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.

Exam results post-COVID: DiU Statement

Doctors in Unite (formerly the Medical Practitioners Union) are extremely concerned that thousands of young people, disproportionately from disadvantaged back grounds, have been awarded A level grades, in many cases two grades lower, than those predicted by their teachers. 

It is grossly unfair that young people from areas already hardest hit by the ravages of COVID 19 should have the fact that the virus has prevented them from taking their exams add a further barrier to their ability to achieve and to their life chances. 

We are appalled that many of the young people who expected to go on to higher education have been let down by an algorithm which takes little account of individual potential, placing more emphasis on the historic performance of the school, handing further advantage to those from more affluent areas.

In particular, as doctors, we are worried that young people who live in working class areas will fail to get the places in medical school which should have been theirs. Diversity within the medical profession is vitally important so that as doctors we can effectively represent the patients that we serve. The algorithm threatens the level of diversity amongst our colleagues of the future and many of today’s doctors would not be practicing if they had been subjected to such a system..

We call on Gavin Williamson to work with the teacher’s unions, immediately scrap the algorithm and to award young people A level grades based on the predictions of their teachers. To fail to do this will rob thousands of young people of the futures they deserve and quite rightly expect.

Doctors in Unite, 17/08/2020

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

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…

Government ineptitude has undoubtedly led to many unnecessary deaths – they must be held to account

Richard Horton, respected editor of the medical journal ‘the Lancet’, aptly summed up the current pandemic in the following words: “Coronavirus is the greatest global science policy failure in a generation. Austerity blunted the ambition and commitment of government to protect its people. The objective was to diminish the size and role of the state. The result was to leave the country fatally weakened”. China implemented a lockdown in Hubei province on 23rd January in response to a new and severe respiratory infection. One week later the World Health Organisation declared a global emergency in recognition of what had become a worldwide pandemic. It then took nearly two months for the UK government to grasp the seriousness of the problem and to implement social distancing and isolation. This delay has led to many unnecessary deaths.

Despite there being core public health principles of “test, isolate and contact trace” in response to an epidemic, this process has not been implemented in the UK. There was talk of ‘herd immunity’ as an alternative strategy, but scientists then pointed out this could mean hundreds of thousands of deaths before the infection was under control. A panicked government decided to abandon its irrational belief in ‘British exceptionalism’ and on 23rd March instituted a lock down of sorts, with people encouraged to stay at home, and most businesses closed down. News footage still showed London underground packed with people and construction workers as key workers were expected to turn up for work as usual.

Unrecognised dangers included the risk to the elderly living in care homes together with their carers, the risk to bus drivers and other key workers with public-facing roles in the community.  The fact that many workers on zero hours contracts and those outsourced from the NHS and not entitled to sick pay would be forced to continue to go to work even if ill. Sick and elderly patients were discharged to care homes only to spread infection without having been tested for the virus, and outrageously, ‘do not attempt cardio-pulmonary resuscitation’ orders proliferated for pensioners and those with learning difficulties or disabilities often without discussion. The official death toll has gone up to above 20,000 – but these are confirmed deaths in hospital and there may be at least as many again in the community without a definitive diagnosis.

In the meantime, countries like Singapore, South Korea, New Zealand and Germany, which rapidly instituted widespread testing and contact tracing were demonstrating a much lower number of cases and deaths. While the UK government kept promising more testing, numbers grew painfully slowly. Centres specially created to test key staff were set up by the accountancy firm Deloitte, given the contract without it going out to tender under obscure legislation passed in 2015. As usual, reports of problems with lost samples and mis-communication of results followed, just as the privatisation of NHS logistics caused problems with distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE). Despite repeated reassurance from government ministers that stocks of PPE were available, this turned out not to be the case as week after week front line staff complained of being sent to war without the necessary armour. Around 132 NHS and care staff have now died from the disease and will be remembered along with many others on International Workers’ Memorial Day.

Worse still for government credibility were details of the unpublished Cygnus report from a 2016 pandemic planning exercise, and more from the 2019 National Security Risk Assessment, both showing that the government knew full well of the major risk posed by the likelihood of a new pandemic, and the need to stockpile PPE and equipment such as ventilators for intensive care, yet did nothing. As one commentator remarked: “We have been paying for a third-party fire and theft policy for a pandemic, not a comprehensive one. We have been caught out”.

Things which have assisted the pandemic response include the fact that we still have a ‘national’ health service and brilliant staff with a public service ethos. Things that have hindered the response include government reforms over recent years promoting marketisation, fragmentation, privatisation and outsourcing. NHS England has rightly taken over commissioning functions from Clinical Commissioning Groups, and government has wiped away the £14 billion hospital overspend to let Trusts focus attention on doing what was necessary to fight the infection. The small private sector capacity was harnessed to assist the NHS. However, the huge PFI debt millstones remain in place, and private hospitals are only too happy to be subsidised to the tune of £2.3 million/day through block contracts- one of the businesses that will not now go under in the coming recession.

The hostile environment aimed at those migrants with uncertain immigration status not only meant the end to universal health care under the NHS, but now fear of being reported to the home office or financially charged will undermines planned contact tracing. This charging needs to be abolished now, as does the yearly surcharge of £625 for members of NHS staff coming from abroad, and each of their family members.

Government policies left the NHS in a weak starting position, with over 100,000 staff vacancies, cuts in bed numbers of 17,000 since 2010, and near the bottom of the European league table in relation to intensive care beds (half as many as Italy and around one fifth of those in Germany). The government will be constructing a narrative portraying themselves as victims of a natural disaster, doing their best in impossible circumstances and leading us all to victory in the war against Covid-19; in this they will be aided by large sections of the media.

Trade unionists must make sure that ministerial incompetence, arrogance and callous disregard for human life are not forgotten and there is a holding to account. When the pandemic is over, we cannot go back to how things were before. We need to take the public with us in demanding a return to NHS founding principles, a publicly funded, managed and delivered health service with democratic control, linked to a national social care service. Renationalisation of the NHS; proper funding; an end to PFI, the Health and Social Care Act and the Long-Term Plan for the NHS; and an end to outsourcing and privatisation. We are witnessing a tragedy unfold and a government scandal of momentous incompetence. The right lessons must be learned.

Dr John Puntis is co-chair of the campaign group Keep Our NHS Public.

Statement on key worker testing and contact tracing

Since the start of the lockdown we have called for contact tracing and widespread testing as the only means to establish the true prevalence of COVID-19. This is what the World Health Organisation urged all countries to do from the very beginning. 

We welcome Matt Hancock’s announcement of testing for symptomatic key workers and their families, and the promise of contact tracing. 

The fundamental principles of public health are finally being applied to the country’s most critical healthcare crisis. We congratulate the government on reaching this step. We should have been here weeks ago.

The government has acted far too slowly to change the fate of over 18,000 people who have already died. With each prevarication and each false promise an irreversible choice was made. When China, then Italy, then France were locking down, our government should have known what had to be done. But they waited.

In this ultimate test of the social contract, the livelihoods and lives of citizens depend upon the speed with which states act. Better late than never is simply inexcusable. 

The next challenge will be logistical: the rapid recruitment and training of contact tracers, and the robust and reliable collection of data. We wait in hope that the government’s response will be swift and substantial. Anything less would be another great disservice to us all.