Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) who survived the austerity cuts. EHOs are experienced contact tracers well able to recruit and train new staff locally to do the job. This is in sharp contrast to the inexperienced staff now being recruited and used by the private sector.

    The local public health teams also work closely with PHE and NHS partners and so can fulfil the complex multiagency leadership required in such a public health emergency. Building on these strengths is far better than drawing on private sector consultants such as Deloittes, or companies such as SERCO, Sodexo, Compass or Mitie. All these private sector groups have an interest in hiving off parts of the public sector. In addition, unsurprisingly, they have close ties to the government and Conservative Party. Baroness Harding, who has been brought in to Chair the TTI programme, is a Tory peer married to a Tory MP who was CEO of Talk Talk. She was in charge at the time of the 2015 data breach leading to 4m customers having their bank and account details hacked. No surprises, then, that she is asked to undertake this role as a safe pair of hands in much the same way that Tory peer Lord Deighton has been asked to lead the PPE work.

    Game changers – and what is the game?

    In last week’s Blog we mentioned that Government Ministers seem to be fixated on game changers whether novel tests, treatments, vaccines or digital apps. We mentioned last week that treatments like Chloroquine need proper evaluation to see if they are safe and effective. A report in the Lancet on the 22nd May found that there was no benefit. Indeed the study found that the treatments reduced in-hospital survival and an increase in heart arrhythmias was observed when used for treating COVID-19

    Vaccines need to be researched, as they may well be important in the future but remember that a 2013 review from the Netherlands found that they take – on average – 10.71 years to develop, and had a 6% success rate from start to finish.

    The mobile apps trial in the Isle of Wight seems not to have delivered a reliable platform, and of course the Government has probably ignored the apps working splendidly in South Korea and Singapore. Meanwhile Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Faculty and Amazon stand ready to move in. There are major risks with getting into bed with some of these players including the data mining company Palantir.

    Palantir

    This company was initially funded by the CIA but has secured lucrative public sector contracts in the USA covering predictive policing, migrant surveillance and battlefield software. These IT and data companies have been drawn into the UK COVID-19 ‘data store’. While working alongside NHSX and its digital transformation unit wanting to assess and predict demand there are concerns over data privacy, accountability and the possible impact on the NHS.

    Palantir has been of interest to Dominic Cummings (DC) since 2015, according to the New Statesman, when he reportedly told the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, that he wanted to build the ‘Palantir of politics’. The other company Faculty had close ties too with the Vote leave campaign. Cummings is said to want to remould the state in the image of Silicon Valley.

    Conclusion

    So in the turmoil of the COVID-19 response the government has looked to multiple game changers while ignoring straightforward tried and tested communicable disease control measures. It has succeeded in ‘Protecting the NHS’ (though not against the incursion of the private sector) but allowed the residential and care home sector to be exposed to infection. We welcome the belated return to supporting DsPH and local public health leadership, which has been left out for too long. Let us hope – and demand – that there is also more investment in public health services and not allow Government spokespeople to start to blame organisations such as PHE.

    We worry that they are not being alert to safeguard public services by inviting some dubious partners to the top table. On the contrary they are VERY alert – to the opportunity of inserting private capital (and profit) in the NHS and other public sector organisations. One such company new to many of us is the data mining company Palantir – a company named after an all-seeing crystal ball in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Lurking in the background is of course the Prime Minister’s senior political adviser DC.

    24th May 2020

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

    2 Comments
    Boris Johnson’s hardline stance not to waive the £400 NHS surcharge for overseas health and social care workers combating coronavirus was described as ‘mean-spirited and shabby’ today (Thursday 21 May) by Unite, Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union.
    Unite, which has 100,000 members in the health service, said the hypocrisy of the prime minister was given extra piquancy as he singled out two non-UK  nurses – one from New Zealand and the other from Portugal – for praise after he survived his fight with Covid-19.
    The NHS fee of £400-a-year for care workers applies to those from outside the European Economic Area, regardless whether they use the NHS or not. It is set to rise to £624 in October.
    There is also controversy over the £900m figure which the prime minister told MPs is raised by this charge. The Institute of Fiscal Studies put the sum at a tenth of that – £90 million.
    Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe  said: “Of all people, Boris Johnson should appreciate the wonderful and dedicated work of NHS health and social care professions, including the two non-UK nurses he singled out for particular praise in his fight for survival against coronavirus.
    “Therefore, the fact he won’t waive this £400 fee for overseas health and social care workers is mean-spirited and shabby.
    “With this prime minister warm words of praise come cheap, but a small financial gesture for NHS migrant workers, many of them low-paid, is beyond his compass. His stance is hypocritical.
    “Tonight, we will have the Thursday ‘clap for carers by the people of the UK, many of them who voted for Boris Johnson as recently as last December – there is a big irony here. This charge should be waived immediate.”:
     
    Unite senior communications officer Shaun Noble
    Twitter: @unitetheunion Facebook: unitetheunion1 Web: unitetheunion.org
    Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest union with members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is Len McCluskey.

