We need a Zero coid-19 strategy now: say over 200 health and social care workers

Over 200 health and social care workers, from across the entire spectrum of specialties and grades of staff have signed an open letter addressed to Boris Johnson, calling on him to set out a coherent strategy that will effectively tackle the Covid-19 pandemic in England.  They include professors, consultants, GPs, nurses, therapists, administration staff, theatre porters, paediatricians, psychiatrists and mental health nurses, obstetricians and midwives, haematologists, laboratory staff, radiologists, respiratory physicians; healthcare assistants, psychotherapists, administrators, chief executives, occupational therapists, pharmacists, immunological researchers, clinical directors, senior lecturers, social workers, palliative care specialists, speech and language therapists.

The letter states that slogans like “stay alert”, “control the virus” and “whac-a-mole” do not constitute a strategy.  Given the terrible cost of the pandemic, both in terms of lives lost and lasting damage to the economy, we call on you urgently to set out an explicit strategy in relation to Covid-19”.  The letter says there is a clear choice, between mitigation, i.e. accepting ongoing infections and deaths indefinitely until a vaccine or cure is found, or suppression, i.e. aiming to eliminate the virus.  The letter says that the latter course clearly represents the best strategy in terms of both public health and protecting the economy.

The letter goes on, “This means having a much more ambitious target of suppressing the number of new cases to zero as soon as possible, and keeping it there.  This requires continuing public health measures, such as maintaining social distancing, universal use of face masks in enclosed spaces, sensible travel restrictions, and setting up countrywide community based, efficient and rapid ‘find, test, trace, isolate and support’ infrastructure across the country, including at our borders.  If done effectively and comprehensively this would successfully suppress the virus in a matter of weeks, and then keep it there.”

Dr Jackie Applebee, Chair of Doctors in Unite, the group who organised the letter, said “We cannot continue to drift on this rudderless course any longer.  Flare ups like Leicester and in the meat and poultry packing plants show the dangers of this approach and if there are enough of these there will be a second wave, forcing us all back into lockdown.”  Independent SAGE have called for a “Zero Covid” strategy; it is perfectly possible to suppress the virus in England as they have done in Scotland, with the right approach. For that to happen though we need an effective test, trace, isolate and support service, based in the community and run by Directors of Public Health, not the ineffective privatised and separate service we have now.

We ask the government, yet again, what is your strategy?

You can read the original letter here:

https://doctorsinunite.com/2020/06/21/open-letter-to-the-prime-minister-about-the-uks-covid-19-strategy-from-nhs-and-social-care-workers/?fbclid=IwAR0cIjKXS54H4cEFZHnfOW3WWG_SGe72ZS13T9bgjCjeeq-yHzbYi6nigpM

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.

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.