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Defend the NHS Privatisation

Revealed: Boris Johnson’s controversial policy chief leading secretive NHS task force

Munira Mirza heading up group meeting ‘daily or weekly’ to plan ‘radical NHS shakeup’. Open Democracy 19.11.20

Boris Johnson’s government has for the first time confirmed the existence of a prime ministerial task force which is reportedly planning a “radical shake-up of the NHS”.

Freedom of Information disclosures to openDemocracy show the new “No.10 Health and Social Care Taskforce” reports to a Steering Group chaired by Munira Mirza, the influential head of Boris Johnson’s policy unit, and that it “met weekly” from July to September with a further meeting in October.

Mirza, a political appointee who previously worked for Johnson when he was London mayor, has no background or policy experience in health.

The disclosures also reveal that whilst some Department of Health officials do attend the task force, it is led by four senior civil servants based at the Treasury, and none of whom are from the Department of Health.

The government has not published any information about the task force’s existence, work, terms of reference or membership – and has refused to answer questions about the nature of its work.

However in July, The Guardian reported that Boris Johnson was planning a “radical and politically risky reorganisation of the NHS” – in response to “frustration” with the NHS’s performance during the COVID crisis.

And in September, the Financial Times reported that inside sources had revealed an interdepartmental health task force with a wide remit, “determining what the health service’s goals should be”.

The government has previously claimed that rumours regarding the work of the task force are “pure speculation,” and did not even formally confirm its existence, insisting that instead: “As has been the case throughout the pandemic, our focus is on protecting the public, controlling the spread of the virus, and saving lives.”

Not only is the group now confirmed to exist, but Mirza’s leading role and the lack of leaders from the Department of Health suggest that its work is politically focused.

Jackie Applebee, Chair of Doctors in Unite, told openDemocracy, “It is shocking that people with no background in health are meeting regularly to determine the future of health and social care. COVID-19 has surely shown us that putting people with no health experience in charge of the NHS is a disaster.”

Meanwhile Tamasin Cave, a lobbying expert, has called Mirza “a political hire who is unqualified to mess around with the NHS”. She also questioned the timing: “Why are they doing this now, given how much the NHS – and the country – has on its plate already?”

The revelations come as concerns are mounting about post-COVID pressures on the NHS.

Kailash Chand, former deputy chair of the British Medical Association, told openDemocracy. “The waiting lists have built up to an awful level, and they’ll use that as an excuse to bring the private sector in, as they did under the previous Labour government.”

He described Boris Johnson as “dangerous” and having “no faith in public services.”

Secrecy ‘the worst possible way’ to do NHS reform

In their Freedom of Information responses, the Department of Health, the Treasury and Number 10 have all denied having a full record of who has been attending the task force and steering group meetings.

Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has criticised the government’s secretive approach as “the worst possible way to design a major reform.”

“Secrecy encourages groupthink. The government rightly stresses the importance of public and patient involvement and co-production with users when designing new models of care. It is bizarre to reject these ideas for the really big decisions.”

What today’s disclosures do show is that the task force’s civil service policy lead is Adrian Masters. An alumnus of the management consultancy McKinsey, Masters played a key role in shaping the last major piece of NHS legislation, the 2012 Health and Social Care Act.

McKinsey was reported to have drafted large parts of that bill, which was criticised as enabling increased fragmentation and private sector outsourcing of large parts of the NHS.

The task force also includes William Warr: Johnson’s health advisor and a former lobbyist at the firm of Lynton Crosby, who masterminded numerous Conservative Party election campaigns and Johnson’s successful 2008 London mayoral bid.

Warr described the NHS as “outdated” in a Telegraph article penned shortly before he and Johnson entered Downing Street last year, suggesting that the incoming prime minister should ask himself: “If I created the NHS today from scratch, what would it look like?” Warr answered: “Nothing like the monolith we have today.”

