Covid19: UK still stumbling along

Surgical face mask
Fluid-resistant surgical face mask. Photo: NurseTogether/WikiCommons
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This article was written by our co-chair John Puntis, who is a retired NHS paediatrician, and member of Leeds Keep Our NHS Public. 

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?

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.

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 overpay. Recent national demonstrations calling for pay rises suggest many other NHS staff share these concerns and are prepared to take action.

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 therefore also 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.

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.

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 infections are at least initially delayed.

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 the virus, and this is well illustrated in food processing plants. Detailed investigation of the huge German meat factory outbreak showed the 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 the 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.

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.

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.

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.

John Puntis

Co-chair Keep Our NHS Public


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