Katy Balls

NHS chief warns against ‘age-based apartheid’ in coronavirus response

NHS chief warns against 'age-based apartheid' in coronavirus response
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When Boris Johnson addressed the nation last week to give an update on his coronavirus strategy, the Prime Minister offered a rebuke of the idea put forward by some Tory MPs and scientists that vulnerable groups ought to be shielded and the rest of the population allowed to live close to normal lives. He argued that suggestions the vulnerable could simply shield were misguided, as it was likely the virus would still reach these groups. Now he has won backing from NHS chief Sir Simon Stevens.

Speaking at The Spectator's alternative conference, the NHS's chief executive officer said 'we are not going to have aged-based apartheid across this country'. Stevens argued: 

'The idea that you could completely separate the fifth of the population over 65 i think is implausible. Not least because for some the most vulnerable they will be getting help from working age adults, some of whom will be younger, and some [will be] living in households with younger people and so forth. That's just not how the world works. In any event there would be legitimate concerns about social isolation - which is giving rise to the discussion about visiting care homes. In a nutshell, extra precautions for those at greatest risk is a sensible part of the mix, but by itself, we are not going to have aged-based apartheid across this country'.

In the discussion, alongside MSD's Dr Dilruwan Chaminda Herath, Stevens also clarified that the so-called 'NHS test and trace' programme is not actually an NHS project: 

'NHS certainly benefits enormously from Test and Trace. The Test and Trace programme, under Baroness Harding, is being run as part of the Department of Health. The NHS labs are contributing to the testing capacity, but it is a sort of free-standing service that has been established for this pandemic.' 

His comments come amid reports of annoyance among NHS staff that the government keeps calling it an NHS project. 

Looking ahead to a potential second wave, Stevens suggested there were reasons to believe it may not be as bad as the first time around. Why? Because primarily there is more testing this time around so there is a better grasp in government, Public Health England and the NHS of what point the rate of infection is at:

'Fundamentally the reason we ended up with the deaths we had is that much more coronavirus was circulating in the community in February and March than we knew about at the time. That's in part because of the absence of testing. Partly, it's the case definition which originally attributed the coronavirus type symptom to being coronavirus if you had a travel history from Wuhan or China. Actually some of the genetic testing of the coronavirus has shown much more of it came from France and Italy across our borders rather than originating in China. Fundamentally it's because we ended up in a situation where [according to ONS estimates] 7 out of 10 of working age adult coronavirus deaths, [the individuals] were infected before early March - before lockdown. So that will have turned out to be a crucial period.'

The full discussion can be watched here

Written byKaty Balls

Katy Balls is The Spectator's deputy political editor.

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