This is our twentieth weekly blog the series where we have commented on the course of the pandemic and the political context and implications from its impact on our country. The SHA has submitted our series of blogs to the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), Chaired by Layla Moran (LD, Oxford West and Abingdon), who are taking evidence to learn lessons from our handling of COVID-19 in time for the high risk winter ‘flu season’. The Labour MP Clive Lewis is on the group
This is an edited version of the seven main points we have submitted:
- Austerity (2010-2020)
This pandemic arrived when the public sector – NHS, Social Care, Local Government and the Public Health system had been weakened by disinvestment over 10 years. This was manifest by cuts to the Public Health England budgets, to the Local Authority public health grants and lack of capital and revenue into the NHS. In workforce terms there was staff shortages in Health and Social Care staffing exceeding 100,000.
- Emergency Planning but no investment in stocks (Cygnus 2016)
The publication of the 2016 Operation Cygnus exercise has exposed the lack of follow on investment by the Conservative government which led to problems of PPE supplies, essential equipment such as ventilators and in ITU capacity. The 2016 exercise was a large-scale event with over 900 participants and occurred during Jeremy Hunt’s tenure as Secretary of State. There needed to be better preparation too on issues such as border controls as we note 190,000 people from China travelled through Heathrow between January-March 2020. Pandemics have been at the top of the UK risk register for years and the question is why were preparations not undertaken and stockpiles shown to be insufficient and sometimes time expired.
- Poor political leadership (PM and SoS Health)
During the pandemic there has been a lack of clarity on what the overall strategy is and inconsistency in decision-making. The New Zealand government for example went for elimination, locked down early, controlled their borders and took the public with them successfully. We have had an over centralised approach from the Prime Minister and SoS for Health such as the NHS Test and Trace scheme and creating the Joint Biosecurity Unit. Contact tracing and engaging the Local Directors of Public Health was stopped on the 12th March and only in the past few weeks have their vital role been acknowledged. Ministers have been overpromising such as the digital apps, the antibody tests, the vaccine trials and novel drug treatments. Each time the phrases such as World Beating and Game Changers have been used prematurely. The Ministerial promises on numbers of tests has been shown to have become a target without an accompanying strategy and the statistics open to question from the UKSA.
- Social care
From the early scientific reports from Wuhan it was clear that COVID-19 was particularly dangerous to older people who have a high mortality rate. A public health perspective would raise this risk factor and plan to protect institutions where older people live. Because of the distressing TV footage from Lombardy (Italy) the government’s main aim was to Protect the NHS. This was laudable and indeed the NHS stood up and had no call on the Nightingale Hospitals, which had a huge investment. The negative side of this mantra was that social care was ignored. As we have seen 40% of care homes have had outbreaks and about a third of COVID related mortality is from this sector. There have been serious ethical questions about policies in Care Homes as well as discharge procedures from the NHS that need teasing out. The private social care sector with 5,500 providers and 11,300 homes is in bad need of reform. Some of the financial transactions of the bigger groups such as HC One need investigation, especially the use of off shore investors who charge high interest on their loans. The SHA believes that the time is right to ‘rescue social care’ taking steps such as employing staff and moving towards a National Care Service.
It was said at the beginning of the pandemic in the UK that the virus did not respect social class as it affected Prince and Pauper. Prince Charles certainly got infected as did the Prime Minister. However we have seen that COVID-19 has exploited the inequalities in our society by differentially killing people who live in our more deprived communities as shown by ONS data. In addition to deprivation we have seen the additional risk in people of BAME background. The combination of deprivation and BAME populations put local authorities such as Newham, Hackney and Brent in London as having been affected badly. The ONS have also shown that BAME has an additional risk to the extent of being double for people of BAME heritage even taking statistical account for deprivation scores. Occupational risk has also been highlighted in the context of BAME status with the NHS having 40% of doctors of BAME heritage who accounted for 90% of NHS medical deaths. The equivalent proportions are 20% NHS nurses and BAME accounting for 75% deaths. The government tried to bury the Fenton Disparities report and we believe that this is further evidence of institutional racism.
The SHA is strongly committed to a publicly funded and provided NHS and are concerned about the Privatisation that we have witnessed over the last 10 years. We are concerned about the risks in the arrangement with Private Hospitals, the development of the Lighthouse Laboratories running parallel to NHS ones and the use of digital providers. In addition we feel that there needs to be a review of how contracts were given to private providers in the areas of Testing & Tracing, PPE supplies, Vaccine development and the digital applications. There are concerns about fraud and we note that some companies in the recent past have been convicted of fraud, following investigations by the Serious Fraud Office yet still received large contracts during the pandemic.
- Recovery Planning
During the pandemic many of us have noticed the benefit of reduced traffic in terms of noise and air pollution. Different work patterns such as working from home has also had some benefits. The risk of overcrowded and poor housing has been manifest as well as how migrant workers are treated and housed. Green spaces and more active travel has been welcomed and the need for universal access to fast broadband as well as the digital divide between social class families. With the government having run up a £300bn deficit and who continue to mismanage the pandemic we worry about future jobs and economic prosperity. There is an opportunity to build a different society and having a green deal as part of that. The outcome of the APPG review should on the one hand be critical of the political leadership we have endured but also point to a new way forward that has elements of building a fairer society, creating a National Care Service, funding the NHS and Public Health system in the context of the global climate emergency and the opportunities for a green deal.
Lets hope that the APPG can do a rapid review so we can learn lessons and not have to wait for years. The Grenfell Tower Inquiry remember was launched by Theresa May in June 2017, and we still await its key findings and justice for those whose lives were destroyed by the fire. The Prime Minister has been pointing the fingers of blame on others for our poor performance with COVID-19 but has accepted that mistakes were made and that an inquiry will be held in the future.
