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    Week 18

    In this week’s blog we urge the government to stop dithering and clarify the guidance on face masks; to get on with sharing all test results with local Directors of Public Health; and to stop shifting the blame for our world-beating COVID death rate onto Public Health England (PHE) and the NHS.

    Facemasks

    The important point to note with facemasks, which gets lost in translation, is that face coverings help prevent the wearer from transmitting the virus to others. Remember in the COVID-19 pandemic we have learnt that people without symptoms can pass on the virus to others – by coughing, sneezing, shouting, singing or even talking loudly.  As the prestigious Royal Society report puts it: “My facemask protects you, your facemask protects me”

    The value of the public’s wearing facemasks has been slow to gain scientific support from the World Health Organisation (WHO) as well as within wealthy Western Countries such as the UK and USA. The WHO have, however, changed their tune now and recommend the use of non-medical masks for the public when out and about and where maintaining social distance is difficult. The advice is clear that medical masks are for health care workers as they reduce the risk of the health care worker getting the virus from their patients. It also prevents a healthcare worker who has the virus but doesn’t have symptoms from transmitting the virus.

    For the public there are two groups of people who should wear medical quality masks according to the WHO – people over the age of 60yrs and those with underlying conditions such as diabetes. The point here is that high quality fluid resistant facemasks help protect the wearer from the virus when treating patients and similarly protects older people at risk and those younger people at higher risk due to underlying conditions. This becomes even more important as vulnerable people and those in the shielded groups emerge from their lockdown.

    The rest of the population are advised to wear non medical face coverings that can be homemade and made of cloth. There are plenty of websites (including UK government ones) showing how to make them from old socks, tee shirts, tea towels, coffee strainers and the like. The benefit of this advice is that while there is a worldwide shortage of medical grade masks the use of cloth face coverings does not risk depleting supplies for health care staff.

    Remember: My facemask protects you: Your facemask protects me!

    Mutual benefit is something that socialists have little difficulty understanding and accepting but it does require a high uptake, which is where political leadership comes in. We saw the UK Prime Minister wearing a blue Tory facemask on the 10th July alongside a hint that he is considering making it a requirement to wear them in shops. This has of course already been introduced in Scotland, which is having a comparatively successful campaign to stop the spread of COVID-19 and going for elimination of the virus like New Zealand. Sunday’s BBC News reported that the US President had finally agreed to wear a face mask because someone told him he looked like the Lone Ranger!

    In the middle of June it was made a requirement in England to wear a face covering, if travelling on public transport such as buses and trains, where maintaining a 2m distance was impossible. So the government typically is inching its way towards making a decision – a slow adopter, in the terminology of the Economics of Innovation.

    The UK is starting from a low base with estimates of 25% of the public wearing masks in public places but so too were other countries in Europe like Italy and Spain who now report adherence of up to 80% which is moving them towards the levels achieved in countries which have been successful in containing COVID-19 in East Asia. What it needs is political leadership: for example, politicians like the Chancellor should be wearing a face covering when serving food in Wagamama.

    We know that failed leaders like Trump find it counter to his macho self image to wear a sissy mask but meanwhile thousands of his citizens are going down with the virus. Our PM, who shares many of the Trump traits, has also been slow to show leadership, and he missed the opportunity when they changed the social distancing recommendation from 2m to 1m+. That was the opportunity to require that people going into shops and other enclosed public spaces must wear a face covering.

    As far as the underlying science is concerned there have been research groups in Oxford who have reviewed the literature and state that ‘the evidence is clear that people should wear masks to reduce viral transmission and protect themselves’. On the light blue side of the debate a Cambridge group of disease-modellers have stated that population-wide use of facemasks helps reduce the R rate (the number of people that one infected person can pass the virus on to) to less than 1 and prevents further waves when combined with lockdown. This benefit remained even when wearers ignored best advice, contaminating themselves by touching their faces and adjusting their masks! In answer to critics these researchers have pointed out that there have been no clinical trials of the advice to cough into your elbow, to social distance or to quarantine.

    It comes down to political leadership and we note that Nicola Sturgeon has made the move, successful countries in Europe have too, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan has called on the Government to get on with it. Surely we have learnt enough about COVID-19 being spread before symptoms arise – by the so call silent spreaders?

    Sharing Test Results

    In previous Blogs we have talked about the hugely expensive and unsatisfactory ‘NHS” test and trace initiative. Imagine a Director of Public Health (DPH) within a local patch who has colleagues in Public Health and the local NHS/PH laboratories. Under normal circumstances they have a strong professional relationship and get test results emailed back very fast from the Laboratory with information that is useful for contact tracing – name and address, GP, date of birth and the history leading up to the test being taken. They can act quickly and ensure good liaison with Public Health experts and the local NHS. Logically the government should in England, like they have in Wales, have invested in a greater capacity of local testing. The so-called Pillar 1 tests have been this sort, and results have been supplied to local Directors of Public Health (DsPH) in a timely way.

    Enter stage left Matt Hancock and his buddies. Establish something completely new – the so called NHS Test and Trace initiative– at a great cost and run by an accountancy firm Deloitte and a private contract company SERCO neither with any prior experience. They establish some Lighthouse Laboratories with Big Pharma,  who may be geographically close to the local NHS labs but are contracted privately as a parallel service. They establish contracts with Amazon/Royal Mail/the British Army and others to take the swabs and transport them. Result – a mess where huge numbers of tests are lost, the results delayed and poor quality information is belatedly supplied to bemused DsPH . That is what we have seen in Kirklees, Leicester and now some other districts which have not had the benefit of the so called Pillar 2 tests done by Test and Trace.

    The latest data published by the government shows that there are more than a million tests that were ‘sent out’ but not completed. This all helped Matt Hancock show at the Downing Street press conferences that he had the testing capacity and had posted the swabs out! No wonder that the UK Statistical Authority have been concerned about how the information on testing has been presented!

    One of the excuses offered by the government has been about personal data being shared with DsPH. They forget that this is a PUBLIC HEALTH EMERGENCY and that COVID-19 is a notifiable disease and there is a statutory duty to report on cases.  Again we see dither and delay……

    June 24th PHE starts to share postcode, age and ethnicity with DsPH.

    July 3rd NHS Digital releases Pillar 1 and 2 results.

    July 6th Positive test results reported at below Local Authority level

    July 15th Postcode level dashboard to be supplied including contact tracing at LA level.

    July 16th Test results at smaller population areas (down to a 6000 households level)

    The message here is that the data from NHS Test and Trace is being very slowly shared with local DsPH and their teams who have been charged with managing local outbreaks like the one in Leicester. The key issue is – why did the Government encourage the design of the system from the top down rather than bottom up?

    Don’t blame PHE and the NHS.

    The PM and Matt Hancock have become a bit nervous about the ‘blame game’ as the demand for an urgent and time limited inquiry increases. Their performance has been poor compared to others within the UK like Scotland and across the Irish Sea and the English Channel. So who can they point the finger at?

    The Daily Telegraph is of course the PM’s previous employer and vehicle for his thoughts. It was in this newspaper on the 30th June that we first heard about Public Health England shouldering the blame.  The newspaper headline was ‘Heat on PHE as the Prime Minister admits Coronavirus response was sluggish’.

    The performance of PHE has not been faultless but we know why they were not able to scale up their testing capability when they had the opportunity. During the pandemic they have provided expert public health guidance to the system and supported local Health Protection teams but those teams have been “slimmed down” to anorexic levels during the austerity years, along with Local Authority departments.

    Public Health England was created in 2013 when it replaced the Health Protection Agency. It is an executive agency accountable to Ministers and the Department of Health and Social Care. It has many specialist research laboratories vital to national security – as used when Novichok was used in the attempted assassination of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in 2018. Remember the local DPH leading the local response, and then being supported by Porton Down and Public Health England?

    Public Health England employs 5500 staff with a budget of £287m per annum.

    The infectious diseases element of PHE has a budget of £90m per annum so it surprised everyone to learn that the Government has set aside £10 billion for spending on the NHS Test and Trace system. This money will be going to private firms such as SECO and G4S and dwarfs the entire PHE budget 110 fold because it is paying not just the cost – as it would if it were being done in the public sector – but the cost plus the high profits they demand!

    Remember too that on July10th G4S settled its Serious Fraud Office (SFO) case in which it was accused of overcharging the Ministry of Justice for electronic tagging of offenders. The Serious Fraud Office said that G4S had accepted responsibility for three counts of fraud that were carried out in an effort to ‘dishonestly mislead’ the government, in order to boost its profits.

    As the Guardian reports on the G4S case :“The £44.4m in fines and costs takes the total paid out by outsourcing firms involved in the prisoner tagging scandal to more than £250m. SERCO reached its own £22.9m agreement with the SFO last year, six years after repaying £68m to the Ministry of Justice”.

    So what is our government doing? It is pointing the finger of blame at PHE, which is an executive agency accountable to Ministers, and handing out generous contracts to G4S and SERCO who only recently have been found guilty of fraud.

    The one success in the pandemic has been the way that the NHS coped with the surge of cases – yes: hard to believe, but the PM is also pointing his finger at the NHS, too, and is threatening another round of Tory disorganisation.

    Clap Clap.

    13.7.2020

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

    1 Comment

    In this week’s Blog we will have a look at the lessons learnt so far with the first City lockdown in Leicester and see what this tells us about the UK Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, raise issues again about their competence, outline why the social determinants of heath matter and assess the risks involved in privatisation of the NHS testing centres and public health functions.

    Local lockdown

    Leicester has been directed by central government (Hancock in the House of Commons on the 30th June) to remain in lockdown this weekend when other parts of England were being urged by the Prime Minister to be brave, to bustle in the High Streets to help ramp up an economy which is waiting to be turbo charged. The government announced in Westminster on June 18th that there was a local outbreak causing concern in Leicester. This news broadcast in the media saw the local Mayor of Leicester and their local Director of Public Health (DPH) in a bemused state. They had been left in the dark because the central government and their privatised drive through/hometesting  service led by Deloittes/SERCO had not shared the so called Pillar 2 data with them. They did not receive Pillar 2 test data for the next 10 days!

