Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

Health & Wellbeing Boards should surely be at the heart of monitoring the impact of Covid-19 on their local communities and economies, advising Government on appropriate changes when lockdown measures are reviewed, and hopefully relaxed? If an App is the solution, just remember that not everyone has a mobile phone, or can afford one, especially the elderly and dsadvantaged.

Suffolk’s Board last met on 23rd January, having cancelled both the March and May meetings, so there doesn’t appear to be any way in which the media and members of the public can assess progress. Minutes of the January meeting are not available, since they haven’t been approved for publication, so there is no way of knowing if members were briefed on Covid-19, as it emerged as an emergency, with experts and the World Health Organisation (WHO) starting to alert governments to the potential of a pandemic.

It would be helpful if those Minutes could be approved and made public and, with Zoom being used for ‘virtual’ council meetings elsewhere in Suffolk, perhaps its Health & Wellbeing Board could be reconvened, addressing local residents’ concerns. Their confidence in future decision-making will be crucial for a successful reduction in lockdown frustrations.

Key members of Suffolk’s Board are the county’s two Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs). Set up in 2013, they are part of NHS England’s national network of 135 CCGs, which are responsible for two-thirds of its total budget, equating to £79.9 billion in 2019/20.

Led by groups of GPs, ‘clinically driven and more sensitive to the needs of patients’, with a remit to ‘organise delivery of NHS services…, planning, prioritising and purchasing’, Suffolk’s two CCGs each have a GP chairman, paid £60,000 annually, with GP board colleagues receiving £30,000 a year – all additional to their normal salaries. Yet, how are they monitoring the current health crisis?

For example, having such ‘sensitivity to the needs of patients’, why has a GP practice in Suffolk, with two local surgeries, introduced queuing for prescriptions at specified times by its most vulnerable patients, many with ‘underlying conditions’ which are believed to increase vulnerability to the virus, when most pharmacists offer free collection and delivery of drugs?

I quote the wife of an 80-year-old:

“Prescriptions for the over-70’s can only be collected from the surgery (if they are registered there) each day between 2 and 3pm. My husband went to get his today, as when he went to collect last week, they only gave him half his order. But he just couldn’t be bothered to join the long queue so will have to make sure he gets there before 2pm on another day.”

Thankfully, a neighbour offered to help this particular patient, and the County Council has also stepped in with its Home But Not Alone Helpline to secure a volunteer’s help with prescriptions or other essential support.

Nevertheless, the surgery’s policy is especially worrying when a paramedic from a nearby village has been in intensive care with Covid-19 for a couple of weeks. Many of the patients queuing at the GP surgery for their prescriptions live in that village, which has a population of about 1,000, at least half of whom are retired because of the large number of bungalows. Some younger residents and parents also work in essential public services, including the Police, taking them into other locations across the region – even during the lockdown – with the potential to spread the virus.

A strong and friendly community, with a village hall, church, primary school, and a busy local store currently working all hours to meet local needs, with volunteers delivering supplies to the vulnerable elderly and disabled, the village normally attracts hundreds of visitors for events, as well as its popular restaurant. At normal times, the wonderful river views are a major tourist attraction, enjoyed from a nearby pub and sailing club, both at present closed to all but vibrant wildlife.

So, this could be an opportunity to pursue the Health Secretary’s emphasis on the need to ‘test, track and trace’, but no measures have been implemented to do just that since the paramedic’s diagnosis. And there is no evidence of the East Suffolk CCG, taking the initiative to protect the local and wider community and their children by implementing testing, perhaps as a ‘pilot’ to support a reduced lockdown. This is an opportunity for them to show real leadership.

With responsibility for such a huge share of England’s NHS budget, including purchasing, CCGs across England should review what is meant by ‘planning, prioritising and purchasing’, when they are too often guilty of rationing services, especially for the elderly, such as hip and knee replacements and cataract removal, reducing independence and thereby increasing loneliness. Desperate patients with even modest savings are paying thousands of pounds for private treatment, as their condition deteriorates, seriously affecting their mobility and freedom.

Instead of blaming Government for a lack of PPE, why haven’t CCGs planned for their own stocks of essential protective equipment, including masks? Once again, it was the County Council which stepped in, with an appeal to businesses to donate their own supplies with an initial response contributing 4000 PPE kits to the social care front line.

Cllr Matthew Hicks, the Council Leader, explained, “we fully understand the efforts the Government is making to ensure PPE is available for all who need it, but we equally recognise the challenge they face in reaching beyond the NHS into other parts of the care system. During this unprecedented time we need to ensure that we have enough PPE to help our dedicated teams working with the most vulnerable in Suffolk.”

No doubt the Health & Wellbeing Board will start reviewing such positives, as well as the negatives, at its next meeting, formulating plans for future crisis management at a local and regional level. To ensure accountability, the Board should appoint someone with responsibility for co-ordinating and adapting objectives in line with lessons learnt – nationally and internationally – from the current crisis, to enable rapid response next time. Protecting the NHS and saving lives.