The NEW owl has arrived …

EAST DEVON WATCH

2 February 2020

 

STOP PRESS

OWL DEPARTED … NEW OWL IS HERE

NEW LIGHT NOW SHINING ON THE DARKEST CORNERS OF EAST DEVON

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 eastdevon.owl@gmail.com

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.

https://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/UKEDDC/bulletins/2835613

Hopes of Flybe returning to skies increase

The new owner of Flybe has applied for a UK operating licence – raising hopes the former Exeter-based airline is poised to take off once again.

Paul Greaves www.devonlive.com

The Civil Aviation Authority has received an operating licence application from Thyme Opco, which bought the company in October.

Flybe was the largest independent regional airline in Europe before collapsing in early 2020 due to financial difficulties.

The news of the operating application is the first concrete step towards aircraft flying once again.

However, there is no word yet on where Flybe will be based.

East Devon MP Simon Jupp, the Exeter Chamber of Commerce and the South West Business Council have all urged the new investors to make Exeter the centre of Flybe operations once again.

Responding to the latest news the MP said: “It’s another step in the right direction to get Flybe back in our skies.

“I’ve urged the airlines new owners to bring Flybe home to Exeter Airport which will now benefit from up to £8m additional support from government to protect jobs and connectivity in our region. I fought hard for government support for our airport and I’ll continue to push for Flybe to come home.”

The airline employed 2,000 people and flew over nine million passengers a year, according to Statista.

It went into administration in March with all routes from Exeter and Newquay airports cancelled.

A deal to buy what was left of the company was struck with hedge fund firm Cyrus Capital, a company associated with Thyme Opco.

A spokesperson for Thyme Opco said in October: “We are extremely excited about the opportunity to relaunch Flybe.

“The airline is not only a well-known UK brand, it was also the largest regional air carrier in the EU, so while we plan to start off smaller than before, we expect to create valuable airline industry jobs, restore essential regional connectivity in the UK, and contribute to the recovery of a vital part of the country’s economy.”

January: “weirdos and misfits” then “Sensible Celebrities” now it’s down to “Matt Hancock” to save the day!

In January the government was recruiting weirdos and misfits: Dominic Cummings calls for ‘weirdos and misfits’ for No 10 jobs

A few days ago it was “Sensible Celebrities”: NHS to enlist ‘sensible’ celebrities to persuade people to take coronavirus vaccine

Now it’s down to Matt Hancock to save the day (whatever can come next?):

Matt Hancock: I’ll take coronavirus vaccine on TV to combat antivaxers

Kat Lay, Health Editor | Emma Yeomans www.thetimes.co.uk

The health secretary has volunteered to be vaccinated live on television to prove that the coronavirus jab is safe.

Matt Hancock made his offer as YouGov polling found that a fifth of Britons were not confident at all or not very confident that the Pfizer/Biontech vaccine was safe and antivaxers took aim at the newly approved drug.

Last night Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, told Britons that they needed to take the vaccination to get rid of restrictions. He said: “Everyone wants social distancing to come to an end, we’re fed up with it. Nobody wants to see the damage they do. But if you want that dream to come true as quickly as it can come true, then you have to take the vaccine when it’s offered to you. Low uptake will almost certainly make restrictions last longer.”

Earlier, during a television appearance, it was suggested that Mr Hancock could lead the way with an injection broadcast to the nation.

Piers Morgan, the presenter of ITV’s Good Morning Britain, said: “I’ll come to where you are any time next week if we can do this. Let’s do it together, live on air. It would be powerful, it would send the right message.”

Mr Hancock said: “Well, we’d have to get that approved because, of course, there is a prioritisation according to clinical need and, thankfully, as a healthy, middle-aged man, you’re not at the top of the prioritisation. But if we can get that approved and if people think that’s reasonable then I’m up for doing that because once the MHRA has approved a vaccine — they only do that if it is safe. And so, if that can help anybody else, persuade anybody else that they should take the vaccine then I think it’s worth it.”

A snap YouGov poll found that the public overwhelmingly supported the idea, with 66 per cent in favour against only 12 per cent who opposed it.

Allegra Stratton, Boris Johnson’s press secretary, suggested the prime minister might also be prepared to be vaccinated against coronavirus live on television — but only if it did not prevent someone more in need of a jab from receiving one. Ms Stratton told reporters: “We all know the character of the prime minister. I don’t think it would be something that he would rule out but what we also know is that he wouldn’t want to take a jab that should be for somebody who is extremely vulnerable and who should be getting it before him.”

In the Commons on Tuesday Sir Desmond Swayne, a former international development minister, said: “The way to persuade people to have a vaccine is to line up the entire government and its ministers and their loved ones and let them take it first, and then get all the luvvies, the icons of popular culture out on the airwaves singing its praises.”