     

    1 Comment

    The nine-point blueprint by 16 health unions for reopening the NHS should act as ‘a rocket booster’ for ministers to tackle the lack of PPE and the shambolic testing regime, Unite, Britain and Ireland’s largest union, said today (Friday 15 May).

    Unite, which has 100,000 members in the health service, is one of the 16 unions that has contributed to the blueprint designed to make the NHS the safest possible environment for patients, staff and visitors as the lockdown is eased by the government, and out-patient clinics and operations resume.

    Unite said that the three key issues that needed to be addressed urgently were the continuing lack of PPE; the ‘messy’ testing regime which has seen samples sent to the USA; and the withdrawal of the threat that NHS staff could be subject to a public sector pay freeze highlighted in leaked Treasury documents.

    Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe said: “This blueprint by the health unions should act as a rocket booster for ministers to really get to grips with key elements of the pandemic.

    “A continuing shortage of PPE is a dark stain on the government’s response to the coronavirus emergency. We have ambulance, biomedical scientist, nursing and speech and language therapist (SALT) members telling us that there are still shortages and, in some cases, when it does arrive it is out-of-date, ill-fitting or not up to standard.

    “We have feedback from our members that they are being leaned on by NHS bosses not to raise the PPE shortages – but Unite urges them to #staysafenot silent and to #telluswhatPPEyouneed.

    “And we will back you to the hilt in raising these legitimate concerns that are of the highest public interest.

    “The testing regime totters between the shambolic and the messy. There is little openness and transparency about how the government will hit its increased 200,000 daily test target.

    “We have thousands of healthcare science members who could be used to better effect and engaged more substantively, so we can avoid the situation where samples are sent to America for analysis.

    “It appears that the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing as the ‘test, track and trace’ initiative struggles to get off the ground in a meaningful way.

    “Finally, our members are furious at the leaked Treasury assessment that a public sector pay freeze could be on the cards to pay for the cost of the pandemic. If the Thursday ‘clap for carers’ means anything, it should be that there can be no return to the age of austerity.

    “More than 270 NHS and social care workers have died due to Covid-19 and hundreds of thousands more are risking their lives on a daily basis to care for others – yet this does not seem to stop Treasury mandarins drawing up heartless proposals to freeze public sector pay, which a recent Unite survey has shown the public does not want.”

    The unions’ blueprint includes fast, comprehensive and accessible testing, and the ongoing, ample supply of protective kit, as well as calls for staff to be paid properly for every hour worked.

    Notes

    The NHS unions are: British Association of Occupational Therapists, British Dental Association, British Dietetic Association, British Orthoptists Society, Chartered Society of Physiotherapists, College of Podiatry, Federation of Clinical Scientists, GMB, Healthcare Consultants and Specialists Association, Managers in Partnership, Prison Officers Association, Royal College of Midwives, Royal College of Nursing, Society of Radiographers, UNISON and Unite.

    The final text of the blueprint is here

    Unions have been asking the government to fund a consistent approach to overtime across the whole NHS. They are currently awaiting government sign off on a joint proposal from employers and unions.

    The 16 unions represent health workers covering the whole of the UK. There may be issues specific to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that can be taken up with the employer/union structures of those administrations.

    Twitter: @unitetheunion Facebook: unitetheunion1 Web: unitetheunion.org

    Comments Off on Unions’ blueprint on NHS reopening is a ‘rocket booster’ for ministers to tackle PPE and testing crises, says Unite

                      DOCTORS IN UNITE

    The rising death rate from COVID-19 and the pressure of the pandemic on a weakened NHS have caused warranted anxiety. There were reports from Italy of rationing, when life saving equipment was simply unavailable for some sick patients, and difficult triage decisions had to be made by doctors. Many deaths in the UK are occurring among elderly residents of care homes, and unlike deaths in hospital, these have not been given prominence in daily reports.