    Outbreak plans

    Local Directors of Public Health (DsPH) across England had been required by central government a month earlier to produce Local Outbreak Control Plans by the 30th June. According to the PM they were meant to be in the lead to ‘Whack the Moles’ in his typically colourful and inappropriate language. Whacking moles apparently means manage local outbreaks of COVID-19. Anybody who has actually tried to Whack a Mole on their lawn or at a seaside arcade will know that this is almost impossible and usually the mole hole appears again nearby the following day.

    Local DsPH have been receiving from Public Health England (PHE) regular daily data about local NHS hospital laboratory testing from the Pillar 1 sources. In Leicester this was no cause for concern as there had been a decline since the peak in positive cases in April.  That explains why the Mayor and DPH were bemused. Each week there are now summary bundles of data incorporating both sources sent by PHE but not in a way that local teams can analyse for information of interest such as workplace/occupation/household information. Belatedly, postcode data is now shared which had been hidden before! One of the first requirements in outbreak management is to collect information about possible and confirmed cases with an infection in time, place and person. This information needs to include demographic information such as age and gender, address, GP practice and other data pertinent to the outbreak such as place of work/occupation and travel history. Lack of workplace data has made identifying meat packing plants in outbreaks such as near Kirklees more difficult and another example where the local DPH and the Local Authority were wrong footed by the Minister.

    Public Health England review

    On the 29th June PHE published a review  ‘COVID-19: exceedances in Leicester’. This excellent review showed that the cumulative number of tests in Leicester from Pillar 1 was 1028 tests whereas the number of Pillar 2 was 2188 which is twice as many! The rate per 10,000 people in the Pillar 1 samples was a relatively low rate of 29 while Pillar 2 showed a rate of 62/10,000. The combined positive rate of 90/10,000 is more than twice the rate in the East Midlands and England as a whole. It was on the basis of this Pillar 2 data that the government became alarmed.

    It is just incredible that the government have contracted Deloittes/SERCO to undertake something that they had no prior experience in and to allow a situation to develop when the test results from home testing and drive through centres was not being shared with those charged with controlling local outbreaks.

    The political incompetence was manifest to an extraordinary level when Nadine Dorries, Minister for Mental Health, confirmed to a Parliamentary enquiry that “the contract with Deloittes does not require the company to report positive cases to Public Health England and Local Authorities’.

    It seems as if the point of counting numbers of tests undertaken each day was to simply verify that home tests had been posted and swabs had been taken in the drive-through sites so that Matt Hancock could boast at the Downing Street briefings that the number of tests was increasing.. But we are trying to control COVID-19 and Save Lives. Sharing test results with those charged with controlling local outbreaks must be a fundamental requirement.

    Deprivation and health

    In earlier BLOGs we have highlighted that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected those who live in more deprived areasand additionally has impacted even more on BAME people. Studies have shown that relative poverty, poor and cramped housing, multigenerational households and homes with multi-occupants are all at higher risk of getting the infection and being severely ill. Other factors have been occupation – people on zero hours contracts, low pay and in jobs where you are unable to work from home and indeed need to travel to work on public transport. Many of these essential but low paid jobs are public- or client-facing which confers a higher risk of acquiring the infection.

    All these factors seem to be in play in Leicester. The wards with the highest number of cases have a high % of BAME residents (70% in some wards). One local cultural group are Gujeratis with English as a second language. Another factor that is emerging is the small-scale garment producing factories. It is estimated that up to 80% of the city’s garment output goes to internet suppliers such as Boohoo.

    The garment industry

    Two years ago a Financial Times reporter, Sarah O’Connor, investigated Leicester’s clothing industry. She described a bizarre micro-economy where £4-£4.50 an hour was the going rate for sewing machinists and £3 an hour for packers. These tiny sweatshops are crammed into crumbling old buildings and undercut the legally compliant factories using more expensive machines and paying fairer wages. As she points out (Financial Times 5th July) this Victorian sector is embedded into the 21st century economy and the workforce is largely un-unionised. The big buyers are the online ‘fast fashion’ retailers, which have thrived thanks to the speed and adaptability of their UK suppliers.  Boohoo sources 40% of its clothing in the UK and has prospered during lockdown by switching to leisurewear for the housebound while rivals have shipments left in containers.

    Mahmud Kamani with Kane founded Boohoo in 2006 and it has made him a billionaire. It is said that other competitors such as Missguided and Asos have been put off by concerns about some of Leicester’s factories – including claims over conditions of modern slavery, illegally low wages, VAT fraud and inadequate safety measures. A researcher went into the garment factories earlier this year and is quoted as saying

    I’ve been inside garment factories in Bangladesh, China and Sri Lanka and I can honestly say that what I saw in the middle of the UK was worse than anything I’ve witnessed overseas’.

    Occupational risks, overcrowded housing and poverty have been shown to be risks to contract the virus and become severely ill with it. BAME communities have additional risks over and above these as we have discussed before in relation to the Fenton Disparities report, which was blocked by Ministers who were not keen on the findings of racism in our society and institutions.

    Health and Safety

    In Leicester the Health and Safety Executive has contacted 17 textile businesses, is actively investigating three and taking legal enforcement action against one. In business terms the UK’s low paid sector are an estimated 30% less productive on average than the same sectors in Europe. As unemployment rises in the months ahead it will be vital to focus on jobs as the Labour leadership have stated. However quality should be paramount and the government apparently wants ‘to close the yawning gap between the best and the rest’.

    The Prime Minister has recently promised ‘a government that is powerful and determined and that puts its arms around people’. These arms did not do much for care homes during the first wave of COVID-19 and looking to the future of jobs and economic development the fate of Leicester’s clothing workers will be another test of whether he and his government meant it.

    Incompetent government.

    The pandemic has exposed the UK but particularly people in England to staggering levels of government incompetence. There are other countries too that have this burden and Trump in the USA and Bolsonaro in Brazil spring to mind. They seem confident that the virus won’t hit their citizens and it certainly won’t hit the chosen ones.

    Psychologists say that people like this appear confident because as leaders they know nothing about the complexity of governing. They refer to this as the Dunning-Kruger effect:

    incompetent people don’t realise their incompetence’.

    5.7.2020

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

    1 Comment

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

    Test and Trace

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

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

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

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

    Workplaces

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

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

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

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

    Contact tracing

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

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

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

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

    Social distancing

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

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

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

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

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

    29.6.2020

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

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    We are now into the 15th weekly blog during the pandemic and confidence in the government is plummeting as the weeks roll on. The UK stands out as the sick man of Europe according to the Economist with the highest excess deaths per million population and with the OECD forecasting the UK as having the highest % decrease in GDP for 2020 compared to a year ago

    Channel 4 broadcast a speech by Prince Charles on Monday (June 22nd), saying how grateful the Nation was to the Windrush Generation who came to staff the NHS and other public services after WW2. Viewers have been horrified by the programmes on TV showing how badly they had been treated under the Hostile Environment policy of Theresa May, and how disproportionately they are currently suffering from Covid-19..

    In this week’s blog we will touch on familiar themes such as the slow rebirth of local test and trace/outbreak control plans, the failure of the world beating NHSX app on the Isle of Wight, the scandal of government contracts for PPE purchases and the revelation that there was indeed a Fenton report on BAME deaths that was withheld.

    BAME

    As protests about Black Lives Matter continue across the country and the world, our Ministers are on a learning curve about the historic slavery/civil rights context of ‘taking the knee’, and that Marcus Rashford is a famous black Man U footballer and English international. The PM and his Cabinet Ministers continually display how out of touch they are.

    Having looked at the Fenton Part 2 report “ ‘Beyond the data: Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on BAME groups’ most people will nod quietly at the eminently sensible recommendations he made which were based on a rapid review of the literature, his group engaging with 4,000 people across the country with direct experience of racism and suggestions about what is to be done. These stakeholders expressed deep dismay, anger, loss and fear in their communities about the emerging findings that BAME groups are being harder hit by COVID-19 than others. This exacerbates existing social, economic and health inequalities.

    Professor Fenton’s report recommends that there be improved ethnicity data collection, more participatory community research, improved access to services, culturally competent risk assessments, education and prevention campaigns. He calls for pandemic recovery plans that are designed to reduce health inequalities caused by the wider determinants of health to create long term sustainable change.  The SHA heartily supports these recommendations and, along with David Lammy MP, demand that the government implements findings from previous BAME related reviews that date as far back as the Stephen Lawrence inquiry in 1999.

    We know that inequalities reflect racism and structural factors in society outside health. The Runneymede Trust looked at Pensioners’ Income for the Financial Years 2017-18 and found that Black pensioner families receive almost £200 less a week than white British pensioner families. Black households were the least likely to receive personal pensions. They also found that Black African and Bangladeshi households have approximately 10p for every £1 of white British savings and assets. The figures show that for every £1 a white British family has, Black Caribbean households have about 20p and Black African and Bangladeshi households about 10p. Its not just COVID!

    Test and Trace

    Remember that the Government called a halt to the local test and contact tracing that was happening in early March, claiming that there was too much community transmission for it to have an impact and there were not sufficient local resources to manage the surge? The real reason it has emerged was that there was insufficient test capacity to sustain both NHS hospital testing and testing in care homes and the community. That fateful decision meant that local test and trace schemes were stood down, and did not follow the pandemic by analysing local surveillance and build-local systems. A few weeks ago, quite suddenly, the government recognised the role that such local test and trace schemes might have as the pandemic continued, and demanded that local Directors of Public Health prepare new Local Outbreak Control Plans by the end of June. Thankfully they appointed a CEO from Leeds Council to advise them and quite properly he has been working with the Local Government Association (LGA) and the Association of Directors of Public Health (ADsPH). At long last local plans are emerging and demands increasing for timely access to test results. Some government investment has been extracted from Deloittes and other consultants and safely invested in local government teams.

