Vaccine programme needs a shot in the arm
I was delighted to become one of the 22 million getting their first dose of Covid-19 vaccine last week and urge everyone to take up the offer as soon as they receive their letter, text or call.
My own experience of getting jabbed – quick, safe and painless – mirrors that of almost everyone who has contacted me, and the programme is a huge tribute not only to every member of NHS and council staff and every volunteer but to the capacity of the NHS as an institution, even in its reduced state, to roll out a project on this scale.
But we could be doing a lot better. I was shocked to find that not one of the five dispensing outlets in Hammersmith received any vaccine last week, and in the case of all but one precious little this year. We have been hitting our targets in terms of numbers, but we could have been doing so much better were the supplies there.
We are promised a big increase in vaccine supply from next week going well into April. We need it – in addition to first doses for healthy 16 to 65 year-olds, everyone will need their second shot this summer. The mass vaccination centre at the Novotel that should have opened on 8 February is now promised from next Monday. At present residents are still being directed to Wembley or Westminster.
Once we can tick ‘supply’ alongside ‘delivery’ that still leaves ‘take up’ and this is proving a more difficult nut to crack. Hammersmith is much affected and I am leading a debate in the Commons on this on Tuesday. It has been extremely difficult to get local data on vaccination rates, but it has been clear for some weeks that London, NW London and within that ourselves, K&C and Westminster have the worst stats on vaccine take up.
The eight boroughs in NW London are currently the only part of England that has vaccinated less than 80% of the 65+ age groups so far called up. What figures we have for borough and ward level show Shepherds Bush, North Ken and North Westminster have the lowest success rates and, when this is further adapted for deprivation and ethnicity, these can drop below 50%.
Supply and location of vaccine centres plays a part in this, but the reasons are more complex. Some people are put off by the spiteful and dangerous anti-vaxx rumours being spread on social media. Some are very difficult to reach. That may sound odd in one of the most densely populated parts of the world but for a high proportion of our neighbours English is not their first language, and many live separate lives with little contact with other people or public services.
But the Government knew this. H&F and Westminster have the lowest take up for flu vaccines. Or ask any election or census canvasser. By the way, don’t forget to register for a postal vote for the London Mayor election and to complete the census form by 21 March – low returns for inner London always leave us short of resources for the next ten years.
We can all do our bit by encouraging family, friends and neighbours to get vaccinated, but it is in everyone’s interest to achieve as close to 100% vaccination rates as possible, and for some people that takes patient persuasion by someone they trust and who knows what they are talking about, like a GP.
This costs time and therefore money, so one of the issues I will be raising in the debate is why none of the £23 million given out last month to help take up levels came to us or other central London boroughs, but plenty went to rural areas and towns where take up is already high (yes, I am aware this is turning into a pattern).
Other Covid-19 and health news
The number of Covid-19 patients hospitalised continues to tumble – 150 in the three Imperial hospitals last week compared to 500 in January, but there are around 110 patients (Covid and non-Covid) in ICU beds and this number looks like being retained for the foreseeable future, 26 above pre-Covid levels.
I can’t emphasise enough that we are not out of the woods by some distance. Firstly, there are the staff to think of. For many the first peak was traumatic and exhausting. Not just the long hours, difficult conditions and inadequate equipment; many medics redeployed to Covid-19 wards who did not normally work in disciplines where death was a regular occurrence were suddenly seeing it every day.
Having got through that, they did it all again, in part because last autumn we came out of lockdown too early and went back too late. Now, they need to deal with the tail of this outbreak, hoping the same mistakes are not made again and somehow get the recovery programme not only up and running but able to deal with the huge backlogs of elective surgery and other treatments.
All of which makes the budget decisions so crass. The 1% for NHS staff is a cut in real terms pay and from the 2.1% that was programmed in for this year. And nothing has been learned from the run down of the NHS over the past 11 years, despite the Covid-19 crisis. Beyond this year there are more cuts in spending planned and the NHS will be asked to continue running on empty despite the risk of another crisis next winter (good article on this by Professor Steve Schifferes, local resident and former BBC economic journalist).
Locally, Imperial are doing a good job, with MRI/CT scans running at 80-90% pre-Covid levels and endoscopies at 60-70% (but this still means waiting lists are growing). Urgent ops up to 14-day priorities are getting done but, at the other end of the waiting list, 1,600 people have now waited more than a year compared to zero a year ago.
Finally, a reminder that the vaccine isn’t a silver bullet. It takes three weeks to become fully active, needs the second dose for maximum effectiveness and we still don’t know how good it is at stopping transition, so masking and distancing continue as ‘normal’.
Some non-Covid health news. Although there may be some expansion at Hammersmith Hospital in the next couple of years, the major works there and at Charing Cross will happen 2025-2030 on current estimates. Even though this is beyond the current political cycle, there is a determination locally to make sure it does happen.
We will not wait so long for the Milson Road Health Centre to get a £1.6m makeover as a new home for the Brook Green and Sterndale Road surgeries. That is starting now and should be done by this autumn. A Tory proposal to sell the centre for luxury housing was defeated by residents and Labour councillors some eight years ago and Councillors Connell, Fennimore and Leighton have been persistent is pursuing the funds for its revival.
