Councils’ pandemic fight is hampered by central micromanagement

NHS and care workers have gripped public attention as the country responds to the Covid-19 pandemic. But the one million people who work in local government have also been working flat-out – work that will continue well past the present crisis, that has been made much harder by 10 years of austerity, and that is not being helped by some parts of Whitehall trying to micromanage the local response, writes:

Richard Vize, a public policy commentator and analyst 

As councils cope with a huge wave of demand on every front, from social care to refuse collection, they are taking daily instructions from ministers and officials across Whitehall, themselves under pressure and struggling to keep pace with directions from Downing Street.

Ironically perhaps after years of cuts, the tensions aren’t about money, but about communication and coordination. There have been delays, confusion and aborted work, such as changes of policy about whether central or local government is managing the assembly and distribution of food parcels, and local preparations for additional mortuary capacity being put on hold in favour of a national response.

While some difficulties are inevitable, the fundamental problem is ministers persisting in the fantasy that everything works best when it is run from the centre.

Limited understanding about the practicalities of local delivery has affected everything from identifying which vulnerable people need help to supporting local businesses.

In some places food parcels have arrived stuffed with biscuits and chocolate, which then need to be supplemented with something nutritious.

Meanwhile, public health directors are frustrated at being excluded from key communications and the development of guidance by NHS England and government departments.

Responsibility for commissioning public health policies was moved out of central government in 2013. As former public health director Gabriel Scally said earlier this week, public health budgets have since been systematically raided in the face of massive cuts to council funding. The heart of the local response to the virus now lies with a small number of council public health specialists – about 500 across England.

As the first wave of infections hit, these specialists played a crucial role in the containment phase, chasing infection contacts and coordinating the local response.

Among a torrent of other responsibilities, highlighted via the hashtag #adayinthelifeofadph, local public health staff are collating and analysing data, giving advice on everything from protection equipment to homelessness, managing the implementation of social distancing, supporting vulnerable people, and working with the NHS, voluntary groups and government.

All councils depend on these specialists to help implement the blizzard of guidance on infection control and safe working, as they work with GPs, volunteers, community groups, local businesses and government during the lockdown.

Those who may need help are being identified from numerous sources, including responses to a government letter asking 1.5 million people judged at risk if they need help. Many people have contacted councils directly. Staff and voluntary workers – all trained in infection control – are making personal visits and keep in touch online and by phone, as well as delivering food and medicines and checking on social care and other welfare needs. Some support will come from the £500m government hardship fund.

Two weeks ago the NHS and the government instituted a new patient discharge regime, which amounted to an order to do whatever it takes to clear patients out of 15,000 beds. Councils are working with the NHS, care homes and voluntary groups to ensure residents being moved out of hospitals have somewhere to go and have the right support in place.

The government has allocated councils in England £1.6bn of additional funds to cope with Covid-19 pressures, such as buying support from care providers, but the guidance did not mandate the testing of patients before discharge, leading some care homes, such as in Liverpool, to refuse to take them. Continuing difficulties in getting personal protection equipment (PPE) to care staff are also hindering discharges, and infections in care homes will put a huge additional strain on adult social care.

Social care staff continue to go to people’s homes despite the lack of PPE. The British Association of Social Workers has warned (pdf) that staff are often seeing a dozen or more service users a day without even hand sanitiser as protection. Social workers are also scrambling to keep in touch with children who may be put at additional risk by the lockdown.

Councils and their contractors are trying to keep other vital services running, particularly refuse collections, knowing that any deterioration in the environment will exacerbate people’s sense of fear. It’s a growing problem. Some council recycling centres have closed and the volume of waste is increasing just as sickness among refuse crews increases.

Huge efforts have been made to get rough sleepers off the streets, including working with volunteers and businesses to get people into hotels and revamp empty properties. And councils are gearing up to help an expected surge in domestic abuse victims.

Local authorities also have to handle the emotionally-charged practicalities around funerals. Guidance from Public Health England now says only immediate family are allowed to attend and social distancing rules must be maintained.

Some families are waiting to remove bodies from hospital mortuaries in the hope that the rules might be relaxed in a few weeks, while many undertakers are not working as normal. As a result, mortuary capacity is rapidly running out, and emergency facilities are being built.

Under intense pressure, local government’s role has been a mix of community leadership, implementing national plans in ways that are sensitive to local needs, and providing support for everyone from rough sleepers to businesses.

