britain: if anyone rings up advising test & trace, please ignore them

The numbers are in, and Johnson’s government really is world-beating
Marina Hyde, Groon, May 29 2020

3500Boris Johnson before the House of Commons Liaison Committee.
Photo: Andrew Parsons

I read this week that Boris Johnson has been given permission by the Queen to exercise in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. That’s nice. Can she give him permission to act like a prime minister for more than an hour a week? He could start small, then gradually build up his prime-ministering distance, so that by the time of the next election he’s doing a whole day a week. Maybe there’s an app for it. Couch To PM.  In the meantime, we’ve all seen some shameless moves by Johnson over the past few days, but let’s open a sub-category for Thursday night’s Downing Street briefing. If you missed this How Not To video, it featured the prime minister inserting himself between some perfectly reasonable questions and the scientists Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty, the government’s chief scientific adviser and England’s chief medical officer respectively, with Johnson acting for all the world like he’d take a bullet for them. Do me a favour. He wouldn’t even take a NutriBullet for them. He wouldn’t even read a bullet point written BY them. When Marlon Brando turned up to the set of Apocalypse Now he weighed 300 pounds (21 stone), hadn’t bothered reading Heart of Darkness, and was sufficiently unfocused on the job to prefer rambling tangential discussions about the script to getting anything done. Obviously he hadn’t learned his lines. Indeed, he was by now quite incapable of it, having long preferred to have cue cards positioned around his sets in ingenious positions to avoid them being picked up by the various camera angles. On some productions, Brando’s lines were even stuck to other actors’ foreheads. He was, however, literally Marlon Brando, and that rightly counted for rather a lot.

Watching Johnson playing to MPs on the liaison committee this week, it was difficult to conclude he will be able to draw much longer on a similar wellspring of tolerance for the idiosyncrasies of his craft. Of his preference for prizing Dominic Cummings more highly than his public health message, Johnson kept saying: “I have already answered a lot of questions about this.” But the only earlier answers to which he is referring were also the words: “I have already answered a lot of questions about this.” His performance was the equivalent of Brando’s Kurtz turning to the camera and gurning: “LOOK MA – THEY GONE AND LET ME DONE A MOVIE!!!” Basically a production-killer. Couldn’t someone, perhaps Cummings, stand just out of shot wearing a sign on his forehead that reads simply: “DON’T SMIRK”? The entire effort was so abject it had the flavour of that classic domestic move where someone, might be a man, might be a lady, deliberately loads the dishwasher so sensationally, historically badly that it is a clear attempt to ensure they never are never asked to do it again. Yet, mesmerisingly, Johnson appeared to imagine he was even in the same postcode as adequate. “The trouble is,” he complained about having to be there at all, “it does take a huge amount of Sherpa time, of preparation time.” On the one hand: oh no. Did you have to be prime minister again for an hour? I’m sorry it’s so much work. On the other hand: wait. Are you telling me that this is you WITH preparation? What does busking it look like? Presumably it involves public incontinence.

Given this level of leadership, perhaps it’s no surprise that this week saw many of Johnson’s cabinet abandoning the fiction that they possess basic social skills. I know some people like his hoodie, but for me Rishi Sunak was this week wearing the Castrol GTX jacket that was Alan Partridge’s funeral attire. “The good news we’ve all been waiting for!’ was his verdict on the reopening of 54 Nando’s outlets. Or perhaps you prefer self-styled tone policeman Matt Hancock? Asked by Sky News’ Kay Burley if his test-and-trace strategy wasn’t being rushed forward to distract from Cummings, it was an interesting choice on the health secretary’s part to laugh his way through what felt like the next decade of airtime. Being charitable, I’d have allowed him one laugh. This particular government being told it’s doing something about the virus too quickly is certainly a total novelty, and within the disingenuous confines of political cut-and-thrust he was entitled to a flourish along the lines of: “Well, I’ve heard it all now.” Instead, Matt’s guffawing went way past even nitrous-oxide balloon level. Maybe he’s doing a sponsored laugh to raise money for the tracing system we deserve, as opposed to the one we have? Either way, I enjoy the way Hancock attempts to cover for the lack of sophistication by making his “human contact tracers” sound like they’re blade runners who he personally is dispatching to track down biocompromised replicants who just happen to work as delivery drivers or in cafes.

