Congratulations to everyone who has received their first dose of Covid-19 vaccine, doubly so to those few who have had both. And profound thanks to all those who are making it possible: the whole NHS, GPs, hospitals, public health staff, the council and volunteers.
This, I am told, is the current situation in H&F.
There are three primary care sites at Parson’s Green, Richford Gate and White City. All local GPs are contacting patients in priority groups to give them appointments at one of these venues. Richford Gate has been going since before Christmas, the other two opened a week ago.
A major vaccination centre also opened last week at Wembley. Some residents will have received letters inviting them to book a slot here. From 8 February we will have our own major centre at the Novotel in Hammersmith Broadway. Both local hospitals are now vaccinating Imperial and other NHS staff. Care home residents and staff have been offered vaccines as have the over 80s who are housebound.
The national target is to offer vaccines to everyone in the top four priority groups by 14 February. These are: care home residents and staff; over 80s and frontline health and social care workers; over 75s; over 70s and the clinically extremely vulnerable.
These are tough targets, but our local NHS and public health are bullish about meeting them.
This is not to say the programme has been plain sailing. Having three separate vaccine silos – GPs, hospitals and major centres – and overall supply problems means the vaccine has not always been reaching the right place at the right time, and there have been last-minute cancellations.
Too many disparities and inequalities are coming to light between and within different boroughs and regions. Only around 50% of over 80s have been vaccinated in H&F whereas in some parts of the country this is over 80%. Vaccination rates are lower in poorer areas and among Black, Asian and minority ethnic residents. About one in ten people asked are refusing the vaccine, but this is significantly higher for some minority groups. 15% of the most deprived part of the population locally are refusing against 4% of the least deprived.
These are issues I and other London MPs are raising constantly with everyone from our own local services to the senior ranks of the NHS and the government. There is some good work locally to encourage take up of the vaccines but we need more investigation of the reasons for refusal and engagement on the ground or these gaps will only grow wider.
I do not want to be over-critical of those in charge of the vaccine roll out nationally, but the level of information has been abysmal – the above facts took me several days to piece together and we are being told that information is not available when it clearly is. Nervousness about system failures and a desire to control the news agenda means the government often does not tell us the whole truth. I think the public would cut them some slack if they were honest about the problems but seen to be doing their best.
The delay in the second vaccine dose is far from ideal, especially for those already promised a date, but it is a balance of risk. The priority – rightly in my view – is to limit the numbers getting very ill or dying. The same goes for the differences between the Oxford and the Pfizer vaccine – availability, versatility and overall effectiveness. There seem to be as many opinions as there are scientists but they are what we have and both will keep a lot of people alive who would otherwise die.
Vaccines are not a cure all. They may not stop you getting Covid-19 or passing it on. It is only one, though an effective, way of controlling the virus. It is not an alternative to testing, isolation or following public health rules on social distancing, mask wearing and hand washing. New strains may need repeated doses as with flu vaccines.
I wish the government would be more grave. We are still in the eye of the storm. The figures on hospitalisation and deaths are very bad. Almost 500 beds at our local hospitals currently house Covid-19 patients, almost 50% more than in April, and up from 5% of beds to 40% since the beginning of December. Over 100 are in intensive care. I will remind Conservative politicians again that without the 360 beds at Charing Cross which they told us for seven years were not needed (1000 would have gone in north-west London) we would not be struggling but bust.
It was irresponsible to try and ‘save Christmas’ given what was known and it will be more so to lift lockdown too early. People and businesses are suffering in numerous ways, and the current support packages are neither sufficient not sufficiently-well targeted, but we are on the way to 100,000 deaths, a full Wembley stadium, more UK citizens than died in hostilities each year of the second world war and our record is the worst of any major country. Over 670 people have died so far in Charing Cross, Hammersmith and St Mary’s hospitals.
It was reckless to allow people to enter the UK untested or quarantined until last week, and compliance with the rules has not been strict enough. I have dealt with horror stories of employers making staff go to work in non-covid-compliant workplaces when they can work from home. I have regular calls with the local police about both organised and casual flouting of the rules.
This week I did a lateral flow test at one of the six council sites in the borough and will do the same every week (ideally every four days). It is quick, safe and you get the results in about half an hour by text or email. About 3% of the 15,000-plus tested have been positive so far (not me). That may not sound a lot, but think of those 450 people isolating instead of spreading the virus to family, co-workers or just in shops and offices.
To be clear, the council service is for those not showing symptoms. If you have symptoms you need to follow the NHS rules. And a single negative test is not something you can rely on – hence the need for regular testing.
Two weeks ago, Elena Hough, the deputy head of Wendell Park Primary School wrote to me with a startling fact. Ten times as many children were coming into school as during the first lockdown in April, around 25% of the total roll. This not only means it is very difficult to stop the spread of the virus (as Elena put it ‘anyone who says otherwise has not been sneezed on, coughed on or hugged by multiple small people’), it also means running two schools simultaneously – one online and one in the classroom.
