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    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.

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

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

    Lonely Ministers

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

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

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

    What is the strategy?

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

    Led by the science?

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

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

    Test, Trace and Isolate (TTI)

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

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

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

    Auditing misuse of public funds

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

    BAME communities and COVID

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

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

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

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

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

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

    7.6.2020

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

    2 Comments

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

    Germany and Greece 

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

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

    Test, trace and isolate

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

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

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

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

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

    Independent SAGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    When should a School Reopen?

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

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

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

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

     

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

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

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

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

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

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

    31.5.2020

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

    1 Comment

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

    Too slow to act

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

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

    Protect the NHS

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

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

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

    The Privately owned Social Care sector

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

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

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

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

    Follow the money

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

    Test, trace and isolate (TTI)

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

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

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

    Game changers – and what is the game?

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

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

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

    Palantir

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

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

    Conclusion

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

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

    24th May 2020

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

    2 Comments

    Introduction

    This is the tenth SHA weekly blog on the COVID-19 pandemic. We are at an interesting phase of the pandemic when we are moving from Response to Recovery and uncertain how to navigate the tricky waters without the charts and the data dashboard to guide us.

    We have a government that was ill prepared for the pandemic and has been playing catch up from the early days of denial, then delay and a too early departure from building local systems of community testing, tracing and isolating. We are beginning to hear of possible COVID-19 cases in the UK and neighbouring European countries emerging before Xmas so the virus could have been around longer than we have thought. Even so we wasted precious weeks in February and then had the damaging delay between the 10th March to the 20th March, when lockdown proper started during which time the viral spread had been exponential. We now note that England has one of the highest rates of excess deaths of the 24 European countries analysed by Euromomo.

    Game changers

    The government have, in the turmoil, grasped at ‘game changers’ such as the so called home based antibody blood spot test which was scientifically unproven and nevertheless succeeded in getting the Government to buy 3.5m on ‘spec’. We need to know how much Taxpayers money was wasted on that contract and demand a greater scrutiny on such wild contracts without basic safeguards.

    The next ‘game changers’ were the treatments such as chloroquine, which Trump was allegedly pushing on the NHS to treat Prime Minister Johnson. Again these drugs have been shown to be ineffective and potentially harmful treatments. The US Federal Drug Administration (FDA) issued a caution against its use in COVID-19 on the 30th April! There are other drugs being trialled such as remdesivir and favipiravir and some show promise but need properly conducted clinical trials and not be pushed out too soon by politicians anxious to grab a game changer. Remember the risk of Thalidomide, which was used in early pregnancies with disastrous consequences. We have seen with HIV/AIDS that therapies can be successful in controlling a viral disease but the process takes time and effectiveness trials and safety are paramount.

    The other ‘game changer’ is the vaccine which has always been a long shot because there have never been vaccines developed for Coronaviruses such as SARS or MERS. Other viruses such as HIV have also proved impossible to develop a vaccine for and remember each year the Influenza virus ‘flu jab’ immunisation contains three variants which experts assess are the most likely to be circulating during the coming winter months. The effectiveness of the Influenza vaccine is much less than others such as measles in the highly effective MMR vaccine. Furthermore while there are hopeful signs of successful vaccines being developed and some moving into human trials very early on there needs to be clarity about the time these trials take and the manufacturing process as well as mounting an effective vaccination programme. It is not part of the immediate pandemic control measures and with preventive vaccines you need to be very sure of safety as well as effectiveness. We know how the anti vaxxers mislead the public about risks of vaccination and do not want to damage the high uptake of vaccines across world populations.

    Matt Hancock has during his time as SoS for Health and Social Care promoted digital solutions to many NHS issues including promoting companies who in effect were competing as privateers with NHS primary care (Babylon Health). His latest ‘game changer’ application will be the apps being trialled in the Isle of Wight and others elsewhere to assist in contact tracing.  Big players Apple/Google stand ready with their apps to step in! Of course countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore have been using such apps for months and have shown the benefit they confer in the process of Test, Trace and Isolate which the UK government abandoned on March 12th.

    It does seem unbelievable that South Korea has not been subject to lockdown and using testing, tracing and isolation has only had 262 deaths from COVID-19 by the 17th May with a population of 51m people. Their epidemic started several weeks before us and it is not clear what attempts the UK government has made to properly understand their system and learn from it.

    Local Authorities and Public Health

    Local Authority public health capacity has been reduced over the 10 years of Tory austerity and the public health grants reduced in the period leading up to the pandemic. While the Directors of Public Health, through their national body the Association of Directors of Public Health (ADsPH), have been involved with the CMO’s office and Public Health England (PHE) they have not been placed at the centre of the Test, Track and Isolate planning. Again the Government’s default position is to ask their consultancy mates to help design a system from scratch which we have seen with the national testing centres and the Lighthouse laboratories by Deloittes. This is a top down approach rather than a collaborative bottom up development.

    Further work now under a Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) is again focused on the digital app and how the information provided can be analysed and communicated. This has all the tenor of a security service GCHQ venture rather than a public health pandemic response! If the testing roll out is anything to go by there will be major glitches in communications with organisations at the heart of it not receiving information and the people themselves left waiting.