God knows the Johnson administration loves a whole “best of the best” angle, which is why the absurd business of having to hire 50k form fillers for the red-tape horror-show that is post-Brexit trade with the EU has turned into what they like to call “the world’s first customs agent academy,” like it’s fricking Starfleet. And yet, perhaps the government would be wise to downplay its obsession with all things “world-beating.” It would be an odd choice of phrase at the best of times, implying a sort of relish at having whupped countries with less money or worse health-care options. But during these sub-optimal times, where plenty of other countries with less money and much worse health-care options have performed far more successfully than us, it tips over into state-sponsored delusion. The UK has the second highest rate of excess deaths from the coronavirus pandemic in the world. In the WORLD. It’s a funny sort of world-beating achievement, but it’s evidently what you get with the boy who grew up wanting to be world king.

Coronavirus test and trace system plunged into chaos as NHS staff unable to log in
Lizzy Buchan, The Independent, May 28 2020

The launch of the government’s new coronavirus tracing programme has been hit by problems as NHS workers struggled to log into the computer system. Several contact tracers told The Independent that they could not access the website when it launched on Thursday morning, with staff left unable to work. The new NHS test and trace system is being rolled out across England with the help of 25,000 contact tracers, with people who come into close contact with a coronavirus sufferer told to self-isolate for 14 days. If they test positive, NHS contact tracers or local public health teams will get in touch asking them to share details of the people they have been in close contact with and places they have visited. But the launch of the programme was plunged into chaos when some contact tracers were unable to log onto their systems. Screenshots shared by staff show that a “critical incident” had been reported within the system. One contact tracer, a senior NHS nurse, told The Independent they were booked to work from 8am to noon on Thursday but by 11.30am had still been unable to log in and neither had 14 of their colleagues they were speaking to. The nurse, who shared screenshots of the staff log-in page failing to load, added:

As nurses, we are quite angry at the time that has been wasted. Over the last few days they have run practice shifts in four-hour blocks using actors and at least half the time the system has crashed. I have done two of those and on both occasions the system crashed. The message from Public Health England has been if you can’t log in just do some clinical updates and revision, but you will still get paid. This is not an insignificant amount of money, with hourly rates for senior nurses of up to £17 for a weekday, £25 on a Saturday and £28 on a Sunday. This system should have been up and running weeks ago and my personal opinion is that we’re past the point of it making a difference now.

Another nurse tracer said they had been booked to work from 10am to 2pm but had been unable to log in at all. She said the problems today followed previous booked shifts where staff were not actually working and were told instead to do clinical updates and revisit training. She said:

It is just a holy mess. It’s very frustrating. There will be people who could’ve been released to work on the front line in hospitals to support their colleagues if they knew the system wasn’t going to be fully set up. There has been no communication about the issues or how long the system will be down. As a professional there is a part of me that is saying, ‘why have I been wasting my time?’

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said the introduction of the test and trace programme was welcome but warned:

There is a lot of catching up to do. Testing in many places is still too slow. For many health and care providers the turnaround time is three to seven days. Rather than pretending we are about to see a world class test and trace service, the government should acknowledge that this will take time. It should not repeat the mistake of over-promising and under-delivering.

It comes as MPs revealed they had been told by the government’s contact tracing czar that the system would not be operational until the end of June. Labour’s Ben Bradshaw and Lib Dem MP Daisy Cooper both said that Dido Harding had told them in a private conference call that the system wouldn’t be “fully operational” until the final days of June, four weeks after lockdown restrictions will have been eased further. Asked about the problems with the website, a department of health and social care spokesperson said:

The system has not crashed. Anyone in the country can log on and book a test if they have symptoms, and we have tracers logged on to do their vital work to help stop the spread of coronavirus and save lives. As with all large-scale operations of this kind, some staff did initially encounter issues logging on to their systems and these are rapidly being resolved.

Test and trace system launched by Boris Johnson yesterday won’t be ‘fully operational’ until end of next month, chief admits
Jon Stone, The Independent, May 28 2020

The coronavirus tracing system Boris Johnson said would go live today won’t be fully operational until the end of next month, the government’s contact tracing tsar has admitted. MPs said Dido Harding had told them in a private conference call that the system wouldn’t be “fully operational” until the final days of June, four weeks after lockdown restrictions will have been eased further. It comes amid widespread reports of problems with the system today, with tracers left unable to log on to their computer systems and some only told late last night that it would be switched on today. The government was accused by MPs of following a “high risk strategy” by failing to bring the system fully online before lockdown rules are eased further on 1 June. A promised contact-tracing app has also failed to materialise, with no date set for its launch despite similar systems being live in other countries for a long time. Labour MP Ben Bradshaw said following the call:

Dido Harding just told me on an MPs’ conference call that Test, Trace and Isolate won’t be fully operational at local level till the end of June. Not sure where that leaves Johnson’s promise of a fully operational ‘world beating’ system by Monday.

