My thoughts are with all those affected by this virus and with residents across the city who are feeling understandably worried and scared. I think that clear, regular and accurate information is vital and this has been the focus of the actions I have taken to date.
I have followed this up in writing with both the Health Secretary and the Foreign Office and reiterated the need for proactive public health information and for every channel to be explored.
The nature of the information that’s being provided is also important. Whilst the “catch it, bin it, kill it” message is the priority and - along with self-isolation where appropriate - is the best way to control the spread of the virus based on current understanding, I know that members of the public have many other questions that are not being addressed. That is a real gap. I am in regular touch with Public Health England (PHE), the Chief Medical Officer, the Clinical Commissioning Group in Brighton and Hove, and the leaders of the city council to stress the importance of a vastly improved and regularly reviewed communications strategy.
I have previously asked PHE to confirm how long the virus can survive on surfaces and for information about the effectiveness of masks.
The NHS Direct website has clear information about symptoms, which are a cough, a high temperature and shortness of breath. They also advise what to do if you experience these symptoms – see https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/wuhan-novel-coronavirus/. It is my view that the information about self-isolation is not as clear as it might be and I have recommended this be improved.
There is more detailed information here too: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/wuhan-novel-coronavirus-information-for-the-public. This includes details about testing for the virus as follows:
The UK is now one of the first countries outside China to have a prototype specific laboratory test for this new disease. Healthcare professionals who are contacted by a patient with symptoms following travel to Wuhan have been advised to submit samples to PHE for testing. Individuals should be treated in isolation…
…. When a clinician suspects novel coronavirus (2019-nCov), they take samples from the nose, throat and deeper respiratory samples, package and send them safely to PHE Colindale. PHE can provide a laboratory result from this specific virus on the same working day.
As of 11 February, a total of 1,358 people across the country have been tested, of which 1,350 were confirmed negative and 8 positive.
Turning to communication and information provision, I have asked Brighton and Hove City Council to work with schools to ensure parents get regular updates in writing and by text message. I have also suggested that the PSHE curriculum is used to support children who might be worried and to address any eg racist incidents, of which sadly there are reports.
I have contacted the local press to express concern at the way in which they have sensationalised the story and have urged the city council to carry a rolling factual update on their website - including whether and why any GP surgeries or other medical facilities have been closed, the latest number of people tested in the city and how many cases have been confirmed, as well as what self-isolation looks like and other content about how to reduce the risks - so that they are the primary point of information for all residents, not the media.
There is significant media interest in unfolding events and I am very mindful that I and others have a responsibility to only communicate the facts, not to fuel rumours, and in particular to balance the need to protect patient confidentiality with the need to protect the wider community.
With the Care Commissioning Group, I have asked that all GP surgery websites have clear signposting to further information ( both “catch it, bin it, kill it” and if people have further questions…) front and centre; whether all GP surgeries in the city have text messaging services set up with their patients and for those to be used to send daily updates; and for more information about the closures of health facilities, including who is making decisions and on what grounds.
The other key thing I have been raising in my capacity as a local MP is around the tracing procedures for those who have been in contact with confirmed cases, including how people are being identified and what proactive practical and emotional support, as well as medical support, is being given.