    It seems to us that local public health teams under the DPH leadership should have been involved from the beginning working with Public Health England/Wales/Scotland,  and Environmental Health departments to help facilitate test, track and isolate policies locally. They have not been closely involved since containment was abandoned prematurely across the UK despite wide variations in the spread of the virus at that time.

    The government announced that 18,000 staff will be taken on to work on the national test, trace and track initiative run by SERCO but Local PH departments were not asked to build local teams as part of the local response but prepare to help implement the national response. Primary care has also not been part of the model which is another wasted opportunity of bottom up work using local knowledge effectively. The GP surveillance system has shown its worth over many years with respiratory viruses like Influenza and patients know their GP practice as a trusted point of contact.

    We have seen that COVID-19 has spread across the UK unevenly and a UK wide response designed in Westminster has not been appropriate elsewhere where case numbers may have been very low with risks quite different from metropolitan London, Birmingham and Manchester. Of course there needs to be national leadership in the design and procurement of such an app and Public Health England with their counterparts in the devolved nations be part of the design team. However for it to be an effective system there needs to be local leadership and engagement which builds links between partners and particularly with local primary care teams to use test results and develop the capability of mapping clusters and initiating further local investigations within national case definitions to ensure testing is done, contacts traced and people are isolated swiftly as there is a risk that the virus will persist for weeks to come. There are signs that devolved governments such as in Wales may be approaching this in a more joined up way.

    Social Care

    In earlier blogs we have talked about the vital role that the social care sector plays, how their staff often work in difficult conditions on low pay. The impact of the pandemic now has shifted to this sector, which has 17,000 homes and look after 400,000 elderly or disabled people in need of care. This sector is where many of the excess deaths have been occurring and thanks to statisticians outside government who have signposted the excess deaths measure we know that they have accounted for 20,000 deaths so far. Weekly deaths in care homes have tripled in the past month. In Scotland recently it is estimated that 57% of deaths from COVID now come from deaths in nursing or residential homes.

    We have heard case after case of social care providers not having the PPE they require, having to accept hospital discharges who may have been infectious, not being supported in the way you might expect from external agencies. They have had to introduce infection control policies, which seem inhumane when considering the resident’s end of life experience and the memories of their survivor families. We should have a quick look at the risk assessments/processes to allow named next of kin to visit their relatives and be there at the end of life. It does feel that this is the time to grasp the nettle and create a new National Care Service which is publicly run and which does not require rental payments to ‘off shore’ bodies, who have invested in the land and properties rather than the commitment to care. Not all care homes are owned and run by business interests of course but all suffer from chronic underfunding, staff shortages and service gaps between the NHS and their own provision. The CQC is unable to bridge the gap.

    Moving out of Lockdown

    We are all getting tired of having our lives constrained by lockdown while at the same time pleased at the social solidarity shown by most of the population. The trade unions are quite right to ensure that the workforce is not endangered by a hasty return to work without rounded risk assessments.

    Take the school debate for example. It is relatively easy to look at children themselves and declare that they as an age group have been relatively spared the harms of COVID-19. However we know that they do seem to get the infection and harbour the virus in their noses and throats too. We don’t know how contagious they are but there is obviously a risk and scientific studies are understandably scarce. European countries such as Norway and Denmark have had far less cases and deaths than the UK and have got down to very low levels. For example Norway has had 8,244 cases with 232 deaths and Denmark 10,927 cases with 547 deaths. Their schools have had to implement big changes in the way they mix outdoors and indoors classes and have had to physically distance children in classrooms and for school meals. Halving class sizes seems the likely way we would need to go in the UK which might mean two day sessions which would have huge implications for schools.

    But its not just children! Teachers and school staff are at risk and there needs to be proper occupational health assessments to assess individual risks in the staff. Then there are parents and grandparents who may be involved in bringing children to school and mingling with others at drop off. Children may in turn bring back the virus to the home where there may be vulnerable others living there. So rather than the hurried declaration made to reopen fully on the 1st June there needs to be proper discussion and agreement with trade unions and parents and staff/school Governors on the risk assessment and plans. Remember too that schools have been open during this time for children of essential workers and vulnerable children many of whom have not attended. Oh, by the way, Eton pupils will return to school in September and they already have small class sizes!

    Scrutiny of Public Expenditure

    It is estimated that the Government has now built up £300 billion national debt through its Pandemic investments. The furloughing scheme has been widely welcomed, as has the cancellation of NHS (England) historic debt. However there have been some decisions made by harried Ministers that have been misplaced (such as the home based antibody test) as well as some of the spend on ventilators and Nightingale hospitals when it was already apparent that the NHS was coping somehow with the huge demand on ITU capacity. The decisions to contract out some of the tasks on testing, track and trace have been questionable and the investments in the pharmaceutical industry for vaccine production/drug development need to be scrutinised. Contracts worth more than £1bn have been awarded to 115 private companies dealing with the pandemic, without allowing others to bid for the contract. This has been under fast track rules which suspend normal procedures and include contracts to provide PPE, food parcels, COVId-19 testing and to run operations rooms with civil servants. This latter group includes Deloitte, PWC and Ernst & Young!

