The Socialist Health Association (SHA) published its first Blog on the COVID-19 pandemic last week (Blog 1 – 17th March 2020). A lot has happened over the past week and we will address some of these developments using the lens of socialism and health.
- Global crisis
This is a pandemic, which first showed its potential in Wuhan in China in early December 2019. The Chinese government were reluctant to disclose the SARS- like virus to the WHO and wider world to start with and we heard about the courageous whistle blower Dr Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan, who was denounced and subsequently died from the virus. The Chinese government recognised the risk of a new SARS like virus and called in the WHO and announced the situation to the wider world on the 31st December 2019.
The starter pistols went off in China and their neighbouring countries and the risk of a global pandemic was communicated worldwide. The WHO embedded expert staff in China to train staff, guide the control measures and validate findings. Dr Li Wenliang who had contracted the virus, sadly died in early February and has now been exonerated by the State. Thanks to the Chinese authorities and their clinical and public health staff we have been able to learn about their control measures and the clinical findings and outcomes in scientific publications. This is a major achievement for science and evidence for public health control measures but….
Countries in the Far East had been sensitised by the original SARS-CoV outbreak, which originated in China in November 2002. The Chinese government at that time had been defensive and had not involved the WHO early enough or with sufficient openness. The virus spread to Hong Kong and then to many countries showing the ease of transmission particularly via air travel. The SARS pandemic was thankfully relatively limited leading to global spread but ‘only’ 8,000 confirmed cases and 774 deaths. This new Coronavirus COVID-19 has been met by robust public health control measures in South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore. They have all shown that with early and extensive controls on travel, testing, isolating and quarantining that you can limit the spread and the subsequent toll on health services and fatalities. You will notice the widespread use of checkpoints where people are asked about contact with cases, any symptoms eg dry cough and then testing their temperature at arms length. All this is undertaken by non healthcare staff. Likely cases are referred on to diagnostic pods. In the West we do not seem to have put much focus on this at a population level – identifying possible cases, testing them and isolating positives.
To look at the global data the WHO and the John Hopkins University websites are good. For a coherent analysis globally the Tomas Peoyu’s review ‘Coronavirus: The Hammer and the dance’ is a good independent source as is the game changing Imperial College groups review paper for the UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). This was published in full by the Observer newspaper on the 23rd March. That China, with a population of 1.4bn people, have controlled the epidemic with 81,000 cases and 3,260 deaths is an extraordinary achievement. Deaths from COVID-19 in Italy now exceed this total.
The take away message is that we should have acted sooner following the New Year’s Eve news from Wuhan and learned and acted on the lessons of the successful public health control measures undertaken in China and the Far East countries, who are not all authoritarian Communist countries! Public Health is global and instead of Trump referring to the ‘Chinese’ virus he and our government should have acted earlier and more systematically than we have seen.
Europe is the new epicentre of the spread and Italy, Spain and France particularly badly affected at this point in time. The health services in Italy have been better staffed than the NHS in terms of doctors/1000 population (Italy 4 v UK 2.8) as well as ITU hospital beds/100,000 (Italy 12.5 v UK 6.6). As we said in Blog 1 governments cannot conjure up medical specialists and nurses at whim so we will suffer from historically low medical staffing. The limited investment in ITU capacity, despite the 2009 H1N1 pandemic which showed the weakness in our system, is going to harm us. It was great to see NHS Wales stopping elective surgical admissions early on and getting on with training staff and creating new high dependency beds in their hospitals. In England elective surgery is due to cease in mid April! We need to ramp up our surge capacity as we have maybe 2 weeks at best before the big wave hits us. The UK government must lift their heads from the computer model and take note of best practice from other countries and implement lockdown and ramp up HDU/ITU capacity.
In Blog 1 we mentioned that global health inequalities will continue to manifest themselves as the pandemic plays out and spare a thought for the Syrian refugee camps, people in Gaza, war torn Yemen and Sub Saharan Africa as the virus spreads down the African continent. Use gloves, wash your hands and self isolate in a shanty town? So let us not forget the Low Middle Income Countries (LMICs) with their weak health systems, low economic level, weak infrastructure and poor governance. International banking organisations, UNHCR, UNICEF, WHO and national government aid organisations such as DFID need to be resourced and activated to reach out to these countries and their people.
- The public health system
We are lucky to have an established public health system in the UK and it is responding well to this crisis. However we can detect the impact of the last 10 years of Tory Party austerity which has underfunded the public health specialist services such as Public Health England (PHE) and the equivalents in the devolved nations, public health in local government and public health embedded in laboratories and the NHS. PHE has been a world leader in developing the PCR test on nasal and throat samples as well as developing/testing the novel antibody blood test to demonstrate an immune response to the virus. The jury is out as to what has led to the lack of capacity for testing for C-19 as the UK, while undertaking a moderate number of tests, has not been able to sustain community based testing to help guide decisions about quarantining key workers and get intelligence about the level of community spread. Compare our rates of testing with South Korea!