The YouGov poll also found 27 per cent of Brits were very confident the Pfizer/Biontech vaccine was safe and 43 per cent fairly confident. However, 11 per cent were not very confident, 9 per cent said they were not confident at all, and 44 per cent opposed making the vaccination compulsory in law.

By midday Thalidomide was trending on Twitter as antivax activists sought to discredit the newly approved vaccine. Among those arguing against its use was Gerard Batten, a former Ukip leader, who claimed it could cause infertility, something for which there is no evidence.

The claim appears to stem from a petition submitted to the European Medicines Agency by two doctors and campaigners against lockdown who have both previously claimed the pandemic either does not exist or is already over. Their claims about the vaccine were described as lacking in evidence, “hard to follow and tenuous” by Professor Danny Altmann, head of an immunology lab at Imperial College London.

Testing times

1796

Edward Jenner, left, gave the first vaccine to James Phipps, aged eight, on May 14, 1796 using matter from a smallpox sore on Sarah Nelmes, a milkmaid. His paper was rejected by the Royal Society but within a few years he had won over enough doctors and by 1800 his smallpox vaccination was popular in Britain and spreading into Europe.

1879

Louis Pasteur created a laboratory-developed vaccine for chicken cholera — in error. His assistant forgot to inject the chickens with fresh bacterial cultures before a holiday. When he returned a month later, he carried out the injections with the old culture, and the chickens survived fatal disease. Pasteur gave them fresh bacteria and they did not become ill.

1955

The Salk polio virus vaccine was deemed successful a little over a year after a huge trial began. It was licensed in the US on the same day, and by 1960 polio rates across the country had dropped by 90 per cent.

1956

One of Elvis Presley’s lesser-known live performances came in October 1956, when he received a polio shot on television. Rates of polio vaccination were slumping among teenagers, who were vulnerable to the disease, so celebrities were enlisted to get the message out.

1977

Ali Maalin, a Somalian cook, became the last person to contract smallpox in the wild. He survived and became an advocate for vaccination. A British woman contracted it from a lab studying the disease a year later, but smallpox was declared eradicated globally in 1980.

1984

After the HIV virus was isolated Ronald Reagan’s secretary of health announced that a vaccine would be found within two years. Decades later, however, no vaccine yet exists and numerous studies have failed. One trial was stopped after it appeared the vaccine raised people’s chances of contracting HIV.

1988

Andrew Wakefield published a study, later discredited, claiming a link between the MMR — measles, mumps and rubella — vaccine and autism. The paper was retracted and he was subsequently banned from practising medicine but his claims have resulted in a significant reduction in vaccination rates.

2008

The HPV vaccine was introduced for girls in the UK age 12 and 13. Boys started receiving the jab too last year. The World Health Organisation has said that cervical cancer, caused by the HPV virus, could be eliminated and Australia aims to wipe it out by 2035.

2019

The WHO reported 140,000 deaths from measles with outbreaks across all regions of the world. Four European countries, including the UK, lost their measles-free status, with the drop in vaccination rates blamed.

Johnson needs a plan or Tories will oust him

So much has gone wrong since the Tories won their general election victory a year ago next week that it is easy to take their majority of 80 for granted.

Iain Martin www.thetimes.co.uk 

A new report, No Turning Back, published today by the think tank Onward, serves as a reminder that the victory was hard-won, even against Jeremy Corbyn, because it involved the construction of a remarkable new electoral coalition of interests. Quite deliberately, the Tory leadership set out, Disraeli-style, to reposition the party, appealing to patriotic, working-class voters.

This was smart politics that worked. Boris Johnson duly smashed through the “red wall” to turn parts of the north of England blue for the first time in generations. Two in five Tory voters are working class. The Tories hold 57 per cent of the seats in the north and Midlands, their highest share since the mid-1930s.

To retain those seats and to maintain a winning coalition at the next election in 2024 or earlier, the Onward report suggests the Tories must now deliver on “levelling up” in the north, while not neglecting southern Conservative voters. Obviously, this balancing requires a high degree of political dexterity and focus.

At Westminster, where the Balkanisation of the party continues apace, the need for unity has not yet got through to many Conservative MPs. So widespread is the fashion for factionalism that new groupings are continually springing up, with Tory MPs forming ever more interest groups to apply pressure to the prime minister.

The CRG, the Covid Recovery Group, was formed last month and has organised resistance to the virus restrictions. The other CRG is the China Research Group, pushing for a tougher policy against the CCP (Chinese Communist Party). Then there is the Northern Research Group, the NRG. And the grandaddy of contemporary Conservative internal warfare is the ERG, the European Research Group, which organised resistance to Theresa May. Its members are still on guard against any backsliding on Brexit by their former hero Johnson.

