Wednesday last, I wrote an update on my Facebook page – following on from a blog I had written on this website around a fortnight earlier – on the subject of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for frontline NHS staff. In that blog, I had highlighted the NHS Essex appeal being run by Essex County Council but sought to reassure my residents that Basildon Hospital was alright and was not running their own specific appeal. This was following reassurances I had received from officers at Basildon Borough Council, who had been in contact with the Hospital.
To be clear – at no time have I ever suggested that there is not a lack of PPE. Clearly, there is. I had given an undertaking in my blog that I would keep an eye on the specific situation at Basildon Hospital.
I posted my Facebook update last week in response to a number of social media posts I had seen being shared, purportedly coming from staff at the Essex Cardiothoracic Centre at Basildon Hospital, appealing for donations of PPE. This time I contacted the Chief Executive of the NHS Trust directly. My reason for doing this was not because I do not trust frontline staff but I feel it is important to establish the veracity of what we are reading online.
My motivations in all of this have been very simple. All of us are currently trying to manage, in our various spheres, an unprecedent public health crisis. One of the unfortunate backdrops to all this is the 24-hour news cycle and the fact that everyone has an opinion and, thanks to social media, a platform on which to share it with a wide audience, irrespective of how informed or accurate it is (see, as a prime example of this, 5G masts being set on fire because of outlandish, unsupported conspiracy theories people have read online suggesting 5G somehow spread the coronavirus – pseudoscientific nonsense of the highest order – and an equally inaccurate story that suggested the UK had turned down 50,000 ventilators offered by the EU).
We live in the era of ‘fake news’. I have really no idea why. I will never understand what possesses people to make up stories on the Internet, even in the midst of a horrifying global health crisis. But we know that they do and it makes me question pretty much everything I read on the Internet until I have completely satisfied myself that it is from a reliable, reputable source and accurate. The last thing I want to do is get into a protracted back and forth with residents over Facebook on an issue as complex as provision of PPE – especially contradicting (or appearing to contradict) frontline NHS staff. But it is only a little over a week since somebody claiming to be a paramedic posted a voicemail, that was then widely shared on social media, claiming that the Ambulance Service were going to ‘stop coming to homes’ in emergency situations and that ‘babies are going to start dying’. This terrified the life out of a great many people until the Ambulance Service confirmed that it was a hoax. Only two days ago, even the BBC had to make a correction to a story they had published about PPE, having originally believed it came from an NHS manager, only to clarify later that it had not.
In recent weeks, I and many other local politicians have received reports of scam calls and texts relating to the coronavirus, with scammers claiming to be from the Government, GP surgeries, the NHS, or the World Health Organisation. None of us should be underestimating the importance of this. We all know that the pressures the NHS and our frontline healthworkers are under are very real but we all have a responsibility, when sharing information on social media, to act responsibly and check the veracity of what we are sharing. None of us would wish to inadvertently contribute to a climate of fear. My biggest concern in all of this has been ensuring that residents have access to reliable, verifiable information. We have people isolating at home, especially those who have been identified as particularly vulnerable, who are already fearful of going into hospital. There is some suggestion that patients who are ill and really need to go to hospital are leaving it longer than they should to seek help because of these anxieties.
I received a number of comments to my Facebook update, including from people claiming to be frontline workers at Basildon Hospital. I have no reason to doubt that they are, other than the reasons mentioned above, and I am certainly no accusing anybody of ‘lying’. Many of them took issue with the reassurances I had received from the Chief Exec. Many of them were arguing that there are PPE shortages at Basildon Hospital, which – to be fair to her – Ms Panniker had never disputed and neither have I. The only bone of contention was the suggestion that they had ‘run out’ of PPE. I have fed back all the comments that were made to Ms Panniker and I will continue to present robust challenge where necessary. Anybody who wishes to contact me on a confidential basis can, of course, do so either by emailing me at email@example.com or by telephoning or WhatsApp’ing me on 07769651708.
Any business who is able to donate PPE, should email Essex County Council at firstname.lastname@example.org with details, including quantity and postcode, and a contact telephone number. They will then contact you and prioritise the safe delivery or collection of any items on behalf of NHS Essex.
In the meantime, I hope you are all keeping safe and well. Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.