We are lucky to have an infectious disease public health trained CMO leading the UK wide response who has had experience working in Africa. Decisions made at COBRA and announced by the Prime Minister are not simply based ‘on the science’ and no doubt there have been arguments on both sides. The CSO reports that SAGE has been subject to heated debate as you would expect but the message about herd immunity and stating to the Select Committee that 20,000 excess deaths was at this stage thought to be a good result was misjudged. The hand of Dominic Cummings is also emerging as an influencer on how Downing Street responds. Remember at present China with its 1.4bn population has reported 3,260 deaths. They used classic public health methods of identifying cases and isolating them and stopping community transmission as much as possible. Herd immunity and precision timing of control measures has not been used.
The public must remain focused on basic hygiene measures – self isolating, washing of hands, social distancing and not be misled about how fast a vaccine can be developed, clinically tested and manufactured at scale. Similarly hopes/expectations should not be placed on novel treatments although research and trials do need supporting. The CSO, who comes from a background in Big Pharma research, must be seen to reflect the advice of SAGE in an objective way and resist the many difficult political and business pressures that surround the process. His experience with GSK should mean that he knows about the timescales for bringing a novel vaccine or new drugs safely to market.
- Local government and social care
Local government (LAs) has been subject to year on year cuts and cost constraints since 2010, which have undermined their capability for the role now expected of them. The budget did not address this fundamental issue and we fully expect that in the crisis, central government will pass on the majority of local actions agreed at COBRA to them. During the national and international crisis LAs must be provided with the financial resources they need to build community hubs to support care in the community during this difficult time. The government need to support social care.
COVID-19 is particularly dangerous to our older population and those with underlying health conditions. This means that the government needs to work energetically with the social care sector to ensure that the public health control measures are applied effectively but sensitively to this vulnerable population. The health protection measures which have been announced is an understandable attempt to protect vulnerable people but it will require community mobilisation to support these folk.
Contingency plans need to be in place to support care and nursing homes when cases are identified and to ensure that they can call on medical and specialist nursing advice to manage cases who are judged not to require hospitalisation. They will also need to be prepared to take back people able to be discharged from acute hospital care to maintain capacity in the acute sector.
Apart from older people in need there are also many people with long term conditions needing home based support services, which will become stressed during this crisis. There will be nursing and care staff sickness and already fragile support systems are at risk. As the retail sector starts to shut down and there is competition for scarce resources we need to be building in supply pathways for community based people with health and social care needs. Primary health care will need to find smart ways of providing medical and nursing support.
- The NHS
In January and February when the gravity of the COVID pandemic was manifesting itself many of us were struck by the confident assertion that the NHS was well prepared. We know that the emergency plans will have been dusted down and the stockpile warehouses checked out. However, it now seems that there have not been the stress tests that you might have expected such as the supply and distribution of PPE equipment to both hospitals and community settings. The planning for COVID-19 testing also seems to have badly underestimated the need and we have been denied more accurate measures of community spread as well as the confirmation or otherwise of a definite case of COVID-19. This deficiency risks scarce NHS staff being quarantined at home for non COVID-19 symptoms.
The 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic highlighted the need for critical care networks and more capacity in ITU provision with clear plans for surge capacity creating High Dependency Units (HDUs) including ability to use ventilators. The step-up and step-down facilities need bed capacity and adequate staffing. In addition, there is a need for clarity on referral pathways and ambulance transfer capability for those requiring even more specialised care such as Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO). The short window we now have needs to be used to sort some of these systems out and sadly the supply of critical equipment such as ventilators has not been addressed over the past 2 months. The Prime Minister at this point calls on F1 manufacturers to step in – we wasted 2 months.
News of the private sector being drawn into the whole system is obviously good for adding beds, staff and equipment. The contracts need to be scrutinised in a more competent way than the Brexit cross channel ferries due diligence was, to ensure that the State and financially starved NHS is not disadvantaged. We prefer to see these changes as requisitioning private hospitals and contractors into the NHS.
- Maintaining people’s standard of living
We consider that the Chancellor has made some major steps toward ensuring that workers have some guarantees of sufficient income to maintain their health and wellbeing during this crisis. Clearly more work needs to be done to demonstrate that the self-employed and those on zero hours contracts are not more disadvantaged. The spotlight has shown that the levels of universal credit are quite inadequate to meet needs so now is the time to either introduce universal basic income or beef up the social security packages to provide a living wage. We also need to ensure that the homeless and rootless, those on the streets with chronic mental illness or substance misuse are catered for and we welcome the news that Sadiq Khan has requisitioned some hotels to provide hostel space. It has been good to see that the Trade Unions and TUC have been drawn into negotiations rather than ignored.
In political terms we saw in 2008 that the State could nationalise high street banks. Now we see that the State can go much further and take over the commanding heights of the economy! Imagine if these announcements had been made, not by Rishi Sunak, but by John McDonnell! The media would have been in meltdown about the socialist take over!
At this stage of the pandemic we note with regret that the UK government did not act sooner to prepare for what is coming both in terms of public health measures as well as preparing the NHS and Local Government. It seems to the SHA that the government is playing catch up rather than being on the front foot. Many of the decisions have been rather late but we welcome the commitment to support the public health system, listen to independent voices in the scientific world through SAGE and to invest in the NHS. The country as a whole recognises the serious danger we are in and will help orchestrate the support and solidarity in the NHS and wider community. Perhaps a government of national unity should be created as we hear much of the WW2 experience. We need to have trust in the government to ensure that the people themselves benefit from these huge investment decisions.
24th March 2020