Our city is having a real shock. A global crisis has made its way into our local community and it’s making us all really anxious.
Since the last update I have had daily, sometimes hourly, contact with the health authorities and government ministers. I’m in direct contact with Department of Health ministers, the Cheif Medical Officer’s office, Brighton and Hove Council and the commissioning body for health across our city. I can’t instruct any of our public services but what I can do is make sure the voice of our community is heard loud and clear as decisions are being taken; I can test decisions with the people who make them; and I can ensure that all of the different agencies are working together.
I have also tried my absolute best to communicate as much as I can and share as much information as I can, so as well as social media I’ve been on TV and the radio a lot and briefing journalists not only in our city and country but from around the world – there is a lot of interest in what is happening here and how we are responding to the challenge.
Partly the reason why I’ve had to do so much communicating is because others haven’t been doing enough of it. I wish public health officials were more communicative.
I know there is a huge amount of anxiety and many of you want access to more information about the people who have contracted Coronavirus and their movements. This has posed a real challenge. Let me explain why.
Something I’ve noticed is that public health officials are extremely reluctant to release information unless it is categorically grounded in scientific evidence. They fear releasing information that either dates quickly or is contradicted by events in the days after. Coronavirus is new, it’s only been in this form for a matter of weeks and whereas there are very clear indications about how it is passed on there is a reticence to announce it as fact. That means that by the time statements are announced it often uses a convoluted language that causes frustration among people.
Secondly, and most difficult, has been the decision not to release information about the movements of people who have been found to have Coronavirus. I know this has upset some people because many have contacted me to express anger. When I have challenged health officials about it, the answer has been to explain the strategy of how the situation is being managed. In China because the virus has already spread so far they are being reactive by shutting down transport systems, schools and workplaces. In Britain because the numbers are relatively low, we have the resources to identify every person they have had contact with, trace them, and ask them to do the neighbourly thing of staying home away from people until tests are returned or symptoms emerge – this has been given the scientific name of ‘self isolation’, but in reality it’s what we all do if we have a heavy cold, flu, or kids might have nits – we’re cautious and do our bit to stop friends and neighbours catching it.
But we know that some school students, pub staff, and community centre managers have been asked to stay home and it’s caused real anxiety for people who wonder if they too have been in places where exposure to the virus could have happened. But here’s the key thing: it’s people, not places, that are at the heart of how Coronavirus spreads and it’s not just being in the same general space as someone with the virus that poses a danger because it has to be a very specific kind of contact. We know with a high degree of certainty that you need to be in very close proximity of someone with the virus for about 15 minutes or when they sneeze. To be specific, droplets of saliva containing the virus need to pass directly from one mouth to another.
Some people have contacted me asking for very specific information of where people with the virus have travelled. I don’t have that information to release, but when I tell the authorities that people are asking for it I am told that all of the people at risk have been traced or are being traced and told directly. If you’ve not been contacted you don’t need to worry. They are also prioritising those people that scientific and medical evidence suggests are most at risk. That’s why some people in a pub were asked to stay home but others weren’t and some students were asked to stay home but others weren’t. I really do understand why this approach causes alarm because we must put a huge amount of trust in the people making these decisions, but as of today these are the facts as I have been able to ascertain them:
– Of the 5 cases of Coronavirus in Brighton and Hove, *all of them* caught it in another country.
– The first person known to have contracted Coronavirus from Brighton and Hove has fully recovered, has no traces of the virus left and has been released from medical isolation and is back with his family.
– The remaining people we know to have the virus are all doing well.
– The student at PACA who was asked to stay home has tested negative.
– All GP surgeries in the city are open.
Right now there are a lot of people staying home ‘self isolating’ as a precaution under the advice of health experts. But there is a very big difference between that and people who have been confirmed as having Coronavirus and being subject to medical isolation.
Because this is a global crisis and is a new virus we expect science to produce a new response. But the truth is the best response is really simple and it’s something we should all be doing if we’ve been exposed to the virus or not. There’s a very good reason why these viruses make us sneeze, it’s how they replicate. So the best way to protect ourselves – and every piece of medical research backs this up – is for us to catch coughs and sneezes in a tissue, throw it away and wash our hands. Use hand sanitiser every now and then, especially after using public transport. And if you develop a fever, cough, or breathing difficulties, stay home and call 111. Sometimes this advice doesn’t feel ‘big’ enough compared to such a global problem, but believe me it really is.
Every year 600 people die in Britain from the flu, in 2008/09 13,000 people lost their lives to it. Because Coronavirus is new we forget just how much of this kind of virus we already live with in our community. There needs to be much better awareness raising about how we tackle these kinds of viruses before outbreaks occur and not wait until we’re in the midst of one.
Right now I’m going to have another call with the Chief Medical Officer’s office for the latest update. I’ll then be in touch with other agencies to check that everyone is actioning on the latest information and using the latest evidence to steer the response to this really difficult situation. I am also keeping notes as this unfolds because I know many lessons will need to be learned and I will make sure they are, particularly over how health authorities communicate and give clear information to residents who are rightly really worried at times like this.
I’ve been in direct touch with hundreds of residents about this in recent days. I and the whole team will continue to do everything we can to make sure our community gets the very best support through this very difficult time.