When the immediate crisis is over, councils need to ram home the message that while national guidance has often been essential in fighting Covid-19, local government is at its best when it has maximum freedom to meet local needs. When the plaudits are being handed out, councils will deserve huge credit for the energy and innovation they have brought to leading their communities.


As many as 123,000 jobs in Devon could be lost

When the chips are down Devon County, Plymouth and Torbay sideline HotSW LEP (Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership – our supposed devolution body). They don’t even mention the newly formed body, the Great South West headed by Steve Hindley, Chairman of construction group MIDAS.

Takes a crisis to concentrate minds.

BBC Devon website: 

As many as 123,000 jobs in Devon could be lost as a result of the coronavirus crisis, a new report has indicated.

Commissioned by Devon, Plymouth and Torbay councils, the Covid-19 Economic Resilience report also predicted a potential loss to the economy of nearly £2bn.

It was commissioned by the three three local authorities following a request from the government’s Local Economies Advisory Panel.

They have jointly called on the government to provide more financial assistance to the county, after they created and presented the report to the panel.

The combined impact of job losses in the air industry, hospitality, food and drink, and retail sectors have contributed to the panel giving Devon’s economy a “red rating”.

Disruption to the construction, manufacturing, marine and fishing industries are also being reported as orders fail to materialise, while Jobcentres are reporting an average rise of six times the number of claimants, the report said.

We want local businesses to know that we are in their corner, fighting for them, and we’re urging the government to get behind us.

John Hart

Devon County Council Leader


Government brings in new laws that allows councils to meet ‘virtually’

Owl posts two articles under this heading. The first is a general one on how the democratic process can continue safely, the second is the advice from Civic Voice to amenity societies on how this might affect planning. 

Daniel Clark

New laws that enable local authorities in England to hold public meetings virtually by using video or telephone conferencing technology come into effect from Saturday.

The government has temporarily removed the legal requirement for local authorities to hold public meetings in person during the coronavirus pandemic.

This will enable councils to make effective and transparent decisions on the delivery of services for residents and ensure that local democracy continues to thrive.

The change applies to all local authorities in England and covers all categories of public meetings including annual meetings, cabinet and committee meetings.

It means all councils – from Devon County down to the parish councils – can continue to meet, and also applies to the Dartmoor and Exmoor National Park Authorities, the Devon and Somerset Fire Authority, as well as the Police and Crime Panel,

All meetings must still be made accessible for the public and the press to ‘attend’, but it will be up to each local authority to decide how they conduct meetings, how voting procedures work and how to ensure that the public has access.

Existing rules about the number of councillors or members of a group required to attend to make a meeting valid will remain, but virtual attendance will count.

The Regulations apply to meetings taking place before May 7, 2021, but this date could be moved forward if medical and scientific advice leads to the relaxation of social distancing rules.

Devon County Council’s cabinet are set to meet on Wednesday, April 8, via videolink. The Exeter City Council executive meeting the night beforehand is currently still listed as taking place in the Civic Centre as usual.

Local Government Secretary Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP said: “Local authorities are the backbone of our democracy and they are playing a vital role in the national effort to keep people safe. This change will support them to do that while maintaining the transparency we expect in local decision making.

“Councillors and staff are already doing the right thing by following our advice to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives. This includes working from home wherever possible, and the new powers to hold meetings virtually will make that easier.

“It’s critical that they continue to provide essential services and find innovative ways to maintain important economic functions they perform like the planning system and they will now be able to do so.

“We’ve given local authorities across England an additional £1.6 billion to help their crucial work in the national effort against coronavirus, and we are continuing to ensure they get all of the support that they need at this time.”

Local Government Association Chairman, Cllr James Jamieson added: “Councils are working tirelessly to support their communities as they rise to the unprecedented challenge of the coronavirus crisis.

“Giving councils powers to hold meetings remotely is important to maintaining local democracy and allowing critical decisions to be made during this public health crisis. Councils need to respond quickly and make very many key decisions. They can now do so while remaining open, transparent and accessible to the public.

“Remote council meetings will crucially help ensure all those taking part stay at home, helping to prevent the coronavirus from spreading and save lives.”

The government is also working to bring in new law so that by-elections, local polls and referendums cannot be held before 6 May 2021.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 has already postponed local and Police and Crime Commissioner elections scheduled in the UK for Thursday 7 May 2020 until 6 May 2021.