Liberal Democrat MP Daisy Cooper corroborated the report from the conference call, stating:

Dido Harding just told me that the NHSX app described by prime minister a week ago as ‘world-beating’ is in fact just a ‘cherry on top’ of the tracing system: which itself won’t be fully operational until end June, 4 weeks after lockdown restrictions ease. This is a high risk strategy.

Health secretary Matt Hancock on Wednesday said the new system was designed to replace national lockdown measures. Some school children are returning to education on 1 June, a policy that has alarmed some local authorities, teachers’ unions, and independent scientific experts. Under the new test and trace system, anyone with coronavirus symptoms will immediately self-isolate and book a test, either at a testing centre or posted to their home. Their household will also go into isolation with them. Those people will then be asked to self-isolate for 14 days, even if they are symptom free, to avoid spreading the virus further. The system involves an army of 25,000 contact tracers and an additional 25,000 people working to process tests, who will locate people who have been within two metres of an infected person for more than 15 minutes. The Independent has contacted NHSX and the Department for Health for comment on this story.

Boris Johnson accused of launching broken test and trace system before it was ready to distract from Dominic Cummings scandal
Jon Stone, The Independent, May 28 2020

The government has been accused of panic-launching its corovirus test-and-trace system before it was ready in order to distract from the Dominic Cummings scandal rocking the Conservative Party. The new contact-tracing scheme suffered from major technical problems on Thursday, with staff unable to even log in for most of the day and many only notified the night before that it was going live and that they would be needed. Meanwhile the government’s track and trace tsar admitted to MPs that the whole system would not actually be “fully operational” until the end of next month, with still no date set for the launch of the supposedly “world-beating” app promised by the prime minister. Contact-tracers working on the programme told The Independent that when they finally managed to log into the system at the end of the working day, they were presented with an empty page that contained no cases to review. Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, who earlier in the day had participated in a conference call with Dido Harding, the government’s test and trace csar, said:

The only explanation for the government announcing and launching this scheme when it was clearly not ready is that they wanted to try to persuade the public to ‘move on’ from the Dominic Cummings scandal. There is a pattern here of the government overpromising and underdelivering, more concerned about fighting negative headlines than the virus itself. All that does is further erode public confidence and trust in the important public health messages and make it harder for us as a country to move out of lockdown safely.

Other MPs privy to the call confirmed that Baroness Harding had told them that the system would not be entirely operational until the end of June, four weeks after the government is planning to relax national lockdown rules. Durham Police on Thursday confirmed that they had investigated Boris Johnson’s chief aide Mr Cummings, and said a breach of the rules may had taken place, contrary to Downing Street’s repeated claims. The force said the aide, who drove 60 miles to Barnard Castle on his wife’s birthday with family at the height of lockdown, would have been spoken to by an officer and sent home had he been caught. But the prime minister has refused to sack him: Mr Cummings claims he took the trip to test his eyesight for a further drive home. Health secretary Matt Hancock has said the beleaguered new system has been designed to replace national lockdown measures. Some school children are returning to education on 1 June, a policy that has alarmed some local authorities, teachers’ unions, and independent scientific experts. Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrats’ education spokesperson told The Independent:

This half-baked announcement seems to be a desperate attempt to distract attention away from Dominic Cummings. The government has serious questions to answer over why this scheme was announced now when key elements won’t be ready for weeks. Matt Hancock may try to laugh this off but the public will not be amused to learn that the government is failing them yet again.

One contact tracer, a senior NHS nurse, told The Independent they were booked to work from 8am to noon on Thursday but by 11.30am had still been unable to log in and neither had 14 of their colleagues they were speaking to. The nurse, who shared screenshots of the staff log-in page failing to load, said:

As nurses, we are quite angry at the time that has been wasted. Over the last few days they have run practice shifts in four-hour blocks using actors and at least half the time the system has crashed. I have done two of those and on both occasions the system crashed. The message from Public Health England has been if you can’t log in, just do some clinical updates and revision but you will still get paid. This is not an insignificant amount of money” with hourly rates for senior nurses of up to £17 for a weekday, £25 on a Saturday and £28 on a Sunday. This system should have been up and running weeks ago, and my personal opinion is that we’re past the point of it making a difference now.