    The last thing we want is to be plunged back into austerity at the end of the pandemic. Already we hear of withdrawal from the rough sleepers investment in accommodation before alternative plans are in place and indeed before realistic resurgence in tourism happens. The new normal needs to preserve the advances that have been made. Similarly simple calls for people to drive to work risks the modal shift that is possible towards walking, cycling to work if public transport is deemed too crowded for social distancing. Electric cycles can be promoted for those with further to travel or in hilly areas. The reduction in air pollution while helping the carbon load is still not at levels this year required if we want to meet the goals of the Paris Accord and keep global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.

    The Chancellor and his advisers will be wondering how to get more money into the Treasury. Now is the time to look at a proper wealth tax and to deal with off shore tax avoidance. Dyson tops the Sunday Times Wealth list and remember Sir James moved his head office out of the UK to Malaysia during the Brexit debates. He is sitting on £16.2 billion wealth. The Duke of Westminster has had 300 years in the top spot of property wealth  (£10.3 billion) built on their portfolio of 300 acres of Mayfair and Belgravia (remember the Monopoly Board!). Others in the top 10 include the Coates family who have accrued £7.17 billion through gambling business such as Bet365 and we know the damage to public health that gambling does. Finally lets call out Richard Branson who sought a government subsidy of £500m for his furloughed staff in Virgin Atlantic with his £3.63 billion. He has apparently not paid any personal tax in the UK for 14 years. These super rich need to be taxed on their annual earnings as well on inheritance transfers, which by using Family Trusts subvert the process.

    Finally

    As we think of US billionaire David Geffen on his $590m yacht, who posted on Instagram that he was isolated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus – lets consider a better fairer future.

    The pandemic can be an opportunity for progressive change to reduce inequalities but we know that there are entrenched and powerful interests. The rich are often supporters of entrenched interests as they benefit from the status quo. In the light of the pandemic they should reflect on how sustainable the status quo really is. We also need to clear set out a new road map for a fairer future.

    17th May 2020

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

    2 Comments

    Introduction

    The SHA has produced a weekly Blog on the Covid-19 pandemic for the past 2 months. In these Blogs we have looked at many issues but the overriding finding is that the UK Government has been much too slow in responding to the pandemic, which has cost lives, stressed the NHS and severely damaged the economy. We are now one of the countries in Western Europe with the worst outcome in terms of reported deaths and deaths/million population.

    This is a scandal, and as we have learned more about the background to the response we learnt about the emergency scenario planning exercise in 2016 Operation Cygnus (Swan flu). This exercise, which involved the devolved nations and over 900 participants, made recommendations on the need for more PPE to be stored, more ITU ventilators to be procured for an enhanced ITU provision and robust planning for the social care sector which was at risk of being overwhelmed. The recommendations seem to have been largely ignored by the Tory government during its declared policy of disinvesting in the public sector and the policies of economic austerity. At that time Boris Johnson was a senior Cabinet Minister as Foreign Secretary and Jeremy Hunt, now Chair of the Health Select Committee, was Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Who will take responsibility for not acting on the advice?

    The other issue that has become even more obvious is that public services such as the NHS have been starved of resources over the 10 years of austerity and while the service has made an extraordinary response to the pandemic it is against the background of poor capital investment and major staffing pressures such as medical and nurse staff vacancy levels. Similarly the Local Government sector has been pared down during the Tory years with massive disinvestment, floating State Education to unaccountable Academies and Free Schools, and running down many of its former functions including environmental health and trading standards. Local Authorities who have been driven to cut services and their budgets year on year are now being asked to stand up and take responsibility in an emergency while also trying to cope with the social care scandal. It sticks in the throat to hear government Ministers speak appreciatively about public sector workers, often in low paid jobs, who they have in the past criticised as a burden on the taxpayer.

    In this week’s blog we want to raise the issues about re-building the public health system so it can run the test, trace and isolate campaign from neighbourhood, local authority population, region, nation and central government. We are also concerned about the evidence of further privatisation using the Covid Trojan Horses and the excellent examples from other countries about how they have handled the pandemic successfully and published coherent plans to get out of their lockdowns.

    Test, track and trace, and isolate

    Since the beginning of the pandemic we have been calling for Covid-19 to be contained by using tried and tested public health measures of communicable disease control. Even without access to swab testing of suspected cases local public health workers would be able to establish whether someone was a suspected or probable case from taking the history of their illness. With swab testing this would convert the suspected/probable case to become a confirmed case and the local public health team would build their information base and start to map out the spread of the infection in their locality. Notifiable disease works in this way and at the start of the pandemic this could have been done in all areas. Contact tracing and recording demographic details as well as presenting symptoms would have built up a local picture of the manifestations of the infection, the demographic details and travel histories involved.