Here is what Civic Voice have to say on how this might affect planning and advice to amenity societies 

Local authorities in England handed new powers to hold planning meetings virtually by using video or telephone conferencing technology from April 4th

We understand that some civic societies and community groups are concerned about the implications of COVID19 and how this will impact the planning system in regard to Local Authorities processing planning applications.

In the same way that civic societies are saying that they are experiencing challenges in meeting face-to-face, we should not be surprised that this is also the case for councils.

So what is being done about this?

The government has temporarily removed the legal requirement for local authorities to hold public meetings in person during the coronavirus pandemic. This will enable councils to continue to make decisions during the current crisis.

Section 78 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 allows the relevant national authority to make regulations providing for virtual meetings in local authorities, including the Greater London Authority, district, county and unitary councils, parish councils and national park authorities.

The Regulations apply to meetings held, or required to be held, before 7th May 2021.

Does this affect Planning Committee Meetings?

The change applies to all local authorities in England and covers all categories of public meetings including annual meetings, cabinet and committee meetings.

Anticipating the impact of the current emergency on the planning system, the Chief Planner’s recent ‘Planning Update‘ advised on how councils could respond to ensure that the planning system could operate.

 ” The Government has confirmed that it will introduce legislation to allow council committee meetings to be held virtually for a temporary period, which we expect will allow planning committees to continue.”

Chief Planner, Steve Quartermain

The Government has indeed introduced this legislation and local Councils can now legally hold online only council meetings.  It comes into force on April 4th

What do civic societies need to know?

The change applies to all local authorities in England and covers all categories of public meetings including planning meetings.

Existing rules about the number of councillors or members of a group required to attend to make a meeting valid will remain, but virtual attendance will count.

Government will be working with others to developing guidance for local authorities about holding remote meetings.

Will the public will still have access to public meetings through remote means?

There are still some practical concerns about how these meetings will be hosted, and in particular the manner in which members of the public will be able to participate, but meetings must remain accessible whilst ensuring that councillors, staff and the wider public are able to follow government advice. We will see how this works through in practice.

The requirement for public meetings to be made accessible to the public remains, but it will be up to each local authority to decide how they conduct meetings, how voting procedures work and how to ensure that the public has access.

An authority would have to make its own decision if it was going to cut back on public attendance and we would ask civic societies to inform us where this happens.

The regulations say:

  • Live webcast of meeting is enough to comply with new rules re press and public: “(9A) In this Act, references to—
    • (a)a meeting being “open to the public” includes access to the meeting through remote means including video conferencing, live webcast, and live interactive streaming
  • Where a meeting is accessible to the public through such remote means the meeting is open to the public whether or not members of the public are able to attend the meeting in person;
    • (a)any reference to being “present” at a meeting includes being present through remote attendance;
    • (b)any reference to a “place” where a meeting is held, or to be held, includes reference to more than one place including electronic, digital or virtual locations such as internet locations, web addresses or conference call telephone numbers;

Impact for civic societies and community groups?

We don’t know how this situation is going to work out.  It could be that more applications are delegated to officers or it could be that planning committees are unable to meet due to lack of IT skills for some councillors, or that meetings could be held virtually without public participation. What about controversial applications? How will they be dealt?

It is important that you get in touch with your local planning authority to let them know that you want to participate. Being a formal constituted group may well make it easier for the council to engage with you.


Shandford, Budleigh Care Home closure – Owl has followed this story and finds it unutterably unbearable

Today “PH” posted this comment on this 28 March East Devon Watch post (the latest post on the story of Abbeyfield’s closure of the Shandford Care Home in Budleigh):

“Abbeyfield has not mentioned that they were introduced to Amica Care by MP Simon Jupp in February of this year. From my understanding, Abbeyfield would not engage with Amica at that point, which would have given more time to consult.

The question should be asked, how a huge charity supposedly committed to its residents, can be allowed to strip the life out of residential home in their care. If it’s not to make money, then why?

Not viable? I don’t think so!”

This act of care home closure would be a heart wrenching story at the best of times. Now, as we approach the height of the worst epidemic since 1918, it is unbearable. During lockdown, residents have no physical contact with their loved ones at their time of crisis.

