Speech by Dr Jackie Applebee, Chair of Doctors in Unite to the BMA Annual Representative Meeting, 15 September 2020

Dr Applebee proposed the motion by TOWER HAMLETS DIVISION of the BMA: That this meeting, in response to COVID 19, demands that government:

i) ensure that workers are not under pressure to attend work either for financial or workforce reasons while they are unwell or self-isolating and at risk of inadvertently passing on the disease;

ii) provide the equivalent of day-one statutory sick pay to those on zero hours contracts;

iii) allow the NHS to requisition private health care facilities to accommodate effective COVID-19 treatment and quarantine provision if needed;

iv) ensure workers are paid in full while they are unwell or self-isolating.

With respect to point iii)

The COVID 19 pandemic has surely blown the myth that private is good and public is bad.

We have heard repeatedly today how the NHS has stepped up to the plate to deal with the crisis, though years of an unprecedented funding squeeze has led to the collateral damage that Chaand (Dr Chaand Nagpaul, Chair of the Council of BMA) referred to earlier of  those whose other health needs could not be met due to the lack of slack in the system.

On the other hand outsourcing to the likes of Deloitte and Serco has led not to the world beating test trace isolate and support system trumpeted by Boris Johnson, but a wholesale fiasco where people are having to drive miles to get a COVID test and where, despite the billions spent, the global multinationals cannot do as well with contact tracing as the very poor relation that are local public health departments.

Private hospitals were handed hundreds of millions back in March to increase capacity to deal with COVID 19 but they were largely unused, gifting a nice windfall to their shareholders at a time when their usual work had all but dried up.

Now they are likely to commissioned to help with the backlog of NHS care. Don’t get me wrong the backlog needs to be cleared, patients need their treatment, but the private sector should not be able to profit from this. They should be brought into the NHS family and their activity now should be offset against the money they were given in March. There must be value for public money spent.

The fact that the NHS had to shut down everything except dealing with COVID in March is a stark illustration of the chronic underfunding and that there has to be spare capacity inbuilt into the system to deal with crises. The extra money thrown at the system should have been thrown at the NHS not the private sector.

With respect to points i), ii) and iv):

If we are going to crush COVID, really get on top of it, we need people to be able to afford to stay at home and isolate if they are in contact with an index case. If there is enough money in the economy to subsidise eating out there is surely enough to guarantee that if someone is in quarantine that they are paid in full.

Many of the lowest paid, for example cleaners, refuse collectors and care workers, many of whom have looked after patients with COVID, often of precarious zero hours contracts, cannot work from home, and to make ends meet many of them have two jobs. They need to be reassured that they wont’ lose out financially if they stay off work otherwise they will have no choice but to go in and the virus will continue to spread.

Covid is with us but Government could do so much more to minimise it’s devastating impact.

The pandemic has surely underlined the huge value of publicly funded, publicly provided health service which is free at the point of delivery and the demonstrated the dedication of the staff who work within the NHS and Social Care.

As has been said today already, we have an opportunity to reshape the future, it’s up to us whether we grasp the nettle.

Please support this motion in all it’s parts.

The Motion was passed with overwhelming support from delegates

‘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.

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.