    Press coverage has indicated that Do Not Attempt Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (DNACPR) agreements have been misused. Rather than an agreement on a one to one basis after full discussion and as part of advance care planning, marginalised groups such as the elderly and disabled have been asked for consent by letter. In some cases decisions have been made on their behalf.

    Such agreements should only apply to what happens in the event of the heart stopping during an illness, but they have been wrongly interpreted as consent to not having treatment for illness, or not being admitted to hospital.

    Professional bodies such as the British Medical Association are attempting to provide an ethical framework for health care staff faced with impossible decisions regarding rationing and who should take precedence. Not only has the government failed to provide guidance on this matter, perhaps because it undermines their narrative that the NHS is coping with the onslaught and will continue to do so. Their grotesque incompetence in failing to follow World Health Organisation advice has put front line workers in an unprecedented position: having to make decisions about who should and who should not receive care.

    The government, policymakers, managers and clinicians have a responsibility to patients. They must ensure that any system used to assess the escalation or de-escalation of care does not disadvantage any one group disproportionately. Treatment should be considered irrespective of a person’s background when it can help them survive, balanced against the risk of that treatment causing harm.

    A GP surgery in Wales sent letters to patients asking them to complete a DNACPR form, reportedly stating “several benefits” to its completion. The form explained that “your GP and more importantly your friends and family will know not to call 999” and that “scarce ambulance resources can be targeted to the young and fit who have a greater chance.”

    In an “ideal situation”, it continued, doctors would have had this conversation in person with vulnerable patients, but had written instead due to fears the doctors may be asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus. The practice later apologised to recipients of the letter.

    A GP surgery in Somerset also wrote letters to a support group for adults with autism, requesting they make plans to prevent their clients being resuscitated if they become critically ill. The letter was later withdrawn after criticism.

    The Guardian has reported that “elderly care home residents have been categorised ‘en masse’ as not requiring resuscitation”, and that “people in care homes in Hove, East Sussex and south Wales are among those who have had ‘do not attempt resuscitation’ notices applied to their care plans during the coronavirus outbreak without proper consultation with them or their families”.

    The Mirror also reported that adult patients and parents of children with chronic conditions were sent letters asking if they wanted to have DNACPR statements agreed in case of admission to hospital with coronavirus.

    A learning disability care provider described an unprecedented increase in the number of DNACPR letters it had received. In the Health Service Journal their spokesperson said “making an advance decision not to administer CPR if a person’s heart stops, solely because they have a learning disability, is not only illegal, it is an outrage.

    “We are seeing DNR orders that have not been discussed with the person themselves, the staff who support and care for them, or their families. This is very concerning as it may potentially lead to people being denied life-saving treatment that other patients would be granted”.

    NHS Trusts, GPs and clinical commissioning groups have been told by NHS England they must not send out blanket DNACPR forms.

    The British Medical Association, Royal College of Nursing and Resuscitation Council UK provide detailed guidance on decisions relating to cardiopulmonary resuscitation. CPR was introduced in the 1960s following recognition that some hearts could be restarted when they had stopped beating, often after a heart attack.

    The probability of CPR being successful in other situations is generally low. It involves compressing the chest, delivering high voltage electric shocks to the heart, attempts to ventilate the lungs and giving intravenous drugs. Injury to ribs and internal organs may occur and some patients survive only to spend long periods in intensive care without full recovery. This is why people talk about the risks and benefits of CPR.

    The heart and lungs stopping is a natural part of dying from any cause. When CPR is used in people who have been gravely ill it is very unlikely to work. Rather than a peaceful death, their lives could end in the context of aggressive but futile attempts to change an irreversible process.

    To prevent this happening patients can be asked well in advance about their wishes, with a full exploration of the issues involved. In normal circumstances, the decision to not attempt CPR is made after a discussion between patient and doctor. An understanding can be reached that because of frailty, and because the heart stopping is the final stage of an irreversible process of multiple organ failure, the potential benefits to the patients are outweighed by the risks of pain and indignity.

    Standardised DNACPR forms were introduced to attempt to ensure patients’ wishes were recorded and would be easily available to healthcare staff. They do not have to be signed by patients. The member of the healthcare team who has discussed CPR with the patient signs the form, as does the responsible senior clinician (this may well be the same person).