The residents are being taken from their homes at a time when the Government has decreed that the vulnerable should not leave their homes. As part of overall epidemic decisions escalation, it is already planned that transfer to hospital from Care Homes may not be offered if it is not likely to benefit the resident and if palliative or conservative care within the home is deemed more appropriate. Moving residents inevitably increases their risk and the risk to others. Peter Kyle MP for Brighton (Hove) has just spoken about this in an interview on today’s BBC “World at One”. The context included some relatives in his constituency being pressured into to signing “do not resuscitate” notices.

The closure is based on Abbeyfield’s declared aim of “freeing up assets” as it changes its business model to concentrate on larger homes; and County Councillor Christine Channon’s handpicked adviser Chris Davis who claims that Shandford is no longer viable. Owl has received plausible arguments that shows that there are grounds to challenge the case for non-viability.


Shandford’s public room and gardens are particularly special (there is a chicken pen in the garden clearly visible to residents). It is accessible and has a bus-stop outside encouraging visiting. The town-centre location means that even wheelchair bound residents can easily get to town with their loved ones and enjoy a more fulfilling existence.

Balance Sheet.

Knowing the numbers of residents at the time “Save our Shandford” was started in February and the fees charged it can be easily calculated that the home could expect an income of over £1M. Shandford is known to charge approximately 75% of some homes in Exmouth so there would be scope for modest fee increases if necessary. The property was bought by local subscription and there is no cost of equity, no cost of debt. Shandford is also named as a potential beneficiary in a recent legacy. It is clear from the support that “Save our Shandford” received that the local community would undertake fundraising as it has done in the past.

Property condition.

The house was built in the Edwardian period and has been extended and modernised as part of a continuous investment programme since its acquisition in 1958. From the outside it can be seen that the roof and main structure look to have been well maintained (Abbeyfield claim to have invested substantial sums since control was ceded to them in 2012). However, both Abbeyfield and  Cllr Cannon’s advisers claim that the rooms are too small (it currently has a good CQC rating) and that major works are needed to the plumbing. Owl was interested to hear that at the public meeting called by Simon Jupp MP one resident’s relative, a builder, laughed at the three figure sums being quoted. In any event, given the CQC assessment, no major works are needed in the short term, allowing opportunities for fund raising. Those trying to save Shandford have been denied access to the viability report presented to Cllr Channon (confidential apparently).


Subsequent to Abbeyfield announcing closure last autumn and actions taken by Cllr Channon, it is clear that Abbeyfield has an obligation to return monies realised by any sale to the Town. This must relate to clauses in the Transfer Deed drawn up by the original local Trustees of the Shandford Community Interest Company and Abbeyfield. Those trying to save Shandford have been denied access to the transfer deed, even though a copy is believed to be held by Devon County Council. Once the site is sold there is no way the any assets released could possibly recreate Shandford and its setting within the Town

Alternative provider.

The local community, given time, has expressed the will and energy to re-create a local Community Interest Company to take over and run Shandford but has been denied access to essential information. A more feasible and quicker option is mentioned by “PH”. Amica Care expressed an interest and Simon Jupp MP has tried to broker negotiations. Regrettably it seems minds have been made up and Abbeyfield won’t negotiate.

We are living through times when decisions made by “the authorities” are being shown, by fast moving events, to be all too often threadbare. Seldom do management decisions come to haunt the decision maker quite so soon. You are supposed to be able to “make your mark”, move on and not be called to account.

Newton’s law of crisis management

Nicola Woolcock, education correspondent, The Times 3 April

In an article he wrote for The Lancet last year the language of Public Health England’s director of health improvement seems oddly prescient.

“At a time of crisis”, John Newton wrote, “there is pressure to act, but at such a time, it is especially important that any action is informed by rational assessment of the relevant scientific evidence.”

The paper was on vaping-associated respiratory illnesses in the US but it seems likely Whitehall will be hoping he applies the logic to the present crisis after he was put in charge of testing.

Professor Newton was appointed director of health improvement in 2012. He is honorary professor of public health and epidemiology at Manchester and Exeter universities. As well as being an academic epidemiologist in the University of Oxford, he has been director of research and development in two large teaching hospitals.

He was also the first director and chief executive of UK Biobank, which holds biological samples for use in research, and the regional director of public health for NHS South Central.

Professor Newton has led England’s contribution to the Global Burden of Disease project and been chairman of the WHO European Burden of Disease Network.