    As we have touched on before, the government has been too centralised in its approach and the national testing sites have been ‘out sourced’ to firms in the private sector, such as  SERCO, with Deloittes hovering, and also creaming off profit while mismanaging things. This means that there is undue delay in getting test results back to local teams and the initial contact tracing is being handled by inexperienced call handlers at a distance from the person involved. Remember that COVID-19 has shown us that it affects older people, people in care homes, people of BAME heritage and those from the most disadvantaged communities in the UK, disproportionately badly . I wonder what advice scientists might have given about the most effective way of reaching the most at risk people? Surely by now we know that, despite apps and complicated ventilators, health care is still a people business.  Skilled and empathetic care workers matter. Meanwhile GPs and primary care are bystanders to this world beating system and local public health teams are frustrated at step one of outbreak control, namely information about who has relevant symptoms and whether they have tested positive.

    The app!

    The app the app my kingdom for an app!’ It is alleged that people have heard the scream from the SoS who has a boyish interest and naïve faith in apps and other digital technologies. The ‘world beating’ app being developed in the exceptionally clever UK and tested on the Isle of Wight has bitten the dust. Stories are now emerging about the errors and misjudgements that there have been on the way. Developers of successful apps, such as that of Prof Tim Spector of Kings College London which now has 3.5m users, tells us that the NHSX treated his research teams as the enemy. They told him that far from collaborating, their world beating all singing and dancing app would make his redundant. In case we think this is just Tim Spector we hear that Ian Gass of Agitate tried to tell the NHSX in March that its app design, which tried to use Bluetooth signals was flawed. He describes this weird almost paranoid state, where the government says publicly that they’re asking for help, but then rejects it when it is offered.

    PPE contracts

    With the PPE supplies debacle we also heard the refrain that the government was inviting local UK companies to help produce PPE for the NHS and Social Care. Company boss after company boss reported trying and failing to make contact with government commissioners. It seems that it is only the insiders who get the contracts. Some previously small companies like PestFix are under scrutiny having won contracts with a value of £110m. This amount is nearly a third of the £342m public sector contracts signed for COVID-related PPE.

    We are pleased that Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee is taking evidence on these contracts. MPs have said rightly that the pandemic crisis should not be an excuse for failing to achieve value for money.

    And finally

    We started this blog with a reference to a report in the right wing leaning Economist magazine. It is extraordinary that their leader in the June 20th-26th edition under the banner heading ‘Not Britain’s finest hour’ should say:

    The painful conclusion is that Britain has the wrong sort of government for a pandemic – and in Boris Johnson, the wrong sort of prime minister…

    ….beating the coronavirus calls for attention to detail, consistency and implementation…..

    The pandemic has many lessons for the government, which the inevitable public inquiry will surely clarify. Here is one for voters: when choosing a person or party to vote for, do not under-estimate the importance of ordinary, decent competence.”

    Hear hear.

    22.6.2020

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

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    Doctors in Unite are concerned at the pace of the ideologically driven moves to ease Lockdown measures. The implication is that we will have to live with a baseline prevalence Covid-19 and within the shadow of a second surge

    We have launched an open letter to the Prime Minister on the issue as we fear that the Westminster government is displaying the greatest level of recklessness in this regard.

    https://doctorsinunite.com/2020/06/21/open-letter-to-the-prime-minister-about-the-uks-covid-19-strategy-from-nhs-and-social-care-workers/

    The campaign was triggered by the experience in many other countries that are pursuing a policy of eradication of Covid-19 as far as it is practical and the Crush the Curve campaign in Ireland (North and South).

    Posted by Brian Fisher on behalf of Doctors in Unite.

     

    Leave a comment

    So we are into our 14th weekly blog tracking our way through the COVID-19 pandemic. There are many issues which we have raised before which remain relevant over the past week. The most notable are the continuing blunders by the Johnson government, intent on appearing to have a strategy and being in control. The podium politics continue with premature announcements blurted out as intent, without having checked out their feasibility with professional advisers. The schools debacle was always couched in terms of recalcitrant Trade Unions rather than the fact that our school buildings have lacked investment over decades, class sizes are high and teacher staffing relatively low. This means that you cannot reduce class sizes to enable social distancing in the buildings you have available! A simple estimate of size of buildings, number of children and staffing levels would have demonstrated that this was always going to be a challenge before taking account of the risks of transmission to teachers and back via children and staff to people’s homes. The embarrassing retreat could have been avoided and the stress on schools reduced by consulting those that know how the system runs. Meanwhile schools are open to vulnerable children and greater efforts can be made to get them back in the school setting.

    A similar fiasco has emerged in health when, suddenly and belatedly worried about outbreaks in hospitals and nursing homes, the government decides to direct all NHS staff in patient/public facing roles to wear surgical facemasks and all visitors to wear facemasks. Imagine the planning this requires and the supplies that will be needed to sustain it! PPE and the scarcity of medical facemasks has been a story throughout the pandemic. But there was no consultation with the NHS before the announcement on a Friday evening.

    As for Test, Trace and Isolate (TTI) this has had a ‘wobbly’ start, as rather than trusting in local Directors of Public Health (DsPH) to build local teams that local laboratories can report to quickly, they have sidestepped the service and asked private contractors, with no prior experience, to set up a telephone answering/contact tracer service. Training has been very basic and it is not delivering the timely communication needed to ensure cases isolate themselves and their contacts traced urgently by local staff. In the ‘post-Cummings stay alert era’ it is already emerging that people may have less commitment to listen to government guidance, and when the lockdown is easing will be reluctant to stay off work and name their contacts who may be in a similar position.

    BAME and Inequalities

    Two issues, which we have raised before, are the need to address racism in our society and its link to general inequalities. The Black Lives Matter movement is trying to ensure that the government does not whitewash this issue and hide behind statistical methods which try to discount the fact that BAME communities are over represented in disadvantaged groups and have additional pressures on them that arise from racism in society, in key organisations and in the individuals they interact with.

    We have seen an extraordinary example of institutional racism over the process of publication of the Public Health England (PHE) report on Disparities in risks and outcomes of COVID-19.

    This report was commissioned by the government, ‘from the podium’ in Downing Street, when confronted by the announcements of deaths related to COVID-19 where BAME people have been heavily over represented. The NHS employs many BAME staff but did not expect to hear that while 44% of NHS doctors are from BAME groups they accounted for 90% of deaths of doctors. BAME nurses are 20% of the workforce but account for 75% of deaths. So Ministers appointed Prof Fenton a senior Public Health Director in PHE to lead the review. This provided some comfort to the BAME communities, as Fenton is an articulate and experienced black health professional able to access the views of BAME communities to deepen our understanding of what was happening to lead to these extraordinary outcomes.

    In the event publication of the report, which had been delivered by Fenton and PHE as promised by the end of May, had been delayed. Professor Fenton had been booked to lead a webinar for the Local Government Association (LGA) on Tuesday 2nd June fully expecting to be able to refer to his report. He seemed unaware that the report would not be published by the Government, without it being clear that this was the Fenton Report, until a couple of hours later, and even then without it being clear that the publication was the Fenton Report. What has subsequently emerged is that the section of his report that starts to address the pathways that lead to these huge differences in health outcome had been taken out of the report without consultation. This was hugely disappointing to the many hundreds of individuals and organisations who had contacted him and the review team during their rapid review process. The LGA webinar had been hosted by colleagues in Birmingham, and both the local Director of Public Health for Birmingham and the Chair of the Health and Wellbeing Board, Cllr Hamilton, were clearly engaged in providing insight and proposals as to how to start to address the challenges.

    Of course we do not yet fully understand the shenanigans that have gone on but suspect that someone else was asked to edit the report and effectively take out all the challenging political bits and resort to a dry re-publication of some of the statistics which we knew about and which had led to the inquiry itself! This new epidemiological input seemed determined to try and account for as much as possible of the higher mortality by apparently neutral factors such as co-morbidities, occupational risk, living in cities and relative deprivation. Such findings had been submitted by a SAGE report at the end of April, which had not been peer reviewed or published. This attempt to explain away the disparities seriously misses the point about racism and how it works through cumulative lifetime risks. Treating Prof Fenton in this way exhibits a form of institutional racism that no doubt the Ministers, and the experts drawn into stripping the report of its insights into how racism works, do not grasp.

    Despite taking account of sex, age, deprivation and region in England people of Bangladeshi ethnicity had twice the risk of death than people of White British ethnicity. People of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Other Asian, Caribbean and Other Black ethnicity had between 10 and 50% higher risk of death when compared to White British. By stripping out other factors an attempt has been made to soften the data impact and bin the feedback from local communities based on their life experience and the specific experience with COVID-19.

    Other countries have shown that there is an overrepresentation of black people amongst hospitalised patients. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, for example, that: in New York City death rates from COVID-19 among black/African American people was, 92/100,000 and Hispanic/Latino people 74. These rates are substantially higher than the 45/100,000 for the white population and 34 for Asians.

    Back in the UK, if you look outside the health sphere you see similar data in the criminal justice system. The BAME population make up 14% of the population yet 51% of inmates of the youth justice system. Stop and search records show that black people have 38 searches /1000 population compared to 4 for the white population. They are also more likely to be arrested with 35/1000 for the black population compared to 10 for the white population. The black population are five times more likely to be restrained and twice as likely to die in custody. Looking specifically at the black population rather than BAME groups as a whole they account for 3.3% of the population and 12% of the prison population. Black people make up 1.2% of police officers while 93% are of white ethnicity (Sunday Times, 14th June).

    This information has been well known to the black populations of most of our cities since well before the 1981 riots in Brixton, Toxteth, Moss Side, Handsworth and Chapeltown, let alone the Black Lives Matter protests of 2000.

    Inequalities

    The Office of National Statistics (ONS) still manage to produce reports that have not been politically edited in the way that Fenton’s was, and they have published a review on inequalities and COVID-19. This shows that the most deprived areas of England have more than twice the rate of death from COVID-19 than the least deprived. In the period from the 1st March until the 31st May the death rates were 128/100,000 for the most deprived compared to 58.8 for the least deprived. This inequality continues to be proportionately high and is mirrored in Wales too where they measure multiple deprivation differently (WIMD) yet still show a contrast between 109/100,000 for the more deprived populations compared to 57.5 in the least deprived. Both nations show a gradient across the groups, which is the important point that Marmot and others have made that inequality is not just something that influences the socially excluded groups but adversely affects the whole society from top to bottom.

