The NEW owl has arrived …


2 February 2020





East Devon could NEVER remain Owl-less …

As one departed another has taken its place …

The new Owl has arrived!

Talons sharpened, eyes trained …

A new light now shining into the darkest corners of East Devon

Contact us at

In the link below EDDC announces the launch on Monday 30 March 2020 of the East Devon District Council Coronavirus Community Support Hub and explains what  it will seek to do.

It also brings you up to date with a comprehensive range of local services appropriate to the Coronavirus  emergency.

It is too long to post but is a useful reference.

Surprise opening of ‘Devon’s biggest skate park’

A major £365,000 investment to revamp a popular skate park in Devon has unexpectedly opened today as soon as works were finished.

Owl expects this to be very popular!

Anita Merritt 

The sudden completion has been welcomed by skaters who have been desperate to use Exmouth Phear Skate Park since it closed in June.

The official opening event will take place on Saturday, October 30, from noon to 4pm, which will include an informal competition and professional demo riders.

The investment into the project saw £240,000 coming from East Devon District Council, and £125,000 from Exmouth Town Council.

The design was agreed in consultation with a group of local skate park users. It is free to use.

An aerial view of the revamp plans at Exmouth Phear Skate Park

An aerial view of the revamp plans at Exmouth Phear Skate Park (Image: EDDC)

A spokesperson for East Devon District Council said: “Work on the new skate park in Phear Park, Exmouth, finished this afternoon, October 14, and as we knew skaters were keen to use the site we have already opened it up for use.

“Security fencing will remain around the edge of the site to help the new landscaping to settle in and the new grass to grow.

“We ask that users please keep off the fenced-off areas as much as possible to help prevent the new skate park getting covered in mud.”

Phear Skate Park received a £150,000 redevelopment in 2018, and when it reopened it was hailed as ‘one of the best skate parks in the country’.

It involved the demolition of old wooden equipment which was replaced with a new concrete skate park, designed with input from a group of local skaters and BMX riders.

Among those happy to see the skate park back in use again is Graham Hill, owner of Exmouth skate shop Rule 1, who has helped bring the new facility to the town.

He said: “I’m pretty sure I’m right in saying this is now Devons biggest skate park.

“I would like to thank councillor Paul Millar for helping me to finally getting this finished after five years of trying.

“Enjoy the radness and wear a helmet.”

Don’t let environment get in the way of trade deals, government tells its negotiators

UK trade negotiators should prioritise economic growth over the environment in trade deals, according to a leaked official document. 

The paper, drawn up by officials at the Department for International Trade, says environmental safeguards should not be treated as a red line when other countries do not want to include them in agreements.

It comes a month after it was revealed that the UK secretly dropped climate promises to get a trade deal with Australia’s government, which is hostile to action on climate change.

In the latest document, circulated to around 120 officials this week before being leaked to Sky News, department bosses say the “economic case” for reducing trade barriers should take precedent.

The UK is currently trying to negotiate a trade deal with Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right Brazilian government, whose policies on Amazon deforestation have caused an international outcry.

Campaigners have suggested that the UK should use trade deals as leverage to encourage Brazil’s government to stop its deforestation policies.

But the leaked document says: “[The government] should not refuse to liberalise on products of environmental concern where there is an economic case for liberalisation, or partner interest is so strong that not doing so would compromise the wider agreement.

“In these cases, we should continue to liberalise and address carbon leakage risk (in general, as well as any marginal additional risk from the fair trade agreement) using those FTA levers outlined in this note and non-FTA levers outlined elsewhere.”

It adds: “HMG should not pursue a conditional liberalisation approach. This is due to the very high negotiability challenge (little precedent and proven difficulty of raising with partners on related issues) and WTO compliance issues/creating double standards with trade partners.”

The overall economic case for free trade agreements is relatively weak, with the government’s estimates putting the benefits of even the largest agreement with the US at less than 0.16 per cent of GDP over 20 years.

But the government has effectively accepted that this deal will not happen under president Joe Biden, and is instead focusing on other deals with even smaller economic benefits.