Boris Johnson’s first Queen’s Speech in December last year promised to “bring forward detailed proposals” and “draft legislation” to “accelerate the Long Term Plan for the NHS, transforming patient care and future-proofing our NHS.”

The British Medical Association (BMA) has characterised this Long Term Plan as a “plan for a market-driven healthcare system”.

Kailash Chand, the former BMA deputy chair, told openDemocracy he believed the purpose of the task force was part of a wider effort to drive forward more NHS privatisation: “These people are really clever at bringing these things in disguise. This is essentially about getting us towards… big pickings for private companies. It’s not going to happen overnight but this is the road map.”

Referring to McKinsey’s regular NHS recommendations that were implemented under the Cameron government, he said: “McKinsey were brought in previously to recommend financial savings. The easiest way for hospitals to achieve those targets was to cut beds, cut nurses and the salary bill. And we’re still suffering today.”

Political appointments

Boris Johnson has faced criticism for appointing political allies with no health experience to key roles in the COVID-19 response. Test and Trace head Dido Harding, another former McKinsey employee and Tory peer, is in the process of taking over a large portion of the soon-to-be-abolished Public Health England’s remit, the government announced in August. She has also been tipped as favourite to take over as chief executive of the English NHS from the current incumbent, Simon Stevens, next year.

Stevens’ own proposals for major NHS reform last year attempted to allay fears about further privatisation, though campaigners raised concerns that they could make outsourcing less transparent.

Both the Department of Health and the NHS now appear to be taking a back seat in policymaking. Stevens is not on the task force, and none of the four top senior servants in charge comes from the department.

Open Democracy approached Munira Mirza, Adrian Masters, Number 10 and the Treasury for comment, but all have declined to respond by the time of publication.

This is a reprint of an aricle in Open Democracy by Caroline Molloy 19.11.2020: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/revealed-boris-johnsons-controversial-policy-chief-leading-secretive-nhs-task-force/

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Defend the NHS Government Policy H&S at work Hospitals and IPC Privatisation Staying safe Transmission Workplace COVID

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

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COVID-19 Defend the NHS Government Guidelines Privatisation Uncategorized Zero COVID and Government Strategy

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.

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Action & Campaigns COVID-19 Government Guidelines Letters

Open letter to the Prime Minister about the UK’s Covid-19 strategy from NHS and Social Care workers

Open letter for anyone working in Health and Social care to sign and distribute.

Sign here:

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfdk4q_YaJnNrMAGtaz9W32WCYLyWnE1rvLPFR3Y376tydRZg/viewform

Dear Prime Minister,

We are writing to ask you urgently clarify our Covid-19 strategy. Herd immunity was abandoned early on as it became clear hundreds of thousands would die. We entered lockdown in order to “flatten the curve” under the slogan: “Stay at home – Protect the NHS – Save lives”. Despite high levels of ongoing viral transmission, lockdown is now being eased with the injunction: “Stay alert – control the virus – save lives”. Slogans, however, 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. We need an overall strategy for the UK, that is agreed with all the Devolved Nations. It must be flexible to allow for regional differences and decision making with a clear framework for how such decisions will be made.

Colleagues in Ireland, north and south, have set out a very clear vision of what must be done. We face the same choice: either live with the virus under a long-term mitigation / containment strategy waiting (possibly forever) for a vaccine or effective antiviral treatment, or suppress and eliminate new infections. They designate the latter approach “Crush the Curve”. Mitigation means accepting an ongoing toll of illness and lives lost, and living under the constant threat of local surges and possible national waves of infection and deaths. It also means public transport running at minimal capacity, insurmountable challenges for schools, businesses and services to run properly, indefinite restrictions on gatherings and socialising, and an NHS which will collapse under the combined weight of Covid-19 cases and the huge backlog of untreated patients with cancer and chronic conditions.

It appears to us that the Westminster government has chosen the path of mitigation, characterised by the analogy to the arcade game ‘Whac-a-mole’ where infection is expected to keep ‘popping up’ and those in charge do their best to guess where to put limited resources. Once more this is a slogan and not a strategy.