Neither NHSX nor the Dept of Health and Social Care responded to a request for comment about the system not being fully operational until the end of June. But asked whether its launch had been brought forward to distract, health secretary Mr Hancock laughed and told Sky News:

It’s priceless, I’m normally accused of delaying these things and bringing them in too slowly. I committed to getting this system in in mid-May, it’s just about mid-May. You can’t accuse me both of rushing it and being delayed. I can’t quite work out whether you’re telling me that I’ve gone too slow or too fast, I think we’ve gone at just the right speed.

Under the new test and trace system, anyone with coronavirus symptoms will immediately self-isolate and book a test, either at a testing centre or posted to their home. Their household will also go into isolation with them. If the test comes back negative, they come out of isolation, but if it is positive, an NHS contact tracing team will get in touch asking them to share details of people they have been in close contact with and where they have visited. Those people will then be asked to self-isolate for 14 days, even if they are symptom free, to avoid spreading the virus further. The system involves an army of 25,000 contact tracers and an additional 25,000 people working to process tests, who will locate people who have been within two metres of an infected person for more than 15 minutes.

Contact tracers report feeling unready as system launches
Frances Perraudin, Dan Sabbagh, Sarah Marsh, Groon, May 28 2020

Baroness Dido Harding, the chair of the NHS’s new test-and-trace system.
Photo: Pippa Fowles

Contact tracers in the government’s test and trace programme reported feeling untrained and unprepared on launch day, as the project’s chair admitted it would not be fully operational until the end of June. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced on Wednesday that 25,000 newly trained staff would start on Thursday to call those diagnosed with coronavirus, tracing who they had come into close contact with over the past two weeks and asking them to self-isolate. People hired as contact tracers told the Guardian, however, that the system was beset with technical difficulties and they had only done a few hours training. They said many employees felt unprepared for making calls to those who had been bereaved or who were refusing to cooperate. Speaking to the Guardian on Thursday morning, contract tracers, both in clinical and more junior roles, reported being unable to log in to the systems. An email sent to clinical staff by the contact centre company Sitel said it was aware of login issues, which had been reported as a critical incident. One worker said:

Yesterday I got two emails with links to log on to the contract tracing system. I tried to get in every 10 to 20 minutes up to midnight but it was not working. As of 8am I still could not get in and had no response.

The new recruits are all working from home in virtual call centres and using their own computer equipment. One said:

My phone is also not working, the microphone isn’t connecting to the app. It works for other applications on my phone. So it has gone off with great fanfare this morning but it is a sticking plaster, I think, to look as if it is being delivered.

One man, working through Sitel, said he had been told the system would go live at midday, but at 11.15am, when he spoke to the Guardian, he still hadn’t been able to login to read the script for call handlers. Contact tracers said that they and many of the their colleagues were feeling unprepared and panicked about the prospect of starting to make calls. Some have resorted to setting up support groups on Facebook and WhatsApp so they can help each other and pool their knowledge. Dido Harding, the chair of NHS track and trace, told MPs that a fully integrated contract-tracing system able to handle 10,000 cases a day would not be up and running until the end of June, a month after the initial launch. Not all of the 25,000 people who had been recruited had been fully trained, Lady Harding (sic – RB) told a conference call with MPs. She said the system would stand and fall on being able to persuade people who had come into contact with an infected person to isolate. Anybody identified as having spent 15 minutes or more at a distance of two metres or less of a person who tests positive in the previous two weeks is likely to be asked to self-isolate. The Conservative peer also admitted that the process of integrating with local government and its teams of experienced contact tracers was yet to be completed. Ben Bradshaw, the Labour MP for Exeter, said:

Lady Harding’s statement is clearly at variance with the promise made by Boris Johnson at PMQ last week to have a world-beating system in operation by 1 June. Devon county council, one of 11 beacon areas identified by the government for extra funding last week, had been told it had until the end of June to put its contract-tracing plans in place. They’ve not been given any detail about how it’s supposed to link up, or how to enforce against people who don’t comply with requests to self-isolate. All they’ve been told is to have a plan in place by the end of June.

Daisy Cooper, a Lib Dem MP who was on the call, said:

People want to return to work and school but only when it’s safe to do so; without systems properly in place to manage the virus, the government is pursuing a high-risk strategy.