With rebellions rolling, the steady corrosion of the government’s whipping operation has started to produce serious fractures. On Tuesday evening, 55 Tory MPs voted against the new coronavirus restrictions. The prime minister’s hide was saved only by the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer ordering his MPs to abstain. In the Westminster game, this is a significant moment. The opposition knows that the prime minister cannot rely on his majority. It can now bait and switch its position, saying it will abstain on a controversial matter before perhaps changing suddenly, closer to the vote, leaving the Tory whips scrambling.

A senior Conservative MP, a veteran of the whipping war during the doomed attempts to pass a Brexit deal during the May premiership, blames backbenchers for bad habits: “Many Tory MPs are still to be weaned off the Brexit years rebellion adrenaline fix.” Rebels respond that it is the fault of a high-handed No 10, which until his departure recently was built around Dominic Cummings, a revolutionary who actively dislikes the party. A noxious atmosphere was created and trust in Johnson’s judgment is low. Among the discontented are former cabinet ministers. Says one: “No 10 has behaved with such hubris in the last nine months during the Covid crisis that colleagues have concluded the government has no monopoly of wisdom.”

Tory factionalism is not a new phenomenon. In the 1840s the party split over the Corn Laws, with the free-trading leadership peeling away. In the aftermath of the First World War there was internal warfare. In the early 1980s, much of Margaret Thatcher’s first cabinet was opposed to the prime minister’s approach. From the late 1980s until 2019, the party was bedevilled by divisions on Europe.

But what should worry the prime minister now is that today’s divisions don’t appear to be particularly ideological — yet. The situation is more perilous than an arcane row about policy because it rests on that most subjective of qualities, personality. The doubts are about his ability to function effectively in government, to process the flow of paper and decisions and make good use of patronage.

The squabbling is displacement activity while the party works out what to do with him. Johnson was selected as a winner by MPs and Tory members to get two things done: to win an election and to deliver Brexit. The first was achieved and the second will happen, one way or the other, next month.

After that, and mass vaccination against Covid-19, it is fair to ask: what is this government for? Where are the public sector reforms to power improvement? Where are the policies to capitalise on what should be a boom next year unless the government screws it up?

The prime minister may object, with some justification, that he has had a hell of a year and everyone in government looks whacked. He can complain about unjustness and ingratitude all he likes but this is a tough old world and the Tory tribe are a ruthless bunch. So are the voters. There are always alternative prime ministers available.

That Onward report does contain some encouragement for the prime minister. Its authors say that the 2019 election marked a big realignment, making the Tories as much a party of the working class as of the provincial middle class. If so, Johnson has a special connection with those voters who will look to see whether or not he delivers.

If he is to succeed he’ll need an agenda and to implement it he will require the solid support of his party. That means he must learn the art of party management, and quick.

Government has failed to properly prepare for no-deal Brexit, watchdog warns again

Parliament’s Whitehall watchdog has accused the government of putting its head in the sand over no-deal Brexit as it becomes increasingly clear ministers have failed to prepare in time.

www.independent.co.uk 

The cross-party Public Accounts Committee warned in a new report that the government was still “taking limited responsibility” for Brexit readiness despite there being just four weeks left until Britain leaves the single market.

In a grim report published on Wednesday the MPs warned that they were “extremely concerned about the risk of serious disruption and delay” because of government inaction at ports like Dover.

The MPs noted that it was the twelfth time they had warned the government about the issue since the Brexit vote, but that it was still “not doing enough to ensure businesses and citizens will be ready for the end of the transition period”.

Brexit preparations have involved more than 22,000 civil servants at their peak and have cost at least £4.4 billion, the spending watchdog said – and yet there are still “critical gaps in the civil service’s approach to planning, particularly for unexpected events or undesired outcome”.

This costly approach is compounded by the fact that the Treasury “still does not have a good grip on how much taxpayers’ money is being spent on cross-government priorities”, with excess spending on consultants and little investment in the civil service itself.

“Pretending that things you don’t want to happen are not going to happen is not a recipe for government, it is a recipe for disaster,” said Meg Hillier, the MP who chairs the committee.

“We’re paying for that approach in the UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and can only hope that we are not now facing another catastrophe, at the border in 4 weeks’ time.

“But after 12 PAC reports full of warnings since the Brexit vote, the evidence suggests that come January 1st we face serious disruption and delay at the short Channel crossings that deliver a majority of our fresh food supplies.

“The lack of definite next steps and inability to secure a deal adds to the challenge. A year after the oven ready deal, we have more of a cold turkey and businesses and consumers do not know what to be prepared for.”

Trade talks with the EU to sign a deal have now continued in December, but there is little sign of a deal on the horizon.

Trade experts however warn that the hard nature of the Brexit chosen by Boris Johnson makes disruption inevitable, even if an agreement is forthcoming.