Yet ministers are politically desperate to be able to point to concrete wins from leaving the EU, with other benefits so far few and far between.

The Department for International Trade downplayed the significance of the leaked document, but trade experts say the approach it outlines is clearly already being pursued by civil servants.

Opposition parties also criticised the approach.

“It’s really shocking to see a document going round government where they’re essentially saying, ‘never mind about climate change, never mind about the environment, Bolsonaro is a difficult guy, if you want a trade deal from Brazil, and he wants to sell us stuff from a rainforest, we probably shouldn’t get in the way that much because otherwise we won’t end up with a trade deal’ – really?” said Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow international trade secretary to Sky News.

A Department for International Trade spokesman said: “This is not government policy, and is not being considered by ministers.”

Growing Crops Under Solar Panels? Now There’s a Bright Idea 

Heavy precipitation that can damage crops is also on the rise, since a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture. “In times when there is extreme heat or extreme precipitation, by protecting plants in this manner, it can actually benefit them,” says Madhu Khanna, an economist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who also won funding from the USDA’s new agrivoltaics grant. “So that’s another factor that we want to look at.” 

By Kemal Pasha

Khanna will be studying what the ideal solar array might be for a particular crop, for instance, if it needs bigger or smaller gaps between panels to let sunlight pass through. Height, too, is an issue: Corn and wheat would need taller panels, while shrubby soybeans would be fine with a more squat variety. 

Thanks to those gaps, crops grown under solar panels aren’t bathed in darkness. But, generally speaking, the light is more diffuse, meaning it’s bouncing off of surfaces before striking the plants. This replicates a natural forest environment, in which all plants, save for the tallest trees, hang out in the shade, soaking up any sunbeams that break through. 

Barron-Gafford has found that a forestlike shading under solar panels elicits a physiological response from plants. To collect more light, their leaves grow bigger than they would if planted in an open field. He’s seen this happen in basil, which would increase that crop’s yield. Barron-Gafford has also found that the pepper Capsicum annuum, which grows in the shade of trees in the wild, produces three times as much fruit in an agrivoltaic system. Tomato plants also grow more fruit. This is likely due to the plants being less stressed by the constant bombardment of sunlight, to which they’re not evolutionarily adapted.

But every crop is going to be different, so scientists have to test each to see how they react to shade. “For example, we probably wouldn’t recommend that somebody plant summer squash directly in the deepest shade, directly under a panel,” says Mark Uchanski, a horticultural scientist at Colorado State University who’s studying agrivoltaics and tested that exact scenario. “The better location for that might be further out toward the edges where it’s more likely to get a little bit more sun, because we did see a yield decrease in that case.” 

While setting up the panels entails some up-front costs, they might actually make farmers some money, as Kominek told Grist in this 2020 story before his panels were in place. They’d produce energy to run the farm, and the farmer can sell any surplus back to a utility. And since some plants—like those salsa ingredients in Barron-Gafford’s experiments—will use less water, that can reduce irrigation expenses. “If we can actually allow farmers to diversify their production and get more out of the same land, then that can benefit them,” says Khanna. “Having crops and solar panels is more beneficial for the environment than solar panels alone.” 

This kind of setup also cools the solar panels in two ways: Water evaporating from the soil rises up towards the panels, and plants release their own water. This is dandy for the panels’ efficiency, because they actually perform worse when they get too hot. They generate an electric current when the sun’s photons knock electrons out of atoms, but if they overheat, the electrons get overexcited and don’t generate as much electricity when they’re dislodged. 

Courtesy of Greg Barron-Gafford

Daughter of Covid victim tears into report

A Devon woman [Dr Cathy Gardner] who is challenging the government over its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic says a report from MPs has “skipped over” the initial failure to protect care home residents who were “sitting ducks”.

[The High Court judicial review starts on Tuesday, October 19.]

Edward Oldfield

Dr Cathy Gardner, from Sidmouth, has brought the case following the death of her father Michael Gibson, at the age 88 in a care home in April 2020, early in the first lockdown.