In less good news two surgeries in the borough were among those serving 400,000 Londoners bought up by a big US healthcare company. As with GP at Hand, a multinational private healthcare has found a loophole in the law which the NHS seems unable to close and ministers are keen to see opened wider.
A political game of bridge
As it is exactly a year since I held a debate in the Commons on Hammersmith Bridge I thought it time for another, so have bid for one for next week. The title was pretty obvious, ‘proposal for Government funding for repair of Hammersmith Bridge’. It’s the same as last year, because since last year almost nothing has changed, except of course the Bridge is closed not only to motor traffic but to foot, cycle and river passengers too.
My fellow west London MPs and I will not be short of things to say, but it is too much rather than too little chat that is clouding the issue here, so forgive me if I limit myself to one or two central points.
This article in last week’s New Civil Engineer, based on some clever digging by London Assembly Member Murad Qureshi opens the books on what has been spent on repairing Thames bridges in the past decade. The answer is less in total than the £53m wasted by Boris Johnson on his Garden Bridge vanity project.
What this exposes is the Government’s cynical tactics in asking H&F to pay £64m, in addition to the £25m they and the GLA had already contributed, towards the repair cost. They might as well have asked the council, cash-strapped like every other local authority after losing a third of its budget in ten years, for £640m. As H&F Leader Stephen Cowan has set out in detail, not only is this unfair, it is impossible.
Shapps, Vere, Hands, Bailey and the rest of them know this only too well and so we must conclude that they have no interest in the Bridge being fixed.
More evidence for this comes in the ferry saga. The government ordered TfL to use some of its bailout money to fund a ferry – a pre-C19th solution to a C21st problem. That ferry now looks like making its maiden voyage this autumn at the earliest. Had the government instead simply commissioned the stabilisation works to the Bridge when it set its useless Taskforce up last September, we could have seen non-motor traffic over, and river traffic under, by this summer. The estimated cost of this is £46m, a sizeable sum but less than what they have already said they are prepared to spend.
I am acutely sensitive to the stress, inconvenience, cost and lost time that thousands of former Bridge users suffer, especially in the weeks schools go back. This is a local scandal. But it is also a national, indeed international, scandal. Not just because this is an important route in and out of London. It is a historical landmark and one of the most prominent crossings of one of the most famous rivers in the world. That is why it has featured in the world’s press.
Failure to act by this seedy Government not only shows contempt for people in H&F, Richmond, Hounslow, Wandsworth and far beyond, it shows how little they care about the country they purport to govern. Can you imagine this happening in New York, Paris or Rome (or Genoa). Another sign of the moral and physical decay that is Johnson leitmotif.
Naively, my speech from March 2020 is quite optimistic about a solution being found, based on contributions from all parties. Covid-19 set that back but rather than step up the Government decided to use the impoverishment of TfL and H&F as part of a political game. At the moment the best hope looks like transferring the Bridge to a new owner who can start the works by levering in money from future tolls and perhaps getting funding for one of the temporary solutions. But what a mess.
It is more difficult to hold this Government to account under the current restrictions, virtual scrutiny and legislating doesn’t quite cut it. But I have been debating the cladding scandal, human rights, the cut in the aid budget and of course the Covid crisis.
The cuts of up to 70% in aid to the poorest and most abused people on earth, such as those in Yemen is a low even for the current Government, and it is good to see some decent Conservatives calling this out. There is a common characteristic to many members of Johnson’s coterie, chosen in his image, and that is a lack of personal integrity. Whether it is Shapps promising to pay for the Bridge, Hancock and his crony contracts, Jenrick and the betrayal of Grenfell, Williamson refusing to feed schoolchildren or Patel hostile environment to refugees, their concern is always for themselves and their ilk, not the people who most need help.
I want to signal out for praise a local charity that is both campaigning for and offering practical help to those most vulnerable victims of Patel, asylum seekers. West London Welcome is a charity that provides food and a whole range of services to people deprived of recourse to public funds. This has become more difficult but more necessary during lockdown as hundreds of asylum seekers are dumped in hotels, served inedible food, threatened and often sent off round the country at no notice away from schools, healthcare and support. In H&F they do get that support thanks to Joanne MacInnes and her team. If you are able, please support them in return.
The Upper Room, a local homeless charity of which I am patron, is open and working harder than ever, but needing funds. One way you can help and have an excellent virtual evening in the process is by attending their annual lecture series which start on 16th March with Clare Balding, followed in April by Michael Frayn and Jeremy Paxman in May. And all for £10 a shot.
I’ve also just become a patron of the H&F Law Centre, after 30 years as a member of the board there. Quite an honour as the only other patron is the former president of the Supreme Court and smiter of unlawful prorogations, Baroness Hale. Sadly, Sue James, the Centre’s director is leaving after 17 years. Not sadly, she is going to run the Legal Action Group the national body for promoting access to justice. We are currently advertising for her replacement. If you want to support the Law Centre but fancy something less onerous, sign up as a Member and supporter free of charge.
There are many other organisations that are working flat out at present to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic. Here are just a few that can offer help, but would also value your assistance in cash or kind.