A UK Government Spokesperson said: “We are making significant preparations to prepare for the guaranteed changes at the end of the transition period including investing £705 million in jobs, technology and infrastructure at the border and providing £84 million in grants to boost the customs intermediaries sector. This is alongside implementing border controls in stages so traders have more time to prepare”

“With less than one month to go, it’s vital that businesses and citizens make their final preparations too. That’s why we’re intensifying our engagement with businesses through the Brexit Business Taskforce and running a major public information campaign so they know exactly what they need to do to get ready.”

Firm given free school meals voucher contract despite ‘limited evidence’ of capability

An investigation into the free school meal voucher fiasco, which left many families without food during lockdown, has found the government signed contracts worth up to £425m with a company for which there was “limited evidence” of its capacity to deliver.

Sally Weale www.theguardian.com 

The troubled scheme was set up in just 18 days and awarded to the French-owned company Edenred, despite the government’s own assessment that the company’s UK arm did not have the financial standing that would normally be required for the scale of contract, according to a report by the National Audit Office (NAO).

The public spending watchdog said Edenred was appointed to run the scheme using an existing government framework contract, as it was already a supplier to a number of government departments, which meant there was no need for a lengthy tendering process.

Within weeks, however, problems began to emerge, with schools across England complaining of problems in registering for the £15-per-child weekly vouchers. School staff worked into the night to try to log on to Edenred’s website and parents waited up to five days for their vouchers.

At one point in April, the Edenred helpline was receiving almost 4,000 calls and nearly 9,000 emails a day from frustrated school staff and parents. At the height of the crisis, ministers were forced to intervene directly and Department for Education officials held daily calls with Edenred to monitor progress.

One of the key problems identified in the NAO report was Edenred’s IT capacity, which was inadequate to meet the challenge of supplying vouchers to up to 1.4 million children who were eligible for free school meals.

The report says performance improved following DfE intervention, with processing times for orders dropping from an average of five days in April to just hours in July, and waiting times to access the website falling from 42 minutes to virtually no wait over the same period.

According to the report, Edenred issued 10.1m vouchers in total at a final cost to the DfE of £384m, significantly less than the original cost estimated at the start of the scheme. The report says the DfE “does not know whether Edenred made a profit” on the scheme, but while the government paid them the face value of the supermarket vouchers, Edenred was able to generate revenue by buying vouchers at a discount on their face value.

Meg Hillier, the chair of the Commons public accounts committee, said: “DfE chose an adapted off-the-shelf system to save time. But when it launched, families typically had to wait five days to get the vouchers they needed to buy food.

“Edenred’s systems buckled under the pressure, and schools and families found it much too difficult to get in touch when things went wrong. DfE and Edenred eventually managed to turn things around – but too many parents had to wait too long to get the support they needed.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “Problems at the start of the scheme led to a frustrating experience for many schools and families, but DfE and Edenred worked hard to get on top of these issues. Performance steadily improved as the scheme progressed.”

Edenred said it had delivered a scheme of unique scale for the DfE, which the majority of parents said worked well and translated every pound of public money into vouchers.

“The report is fair in its reflection of the challenges faced in the first four weeks,” a spokesperson said. “We welcome the recognition of the hard work and investment we put into solving those problems, resulting in improvements to a scheme which delivered for parents and schools in the final four months of the programme, when it saw the greatest demand.”

The children and families minister, Vicky Ford, said: “The NAO has recognised the swift action we took so that eligible children could access this important provision while schools were partially closed, with £380m-worth of voucher codes having been redeemed into supermarket gift cards by the time the scheme ended.”

Will Boris Johnson Face More Awkward Moments With His Scientists This Winter?

It was only a matter of time before the UK’s twin preoccupations of 2020 – Covid and Brexit – really collided. Within minutes of the 7am announcement that British regulators had approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, business secretary Alok Sharma and health secretary Matt Hancock tried to stick a Union Jack on the news.

Paul Waugh  2 Dec  www.huffingtonpost.co.uk

While Sharma boasted that “we will remember this moment as the day the UK led humanity’s charge against this disease, Hancock said that the UK was able to achieve a faster approval than the EU “because of Brexit”. Yet within a few hours, the MHRA regulator June Raine pointed out she had in fact operated under European law, which runs out in the UK at the end of the year.‌

The PM’s spokesman refused several times to endorse the Hancock line, and got into a muddle about Sharma’s (read the Lobby exchanges in all their painful glory in my Twitter thread HERE). Even Boris Johnson himself, never knowingly unavailable for a bit of Brussels bashing, refused to hit the “Brexit Bonus” softballs fed him by the Sun and Express in the later press conference.‌

In fact, it was deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam who most ridiculed the suggestion of Little Englander triumphalism, pointing not only to the German-American teams who developed the vaccine but also the wider global cooperation to combat Covid-19.