Dr Gardner, who has a Phd in virology, claims that the UK Government, and NHS England, unlawfully failed to do enough to protect the right to life of vulnerable care home residents in the early response to the virus.

A report from MPs on the Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee, published on Tuesday, said the UK’s preparation for a pandemic was far too focused on flu, while ministers waited too long to push through lockdown measures in early 2020.

In the wide-ranging study stretching to 151 pages, MPs criticised the fact community testing was abandoned in March 2020 as a “seminal error”, said NHS test and trace was too slow and failed to have a big impact, and that thousands of people died in care homes partly due to a policy of discharging people from hospital without testing.

The MPs concluded that the “decisions on lockdowns and social distancing during the early weeks of the pandemic – and the advice that led to them – rank as one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”.

Dr Gardner, who has a science background and worked in the pharmaceutical industry, said: “For me, the section on social care skipped over the surface. It mentions in the first paragraph that the arrangements to protect the elderly were of vast importance, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic, but it does not go back to mention what were the measures to protect the elderly, what should have been done, and if they were not done, why not.”

She added: “Nothing was done for people in care homes. They were sitting ducks. The government has a legal duty to protect the most vulnerable. We have asked what steps were taken over the infamous protective ring around care homes, which was not there – we know it was not there.”

Dr Gardner, who represents Sidmouth Town on East Devon Council and is a member of the East Devon Alliance, has raised more than £130,000 with a public appeal to fund a legal challenge to the government, but the campaign is still £35,000 short of the total amount needed.

She said she was partly bringing the case in memory of her father, who was an assistant registrar and filled out thousands of death certificates. Dr Gardner said his own certificate is inaccurate as he was not tested for Covid, but it states his death was due to “probable” Covid-19, suspected to have been caught from a patient discharged from hospital to his care home in Oxfordshire.

Dr Gardner is bringing the judicial review alongside Fay Harris, whose father also died with Covid-19 in a care home. They argue certain key government policies and decisions led to a “shocking death toll” of more than 20,000 care home residents from Covid between March and June 2020. These include a policy of discharging around 25,000 patients from hospital into care homes – including the homes of the claimants’ fathers – without testing and proper isolation.

A judge has allowed the case to go forward to a full hearing which is due to take place over four days in the High Court, starting on Tuesday, October 19.

Dr Gardner said: “I would like the ministers involved to admit that they made mistakes, and that those mistakes cost lives. I am not interested in an apology, but I think the failure to apologise is disgusting. To me it is about admitting they were wrong. It is about the law, it is about, did you do what you were supposed to do?

“You had a legal duty to try and protect the elderly, just admit that you did not do it, and you should do better. Just have some humility about this, rather just waving the vaccine around like some shiny distraction.”

The claim to be heard in the High Court in London states that the Department for Health and Social Care, NHS England and Public Health England, “unlawfully failed to protect care home residents from the three principal routes of transmission of Covid: infection by other residents, by external visitors to care homes, and by care home staff.”

Dr Gardner said the claim sets out that the government failed to consider the health and wellbeing of care home residents when hospital patients were released without testing, or advice to care home staff on PPE or isolating new arrivals.

She said the government had so far refused to hand over key documents explaining why decisions were made.

Minister for the Cabinet Office Stephen Barclay defended the government’s handling of the pandemic. He told Sky News’ Kay Burley the Government “did take decisions to move quickly”, including on vaccines, and that both scientists and ministers were acting on information they had at the time.

However, he admitted he had “not had chance to read” the MPs’ report, which was circulated to the media under embargo on Monday morning and also sent to Government departments, including his own Cabinet Office.

Mr Barclay said: “It was an unprecedented pandemic, we were learning about it as we went through and of course, with hindsight, there’s things we know about it now that we didn’t know at the time.

“Of course there are going to be lessons to learn, that’s why we’ve committed to an inquiry, but the Government took decisions at the time based on the scientific advice it received, but those scientists themselves were operating in a very new environment where they themselves were learning about the pandemic.”