In a recent blog he set out priorities that he wanted to tackle. These include the reduction in variation in smoking prevalence between rich and poor, anti-obesity initiatives, improving air quality and ensuring mental health has parity with physical health.

He said: “Tackling regional inequality is a vitally important task but we also see differences in health linked to disability, gender, race, age, sexuality or religion or amongst members of the most vulnerable or marginalised groups in society from homeless people and sex workers to people in prison.”

Cheltenham Festival ‘spread coronavirus across country’

Nero was supposed to have fiddled while Rome burned. In our case it looks like the “Great and the Good” went to the races instead. The Cheltenham Festival took place when Italy was already in lockdown,

Will Humphries, Southwest Correspondent

There are fears the mass gathering of more than 250,000 people during the Cheltenham Festival last month helped spread the disease widely across the country as famous faces and members of the public who attended have tested positive.

The comedian Lee Mack spent two days at the pinnacle of the jump racing season before testing positive for Covid-19, with a friend saying he believed he caught it off his driver when travelling to the event.

Andrew Parker Bowles, the former husband of the Duchess of Cornwall, has also caught the coronavirus and said he thinks he “probably got it on the Wednesday or Friday I attended Cheltenham”.

During those two days he was photographed in close contact with Camilla, as well as Princess Anne, her daughter Zara Tindall and son-in-law Mike Tindall.

Mr Mack and Brigadier Parker Bowles join a growing list of famous names and members of the public who are thought to have caught the virus at the event held from March 10-13.

More than 60,000 fans a day were packed into the stands, bars, toilets and queues for the food vans at the world-famous festival with little protection apart from some hand sanitiser stations dotted around the racetrack.

The roar of the crowd at Cheltenham can send a tingle up the spine but the shouting, cheering and drunken singing by tens of thousands of punters packed cheek by jowl in the terraces and bars is a perfect environment for transmission of infection by airborne droplets from the mouth and nose.

More than 250,000 people walked in through the gates across the four days – and hundreds of them have claimed online that they have since developed symptoms.

The festival took place when Italy was already in lockdown, as of March 9, and drew criticism for still going ahead.

Anyone who caught the virus would have had it by now, given that the event finished on Mach 13 and the incubation period is 14 days, but there are fears they could have gone on and infected more people, with patients spreading the virus to two others on average.

At the time there was huge debate over whether it should have been cancelled, with Jeremy Hunt, chairman of the health and social care select committee, telling the BBC’s Newsnight: “I think it is surprising and concerning that we’re not doing any of it at all when we have just four weeks before we get to the stage that Italy is at.

“The issue is not whether you or I might get infected at a football match, it’s who we go on to meet.”

Following the festival a number of people took to social media to say they had attended and were getting symptoms the following week.

One person wrote on Twitter: “I was at Cheltenham for three days last week and I am now showing all the symptoms of coronavirus, please be careful everyone.”

Someone else replied: “Was there as well and showing signs.”

The Jockey Club, organisers of the event, said the festival “went ahead under Government guidance”. It finished three days before mass gatherings were banned.

While most of other events had been called off by individual sporting bodies before waiting for official government guidance, the festival still took place, prompting suggestions that Ministers should have done more to ensure all events were called off when the outbreak was in its infancy.


Latest Government U-turn for small businesses – but still caught in Catch-22 – first find a Bank

Would-be borrowers say phone calls go answered; banks say that they are working flat-out with workforces that are also affected by Covid-19 and self-isolation. But speed of execution is now vital. A flood of lending was promised to avert company collapses, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Chancellor’s hybrid will do nothing to hasten banks

Analysis  Nils Pratley Guardian 3 April

What was wrong with the government’s first version of its emergency loan package for small businesses? The problem is vividly illustrated by this statistic: only 983 companies have had loans approved out of130,000 inquiries made.

The running totals – released by the Treasury for the first time since the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, or CBILS, was launched – support loud complaints from small businesses in search of cash. The scheme was fiddly, slow and rested too heavily on banks’ judgments on eligibility.

The most important rejig by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is really a U-turn. In version A, banks were told that CBILS loans could be offered only to viable businesses that could not access finance on normal commercial terms. Now “all viable business affected by Covid-19” will be eligible.

The distinction is critical. Small business owners complained that banks were trying to steer them into standard interest-bearing loans, rather than the juicy government-backed CBILS product that is free of interest for 12 months and free of set-up fees. For their part, the banks argued they were merely implementing government rules.