One contact tracer working via Sitel said he had been being paid £10 an hour for nearly two weeks, in which time he had done nothing but three hours of self-led online training. Another said he had been being paid for nearly three weeks and all he had done was join a four-hour online training session, along with 100 other people, and read through some guidance documents. He said:

I’m personally feeling OK because I’ve worked in a call centre before and I just need to read the script and I’ll be fine, but there a lot of people in the work chat who are panicking about taking phone calls from people who have been bereaved or who don’t want to cooperate.

One clinical worker said:

We have had lots of discussion on process information but nothing on consequences and responsibilities. But we are making decisions about whether someone should isolate or not.

A Dept of Health and Social Care spokesperson said:

As with all large-scale operations of this kind, some staff did initially encounter issues logging on to their systems and these are rapidly being resolved. All contact tracers have received appropriate training and are following detailed procedures and scripts designed by the experts at Public Health England. They will also receive ongoing support for their role.

After PPE and testing, contact tracing looks like the next UK shambles
David McCoy, Groon, May 28 2020

‘Various private companies have been contracted to deliver aspects of
the national testing and contact-tracing strategy, including Randox,
Deloitte, Serco, G4S and Sodexo.’ Photo: Jason Alden

Curbing the coronavirus outbreak involves a familiar mantra: test, trace, isolate. As of this week, the government will begin to roll out the second part of this strategy. In theory, contact tracers will call or text people in England and Scotland who test positive for coronavirus, asking them to provide a list of everyone they have met for longer than 15 minutes, who will then receive a message instructing them to self-isolate for 14 days. But already, the contact-tracing strategy looks set to be hobbled by the government’s reluctance to involve local authorities and regional public health expertise in its coronavirus response from the outset, and its dogmatic commitment to outsourcing health services to the private sector. Baroness Dido Harding, who is leading the programme of testing and tracing, recently conceded that the UK system won’t be fully operational at the local level until late June. Elsewhere, contact tracers have spoken of difficulties accessing the government system, describing it as a “complete shambles.” One recruit reportedly said their training amounted to reading a pdf and taking an online quiz, “all of which takes an hour.”

For an idea of how contact tracing works best, look to Germany. When interviewed about the country’s successful contact-tracing programme recently on Newsnight, the German minister of health described how the response had worked through the country’s federal structures and with the 400 different “communities” that are responsible for the track and trace system. The UK, on the other hand, started by pursuing a call-centre model run by Serco and staffed with minimum wage customer service employees. Recruitment agencies tasked with finding contact tracers are reportedly offering an hourly wage of £8.72 to staff with experience of “telephone or face-to-face customer services.” Viewing contact tracers as customer service call handlers may be a good business model for Serco, but I would like to know if a single public health specialist in this country thinks this was a good idea.

Contact tracing is fundamentally a behavioural intervention. When used well, contact tracers don’t just deliver messages about quarantine but also provide reactive advice and reassurance, and can act as important “eyes and ears” gathering local intelligence that can be passed on to other members of the public health team. In Korea, health authorities deployed teams of specialist epidemiological intelligence service officers. In Massachusetts, local depts of health carried out contact tracing assisted by volunteers from the public health community, graduate students, Peace Corps volunteers, medical assistants and retired nurses, all of whom were paid more than twice the local minimum wage.

This government’s enthusiasm for outsourcing and centralisation has been an Achilles heel in its coronavirus strategy. Although it recently announced an extra £300m to support local authorities in England to deliver the new test and trace strategies, these authorities will have their work cut out to quickly stitch together a coherent and organised programme from a confusing landscape of NHS commissioners and providers, parallel central initiatives, outsourced private contractors, and the recently established Joint Biosecurity Centre. The JBC’s roles include collecting and analysing data about COVID-19 infection rates across England, identifying and providing real-time analysis about local outbreaks and recommending appropriate responses to spikes in infections: for example, whether schools or workplaces in local areas should be closed, or whether different restrictions should be imposed in different areas.

Details on how the JBC will be staffed or set up to provide real-time data and intelligence for local authorities haven’t been published. Somewhat bizarrely, rather than appointing a public health specialist to lead the body, the government has appointed Tom Hurd, a senior Home Office counter-terrorism official. According to the Institute for Government, the JBC is modelled on the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, which analyses counter-terrorism intelligence and sets the terrorism threat level for the country. In much the same way, the JBC will set a coronavirus threat according to five different levels. But as with all centralised bureaucracies, there’s a risk that the JBC will contribute to delays, as data trickles down to the local areas where it’s needed most. There’s also a risk that members of the public will be put off by their data being held by an organisation modelled on a centralised counter-terrorism organisation.