On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Barclay was asked if the Government was too slow to go into the first lockdown – a key criticism in the MPs’ report. He said: “Well I think there is an issue there of hindsight, because at the time of the first lockdown the expectation was that the tolerance in terms of how long people would live with lockdown for was a far shorter period than actually has proven to be the case, and therefore there was an issue of timing the lockdown and ensuring that that was done at the point of optimal impact.

“And so it is a point of hindsight to now say that the way that decision was shaped and how long we could lock down for… because we now know that there was much more willingness for the country to endure that than was originally envisaged.”

Mr Barclay denied there had been groupthink on handling the pandemic, even though former health secretary and fellow Tory MP Jeremy Hunt, who chairs the Commons health committee, said there had been.

“No, I don’t accept that, and we followed the scientific advice throughout. We protected the NHS from the surge of pressure that we saw in other countries, such as Italy, and we can’t apply hindsight to the challenges that we faced,” Mr Barclay said.

Asked whether he agreed, however, that it was an “appalling error” not to introduce a second lockdown earlier, even though scientists on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) recommended one six weeks before it was introduced, Mr Barclay said: “No I don’t, because I think there were difficult judgments to be made. We followed the scientific advice throughout, we took action to protect our NHS, we got a vaccine deployed in record time, but I don’t shy away from the fact that there will be lessons to learn.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, when Covid-19 emerged in China, MPs said the UK policy was to mistakenly take a “gradual and incremental approach” to interventions such as social distancing, isolation and lockdowns. They said this was “a deliberate policy” proposed by scientists and adopted by UK governments, which has now been shown to be “wrong” and led to a higher death toll.

The MPs concluded that the “decisions on lockdowns and social distancing during the early weeks of the pandemic – and the advice that led to them – rank as one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”.

After hearing evidence from people including the Prime Minister’s former adviser, Dominic Cummings, and former health secretary Matt Hancock, the MPs said it was only in the days leading up to the March 23 lockdown that people within Government and advisers “experienced simultaneous epiphanies that the course the UK was following was wrong, possibly catastrophically so”.

Speaking on Tuesday morning, Mr Hunt, who was health secretary from 2012 to 2018, admitted he was part of the “groupthink” that focused too much on flu and failed to adequately plan for a pandemic such as Covid.

He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain the UK should have locked down earlier and “the Prime Minister is of course ultimately responsible, but some of the advice that he got was also wrong”.

Mr Hunt added: “There was a groupthink that the way you tackle a pandemic should be similar to a flu pandemic, I was part of that groupthink too when I was health secretary.”

Questioned on the impact of the Prime Minister’s personality early on in the pandemic, and whether Boris Johnson did not want to shut down the nation in case it was “unpopular”, Mr Hunt said that “every prime minister’s personality matters but in this particular case, on those particular decisions, he was following the scientific advice, and the question we have to ask is why across the whole of the system in those early months, everyone was advising the wrong approach?”

Mr Hunt also said that when images of the pandemic in Italy hit TV screens in the UK, the focus was on hospitals rather than other places such as care homes.

He added: “We say this was like a football match with two very different halves, and yes there were those very serious errors that… led to many tragedies.

“But in the second half of the match, we have the vaccine programme which was, we say, the most effective initiative in the history of British science and public administration, we had the discovery of treatments like dexamethasone in the UK which saved a million lives worldwide, we had that extraordinary response in the NHS which saw everyone who needed a ventilator and an intensive care bed, got one.”

Meanwhile, Tory MP Greg Clark, who chairs the Commons science committee, told BBC Breakfast that “other countries elsewhere in the world, particularly in East Asia” quickly mobilised testing capacity so they could test people in the community and isolate them, which “allowed them to get a grip of the pandemic earlier than we were able to do”.

He said increasing testing capacity in the UK was “painfully” slow, adding that if everyone coming out of hospital into a care home could have been tested “then undoubtedly we could have stopped the seeding of infections into care homes”.

In a joint statement on the publication of the Coronavirus: lessons learned to date Report, Mr Hunt and Mr Clark said: “The UK response has combined some big achievements with some big mistakes. It is vital to learn from both to ensure that we perform as best as we possibly can during the remainder of the pandemic and in the future.

