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    At a time of heightened public interest in the future of social care, what would be the way forward guided by the principle of social justice? Some of it is in plain view and takes the form of immediate funding shortfalls. The only issue is the political will to find the money. Important as these issues are, their resolution will do nothing to redress what many believe is the most painful injustice of all. The system used to identify ‘need’ and allocate resources – based on the eligibility ‘needs test’ –  is not only inherently inequitable but works in a way that deprives the individual of the control over their lives essential to us all for our dignity, self worth and wellbeing. The system built around the needs test is obscure to the public and has no public appeal. It need be no surprise that social care cannot muster the political will to address the more obvious funding shortfalls.

    For a truly socially just system the ‘needs test’ must be abolished and replaced with a system that manages the tension between needs and resources very differently. This will not require more money. But it will require political will and the intellectual effort for new thinking.

    The immediate funding issues

    Before considering the needs test, it may be worth reflecting on the immediate funding issues.

    The issue presently uppermost in the public mind is the undervaluing of care staff. With something like 1 million care staff, every pound an hour they are paid will cost about £1.8BN

    Not far behind that in the public mind, and with a political head of steam developing to do something about it, is the means test. It results in the unfairness of the ‘dementia tax’, of people having to sell their houses to pay for care, and of as many people funding their own care or going without as receive state support.

    There are two proposals to reform the means test. One is the idea of the ‘care cap’ – a lifetime limit to how much an individual would have to pay in charges. Introduced by the Dilnot Commission in 2011, it is estimated this would cost in the region of £3BN. The other is to make all ‘personal care’ free as in Scotland. The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee favours this and costed it at £7BN last year.

    A third would be to simply abolish the means test altogether (or charge only the ‘hotel costs’ of a residential care placement which was the very limited intention when the means test was introduced by the Attlee Government in 1948). The cost would likely to be somewhere nearer to £15BN.

    There would be some good news for the Treasury from a system driven by social justice. It would surely bring an end to public companies raking in excess profits. Research by the Centre of Public Health Information established that some £1.5BN is leaked out of the residential care market in this way. That amounts to some 10% of the value of the residential care sector.

    The gross spend on social care is currently £20BN. Addressing the means test and paying a fair price for care to ensure care workers are properly remunerated could potentially double that. But doing all of this would be leave the fundamental nature and character of the service unchanged.

    The eligibility needs test

    A founding principle of the NHS was that need will precede resource and that the resource would be publicly funded.  This has arguably been the principle that, whatever its faults, has made the NHS an enduring beacon of social justice.

    However, when it came to the care of older and disabled people this principle was reversed. The priority of the Attlee government was to end the grave injustice of the institutionalisation of older and disabled people in workhouses. Poor Law Boards would be abolished and responsibility transferred to Local Authorities. But when asked in Parliament what Local Authorities would actually do, the Minister for Health replied ‘as much as our resources will allow’.

    Surely unintended, this had two devastating consequences. It implicitly put care of older and disabled people at the back of the queue for public resources, leading it to its Cinderella status. Secondly, it reversed the polarity of needs and resources. Instead of need determining resource, resource would determine need.

    The modern manifestation of the principle is the concept of ‘eligibility criteria’. The justifying theory is that there is a body of ‘needs’ for care and support that can be applied to any and all. Application by all councils of the same ‘eligibility criteria’ will ensure fairness and equity. It’s a theory that has superficial appeal. It is unchallenged. All councils claim to be delivering the National Eligibility Criteria (currently established under the Care Act of 2014).

    It is, however, a myth without mitigation. In a system where need must be determined by resource, it’s the local resources that must be the driver. The ‘eligibility’ decision must be localised to local budgets. National criteria are irrelevant.  They are, indeed, written in a way that makes the key decisions meaningless. This is necessary for local discretion.

    Not only is this localism logically the case, the empirical evidence leaves little room for doubt. Councils report annually on how many people they support and the amount they spend in doing so. Dividing one by the other – which government reports do not do – gives the average spend per person. Once adjusted for regional price differences, this surely gives the best measure of equity. The highest spending councils in 2018/19 spent an average of £22.7K and the lowest £12.9K – an astonishing 70% difference.

    This is no random unevenness that can be explained away as the uniqueness of communities served. There is a clear pattern. Deprivation of communities served is the key factor. The means test results in the most affluent communities serving 50% fewer people per head of population than councils serving the most deprived communities. Councils spending the most can spread the jam much more thickly. The highest spending councils serve communities significantly more affluent than the lowest.

    So to the inequity is added injustice.

    The damage does not end there. The eligibility process works by standardising ‘need’. Standardisation cannot be made to fit with the highly individual nature of the lived experience of need. Needs arise from the complex interplay of a host of factors each of which are themselves highly variable. It has become a modern cliché that each person is ‘expert in their own needs’. The cliché is reduced to lip service when delivered in a system which allows the person to express only ‘wishes’ while the council determines their ‘needs’. It’s infantilising. It is inaccurate as a way to identify need and therefore inefficient.