    The SHA has consistently argued that we need to seriously address the social determinants of health and wellbeing. We also recognise the work that Marmot has done globally with the message that where we live, learn, work and play affects our health. The conditions in which people live, learn, work, and play contribute to their health. These conditions over time lead to different levels of health risks, needs and outcomes among people in certain racial and ethnic minority groups.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in America use this approach to set out how these determinants might be tackled despite the fact that the Trump administration is deaf and blind to their advice!

    The international response to the George Floyd murder on the street in Minneapolis must be built on to turn these daily injustices around. The Black Lives Matter campaign needs support.

    As Labour’s David Lammy MP says:

    We can’t just look back in 5 years and remember George Floyd as a hashtag. We have to find a way to transform this righteous anger into meaningful reform’.

    15th June 2020

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

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    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

    This is a collective statement on behalf of SHA bringing together public health evidence and other opinions on a key Covid policy issue.

    The government ‘s centralised programme in England for testing and tracing – and the use of outsourcing

    1. Key messages:

    • The Government has not yet passed the five tests it set itself for easing lockdown
    • The government said that it would only consider easing lockdown once the country has passed five tests. One of these tests [TEST 5] is “confidence that we can avoid a second peak of infection that overwhelms the NHS”
    • The Devolved Administrations and many scientists and public health professionals doubt whether or not we have “passed this test” They doubt we have the capacity to detect and respond to local surges in infection or control outbreaks as lockdown is eased – and that a second or even third peak of infection will occur. Policy is diverging across the UK with mixed messaging to the public and a high risk of losing a coherent and effective strategy of suppression.
    • To manage our “exit “from lock down we need to be able to recognise new cases when they occur, test and isolate people who are infected, trace and test their contacts – and to have the flexibility resource and leadership to organise responses at a local level.
    • Other countries in Europe are using phased lifting of measures, across regions and settings. The EU Roadmap states that “the lifting of measures should start with those with a local impact and be gradually extended to measures with a broader geographic coverage, taking into account national specificities. This would allow to take more effective action, tailored to local conditions where this is appropriate, and to re-impose restrictions as necessary, if a high number of new cases occurs (e.g. introducing a cordon sanitaire)” For example, why would there be a relaxation of control measures in dense urban areas with crowded public transport at the same time as some parts of the UK that have had no new confirmed cases for 18 plus days and some areas with very few cases? We need detailed stats and maps by district council of all new cases by area of residence over time (at a more granular level than unitary authorities) The Orkney Western isles and Shetland remain in lock down when they have had no cases for 18, 21 and 32 days respectively and when a cordon sanitaire could be put in place
    • Integrated response In order to lift measures while retaining control of the virus, we must identify cases rapidly, isolate and contact trace: so testing is crucial but we must have the ability to test the right people and to rapidly act on the results

    o Prevention of new cases is always better and much cheaper than critical care. Investment in hospitals to respond to COVID19 has been absolutely necessary but will always have less impact on population level health outcomes than control measures.

    o The UK has an excellent public health and primary care system, both of which have been eroded and underfunded in the last 10 years. There are skills and knowledge and capability in these that would provide an effective and efficient response to moving through the next phases of the pandemic, if invested in. However, both these sectors have been excluded and marginalised to the detriment of their local communities

    o For a “test, trace and isolate “ system of control and response to outbreaks to be effective, data must be shared and agencies need to work together at national , regional and local level , coordinate and integrate their response if it is to be effective .No one agency has the knowledge , skills, or resources to do this on their own – and Whitehall in particular needs to recognise that central control is bound to fail.

    o Capacity for testing should provide real time data to help monitor community transmission, link with contact tracing systems and enable local authorities to function autonomously, as well as part of a national response to this pandemic.

    o Much of the infrastructure for testing commissioned by the Government has been led centrally – much of it has been established from scratch. The original drivers for increasing testing capacity were to:

        1. Allow NHS staff to be released back to work on the front line and
        2. respond politically to the growing criticism about the UKs track record on testing o The plight of care homes and the huge death toll from COVID 19 in those institutions is a classic illustration of the failures, which result from over centralization and reliance on hierarchical control and power. This example also illustrates the potential of local government and effective leadership to understand and respond quickly to local circumstances, to innovate, and to “stitch systems “together and make them work.
    • Outsourcing in England Rather than invest or expand our existing laboratory system Ministers chose instead to outsource the provision of testing for COVID 19 in England. They used special powers to bypass normal tendering and award a string of multimillion pound contracts for delivering and processing tests to private companies such as Deloitte, Randox laboratories [£ 133 million] and involved big pharma companies such as GSK, Roche and AstraZeneca and university research teams in creating mega or “ Lighthouse “ labs. These organisations:
      1. Provide swab tests on hospital patients and COVID tests run by NHS labs and Public Health England.
      2. Collect swabs from NHS workers, social care staff and other key workers at 50 drive -in centres and 70 mobile units, which are processed and reported on through a network of 3 mega “lighthouse “ labs
      3. Send out home testing kits for eligible persons with coronavirus symptoms, aged 65 or over, or who cannot work from home
      4. Offer an “on -line portal “through which CQC registered care homes [65 +] can order test kits
      5. Issue serology and swab tests for ONS surveillance and research studies
    • Together Government claims that they can offer 100000 tests a day.

    o However when backlogs develop, they tend to operate as separate “ silos” as illustrated when 50000 tests were sent to the US rather than workload shared between them.

    o More importantly, this testing system does not provide or allow access to test data by local organisations or Public Health England.

    o More than half of tests by May12th have been done by outsourced companies and results are “disappearing into a black hole” A Health Service Journal analysis on May 13th said that recent government testing figures “suggests that in recent days around two thirds of tests have taken place under the commercial lab scheme, for which the data is not available locally. This includes more than 7,000 positive test results in the past three days, and tens of thousands over recent weeks”.

    o Most tests [except for care homes] are demand led, random in nature, and requested by individuals from a wide catchment area. As such, they do not provide useful information for detecting spikes or patterns of infection in a particular geographical area, local “hot spots” or for managing outbreaks. Furthermore, test data are not completely post coded nor are they analysed at a sub-regional or local authority level, local authorities and PHE have found it difficult to get hold of these data.

    • Real time analysis and assessment of infection

    o The Government proposes to establish a Joint Biosecurity Centre with an independent analytical function which will

    o a) provide real time analysis and assessment of infection outbreaks at a community level and collect a wide range of data to build a picture of COVID-19 infection rates across the country – from testing, environmental and workplace data to local infrastructure testing (e.g. swab tests)

    o b) have a response function that will advise on the overall prevalence of COVID-19, identify specific actions to address local spikes in infections, in partnership with local agencies and guide local actions through a clear set of protocols based on the best scientific understanding of COVID-19, and what effective local actions look like.

    o We welcome the commitment to ensure that the Joint Biosecurity Centre [JBC] works closely with local partners. We would like some input into the design of the data platform, as well as discussion about rights of data contributors to access all data sets, which are held.

    o We do not believe that the JBC should have a response function, which “guides local actions surges through a series of protocols. “

    o Lessons from the 2009 H1N1 pandemic about over centralisation and hierarchical control – delays, rigidity, lack of autonomy to act, failure to listen and respond to local intelligence need to be learnt.

    Once again, they have outsourced this analytical function to a large number of private sector organisations. The strategy states that NHS England and NHS improvement have total control over access to all NHS test data will guide and inform the COVID 19 response during lock down – but so far they have not consulted local authorities or PHE about the proposal to create this JBC or involved them in the design, access and linkage to this data store. NHS England has created difficulties and even stopped local agencies from having access to important data sets, such as 111 calls.

    o Contact tracing: Contact tracing at scale can help reduce onward transmission during release from lockdown, if properly resourced by skilled people and well organised. It is unclear how their trace and track system will be integrated with the testing system.

    We are concerned that the Government has

      1. outsourced the call centre to SERCO given its previous track record [breast cancer catch up]
      2. believe that one hour of training as call handler will be sufficient to run this online and phone based contact tracing system,
      3. place so much reliance on an experimental App for contact tracing.
      4. recruited insufficient skilled contact tracers to impact on the “R” number, not made sufficient effort to recruit people with experience of contact tracing e.g. EHOs or retired professionals to the clinical team.

    The government states that for its test and trace system to work, several systems need to be built and successfully integrated. These include:

        • widespread swab testing with rapid turn-around time, digitally-enabled to order the test and securely receive the result certification;
        • local authority public health services to bring a valuable local dimension to testing, contact tracing and support to people who need to self-isolate;
        • automated, app-based contact-tracing through the new NHS COVID-19 app to (anonymously) alert users when they have been in close contact with someone identified as having been infected;

    Conclusions

    o The Testing and Tracing infrastructure which the government has commissioned has been largely been outsourced to private sector organisations and very centralised

    o As such it is a “quick fix which is poorly designed and ill equipped to support the next stage of controlling this pandemic and involving the many agencies which need to play their part as lockdown are eased.

    o The considerable investment which has been made in these new “ temporary “ structures should be channelled over the next 2 to 3 years into building a more robust, flexible , resilient and multilevel , public health and primary care systems , capable of responding to pandemics in the future.

    Sources

    Posted by Brian Fisher on behalf of the Policy Team.

     

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    This is a collective statement on behalf of SHA bringing together public health evidence and other opinions on a key Covid policy issue.

