Doctors in Unite Statement: Government guidance on shop opening and return to work is unsafe

We believe easing of the lockdown, and the active encouragement to return to work, is premature and unsafe given the high rate of ongoing infection1, that the R0 value is very close to, and in some areas is above 1 and the test, trace and isolate system is months away from being properly functioning.  In addition, the return to work will disproportionately expose lower paid and BAME workers to increased risk of Covid-19 infection, the very groups who have already been hit so hard by this deadly disease.

The return to work however is being implemented by the government and indeed further plans are to be announced shortly, so it is important to look at the guidance.  There is separate guidance for schools which will not be discussed here, however the general principles will apply to schools too.

The government’s guidance for 8 sectors of the economy, “Working safely during coronavirus”2 gives us serious cause for concern.   It fails to take into account the way Covid-19 transmission occurs indoors, the time spent in enclosed spaces and the need to ensure proper ventilation.  The very high risk faced by BAME staff is not mentioned.  The guidance also downplays the importance of face coverings as well as weakening the 2m rule, making it advisory rather than a requirement.  There is frequent use of the phrase “whenever possible” throughout the guidance, creating uncertainty and allowing room for employers to choose whether or not to implement the provisions.  There is sensible advice in the guidance, such as the need to carry out a risk assessment of the workplace, on home working and on handwashing, use of sanitisers and cleaning and disinfection.  However these do not make up for the many deficiencies, which will result in people who work in offices, shops and other enclosed work places up and down the country, doing so in unsafe conditions and being exposed to Covid-19. 

Indoor transmission of Covid-19

Apart from early “super-spreader” events outdoors, transmission of Covid-19 is essentially an indoor phenomenon3, both through droplet spread and microdroplet aerosol spread4.  The 2m rule is of limited value: if people occupy the same enclosed space for any length of time, and ventilation does not meet required standards, aerosolised viral particles from an infected individual can spread through the available space and may be breathed in by anyone occupying that space.  A single cough can project over several metres, tens or even hundreds of millions of viral particles into the air5 and will contribute to the creation of an “aerosol rich environment” in an enclosed space.  The longer people occupy this space the greater the risk of inhaling sufficient viral load to get infected.  Even if strictly observed, the 2m rule will not offer sufficient protection in this situation. 

A number of studies have shown that enclosed indoor environments can result in high levels of transmission.6, 7, 8 They show one or two infected individuals can lead to a large number of other people being infected, even if they are several metres away from each other. 

Ventilation

The consideration of ventilation in the guidance is inadequate and vague, and fails to take into account the challenges of making indoor spaces safe from Covid-19. It does say face-to-face meetings should be held “outdoors or in well-ventilated rooms whenever possible.”  There is no mention of ventilation however in relation to workplaces and workstations, where large numbers of workers will spend most of their day.

Improving ventilation is mentioned in the government’s guidance for transport operators, as follows: “Organisations should consider how to increase ventilation and air flow. Where possible, transport operators and businesses should ensure that a fresh air supply is consistently flowing through vehicles, carriages, transport hubs and office buildings.”   Once more we see “where possible” and there is also a distinct lack of detail about the technical requirements for effective ventilation to eliminate this highly infectious new pathogen from public transport provision.  This will not lead to safe conditions for travel for the public.

Organisations with ventilation systems are advised to check them to see if they require servicing or adjustment “for example, so that they do not automatically reduce ventilation levels due to lower than normal occupancy levels.  Most air conditioning systems do not need adjustment, however where systems serve multiple buildings, or you are unsure, advice should be sought from your heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) engineers or advisers.”  There is no technical guidance here about type of ventilation required, and issues like the number of air changes per hour etc.  And what of premises were there is no ventilation system?

The absence of guidance on ventilation is all the more surprising given the detailed advice on this from Public Health England: “Covid-19: Infection prevention and control guidance”.9 While this is written for health care settings and much of the detail is not applicable, the facts of known asymptomatic spread of Covid-19, the aerosol route of transmission of the virus, and the ongoing high level of community infection mean that all indoor spaces are a potential hazard.  The general principles of this guidance should therefore apply to all indoor spaces, but they do not appear to have been considered, apart from that stated above.