And what was most notable in the No.10 briefing, and earlier in PMQs, was how unusually cautious Johnson was in hailing the vaccine progress. Acutely aware of the danger that the public may see it as an excuse to drop their guard, he said people should “not get their hopes up too soon” about being rapidly vaccinated.

Van-Tam underlined the point by warning the public that “you have to take the vaccine…low uptake will almost certainly make restrictions last longer”. That wasn’t a direct threat to link an area’s vaccine rates to lifting tiers, more a home truth that vaccinations can get the R number right down.

But the whole press briefing ended on a truly awkward note when the PM and Van-Tam differed over the longer-term impacts of the virus on public behaviour. In the first explicit reprimand of one of his scientists, Johnson asserted himself after Van-Tam suggested long-term mask-wearing and hand-sanitising “maybe a good thing”.‌

The PM’s line – “on the other hand, we may want to get back to life as pretty much as close to normal” – was quite the public slapdown. And when the deputy medical officer later explained he meant some individuals would stick with mask-wearing, Johnson sounded incredulous at the suggestion that the UK could copy Japan or South Korea. “As in the Far East? Well, who knows?”‌

Many of Johnson’s allies will say he was well within his rights to avoid the long-term downer, not least as he knows the promise of a brighter 2021 is crucial to getting people to stick to more lockdown-style curbs this winter. Others will say he sounded like he was putting politics ahead of Van-Tam’s honest judgement.

Van-Tam tends to be plain speaking, and that’s his main asset. He famously made clear Dominic Cummings should not have broken Covid rules earlier this year, and was not seen for months thereafter. Given his importance on the vaccines front, a new sin-binning is unlikely, but the awkward moment with the PM can’t help.

There was another “Far East” lesson today, from former chief medical officer Sally Davies. She told MPs on the science and tech committee that the UK’s advisers failed to spot that Covid was not like flu. “We did not – our infectious disease experts – really believe that another Sars would get to us, and I think it’s a form of British exceptionalism.” That was a reminder to some Johnson supporters that his own scientists were themselves fallible early in this pandemic.

It is perhaps precisely because Johnson has gone along with the scientists’ advice on “tough tiers” that he chafed when pushed further today. But further tensions still beckon, not least as his plans for “community testing”, as a way out of tough restrictions, lack concrete data.

And one of the most pressing tensions will come in a fortnight, when that “meaningful review” (will it be as meaningful as Theresa May’s “meaningful votes”?) arrives on October 16. The PM told MPs yesterday he wanted “granular” assessments of “human geography”. In tonight’s briefing he said: “We are going to make sure we are as local and as sensitive as we can possibly be to local achievement and local incidence of the disease.”

That contrasts with his own words only six days ago, when he said smaller tiered areas would lead to “loads of very complicated sub-divisions” that would cost clarity. He also made plain on Friday that contagion was unavoidable, warning “unless you beat the problem in the high-incidence area, the low-incidence area I’m afraid starts to catch up.” Has he ditched those concerns just to avoid another Tory rebellion?

No one has yet asked Chris Whitty or Patrick Vallance, let alone Sage, whether a shift to tiers based on individual boroughs would simply mean the virus again running out of control. If the PM shifts back to his hyperlocal “whackamole” approach, it may be Van-Tam and the awkward squad of scientists he ends up whacking hardest – as well as his own hopes of a sunlit spring.

No, Brexit Hasn’t Made Covid Vaccine Approval Quicker In The UK

This being 2020, it didn’t take long for the brilliant news about the UK approving a coronavirus vaccine to turn into a massive row about Brexit.

Arj Singh www.huffingtonpost.co.uk 

Matt Hancock kicked off the debate, suggesting that “because of Brexit” the UK has been able approve the vaccine more quickly than if it was an EU member.

The EU has yet to approve the vaccine for use in member states.

“We do all the same safety checks and the same processes, but we have been able to speed up how they’re done because of Brexit,” the health secretary said on Wednesday morning.

But his claim was quickly shot down by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA), which actually granted the temporary authorisation of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab for use in the UK.

“We have been able to authorise the supply of this vaccine using provisions under European law which exist until January 1,” June Raine, chief executive of MHRA, told a Downing Street briefing.

Later, No.10 repeatedly refused to endorse Hancock’s claim.

“I think the important point is that we are clearly the first (western) country in the world to approve a vaccine, it’s obviously a very positive move forward,” a spokesperson told reporters.

And yet – of course – the row continues online, with Leaver talking head Darren Grimes claiming “Brexit is vindicated” and arch-Remainer Lord Adonis accusing Hancock of being “utterly juvenile”.

So who is right? 

The clue is in a consultation document put out by Hancock’s own Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) earlier this year, which makes clear that Brexit has nothing to do with it.

