One Stop Shops – trick or treat?

The media recently highlighted the fact that NHS England has announced:

The NHS is set to radically overhaul the way MRI, CT and other diagnostic services are delivered for patients . . . . Community diagnostic hubs or ‘one stop shops’ should be created across the country, away from hospitals, so that patients can receive life-saving checks close to their homes. The centres could be set up in free space on the high street or retail parks.”

“The need for reform of NHS diagnostics was recognised in the Long Term Plan” – so begins the recent report by Professor Sir Mike Richards, ‘Diagnostics. Recovery and Renewal’.

The key recommendations are:

  • Acute and elective diagnostics should be separated wherever possible to increase efficiency.
  • Acute diagnostic services (for A&E and inpatient care) should be improved so that patients who require CT scanning or ultrasound from A&E can be imaged without delay. Inpatients needing CT or MRI should be able to be scanned on the day of request.
  • Community diagnostic hubs should be established away from acute hospital sites and kept as clear of Covid-19 as possible.
  • Diagnostic services should be organised so that as far as possible patients only have to attend once and, where appropriate, they should be tested for Covid-19 before diagnostic tests are undertaken.
  • Community phlebotomy services should be improved, so that all patients can have blood samples taken close to their homes, at least six days a week, without needing to come to acute hospitals.

Motherhood and apple pie

On the surface of it, these are laudable aims that have been welcomed by hospital bosses. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on management of non-covid conditions with, for example, a 75% reduction in cancer referrals and a reduction in 210,000 imaging procedures each week. Before the pandemic there were 30,000 patients who had waited longer than 6 weeks for a diagnostic test, a figure that has now increased to 580,000. Urgent consideration must be given both to how the NHS is put back on its feet and how it addresses the huge backlog of problems as well as the ongoing pandemic. There is logic in separating acute and non-acute service provision into covid and covid free areas, and who could object to patients having convenient and rapid access to the best available technology? This does of course depend on many factors, not least having an efficient coronavirus testing system at some point in the future, but raises other crucial issues.

Where will the staff be found?

The plan as set out requires the recruitment of around 11,000 staff including 2000 radiologists, 500 Advanced Practitioner radiographers, 3,500 radiographers, 2,500 assistant practitioners, 2,670 administrative staff and 220 physicists. Bear in mind the current staffing crisis on the NHS, with around 140,000 vacancies across the board exacerbated by low pay and workplace stress. Cancer Research estimated that staff would need to double by 2027 to meet demand, with one in ten posts in diagnostics unfilled at the start of the pandemic. Furthermore, massive investment in equipment will be needed. The report points out that in relation to the 20 other countries making up the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the UK ranks bottom for CT and 3rd from last for MRI scanners. The Clinical Imaging Board claims that nearly 30 per cent of the UK’s MRI stock is at least ten years old, with no replacement plans for almost 40 per cent of systems more than seven years old.

All that’s left to find – money and staff

The last settlement for the NHS was £20.5 bn, which over a five year period amounted to an annual increase in budget of 3.4%. This did not include funding for training and employing the staff of the future. Most commentators thought a minimum 4% increase in funding was needed, and the Office for Budget Responsibility put the figure at 4.3% in order to meet increasing demand. COVID-19 has now blown all these estimates out of the water with the additional costs of restarting and sustaining the service, dealing with COVID-19 long term and developing and implementing a workforce transformation.

Private sector – the spectre lurking in the wings

In Simon Stevens’s letter to health care providers in July this year, he mandated:

Ensuring that sufficient diagnostic capacity is in place in Covid19-secure environments, including through the use of independent sector facilities, and the development of Community Diagnostic Hubs and Rapid Diagnostic Centres”.

As pointed out in The Lowdown in a comment on diagnostic hubs:

“References . . . to high street and retail park sites are possibly of no real concern – perhaps they’re more about exploiting cheap-to-rent locations during the pandemic-driven economic recession than a push to link-up with high-profile brand sponsors – but the well-established presence of private sector interests operating in the diagnostic and pathology arena suggests there may be rich pickings on offer somewhere in the hub programme, if only until the backlog is cleared”.

In fact the privatisation of diagnostic and laboratory facilities is already well underway. There is no comfort here in Professor Richard’s report which even cites as a case study:

The East Midlands Radiology Consortium (EMRAD) was launched in 2013 to create a common digital radiology system. Pioneering work led to the development of a Cloud-based image-sharing system through which the seven NHS trusts involved in the partnership could share diagnostic images, such as X-rays and scans. In 2018, EMRAD formed a partnership with two UK-based AI companies, Faculty and Kheiron Medical, to help develop and test AI tools in the breast cancer screening programme in the East Midlands.”

There is no mention of the fact that EMRAD paid £30m for the picture archiving and communication system from GE Healthcare but refused to pay full service costs until GE sorted out chronic problems causing a dangerous backlog of CT and MRI images.

Like many of the aspirational service developments contained within the Long Term Plan, ‘one stop shops’ could offer real value to patients. As the report by Professor Richards recognises:

These new services will require major investment in facilities, equipment and workforce, alongside replacement of obsolete equipment. Training of additional highly skilled staff will take time but should start as soon as possible. International recruitment should be prioritized.”  

This is no small ask and needs to be part of a generous new funding settlement for the NHS by government.  This should be an investment in the NHS as a public service rather than a source of rich pickings for private companies.

This article was written by John Puntis for Keep Our NHS Public

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

There is no exit from the COVID-19 lockdown without population testing

It is not possible to undertake any meaningful planning for an exit strategy from the current lockdown without an understanding of COVID-19’s prevalence and our current levels of immunity.

On April 2nd Health Secretary Matt Hancock promised to test 100,000 people daily by the end of the month. On that same day the UK was testing ten times less, just 10,000 people per day. The government continues to state its desire to test. In reality are far from this target.

True prevalence is proving hard to predict. Where one study suggests 75% of people infected may be asymptomatic, another reports a very low rate of current infection – less than 1% of the tested population.

The only way out of this is to gather data and learn the truth.

Epidemiological studies of appropriately sized, randomised cohorts would determine the size of the vulnerable population. This testing would need to be repeated every few weeks in order to chart the progress of the disease.

We cannot just test those who attend hospital with symptoms. Only by widespread testing of the asymptomatic public will we learn the true spread of this virus.