    Doctors are told by their professional organisations that “considering explicitly, and whenever possible making specific anticipatory decisions about, whether or not to attempt CPR is an important part of good-quality care for any person who is approaching the end of life and/or is at risk of cardiorespiratory arrest.

    “If cardiorespiratory arrest is not predicted or reasonably foreseeable in the current circumstances or treatment episode, it is not necessary to initiate discussion about CPR with patients.

    “For many people, anticipatory decisions about CPR are best made in the wider context of advance care planning, before a crisis necessitates a hurried decision in an emergency setting.”

    The purpose of advance care planning is to allow each individual to choose in advance what interventions, including CPR, they wish to receive in the event of deterioration in their health. For people with multiple conditions, or those who are severely unwell, the optimal time to undertake advance care planning is when they are relatively stable. Discussions are best had in their home or usual care environment where planning can be supported by the healthcare professionals who know them well. These may include doctors and nurses based in general practice, in the community, in hospices or in hospitals. Making a decision in advance ensures that there is time for all the appropriate people to be involved in a decision. It allows time for reflection and scrutiny.

    Decisions made may be written down, and described variously as a living will, personal directive, advance directive, medical directive, or advance decision. This is a legally enforceable document in which a person specifies what treatments or interventions they would not wish to undertake in the future if they are unable, due to illness, to give their opinion at that time.

    Nearly one in five people over 80 may need hospitalisation with COVID-19. An estimated 1.28% of people diagnosed with COVID-19 will die. Around half of patients ill enough to be admitted to ICU in the UK for ventilation have died. 95% of UK COVID-19 deaths have occurred in patients with underlying medical conditions.

    Consequently asking people most at risk to decide what they would like to happen in the event of them becoming unwell is sensible, and good medical practice.

    It is however important to distinguish this from a blanket application of DNACPR orders to particular groups. This is discriminatory and illegal. There must be full consultation with the individual concerned. A thorough face-to-face discussion with staff who know the patient well is required. This has clearly not happened in the examples cited in the press.

    Care workers may worry about breaking social isolation rules and potentially infecting patients at home visits. There are ways around this, including video consultations. Poor communication over such sensitive issues breeds mistrust.

    The risks and benefits of CPR may change in the context of coronavirus. In patients with COVID-19 pneumonia who then have a cardiac arrest, not only is there little likelihood of CPR restarting the heart, there is the potential for health personnel to become infected as a consequence of attempted resuscitation.

    Professional guidelines are however quite clear. “A decision not to attempt CPR applies only to CPR. All other appropriate treatment and care for that person should continue. It is important that this is widely understood by healthcare professionals and that it is made clear to patients and those close to them.

    This is essential as it is a common fear amongst members of the public that a ‘DNACPR’ decision will lead to withholding of other elements of treatment.”

    For example, if someone in a care home agrees to a DNACPR, it does not mean they cannot be admitted to hospital if appropriate, or that they cannot be considered for intensive care. It only means that if their heart stops, resuscitation would not be attempted.

    There is an anxiety about the availability of resources if the number of patients overwhelms the amount of life saving equipment available. The COVID-19 pandemic is a major challenge for a weakened NHS. The elderly, care home residents and those with disabilities are being marginalised. The government mantra of “stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives” led people with acute medical conditions to avoid medical attention when they needed it, and encouraged some ill with COVID-19 to stay out of hospital, dying at home when they may have survived.

    The idea of rationing life saving care is anathema to healthcare staff, but it may be on the horizon. In Italy, which has twice as many ventilators per 100,000 population as the UK, there were age cut-offs applied for admission to intensive care. Ventilator treatment was withdrawn from some patients expected to do badly in favour of younger patients with a better prognosis.

    If rationing does become a reality, front line teams will try and work in accordance with accepted ethical principles. This will unfortunately not provide perfect answers.

    Ethicist and barrister Daniel Sokol described the dilemma on April 7th. “It is no secret that intensive care unit (ICU) capacity may be overwhelmed if the pandemic worsens. Why then is there so little published guidance on ICU triage from the UK government and NHS Trusts? The Royal College of Physicians’ ethical guidance on covid-19, published on 2nd April 2020, stated that ‘any guidance should be accountable, inclusive, transparent, reasonable and responsive.’ The British Medical Association’s ethical guidance, published the next day, emphasised the need for decisions to be made ‘openly, transparently, by appropriate bodies and with full public participation’.”

