How sick we cannot test those people who save us

Published by The Daily Mail (19th March, 2020)

The immense scale of this crisis is terrifying to comprehend, not least for those politicians and scientists who find themselves taking decisions with life and death consequences. 

Yet in a war, one thing should be beyond debate: you must equip and protect your frontline forces to the best of your ability, whether they are soldiers risking their lives in battle, or medical staff forced to confront a cruel pandemic. 

So there is grave – and justified – concern over Westminster’s failure to ensure the distribution of decent protective gear to doctors, nurses and carers. Many are begging for basic equipment such as aprons, gloves, masks and sanitisers. 

This is bad enough, given that the storm could be seen heading our way weeks ago. We have only to look at Italy to see a vision of the hell awaiting us, with those hideous images of rows of patients on ventilators, alongside pictures of despairing doctors and exhausted nurses. 

Equally serious is the woeful reluctance to ensure there is testing available for every one of those dedicated men and women on the frontline of this epic struggle. One doctor has even said he is scared by this lack of protection. 

You can hear the desperation in the voices of people such as Nishant Joshi, an accident and emergency doctor from Luton and Dunstable General Hospital who spoke to Emma Barnett on Radio 5 Live yesterday in a plea for more support. 

He told of a patient sneezing and coughing on him during his night shift as he took blood. ‘This happens on a daily basis,’ said Dr Joshi. ‘Where does that leave me? 

‘We are concerned that we are vectors of transmission. We are concerned that we are superspreaders. If we are not tested there is a good chance that one of us is transmitting coronavirus.’ 

It is common sense to protect such people. An infected medical worker will spread this virus more widely and to more of those at risk than most other citizens (the average person with this disease is thought to pass it to 2.4 people). 

Testing is also vital to ensure the maximum number of available staff, preventing workers taking time off if they wrongly fear they might have caught the disease. Medics need to know when they have a cold and when they have coronavirus. 

One consultant has tweeted about how his wife had a sore throat, so he had to leave work even though he was fine. ‘I have to self-isolate, without a test at present, for 14 days from initiation of her symptoms,’ he wrote. ‘We have to prioritise staff testing.’ 

Others agree. ‘This is the biggest emergency confronting the NHS in our lifetime and we cannot afford to have people off work for two weeks if not absolutely necessary,’ Jeremy Hunt, chairman of the Commons’ health committee, told me yesterday. 

It is slightly grotesque to see businesses and rich celebrities spending around £375 for private tests when low-paid nurses and carers on minimum wages get left to worry about whether to carry on working after developing a sore throat. 

About 60 big firms, including an oil company, are reported to have ordered home-testing kits for workers. There are questions also over how footballers and film stars know they have the virus when they seem not to match the criteria for being tested by the NHS. 

Testing of frontline staff is essential when Britain has switched to a ‘suppression’ strategy – trying to break transmission chains and reduce cases – after ditching the dangerous idea of developing herd immunity by letting the disease rip through the population. 

Boris Johnson promised yesterday to ramp up testing to 25,000 a day within four weeks, closer to the per capita rate seen in South Korea, which seems to have dealt more effectively with controlling this latest virus after going through the similar Sars outbreak in 2003. 

Yet only 56,000 tests have been carried out in this country since coronavirus reached our shores in January, which is far too few – and this fuels public anxiety. 

‘We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test,’ said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organisation. ‘We cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected.’ 

Spot on. At least the Prime Minister said yesterday that he would ‘prioritise’ NHS staff, which was some progress. 

Yet what about carers? Once again, he left them out of the equation – but their work in the Cinderella public service is crucial in keeping pressure off the health system and containing this epidemic. 

Carers support some of the most high-risk British citizens, such as my daughter, who cannot see, talk or walk and has complex epilepsy. Her team provides 24-hour support, frequently giving emergency medication to stop life-threatening seizures. 

Already three of the team are self-isolating. Countless other families tell me of similar difficulties; some parents face different challenges as schools close, sending children with complex needs back home without much-needed specialist support. 

There has been no clear advice given for carers in family homes and supported living, let alone meaningful protective gear. Yet a single carer can go into as many as 40 homes a day, so the unintended potential to spread this lethal disease is huge. 

If there is insufficient testing, carers will rightly take time off when they get a fever, cough or headache. Yet those in need of their essential services still need support. 

People cannot self-isolate if they need help with changing, eating and washing due to their age, disabilities or health. If carers cannot do their job, specialist support falls often on families. If parents or siblings are sick – or collapse from stress – then the load will fall back on the overburdened health service. 

There is one other key point about testing frontline staff: they can carry on working safely after being found to have had the disease rather than taking time off for every sneeze. This helps relieve stresses on the system when the maelstrom strikes hard. 

We are relying on our doctors, our nurses and our carers for victory against this parasitic enemy in our midst, so we should not be hindering their ability to work, let alone risking their lives. Give them the right tools, as another wartime leader once said, and they will finish the job.

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