    Failure in delivery of the principle must not be allowed to dim the importance of the principle that individuals are indeed the best experts in their own needs. Their view of their needs should prevail subject only to their view making best use of resources to enable them to have their best level of wellbeing.

    There will be a dividend for the Treasury.  The greater accuracy of the assessment will mean much greater for value for money from the resource made available. The sector itself believes, although wrongly ascribing blame on poor social work practice, that the current eligibility driven system wastes significant levels of resource through poor use of resources.

    Why does the eligibility needs test persist?

    The needs test has survived since 1948 and defeated countless attempts at transformative change of social care. These include the Community Care reforms of the 1990’s and the more recent personalisation strategy.

    Why is it so enduring? Again, the answer is plain. It serves two political expedients. Firstly it keeps spending to budget, no matter the real need. Secondly, it ensures there is never any record of unmet need. This is important because, in contrast to the NHS where growing waiting lists in the NHS creates political pressure, there is no equivalent in social care. Sir Chris Wormald, Permanent Secretary to the Department of Health and Social Care told the Public Accounts Committee, who wanted to know how much funding social care needed, told them that councils had all the money they required to meet their responsibilities under the Care Act. What he didn’t say was that would be true no matter the size of the budget or the level of real need.

    What will it take to abolish the needs test?

    One obvious answer is to guarantee funding will meet all needs to ensure all have the quality of life they can reasonably expect. But the uniqueness of individual needs and the huge variability in the cost of meeting them would mean social care could have to be delivered on an ‘open cheque’ basis. No public service, not even the highly valued NHS, enjoys that. Credibility demands that strategies assume social care will continue to be delivered within a budget not likely to meet all needs. Success is to be measured by the smallness of the gap between needs and resources.

    Can the needs test be abolished in a budgeted system?

    The answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’. ‘Need’ must be identified in the context of securing the quality of life reasonable for each older and disabled person to expect through. The resources must make the best use of resources but without regard to what happens to be available. The United Nations definition of Independent Living provides a ready made standard of wellbeing to adopt. This would put the UK in the forefront internationally. From that point, decisions must be made as to how many each of those needs the council can afford to meet. Spending will be controlled to budget. However, it no longer be through eligibility of need but by affordability of need.

    The law, through the Care Act, has already made this possible. It provides for ‘need’ to be assessed against 9 dimensions of wellbeing. These dimensions are synonymous with Independent Living. The Act also creates the legal conditions to enable councils to say if they can or cannot afford to meet need. None of these provisions are currently being used. They are being ignored by councils as, under the influence of the Government’s Statutory Guidance to the Act, they are perpetuating a localised eligibility process.

    In February the Labour opposition in Barnet put forward a 4 point plan to replace eligibility of need with affordability of need as the means to control spending. This was to ensure the assessment process was able always to put the person and their welllbeing at the heart of their assessment process and to ensure the Council would be aware of any gap in funding between needs and resources. The Conservative administration rejected the proposal. They believed the Council was already delivering the Care Act and its wellbeing principle, that resources never interfere with the assessment of need, and that choice always determines what people received. The Labour group is currently testing the veracity of those claims.

    Will the needs test be abolished?

    The key issue is political will. The gap between needs and resources will be publicly exposed. What waiting times do for the NHS in creating political pressure, unmet need will do for social care. Political leaders will have to leave behind the comfort the eligibility system has provided them. The greater the funding gap given authenticity through deriving from the aggregated lived experience of need, the greater the political discomfort. But it can be expected the public narrative will shift from what ‘social care’ requires to what older and disabled people require. Few people understand or care about the former, but many are likely to about the latter. Currently councils are seen as visionless machines, employing what Tracey Lazard of Inclusion London (a network of disabled peoples’ organisations) describes as ‘dark arts’ to ensure the system’s delivery under cover of misleading public messages. Councils will be on the side of the older and disabled people they serve, free to promote public understanding of the real needs within their communities.

    Insofar as public sentiment drives political will, social care will stand a much improved chance of securing the funding it truly requires.

    Conclusion

    The needs test, and all its attendant ills, is the unintended legacy of what was otherwise a great reforming Labour government. Although understandable in the context of the 1940’s, rectification is long overdue. There is a clear moral argument that it falls to Labour to ensure it happens.

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

    Blame Game

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

    Local Authorities and their Public Health teams

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

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

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

    Local data

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Workers and Employers

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

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

    Civil servants

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

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

    National Audit Office

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

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

    Vaccines and global health

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

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

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

    Gramsci

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

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

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

    20.7.2020

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

    Comments Off on SHA COVID-19 Blog 19

    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.

    2 Comments

    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.

     

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    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.

     

    Comments Off on Briefing Topic 3 – Test, Trace, outsourcing

    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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