However often these are mechanisms to kick an issue into the long grass (Bloody Sunday Inquiry) and even when completed can be delayed or not published in full such as the inquiry into Russian interference in our democratic processes. So let’s support the APPG inquiry and the Independent SAGE group who provide balance to the discredited way that scientific advice has been presented. As one commentator has pointed out there are similarities to the John Gummer moment when in 1990 he fed his 4yr old daughter a burger on camera during the BSE crisis. The public inquiry into the BSE scandal called for greater transparency in the production and use of scientific advice. During this crisis we have seen confusion whether on herd immunity, timing of lockdown, test and trace, border and travel controls and the use of facemasks.
NHS and NIHR
For the SHA we have been pleased with how the NHS has stood up to the challenge and not fallen over despite the huge strain that has been put under. Despite the expenditure on the Nightingale Hospitals and generous contracts with Private Hospitals these have not made a significant difference. These arrangements certainly helped to provide security in case the NHS intensive care facilities became overwhelmed and allowed some elective diagnostics and cancer care to be undertaken in cold hospital sites. However the lesson from this is the superiority of a national health system with mutual aid and a coherent public service approach to the challenge compared to those countries with privatised health care. The social care sector on the other hand, despite some examples of excellence, is a fragmented and broken system. The pandemic has shown the urgent need to ensure staff have adequate training, are paid against nationally agreed terms and conditions and we create an adequately resourced National Care Service as outlined in our policy of ‘Rescuing Social Care’.
Another area where a national approach has paid off is the leadership provided by the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) which helps to integrate National R&D funding priorities and work alongside the Research Councils (MRC/ESRC) and Charitable Research funding such as from the Wellcome Trust and heart/cancer research funders. These strategic research networks use university researchers and NHS services to enable clinical trials to be undertaken and engage with patients and the public. It is through this mechanism that the UK has been able to contribute disproportionately to our knowledge about treatment for COVID-19 and in developing and testing novel vaccines.
For example the Recovery trial programme has used these mechanisms to enlist patients across the UK in clinical trials. The dexamethasone (steroid) trial showed a reduction in deaths by a third in severely ill patients and is now used worldwide. On the other hand Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsanaro’s hydroxychloroquine has been shown to be ineffective and this evidence will have saved unnecessary treatment and expense across the world. Such randomised controlled trials are difficult to undertake at scale in fragmented and privatised health systems. The vaccine development and trials have also been built on pre-existing research groups linked to our Universities and Medical Schools. Finally while Hancock’s phone app hit the dust in the Isle of Wight, Professor Tim Spector’s COVID-19 symptom app has managed to enlist 4m users across the country providing useful data about symptoms and incidence of positive tests in real time. This is all from his Kings College London research base reaching out to collaborators in Europe. Ireland has launched the Apple and Google app created with the Irish software company NearForm successfully and it is thought that Northern Ireland is on the way to a similar launch within weeks too!
A wealth tax?
In earlier blogs we have drawn attention to the huge debt that the government have run up and we are already seeing the emerging economic damage to the economy and people’s livelihoods when the furloughing scheme is withdrawn in October. Already people are talking about up to 4m unemployed this winter and what this will mean in terms of the economy and funding public services like local government, education and health. The UK’s public finances are on an ‘unsustainable path’ says the Office for Budget Responsibility.
There is a lot of chatter about the value of a wealth tax and there are some variations to the theme. It is estimated that there is £5.1 trillion of wealth linked to home equity. It is also said that the unearned gains on property are a better target for new taxes than workers earned income. Following this through a think tank has proposed – a property tax paid when a property is sold or an estate if the owner has died. A calculation could be made by taxing at 10% on the difference between the price paid for the property and the price at which it was sold. The % tax could be progressive and increase when the sum exceeds £1m for example. Assuming property rise in value by only 1% per annum this tax would raise £421bn over 25 years. If this sounds like an inheritance tax – that is true but for years now such taxes have become a voluntary tax for those with access to offshore funds and savvy accountants. In the USA, inheritances account for about 40% of household wealth. Fewer than 2 in 1000 estates paid the Federal estate tax even before Trump cut it in 2018. Trusts and other tax havens abound. Apparently Trump’s own Treasury Secretary has placed assets worth $32.9m into his ‘Dynasty Trust 1’
Inherited wealth has been referred to in earlier blogs in relation to the Duke of Westminster family wealth. Another study which shows how this type of wealth transfer passes down the generations comes from Italy where in 2011 a study of high earners found many of the same families appeared as in the Florence of 1427!
Populism and COVID
In our blogs we have pointed to the fact that those countries, in different continents, which have had a bad pandemic experience are ones such as the UK, USA, Brazil, India and Russia. What unites them is a leadership of right wing populists. A recent study has started to analyse why this occurs and what the shared characteristics are:
- The leaders blame others – the Chinese virus/immigrants
- Deny scientific evidence – use ineffective drugs/resist face masks
- Denigrate organisations that promote evidence – CDC/PHE/WHO
- Claim to stand for the common people against an out of touch elite.
What the authors found was that these leaders were successfully undermining an effective response to the pandemic. Sadly there is a risk that populist leaders perversely benefit from suffering and ill health.
Taking lessons from history and the contemporary global situation we need to continue to speak out against these political forces and advocate for a better fairer recovery.
Posted by Jean Hardiman Smith on behalf of the Officers and Vice-Chairs of the SHA.