Many countries have successfully chosen to suppress the virus and eliminate infections, including South Korea, New Zealand, Australia, Austria, Greece, China and Iceland. Their people are once again using public transport, returning to school, going out to eat and to shop, with healthcare systems caring for all patients, not only those with Covid-19, and economies already recovering. They demonstrate very clearly that eliminating the infection represents the best strategy in terms of both public health and protecting the economy.

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.

We should be prepared to learn from other countries so that our people can also enjoy the considerably greater freedoms and prosperity this will bring. Travel, tourism, and trade with such states would be straightforward and beneficial. Our children will be back at school, vulnerable citizens and precious key workers protected.
The sacrifices made so far have reduced the number of new cases and deaths significantly, but a nadir has been reached with current measures, and we may now even be seeing a rise in infections. The national R value is perilously close to one and it is a question of when, not if, flare ups will occur, or even worse a second wave engulf us once again.

We think it is time for the government to develop and communicate a clear strategy and declare which path all of the UK will follow at this critical juncture.

Yours sincerely…

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commissioning Defend the NHS Government Policy Local Authority Privatisation

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

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COVID-19 Government Policy Hospitals and IPC Local Authority Social Care

The government can’t hide behind grateful applause: they must now fund the NHS properly

The solidarity expressed through weekly applause for the NHS, carers and key workers has been truly inspiring, and a great source of support for all staff. 

But we need those in power to do more than just clap for us. The NHS and local authorities have been starved of resources for the last ten years. The current crisis has been worsened by a decade of government hostility towards a publicly funded health service. Low staffing levels are a direct result of budget cuts and limits on pay.

We cannot go back to an NHS that lurches from winter crisis to winter crisis. The government should admit that their past approach to health and social care was wrong. There should be a review of pay for NHS and social care workers, which at minimum adds back money denied, compared to inflation, as a result of pay rises that have been capped for years at 1%. Below inflation pay rises are a cut in spending power. The public sector has been ‘awarded’ 1% for ten consecutive years; their wages have shrunk below pay growth in the private sector.

An apology and pay correction would be a starting gesture for people who are now accepted to be courageous, brave and essential to all of us. It turns the admiration shown on our streets every week into a tangible benefit, which would boost the morale of the people now working in dangerous and difficult circumstances.

We, the undersigned, acknowledge the supreme importance of NHS and social care staff. We recognise that they are indispensable.

We call on the government to:

Publicly and formally apologise to NHS and social care staff for past policies that led to a 1% limit on pay rises and cuts to the services in which they work.

Begin a review of wages and salaries for these workers that, at minimum, restores pay lost compared to inflation from 2010 to 2020, and sets above-inflation pay rises for 2021 and thereafter.

Fully fund the NHS and social care.

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COVID-19 Defend the NHS KONP and other campaigns

The only future for the NHS after COVID-19 is a return to its founding principles

The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates the vital importance of a comprehensive, publicly funded and universal health service. The choices we make during this crisis will shape the future of the NHS and our wider society.

We are already limited by poor decisions made before the virus struck. The Conservative’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, where people with a precarious immigration status risk deportation or destitution if they seek NHS services, means there may now be considerable apprehension to access necessary care. Though coronavirus treatment is exempt from charging for those without documentation, this message is likely to be lost.

When more beds were needed, rather than requisition private hospitals the government struck a deal where beds are rented for £300 each, per day. This amounts to a public sector bail out of private hospitals that the NHS should never have to pay. These beds could be utilised in the public interest; instead they are rented at public expense.

The government then wrote off £13.4bn of NHS debt. It is disingenuous to call this debt. It represents money that has been rightly spent on patient care, and the government’s actions acknowledge this with a trick of accounting. It is also only a fraction of the shortfall in NHS funding over the last ten years of austerity.

