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.

NHS 72nd Birthday

5th July 2020

The 72nd birthday of the NHS takes place in the shadow of the COVID 19 pandemic.

The progress of the virus underlines the absolute importance of having an NHS as Bevan intended when it was founded in 1948, a comprehensive health service, publicly funded from general taxation, publicly provided and free at the point of delivery for all. The aim was to end inequalities in access to healthcare and July 5th 1948 famously saw queues of people round the block in a powerful demonstration of the size of the previous unmet need.

Since 1948, and accelerated since 1990, the founding ethos of the NHS has been under threat. One of the most cost-effective health care systems in the developed world, the NHS is nevertheless subject to repeated cuts and calls for efficiency savings, along with privatisation, fragmentation and competition, which was enshrined into NHS procurement by Andrew Lansley’s dastardly 2012 Health and Social Care Act. Public Health departments have been hollowed out and side-lined, at huge cost to their vital functions.

COVID 19 has laid bare the disastrous effects of the undermining of the NHS. People of BAME origin and the poor are far more likely to die of the virus. Years of NHS underfunding and outsourcing to the private sector has left it without the spare capacity to cope with the challenges of the pandemic. There has been insufficient appropriate PPE for health and social care workers, testing for the virus has been chaotic and outsourced to the private sector with no coordination with GP services, community contact tracing that has served well countries such as New Zealand, South Korea, Iceland and even Liberia, where they are used to dealing with Ebola so know what needs to be done, has been side-lined in the UK with reliance on a national system which has been deemed by Independent SAGE as not fit for purpose.

The result of this is that the UK has the ignominious honour of having the highest death toll from COVID in Europe, and, as I write, the third highest in the world, behind Brazil and the US.

BAME staff have died disproportionately yet they are the backbone of the NHS, often employed in the lowest paid of jobs on precarious contracts. To add insult to injury the hostile environment makes some of them ineligible for free NHS care. The Tories have done a U turn and said that the health surcharge will not apply to health workers, they have yet to implement this so the pressure needs to be maintained, but it does show what can be achieved through sustained campaigning.

A publicly run health service with adequate funding and planning based on need not profit, would have mitigated many of the challenges that COVID 19 has presented.

So, on this the 72nd birthday of our NHS we must keep fighting to have it restored into public ownership. The Black Lives Matter movement chimes with the disproportionate death toll amongst our BAME brothers and sisters, everyone should have equality of opportunity in life and equal access to health care. This can only be achieved in a society based on need not profit.

We have a job to do. If we fight, we can win.

Private providers must serve the public interest

In the middle of March 2020, it was clear that the NHS would not have the capacity to deal with the increased demands of the Covid-19 epidemic. This lack of spare capacity is clear evidence of continuing government failure to invest in the NHS to provide the required flexibility to meet unplanned needs.  As a necessary but panic measure to deal with the threat of COVID 19, Johnson’s Government struck a deal with the private hospital sector to rent beds from them at a cost of £2,400,000 per day.

By the end of June, after approximately one hundred days this will already have cost the NHS a quarter of a billion pounds. It is clear that the Government can find funds when they are needed and that their default position is to throw money at the private sector despite the shocking record of commercial organisations in providing health and social care.

This is a disgrace which has thrown a lifeline to the private health providers who would have not been able to operate normally during the pandemic and would have lost huge quantities of money but for this.

NHS hospitals have largely coped with the first wave of the COVID 19 pandemic by ceasing all other activity and by the public co-operating with a country-wide lockdown. The extra capacity has been mostly unused. Effectively the private hospitals have received tens of millions of pounds of public money, and rising, to do nothing.

As the NHS begins to deal with the huge backlog of non COVID care these private hospitals must be obliged to make their facilities available to help with the catch up in care and they must do so taking into account the windfall they have obtained to date.

There must be no profiteering from Covid-19.

We demand:

  • Private hospitals must provide value for the money already paid to them and make their facilities available to help clear the backlog of NHS care for no extra charge.
  • There must be full scrutiny and open book accounting to ensure that taxpayers can see that they are getting value for money.
  • Commercial organisations must not be permitted to cherry pick their way to bigger profits at a time of great national emergency.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/coronavirus-nhs-waiting-times-surgery-privatisation-a9550831.html?amp

Doctors in Unite statement 28/06/20

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

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

Matt Hancock offered to auction his football shirt for the NHS – we need proper funding, not charity gimmicks

Doctors in Unite would like to remind the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care that the NHS is not a charity but a government funded health service, set up in 1948 with the specific intention to remove health care from the precarious state of reliance on income or beneficence.

Matt Hancock has his hands on the levers of government, he should be using his time and influence to bring investment in the NHS and Social Care up to the levels needed to redress the years of systematic underfunding, fragmentation and privatisation which have contributed hugely to the failures we now see in the government’s ability to cope with the challenges of COVID-19, not trivialising matters by suggesting that all of the problems can be solved with the sale of a football shirt.

Dr Jackie Applebee is the chair of Doctors in Unite