    A history of fever and continuous dry cough would have been sufficient to be a suspected case. It was a serious error to not start contact tracing and local notification in all areas to build up the knowledge and skills of local PH teams. Obviously when community spread became overwhelming such detailed work on contact tracing might reduce but a local record of test positive cases should have continued to be built us. Laboratory test results are still collected but this should have fed into the local teams databases. The variation in new cases and deaths across the UK has been very marked and in some areas this task would have been comparatively easy to sustain and in the process train new people under the watchful eye of experienced Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) supported by their Local Authority based public health colleagues.  Expert advice obtained from Laboratories and Public Health England would support the local teams under the leadership of Directors of Public Health (DsPH). Similar networks exist in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

    The reason for spelling this out at this stage of the pandemic is that at long last the government have rumbled that testing, tracing and isolating is part of the strategy to get out of the blunt tool of total societal lockdown. South Korea’s success was wholly dependent onrigorous testing including basic approaches being supplemented by mobile phone data and other digital systems. They have shown how they can monitor community infections and step in quickly to contain new cases as they arise. They did not have to resort to society lockdown and their economy has continued to function – as well as coping with voting in a general election during this time.

    To get testing scaled-up from its hospital base, the government has defaulted to their prior preferences and have turned to their friends in the private sector: Deloittes, Serco, G4S and Sodexo.  Rather than building local public health teams in Local Government and enhancing PHE reach from their regional organisations, we now have a mix of inexperienced private contractors. So rather than start the process of using the pandemic to re-establish public health capacity locally and regionally we see short-term contracts with the private sector. These private contractors are advertising for contact tracers at £8.72/hr. Sodexo, which is running many of the Covid-19 drive-through testing centres with minimal staff with clinical experience, are paying testers £13.50 /hr and trainers £17.50 /hr and all jobs are offered on a casual basis.

    These political decisions have already led to communication problems with poor reporting back to primary care and PHE, and who knows how, or whether, the data will be integrated into the system in a consistent and reliable way? To everyone’s astonishment, pop-up testing pods appear in local areas without anyone knowing that they were planned, and samples then have to be sent to the USA (yes the USA) to be tested when really results should be back quickly, and within 2 days to be useful. This is a huge lost opportunity to try and re-establish public sector public health services from local to regional levels and so build system resilience and independence rather than inexperienced private sector for profit organisations.

    Privatisation – the Trojan Horses

    The privatisation of the testing services is also being matched by the opening up of NHS data and information systems. NHS England and NHS Improvement (NHSE & I) (now merged in practice, though without the necessary legislation) is creating a data store to bring multiple data sources together including data from NHS111 calls, NHS digital and Covid-19 test results, and NHS and Social Care data. We are told that NHS data will remain under NHS England and NHS Improvement’s control!

    This data is very operational looks at occupancy levels in hospitals, capacity in A&E departments and statistics about length of stay of Covid-19 patients. The dashboard will provide a public health overview and supply operational data across the NHS. The partners in this include private sector multinationals  Microsoft, Palantir Technologies UK, Amazon Web Services (AWS), Faculty (an AI company), and Google. We are told that data and information governance will be strictly controlled.

    Apart from the private sector “entrism” into NHS data and information, we have seen KPMG being commissioned to build the Nightingale warehouse hospitals, which are having to be redesigned or mothballed. The NHS was only able to stand up to the extreme pressure through the dedication, commitment of health workers and their administrative and management staff embued with public service ethos. Another private sector stablemate, Deloittes, was handed the contract to provide PPE and to commission vaccine development. All this without the need for tendering.

    The risk that derives from the 2012 Lansley Act, the 2015 NHS guidance in England and the more recent Coronavirus Act, is that it eases privatisation of our NHS. And privatisation with even more stealth than that recommended by Nicholas Ridley’s Tory Research Dept proposals  to Margaret Thatcher in 1977, before she even became Prime Minister. Much commissioning of NHS services now takes place at national levels with very little if any scrutiny from publicly accountable local Boards. All these changes, brought in by the Tory Government before the pandemic, are now being used to privatise services and potentially set up the NHS for deeper intrusions into its role as a publicly funded and delivered health service.

    Exit out of lockdown

    Although some countries such as Korea and Sweden have avoided lockdown, many others  have had to use this blunt but too often necessary strategy. We are now seeing that countries that acted early and fast with containment measures, are planning the steps needed to safely reduce the constraints on everyday life and the economy.

    We have seen an excellent visual map of the five stages to be taken between May-August in the Irish Republic, which has so far been doing extraordinarily well in containing the infection with relatively few cases or deaths. New Zealand, which has been a beacon to other countries, seems to have succeeded with their policy of eliminating the virus. Under the excellent leadership of Jacinda Ardern, they too have set out their plan for freeing up movement of people and the economy. Neighbouring Australia have also done well with their policy on restricting air travel and quarantining arrivals, closing State borders and undertaking lockdown. They have only had 92 recorded deaths in their 25 million population and now have their staged plan published. No doubt we will be able to watch international sporting contests between NZ and Australia inside their Anzac bubble!

