Why the government is wrong to say the NHS hasn’t been overwhelmed by Covid-19
by Ian Sinclair
30 June 2020
Appearing on the BBC Today Programme on 6 April the Health Secretary noted a “core goal” during the pandemic was “making sure the NHS isn’t overwhelmed.”
“Which everybody was telling me a month ago was impossible to achieve but that has been achieved”, Matt Hancock said.
The Prime Minister exhibited even more audacity at the end of April. The UK had “avoided the tragedy that engulfed other parts of the world”, he bragged, seemingly unaware the UK had one of the highest death tolls in the world. How could Boris Johnson make this claim? “Because at no stage has our NHS been overwhelmed”, he said.
Showing its gullible establishment colours, the Guardian repeated the government’s narrative, stating on 17 April that the NHS “has been able to cope”.
In reality these statements are only true if you ignore some very obvious, inconvenient facts.
First, news reports have confirmed that in mid-March the NHS was ordered to discharge 15,000 patients from hospital to free up space for people with Covid-19.
Hundreds were sent to care homes, which “were put under pressure by the NHS to accept people at short notice”, the Times reported on 15 May. Moreover, “people were not tested before being moved” (only on 16 April did the government announce patients would be tested before being discharged into care homes). This exodus seems to have been enabled by Public Health England’s National Infection Service changing their guidance on discharging patients from hospital on 19 March, which meant “hospitals no longer needed to avoid sending patients to care homes, a decision which was heavily criticised”, the Telegraph reported on 6 May.
Quoted in the Times on 13 April, Robert Kilgour, owner of Renaissance Care which runs 15 care homes in Scotland, said there was “huge discouragement by the authorities to hospitalise, a wish to keep them where they are and look after them where they are”. He also mentioned “instances of ambulances taking residents to hospital and returning and coming straight back.” This is confirmed by Professor Martin Green, spokesperson for Care England’s larger care companies, who told the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee some areas had “blanket policies not to admit residents to hospital.”
During Prime Minister’s Questions on 13 May, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer read out testimony from a cardiologist: “We discharged known, suspected and unknown cases into care homes which were unprepared with no formal warning that patients were infected, no testing available and no PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] to prevent transmission. We actively seeded this into the very population that was most vulnerable”.
As Toynbee summarises: “The NHS was only saved, Green alleges, because hospitals dumped the crisis on care homes.”
The government’s policy of discharging patients from hospitals during the pandemic was likely a key reason why the death toll is so high in care homes – at least 15,000 people have died in UK care homes from confirmed or suspected Covid-19, the Guardian reported on 14 June.
Another reason why the government’s claim the NHS wasn’t overwhelmed doesn’t hold water is because the government artificially suppressed demand for the NHS – by discouraging people from accessing NHS services during the early stages of the crisis.
On 16 March the government said people should only use the NHS “where we really need to”, and get advice on the NHS website where possible.
This messaging caused predictable results. In March “the number of people going to their local emergency department fell by 600,000, or 29 per cent, compared to same month last year”, the Independent reported.
More broadly, at the end of April the Guardian revealed “Doctors have postponed more than 2m operations after non-emergency surgery was cancelled for at least three months to free up beds for coronavirus patients.” It will take “many years” for the NHS to get back to a good position, the president of the Royal College of Surgeons commented.
It’s worth considering what so-called non-emergency care really means. “Almost two-thirds of Britons with common life-threatening conditions have been denied care by the NHS because hospitals have focused on fighting Covid-19”, the Guardian noted earlier this month, citing research from Essex University. “Seven out of 10 people with diabetes, 65% of those with high blood pressure and 64% of people suffering from breathing problems have had care cancelled by the NHS across the UK during the pandemic.”
According to Cancer Research UK nearly 2.5 million Britons have not been screened, tested or treated for cancer because of the disruption to the NHS during the crisis. They estimate more than 24,000 cases of cancer have likely gone undiagnosed as a result of this suspension of normal services, with the delays in treatment meaning some people’s disease is now inoperable.
So, yes, technically the NHS might not have been overwhelmed during the crisis. But this was only because the government recklessly discharged thousands of vulnerable patients – including infected people – into care homes and the community, discouraged the public not to access healthcare, and massively cut back on NHS services, thus creating huge long-term problems for the NHS and additional pain and suffering for thousands of people.
Appalling though it is, the government’s claim to have successfully protected the NHS is just one dangerous deception amongst many in what has arguably been the largest campaign of government deceit since Iraq.
And the lies are never-ending. Just this month a new analysis by the Guardian found that in April “more than 1,000 people died [from Covid-19] every day in the UK for 22 consecutive days – in stark contrast with daily tolls announced by the government”. Sir David King, the former Chief Scientific Adviser, said the gap between the government’s figures and the true death toll was “an attempt to play down the adversity that the country was faced with”.
On 20 May Boris Johnson told the House of Commons “We have growing confidence that we will have a test, track and trace operation that will be world-beating and yes, it will be in place by June 1”. Yet on 18 June the government announced it had abandoned its coronavirus contact-tracing app – “after spending three months and millions of pounds on technology that experts had repeatedly warned would not work”, the Guardian reported. On the same day the independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, made up of preeminent science and medical experts from the UK and around the world, described the government’s wider contact tracing system as “not fit for purpose”. They noted figures released by the government reveal “extensive data gaps” and “the actual number of daily and weekly cases in the community is unknown because testing has been chaotic and haphazard”. Therefore, “we do not know how many cases have been missed and have not been transferred for contact tracing”. Furthermore, the group noted “we have no idea how many people contacted are actually isolating and what health or other support they are receiving”.
This Inspector Clouseau-level of incompetence means the results of the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government Lockdown Rollback Checklist shouldn’t be a surprise. Published on 1 June and ranking countries according to the extent they meet the World Health Organisation’s recommendations for rolling back lockdown, the UK appears in 167th place in a league table of 170 nations.
With the poor and BAME people making up a disproportionate number of the more than 63,000 excess deaths in the UK the Office for National Statistics estimates due to Covid-19, as ever it’s the most vulnerable members of society who bear the brunt of the government’s criminal negligence.
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.