The department stated that until the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31, during which the UK follows Brussels rules, “EU legislation requires biotechnological medicines (which would include candidate Covid-19 vaccines) to be authorised via the European Medicines Agency”.

But it also stressed an exemption in EU law which allows the MHRA to issue a temporary authorisation “if there is a compelling case, on public health grounds, for using a vaccine before it is given a product licence”.

This is backed up in the UK’s own Human Medicines Regulations 2012, which allows the domestic regulator to permit a “temporary authorisation for the supply of an unlicensed medicinal product for use in response to certain specific types of public health threat”.

The law then copies language from directly from Article 5(2) of the EU Medicines Directive 2001/83, which states that “member states may temporarily authorise the distribution of an unauthorised medicinal product in response to the suspected or confirmed spread of pathogenic agents, toxins, chemical agents or nuclear radiation.”

In October, the UK then went on to amend this law.

Health minister Jo Churchill explained in a written ministerial statement these were simply “technical” changes to “make sure that any unlicensed products that the government recommends for deployment in response to certain public health threats must meet required safety and quality standards”.

When Pfizer reported on November 18 that its vaccine had 95% efficacy, the MHRA put out a statement making clear that if “strong supporting evidence of safety, quality and effectiveness from clinical trials becomes available before the end of the transition period, EU legislation allows for temporary authorisation of supply in the UK, based on the public health need”.

Mark Dayan, head of public affairs at the healthcare think-tank Nuffield Trust, told HuffPost UK: “I don’t really see any grounds on which you can say Brexit has facilitated this.

“We’re in this transition period at the moment where legally speaking for things like medicines there’s absolutely no change to what the situation was in 2012 or before the referendum or when we were full members.

“So I don’t really understand the mechanism by which Brexit could have accelerated this.”

On November 20, Hancock “formally asked the MHRA to assess the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for its suitability for authorisation”.

On Wednesday, the MHRA made history by granting that temporary authorisation.

And it had nothing to do with Brexit.

The DHSC has been approached for comment.

UK Covid death toll passes 75,000 despite falling infections

The coronavirus death toll passed 75,000 yesterday with the release of figures from the Office for National Statistics.

Kat Lay Health Editor www.thetimes.co.uk

The total is higher than the government’s official figure of 59,051, which counts only those who die within 28 days of a positive test. The latest data from the ONS, which records any death with Covid-19 on the death certificate, regardless of whether they tested positive for the virus, showed 2,697 such deaths registered in England and Wales in the week ending November 20.

That took the combined death toll recorded by Britain’s three statistical agencies to 71,719.

Adding the 3,384 deaths recorded on the government’s list since the agencies’ latest figures takes the number of Covid-19 deaths to 75,103.

The ONS figures show that deaths from Covid-19 are still rising in England and Wales, despite the number of infections starting to fall in recent weeks.

Although hospital admissions are beginning to follow suit, deaths will be the last indicator to decline. The 2,697 deaths were 231 more than the week before and the highest number since the week ending May 15.

They represent more than a fifth of the 12,535 deaths from any cause registered that week, which were 21 per cent, or 2,155 deaths, above the five-year average. That means the number of deaths not caused by Covid-19 was slightly below the five-year average.

The rate of deaths above what would normally be expected for the time of year, or excess deaths, is considered one of the best ways to track the pandemic because it captures coronavirus deaths that have not been recognised as such and any caused by a lack of access to usual healthcare, for example.

Sir David Spiegelhalter, chairman of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at Cambridge University, said that the total deaths figure was “substantially larger than the peak for this week over the past ten years, which was 10,882 in 2019” and “far greater than could be explained by an ageing population”.

He added: “It is encouraging that deaths that were not caused by Covid were slightly below the five-year average. We might expect some deaths that would normally occur now to have been brought forward by the first wave. But this still suggests that the collateral damage of the measures against the pandemic have not yet had an impact on overall mortality.”

Of deaths with Covid-19 mentioned on the certificate, 88 per cent (2,361) mentioned it as the underlying cause.

Professor Spiegelhalter said: “Between September 5 and November 20, 12,907 deaths involving Covid were registered in the UK and there have been roughly 3,000 since then, making 16,000 altogether in the second wave. Sadly, the prediction that the second wave would involve tens of thousands of Covid deaths looks like it will be fulfilled. We can expect this second-wave total to rise to over 20,000 by Christmas.”

Major Sulk enters his darkest hour as rank and file desert him

Out of desperation more than anything else, Boris Johnson has taken to calling Keir Starmer “Captain Hindsight”. Even when the Labour leader is making predictions about what will happen next. But in the Commons debate on the new coronavirus tiers, the prime minister revealed a new persona for himself: Major Sulk.