    On the European mainland Italy and Spain are taking their first cautious steps out of lockdown, which in their cases have pulled back the out-of-control spread. France has colour coded their regions and the red areas will remain under tougher conditions, but the South and West will see greater relaxation of controls. All these countries have published clear plans with criteria in easily understood diagrams of each phase and steps clearly laid out.

    The UK government has so far failed to set out the plan clearly and is at risk of confusing people by changing the message from “Stay at Home” to “Stay Alert”! They risk division across the devolved nations of the UK and misunderstandings about any new freedoms. Workers will need proper risk assessments of their workplaces before returning safely to work and this must include considerations about their journey to work, canteen and welfare facilities in the workplace, and that they that meet the standards of social/physical distancing and PPE provision where required. This will take time and many partners such as Trade Unions will need to be involved in aspects of the risk assessment in the workplace as well as facilitating transport to work.

    Conclusion

    We are at a critical point in the pandemic where we are still suffering from a comparatively high level of new cases being identified, with the social care sector suffering from particularly serious epidemic spread, risking the lives of thousands of very vulnerable residents. The government has rather belatedly recognised the WHO advice to test, test, test, and has successfully increased testing capacity but has failed to invest either in rebuilding the capacity of local public health teams in Local Government or in more local Public Health England teams.  In its struggle to get on with the response it is choosing to invest in private companies who have over the past decade already profited from NHS contracts in support services and laboratories, but now seem to have been also given access to NHS data. There is a serious risk of even further and deeper privatisation of NHS provision while publicly extolling the virtues of the NHS. And possibly the opportunity of using the data to try and sell private health insurance directly to individuals , or advertise private services in many more areas currently covered by the NHS. Finally, exiting lockdown will not be easy to achieve, as the epidemic has not declined in a persuasive manner, with the first wave suppressed and therefore prolonged. What people need is a clear staged plan for the steps to be taken and the data that will monitor progress rather than a statement of intent.

    As cardiologist Dr Banerjee notes in the Observer: “We were not humble enough to look at other countries and learn a lesson from them and lock down quickly – it is as simple as that. We were arrogant and thought that we had nothing to learn from other countries and thought that we were an exceptional case. In fact we had a lot to learn but didn’t take the opportunity”

    11.5.2020

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

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    This is now the 8th weekly Blog published by the Socialist Health Association (SHA) commenting on how the Coronavirus pandemic is progressing both locally and globally. The lens we use is a socialist worldview where we aspire to One World and Planetary Health and are as concerned to reduce global as well as local health inequalities. The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on local inequalities within the UK as well as stark global inequalities where people find themselves exposed and unable to follow the advice we receive in the UK and other rich countries to social distance and pursue rigorous hand hygiene.

    Health inequalities in the UK

    Last week the Office of National Statistics (ONS) published a report on Covid-19 deaths by local area and by socioeconomic deprivation (www.ons.gov.uk). This covered the period from the 1st March to the 17th April. During this period there were 90,232 deaths in E&W and of these deaths 20,283 involved Covid-19.

    Unsurprisingly London had the highest age-standardised mortality rate with 85.7 deaths/100,000 people involving Covid-19. This is significantly higher than any other region and almost double the next highest rate. In these SHA Blogs, one of our observations has been that London was the early hotspot and should have been shutdown much sooner and been our ‘Wuhan’. Remember all the press reports of bars and restaurants remaining open and people packed into London underground trains and buses?

    In London Covid-19 deaths were 4,950 amounting to 42% of deaths since the beginning of March compared to 1,051 deaths in the South West region of England, which was only 13% of total deaths there. The eleven Local Authorities with the highest mortality rates were all London boroughs with Newham, Brent and Hackney suffering the highest rates. Outside London rates are high in Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester.

    Newham has the highest age standardised death rate with 144.3 deaths /100,000 population followed by Brent with 141.5 and Hackney with 127.4. In Newham 78% of its population are in BAME groups and 48% live in poverty after rent and household income are taken account of. The three London boroughs are in the most deprived group and across England the most deprived areas have a death rate of 55.1/100,000 compared with 25.3 in the least deprived (118% difference).

    The Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) is an overall measure based on income, employment, health, education, crime, the living environment and access to housing within an area. Each area of England is grouped into one of ten deciles and the most deprived is in d1 and least deprived in d10. As we know from work over the last 40 years since the Black report in 1980 – there is a social gradient for mortality and many other indicators of health and wellbeing.  Covid-19 has magnified the difference especially for those in the three most deprived deciles which shows a stark difference between Covid-19 deaths and all deaths. In the least deprived decile the mortality rate for all deaths was 122 deaths/100,000 population, whereas in the most deprived it was 229. The difference between all deaths (classic social gradient) was 88% whereas between Covid-19 deaths the difference was 118%, which is 30% higher.

    A similar picture emerges in Wales where they present the data as differently. The most deprived fifth of areas have a rate of 44.6 deaths per 100,000 involving Covid-19; this was almost twice as high as the least deprived area with 23.2 deaths/100,000.