“Our vaccine programme was boldly planned and effectively executed. Our test and trace programme took too long to become effective. The Government took seriously scientific advice but there should have been more challenge from all to the early UK consensus that delayed a more comprehensive lockdown when countries like South Korea showed a different approach was possible.

“In responding to an emergency, when much is unknown, it is impossible to get everything right. We record our gratitude to all those – NHS and care workers, scientists, officials in national and local government, workers in our public services and in private businesses and millions of volunteers – who responded to the challenge with dedication, compassion and hard work to help the whole nation at one of our darkest times.”

Devon town centre ‘not a nice place to be’

Barnstaple town centre has been described as ‘messy,’ ‘unsafe,’ and ‘not a nice place to be’ in emails sent to a local MP.

Ami Wyllie

The revelation comes as Conservative MP Selaine Saxby announced findings from a months long survey asking where locals would like to see £6.5 million spent in North Devon’s ‘retail capital.’

Results from the survey showed that locals were in support of a budget dedicated solely to restoring, cleaning and maintaining Barnstaple town centre.

Constituents have told Ms. Saxby that they actively avoid the town’s centre due to its run down appearance.

Ms. Saxby said the ‘Broken Window Theory,’ which suggests that scruffy and unkempt neighbourhoods lead to crime and disorder due to their ‘social neglect,’ summarises the rapid decline of Barnstaple.

Work with Barnstaple in Bloom has been a short-term solution to the issue and Devon County Council and North Devon Council have both been invited to see the positive impact a ‘small amount’ of money can do.

Ms. Saxby hopes the Government’s investment will help put the centre of North Devon back on track as thriving hub, but know that financial backing is only the beginning.

She said: “This will not solve all the problems we are currently seeing like littering and anti-social behaviour”.

She added: “Barnstaple town centre needs to adapt and be a social destination, a place to spend time and not just money.”

While her survey found a lack of interest in pedestrianisation of the town centre, there was overwhelming support for improved public transport links, including the Barnstaple to Exeter train link.

Having a visible ‘front desk’ for the NHS, local Police and North Devon Council in the centre of town was also a highly supported idea.

Ranked as the most ‘economically vulnerable’ neighbourhood out of all 457 that Devon County Council look after, Barnstaple was awarded the funds as part of the Government’s ‘Future High Street Fund.’

Ms. Saxby has welcomed this funding, and wants to find creative ways to best spent the money and ‘build back better,’ while warning that a one-time lump sum is not a total fix.

She said: “The Pannier Market, Butchers Row, and the Boutport Street entrance to Queen Street car park are the current focuses of the Government and North Devon Council’s investment.

“These should not, however, be the only focuses.

“Investment and changes need to encompass and benefit the whole of the town centre and while I am encouraged with what is happening, we cannot wait around for the next big funding round.

“I will continue to lobby for government investment, but we do need our councils to do more, and we can all play our part by supporting the town centre, buying local when we can, helping keep Barnstaple clean and tidy, and reporting anti-social behaviour.”

New Look for EDW posts

Owl posted this comment yesterday:

“I really enjoy East Devon Watch, but please could it be in darker type – I find the grey print really hard to read. I have mentioned this before and was told it was up to the designer, so please could you mention it to him or her. Thank you. Best wishes, Liz Rhodes”

This is beyond Owl’s skills set, but help was volunteered by one of the original site designers who has “tweaked” the type appearance. For which Owl is very grateful.

Liz reports that the changes are “fantastic”.

Plan for £34 million boost to Devon’s buses

A bit more “joined up” thinking might help as well. 

Owl recalls that the “promised”  GP surgery site on the Alfred’s Way development in Newton Poppleford was used by Clinton Devon Estates to build a couple more houses instead. The NHS, in its wisdom, however, insists that Newton Poppleford inhabitants must use Ottery St Mary GP facilities. The only way to get to the surgery by public transport is to go into Exeter and out again. A short journey as the crow flies takes all day by bus. There is a surgery on the Exeter to Sidmouth route!

Real sustainability should be a prerequisite of major planning decisions.