BAME staff

Nowhere in the guidance is the very high risk from Covid-19 for BAME people mentioned.  Death rates are 4 times as high for some BAME groups, yet section 2.1 in the guidance for shops, on “Protecting people who are at higher risk” makes no mention of this.  The risk of dying from Covid-19 for people with diabetes, (included in the “clinically vulnerable” group of the population requiring extra protection) is exceeded by that for people of a BAME background.  This cannot be right, and as long as serious risks like this are not addressed, the current high death rates will continue.

Social distancing

There is over-reliance in the guidance on the 2m rule to keep workers safe, and as we have said, throughout the guidance this is weakened by the phrase “where possible”.  Where 2m distancing is not possible employers should “manage transmission risk” by among other things, “using back-to-back or side-to-side working whenever possible”.  Sitting side-by-side or back-to-back will not prevent people from breathing in aerosolised virus, as the studies clearly demonstrate, and people do not rigidly stick to one head position, they move around and turn especially when speaking to those around them.  This weakening is consistent with the constant drip feeding in the media suggesting that the 2m rule is not really essential, compromising the social distancing message overall still further.

A recent study in the Lancet showed that reducing distances is associated with increased risk: infection risk doubles when the distance between people is halved from 2m to 1m10.

Face coverings

The government’s recent about turn on the wearing of face coverings is welcome, as belated as it is.  However, the advice on face coverings in the return to work guidance almost seems to be designed to put people off from wearing them: “There are some circumstances when wearing a face covering may be marginally beneficial as a precautionary measure.”  Again, this is reproduced throughout the guidance documents. 

We recognise there will be some areas and job roles, and for some individuals, where it is not practical or advisable, but face coverings should be worn everywhere in the workplace as a means of source control for transmission of Covid-19, unless there is a demonstrable reason not to do so.

Duration of time, activity levels and size of work space

These three further risk factors for indoor transmission are also not considered in official guidance.  The longer the time people spend together in an enclosed space the greater the risk of inhaling sufficient virus to become infected.  Similarly, the smaller the space the greater the risk.  In addition if people are highly active, for example through physical exertion leading to heavy breathing, or laughing or shouting, excretion of virus is significantly increased from infected individuals, adding to risk of infection in an enclosed spaces.

Conclusion

Official guidance on return to work is inadequate and will leave very many people exposed to risk of infection with Covid-19.  Making workplaces safe in the era of Covid-19 is nigh impossible given the scale of changes required with ongoing high levels of viral transmission in the country.  The only way to keep people safe at work is to drive down transmission to much lower levels and have in place a reliable and highly efficient test, trace, isolate and support system.  Current government plans are very risky and threaten to drive a second wave of the pandemic in the UK.

References

  1. Estimated to be 17,000 new infections per day by the MRC Biostatistics Unit on 5 June 2020. https://www.mrc-bsu.cam.ac.uk/now-casting/
  2. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/working-safely-during-coronavirus-covid-19
  3. https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.04.04.20053058v1.full.pdf
  4. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/05/27/science.abc6197
  5. https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/05/12/2006874117
  6. https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/26/7/20-0764_article#tnF1
  7. https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/26/8/20-1274_article
  8. https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-03-29/coronavirus-choir-outbreak
  9. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/886668/COVID-19_Infection_prevention_and_control_guidance_complete.pdf
  10. https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S0140-6736%2820%2931142-9

Doctors in Unite Statement, 10/06/2020

Tens of Thousands of Avoidable Deaths Due to The Government’s Callous Indifference to the effects of Covid 19

June 1 2020 heralded the official start of the easing of the lockdown that has been in place since 23rd March to try to contain the spread of Covid 19.

The current reality is that due to the Westminster Government’s repeatedly vague and confusing messaging, compounded by their unwavering support of the Prime Minister’s rule breaking Chief Advisor, Dominic Cummings, people are already relaxing social distancing.