A sincere approach to the NHS’ debt would be to cancel Private Finance Initiative payments. £2bn was paid in 2016/17 in PFI debts, and repayments will continue every year until 2050. This lost wealth represents around 2% of the annual NHS budget. It could be reinvested to improve the nation’s health but instead vanishes into private hands. The same is true for private buildings used for NHS services. There is an opportunity to return these to the ownership of the public they serve.

Fragmentation, cuts and creeping privatisation have all contributed to the difficulties in our response the pandemic. More than 17,000 beds have been cut from the 144,455 that existed in 2010. The UK has a lower number of critical care beds per person than Italy, France, Spain, Germany, the USA, Japan, or South Korea. Years of underfunding led us to this moment. The PPE distribution fiasco shows the inability of the private sector to provide the service needed. Cutting warehouse capacity in order to prioritise profit means private distribution companies cannot now supply health and social care workers with the person protective equipment they need.

The hundreds of billions of pounds made instantaneously available in response to coronavirus shows the transformative power of the state to provide a crucial safety net for all of us. We can afford a far fairer society than the one we became accustomed to. Rapid changes to manufacturing capacity to produce ventilators, dialysis machines, PPE and other socially useful products demonstrates that an economy based on public ownership, planning and democratic control could meet the needs of people across the world, unlike the chaotic response of the free market.When this crisis eventually subsides, the public must not be made to pay. We must not return to more austerity.

We also cannot emerge from this pandemic and continue to ignore the harm caused by environmental destruction. The delayed, incomplete initial response to coronavirus echoes our apprehension to face the challenge presented by climate change. We should confront the runaway economic expansion that created the conditions for previous, current, and perhaps future outbreaks. We have an opportunity to live within our planetary means.

We could recreate our health and social care systems based on need not profit. We could choose to reduce inequality permanently. The reset button on society has been pushed – what happens next is up to all of us.

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COVID-19

‘Laid-off cabin crew with resuscitation skills’ – what is the answer to the NHS staffing crisis?

Faced with an NHS and social care system ill prepared for the coronavirus pandemic, a call went out for 250,000 volunteer community support workers to help up to 1.5 million people who have been asked to shield themselves from infection because of underlying health conditions.

The response has been staggering, with more than 400,000 coming forward. The recruitment target has now been raised to 750,000. They will deliver medicines from pharmacies, drive patients to appointments and bring them home from hospital, and make regular phone calls to check on people isolating at home.

Quite how vetting, safeguarding, training and safety issues will be addressed is unclear, but that this is tapping into a strong desire on the part of many people to be helpful to their fellow humans cannot be doubted. There have also been large numbers of retired NHS workers offering to return to work and help their struggling colleagues. 

The Tories have been obsessed with getting unpaid labour to support the failing health and care systems, now wrecked by years of their austerity and underinvestment. In the process, they have also given volunteering a bad name. After Cameron’s ‘big society’ initiative sank without trace, 2018 saw the launch of a charity called helpforce. This planned to massively boost the numbers of NHS volunteers from 74,000 to “millions” and was the (as yet unrealised) ambition of merchant banker Sir Thomas Hughes-Hallet, better known to his friends as ‘Huge-Wallet’. The aim appeared to be for volunteers to do the work that hard-pressed doctors and nurses (through staff vacancies) did not have the time for. With 40,000 empty nurse posts, and bursaries that had been axed, NHS England managed to find £2.3m for helpforce in the Long Term Plan.

Currently, the NHS Nightingale nursing workforce is to be supplemented by recently laid-off air cabin crew with resuscitation skills, and first aiders from St John’s Ambulance. This unit has more than 80 wards each with 42 beds; around 16,000 members of staff could be needed should it reach full capacity. 