Plan for £34 million boost to Devon’s buses

Ollie Heptinstall, local democracy reporter

Devon could get a £34 million boost to its bus services, if the county council’s bid for a pot of government funding is successful.

The council’s ruling cabinet has agreed to bid for the cash from the government’s £3 billion ‘bus back better’ programme to improve local bus services across England.

But whilst the plan was broadly welcomed by councillors from across the political spectrum, one Lib Dem thought transporting people in “huge buses” was a blast from the fifties and that more people should be hitchhiking.

The county’s proposals, being developed in partnership with Devon’s bus companies, aim to make buses cheaper to use, greener, more frequent and more reliable. A public consultation will start across Devon in November.

Also included are plans for regional zone tickets to simplify fares, by working with neighbouring councils, and bringing in ‘young person’ tickets for 16 to 18 -year-olds, one of the age groups most heavily reliant on buses.

An additional £7.5 million could also be spent on bus priority measures to speed up journey times in urban areas such as Exeter, Exmouth, Barnstaple and Newton Abbot, as well as improving bus stops and other infrastructure in the rest of the county.

A council report said: “Bus is the main form of public transport in Devon, providing services to a large range of people, many of whom have no alternative means of transport. The opportunity provided by the government to bid for extra funding will provide a quantum leap in how the bus service operates in the future.”

Councillor Andrea Davis (Conservative, Combe Martin), cabinet member for climate change, environment and transport told the meeting: “It’s very ambitious, it supports Devon County Council’s carbon reduction. It’s about operating services, cutting fares, lots more services and frequent services so that residents have the choice over the mode of transport that they use.”

Councillor Alan Connett (Lib Dem, Exminster & Haldon), opposition leader on the council, said it was a “very exciting set of proposals” and added: “If successful it would bring an enormous benefit to Devon and for the bus passengers across the county who use them. There’s much to be applauded here and I really do hope the bid is successful.”

Leader of the Labour group Councillor Rob Hannaford (Exwick & St Thomas), while saying the “proposals to make buses greener, cheaper and more reliable is really welcome,” pointed to the current problems at Stagecoach South West, including a shortage of drivers and industrial action, as reasons for why the council should look into public ownership of buses, as has recently happened in Manchester.

RMT union members are currently set to walk out over pay for 24 hours on Monday 18 October. Stagecoach has offered drivers a 9.7 per cent increase, linked to productivity changes. It says passenger numbers are below pre-covid levels, with fares insufficient to cover day-to-day costs of running the serice. The RMT says the offer comes with strings attached which equate to “savage cuts.”

Devon County Council’s new plan calls for greater integration with the rail and coach network in Devon and better cooperation with other neighbouring councils to recognise that journeys often cross county boundaries.

The strategy also sets out targets for moving towards zero-emission vehicles. The council has been involved in two previous unsuccessful bids for reduced emission or electric vehicles. The report says: “The challenge in a county like Devon is the range of the vehicles versus the length of the routes operated.”

However, Councillor Julian Brazil (Lib Dem, Kingsbridge) said the report was a “massive, missed opportunity,” and claimed the council should be doing more to get people sharing smaller vehicles and even hitchhike.

“The old fashioned idea of transporting people in huge buses around rural lanes, or indeed on roads that were built for horse and coaches and not for double decker buses, I think is going back to the fifties.

“Instead, we should be looking to introduce some kind of hybrid bus-taxi service using the information technology that’s available to us, using people carriers. Looking to introduce things like a hitchhiking app that encourages more people to hitchhike, car-sharing…

“That’s what this report should be encouraging. More innovative, forward-thinking and ground-breaking ways of delivering truly public transport to all areas – not just towns, but to rural areas as well.”

The cabinet unanimously agreed the main principles of the plan, to submit the bid and to launch a public consultation. From the start of November, the Department for Transport will assess the bids submitted by each authority and respond with a funding package for the next three years.