    Sokol asked, “Where are the protocols setting out the triage criteria?” He suggested that senior officials in the government and NHS England may be reluctant to publish anything that might clash with the current messaging that the NHS is managing present demand and is likely to continue to cope. “The official message is that with continued communal efforts the NHS can be protected, ICU need not be overwhelmed, and tragic choices will be avoided. Publishing a document that contemplates an NHS in chaos and tragic choices aplenty sits awkwardly with that message”.

    He also wondered if fear of legal challenge was a factor. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence was threatened with judicial review on publishing its COVID-19 guideline for clinical care. This advice was subsequently amended due to concerns about unlawful discrimination against people with long-term conditions including autism and learning disabilities.

    The 2019 National Security Risk Assessment also highlighted the potential for public outrage if health and care systems were seen to struggle, especially if provision of the remaining services was unevenly distributed.

    There are no ethical guidelines from the Department of Health or NHS England for front line staff and senior managers relating specifically to COVID-19, but the British Medical Association (BMA), Royal Colleges and specialist medical bodies have produced their own.

    The BMA suggests, “All patients should be given compassionate and dedicated medical care including symptom management and, where patients are dying, the best available end-of-life care. Nevertheless, it is legal and ethical to prioritise treatment among patients. This applies where there are more patients with needs than available resources can meet.”

    To help decide which patients to treat, they ask doctors to “follow your organisation’s guidelines and protocols, including relevant procedures for making complex ethical decisions. The speed of patient’s anticipated benefit will be critical. Other relevant factors include: severity of acute illness; presence and severity of co-morbidity; frailty or, where clinically relevant, age.

    “Managers and senior clinicians will set thresholds for admission to intensive care or the use of highly limited treatments such as mechanical ventilation or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation based on the above factors. Patients whose probability of dying, or requiring prolonged intensive support, exceeds this set threshold would not be considered for intensive treatment. They should still receive other forms of medical care. Prioritisation decisions must be based on the best available clinical evidence, including clinical triage advice from clinical bodies. These criteria must be applied to all presenting patients, not only those with COVID-19.”

    The Royal College of Physicians says, “Any decisions made to begin, withdraw or withhold care must also comply with the shared decision-making policies of the NHS. This means that these decisions should include the patient and their wishes (as much as is feasible for the given situation) and, if appropriate, the patient’s carers. This is true regardless of whether the patient has COVID-19.

    “Front-line staff, policymakers, management and government have a responsibility to patients to ensure that any system used to assess patients for escalation or de-escalation of care does not disadvantage any one group disproportionately. Treatment should be provided, irrespective of the individual’s background (e.g. disability) where it is considered that it will help the patient survive and not harm their long-term health and wellbeing.

    “Many front-line staff will already be caring for patients for whom any escalation of care, regardless of the current pandemic, would be inappropriate, and must be properly managed. We strongly encourage that all front-line staff have discussions with those relevant patients for whom an advance care plan is appropriate, so as to be clear in advance the wishes of their patients should their condition deteriorate during the pandemic.”

    There is an urgent need for national guidance from the Department of Health and NHS England on how to manage if resources run out. In the absence of such guidance, individual clinicians will be using the available evidence to assist in making extremely challenging decisions.

    This will not be an easy task, as illustrated by one Italian doctor speaking to the New York Times. “If you admit an 82-year-old with hypertension, in a situation where you have two or three patients waiting outside your I.C.U. who have many more chances of survival that you cannot admit because your I.C.U. is full, then it becomes really inappropriate, or I would say, immoral”.

    It is outrageous that UK medical staff may be put in this position due to the government’s incompetence.

    Dr John Puntis is the co-chair of Keep Our NHS Public

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    From Ekua Bayunu, Member of Greater Manchester Socialist Health Association, and selected candidate for Hulme in the next Manchester City Council elections.

    When I joined SHA a couple of years ago I wanted to focus my energies on action against inequalities in the health systems around race, particularly in mental health. We now have evidence of the toxins that were seeping into us from the right, distracting us from actually building effective socialist action on health issues here in Greater Manchester.

    Skip forward and we are slap bang in the eye of the storm of the Covid 19 pandemic and still searching for some strength in our unity to make a difference to our communities. Many of our members are fully immersed in either working on the frontline, in providing care in our institutions, or in volunteering in mutual aid groups, many doing both and I send love and admiration out to us all.

