Britain’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been atrocious. Our country has almost the highest number of per capita deaths in the world. From the start of this criris, we have failed to deliver on clear guidelines, personal protective equipment and on test and trace – our key policy responses to the virus. Predictably, the blame game has begun in earnest, and the Tories are insidiously weaponising their own incompetence to scapegoat local Labour councils and public sector workers.
In recent weeks and months, we have been witness to the commissioning of investigations into hospital discharges of Covid-19 positive patients to care homes (despite government guidance stipulating such discharges), outrageous attacks on Leicester Council over the localised lockdown enacted across the city, attacks by the Prime Minister on care home managers and a lack of any meaningful engagement with local authorities who are being held responsible for delivering local coronavirus responses.
In Leicester, the government waited 11 days after announcing their proposed lockdown before handing over vital information the council needed to implement it. The council still has not received the information it needs – and is not alone in that wait.
For months, local directors of public health (DPHs) have been lobbying government over the lack of data they have received and associated information governance to implement local testing schemes, track and trace and the management policy on hospital discharges and care homes – to no avail. Ministers have continually reminded DPHs of their responsibilities, which we’re well aware of in local government given that DPH statutory responsibilities are enshrined in Section 73A(1) of the NHS Act 2006 and Section 30 of the Health and Social Care Act 2012. Meanwhile, ministeres have ignored their requests for the tools they need to carry out their jobs.
I recently wrote to Matt Hancock about the statements he made on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday 5th July. It was claimed by the Health Secretary that councils had access to all the Covid-19 data we need, but this is a patently untrue statement, rejected by DPHs and local authority leaders up and down the country.
Since March this year, when Covid-19 was formally introduced as a notifiable disease, there has been a legal requirement under the Health Protection (Notification) Regulations 2010 for all labs and clinicians to report all coronavirus cases to Public Health England, alongside a duty to inform the ‘proper officer’ in local authorities (the DPH).
The minimum amount of information needed by a DPH to effectively deal with any notifiable disease is patient-identifiable data every 24 hours, seven days a week; the same methodology used to clean (or rationalise) data from different sequences of testing, and patient-identifiable data for both positive and negative test requests and results. None of this is currently being provided.
In Salford, we only received information on confirmed cases on July 2nd. We have still not received information on the number of tests, the types of tests, the setting for those tests, information on suspected cases (not just positive results), occupations of those tested, workplaces, or workplace postcode. Personal postcodes are included with no personalised information – making tracking and tracing impossible.
Unbelievably, information on ethnicity is not routinely provided, which is inexcusable given our understanding of the increased risk faced by our Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities. This was highlighted by the recent review undertaken by PHE, which confirmed that the risk of death from Covid-19 is higher amongst ethnic minorities.
Similarly, ethnicity isn’t routinely being recorded as standard on death certificates in England and Wales, which has implications for the robustness of data being reported and any intersectional analysis we’re able to undertake. Also, there is one week’s delay between the test result and information reaching us locally – acting against timely intervention and prevention actions locally.
In Salford, this information has been so unhelpful that we have built our own localised track and trace programme running out of a local sports stadium. It ensures that our DPH has access to the knowledge she needs. Meanwhile, the government has allocated over £10bn of public spending on a privatised testing scheme – worth more than three times the entire local government current budget deficit.
From workplace closures to schools reopening, from support for businesses to policies on parks and public spaces, public transport and PPE, the government has been communicating with local authorities by press release since day one. Meanwhile, it relies on us at the frontline to implement these coronavirus measures.
The cynical attempt to shift blame from clearly deficient, overly centralised and incompetent decision-making in Whitehall on to care home owners, teachers, NHS staff, Councils and DPHs must be resisted by Labour. The Tories are weaponising their own incompetence, and scapegoating the same services that they have attacked in government consistently since the coalition government’s victory in 2010. Labour can’t allow them to get away with it.