Schools should not take in more pupils on 1st June unless it is safe to do so

On the 7th May, Doctors in Unite expressed its full support for the National Education Union’s five tests before schools could take in more children and colleges re-open. In brief, these tests were:

  • Far lower numbers of COVID-19 cases
  • A national plan for social distancing
  • Testing, testing, testing
  • Whole school strategy for testing in the event of infection
  • Protection of the vulnerable

However, it is now expected that primary schools will accommodate many more pupils from the 1st June, although the prime minister has acknowledged that some will need more time for preparation. The government anticipates that England’s schools are likely to be fully reopened by September this year, while only year 10 and 12 – pupils in their first year of GCSE and A-level studies – will be able to meet their teachers from 15th June.

Although numbers of coronavirus patients are falling, on 28th May there were still 1,887 new cases recorded. One cause of considerable anxiety is that plans to reopen schools more widely have failed to address the increased risk to BAME pupils and staff. Early figures on COVID-19 showed that 35% of almost 2,000 patients in intensive care units were black or from another minority ethnic background, despite BAME people making up only 14% of the population.

On a positive note, there has been a huge and welcome rise in the number of teachers becoming union members, and many parents also remain concerned about safety and are skeptical of government reassurances. Two recent opinion polls showed that 60% of parents were not prepared to allow children back to school. Teachers have rightly been critical of the government for being fixated on a date rather than focusing on ‘how’ schools are to manage the return of pupils.

In fact, government thinking on schools is difficult to fathom not least because the scientific advice on which it is based is still not being made fully public. This issue prompted Sir David King, previously the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, to set up an independent Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies. The Independent SAGE takes a refreshingly honest and open approach, welcoming critique and public discussion, and includes a broad range of scientific specialists. It’s second report is a model of clarity and deals with the question of schools.

The report begins by stating: “The issue of schools reopening during COVID-19 does not just have implications for pupils; it also has knock-on effects for adult staff, parents and the communities and locality from which pupils come from”. Schooling is absolutely essential for children, but must be balanced against the risk to themselves and others. The report also asserts: “We believe that decisions on school opening should be guided by evidence of low levels of COVID-19 infections in the community and the ability to rapidly respond to new infections through a local test, track and isolate strategy. There is no clear evidence that these conditions are met. Until they are it is not safe to open schools on June 1”.

Unfortunately ‘tracking and tracing’ systems are only just now becoming operational and there are likely to be many teething problems not least because of a very top down government approach and the involvement of the private sector. Local initiatives such as in Sheffield are providing both a model approach and important lessons, but have already demonstrated that simply asking contacts of cases if they would not mind self isolating for two weeks is unlikely to work unless the teams actually have the authority to insist. While the government is already thinking ahead to possible financial penalties for those who do not comply with a polite request, they would be better providing financial support at the level of wages rather than the derisory statutory sick pay that is a disincentive for people to stay at home.

There are many things that could be done to ensure children’s education is re-established by preparing school environments for social distancing, and providing better hand washing and toileting facilities. All schools are different and teachers have the necessary insights here. Local knowledge, including rates of infection is essential to inform decisions and some schools will be able to open to greater numbers of pupils more quickly than others. The role of local public health officials is also hugely important and is only now being acknowledged. The development of an effective ‘track and trace’ system is both essential for an easing of lockdown and clearly some weeks if not even months away.

The education unions have put out a joint statement to call for the Government to step back from the 1st June and to work with unions to create the conditions for a safe return to schools. The key elements are fully supported by Doctors in Unite and are as follows:

  • Safety and welfare of pupils and staff as the paramount principle
  • No increase in pupil numbers until full rollout of a national test and trace scheme
  • A national COVID-19 education taskforce with government, unions and education stakeholders to agree statutory guidance for safe reopening of schools
  • Consideration of the specific needs of vulnerable students and families facing economic disadvantage
  • Additional resources for enhanced school cleaning, PPE and risk assessments
  • Local autonomy to close schools where testing indicates clusters of new COVID-19 cases

Dr John Puntis is the co-chair of Keep Our NHS Public, and a member of Doctors in Unite

‘Isolate, trace and support’ is the only safe way out of lockdown

Doctors in Unite believe that comprehensive, publicly coordinated and community based ‘isolate, trace and support’ procedures are vital for control of the COVID-19 pandemic as lockdown is eased.

To keep the frequency of new cases in the community manageable people must be supported to self isolate once they are identified as potentially infectious. To this end it is imperative that there is no loss of income for those who need to self isolate through having been in contact with an index case.

To control the spread of COVID-19 the government must commit to maintaining people’s income so that they are not compelled to work when they should be in isolation. The financial burden should not be directly placed on companies as many of them would simply walk away from the obligation, though of course, companies should contribute properly through corporation tax. 

We call on Unite and the Trade Union movement in general to support our demand and to actively lobby the government to ensure that it is met.

Public Health and Primary Care

In January 2019, Doctors in Unite issued proposals relating to public health and primary care. This document has now been revised.

In the light of COVID-19 the authors believe that if these proposals had been implemented before the pandemic struck then the UK would have been able to respond much more quickly to the need and would have been in a much stronger position to plan and deploy local responses.

The government has allocated significant resources into protecting the front line of the NHS at the level of hospital services, with particular investment in the building of Nightingale hospitals. However, it has put almost no additional resources into primary care or community services to deal with COVID-19.

