COVID-19 update 7 September 2020 – still stumbling along

A review of where the UK is in its response to the Covid-19 pandemic

1. Policy failure

Richard Horton, editor of the prestigious medical journal ‘The Lancet’, described the management of COVID-19 as the “greatest science policy failure for a generation” in his book on the pandemic. Currently the numbers of newly diagnosed patients are steeply rising with many wondering if the government has completely lost its grip. So – four months after Johnson showed his remarkable grasp of the scientific narrative by declaring: “If this virus were a physical assailant, an unexpected and invisible mugger (which I can tell you from personal experience it is), then this is the moment when we have begun together to wrestle it to the floor” –  where do things stand?   

2. Increasing number of positive test results

In July, the lowest number of daily new positive tests recorded was 574; by 6th September 2020, this had risen alarmingly to nearly 3000 on each of two successive days, showing a sudden increase of around 50% just as schools were reopening and more workers being coaxed back into workplaces. Over the preceding few weeks, European countries such as France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands had all seen a sharp rise in new cases, with 40% being in the younger age group. In the UK, the change in new diagnoses from predominantly elderly people to the young was even more apparent, with two thirds being in this demographic, including the steepest increase seen in 10 – 19 year olds accused of not observing social distancing.

3. Disillusionment

Meanwhile those with symptoms were often being told they will have to drive long distances, sometimes over a hundred miles, just to get a test. For many, this is simply not feasible, while for those who do make such a journey there is the risk of spreading infection further. At the same time statisticians have started to model the effects of NHS winter pressure combined with a second peak of coronavirus and predict that more than 100 acute hospital trusts will be operating at or above full capacity. A survey by the Doctors’ Association UK found that over 1,000 doctors were planning to quit the NHS through disillusion with the government’s management of the pandemic and frustration over pay. Recent national demonstrations calling for pay rises suggest many other NHS staff share these concerns and are prepared to take action.

4. Coronavirus endemic in some cities

A new public health report leaked to the press highlighted that COVID-19 was entrenched in some northern cities, and that case numbers had never really fallen to low levels during initial lockdown. This situation was strongly associated with deprivation, poor and overcrowded accommodation and ethnicity. New cases diagnosed per 100,000 population/week varied widely round the country at 98 in Bolton (topping the league), 37 in Manchester, 29 in Leeds, and only 3 in Southampton. The implication was that local lockdown measures were not likely to be any more effective in suppressing new infections and that there was an urgent need for a new strategy including better and locally tailored responses. These should include effective ‘find, test, trace, isolate and support’ (FTTIS) systems under the control of local authorities, many of which are in despair over their poor funding, and the hopeless performance of national ‘test and trace’.  Given over at huge cost to the private companies Serco and Sitel, these are still only successfully contacting 50% of contacts of known cases, a figure that, according to the official Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, should be at least 80%, with all these contacts then going into isolation.  

5. Broader lessons

Other lessons to be learned relate to financial support for workers and isolation of those living in overcrowded housing. It is simply no good (i.e. it is ineffective as an infection control measure) to expect low paid workers often with little or no financial reserves to self isolate for two weeks with either no pay or derisory statutory sick pay – full pay must be given by employer or government. In addition, people in densely packed housing cannot effectively self isolate, and as in some other countries, need to be temporarily housed in suitable alternative accommodation. This might be reopened hotels, or the almost unused Nightingale hospitals for those with mild symptoms.

6. is london different

One question of interest is why figures have not jumped up in London where the number of new cases in different areas is between 6 and 18/100,000/week. Possible explanations are that London was initially hit very hard by COVID-19 and as a result people have remained more cautious. For example, many Londoners who are able to work from home have decided not to heed government advice to return to office buildings. Geographical disparities in numbers of cases probably also reflect the fact that in northern cities such as Bradford, Oldham, and Rochdale, there is a relatively higher proportion of the workforce in more public facing roles such as the National Health Service, taxi services, take away restaurants, etc. Antibody testing (carried out regularly on samples of the population) also indicates that something like 17.5% of Londoners have been infected compared with 5-7% in the rest of the country. Although this is far from ‘herd immunity’ (which would require about 70% of the population to have been infected) it may mean that rapid increases in numbers of infection is at least initially delayed.

7. Airborne spread

There is now considerable support for the idea that an infected person can spread the virus over long distances through the atmosphere, although at the early stage of the pandemic this notion was rejected (hence the 2 meter social distancing advocated as being safe). There is an increasing body of evidence  confirming aerosol spread of virus, and this is well illustrated in food processing plants. Detailed investigation of the huge German meat factory outbreak showed spread of virus came from a single worker in the factory, with infection transmitted over 8 meters and more, and did not represent community acquired infection being brought in simultaneously by a large number of employees. The implication is that environmental conditions and effective ventilation are crucial to preventing spread of COVID-19, but unfortunately government guidelines as yet do not acknowledge this issue or provide appropriate guidance – a clear example of following far behind the science.

8. Treatments

Government strategy is reliant on the development of effective treatments and a vaccine; this in part explains the half-hearted approach to contact tracing. Lessons learned in the pandemic have reduced the numbers of patients that die once admitted to hospital, and this relates to use of oxygen delivery via a tube in the nose rather than one in the windpipe requiring the patient to be paralysed with drugs and breathing performed by a ventilator machine. Studies have also shown that giving a powerful anti-inflammatory steroid drug improves survival. As the number of patients has fallen considerably, less pressured staff also have more time to give better quality care. There is no basis for the suggestion that coronavirus has become less virulent; if it were to mutate, there is also the possibility it may become more rather than less harmful. The most likely explanation for rising case numbers overall with little change in hospital admissions and deaths is the fact that new cases are now predominantly in younger, fit people, who are much less likely to develop severe disease.