We have now known about the threat from Covid 19 since January this year, and through the lens of the media watched it heading our way via Iran, Italy and other countries. The UK had more time than most to prepare, however this opportunity was squandered by the Westminster Government.

Instead of learning from the experience of other countries and making sure that key workers had sufficient personal protective equipment and that time honoured locally coordinated test, trace, isolate and support programmes were in place to contain the spread of the virus, Boris Johnson glibly announced that the UK’s strategy would be one of developing herd immunity (a form of indirect protection from disease that occurs when a large percentage of the population has become immune) and that we should prepare ourselves for our loved ones to die.

Soon after, Imperial College published modelling which showed the NHS would be overwhelmed by Covid cases if more stringent measures were not put in place.

The Government publicly abandoned their herd immunity strategy and the UK went into lockdown. Over two months later, following a shockingly high peak in early April, the daily death rate and reporting of new cases has declined significantly, but not enough to suppress the virus to a level that makes it safe to start to open up schools and businesses.

The much heralded national contact tracing scheme is beset with problems and unlikely to be up and running (let alone working well) before the end of June at the earliest. Meanwhile, local projects are being held back, starved of resources and undermined.

We must ask ourselves why our Government have careered from one position to another during the Covid 19 crisis, seemingly out of control and always on the back foot. They, like anyone else, can be forgiven for the odd mistake, but this has had the appearance of a complete shambles.  They have the more conservative of the best scientific minds at their disposal and experience from other countries which were beset by the virus before the UK to draw on.

So why has their response been so seemingly incompetent and why are they now insisting that it is safe to ease lockdown when the evidence suggests that this will trigger another viral surge? Could this be construed as akin to corporate manslaughter?

We believe that the Westminster Government has been forced by events to address the health of the public in this crisis but has done so through gritted teeth because it is at odds with their ideological programme of dismantling the welfare state. For them the crisis is also an opportunity to expose more public services to privatisation.  This is why they have so vigorously prevented NHS laboratories and local public health teams from expanding their services appropriately to meet the demands of the pandemic, instead choosing to  contract with Tory-contributing, multinational, outsourcing agencies like SERCO despite the fact that these companies’ incompetence and corruption in providing health care are well known.

Easing lockdown may “stimulate” the economy, but in the process thousands, if not tens of thousands of lives, especially those of the elderly, will be sacrificed as the virus surges again.

This is disgraceful and callous. Lives are far more important than profit.

We have said before that lockdown should not be eased until

  • Proper locally coordinated test, track, isolate and support systems are in place and shown to be working
  • There is financial support so workers do not lose income if they need to isolate
  •  There is adequate ongoing supply of appropriate PPE for all key workers

None of these things are yet adequately in place.

History shows that pandemics have lethal subsequent waves.

We believe that to end lockdown in the current circumstances will lead to huge numbers of avoidable deaths as the virus surges again. When these deaths occur the question must inevitably arise – ‘was this corporate manslaughter?’

There is no rationale to the behaviour of the Westminster Government other than to put profit before people – we demand a change in strategy to put the health of the people first.

Doctors in Unite 7 June 2020.

References:

  1. https://www.ft.com/content/38a81588-6508-11ea-b3f3-fe4680ea68b5
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/12/uk-moves-to-delay-phase-of-coronavirus-plan
  3. Britain Drops Its Go-It-Alone Approach to Coronavirus – Own Matthews, Foreign Policy 17/03/20
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/28/coronavirus-infection-rate-too-high-second-wave
  5. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-52473523
  6. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/28/ppe-testing-contact-tracing-shambles-outsourcing-coronavirus
  7. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-52284281
  8. https://doctorsinunite.com/2020/05/25/isolate-trace-and-support-is-the-only-safe-way-out-of-lockdown/
  9. https://doctorsinunite.com/2020/05/18/testing-times-require-radical-solutions/
  10. https://www.history.com/news/spanish-flu-second-wave-resurgence
  11. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/31/did-a-coronavirus-cause-the-pandemic-that-killed-queen-victorias-heir

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.

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