Improvement to rural services

  • Provision of at least four return journeys Monday to Saturday for all communities with a population of over 500.
  • Exploration of alternative models of delivery including Demand Responsive Transport (DRT), expansion of Fare Cars or fixed routes

Evening and Sunday services

  • On improved inter urban and city corridors; a service of at least three journeys per evening and on Sunday.
  • Expansion of hourly night-time services for routes carrying over 2 million passengers* per annum. Inter-urban services
  • Improvements to services identified in the Exeter Transport Strategy up to a maximum frequency of 15 minutes.
  • Other services into Exeter to gain an additional journey per hour, plus those to strategic towns such as Barnstaple, Newton Abbot or Plymouth currently carrying over 100,000 passengers* per annum.

Devon “Lynx” services

  • Strategic links improved between centres of population.
  • Better connections with the strategic rail and coach network. Examples of possible links included in Appendix A.

City and town services

  • Towns with a population of 20,000 to gain an additional journey per hour if carrying over 100,000 passengers* per annum.
  • Towns with a population of between 5,000 and 15,000 to gain a minimum provision of an hourly off-peak service.

Current state of the local NHS overstretch

From a correspondent:

A friend fell in the centre of Exeter at about 8.30 pm on Saturday evening.  It was a bad fall and she had obviously hurt her arm and her collar-bone and was in great pain.  A local shopkeeper called an ambulance and 30 minutes later called again and was told there were none available. 

After one and a half hours lying on the concrete pavement the ambulance service sent a local taxi to pick her up.  The lady’s partner had to get her into the taxi for the journey to RD&E A&E and had to help her out when they got there as the taxi driver was not allowed to touch her.  

She had dislocated her shoulder and spent 12 hours in A&E before she was allowed home.

“Government by WhatsApp” set for legal challenge

Ministers and civil servants are required by policy to set instant messaging chats to delete automatically, it has been revealed, as a judicial review over the government’s use of self-destructing messages was given the go-ahead.

Cabinet policy obliges ministers to delete instant messages

Haroon Siddique 

The not-profit organisation the Citizens says the use of disappearing messages, which has been described as “government by WhatsApp”, violates British law on public records and freedom of information.

Its legal challenge comes amid concerns that the likes of WhatsApp and Signal, which have a disappearing messages option, are being used to avoid scrutiny of decision-making processes, including on significant issues such as the government’s coronavirus response.

At a high court hearing in London on Tuesday, it was revealed that the Cabinet Office’s “information and records retention and destruction policy”, disclosed in response to the Citizens application for a judicial review, obliges officials to delete instant chats.

The policy says: “Instant messaging is provided to all staff and should be used in preference to email for routine communications where there is no need to retain a record of the communication. Instant messages history in individual and group chats must be switched off and should not be retained once a session is finished. If the content of an instant message is required for the record or as an audit trail, a note for the record should be created and the message content saved in that.”

The Citizens says making a separate note, as opposed to preserving the actual message, is insufficient to comply with the law. Other documents disclosed ban the use of personal phones, email and WhatsApp by ministers and civil servants. The Citizens, which is being supported by the campaigning law group Foxglove, says the policies are “a confusing, contradictory mess”.

It is challenging the lawfulness of:

  • Use for government business of instant messaging services that allow messages to be automatically deleted, permanently, within a short period of receipt by ministers, civil servants and special advisers.
  • Cabinet Office policy requiring the use of automatic deletion within all instant messaging services.
  • Use for government business of personal devices, email and communications applications in breach, it says, of the government’s own policies.

After Mrs Justice Lang granted permission for the case to go to full judicial review, Clara Maguire, the director of the Citizens, said: “This is a good day for democracy. Lack of transparency has been at the heart of the UK government’s disastrous handling of the Covid catastrophe as today’s parliamentary report points out so clearly.

“It says that a culture of secrecy contributed to tens of thousands of excess deaths. We believe this case goes to the very heart of this problem and we look forward to proving government by WhatsApp is not only dangerous but also unlawful.”

The non-profit organisation argues the use of instant messaging makes it impossible to carry out required legal checks about whether a message should be archived for posterity. Information that could be useful to a public inquiry, or otherwise fall within the scope of a freedom of information request, may be lost as a result.