Crucially, test results can’t be anonymised if they are to be used in local disease control management. Once again, trust in the system is vital. Both the JBC and local authorities will have to rely on the various private companies that have been contracted to deliver aspects of the national testing and contact-tracing strategy, including Randox, Deloitte, Serco, G4S and Sodexo. The detailed specifications of their contracts are not public, and the division of roles and responsibilities between the centre, local authorities and the private sector remain unclear. It’s hard not to wonder why England has created such a complicated and fragmented architecture for itself, rather than following the example of other countries that have involved local authorities from the outset.

I previously worked as director of public health in Hammersmith and Fulham, and I’ve seen the efforts of public health teams in north-east London during this epidemic. Across the country, we have smart, competent and committed public health officers. Indeed, the UK has one of the best specialised public health training programmes in the world. Although we are seeing the emergence of a more prominent role for Public Health England’s regional teams and local authority public health departments, these specialised resources should never have been so neglected. The government’s coronavirus response should have had local authorities and local health expertise at its core all along.

(David McCoy is a professor of global public health and director of the Centre for Public Health at Queen Mary University of London)

Weston General Hospital shuts due to coronavirus outbreak among staff
Robert Stevens, Ben Trent, WSWS, May 29 2020

The closure on Monday, due to a coronavirus outbreak, of Weston General Hospital in Weston-super-Mare, England is a devastating rebuttal of all government claims that the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is over. The outbreak reveals the enormous dangers to the health and lives of NHS workers. Weston General Hospital serves a large population of 212k people in north Somerset and people needing medical care are being directed to other hospitals and facilities in the region. On Monday, news broke that the hospital, including its A&E department, had closed its doors from 8 am to new patients due to an outbreak of COVID-19 within the facility. This was initially reported as an outbreak among patients. The hospital issued a statement saying:

This is a precautionary measure in order to maintain the safety of staff and patients in response to the high number of patients with Coronavirus in the hospital.

But this was only half the picture. On Monday afternoon, local press outlet Somerset Live posted a story saying:

40% of a limited group of staff who have come into contact with infected patients have tested positive for COVID-19, with around half of the cases asymptomatic. This information is based on information in an internal memo leaked by a staff member at the hospital. Testing of NHS staff at the hospital reportedly reveals “40% as COVID-19 positive” as new admissions urgently halted. The memo also revealed that the number of COVID-19 patients at the hospital has risen by nearly 100% since the beginning of last week. The memo states that the hospital is reporting 64 inpatients as COVID-19 positive, an increase from 30 at the beginning of the week, and that when asymptomatic staff were tested, 40 percent were found to be COVID-19 positive. Discussions at Clinical Commissioning Group, regional and national level have all concluded that there is no mitigation that can be put in place to safely manage and maintain operations at Weston.

The hospital did not deny the existence of the memo, only stating:

There is an emerging picture of asymptomatic staff testing positive for the virus.

In the wake of the outbreak, a mobile testing unit appeared in a car park in Weston-super-Mare. The unit, managed by military personnel, is for pre-booked testing only and was expected to be there for a few days. On Wednesday, the hospital issued further guidance including that all visits to patients were suspended, with exceptions to be made on compassionate grounds. The same day, Robert Woolley, chief executive of University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust, said:

I don’t know when the hospital will reopen. It could be a week or longer. The hospital had to be closed, because we were seeing a stubbornly high level of infectious patients inside the hospital. There will be a deep clean, with all inpatients to be tested, and the hospital is testing all the staff who are working onsite, because clearly a number are at home.

The hospital employs around 2,000 staff. Wooley downplayed the reported figures, saying:

They are being taken out of context, because it was 40% of 10% of the most high-risk staff working in the COVID-19 infectious wards.