    The impact of the pandemic on inequalities more generally and the implications for policy and plans going forward

    Key messages

    • The pandemic has hit us when we have already seen health inequities widen
      • 10 years of austerity have disproportionately affected the least affluent and the most vulnerable
      • Life expectancy has plateaued and inequalities in mortality have widened in recent years. The gap in healthy life expectancy at birth is about 19 years for both males and females.
      • Spending constraints between 2010 and 2014 were associated with an estimated 45,000 more deaths than expected: those aged >60 and in care homes accounted for the majority
      • There has been a systematic attack on the social safety net. Services have been cut disproportionately in more deprived areas with a clear North South divide, and there are higher rates of poverty in the Devolved Administrations who have limited powers to mitigate the impact of poverty. Child poverty has increased to over 4 million children
    • The COVID19 pandemic is having major impacts on health, through direct and indirect effects, summarised the in diagram below

    Source: Douglas et all, BMJ April 2020

    • The pandemic strategies are not clear across the UK and do not adequately recognise the unequal direct and indirect impacts.
      • The epidemic is at different stages in different communities and has caused more deaths in dense urban and more deprived areas.
      • It can be seen as multiple outbreaks. These are affecting the most vulnerable people inequitably, such as those in institutional settings, prisons and migrant detention facilities, homes with multiple occupancy, and households that are overcrowded or contain multiple generations.
      • A policy of managing the virus rather than aiming for suppression, may result in repeated surges, local outbreaks and lockdowns which could exacerbate the impact on health and further widen health inequities
      • The centralisation of data and decision-making has meant that approaches cannot be matched to the needs that only the regional and local level will know well enough and in real time
    • There is a consensus that the COVID19 pandemic has a major potential to widen health inequities,
      • As can be seen from the diagram above, the health impacts are likely to have differential effects on different groups of people, in particular:
        • Those most vulnerable to the infection: such as older people, BAME people, those living in enclosed settings
        • Those on low incomes or living with financial insecurity
        • Vulnerable families: for example, those at risk of domestic violence, those who are poorly housed, children at risk of abuse or neglect
        • Those at risk of social isolation
        • Vulnerable groups: for example, the homeless, people with disabilities, undocumented migrants
        • High vulnerability and institutional settings where outbreaks can occur rapidly.
        • This pandemic has made us focus on older people, and the young are paying a high price for protecting the old. Impacts on the young will have more long-lasting impacts on health inequities
        • Inadequate public health expenditure and ‘shrinking the state’ disproportionately affect poorer people including our BAME communities. More ‘austerity’ to ‘pay for’ the pandemic is not an option as austerity widens the health inequalities that lead to disproportionate mortality due to direct and indirect impacts of COIVD19
    • Deprivation: people living in more deprived areas are more likely to die from COVID19
      •  ONS analyses have shown that the age-standardised mortality rate of deaths involving COVID-19 in the most deprived areas of England was 55.1 deaths per 100,000 population compared with 25.3 deaths per 100,000 population in the least deprived areas. In Wales, the most deprived areas had a mortality rate for deaths involving COVID-19 of 44.6 deaths per 100,000 population, almost twice as high as the least deprived area of 23.2 deaths per 100,000 population.
      • The Kings College Symptoms tracker found that COVID-19 prevalence and severity became rapidly distributed across the UK within a month of the WHO declaration of the pandemic, with significant evidence of urban hot-spots, which tend to be more deprived areas.
      • The openSAFELY cohort study used national primary care electronic health record data linked to in-hospital COVID-19 death data, which is the largest cohort study in the world, examining 17 million primary care records. This showed a gradient from least deprived to most deprived, adjusted for age, sex and risk factors, so that people living in the most deprived quintile have a risk of 1.75 that of people in the least deprived

    Hazard ratio for in hospital COVID19 death (adjusted for age/sex/risk factors

    IMD quintile of deprivation
    • Unequal impacts
      • People living in more deprived areas are more likely to be exposed to COVID19:
        • Population density and overcrowding: urban poverty
        • Occupational exposure: more likely to be key workers and less likely to be able to work from home
        • Vulnerable groups e.g. homeless, refugees and asylum seekers, substance misusers
      • People living in more deprived areas are more likely to die when they get sick with COVID19:
        • They develop multiple co-morbidities at younger age (people in the most deprived areas get sick 10 years younger than the most affluent)
        • Equity of access to quality health and social care mitigates this, but has become eroded as austerity has hit services in the poorest areas most
        • They are more likely to also be from BAME groups
    • We have evidence on what works to reduce inequities in health
      • We know what causes inequities in health outcomes. The WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health in states that inequities are caused by the conditions in which we are born, grown, work and live. There is now a large body of evidence from expert reports on health inequalities from academic as well as government sponsored reviews (Black and Acheson) for the past 40 years.
      • We know what works to tackle inequities in health: this can be usefully summarised by Sir Michael Marmot’s six policy areas for action:
        • Give every child the best start in life
        • Enable all children, young people and adults to maximise their capabilities and have control over their lives
        • Create fair employment and good work for all
        • Ensure healthy standard of living for all
        • Create and develop healthy and sustainable places and communities
        • Strengthen the role and impact of ill-health prevention
      • No strategy: the UK government has not prioritised health inequalities, and England has had no health inequalities strategy since 2010, although devolved nations have policies within the constraints of their powers.
      • But we have assets: We have seen how individuals and communities are resilient, and this has been amply demonstrated in their amazing response to this public health crisis. We should be following Prof Sir Michael Marmot’s advice: “Our vision is of creating conditions for individuals to take control of their own lives. For some communities this will mean removing structural barriers to participation, for others facilitating and developing capacity and capability through personal and community development”

    Conclusions:

    1. There are already major inequities in health outcomes in the UK, and these have been getting worse
    2. COIVD19 is disproportionately killing the less affluent and those in vulnerable groups
    3. There is a very high risk that the indirect impact of COVID19 will worsen health inequities through well-known mechanisms.
      • Greater vulnerabilities: for example, the higher prevalence of co-morbidities and complex multi-morbidities, ethnicity, disability
      • Higher exposure: for example, through occupations, overcrowding, enclosed settings, multi-occupancy households
      • Less access to resources to protect against economic and financial impacts
      • Less access to quality public services

    Actions

    • Commit to a long-term inequalities’ strategy with a multi-faceted approach building on previous Labour success 1997-2010. This should be even more ambitious, to tackle the commercial/ structural determinants of health, and to create healthy communities and places: it should reduce reliance on less effective individual behaviour change strategies, and include the intersectionality of disadvantage
    • Decentralise data and decision-making for COVID19 to better allow resources and control measures to be matched to need
    • Focus on elimination of transmission of COVID19 high risk settings, for example social care and health service facilities, prisons and migrant detention facilities, homes with multiple occupancy, and overcrowded or intergenerational households
    • Redistribute wealth: Maintain social protection measures as long as required and then in the longer term: implement Universal Basic Income and a Green New Deal with an economy based on need not profit. Ensure proportionate universal allocation of resources o Prioritise children: ensure safeguarding/ tackle domestic violence/ prevent unwanted pregnancies/ action to ensure healthy pregnancy outcomes/ push for childhood vaccinations programs to continue/ get children back to school as safely as possible
    • The NHS and social care should be always provided by need and not ability to pay: the state is a protective factor against unequal exposures to health determinants, as a provider, enabler and employer
    • Build and nurture the grassroots movements that have blossomed during the pandemic, and establish community oriented primary care to empower communities to create healthy communities

    Sources

    • Watkins J, Wulaningsih W, Da Zhou C, et al Effects of health and social care spending constraints on mortality in England: a time trend analysis BMJ Open 2017;7:e017722. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2017-017722
    • https://bmjopen.bmj.eom/content/7/11/e017722

    Posted by Brian Fisher on behalf of the Policy Team.

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    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.

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    The crises in health and social care are rightly at the forefront of people’s anger about the government’s lack of preparation for an inevitable pandemic, as we now face with Covid-19. People are dying unnecessarily. An integral element, simmering under the surface, is the fragmentation of public health nutrition services that should provide food security within our communities so vulnerable people are kept in good nutritional status. Yet even before this crisis there was an estimated 3 million malnourished people, with an aging population this will increase, and 8 million people in food insecurity. As lockdowns began, research from the Food Foundation estimated 3 million households were already experiencing hunger. Inequalities underpin the right to life in this crisis: mortality rates for people living in deprived areas are double that for those in less deprived areas, and interlocks with ethnicity. Some highlight ‘obesity’ but is not the problem food and health inequalities? Poverty underpins people’s lack of access to foods of good nutritional quality. Rising poverty levels are driven by erosion of welfare state and neoliberal restructuring of our economy through deregulation, precarity and low pay. Child poverty has increased by 100, 000 over the past year with around 30% of all children living in poverty. Food poverty is increasing and requires structural change not short term solutions. To protect child health and meaningfully tackle poverty a host of fiscal steps are urgently required to enable families to buy food, such as basic living income and immediate action to increase welfare. This does not remove the need for a food security system that ensures a basic level of socially acceptable nutrition is available for all; that includes universal free school meals and hot meals for older people. Public health nutrition is more than just food. It’s about ‘social’ nutrition: the infrastructure of community resources that enable people to eat together and to collectively care.

    The networks of care within our communities have broken down as the infrastructure providing services and civil spaces have closed. There is little research that documents how the spending cuts and restructuring within public health has impacted public health nutrition. However, research is underway that aims to inform the inevitable public enquiry on Covid-19. As socialists, we need to go further and give a call to action to stop further privatisation and charitisation of PHN. Fundamentally, the interests of private industry and charity conflict with the welfare state. Despite the altruism of many involved, these organisations cannot meet current or future needs which will increase in the looming economic depression. They cannot enable the voices of those who are suffering in our communities.

    Privatisation of PHN began under New Labour as food companies were brought into public health policy. From the 2000s non-NHS providers entered PHN. Local government spending cuts and austerity hit prevention budgets including nutrition-based, child weight management and life style interventions. Cuts to nutrition-related services are broadly felt because nutritional health is cross-departmental involving education, community engagement, adult and children and young people’s services and a range of professions including health visiting. Nutrition was embedded in the Sure Start programme. Since 2010, 1000 children centres have closed as £1 billion has been cut from budgets. The number of community centres, lunch clubs and meals on wheels for the elderly has been decimated. In this crisis, the role of schools in feeding children has shown their centrality in community life. Yet there are barriers due to privatisation that limit a strategic approach. For example, in most neighbourhoods, schools have the only industrial kitchens capable of preparing and distributing foods to large numbers of people. Yet access to these is mostly controlled by private food companies, including multinationals, that hold the catering contracts. So, in many ways communities are isolated, disconnected from power and the resources to enable local solutions. Social theorists argue that ‘austerity localism’ brought cuts, disempowered local communities creating distrust and disconnect with local government. Community involvement is further limited by democratic deficits that are created by material constraints and lack of structural mechanisms. All this suggests that it will be harder for public health to connect with communities and understand the scale of their need. While not supporting the authoritarian Chinese State, community engagement was integral to the Chinese response.

