It’s been another week of political wrangling over the secondary effects of coronavirus, but this weekend brought a serious warning from a different source.
A ‘terrible winter’
The coming winter will likely be “the most difficult period that doctors will be experiencing in their lifetimes”, the British Medical Association (BMA) council chair has said.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul told Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “There are millions of patients who have not been seen during the first peak and now we have the unfortunate prospect of a terrible winter.
“This is probably going to be the most difficult period that doctors will be experiencing in their lifetimes, approaching winter.
“What we have now is increasing numbers of patients, millions on waiting lists,” he said, calling the growth in patients on ventilators “quite alarming”.
“There are over 100,000 patients waiting more than 12 months for treatment, that is more than 100-fold the summer of last year and we have on top of that backlog, some of the hospitals in the country have about 20% of their beds occupied by COVID patients.
“Some are seeing more COVID patients than they saw during the first peak”.
His warnings seem to be backed by his fellows, with a new BMA survey showing 70% of the 6,500+ doctors asked had little or no confidence in the abilities of community services to cope ahead of the autumn and winter, while 65% weren’t confident about their own healthcare service coping.
Test and Trace head’s position ‘untenable’
A veteran Eurosceptic and Labour frontbencher were brought together this week by several issues, but none more so than on the UK’s Test and Trace programme.
Liaison Committee chair Sir Bernard Jenkin began the day by damning Dido Harding, head of the programme, with faint praise.
He said she had “been a tremendous asset but the Test and Trace capability clearly needs to move up several gears and it’s what leadership does, not who leadership is, that really matters”.
Saying there was a “sense of a lack of overall strategy”, Sir Bernard suggested the job be given to a “very senior military person” accustomed to crises and situations in which a high degree of “complexity and organisation” is present.
Labour’s shadow mental health minister, Rosena Allin-Khan, didn’t put forward her own suggestion but agreed on the original diagnosis.
She declared Harding’s position “untenable” but said “fundamentally this comes down to the responsibility of the government”.
A ‘very good job’
The Northern Ireland secretary wasn’t persuaded though.
Brandon Lewis said the UK had gone “from a scheme that has gone from having no Test and Trace obviously before the virus to being up to speed now”, adding “we have tested over 28 million people, that’s more than anywhere else in Europe; 1.1 million people now have been contacted through the scheme… Dido and the team have done a very good job to get to where we are”.
Asked by Sophy why 80% of identified contacts are not being reached, as SAGE says is necessary for a successful system, he did admit parts of the system needed to “catch up”.
With the tracing system under increasing pressure and numbers of those isolating likely to rise, he confirmed the government is looking at cutting the 14-day period of isolation, saying “we are looking at the moment at what we can do around those isolation periods” but no decision had been made – yet.
But he did say company bosses and city bankers wouldn’t be exempted from travel quarantine rules in the name of global Britain, as suggested in The Sunday Times.
“Any changes that are made will apply to everybody,” he said.
“Obviously, there are things that are done through the virus like bringing testing out to frontline NHS workers so that it is properly led, again by scientific and medical need but when you look at things like that, if there are any changes of that type, they will apply to everybody.”
‘Something from Oliver Twist’
Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield compared the debate over free school meals to a Dickens novel, calling the conversation “divisive and distracting” and saying she was “horrified” and “really disappointed” by it.
“It’s 2020,” she said, adding “to have a debate about whether we should make sure that hungry and vulnerable children should have enough to eat is something which is striking similar to what we’d expect from Oliver Twist, a novel published in the 19th century”.
As schools head towards the holidays, the commissioner warned “the clock is ticking. We need to ensure that those families and children have the confidence that they are going to have food on their table”.
The campaign to extend free school meals over the holidays for those in need, as backed by footballer Marcus Rashford, has a feeling of inevitability to it, the more so after a precedent was set earlier this year.
After the government has spent months paying people’s wages, propping up their businesses and loaning huge amounts of money out, refusing to extend a scheme that feeds hungry children is a hard position to defend.
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Mr Lewis gave it a try though, saying “the position we have taken is the right one” and that money had been handed to councils and put into Universal Credit “to support their communities at a time of hardship”.
He did, however, make sure he praised Rashford for running “a campaign that has clearly inspired people across the country and it is huge credit to him, it is a phenomenal thing to raise the profile in the way that he has about child poverty”.
Treat northern mayors as ‘equals’
And finally, the row over funding for areas under Tier 3 restrictions has sent the profiles of Labour mayors in the north of England ever higher.
The government “doesn’t have anyone who has a strong relationship” with “northern mayors” such as Andy Burnham and needs to treat them as “equals”, former minister Jake Berry said.
He told the show it meant the government “started at a disadvantage” in the recent negotiations.
“I just hope that going forward, we’ve learnt that we need to treat our northern leaders and northern mayors as a partnership of equals and just really concentrate on bringing them with us in our battle against COVID.”
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