BMA chair tells Covid Inquiry that Government abandoning public health principles led to loss of control during pandemic

BMA press release

Location: UK
Published: Thursday 5 October 2023

Providing further evidence at the public Covid inquiry today, the chair of the BMA Professor Phil Banfield warned that inadequate PPE, poor testing infrastructure and inadequate public safety measures contributed to the Government ‘losing control’ of the pandemic.

The Inquiry also explored the disproportionate impact of the pandemic among the Black, Asian and ethnic minority populations and more vulnerable groups in society as the chair of the BMA warned, “we need to make sure we narrow and resolve inequalities - this country cannot go on like this.”

Professor Banfield, who worked on the frontline throughout the pandemic, detailed how the lack of sufficient PPE and inadequate guidance surrounding its use had contributed to the spread of the virus on the front line, noting there was a significant lack of protection outside ICU units from the outset. He said that staff were “treating people with no masks, or with fluid-resistant surgical masks which did not protect from an airborne virus.”

Speaking at the Inquiry today about the inequalities and disparities among the population as a result of the pandemic, the chair of the BMA said that “the best way he had heard it being described by someone was that ‘we were all in the same storm, but not in the same boat’.” When asked about the key concerns posed relating to Black, Asian and ethnic minority health care workers in terms of the virus, vulnerabilities and lack of PPE, Professor Banfield said:

“Firstly, the NHS is acknowledged to be institutionally racist and there are discrepancies with the way staff are treated and the experiences that staff have at the NHS, as well as patients. Taking the disproportionate physical effect on them, the ability to protect staff during the pandemic was affected by this bias and discrimination.” He added: “People from ethnic [minority] backgrounds are less likely to be forthright about saying ‘I need to have appropriate respiratory PPE’, are more likely to be posted to the front line and exposed to high-risk cases. The recognition that that was the case emerged across the pandemic and has been recognised by the NHS.”

The chair of the BMA went on to describe how there was a concern from the Association over why the Government had “abandoned basic public health principles”, that is, testing, contact tracing and supporting people to self-isolate at the start of the pandemic. He continued that the BMA “could not understand the decision to abandon contact tracing made on the 12 March”. He explained how public health colleagues had already highlighted the risks of a disconnect between local health protection teams and NHS, and that data, essential to control the outbreak, didn’t reach the front line due to these separate systems.

He cited the example of the local lockdown in Leicester, whereby having detailed information about just some test results but insufficient information about the prevalence of infection spread in the local population “made it difficult to control."

Raising the issue of the lack of independent public health expertise, Professor Banfield said: “Our public health members who had expertise in this field felt deeply disrespected and that their views and expertise (were) ignored. They felt decisions were being made at government level and they were not seeking the expert views and opinions of people on the frontline with local and contemporary public health expertise.”

Detailing the impact of the lack of availability of PCR tests, Professor Banfield said this had a significant impact on staff shortages on the front line with people having to isolate for 14 days who may not have been positive. He also warned that one of the consequences of a lack of PCR tests was that “the chance of passing covid around a hospital was very high.”

The chair of the BMA detailed how the Government’s decision to abandon contact tracing without having other necessary public health measures in place meant that the virus was much more likely to spread and contribute to pressure on the health service. He said: “As soon as contact tracing was abandoned, that 11 day delay until the lockdown…just seemed to be increasing the number of infections unnecessarily, and that had huge consequence, not only to the public but to the health service as well”, adding that you have “very little” ways of suppressing a virus if you don’t have the testing capacity to know how the virus is spreading.”

Professor Banfield also highlighted how there were “clear discrepancies about how the pandemic was affecting different parts of our society, the poorest, the homeless, those who were already vulnerable”. He noted that even after the UK had come out of lockdown, “right at end in 2022 we still had a situation where very vulnerable people feel very exposed and still hiding away from society”. He spoke of the stories of doctors with long covid and how this had disrupted their lives and careers and that "there is still a lack of acknowledgement that this could and is mostly likely to have been gained at work”.

Notes to editors

1. UK Covid-19 Inquiry

The BMA is a professional association and trade union representing and negotiating on behalf of all doctors in the UK. A leading voice advocating for outstanding health care and a healthy population. An association providing members with excellent individual services and support throughout their lives.