    Responsibility for public health nutrition lies with local government who have enlisted third sector organisations (TSOs), social entrepreneurs, and food industry to construct the state’s food aid response in this emergency. From a dietetic standpoint, it is concerning that food banks can distribute foods that may unintentionally cause harm. For example, food banks only need warn of potential allergens, if they are set up as a business.  Food banks can distribute infant formula. This is risky  for example, for vulnerable families with complex needs and should not be the responsibility of food banks. It suggests a lack of a cross-departmental strategic approach that links with professionals such as nutritionists and health visiting teams.  Providing food at the general level of need is also problematic. The voluntary sector has strategic limitations in its ability to scale up according to need. In London, developing a strategic approach has been spearheaded by NGOs at City level, and boroughs through food action alliances. The food alliances are networks of non-state and non-industry providers, involving a range of activities such as food banks, food growers, community kitchens – supermarkets- fridges. They connect with local government through their public health departments. As crisis hit, they quickly turned their energies to organising emergency food aid. Phenomenal efforts are being made to scale up to meet increased demands. However, they face barriers. For example, many TSOs are involved in competitive processes to win and maintain local government contracts. Funding is often short term; a precarious situation for TSOs. In this crisis they need to collect evidence for ‘sustainability’, that is, to secure future funding.

    Despite the existence of resilience structures at regional and borough levels, strategies to meet increased food needs were not apparent. Indeed, there was little national food strategy (Lang, 2020). In London, as the crisis unfolded new charitable funding streams emerged. Four weeks into the crisis, the owner of London’s free newspaper, Evening Standard, and son of Russian oligarch intervened to feed ‘vulnerable’ Londoners through a new charitable alliance. This centralises food surplus supplies and distribution across boroughs. This role of charities is legitimised by London’s Mayor, albeit likely unintentionally. This upscaling of charities to deliver such large-scale logistical challenges raises concerns about the future direction for PHN.

    Altruism continues with the emergence of new food banks, food project social entrepreneurs and the Mutual Aids. With roots in 19th Century social welfare based on fraternalism not paternalism, these are today on the one hand wonderful, inspiring acts of solidarity but what will they become? There are many questions to consider: Do they adopt a public health perspective that considers inequalities including class and ethnicity or are these individual acts of charity and kindness? What is the class composition of the Mutual Aids? Will there be unintended consequences? Within communities, will they bridge or increase class divides and inequalities? Do they provide uniform and equitable support?  Do they contribute to food democracy within our communities? How are they accountable?

    These and other new solidarity networks enter into the terrain of unevenly shared and disjointed public health resources. Across London, a postcode lottery in public health nutrition pre-dates this Covid crisis. For example, eligibility for free school meals depends on the political priorities of local councils as well as government policy. Universal free school meals (UFSM) for all primary age children are provided in only 4 of the 33 boroughs. This includes children in families with no recourse to public funds (NRPF). Their temporary access to FSM during this crisis will be withdrawn as schools reopen. A cruel, intentional political act belonging to the ideology of hostile environment; socially divisive among young children teaching them that ‘others’ are undeserving and go hungry. What will Labour councils do when the onus for feeding children with NRPF returns to them?

    The differences between and within boroughs is seen at the level of schools. Schools take different approaches with some providing food for all children in-need and others based on FSM eligibility. Seven weeks since its introduction, the government’s voucher scheme that replaced FSM continues to be problematic, adding to the suffering of families; some schools are bypassing with their own voucher systems. Schools are filling the gaps but cannot do so as a cross-borough strategic approach due to privatisation. In contrast to London, New York took a pan-city approach with 400 public schools providing food for all adults and children in-need.

    Despite incredible efforts, TSOs, have made it clear they cannot fulfil the function to feed ALL in need:    ‘There is not enough free food or volunteer capacity to feed all economically vulnerable people through local authority and charitable means’. Instead they argue that central government should provide the financial means to enable everyone to buy food that meets their nutritional and cultural needs. From an ethical view it is irresponsible that central government assigns responsibility to local authorities and TSOs without giving the resources to carry out responsibility. It is well established that emergency food aid systems need to be nationally co-ordinated strategies. The UK government’s use of the armed forces for food distribution to the 1.5 million shielded clinically extremely vulnerable people, is recognition of the level of strategic organisation that is needed. It shows that only central government has the resources and therefore responsibility to feed ALL people in-need, across all vulnerabilities. It is not possible for this to be a function of TSOs. How do TSOs and local government decide ‘vulnerability’ without interlocking socially divisive ideas of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor? These are political decisions. Solving hunger takes political will (Caraher and Furey, 2018).

     

    The politics of privatisation and charitisation are felt most strongly on the frontline by the community food activists some engaged for decades in fighting to hold their communities together. One such leading activist and mother, Maya in South London, said

    I’m tired of fighting, fighting, fighting”. Yet she remains on the frontline running the local food bank/social supermarket. She says: diets will slump in areas like this … people use social supermarket but can’t get the foods children want … fresh fruits and vegetables have short shelf life ..we have to respond to new issues that come along …the hidden people that now come out who are in extreme poverty. While caring for her community she comments on new oppression by powerful borough groups and lack of accountability: people are going crazy with this food thing … there’s a lot of money around food …all they want to do is help the ‘poor’ people … they’re doing deliveries, taking selfies and putting it on twitter …  some people are stepping on our heads… others are cashing in on it.” On a part-time London living wage, she finds her own living standards are slipping backwards.

    What will emerge from this crisis? Local authorities will soon be planning their recovery processes. With depleted and finite funds will we see a redefining of ‘vulnerable’; a new means testing for referrals to emergency food aid? We are facing a long recession/depression with increased food poverty, malnutrition and hunger. This is potentially on an unprecedented scale. How will the increased charitisation together with ongoing cuts impact the public health infrastructure and jobs? Who will be providing food for public health? These are important questions for all of us in PHN whether Director of Public Health or unpaid community food bank worker. How we tackle feeding EVERYONE in-need is not just a practical question but a basic ethical one concerning food rights and health equity that requires reconnecting with our communities and schools for grassroots participation in decision-making. Enabling participation requires tackling the material conditions, of work and physical food environments, that underpin health inequalities.

    A weak public health nutrition infrastructure, including diminished community services, contributes to undernutrition, reduced immunity, more illness, more hospital visits. Pre-Covid estimates showed  £200 million could be saved in health and social care spend if greater attention is paid to caring for the nutritional status of vulnerable adults. This would contribute to the inequality seen in the distribution of Covid-19 death rates. Our right to nutritious food is essential to enable our rights to good health and longevity free from illness. To make this a reality, for all, will require fiscal measures that guarantee universal basic living income, that integrates food costs, as well as massive investment in communities and public health nutrition. One among many lessons for how we plan for food and health resilience in times of crisis, is to meaningfully, democratically involve our communities and workforces on the ground.

    Sharon Noonan-Gunning, Registered Dietitian, PhD in Food Policy.

    Caraher M., Furey, S. (2018) The Economics of Emergency Food Aid Provision: A Financial, Social and Cultural Perspective. Palgrave Macmillan. London.

    Lang, T (2020) Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them. Pelican Books.

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    Summary

    The current National Health and Care System has shown the fact that a system can run on the basis of an ethic of altruism and public service, not profit.

    The hospitals have always held primacy in our system, and reorganisations have tried to rebalance the system in favour of community health and primary care.

    Public Health has been weakened by the 2012 Act and enjoyed more prominence during the period of Primary Care Trusts when it was integrated with Primary Care. This situation needs to be restored

    Health and Care need to be integrated regionally and the paper argues for Combined Authorities to be given overall control.

     

    No, the title was not a typo. There is more to healthcare than the NHS which we all know and love. Health Care includes Public Health, Social Care, Pharmacy and Dentistry, and they all need to work together. The present crisis has shown this. This is something which many experts in the field have acknowledged for years; doing something about it has proved elusive and difficult. This present crisis has shown not only the heroic dedication and commitment of the staff, but also the gaps and problems which need to be rectified, so perhaps this is the time to try and do it.

    In this paper I have tried to set out some sort of roadmap of the problems we need to tackle. That is why I have called the objective a National Health System, rather than the current NHS, but have preserved the iconic brand which is known all over the world. I once met mountaineers in a foreign land who praised the NHS.

    I am not an academic. I have taught about how the Health System works, but more practically I have been a councillor, worked for the NHS, served on a Clinical Commissioning Group and now Health Education England. I wrote a book about how the NHS should be organised with Sunderland University, and I will draw on bits of that in this paper, but my knowledge comes mainly from my practical experience. (“What Sort of NHS do We Want?”, Searching Finance, 2012)

    How we arrived at the present position

    There is much ignorance amongst the public as to how the NHS actually works. It is certainly very fragmented, but still able to respond as a national system, which has been shown by the present crisis. Many fondly think there was a “golden age” back in the 1950’s when the NHS was first established.  Aneurin Bevan boasted of a national system where the “sound of a bedpan dropped in Tredegar would reverberate around the Palace of Westminster”.

    We all know establishing the NHS was a political struggle and what emerged was a messy compromise. The immediate problem was sorting out hospitals which needed investment after the war. I can remember seeing pictures of my Grandmother, who was a hospital almoner, lining up the nurses to go out with the collection tins. Hospitals seem to have dominated ever since although they deal with a minority of the people who use the system. There are more patient contacts with GPs, carers, Public Health programmes ,  and Social Workers. Local Government had played an important role in health before 1948, and Directors of Public Health were important people. Much of what we would now call primary care was still run by local authorities up until the major reorganisation of 1974.  Strong central control was the way things worked in 1948, a legacy of the war – the NCB, British Railways, The National Grid and even the New Towns. The new NHS was no different.