The switch in approach will, almost inevitably, come at a cost to the public purse. But it should speed up processing and get more cash into the accounts of small businesses that need to pay wages and suppliers. Those 983 CBILS loans represent only £90m of lending – a trickle.

Sunak has also banned personal guarantees on loans under £250,000, another source of bitterness. But his other major reform is to fill a hole that became apparent almost immediately: the definition of a small business was set too tightly.

CBILS loans, worth up to £5m, are aimed at companies with an annual turnover of less than £45m. That threshold was too low for many midsized and family-owned firms who felt the parallel Covid Corporate Finance Facility was intended for much larger companies with formal credit ratings.

Thus Sunak has created a hybrid – a CBILS-based package for companies with annual turnover between £45m and £500m. The chief difference is that these loans won’t be interest-free, but their availability may solve the so-called “squeezed middle” problem. Up to £25m can be advanced to a borrower.

The chancellor will find it harder, however, to make the banks work faster. Would-be borrowers say phone calls go answered; banks say that they are working flat-out with workforces that are also affected by Covid-19 and self-isolation. But speed of execution is now vital. A flood of lending was promised to avert company collapses, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Blaming Labour won’t work this time – the Tories will have to own this crisis

Headline says it all – Owl

Larry Elliott, economics editor The Guardian

Throughout history, pandemics have often had profound economic effects. The most famous of all, the Black Death of the mid-14th century, wiped out between a third and two-fifths of the population of western Europe. The labour shortages that followed are credited with hastening the end of the feudal system.

Covid-19 is nowhere near as deadly as the Black Death, but the shock it has dealt to an already vulnerable global economy has been immense. Perhaps inevitably, there is talk of life never being the same again.

But this is what was said last time. Many on the left thought that when the banks nearly went bust in 2008, the dominant free-market model would be replaced by a more progressive alternative.

It didn’t happen. The scale of the crisis wasn’t enough to bring about fundamental change; those who were the largest beneficiaries of free movement of capital were rich, powerful and well dug in; and the narrative that emerged about the 2008 crash was at odds with what really happened.

Narratives matter a lot. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s message to the American people in the 1930s was that their lives had been wrecked by Wall Street’s greed. FDR positioned his government as the friend of the unemployed and the enemy of reckless speculation. The story told by the Thatcherites and the Reaganites in the late 1970s was that organised labour had become too powerful, and the big states that emerged from the New Deal era were strangling enterprise.

The best example of how narratives shape political outcomes happened in Britain after the last crisis. The truth about the 2008-09 recession was that it was a global phenomenon facilitated by the deregulation of finance and inadequate supervision of banks. This allowed a debt bubble to inflate over many years. When it popped, the banks found themselves unable to meet the losses on their wild speculation. London’s role as a global financial centre meant Britain suffered more than most.

But the narrative that emerged was different. The story told by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government of 2010 was that Britain’s problems were the result of the previous Labour government’s profligacy. Budget deficits had been run in good times and had exploded when the economy started to contract. The Conservatives offered any number of soundbites: Labour had crashed the car, it had maxed out the nation’s credit card, it had failed to mend the roof while the sun was shining. Britain would have to endure a painful period of austerity to mend the hole in the public finances, but Gordon Brown was to blame.

It all looks a bit different this time. Although his approval ratings have picked up, Boris Johnson’s task of weaving a compelling narrative out of twin economic and public health crises is much more difficult than the challenge that faced David Cameron in 2010.

Johnson has been forced to go further and faster in his response to Covid-19 than Brown did back in 2008. The cost of lost output is unknowable because it is unclear how long the economy will be locked down, but it will be enormous – and inevitable. The government has decided to keep all but essential workers at home. It therefore has no choice but to protect jobs and incomes, whatever it takes. The budget deficit is going to balloon, just as it did at the end of the noughties, and for the same reason: recession means the government spends more and takes in less in tax.

Nor will it be realistic for Johnson to say that he has no alternative but to impose another period of belt-tightening when the economy eventually comes out of hibernation. Austerity was an economic failure, resulting in a lost decade for wages, sluggish growth and public finances in a worse state than they were before the last crisis.