John Crace www.theguardian.com

You could tell Johnson wasn’t a happy bunny from the off, because he arrived looking a total mess. More often than not, Boris’s appearance is less art than artifice. He hopes that appearing shambolic will make people think he’s not too bothered. That he’s the Mister Good Time Guy on whom you can rely for a joke. Except no one is laughing any more. Least of all Boris. His bedraggled, slumped demeanour was not a sign that he wasn’t bothered. Rather it was the opposite. He couldn’t bear for his public to see just how much he did care. Not for the country, obviously. But for himself.

Up till now, the Great Narcissistic Sulk has never really given a toss about his rank-and-file backbenchers. He didn’t even know the names of three-quarters of them. But this was the day he came to realise the one-way love affair was over and the magic had worn off for a significant number of the Conservative parliamentary party. MPs willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because he had managed to win an 80-seat majority now realised they had bought a dud. A prime minister who at a time of crisis could be relied on to let you down.

Johnson’s opening speech was a lazy, badly argued ramble through the familiar arguments he had been making over the past week. He began by listing the positives of the new regime – hairdressers, gyms and round-the-clock shopping – insisting that the evidence for reopening them had been taken with granular thoroughness. Despite the fact that his economic impact assessments, released at the last minute the previous day, bore a closer resemblance to something knocked up on the back of cigarette packet.

He then went on to say that no one should take Christmas for granted. Only that was precisely what he was doing by granting a five-day Christmas amnesty that could turn into a New Year killing zone. He also promised an extra £1,000 to every pub that didn’t serve scotch eggs as a sop to the Tory malcontents. Or beer money, as Keir Starmer scathingly described it. The longer Boris spoke the emptier his words became. By the end he was running on fumes.

In reply, the Labour leader merely voiced what was on everyone’s mind. We’d all been here before on several occasions with Johnson, but every time he had let the country down. He had been too late to lock down initially; he had ignored Sage’s advice for a circuit breaker in September; he had introduced a tiering system that was soon proved to be hopelessly inadequate; Typhoid Dido’s track and trace had been a joke. He had promised the pandemic would be over by the summer. And then by Christmas.

Now we were clinging on for dear life waiting for the vaccines to save us. So why should anyone believe a word the prime minister said when it looked as though the new tiers were guided by what Boris could smuggle past enough of his backbenchers rather than by the science. A third national lockdown in January was all but an inevitability. And in the meantime, where was the financial help for the hospitality sector and the self-employed? As so often, Johnson had over-promised and under-delivered.

Even so, something had to be better than nothing. So Labour would be abstaining to make sure everyone’s main focus was on the number of Tory rebels. Yet again then, Starmer would be giving Johnson the benefit of the doubt and putting the government on notice. It’s been on notice for a while now. There would come a time when Keir would have to say enough was enough and vote against the government on its handling of the coronavirus. But now was not the right time.

The rest of the debate was dominated by unhappy Tories, either promising to rebel or to vote reluctantly for the government. Bernard Jenkin, after listing all the many faults in the new tiering system, sadly concluded that he would vote for Boris. Out of pity as much as anything else. Others were less forgiving, demanding more localised banding of tiers and proof that the hospitality industry was the root of all Covid evils. Steve Baker even went so far as to demand expert evidence. This from the MP who happily ignored both experts and evidence during numerous Brexit debates. Better a sinner who repenteth, I suppose.

It was Chris Grayling who delivered the real coup de grace by saying that he was “very concerned”. When you’ve lost the trust of Failing Grayling, who has cost the taxpayer more than £3bn in a ministerial career of unrivalled uselessness, then you’ve lost the soul of the Tory party.

With Labour abstaining, the vote itself was a formality, the motion passing with a majority of 213. But with 56 Tories voting against him and more abstaining, this was Boris’s darkest hour. One from which he may never recover. Many of us saw through Johnson long ago. An opportunist chancer only interested in self-glorification. Now it looks as if the mist has lifted from the eyes of many of his own benches. Enough for him never to take a vote again for granted. What goes around, comes around.

UK fishing industry caught between rock and hard place on trade talks

Boris Johnson has vowed to take back control of the UK’s “spectacular maritime wealth” but at 6am on Monday in Brixham, England’s biggest fishing port by value, there is nervousness that the prime minister’s efforts to defend the industry in post-Brexit EU trade talks could end in disaster.

[Extracts of this FT article are included in today’s Western Morning News]

George Parker in Brixham and Jim Brunsden in Brussels yesterday www.ft.com

Ian Perkes is sitting at his computer screen by the harbour buying sole in an online auction to sell to markets across Europe. He fears that if Mr Johnson allows EU trade talks to collapse in a dispute about fisheries, the industry will face crippling tariffs in its main market on January 1 when the UK’s Brexit transition period ends.

“If the tariff was only 5 per cent we would be killed,” said Mr Perkes, the founder of a £5m-a-year fish exporting company. In fact, if trade talks collapse, the EU will soon be levying tariffs of 20 per cent on key catches like scallops.