    Initially Governments thought that a strong NHS would improve health and once the backlog of bad health had been dealt with, costs would reduce. This of course did not happen, so managing the NHS became a constant struggle between improving the service and keeping a lid on costs. In 1974 all health services came under Regional Health Authorities and this remained until the next major reorganisations at the end of Thatcher’s period in power. This was when the concept of the “market” was introduced into the NHS.

    At that time the model of the big top-down organisation was being challenged both in the public and private sphere. Although big organisations were still centrally controlled from the top, they wanted more flexibility locally to restructure and adapt to changing conditions at the bottom. Even the army now operates like this. The idea was that those who planned a service would commission it from who could provide it best. Commissioning meant what the service was going to be had to be evaluated and planned. The NHS had to think exactly want it wanted and the best, and most cost-effective way, of achieving it. This does not necessarily mean using the private sector. Other NHS and not for profit organisations are often involved. But it was never a free-for-all. The NHS was still in charge. Resulting from the Thatcher reforms there was a privatisation of many ancillary services such as cleaning, maintenance and catering. For clinical services there was still a preference to commission NHS and not for profit organisations. One consequence of these changes was that local authorities outsourced much of their social care provision, mainly for economic reasons.

    The Labour Governments after 1997 modified the model, introducing both Foundation Hospitals and Primary Care Trusts. In my opinion the PCTs were a very progressive reform, and one for which the Blair Governments, Frank Dobson and Alan Milburn received very little credit. They brought together Public and Community Health and allowed a high degree of local government involvement since they covered the same areas as local authorities and usually had councillors on their boards. Under the Blair Government resources were diverted to PCTS, and also prioritised deprived areas such as Easington in County Durham. There was a real push to reduce health inequalities. In my experience the PCTs also put a considerable amount of resource and effort into engaging with the public. In some ways this was a “golden age” for engagement, compared to the much less robust arrangements which replaced them.

    The Black Report in 1979 pointed out that despite large investment in the NHS, health inequalities persisted.  Professor Townsend, one of the main authors, mentioned Easington in a later report and visited Peterlee to explain his ideas. The dominance of the Hospitals in the system had led to a neglect of both social care and the promotion of health in the community. To reduce inequalities meant placing far more emphasis on how people lived, the conditions in which they lived and looking after them in the community when they were frail or unwell. Successive reports re-emphasised what the Black Report had said.

    The Primary Care Trusts were an attempt to redress the power balance with the hospitals. More resources were given to community and public health, which were now integrated. GPs had a major role. The PCTs were coterminous (horrible NHS word) with local authorities, and the Director of Public Health was now appointed jointly between the local authority and the PCT.  Cooperation was much easier. Many PCTs had councillors on their boards. The PCTs now had more power to negotiate with the hospitals to get better deals, and work with them. At this stage commissioning was mainly for other public sector and voluntary organisations. The NHS was the “preferred provider”.  The PCTs made considerable progress in improving public health, such as the reduction of smoking and teenage pregnancies, and set up many community initiatives.

    In my opinion the PCTs were a very progressive reform, and one for which the Blair Governments, Frank Dobson and Alan Milburn received very little credit. They brought together Public and Community Health and allowed a high degree of local government involvement since they covered the same areas as local authorities and usually had councillors on their boards. Under the Blair Government resources were diverted to PCTs, and deprived areas were prioritised. There was a real push to reduce health inequalities. In my experience the PCTs also put a considerable amount of resource and effort into engaging with the public. In some ways this was a “golden age” for engagement, compared to the much less robust arrangements which replaced them.

    I think I should make a few remarks about commissioning.  Many on the left regard it as synonymous with privatisation. This simply is not so.  As explained above the NHS is not monolithic and contains many different sections and specialities. Some of commissioning is straightforward – estimating the number of routine, predictable operations required in a year, like hip replacements. Then it is about negotiating the best deal with a provider.  But some is more complex, such as public and community health which requires constructing alliances between different organisations. Using a private provider is not a necessary part of this at all.

    All this was changed by the infamous Social Care Act of 2012 which established the Clinical Commissioning Groups. It compelled contracts to be put out for public tender, so private providers could apply, and often threatened to sue if they thought they had not been fairly considered.

    Councillors were not allowed to be involved, and their only oversight was through Scrutiny Committees. Public Health was handed back to local authorities. A strong national agency, Public Health England was created to exercise many of the responsibilities which PCTs had previously done including disaster planning and campaigns to reduce smoking and other habits deemed to be harmful to health. I will say more about the consequences of that later.

    The CCGs were a result of lobbying by a minority of GPs who wanted to commission directly without the NHS bureaucracy and pressure from private providers who wanted a bigger slice of the action. The Government thought they could use them to reduce costs. The whole enterprise was ill thought out and very disruptive. It is a useful lesson in the sort of “creative destruction” advocated by the likes of Dominic Cummings. The idea being that somehow once the bureaucratic shackles of the NHS and local government had been thrown off, GPs would somehow emerge as the heroes of the NHS and challenge the dominance of the Trusts. I can remember attending seminars before the new act was implemented where it was even advocated that two GPs could form a commissioning group. How they would work out the necessary plans and calculations was not thought about. I can remember a seminar about the changes entitled “Breaking Though”.

    In reality it was only a minority of GPs who wanted to run the NHS.  Most of them simply wanted to get on with their jobs which were demanding enough. Much of the pressure came from private providers, aided and abetted by members of the government anxious to reduce costs and eliminate, as they saw it, unnecessary bureaucracy.  Andrew Lansley, in many other ways a fairly level-headed man, seemed carried away by it all, and David Cameron and Nick Clegg did not really understand it. The only contribution by the Liberals was to ensure lay representation on the new CCGs. The reorganisation was described by one critic as “visible from space” and disrupted the NHS for several years.  Patterns of cooperation between agencies, carefully established over time were either disrupted or had to be carried on “under the radar” in the new competitive model. A new bureaucracy had to be established from the PCT staff to perform commissioning.

    One hospital (Hinchinbrooke) was taken over by a private company which could not cope and had to hand it back to the NHS.  Many private providers attempted to run the new 111 services, but now most of them are organised by Ambulance Trusts.

    The idea behind the 2012 Act was that there would be a free market. The CCGs would commission the most efficient service, public or private.  Collaboration, whether between hospitals and other parts of the NHS was not, in theory, allowed. Private providers could take the NHS to court if they thought the NHS had an unfair advantage. In practice, however, the national NHS kept a firm grip on things. There is always the need in the NHS to pool risk.  If there is an outbreak or crisis in one area the whole system has to pitch in.

    The 2012 Act led to an extremely costly and disruptive reorganisation. Many health professionals soon realised that it did not work. In reality the bureaucracy expanded, and much energy had to be expended negotiating between different parts of the NHS. The majority view was that if the NHS was going to cope, two things were necessary. Firstly, more resources needed to be directed to promoting good health, and thus reducing those diseases which were caused, or exacerbated, by a bad lifestyle, such as diabetes. Secondly an ageing population meant more people would need care in the community, rather than treatment in hospital. If they did not receive this care, then they would end up in hospital, as so called “bed blockers”.  Hopefully if policies to address these objectives could be put into place it would reduce unnecessary hospital admissions.

    Local health professionals have tried to negotiate arrangements for CCGs, Hospitals and Local Authorities to work together.  These were originally called Strategic Transformation Partnerships, abut have now morphed into Integrated Care Systems.

    Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of the NHS, said in the Five Year Forward View

    “The government will not impose how the NHS and local government deliver this. The ways local areas integrate will be different, and some parts of the country are already demonstrating different approaches, which reflect models the government supports, including: Accountable Care Organisations such as the one being formed in Northumberland, to create a single partnership responsible for meeting all health and social care needs; devolution deals with places such as Greater Manchester which is joining up health and social care across a large urban area; and Lead Commissioners such as the NHS in North East Lincolnshire which is spending all health and social care funding under a single local plan.”(Implementing the five Year Forward View 2017)

    More detailed plans for ICSs have been set out last year

    The NHS Long-Term Plan set the ambition that every part of the country should be an integrated care system by 2021. It encourages all organisations in each health and care system to join forces, so they are better able to improve the health of their populations and offer well-coordinated efficient services to those who need them.(The NHS, Designing Integrated Care Systems in England 2019)

    It is important to notice the word “Systems”. These ideas rely on different organisations working together. They do not pool budgets, and have no one accountable management, just committees who liaise.

    The trouble is all this is against the 2012 Act. Manchester eventually commissioned other NHS organisations to deliver its community health services, but was threatened with court cases from private providers. All that would have wasted a considerable amount of public money.

    The Conservative election manifesto recognised the system was not working in 2017 and proposed changes to the rules.  All this has since been forgotten about with the dominance of Brexit but will eventually have to be addressed.

    Some on the left see the ICS’ as some sort of conspiracy, implying that there is a secret plan to fragment the NHS and then sell off parts of it. Simon Stevens is often portrayed as being some sort of ogre who is using his American experience to somehow smuggle American health companies into this country.  Remember that health is largely organised on state lines in America, and the insurers who pay for much of it want single organisations whom they can work with. I think the reality is somewhat different. Many think Simon Stevens is a shrewd operator who managed to secure additional funding for the NHS.

    Ever since I have been involved with the NHS there have been efforts to join up health and social care at a community level, and to challenge the dominance of the hospital Trusts.  In the early 2000’s the former Sedgefield Borough Council worked with their Primary Care Trust and Durham County Council to effectively integrate services by putting social workers, district nurses and housing officers in the same room, and Easington PCT considered integrated care initiatives.  The Sedgefield initiative worked at a grassroots level because it did not involve redesigning systems.  As soon as you tried to set up a new structure people retreated into their bunkers.

    It is much easier to set up an integrated system in theory than in practice. One senior insider I spoke to recently said that negotiations to set up an integrated care system locally were not getting very far because of vested interests. Different organisations have different hierarchies and systems of accountability.  They are also keen to hang onto their budgets.  It looks like a solution will only be reached if the NHS imposes it, and they do not have much spare energy for that at the moment.