But austerity has also proved a political liability for the Conservatives. The public is in no mood to stomach NHS cuts. Nurses and care workers are a lot more popular than bond dealers and bankers. To scrap infrastructure projects – the customary, if short-sighted, response of hard-up governments down the ages – would be a repudiation of the manifesto that won the prime minister his election victory less than four months ago.

One of the problems a party faces when it is in power for a long time is that blaming the opposition for the mess it allegedly left behind no longer cuts it. The Conservatives have been in power for a decade. They will eventually be held to account over how prepared the UK was for this crisis.

Questions will arise: was the NHS was equipped to cope with a pandemic? The years ahead of the financial crisis saw the biggest sustained increase in health spending since the creation of the NHS in 1948; the years since 2010 have seen the smallest increases. Was the welfare system in a better shape to cope with the sharp contraction of the economy in 2008, or in 2020? Benefits were far more generous a decade ago than is the case today. Labour actually made a much better job of mending the roof.

For the right, this is the second major economic crisis in little more than a decade. It’s the second time the state has needed to come to the rescue of an economic system where the gap between rich and poor has widened, corporations pay as little tax as they can get way with, too little attention is paid to the climate emergency, and a large proportion of the workforce is one paycheck from penury. For the left, it should be an open goal.


Health Secretary Writes Off £13.4bn Of NHS Debt To Help Coronavirus Response

Another Conservative policy goes up in flames on the Coronavirus bonfire – Owl

Health secretary Matt Hancock has written off £13.4bn of historic NHS debt to help the health service fight coronavirus. 

The money is intended to help NHS trusts focus on tackling coronavirus rather than servicing loans from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). 

The figure owed ballooned as NHS trusts became reliant on interest-bearing loans to cover deficits in day-to-day budgets, with interest payments alone skyrocketing to £292m last year, Health Service Journal has reported

Some 107 trusts have an average of £100m revenue debt each. The two trusts with the highest figures reach a combined total of over £1bn.

At the daily Downing Street briefing, Hancock said: “This landmark step will not only put the NHS in a stronger position to be able to respond to this global coronavirus pandemic but it will ensure our NHS has stronger foundations for the future too.” 

HuffPost UK understands the sum written off is both capital debt – from building and infrastructure – and revenue debt, from running services and paying staff and suppliers. Both loans and outstanding interest payments have been cancelled.

The debt will be effectively written off by converting the loans to equity. Adjustments will be made to ensure NHS providers’ day-to-day budgets are not negatively affected by debt write-off.

Other loans entered into as “normal course of business” will not be written off as NHS trusts took them by choice and the government considers them to be affordable.

The write-off will not create any additional borrowing or fiscal cost to the Treasury as it is being written off as a transaction within DHSC.


Working group aims to shake up Mid Devon’s governance

At last year’s elections the Conservatives lost 11 seats and overall control of Mid Devon. This left them with just 18 seats and short of a majority, although they remain the largest party. The LibDems now have 12, Independents 10 and Greens 2.

Mid Devon is obviously finding governance a problem. Owl’s solution is for the opposition parties to come together and agree on a shared vision and ambition for the future, as has recently happened in East Devon. 

The newly formed Democratic Alliance in EDDC is now the largest party. The tragedy in East Devon is that Ben Ingham persuaded a number of Independents to follow him as leader of the “Independent Group”, then jumped into bed with the Conservatives. Business as usual.

Ben Ingham is now LINO (Leader in name only), having lost his majority as one by one he is deserted by his followers.

Lewis Clarke

Following a council resolution to review the current governance arrangements in place at Mid Devon District Council, a working group of members has been created to undertake this work and recommend any changes or improvements that could be made back to council in due course.

A workshop was held on Friday, March 13, which was facilitated by the Local Government Association (LGA). This session agreed the terms of reference for the work, making it clear that this was about identifying ways in which debate and discussion could achieve balanced and effective decision making, not about whether any form of governance was inherently ‘better’ than another.

Acting chair of the working group, Cllr Andrew Moore, said: “Today’s discussion was very encouraging. I got the sense that there was a genuine willingness from all members attending to work collaboratively as we go through this process over the coming months. I know that many of us are looking forward to understanding what other options are available and visiting other councils to see how these work in practice, in order to learn how our own governance might be improved for the benefit of our residents.”

The working group is aiming to use a future meeting to explore how external partners and stakeholders can be given an opportunity to contribute to this review, with a view to concluding this work before Christmas.