    We lost my neighbour, an elderly Somalian man, to the virus on the last weekend in March. It felt like the storm that was brewing had just swept in and taken one of ours before we barely knew it was coming. Then the statistics started coming in. We are dying in inexplicably large numbers. We? I’m a woman of African heritage, my community is African, South Asian, Working class.

    My close friend, a street away, is a nurse working at MRI, already stressed by the lack of PPE, worrying about her family, the risk she posed to her 3 daughters and husband at home, when she got ill two weeks ago, together with two colleagues from her ward. They got tested. She doesn’t have access to a car, and the only testing is drive-through. No you can’t walk in. No you can’t get in a taxi! She started talking to us about wills and supporting her daughters and all the worries she has for them. Her eldest also works as a nurse, the youngest is only 10. Her cultural background is Turkish, and she knew she might die.

    She is in recovery, but the statistics get worse and worse. The demand for action grows as do the questions and desire for investigation. I read articles in the silo of my social media accounts and watched as it began to break slowly into mainstream media. At first I thought: they are holding back on the narrative, because it doesn’t suit their agenda to highlight how many were dying in service to us all who were from Diasporan African, Asian and other minority communities. We entered this year with forced deportations built on a narrative that these were the communities of criminals and spongers on the state. Suddenly the NHS workforce were our heroes, they put out ads supporting these workers and most of the workers were white. Did you all notice?

    Then as the statistics leaked into a wider societal consciousness, I became openly worried. Information being fed via the television is so absent of any real analysis that it actually begins to shape a eugenicist narrative, which the Prime Minister does little to distance himself from. Our deaths are not real sacrifices based on years of inequalities in education, health care, housing and employment, but gives out a message of our inherent weakness and inferiority! And whilst we all are shut in, angry, confused, needing to have something or someone to blame, in the place of blaming this government for its lack of care in putting profit over people, it is easy to discern they are creating a diversionary agenda.

    It is becoming increasingly clear BAME people are dying disproportionally, on the wards, driving our buses, cleaning our streets, in our care homes. They are presented as the problem, when they are the heroes and victims of the pandemic. Last week the government finally pulled together a commission with PHE to investigate the causes of BAME people dying disproportionally. Do we all assume that the why will lead to how to stop this? To a solution to help us? I can’t.

    Posted by Jean Hardiman Smith on behalf of Ekua Bayunu, Member of Greater Manchester Socialist Health Association

    1 Comment

    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.

    2 Comments

    “Thanks to all those who continue to provide rapid feedback from their frontline experience. Also for the forensic questions you provide. You are helping the Labour Party challenge where needed”.

    Brian Fisher ( SHA Chair )

    EXPERIENCE FROM THE FRONTLINE 26 4 20

    Social distancing at the Stanlow / Ellesmere Port petrochemicals plant is impossible as the staff need to work in pairs or larger teams to do their work, often one on top of another, that’s the nature of the work.  My contact thinks much of that work is un-necessary at this time, it is not just about securing the site etc.., but workers are threatened with losing their jobs if they don’t come in.  I have seen photographs of lunch or tea breaks during this emergency, with staff in high vis clothing sitting sardined together on benches at refectory type tables.

    Even those with asthmatic conditions have been refused time out.  It looks to be completely irresponsible of management.  I understand similar situations are to be found at similar plants elsewhere in the country

    Guide dog training has been stopped, so people waiting for a replacement dog or to have one for the first time cannot.  I know several elderly blind or partially sighted people in this situation who are now trapped at home, probably indefinitely.  They are aware that if they stop walking they may never start again as muscle tone and bone mass are soon lost without exercise

    PPE

    Masks for the public when going into public spaces. The govt appear frightened of this because of concerns that it will divert surgical masks away from hospitals. They are confounding PPE, expensive, scarce and required by carers to prevent their catching the virus, with simple face coverings, in cotton or linen, cheap, washable and effective at reducing onward transmission. Trisha Greenhalgh has done an excellent explainer that sets out the evidence on this:  https://www.fast.ai/2020/04/13/masks-summary/   It is endorsed as policy by the CDC   https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/cloth-face-cover.html

    Sadiq Khan has also been ahead on this promoting cloth masks for the public on London transport.  There will need to be a lot of them – but textile companies are not selling many clothes and could churn out millions pretty quickly –  but they need to be asked. Govt thinks public not grown up enough to understand advice for cloth not surgical masks.  My view is that masking up in public will have to be an important component of any exit strategy – and they need to get on with it.