    I remember the days before local government was reorganised in Northumberland and Durham, and District and County Councils were merged into the present unitary ones. The Government asked councils to work out ways of working together. There were interminable liaison meetings between the different councils which got precisely nowhere, each one wanting to preserve its own interests. Eventually the Government imposed a solution.

    Insiders also tell me there is very little interest from councils in the new arrangements.  Although in practice working relationships between the local authority and the NHS in most areas are good, some councillors appear to prefer the scrutiny role than actually being responsible for the service.

    So overall I think the problem is not so much a conspiracy to carve up the NHS as some on the left seem to think, but rather getting our fragmented system to work together for the benefit of all of us.

     

    Where we are now

    Most people on the left believe in a publicly run health service, free at the point of use. They also value the dedication of the staff and think they should be better rewarded.

    Socialists also dislike privatisation.  There is a difference between having to use the private sector if nothing else is available and the obligation to put services out to tender regardless of whether they are functioning properly as happens now. Efforts to integrate services are also hampered if parts are privately owned, as private providers may not disclose their information and not cooperate. (I remember my efforts on the CCG to get Capita to produce its accounts to the Audit Committee for a service they provided.)

    Privatisation often results in poor staff conditions and pay.  I think nearly all Labour Party members would wish a future Labour Government to repeal the 2012 act and restore the NHS as the preferred provider.

    That is the easy part.  Now we get to the difficult issues of how we organise an integrated service in the future and ensure it is accountable. Let me stress now that I do not want another major reorganisation. Our NHS staff do not deserve that. Rather we must think about how what we have now can be made to work better.

    I have not said much about Social Care, either personal, which is delivered at home, or residential in care homes. It is widely accepted that the situation is at crisis point. The paper by Professor Paul Corrigan is an excellent starting point. A recent briefing by the Nuffield Trust emphasised the dimensions of it. (Nuffield Trust, Election Briefing Nov 2019.)  Here are a few statistics:

    We believe the scale of the workforce challenge has so far been underestimated: our new calculations show that just providing a basic package of care of one hour per day to older people with high needs would require approximately 50,000 additional home care workers now. To provide up to two hours would need around 90,000 extra workers. ( Then there is the question of where they would come from if Brexit is implemented)

     

    A decade of austerity has seen government funding for local authorities halve in real terms between 2010–11 and 2017–18,* which has led to councils tightening the eligibility criteria for care. It is known that there were 20,000 fewer older people receiving long-term social care services in 2017/18 than in 2015/16, but this is likely to understate the problem – estimates of unmet need go as high as 1.5 million.

    Constraints on public sector finances in recent years have meant that fees paid by councils to the organisations that provide home and residential care have been cut repeatedly. The predominant approach used for buying services from providers incentivises organisations to provide a bare minimum of services and nothing more. Some 75% of councils report that these organisations have either closed or handed back contracts in the last 6 months, creating enormous disruption and discontinuity for those receiving care.

    The problems of Care Homes have been highlighted by the current pandemic. There are roughly 11,300 care homes in the UK who look after 410,000 residents. Most of their income comes from fees paid by residents or their families, with a minority provided by local authorities.  In practice the private fees subsidise the public ones which are often insufficient to cover the costs of the residents. Sally Copley of the Alzheimers Society says “The whole system hasn’t been working properly for some time”.  Many staff are on zero hours contracts and staff shortages are endemic as Professor Corrigan pointed out. Staff are paid far less than they are worth and do not receive adequate training nor professional recognition.

    We all have formative experiences which make us socialists. One of mine was in a care home where a member of my family was a resident. I knew two married members of staff well. Both were dedicated to their work and the residents.  They were always cheerful.  I can remember them saying with great enthusiasm how they had saved up enough to take their young family to Great Yarmouth for a week in the summer.  Their work deserved far more reward than that. I though “something has to be done about this”.

    A proper care system would assess people on the basis of clinical need, not ability to pay.  At the moment there is continuing health care, provided by the NHS, which is free,  for those thought to have health issues, but domiciliary and residential care largely has to be paid for by the clients or their families except for the minority who benefit from a stringent means test. Dementia is not classified as a medical condition.  Many people feel this system is unfair. A senior commissioner I spoke to said she would rather commission “care” which would be provided by professionals trained by the NHS, rather than try and distinguish between continuing health care and social care.

    At the last election the Labour Party promised free personal care for those over 65, as in Scotland.  As the Nuffield Report points out this does not include assistance with cleaning and general supervision.

    One of the best assessments of the cost of integrating health and social care was done by Kate Barker and associates for the Kings Fund in 2014.  They looked carefully at what social care involves, and how it could be paid for. There are different levels of social care, and they conclude that the same principles should apply as to the NHS.  Afflictions can strike anyone, rich or poor, so care funding should come from the public purse. The costs of care and treatment should be publicly funded, although this might not include the actual “hotel charges” for residential care. The authors suggest various ways to raise the extra funding, such as means testing free TV licences, and requiring those (usually better off) who continue to work after the retirement age to pay national insurance.  There would of course be a need for those on higher incomes to pay more tax, possibly after the age of 40, and the Government should consider a wealth tax which in reality for most would be a tax on your home. There are various avoidance schemes and tax loopholes for the wealthy which could be closed.

    There would probably be agreement amongst socialists that health and social care should be integrated and paid for out of taxation, but it is no good thinking only the rich would have to pay.  Everyone would have to pay something.

    Finally, there is the issue of Public Health. Transferring it to local government has not been a success. The budget, supposedly ring fenced, has been diverted to other local government departments because of the squeeze on local authority finance, and last year some of the poorest authorities took a very big hit. Durham lost almost 40% of its public health funding. Yet even in its diminished state, The Centre for Health Economics at York has estimated that expenditure on Public Health is four times more effective in promoting health than that spent on the NHS. Simple common sense tells us that keeping people healthy is better than curing them once they are ill.

    Several distinguished epidemiologists, including Professor Allyson Pollock at Newcastle, have argued that the marginalisation of Public Health locally has severely reduced the country’s ability to deal with the coronavirus epidemic. Back in PCT days Public Health had the resources and plans to deal with disasters, often pooling risk with others.  Now that has been transferred to Public Health England, leaving local authority public health departments to deal mainly with schemes to keep people fit. Worthy enough, but nothing like the resources they used to have.   A regional public health response might have led to better testing and efforts to contain the virus. The Government’s response has been “one size fits all”. Restoration of the importance of Public Health and its reintegration with the NHS should be a major aim of policy.

     

    Policy Objectives

    Our policy objectives will be ambitious. We might need a five year, or even ten year forward view to coin a phrase.

    We seek an integrated National Health System, encompassing the National Health Service, Social Care, Public Health, with links to Pharmacy, which has a role in primary care, and Dentistry, which is not a totally public service although the NHS controls the training. But we do not want a major reorganisation again. Our dedicated health and care staff do not deserve that. What we want to do is give the present system more resources and steer it in the right direction. Repealing the 2012 Act would be a priority.

    We must ensure that particularly in social care staff are paid a decent wage and given proper access to training. The present system which relies on the minimum wage and zero-hour contracts must end.

    The first thing we know is that all this will cost more than it does now, although integration may produce some savings. A future Labour Government has to be honest about this. It is no good promising a few rich people will pay, as the public simply will not believe it. It is a good principle that everyone should contribute to something which is part of national solidarity, so all feel that it is theirs, but contributions have to be proportionate to the ability to pay.  A proper revaluation of properties, which is akin to a wealth tax, would raise money through the community charge to make a substantial contribution to social care.  An increase in National Insurance, earmarked for the NHS should be considered, provided that it became more progressive.

    Then we come to the whole issue of Governance.  Despite showing little enthusiasm, local government needs to be involved in the whole strategic planning of the NHS. But they must not see it as simply concerning their own territory, so to speak. The present structure of Foundation Trusts should stay, but Public Health and Commissioning Services should be reintegrated into Primary Care Trusts, in my opinion one of the most successful NHS organisations in its long history of restructuring. The PCTs would have oversight of Pharmacy and Dentistry. Many of the responsibilities transferred to Public Health England should be restored to the PCTs. Their boards should contain both professional and local government representation.

    There is a need for a regional dimension in all this.  When the Northumbria Trust reorganised its A&E provision to build a super emergency only hospital at Cramlington it did not consider the effect on major hospitals in Newcastle like the RVI. Patients in Hexham, for example would find it easier to go there than to Cramlington. This is just one example of where a regional perspective would have been useful.

    Local authorities’ power over social care providers need to be strengthened. At present there is a real mixture of providers, commercial companies, charities, cooperatives and individuals who provide personal care as a small business. There is a strong argument for integrating the private sector, which is virtually bankrupt anyway, into area trusts responsible to local authorities. Standards and remuneration need to be strengthened.

    Trying to merge different organisations would be very difficult and disruptive. The result could be some unwieldy bureaucracy which would be difficult to manage and slow to react to changing needs and priorities. Accountability should be pushed upwards. We need to have some sort of accountable umbrella which ensures that hospital trusts, PCTs (coterminous with local authorities) and Social Care, which is regulated by local authorities, all work together. There will always be oversight from NHS England, NHS Improvement, and the Care Quality Commission, but these bodies are mainly regulatory.  There needs to be a more local system of Governance and Oversight.

    Nationally the country is moving to a system of Combined Authorities which at present oversee economic development and transport.  Manchester has also had community health added to its powers. A combined authority does not take powers away from local authorities.It has power and oversight over services provided by other organisations. Its membership is delegated from existing councils, with a mayor if that is agreed. It would seem logical for a combined authority to exercise oversight over the Foundation Trusts, PCTs and Local Authority Care in its area and produce a plan to ensure they work together. The CCGs now cooperate to cover larger areas in any case. That way we preserve flexibility within the system without adding another layer of bureaucracy,and move towards the integrated National Health System we want.

    I want to end by stating that as socialists we owe a great deal to the NHS and Care Services. They are an example, much admired elsewhere, of how a publicly run system can be successful, and that duty and altruism more important motivators of human conduct as making a profit.  It is our duty to ensure it is funded and run properly.

    David Taylor-Gooby, author on the NHS and member of the Socialist Health Association

    May 2020
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