We believe that strengthening primary care and community services as laid out in our paper would mitigate the effects of COVID-19 for five main reasons:

1. Those working in primary care should look after populations and communities as well as individuals and their families. Dual training and accreditation for GPs and nurses in public health and primary care is essential. Neighbourhood public health leads would co-ordinate appropriate local responses to a pandemic, for example, by supporting people at home with COVID-19, isolating them and contact tracing in ethnically and culturally appropriate ways.

2. Primary Care Networks of GP practices should be funded to provide care home and appropriate domiciliary care during the pandemic. Community organisations should be integrated with primary care, which during theCOVID-19 lockdown could deliver food, medicines and other essential items as well as provide support for isolation, loneliness and respond to mental health issues.

3. We support a social prescribing model, which in normal times encourages patients to go out, meet people, socialise and stay active; during a pandemic this is necessarily amended, and patients are asked to stay in and not meet people, but to still socialise, keep in touch with others and remain active.

4. We develop the idea of local democracy through Neighbourhood Health Committees which would organise appropriate medical, psychological and social care, led by public health leads working seamlessly with directors of public health who have authority and independence which has been devolved from central control.

5. We propose professionally independent public health advocacy so that the people can trust the advice and information they receive.

Read the full paper here

NHS surcharges have been dropped for overseas health workers. We must now end all unfair healthcare costs

Doctors in Unite is delighted that the government have seen sense and ended the NHS surcharge for overseas health workers. We all owe health workers from overseas a huge debt. They often carry out the work which attracts the lowest pay, and without them the NHS would collapse. They don’t just contribute in the hours they work; they also pay taxes like any other citizen.

The government must now go further and drop the NHS surcharge for all overseas migrants and end charging for NHS care. Anything less disregards the founding principles of the NHS as a comprehensive health care service, publicly funded and publicly provided for all.

Nye Bevan never intended the overseas visitor to pay for the NHS. He said, “how do we distinguish a visitor from anybody else? Are British citizens to carry means of identification everywhere to prove that they are not visitors? For if the sheep are to be separated from the goats both must be classified. What began as an attempt to keep the health service for ourselves would end by being a nuisance to everybody.”

We must end all charging in the NHS now.

Testing times require radical solutions

We believe that the failure of the UK government to properly coordinate testing for COVID-19 has contributed to the UK suffering the highest death toll in Europe.

Countries that have had lower mortality adopted robust testing strategies early on.

Testing centres are not local to where most people live. A common stipulation is that they must be driven to. If someone is unwell or doesn’t own a car this makes the testing centres inaccessible.

Reliable testing is dependent on when, in the course of the illness, the test is taken. There is a false negative rate of around 30%. To be meaningful, testing must be frequently repeated.

Countries that were early adopters of the fundamental public health principles test, trace, isolate, support and integrate have had much lower mortality from COVID-19.

If lock down is to be relaxed and there is the possibility that schools may fully re-open, it is imperative that robust, locally run testing and contact tracing takes place. Failure to do this could let the virus tear through a community and cause another surge in cases and deaths, something that the NHS and social care services are ill equipped to cope with.

The danger in schools is not so much children becoming unwell, as the virus being shared and spread back into the community. Although schools have re-opened in Denmark, they were one of the first countries to close schools. On March 15th Denmark had no deaths from the virus and just 137 people in hospital for treatment.

The modelling in Denmark used to inform policy was based on the assumption that children spread the infection at the same rate as adults, and had no ability to social distance. The government’s openness and cooperation with the teaching unions led to a situation of mutual trust. Denmark and the UK are very different. While lessons should be learned, they must be the right lessons.

Contact tracing apps may have their place as part of a comprehensive testing policy. They cannot be relied upon on their own, and they should not involve the central holding of personal data.

The government and Public Health England failed to act in February while it was clear the pandemic was spreading globally. There was an opportunity to set up robust testing which was missed, even though local councils already have the infrastructure to test and contact trace – they already do this for tuberculosis, STIs and outbreaks of food poisoning.

Primary care services have adapted very quickly and risen to the challenges of COVID-19. Local GP ‘hot clinics’ could be used as testing sites. Many areas have set up home support services for those who are unwell, but not ill enough to warrant hospital admission.

Support workers deliver pulse oximeters to measure oxygen saturation levels and contact unwell people with a daily phone call. This could easily be adapted to test, trace, isolate, support and integrate.

Instead the government has turned to the likes of Serco to coordinate testing – judged on their past performance, Serco should not serve this crucial role.

We support the pilot lead by retired doctors in Sheffield and believe that, in the absence of a coherent plan from the government, local councils should invest in and roll out similar initiatives.

The infrastructure to test and analyse is available in NHS hospital laboratories – but the government has chosen not to use these in England. Instead, this is outsourced to private laboratories, which do not integrate with general practices as NHS hospital labs do. Test results are not communicated to GPs who could act on them to limit the local spread of coronavirus. A key public health resource is being squandered.

Awarding contracts to the private sector is familiar pattern by this government. It is an ideological strategy rather than one based on what is best for the public, when evidence suggests that outsourcing can lead to chaos and a loss of life. The government is using a public health crisis to accelerate an agenda of privatisation – in the context of the continuing talks of trade deals with the US where we are told, but do not believe, that the NHS is “off the table”.

We demand:

  • Locally coordinated and robust testing, tracing, isolation, support and integration.
  • The use of existing local authority infrastructure upscaled with the necessary government investment.
  • The use of NHS hospital labs for local testing and effective transmission of results to GPs.
  • Repeated testing due to high false negative rates.
  • The use of retired health workers to provide clinical support, and furloughed workers to help to administer the community systems.

Blanket DNACPRs are not the solution for panicked healthcare rationing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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