An unresolved question is just where the trained NHS medical and nursing staff will come from to add to the small numbers of military personnel and staff promised from the private sector. Chief nurses around the country have been asked to state their numbers of spare critical care staff – the replies are not difficult to imagine. One suggestion has been to send staff from distant parts of the country relatively behind London in the course of the pandemic and give them crucial experience before sending them back to their own hospitals. One of the objections to this is that the average length of stay for a critically ill patient is two weeks, and the surge in patient numbers likely to be maintained much longer than this. Staff sent to London would probably be kept there, greatly reducing NHS capacity in the regions just as the caseload rocketed. However, if we had a properly coordinated national response to the crisis, the possibility of NHS workers moving temporarily to hot spots might be a valuable strategy.

Of course many people still have a sense of social solidarity and want to find ways to help others. Such altruism should be both lauded and facilitated. It stands in stark contrast to the neoliberal ideology of Conservative governments – it appears there is such a thing as society after all. 

In response to the pandemic support for medical and care staff, as well as vulnerable neighbours, has been provided by members of the public all over the world, independently of the state.  This is indeed evidence of the thrilling and transformative force of mutual aid. In this context there is plenty of room for volunteers, and an energy that needs to be harnessed in the fight for universal health care in the post-covid era.

However, volunteers recruited by the government or their agencies should never be used as a substitute for trained staff. They should only ever be in supporting roles. Look to supermarkets: now in urgent need of extra hands, they have created new jobs and hired people to work. In the first instance community support staff could be recruited from those workers who have lost their jobs and livelihoods. They could be given a contract, a wage and some training. While I would prefer an experienced ICU nurse to look after me if I become ill in hospital with COVID-19, since they will be at a premium and caring for six patients rather than the usual one, I will not object to them being assisted by redeployed cabin crew with some medical skills and experience of keeping cool in emergencies. There may well also need to be willing volunteers in non-clinical support roles to keep the show on the road. 

Volunteers are not the solution to the crisis in staffing that existed pre-pandemic, and is now exacerbated by illness. But together with additional paid redeployed staff recruited with some level of skills, given basic training and afforded the usual protections of employees, they will be part of the solution until the crisis is over. Some of them may then even join the fight for restoration of a truly public, universal NHS.

Dr John Puntis is a consultant paediatric gastroenterologist, the co-chair of Keep Our NHS Public, and a member of Doctors In Unite.

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COVID-19

Living together, staying apart: self-isolating in a shared house

Like many people in the UK, I live in a house of multiple occupation (HMO). We make an improvised family of five. Three of us work in the NHS: one junior doctor on a geriatric ward, one junior doctor on a psychiatric dementia ward (me) and one working in administration. The other two are finishing off their studies as mature students.

Last week, we went into self-isolation as my housemate in admin had developed a fever and cough the week before. It was a strange time, none of us became ill as a result but we had to make big adjustments quickly at a time when the country was still getting its head around the emerging pandemic.

Now that we are going back to work, I am actually more anxious about how this will affect the health of our patients and of each other. While my other doctor housemate will likely be working with patients who have COVID-19, my patients in psychiatry are highly vulnerable if they contract the virus. If one of them does, it will be hard to contain the spread, as we cannot force patients to stay in their rooms if they wish to wander. The last thing I want now is to pick up the virus at home and bring it to my patients.

There are around 500,000 HMOs in England and Wales. People who live here tend to be young single adults choosing HMO living because it is a more economically viable and social option.

HMOs present a challenge in controlling the spread of disease. Apart from the fact that people are living closer together and sharing communal spaces, there is also housemate etiquette that can make it challenging to use the space in a harmonious way. Social distancing is understandable when going to the shops, park or to visit friends, but to change behaviour within the home is a change in behaviour that asks much more of us. When you share a bed and eating spaces with other people, where do you draw the line in this time of social distancing?

To answer this, I have tried to compile some simple tips for minimising the spread of disease in the home:

Wash your hands as soon as you come in. The alternative to this is rigorous washing of front/back door handles and keys. I think it is more achievable to make sure that hands are washed after this, especially if you have just been shopping.