    Locally I find from contacts that those who are doing care support in the homes do not seemingly have any kind of PPE at all which is not surprising but also alarming.

    LA councillor

    TESTING

    We are waiting for ‘test test test’ but that is feeling as though it will be a very long wait.  While we are waiting we need to recruit and train an army of contact tracers.  This needs to start now, almost certainly through local authorities.


    We shall have to do case detection syndromically if the necessary volume of testing is not available when transmission has fallen significantly through the lockdown, with whatever limited testing support is available. This will be easier as we leave the seasonal respiratory viruses behind.  It is not perfect, but perfection is not necessary, just reducing the transmission rate.


    Given that TESTS are supposed to be the start of this action” chain “ it less than clear where this chain is supposed to start and how it will relate to any denominator population / geographical community. It is clear that Ag and Ab tests are not going to be available in local communities  through the 7500 GP practices in England in the foreseeable future .

    So it looks like Govt expect the management of the pandemic, exit from lock down and the inevitable second pandemic wave to be done via:

    • our 50 mass drive in test centres – [ ie for that segment of the population which has cars ]  – so our understanding and contact tracing for spread will be the ill defined catchment areas of these test centres
    • and / or through home based test kits …..in which case it could be completely random / Brownian in shape / dynamics

    How will home-based tests connect with the new army of contact tracers which is being recruited by PHE – and their “assault “ on the spread of the virus  in local communities but it seems essential to involve general practice in our response to  COVID . I suppose it depends on how important you believe community spread generated though care and nursing homes is at periods of high community transmission in which case Public Health England may get a grip with additional support.

    It appears that there are currently no  plans nationally to use our unique infrastructure of 7500  general practices to do Covid 19 testing. In Birmingham during swine flu in 2009, GP consultations and reports provided public health / health protection agency with “ hot knowledge “ about new cases ;  did swab tests and  gave us insight into the geography of spread across the city during the containment phase.

    Apparently Ribera Salud integrated health care model in Valencia Spain has been able to mobilise and use flexibly all health care staff [ public health , primary care and hospitals ] during this crisis.

     

    QUESTIONS

    Is the government prepared to cope with the wave of mental health problems which are about to hit us as we pass the peak? I work as a mentor of GPs and keep in touch with issues on the front line. I am actually more concerned about care workers who have not been trained in the same way as doctors and nurses. If doctors are struggling with what they are seeing, how will a care worker cope with the loss of their charges in the homes from this terrifyingly overwhelming illness? What support will be available for their mental health?

    Have the 3 RAF aircrafts returned from Turkey with the PPE? Did the government lie / mislead the country last Friday? Can the government confirm when the order was placed? It’s been reported that the Turkish government say the order wasn’t placed until Sunday.

    Can the Government confirm whether the story in the Telegraph today about a British firm exporting 750k pieces of PPE because the Government hadn’t got back to them is correct or not

    Is there any country which has a reliable antibody test? 

    What is the preparation for accelerating the implementation of the postponed electives, treatments etc. as we transition to “normal”? Also, how to research the status of people who have avoided presenting themselves to their GP or A&E? These need to be well managed.

    Apparently 15,000 a day are flying into the country with little regulation while we are all self isolating at home. Not to mention the rich arriving at private airports. How can we not be restricting air traffic at this time?

    What arrangements is the minister putting in place to strengthen local and regional public health management of continuing cases to prevent subsequent new waves of the epidemic? The containment phase was ended in Mid-March and  lockdown applied nationally, despite considerable variation of reported disease transmission regionally throughout the UK.

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

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    From Stephen Watkins, retired Director of Public Health, Stockport.

    Based on 119 deaths in a patient-facing workforce of about 800,000, the Health Service Journal (HSJ) suggests that death rates in NHS staff are no higher than in the general population.

    It is important to remember the difference between mortality rate (deaths per 100,000 people at risk) and fatality rate (proportion of deaths in those actually infected).

    It is not possible to draw an accurate conclusion without age-specific mortality rates (not fatality rates) for the general population and for NHS patient facing staff. The crude mortality rate for NHS staff based on the HSJ figures would seem to be about 14 per 100,000 per current duration of epidemic. (“Crude” means not adjusted for age and sex).