Last week, PM Boris Johnson acknowledged that 312 NHS and social care workers had lost their lives due to COVID-19. This is one of the highest death rates in the world among health care workers. Among the deaths was Weston Hospital health care support worker Amarante Dias, who died from COVID-19 on Apr 13. His funeral was held Apr 24. There have been 118 confirmed COVID-19 patient deaths between Weston General and Bristol Royal Infirmary. For years, there were warnings that the NHS would not be able to cope in a pandemic, with a chronic shortage of personal protective equipment a central factor. On Wednesday, the Daily Mail quoted a “source” at the Royal College of Nursing who said Weston had “has experienced issues over supplies” of PPE. What caused the recent spike in infections at the hospital has not been established. But there can be no doubt that the government’s incessant “back to work” mantra, relaxing of lockdown measures and general messaging that the pandemic is all but over have played a part. North Somerset had a generally low incidence of coronavirus infections, with 406 in total, but over the last days this has escalated. As of Tuesday, 55 people had tested positive for the virus over the previous seven days—making up more than 50% of all new cases across the entire county of Somerset. Another sizable increase took place in Somerset West and Taunton, with 19 new infections and 247 in total. Over the last few weeks of warm weather, thousands have flocked from other areas of the country to North Somerset’s coastal towns and beaches, including Weston-Super-Mare, Clevedon and Portishead. Residents have pointed to other large gatherings such as those allowed by the government to mark VE Day. Rhiannon tweeted:

Two weeks ago for VE day weekend people piled onto the beach. It felt like lockdown had stopped … Now our hospital has had to stop admissions as there are so many cases of COVID.

The failure to adequately test and trace individuals with suspected symptoms led to the pandemic taking a grip across the country. While lockdown finally came into effect on Mar 23, key workers were still required to work. Without adequate testing and tracing in place, asymptomatic workers were spreading the virus. Many NHS hospital staff will have unwittingly passed on the coronavirus due to there being no systematic testing for months. A recent study by Cambridge University researchers at Addenbrooke’s Hospital showed 3% of a sample of 1k staff had tested positive for COVID-19, but had otherwise been fit to work. Based on the study’s findings, it could mean as many as 15k staff nationwide still working would have tested positive for COVID-19 in April. Data released by NHS England this month found that up to a fifth of patients with COVID-19 in several hospitals contracted the disease while being treated in hospital for another illness. The crisis at Weston hospital points to the immense dangers associated with the government’s reckless ending of the lockdown, with nurseries and primary schools to begin opening from Monday. The government’s response to Weston’s closure was of a piece with its indifference to the fate of millions embodied in its herd immunity policy. Speaking about the outbreak at the hospital during his appearance before Parliament’s Liaison Committee on Wednesday, PM Boris Johnson said:

We will be working with the local outbreak committees, and those responsible for dealing with whatever happens locally and we will go through the local resilience forums which are leading on this … for instance, the other day you saw there was an outbreak in Weston-Super-Mare. We moved very quickly to close things down there to try to sort it out.

Johnson compared fighting the deadly virus to a child’s game, declaring:

That is the kind of whack-a-mole tactics that we are going to use as we keep driving the virus down and keep reducing the incidents. It is very important that we have a very sensitive test, track and trace operation in order to cope with local outbreaks.

Johnson’s hot air is meant to conceal the essential fact that there is no systematic testing operation in the UK, and, until yesterday and only if it works, not even a rudimentary track and trace system in place.

Johnson government forced to retreat over attacks on migrant NHS workers
Tony Robson, WSWS, May 29 2020

The Johnson government was forced last week to abandon plans to penalise migrant workers in the NHS and social care. The intended Tory attack affected migrant workers from outside the EU and European Economic Area. The government had insisted that only doctors, nurses, and paramedics would be made exempt from the NHS surcharge and that only their families qualified for indefinite leave to remain (permanent residence) in the event of their death. The NHS surcharge is a form of double taxation on non-European migrants which was introduced in 2015. In addition to paying for the NHS through standard taxation they must pay an additional tax upfront in a lump sum. The yearly surcharge has doubled since then from £200 per person to £400 and will be hiked to £624 in October. The rate for children, students, and those on the youth mobility scheme with be £470. The fee must be paid for family members. An individual applying for a 5-year Tier 2 visa would have to pay £3,210 at the new rate. Following public uproar, the government relented and extended this exemption and leave to remain to all support staff, social care workers and their families in both the NHS and private sector.

During the height of the pandemic, while risking their lives every single day, overseas health and care workers have had to live with the threat of having their families deported if they died and experience a punishing increase in the NHS surcharge. Cleaners, porters and carers are among the lowest paid workers. The hypocrisy of the Conservative government became a focus for rising anger and discontent. Following his own hospitalisation in March with COVID-19, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had hailed the contribution made by NHS staff from overseas, stating that he owed his life to nurses from Portugal and New Zealand. Such proclamations proved insincere and short lived. The government intended to resume its onslaught against migrant workers and the NHS. In parliament May 20, Johnson outlined his plans to press ahead with his original plans, declaring that exempting all NHS staff would cost £900m. He arrived at this inflated figure by citing the total cost over four years of the immigration surcharge. Even this represents less than a single percentage point of the NHS’s overall budget and pales into insignificance against the cuts imposed by the Tories.