If you have been working in a clinical environment, try to change your clothes at work or as soon as you get home. I am also going to leave a change of clothes at work to make this easier. If you will be working in areas with covid-19 then ask for scrubs to help protect yourself and others.

Have your own mug/glass/bowl/cutlery and wash them well after use. This minimises on washing up and means there won’t be any accidental cross contamination.

Have your own assigned tea towel/towel in the kitchen and bathroom. Slightly more tricky as it can result in there being also of fabric everywhere. Hand washing is all very well, but drying hands on a contaminated cloth will only re-contaminate them. If you don’t have endless supplies of paper towels (which we definitely don’t) then an individual towel will help.

Shared meals mean less people in the kitchen at once and it’s great not to have to cook every night. Practice hand hygiene in preparing meals. Communal living can still be isolating at times and shared meals are the perfect opportunity to check in on everyone.

Daily clean of: cupboard, door and appliance handles, light switches and taps. Any surface that is going to be used by multiple people could be a source of spread. The number of times a day to clean is not evidence-based, just realistic!

Physical distancing not social distancing: enjoy each other’s company from a safe distance and combat loneliness! Ultimately, if unwell people in your house are well looked after, this will allow them to stay isolated and make them feel cared for.

Rachel Hallam is a junior doctor and member of Doctors in Unite

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COVID-19 Defend the NHS DiU and Unite DiU Policy Statements Unite Leader statements

COVID-19: Response from Doctors in Unite

The threat posed by COVID-19 demands a united national response across the UK. As well as protecting individual and public health, the burden of maintaining public resilience must be shared equally, on a pooled basis across society.

In response to COVID-19, Doctors in Unite urges the government to:

  • Extend day-one sick pay to those on zero hours contracts, in the ‘gig-economy’ and to the self-employed.
  • Ensure that workers are not under pressure to attend work while they are unwell and may inadvertently pass on the disease, both financially and in regards to staffing.
  • Allow the NHS to requisite private health care facilities to accommodate effective COVID-19 treatment and quarantine provision if needed.

Trades Union Congress General Secretary Frances O’Grady has said:

“Employers have a duty of care to support workers affected by coronavirus. No one should have to worry about making ends meet if they have to self-isolate or if they fall ill. They should be able to focus on getting better.”

The government issued a statement on 4th March, explaining that statutory sick pay (SSP) would be available from day one, and that “there is a range of support in place for those who do not receive Statutory Sick Pay, including Universal Credit and contributory Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).”

This solution is not sufficient for the three million people in the UK on self-employment contracts plus the two million workers who do not earn enough (£94.25 per week) to claim SSP. In order to claim, these workers would need to enrol for Universal Credit which can take up to five weeks for payment. The alternative is ESA which requires claimants to have built up two to three years of National Insurance contributions.

Doctors in Unite endorses the position adopted by the Socialist Health Association which strongly supports the TUC, and urges that this scheme is extended to those workers who currently do not qualify for SSP.

Employers should make up SSP to the average pay of workers to ensure they are under absolutely no financial pressure to attend work while they are unwell and may inadvertently pass on the disease. This must apply not only when patients are ill but also when people are laid off work for public health reasons, even if they themselves are not actually unwell. 

This is an area where the government must step in, as many sectors (e.g. retail, hospitality, or care providers) which interact most with the public may not have the financial resilience to weather the storm created by COVID-19.

Should the coronavirus outbreak spread significantly everyone will be expected to respond by putting the interests of the community first. Undoubtedly workers will volunteer long hours and take on exceptional responsibilities. This will increase the risk of errors, which will need to be balanced against the risk of failure to treat patients in a mass outbreak. We urge professional bodies to be aware of this.

Our NHS must be in a position to requisition private health care facilities where it will increase local health capacity or facilitate quarantine provision.

As the trade union for medical doctors, Doctors in Unite congratulates our colleague trade unions and Labour leaders for engaging with the government and employers, to ensure that these steps are taken as a matter of urgency in the national interest.