9. Vaccine

A vaccine is being presented as a ‘silver bullet’ that is just around the corner, however this is not the right message to give. There are estimated to be 170 research teams working on developing a vaccine, and nine products have reached large scale trials. To frame vaccine development as some kind of race increases the risk that a vaccine which is not very effective or has serious side effects will be rushed into use and public trust destroyed as a consequence. This would be hugely damaging and illustrates the importance of good public health messaging and the imperative of not compromising on safety through political pressure to deliver or the thirst for company profit. More important to bear in mind, there has never been an effective vaccine against a coronavirus just as there has never been an effective vaccine developed against HIV.

10. Fairy tales and reality checks

The Westminster government continues to choose to stumble on through the pandemic in the hope that a vaccine or effective treatment will arrive like a knight in shining armour, effect a rescue and bring us back to what was once normality. There is precious little reason to think that this is a sound strategy. Its cavalier approach to managing this unprecedented health emergency has included closing down Public Health England on spurious grounds – likened to taking the wings off a malfunctioning  aeroplane in mid-flight in order to ensure a safe landing. Basic demands from the public must continue to be for an effective FTTIS system, nationally coordinated but locally delivered and aimed at complete disease suppression; much improved testing, including local testing units and rapid turn around of results; investment in NHS infrastructure and ending the obsession with inefficient and expensive private contracts; honesty and transparency to win public trust and unite the young and old in a common purpose. Sadly, a conservative government characterised by antagonism to public services and one that prioritises business interests over public health is unlikely to be either self critical and learn from experience or to implement positive changes such as those outlined above. The price for wearing such ideological blinkers will be more suffering and more economic damage as COVID-19 once again inevitably spreads like wildfire through our communities. Perhaps it is only a massively increased death toll that will make it change course.

Exam results post-COVID: DiU Statement

Doctors in Unite (formerly the Medical Practitioners Union) are extremely concerned that thousands of young people, disproportionately from disadvantaged back grounds, have been awarded A level grades, in many cases two grades lower, than those predicted by their teachers. 

It is grossly unfair that young people from areas already hardest hit by the ravages of COVID 19 should have the fact that the virus has prevented them from taking their exams add a further barrier to their ability to achieve and to their life chances. 

We are appalled that many of the young people who expected to go on to higher education have been let down by an algorithm which takes little account of individual potential, placing more emphasis on the historic performance of the school, handing further advantage to those from more affluent areas.

In particular, as doctors, we are worried that young people who live in working class areas will fail to get the places in medical school which should have been theirs. Diversity within the medical profession is vitally important so that as doctors we can effectively represent the patients that we serve. The algorithm threatens the level of diversity amongst our colleagues of the future and many of today’s doctors would not be practicing if they had been subjected to such a system..

We call on Gavin Williamson to work with the teacher’s unions, immediately scrap the algorithm and to award young people A level grades based on the predictions of their teachers. To fail to do this will rob thousands of young people of the futures they deserve and quite rightly expect.

Doctors in Unite, 17/08/2020

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

Schools must not reopen without clear evidence and widespread agreement that this is safe

As a paediatrician, I share the grave concerns of nurse Ian Wilson who has two children at school in Lewisham and experience of working with covid-19 infected patients. In an open letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock last week, he pleaded that we were not enrolled against our will in a giant experiment that could go tragically wrong, pointing out that forcing hundreds of people into small rooms in small buildings was self evidently nonsense during a pandemic (1). Nothing has changed since this letter was first published on the 20th April, other than some additional worrying scientific evidence from Germany supportive of keeping schools closed (2). This work has shown that children with mild symptoms have just as high viral loads as sick adults, considerably undermining the suggestion sometimes made that somehow children would be less infectious. It is now clear that you need neither symptoms nor coughing in order to spread disease if you are an asymptomatic carrier, since droplets are produced simply by talking (3).  In close proximity, pupils would not only spread infection among themselves and teachers, but also carry the virus home to family members and vulnerable relatives.

Terrible though it is for children not to be able to go to school, and with all the attendant risk of negative impact on current health and wellbeing as well as long term prospects, there should be no reopening of school unless it is absolutely safe to do so. Not only that, teaching staff through their union representatives must also agree it is safe, and the decision cannot be left to education secretary Gavin Williamson alone. Social distancing is clearly a concept that would not be grasped by young children, and schools are usually busy and crowded places with narrow corridors and other bottle necks herding pupils together. It is absolutely right for vulnerable children to be at school at the present time, when relatively low numbers can be managed safely. More attention needs to be given to ensuring that these children are actually at school as many appear to be staying away. There are now covid free hospitals where elective surgery is being performed and perhaps this points the way forward for educational establishments. It would clearly require intensive testing and monitoring. In the meantime, more thought should be given to helping children particularly from poor backgrounds to `access study materials, for example through the loan of computers. On line learning to support home teaching has made huge strides but can also be further refined and developed. Psychological support for children should also be made available through the NHS and delivered via the internet.

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/apr/20/thousands-urge-uk-government-to-keep-schools-closed
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/30/coronavirus-scientists-caution-against-reopening-schools
  3. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc2007800?query=TOC

John Puntis is Co-chair Keep Our NHS Public