The scene on Brixham quayside tells a story of Britain’s emotional but ultimately detached relationship with its fishing industry, which contributes about 0.1 per cent to the UK’s GDP, if processing is included.

Workers hose down boats, gut fish and pack boxes as the sun rises over the south Devon port, on England’s south-west coast — but the fish landed here are not, generally, heading for the dining tables and restaurants of Britain.

According to Mr Perkes, 80 per cent of the scallops, squid, sole, ray, langoustines and other delicacies landed here will be loaded on to trucks and sent straight to Calais and on to markets in France, Italy, Spain and Germany. Similarly, the herring and mackerel caught by Scottish boats are not staples on a UK shopping list. 

The problem, rarely acknowledged by ministers, is that Britons do not much like the fish caught in the UK’s rich fishing waters. To the extent the country eats fish, it is mainly the “big five” of cod, haddock, tuna, salmon and prawns — most of which are imported.

So as trade talks with Brussels enter a decisive phase, Mr Johnson might secure more fish for UK boats but — without a trade deal — will they be able to sell them?

Ian Perkes: ‘If there’s no deal and there are tariffs, we are out of the game’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

Leaving aside processing, fishing and aquaculture, output slumped to just £75m in the third quarter, due mainly to the effects of Covid-19. By contrast, the independent Office for Budget Responsibility reported last week that a “no trade deal” Brexit would cost the economy 2 per cent of GDP next year.

But Mr Johnson recognises that fishing is not just about numbers. Even if Britons are not big fish eaters, the industry has a place in the nation’s psyche; some like to fall asleep listening to the BBC shipping forecast, evoking trawlers working distant storm-tossed waters.

A reminder of that visceral connection with the sea can be seen at the venerable “Man and Boy” statue on Brixham waterfront, now transformed into a shrine to Adam Harper, a young local who died when the scallop boat Joanna C overturned on November 21. Another crew member, Robert Morley, is still missing.

Mr Johnson’s fight for the restoration of fishing rights to UK fishermen after Britain leaves the EU’s common fisheries policy on January 1 is thus highly popular, especially in Scotland, which represents the biggest part of the UK industry.

EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has suggested that the EU fishing fleet should accept a 15-18 per cent cut in its share of rights in UK waters; David Frost, the UK’s negotiator, wants to seize 80 per cent of the €650m worth of fishing rights.

Jim Portus, chief executive of the South West Fish Producers’ Organisation, said the boat owners he represented believed Brexit was a chance to redress historic wrongs; he said that France, for example, had 84 per cent of the cod quota in the English Channel.

UK fishing

Mr Portus claims new boats — or second-hand boats — could be acquired in months to take up the extra quota and he insisted that EU consumers would still buy the fish even with high tariffs after the transition period expired. He added: “For the catching sector, no deal is better than a bad deal that sacrifices the industry.”

But Mr Portus’s optimism is not shared by Mitch Tonks, a restaurateur behind the Rockfish chain and the upmarket Seahorse in Dartmouth, who said British consumers would not take up the slack if tariffs were imposed and reduced exports to the EU.

“The sale of the fish is as important as the fishing,” he said, on a regular early-morning tour of Brixham fish market. “You could end up with fish rotting on the docks.”

Restaurant owner Mitch Tonks fears British consumers will not take up the slack if exports to EU fall © Charlie Bibby/FT

He said diners at his Rockfish outlets were gradually moving from traditional (imported) cod and chips to locally caught fish, but the transition would not make up for the loss of EU markets.

Mr Perkes, who set up his fish export business in 1976, is grappling with the paperwork required to sell into the EU single market after January 1 — paperwork that will be needed regardless of whether there is a trade deal.

“It’s a nightmare,” he said, noting that he will soon have to complete catch certificates and health certificates for each consignment to the EU, covering perhaps 30 different boats catching different species.

He has also been warned that each truck, carrying maybe £150,000 of fish supplied by a number of different exporting firms, could be turned back at Calais if all of the paperwork is not in order.

Sean Perkes, his brother, looks up from his trading screen and said that if there is no trade deal there will be trouble at the border. “If the French are losing their fishing quota, they will make life extremely difficult,” he added.

Ian Perkes, like most of the south-west fishing community, voted for Brexit as a means of taking back control of UK waters. “I wish I hadn’t,” he said. “I never looked at the implications of the paperwork. I was brainwashed.”

Tariffs on exports would — he fears — be a catastrophe for his business and the fishing boats that supply it. Barring a radical change in the dietary habits of Britain, he said the sector would be “stuffed”, adding: “If there’s no deal and there are tariffs, we are out of the game.”

Letter in response to this article:

An EU proposal on fishing to get us all off the hook / From Nicholas Cornwell, London NW3, UK