Our future: health

By Hugh Goulbourne in collaboration with Dr M E Noble

As thousands of parents and schoolchildren are forced to self-isolate, students are locked up in their halls of residence and pubs are required to close at 10pm, it is clear that the government has lost control of the pandemic.

This has repercussions not just for this winter, but also for the years ahead. The worst effect is on the most vulnerable in our society – the young, the elderly and those on a low income. If we are to create a more fair and prosperous West Yorkshire, then we need to learn from the rest of the world and do things differently.

Covid-19 is not the fault of any single person. It seems increasingly clear that humans only came into contact with the virus because of the rapid spread of our towns and cities into the forests and countryside that once formed our planet’s great wildernesses. And with humans now being exposed to more and more new ecosystems, experts are predicting that we will experience five new diseases of this type every year.

Some may be less potent than Covid-19; others may be much worse. Hopefully, work will soon be underway to heal our planet’s damaged ecosystems, but for the foreseeable future we have to find a way of responding to, and living with, these diseases over the coming years.

Local politicians and businesspeople have been warning the government for many months now that to get through the autumn and winter months successfully, we will need a reliable test, track and trace system. Without knowing where and how we need to take action, not only is it impossible to contain the virus, but it is also impossible to earn the trust of local communities, leading to ill-judged, ill-informed local restrictions with loss of community support.

The government had months to prepare for the inevitable rise in cases as we reopened schools and universities, and to ensure that we had a test, track and trace system that was fit for purpose. On 20 May, a report presented to government advisors stressed that reopening schools without an effective test and trace system could lead to a surge in cases of Covid-19. It was not until four months later, after children and students had returned to schools and universities, that the government launched the official Covid-19 App (which still doesn’t work properly).

Significantly, on 20 September, the Independent SAGE published a ten point plan to avoid another national lockdown, “to be reviewed, as appropriate, when a functional testing system is in place”. It is a cause for some alarm that such a preeminent group of scientists should have to acknowledge, exactly six months to the day since the first national lockdown, that the government has been unable to build a world-class testing system covering the entire UK. And this is not the first time that the prime minister has been warned. In August, the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus stressed the need for “a nationally supported Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support program in England” when it published its Zero Covid Strategy in England.  

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Looking at other countries around the world, even in the USA, where Covid-19 got out of control during the summer months, they are better prepared than we are for the winter months ahead. Many US states have kept their bars closed, have put in place more stringent measures for their schools and are testing rigorously.

There is little that can be done now to avert the looming health, social and economic crisis. But as we look ahead to 2021, there are a few things that we, here in West Yorkshire, might want to think about if we want to ensure that we are never in this place again.

The first is for our new West Yorkshire mayor to work with our five local authorities to create one public health team. With shared resources and a singular focus, this team would be able to respond at pace in a way that they have not been able to do during this crisis.

The second is to ensure that our communications with residents are based on evidence and data, not just government policy. Each local authority has its own delegated budgets and resources to communicate with local residents; simply repurposing government advice does not reflect that duty.

Lastly, we should see this as an opportunity to build on the excellent work that has been done in recent years by the Bradford Institute for Health Research. In partnership with Bradford Council, they have brought together health, education and other records of thousands of young people across Bradford to ensure that they are targeting public resources to protect the health and lives of local residents. This project has the capacity to grow into a national health institute with global significance, levelling up the life expectancies of different communities and creating jobs and training opportunities for people here in West Yorkshire.

West Yorkshire devolution provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make these long-term decisions about our future. Most people I talk to here are motivated to get the best for their family and the best for our community. They are hugely frustrated by our government’s lack of planning and absence of an effective test, track and trace system. They want to see their friends and family for Christmas but without the risk of endangering the health of anyone around them. And we all want to see more rewarding and stable employment opportunities for people here.

With the foundations for a national health institute and some of the best digital health and pharmaceutical businesses anywhere in the world already here in West Yorkshire, we have enormous opportunity to deliver on all of this and more.

Hugh Goulbourne is seeking nomination to be the Labour Party’s candidate for the West Yorkshire mayoral election. Dr M E Noble is the chief executive of Visformatics.

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