This alarmed me sufficiently to raise the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions (which on average I get called in once a year). The answer was dismal: our excuse for a leader pretended he had not heard the question (he often does this if he can’t answer) then quoted a low but still worrying figure of 14% of children going to school.
So, I surveyed local schools and Ms Hough appears to have done her homework better than Mr Johnson. How to explain the sharp increase from the first lockdown? It may be more parents having to go to work because they cannot get financial support from government schemes, or that the message to stay at home has been muted.
But it is also because so many children still do not have access to tablets and laptops or internet services so cannot be taught at home. 600,000 promised laptops have not been delivered and a similar number of homes have no internet access. Local charities and the council in H&F are trying to plug the gap here, but there is really no excuse for poorer children to be missing their education or placing their families and teachers at risk.
If schools are to re-admit children sooner rather than later, teachers need to be offered the vaccine. So too do other frontline and public sector workers. We rightly praise and prioritise health and care workers. At present they are under intolerable pressure – another reason for following the rules.
But shop, transport and council workers are all coming into contact with the public all day and every day, and their lives are at risk, especially with new strains of virus which appear to be attacking more people of working age. We have rightly prioritised the elderly and the vulnerable to save the most lives, but there is a long way to go.
One group that has done well from the crisis are management consultants. I was tipped off back in September that the government had taken on thousands at astronomical rates of pay without any clear idea what they were supposed to do. Not surprisingly the government proved reluctant to divulge details, and it took four months of weekly badgering to get the first substantive response. There is plenty more to come but even this admission, that companies were paid an average of £5 million led to further questioning from MPs on all sides.
Help in H&F
While the pandemic continues, the emergency help services set up by volunteers around the Borough are still keen to hear from you whether that is to let them know of need or helping with volunteering and donations.
Yes, there is some, but it is all a bit Groundhog Day I am afraid as we wait for the crisis to pass.
Brexit. I couldn’t bring myself to vote for the Deal in the end. It was just so poor. Of course, any deal which avoided tariffs was better than no deal, I abstained rather than vote against, but this was the barest of bare minimums. How anyone could negotiate something this shoddy I cannot comprehend – Jonathan Powell and the FT explain just how shoddy better than I can.
Unlike Theresa May, Johnson is constrained by neither responsibility or conscience and has surrounded himself with similar characters – Gove, Patel, Shapps, Williamson, Jenrick – most of then sacked or shunned by her. If you don’t care about the outcome it makes negotiating a deal easy.
It’s already clear that those industries promised the most – fishing, transport, food – are the first to suffer. But while these early mistakes may be covered up by throwing public money at the problem, the longer-term prospects for the economy look bleak just at the time when we will be trying to recover from a Covid-19 depression that has already seen numbers on benefits double.
Worse still, just as the US declares business as usual and re-enters the international community, the UK has declared UDI and looks out of step with our partners in Europe and around the world, to their detriment and our own.
That’s quite some legacy.
Bridge. Was there ever such as misnamed body as the Hammersmith Bridge Taskforce? It has undertaken no tasks and applied no force. It is as if it were set up to give the appearance of action while affecting none.
To be fair, its creator, the Transport Secretary, has siphoned off about £10 million of the bailout money his department is paying Transport for London to keep the tubes and buses running during Covid. This is to get a ferry operating and for some necessary but minor initial works to one of the pedestals.
H&F is pushing for the Fosters scheme as this appears to be the quickest and best way of getting a temporary solution going. They are also advocating a toll as a way of contributing to the permanent works, though this may need a change of ownership or legislation so they need and have asked for government help with this.
The money already spent by H&F and TfL, plus whatever a toll would raise, would already amount to a considerably higher contribution than for any comparable scheme. The cost of the full scheme is equivalent to building a new bridge. The bridge is a national/regional artery. Anywhere else in the UK, liability would not be in issue and DfT would have paid up already.
I can only conclude their motivation is political – that they think somehow this embarrasses H&F, Richmond or the Mayor. It is they who should be embarrassed for playing games with the health, welfare, convenience and safety of thousands of local residents, who have relied on the bridge for almost two centuries.
Scrubs. The picture above reminds us how lucky we are to have Wormwood Scrubs, our own bit of wilderness. I wrote last time about the permission under legislation HS2 have to dig up some of the wilder parts as part of its station development. And although they will pay around £4 million for restoration and conservation, the scars on the landscape will take many years to heal. So it is a relief that the combined efforts of the council and the Friends of the Scrubs are mitigating one of the worst features of the planned works by changing the access route. Those wishing to join the campaign to protect the Scrubs can find more details on the council or the Friends’ websites.