    The other key finding from the ONS report was on urban versus rural areas. Major urban conurbations had a death rate of 64.3/100,000, which is statistically significantly higher than other categories including urban minor conurbations. The lowest rates unsurprisingly are in rural settings with rates as low as 9/100,000 population. There is a category ONS use called ‘major towns and cities’ in E&W which are built up areas excluding London. Of the 111 major towns and cities the highest mortality rate was in Salford with a rate of 112.6 deaths compared to Norwich with 4.9/100,00. One interesting prosperous market town that was hard hit is Cheltenham with a death rate of 49/100,00, which is significantly higher than the English average!

    Austerity and the slow burning injustice

    In his 2020 report of ‘Health Equity in England: the Marmot Review 10 years on’ Marmot found that the improvement of life expectancy which had been a consistent finding since the turn of the 19th century stalled in 2010 and years spent in ill health increased. He also showed that the social gradient in health became steeper and regional differences increased.

    The two features of Tory government policy during this period was to roll back the State – public expenditure went from 45% of GDP in 2010 to 35% in 2018 – and to be regressive. This meant that the poorer you were the more likely you would be to be disadvantaged by these changes.

    The excuse for the policies enacted from 2010 was the 2008 global financial crisis, which led to a decline in the global economy of 0.1% in 2009. The IMF  has predicted that the global economy will decline by 3% in 2020 on account of the pandemic. Already we have seen Universal Credit claims in the UK rise from 150,000 before the pandemic to 1.4m by the 13th April and rising daily. Marmot points out the risk that it would be a calamity if we face a new era of austerity after the pandemic. We need on the contrary to argue for a better society with less inequality and built by reducing child poverty, improving child health and education, improved working conditions ensuring that everyone has the minimum income to lead a healthy life and creating a sustainable environment in which to live and work creating the conditions for people to pursue healthy living.

    Places affected by conflict and humanitarian crises

    Inequalities are manifest globally as well as locally in the UK. For instance many of the estimated 70m forcibly displaced people worldwide live in insanitary and inhospitable conditions sometimes up to six families living in one tent in a 3sqm area. In these camps people share few latrines and washing facilities and have to queue for food each day. The Covid-19 mantra has been hand washing, social distancing and lockdown. People in conflict zones or refugee camps simply cannot follow this guidance and also have access to very rudimentary healthcare facilities.

    There is an urgent need to put international pressure on warring parties in Syria and Yemen to end restrictions on access to health care and humanitarian assistance. Public health support is needed to provide the conditions that do not allow the virus to spread and substantial financial support to overhaul the present conditions. This is more important and practical than supplying ventilators. The Covid-19 pandemic requires a global response for the most vulnerable populations globally as well as locally in the UK (David Nott Lancet 1st May 2020)

    Another globally vulnerable group are prisoners. In all countries including the UK prisons are a risk being closed communities with people living in crowded and in some countries squalid conditions. Conditions are worse in countries led by leaders like Duterte and Bolsonaro. In the Philippines for example there are an estimated 215,000 prisoners in prisons built for a capacity of 40,000 and in Brazil 773,000 prisoners are crammed into prisons built for 461,000.

    Whether it’s parts of the world with conflict and humanitarian crises or populations suffering from repressive governments there is an urgent need for rich countries to invest in international organisations such as the UN, WHO, UNHCR, UNICEF and AID organisations to try to mitigate the risks that Covid-19 poses on top of already stressed social conditions. It is possible to act locally on health inequalities as well as show solidarity globally.

    So what?

    In our earlier blogs we have been critical of some aspects of the pandemic response in the UK. It is sad to note that the UK is heading to have the worst outcome in Europe with us starting our epidemic behind Italy, Spain and France when Covid-19 hit Europe. The Government have been too slow to take measures such as locking down London and the South East rapidly and should have continued testing, tracking and isolating across the country – especially where the number of cases has been low and well within the capacity of local resources. This would have built practical experience and we would have learnt valuable lessons.

    Now that we have more testing capacity we need to build the programme from the bottom up. Local public health teams in Local Government stand ready to provide local leadership teaming up with professional Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) who have the skills and local knowledge to provide local leadership. Resources need to be targeted at areas of greatest need as we have illustrated through the excellent ONS report. Certainly smart apps will play a part as well as national leadership from COBR on the key features of the test, trace and isolate programme. However there has arguably been too centralised and London based approach to pandemic management. The time is ripe to allow local authority public health, supported by specialist PH resources to work with their Local Resilience Forum (LRF) using their local skills and knowledge to try to bring the pandemic to heel using classic communicable disease control methods of epidemic controls. This will help eliminate the virus, protect the NHS allowing it to reopen for normal business and enable the economy to start up again as soon as practicable.

    Pandemics kill in three ways says Jonathan Quick of the Rockefeller Foundation:

    The Disease kills,

    Disruption of the health service kills

    and the

    Disruption to the economy kills”.

    3.5.2020

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

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

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

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

    1. Scientific advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    1. Easing lockdown

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

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

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

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

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

    1. Recovery planning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    The SHA started to publish its Covid-19 Blogs on the 17th March and since then have issued weekly blogs. It is extraordinary to reflect on this being our sixth commentary on the socialist health view of the unfolding global pandemic.