    Based on the Lancet article by Verity et al[1], the age-specific fatality rates in people of working age, based mainly on Chinese figures, appear to be between 0.03% in people aged 20-29 and 0.59% in people aged 50-59, then increasing to 1.93% in people aged 60-69. Assuming a reasonably even spread of ages between 20 and 65 the average would be 0.3%.

    Applying this to the 14 per 100,000 mortality rate would equate to 4,666 cases per 100,000.

    Therefore assuming the accuracy of the Chinese fatality rates, and assuming an even spread of ages between 20 and 65 in the NHS workforce, the mortality rate in the NHS population is what would be expected if the death rates were the same as the general population if 4.6% of the working age population has been infected to date.

    If fewer than 4.6% of the working age population has so far been infected, the rates in NHS staff are higher. If more than 4.6% of the working age population has so far been infected,  the rates in NHS staff are lower. We do not however have accurate age-specific incidence rates for the general population from which to make an accurate assessment.

    However, if there were a 4.6% incidence rate in the general population there would now have been 2,990,000 cases and the Government is not quoting anything like that figure.

    Subject to caveats about the inaccuracy of the data and the extreme approximations made in the calculation, it would appear that rates in NHS staff are significantly higher than in the general population. This may, however, not be true if the rates of infection in the general population are being grossly understated, which could well be the case.

    [1] Robert Verity et al, “Estimates of the severity of coronavirus disease 2019: a model-based analysis”, The Lancet online 30. 03.20.

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    Health Secretary Matt Hancock has announced that firefighters, police, prison staff and Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) workers will now be eligible for coronavirus testing, in a session of the Health and Social Care Committee.

    Responding to the announcement, Matt Wrack, Fire Brigades Union (FBU) general secretary, said:

    ‘We’re pleased to see that the government has listened to the FBU and finally agreed to open up some testing to other key workers, including fire and rescue personnel. However, it is a shame it has come this late, with thousands of firefighters already self-isolating – this is something that could have been easily avoided.

    ‘We are awaiting further details but it is clear that there are questions around the functioning of the scheme that is now open to more key workers . The health secretary said fewer NHS staff were coming forward to be tested than hoped, but this is surely an issue of accessibility, rather than frontline staff not wanting to be tested. Many of the testing centres are far out of town and require extended trips in a car – if this is a barrier to nursing staff, it will also be a barrier to other key workers.

    “It is also clear that this testing scheme will only identify the virus in those individuals presenting symptoms or living with others who are. Many key workers who have been exposed through their work will have contracted the virus yet remain asymptomatic. Frequent and accessible testing of key workers who are at high risk of exposure is also needed to reduce the risk of spread in workplaces.

    “To ensure that fire and rescue services, and other vital services can continue to operate in this crisis, we don’t just need access to these testing schemes, but to also see the capacity of the schemes themselves increase. There need to be more tests available full stop.”

    Joe Karp-Sawey, FBU communications officer

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    Firefighters across the UK could support the delivery of COVID-19 testing, including taking samples for antigen tests, in the latest agreement between the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), fire chiefs and fire service National Employers. After appropriate training, firefighters will be able to carry out swab tests on other fire and rescue personnel, their families, and the wider public if necessary.

    The update to the national agreement will now allow firefighters to drive ambulances to non-emergency outpatient appointments and to transport those in need of urgent care. Firefighters can also begin training non-emergency service personnel to drive ambulances to aid the coronavirus response.

    It follows an agreement last week between the union, fire service National Employers, and the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), which has allowed firefighters to fit face masks and deliver vital PPE and medical supplies to NHS and care staff.

    Firefighters have already begun driving ambulances, delivering food and medicines to vulnerable people, and moving dead bodies in some areas, after an initial agreement was reached on 26 March.

    The FBU warned earlier this week that around 3,000 fire and rescue personnel were already in self-isolation due to coronavirus. The union says NHS and care staff are a priority but that testing must also be urgently made available to fire and rescue personnel.

    Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said:

    “While the government is lagging behind its own schedule to deliver testing, the number of tests that have long been promised may require assistance from outside of the NHS and we are here to help.

    “Firefighters are highly skilled and are able to take on new areas of work to assist in these extraordinary times – and this now includes carrying out antigen tests, driving ambulances to non-emergency incidents, and training other personnel to drive ambulances.

    “We’ve raised our concerns about the government’s mishandling of coronavirus testing and the impact it is already having on frontline services. Fire and rescue personnel are now able to assist in the national testing which is so urgently required.

    Joe Karp-Sawey, FBU communications officer

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