In this week’s Blog we will have a look at the lessons learnt so far with the first City lockdown in Leicester and see what this tells us about the UK Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, raise issues again about their competence, outline why the social determinants of heath matter and assess the risks involved in privatisation of the NHS testing centres and public health functions.
Leicester has been directed by central government (Hancock in the House of Commons on the 30th June) to remain in lockdown this weekend when other parts of England were being urged by the Prime Minister to be brave, to bustle in the High Streets to help ramp up an economy which is waiting to be turbo charged. The government announced in Westminster on June 18th that there was a local outbreak causing concern in Leicester. This news broadcast in the media saw the local Mayor of Leicester and their local Director of Public Health (DPH) in a bemused state. They had been left in the dark because the central government and their privatised drive through/hometesting service led by Deloittes/SERCO had not shared the so called Pillar 2 data with them. They did not receive Pillar 2 test data for the next 10 days!
Local Directors of Public Health (DsPH) across England had been required by central government a month earlier to produce Local Outbreak Control Plans by the 30th June. According to the PM they were meant to be in the lead to ‘Whack the Moles’ in his typically colourful and inappropriate language. Whacking moles apparently means manage local outbreaks of COVID-19. Anybody who has actually tried to Whack a Mole on their lawn or at a seaside arcade will know that this is almost impossible and usually the mole hole appears again nearby the following day.
Local DsPH have been receiving from Public Health England (PHE) regular daily data about local NHS hospital laboratory testing from the Pillar 1 sources. In Leicester this was no cause for concern as there had been a decline since the peak in positive cases in April. That explains why the Mayor and DPH were bemused. Each week there are now summary bundles of data incorporating both sources sent by PHE but not in a way that local teams can analyse for information of interest such as workplace/occupation/household information. Belatedly, postcode data is now shared which had been hidden before! One of the first requirements in outbreak management is to collect information about possible and confirmed cases with an infection in time, place and person. This information needs to include demographic information such as age and gender, address, GP practice and other data pertinent to the outbreak such as place of work/occupation and travel history. Lack of workplace data has made identifying meat packing plants in outbreaks such as near Kirklees more difficult and another example where the local DPH and the Local Authority were wrong footed by the Minister.
Public Health England review
On the 29th June PHE published a review ‘COVID-19: exceedances in Leicester’. This excellent review showed that the cumulative number of tests in Leicester from Pillar 1 was 1028 tests whereas the number of Pillar 2 was 2188 which is twice as many! The rate per 10,000 people in the Pillar 1 samples was a relatively low rate of 29 while Pillar 2 showed a rate of 62/10,000. The combined positive rate of 90/10,000 is more than twice the rate in the East Midlands and England as a whole. It was on the basis of this Pillar 2 data that the government became alarmed.
It is just incredible that the government have contracted Deloittes/SERCO to undertake something that they had no prior experience in and to allow a situation to develop when the test results from home testing and drive through centres was not being shared with those charged with controlling local outbreaks.
The political incompetence was manifest to an extraordinary level when Nadine Dorries, Minister for Mental Health, confirmed to a Parliamentary enquiry that “the contract with Deloittes does not require the company to report positive cases to Public Health England and Local Authorities’.
It seems as if the point of counting numbers of tests undertaken each day was to simply verify that home tests had been posted and swabs had been taken in the drive-through sites so that Matt Hancock could boast at the Downing Street briefings that the number of tests was increasing.. But we are trying to control COVID-19 and Save Lives. Sharing test results with those charged with controlling local outbreaks must be a fundamental requirement.
Deprivation and health
In earlier BLOGs we have highlighted that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected those who live in more deprived areasand additionally has impacted even more on BAME people. Studies have shown that relative poverty, poor and cramped housing, multigenerational households and homes with multi-occupants are all at higher risk of getting the infection and being severely ill. Other factors have been occupation – people on zero hours contracts, low pay and in jobs where you are unable to work from home and indeed need to travel to work on public transport. Many of these essential but low paid jobs are public- or client-facing which confers a higher risk of acquiring the infection.
All these factors seem to be in play in Leicester. The wards with the highest number of cases have a high % of BAME residents (70% in some wards). One local cultural group are Gujeratis with English as a second language. Another factor that is emerging is the small-scale garment producing factories. It is estimated that up to 80% of the city’s garment output goes to internet suppliers such as Boohoo.
The garment industry
Two years ago a Financial Times reporter, Sarah O’Connor, investigated Leicester’s clothing industry. She described a bizarre micro-economy where £4-£4.50 an hour was the going rate for sewing machinists and £3 an hour for packers. These tiny sweatshops are crammed into crumbling old buildings and undercut the legally compliant factories using more expensive machines and paying fairer wages. As she points out (Financial Times 5th July) this Victorian sector is embedded into the 21st century economy and the workforce is largely un-unionised. The big buyers are the online ‘fast fashion’ retailers, which have thrived thanks to the speed and adaptability of their UK suppliers. Boohoo sources 40% of its clothing in the UK and has prospered during lockdown by switching to leisurewear for the housebound while rivals have shipments left in containers.
Mahmud Kamani with Kane founded Boohoo in 2006 and it has made him a billionaire. It is said that other competitors such as Missguided and Asos have been put off by concerns about some of Leicester’s factories – including claims over conditions of modern slavery, illegally low wages, VAT fraud and inadequate safety measures. A researcher went into the garment factories earlier this year and is quoted as saying
‘I’ve been inside garment factories in Bangladesh, China and Sri Lanka and I can honestly say that what I saw in the middle of the UK was worse than anything I’ve witnessed overseas’.
Occupational risks, overcrowded housing and poverty have been shown to be risks to contract the virus and become severely ill with it. BAME communities have additional risks over and above these as we have discussed before in relation to the Fenton Disparities report, which was blocked by Ministers who were not keen on the findings of racism in our society and institutions.
Health and Safety
In Leicester the Health and Safety Executive has contacted 17 textile businesses, is actively investigating three and taking legal enforcement action against one. In business terms the UK’s low paid sector are an estimated 30% less productive on average than the same sectors in Europe. As unemployment rises in the months ahead it will be vital to focus on jobs as the Labour leadership have stated. However quality should be paramount and the government apparently wants ‘to close the yawning gap between the best and the rest’.
The Prime Minister has recently promised ‘a government that is powerful and determined and that puts its arms around people’. These arms did not do much for care homes during the first wave of COVID-19 and looking to the future of jobs and economic development the fate of Leicester’s clothing workers will be another test of whether he and his government meant it.
The pandemic has exposed the UK but particularly people in England to staggering levels of government incompetence. There are other countries too that have this burden and Trump in the USA and Bolsonaro in Brazil spring to mind. They seem confident that the virus won’t hit their citizens and it certainly won’t hit the chosen ones.
Psychologists say that people like this appear confident because as leaders they know nothing about the complexity of governing. They refer to this as the Dunning-Kruger effect:
‘incompetent people don’t realise their incompetence’.
Posted by Jean Hardiman Smith on behalf of the Officers and the Vice Chairs of the SHA.