    In earlier Blogs we have covered many different topics and each Blog reflects on particular issues that have sprung up over the past week and identified as emerging issues. In this week’s Blog we will look at social care, testing, and possible steps out of lockdown.

    1. Social Care

    This has rightly hit the headlines over the past week as the plight of our care services and their residents have been under the media spotlight. We knew from the early data from China mid January that the C-19 virus seemed to particularly harm older people and particularly adults with underlying conditions such as obesity, diabetes, heart and lung disease. Mortality rates in these at risk groups is comparatively high and 90% of deaths in the UK have been in the over 60 year olds with half of these deaths being in people over 80 years old. This has led the UK government to define vulnerable groups and also those ‘very vulnerable’ people who need to be ‘shielded’ from exposure to the virus. The very vulnerable shielded groups are estimated to a number 1.5m and are self isolating indoors for 12 weeks. Many but not all of these very vulnerable people will be in residential or nursing homes.

    Having identified these at risk populations, attention needed to be directed towards those sub populations of older or vulnerable people who were living in residential or nursing homes. These institutions are high risk as ‘closed communities’ accommodating a group of high-risk individuals who would be at risk of an outbreak of C-19 within that setting.  Decisions have had to be made by the management of these residential and nursing homes to, in many cases,  exclude relatives from visiting.  Some brave and extremely committed care staff have decided to move themselves into the nursing or residential homes to reduce the risk of them bringing C-19 in from their own homes and local community. It cannot be a surprise to hear now about outbreaks in these establishments causing disease and death to workers and their residents. Again like other aspects of this pandemic response – we had early warnings from Italy and Spain about the isolation and risks that this sector faced. Did we do enough quick enough?

    SHA President Prof Allyson Pollock published an Editorial in the BMJ on the 14th April, which identified that social services in the UK are amongst the most privatised and fragmented in the world, and have been underfunded for decades. Between 2010 and 2018 local authority spending on social care in England fell by 49% in real terms. The UK has 5500 providers operating 11,300 care homes for older people and 83% of these care home beds are provided by the for-profit sector, it is more privatised than the US.

    She also reports that care services employ 1.6m care staff (1.1m full time equivalent) of which 78% are employed by the independent sector. Pay is low; 24% of people working in adult social care are on zero hours contracts, and in March 2019 around a quarter were being paid the national living wage of £7.83 an hour or less. The sector is 120,000 workers short, and agency staff, are commonly employed and move from care home to care home. Social care has been a low priority for PPE supplies despite the high risks for residents and staff.

    Valiant efforts have been made by the sector with heroism shown by these low paid workers as well as stoicism by residents, many of whom may well be bemused and depressed as to why they no longer have visitors as well as the unusual PPE equipment being used by staff. It will have been difficult to plan for the various contingencies when cases emerged in homes, to access testing of staff and residents, to successfully isolate cases and discuss whether residents should be moved to hospital to obtain extra levels of care. Such admissions to more resourced NHS facilities should be an option even if cases would not meet eligibility for ITU care or wishing to be subject to that level of intrusive care. There should be options available, rather than simply assuming appropriate care will be delivered in that setting by stretched staff with relatively few registered nurses, no medical presence on site and few resources of PPE and other equipment such as oxygen supplies, oxygen delivery equipment and monitors such as oximeters.

    The SHA has been concerned about the social care sector for years and has developed policies to transform the sector under the banner ‘rescuing social care’. At the 2019 Labour Party Conference the SHA called on a future Labour Government to legislate for a duty to provide a universal system of social care and support based on a universal right to independent living. This should be based on need and offering choice; be free at the point of use, universally provided and fully funded through progressive taxation. This new National Care Service (NCS) should ensure that there are nationally agreed qualifications for staff, a career structure and enhanced pay and conditions of service. Recognition of informal carers is needed too with clarity about rights and support. The policy proposal has many other facets and stops short of integrating the NCS with the NHS. However close working would be built in and integrating data and information into a common system would be expected.

    As for many of the issues that have arisen so far with the pandemic the social care sector has not been in a strong position to push back C-19. The underpaid staff, the high vacancies and the often unsuitable, adapted accommodation is rarely fit for modern care needs. The fragmentation of the sector with ‘for profit operators’ finding it hard with constrained funding has led to vulnerability in the sector as well as the residents. Maybe this will be the time that showed how, rather than a shiny green badge, the social care service should be taken into a publicly funded national care service.

    1. Tracking, Tracing, Testing, and Treating (isolating)

    One of the criticisms we have made of the Government’s pandemic response has been the decision on the 12th March to pull back from testing for cases in the community and contact tracing. It may turn out that this was a policy decision driven by the lack of availability of tests rather than a decision made not to control community spread. On the 24th February there had been 9 confirmed cases of C-19 in the UK and the WHO had announced that countries should ‘ prioritize active, exhaustive case finding and immediate testing and isolation, painstaking contact tracing and rigorous quarantining of close contacts

    By the 22nd March there were 5683 confirmed cases and yet even then the WHO advice was ‘ find those who are sick, those who have the virus and isolate them. Find their contacts and isolate them’.  In outbreaks you do not always have confirmatory tests available but can make public health decisions based on the history and observation in the context of the unfolding epidemic. We seem to have forgotten the cardinal symptoms of continuous cough and fever.