Cori Crider, the director of Foxglove, said: “Government by WhatsApp is an existential threat to Britain’s historical record. From people in positions of public trust, the law – and the country – require more.”

In July, the information commissioner announced an investigation into the use of private correspondence channels at the Department of Health and Social Care.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Ministers will use a range of modern forms of communication for discussions, in line with legislative requirements, and taking into account government guidance.”

We need a Covid inquiry, and we need it now

The joint parliamentary committee report “Coronavirus, lessons learned to date” can be found here.

A good summary of the key findings  can be found here.

A more critical review: “Hard hitting” Covid reports fails to land a single punch can be found here.

Two comments from Owl:

We  urgently need to know the: who, what, where and when; and

The Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt’s participation as one of the Chairs, given his responsibilities as a former Health Minister, was/is totally inappropriate.

Jonathan Ashworth, shadow health secretary

The findings of the joint select committee report into the government’s Covid response came as a surprise to no one, but to read the litany of monumental and tragic errors catalogued so clearly is still devastating.

We all remember watching in horror as desperate scenes unfolded in northern Italy last year and questions started to be asked as to why we weren’t locking down here. Instead, race meetings and European football fixtures went ahead. The pubs remained open.

We all heard the demands of the World Health Organisation to “test, test, test”, but here testing was abandoned in early March.

We were all angered as our brave NHS staff pleaded for PPE to replace the flimsy bin-bags they were forced to wear or visors and goggles they had to purchase from local DIY stores. Doctors said they were abandoned like lambs to the slaughter.

Most shameful of all was the failure to protect care homes. In the rush to free up hospital beds, the frail were quickly discharged without a test. The virus inevitably spread with an unforgiving ferocity. Boasts of a “protective ring” now ring sickeningly hollow.

The need to free up so many beds was a consequence of needing to find “surge” capacity in the NHS. But that in turn reflects a cold reality: that for ten years the Tories have run the NHS into the ground. The deepest financial squeeze in NHS history, cuts to 15,000 beds and shortages of 40,000 nurses meant we entered the pandemic desperately unprepared.

The reality is that the NHS and social care sector needed protecting even before the pandemic hit.

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The running down of our health service, social care and public health capacity meant that ministers were slow in their eventual response. As the virus began to spread rapidly in the UK, Boris Johnson took an approach that differed from almost every country around the world; he kept society open for longer, favouring herd immunity.

Government officials — experts in “nudge theory” — were sent out to tour TV studios extolling the virtues of allowing the virus to rip through the strong while the weak “cocoon”.

Nadine Dorries tweeted videos of a bucket overflowing with water to explain the approach. Inside government, figures joked of mass “chicken-pox parties”. Meanwhile, our dedicated public health medical experts (none of whom had a seat on Sage) looked on aghast.

The line being taken by uncomfortable Tory ministers is to say that this is all passing judgment with hindsight. But Labour raised questions with the approach throughout March 2020.

As country after country closed its borders or introduced testing of people returning home, in public statements we asked why the prime minister had not done the same. We demanded mass testing and contact tracing to be protected, and support for people to isolate when sick — a demand to this day still not fully met.

Highlighting the monumental scale of the failures experienced at the start of the pandemic is not being done for political point-scoring. It is crucial that the mistakes from the pandemic are learnt, to ensure that catastrophic failures on this scale never happen again.

This means starting a public inquiry now. There is no reason to wait.

But it also means preparing for the coming winter. As case rates remain high, we need proper ventilation for businesses and schools. We need the rollout of vaccinations for children to be sped up, and we need to target the areas that have the lowest vaccination rates to drive up the number of people being jabbed.

Our NHS too must be given support this winter. Today, the Royal College of Physicians has issued a stark warning about hospitals’ ability to cope with winter. No doctor should be forced to make a choice between Covid care and cancer care. But without a proper plan to keep infections down and reduce the pressures on hospitals this winter, it is likely that once again our NHS will be faced with this difficult choice.

Covid has not gone away. We can learn to live with the virus, but that is not the same as pretending that it no longer exists.

The lessons from this report must be that ministers keep on top of the virus — and that preparing for a pandemic can never come too soon.