The NHS could not function for a single day without staff from overseas. Almost one in four UK hospital workers were born outside the UK. The first recorded deaths of NHS staff from COVID-19 were two doctors from Sudan. The mendacity of the government’s claims to be celebrating the “heroes” of the NHS was made more politically sensitive because Johnson’s speech was delivered one day prior to the weekly Clap for Carers. The national event, which started independently when lockdown commenced as an act of public solidarity, has been utilised by the government to detract from its own criminal actions and multiple failures, including denying adequate PPE and gagging whistle-blowers when the death toll among NHS and care staff has exceeded 300. The conduct of the Labour leader ‘Sir’ Keir Starmer during PMQs has been hailed by a section of the media as an example of “effective opposition”. What they mean is that Starmer has calibrated his remarks to demonstrate only “constructive opposition” at a time when a chasm has opened between the working class and the government. Starmer’s concern was that the government’s measures would undermine the pretence of national unity and calls for shared sacrifice. He asked:

Does the prime minister think it is right that care workers coming from abroad and working on our front-line should have to pay a surcharge of hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds to use the NHS themselves?

Johnson said yes, he did. He wrongly mistook this neutered criticism with the general mood and thought he could proceed as planned. Hassan Akkad, a Syrian hospital cleaner in London, made a public appeal via a Twitter video which asked for public support in overturning the decision to deny leave to remain to the families of all bereaved NHS support staff which went viral. The issue was taken up on Good Morning Britain with Piers Morgan and LBC Radio with James O’Brien. Senior Conservative Party figures began to break ranks. Sir Roger Gale, the former Tory vice chairman, warned:

Not waiving the fee would rightly be perceived as mean-spirited, doctrinaire and petty.

The hypocrisy of those calling for “more compassion” was summed up by former Tory health secretary Jeremy Hunt joining in. Hunt was responsible for implementing the NHS surcharge in the first place. To stoke anti-migrant sentiment, he had stated previously:

The NHS is a national health service, not an international one.

By the next day, the government had announced that NHS and care workers would be exempted from the NHS surcharge and their families granted the right to remain in the event of their death. The government’s critics rushed to smooth things over. Starmer declared that the government U-turn was “a victory for common decency.” Gale stated:

It is a humane and a generous decision, and one that will enable all those out on the doorsteps this evening to clap and cheer with greater enthusiasm than before.

Akkad, posted another short Twitter video thanking his supporters, declaring, “Britain is great because of you.” Akkad has in fact been cultivated more broadly within the media for more reactionary political purposes. He is presented as a BAFTA award-winning documentary maker who highlighted the plight of refugees fleeing warn torn countries, but this reputation has been utilised to provide a humanitarian fig-leaf for military action against Syria and to support the regime change operations of the UK and Pindo governments. In 2018, he called for airstrikes and denounced anti-war protestors. The backtracking by the government has meant an immediate reprieve for NHS and social care workers but has also confirmed the second-class status for non-EU/EEA migrant workers. It sets up an arbitrary distinction between “deserving migrants” and “undeserving migrants,” to maintain a toxic atmosphere of nationalism and to justify further austerity. As the WSWS explained in its opposition to the NHS surcharge:

It is a policy of divide-and-rule in the face of the biggest spending squeeze in the history of the NHS.

More broadly, the attack on migrants continues. During the pandemic, the Home Office has refused to accept unaccompanied children and vulnerable adults from refugee camps on the Greek islands. Asylum seekers have been refused the uplift of £20 benefits in line with the increase in Universal Credit and are forced to survive on between £37.15 and £35.39 per week. At Yarl’s Wood detention centre, where a case of COVID-19 was reported in March, the government refused appeals for its closure. The assault on migrants and the disregard for their contribution in tackling the pandemic in the NHS, or in other essential services, is the thin end of the wedge of a broader war the Johnson government is waging, not against COVID-19 but against the working class. The fight against the pandemic and the defence of workers right, migrant or native, will not be secured in a sordid trade off with the Johnson government, which is committed to a class war agenda and provided a protective political shield by the Labour Party and the trade unions, but through class struggle.

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