COVID-19 Update

Friday, 13 March, 2020

As you will know, the government yesterday updated its guidance around Covid19. As a result, we have moved from the 'containment' to the 'delay' phase in relation to public health policy and practice. The aim now is to 'flatten the curve' of infections so that they are spread out and pressure is reduced as much as possible across the health system. This will maximise the availability of resources for those who need them.  

Yesterday evening, I attended an extraordinary board meeting of the Strategic Homelessness Partnership Board, convened by Birmingham City Council. Board members - including a number of leaders from voluntary organisations – discussed their organisational and collective responses to Covid19, both in terms of necessary organisational management decisions and ensuring care and support for affected service users. There was a presentation at the meeting from Justin Varney, the city’s Director of Public Health. This was partly sobering, partly reassuring, and wholly informative. Details follow.

Obviously, this is a challenging, unprecedented and evolving situation - but it was really encouraging to see so many voluntary and public sector agencies focused on working together to support each other and to minimise the impact of Covid19 on vulnerable communities in Birmingham. Thanks are due to the Adult Social Care team at BCC for pulling the meeting together, to Public Health for providing such informative and timely information, and to all the voluntary sector providers who participated in the meeting.

What should the voluntary sector do now?

The key message is that we should be considering our business continuity requirements now. I will be reviewing BVSC’s approach to Covid19 in the light of last night’s briefing and updated public health guidance first thing next week with my senior managers and board members, and I encourage other voluntary organisations to do the same.

With that said, our response should be measured and proportionate, and we should not panic. Our staff and beneficiaries will be looking to us for calm guidance and clear support. The Director of Public Health believes that the government's current approach is correct in terms of minimising the impact of Covid19 - which is reassuring - and BVSC will be continuing to follow this.

BVSC is working with the Council on a coordinated communications strategy across the voluntary sector (focusing on Neighbourhood Network Schemes and grant funded providers initially) and will be  working with our providers to explore some specifics around how the sector can provide care and support for those most in need - such as the isolated elderly - during the most challenging period of the outbreak. This will include looking at local responses and balancing capacity across services and organisations in the coming weeks. More information will follow from us early next week.

What follows are my key takeaways gleaned from the recent government guidance and last night’s Public Health briefing, along with information on some approaches being taken by my own organisation. Each voluntary organisation must make its own appropriate decisions through its relevant governance and management channels – but this is the information BVSC is mulling over, and I hope it will be useful for you.

Key points:

  • In a worst case (minimum containment/delay) scenario, 80% of people will catch the virus, 1% of those will die. In Birmingham terms, this would represent 800,000 sick people, and 8000 deaths. Appropriate delay tactics will reduce the likelihood of this scenario.
  • There are 2 confirmed cases and no deaths yet in Birmingham, but several people are self-isolating. 3 deaths in West Midlands so far. Birmingham is off to a positive start, in a sense, which bodes well for avoiding that worst case scenario, but we mustn’t be complacent – this is an unprecedented challenge.
  • Duration of a UK-based epidemic likely to be 4-6 months, possibly longer.
  • The peak period of illness in Birmingham is expected to begin in around 2-3 weeks' time (starting April/May), at which time 20% of an organisation’s staff may be off work simultaneously for a period of around 2-3 weeks.
  • We should plan for approx. ​50% of staff needing time off during the full course of the UK phase of the disease (across the next 4-6 months). Time off will be due to illness, self-isolation, caring responsibilities, and bereavement.
  • Govt. probably right not to announce social distancing measures yet. If the country moves to these too soon, people get bored and come back into contact with each other too early. Move to them too late, and we miss the opportunity to positively impact the spread of the virus - so these measures may be more relevant in a week or so. Until then, it's (theoretically) fine to be in general contact with apparently healthy people provided sensible proximity and hygiene measures are observed. (However, the immune-compromised, the elderly, and those with pre-existing health conditions may want to be more cautious.)
  • The elderly, people with underlying conditions, and smokers are the most vulnerable members of the workforce – so it’s worth taking note of this in terms of business continuity planning.
  • Business continuity plans should be reviewed now. Next week is a good time to test home working arrangements where these are possible, not least as a means of ironing out any glitches. There’s a strong possibility that official advice will soon be for staff to work from home if they can in order to minimise travel.
  • Key staff who carry out roles not easily replaced/shared might sensibly commence home working sooner than this (at BVSC, we have asked staff in posts that are harder to ‘backfill’ – such as payroll officer, finance clerk, and comms coordinator - to start working from home already).
  • If a "deep clean" is required in buildings, this is nothing special - normal cleaning products are fine but we need to clean everything an infected person has been in contact with for more than 15 mins (i.e. desks, workstations).
  • Don't use hand sanitiser of less than 60% alcohol, it won't kill the virus and will give staff false sense of security. Use soap.
  • Infected waste (e.g. tissues used by an infected person) should be double bagged and disposed of normally (this piece of advice was in response to question about infection in hostels and supported housing).
  • The BBC has been approved as national media link for coronavirus information - this and NHS website are best sources for accurate and up-to-date information. Use the NHS website for general updates and for information to share with concerned staff.
  • Use specialist national charity websites for information for those with specific underlying health conditions (asthma, heart disease, respiratory illnesses etc). Most of these have tailored Covid19 information for their beneficiary groups.
  • Handwashing and exemplary hygiene practices are still the best defences we have. Avoid touching face with unwashed hands. If necessary, touch face only with knuckles. Use knuckles, not fingers, to nudge glasses up nose. Open doors with elbows or little fingers.
  • Don't wear masks - they don’t offer protection and may, due to risk of contamination, increase infection rates.

Please note - any inaccuracies in the above are my own errors of transcription or understanding, so do not take this as official guidance. For that, refer to the NHS website at https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/

Justin Varney’s full presentation (accurate as at 5.30pm on 12th March 2020) can be found here: Coronavirus: Corvid19 Overview (Downloads as Powerpoint presentation)

Brian Carr, Chief Executive Officer, BVSC
Friday 13 March 2020