    We have pointed out in earlier Blogs that countries that have been successful so far in controlling C-19 such as South Korea and Taiwan have been ones that have used widespread testing, tracing contacts and quarantining them. Germany has also been an example of a Western European country that has used this traditional communicable disease control methodology to save lives and protect their health service. Such a public health approach is most important in epidemics like this where there is no vaccine and no effective therapeutics other than sophisticated intensive supportive care.

    It is symbolic that the data that is presented at the daily press briefings has in the main used hospital testing data, hospital admissions and until recently exclusively hospital deaths. TV crews have been crawling over ITUs to get extraordinary footage of these wonderful NHS teams doing outstanding and stressful work. The incredible success of building Nightingale Hospitals in record time has been a reminder of the extraordinary efforts made in Wuhan to meet urgent need.

    However outside hospitals we have had the social care sector relatively unprepared, people self isolating in their homes and having to gauge the seriousness of their symptoms with intermittent telephone calls to NHS111. The disease has been spreading across the country from London to other metropolitan centres and then into smaller towns and rural areas. We could and should have shutdown London earlier as this has been our Wuhan. Local surveillance is limited and active contact tracing thought to be irrelevant even when many areas across England, Wales and Scotland had few cases. Environmental Health Officers in Local Government have not been mobilised. An opportunity missed.

    We have also seemed content to keep our airports and seaports open with little if no border health security. Again other countries who have managed to control this pandemic stopped and controlled air traffic, quarantining arrivals from high risk areas and making basic investigation on history (?cough) and taking travellers temperatures. Not difficult to do and look at Australia and New Zealand for actions on this source of new infections of a virus with high levels of transmissibility. In the UK it is estimated that over 190,000 people flew into the UK from China between January and March with no testing/quarantining.

    1. Evidence of unpreparedness

    The UK seems set to be one of the countries in Western Europe with the worst outcome in regards to mortality rates from C-19 despite the effectiveness of the NHS, which has withstood the pressure. We are often said to have an exemplar emergency planning system, the government had a pandemic as No. 1 risk on the national risk register, kept stockpiles and has computer modellers of world class.

    Yet we do not seem to have acted on the emergency planning exercises such as the 2016 Operation Cygnus (‘swan’ flu). We are now aware that in Sept 2017 the National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies reported that “There is a high probability of a flu pandemic occurring with up to 50% of the UK population experiencing symptoms, potentially leading to between 20,000 and 750,000 fatalities and high levels of absence from work’.

    There have been disclosures recently that are worth referring to that set out the timelines which showed the Prime Minister distracted and absent from COBRA meetings in January/February (A comprehensive countdown to how Britain came to have one of the highest COVID-19 per capita death rates – http://www.bylines.com). Also there has been an Insight team report for the Sunday Times on the 19th April 2020 (Coronavirus: 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster). The current Secretary of State is an actor in this drama and the former Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt who has been a critic of some aspects of the Governments response was of course in power during this time. We are told that ‘pandemic planning became a casualty of the austerity years when there were more pressing needs’ and ‘preparations for a no-deal Brexit sucked all the blood out of pandemic planning’

    1. Getting out of lockdown

    There are various scenarios that are being set out about how to get out of lockdown once the number of new cases decline and the first wave is thought to be ‘over’. This is likely to take time as the curve is flat and the proportion of the population with resistance is thought to be quite low. The government are hesitating about setting out the scenario and talking too much about the delivery of an effective, safe and tested vaccine. This usually takes 12-18 months and can never be guaranteed. They also are talking up the possibility of an effective drug therapy but we all know that viral illness do not lend themselves to highly effective drug treatments as we know with the Tamiflu debate after the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. So really we should again consider more immediate and classic public health control measures that have been shown to work in this pandemic.

    This will need health scrutiny and effective border controls that New Zealand and Australia have used successfully. There will within the country need to be effective systems of testing, contact tracing and quarantining with every day life respecting physical distancing and the use of facemasks. South Korea has shown the way that this can be enhanced and made more bearable by using mobile phones loaded with new technologies. These will warn people if at risk and disclose red, amber or green status. This will allow the economy to restart and people begin to get out and about again. The very vulnerable will in the early phases of this need to be protected.

    Prof Pollock in a recent BMJ editorial (Covid-19: why is the UK government ignoring WHO’s advice) states that ‘this means instituting a massive, centrally co-ordinated, locally based programme of case finding, tracing, clinical observation, and testing. It requires large teams of people, including volunteers, using tried and tested methods updated with social media and mobile phones and adapting the guidance published from China’ and other countries who are implementing such systems.

    This will require a change of mindset in government and from their medical and scientific advisers but as J.M.Keynes said:

    When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

    20th April 2020

    Published by Jean Smith on behalf of the SHA Officers and Vice Chair’s

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