One more heave to enable Dr Cathy Gardner to hold the Government to account

The Guardian editorial today asks, amongst other questions: “Which cabinet minister is responsible for the official guidance that instructed hospitals to discharge the elderly to care homes when testing and personal protective equipment was non-existent?”

Dr Cathy Gardner is seeking a judicial Review to hold the Government to account on this very point. In effect she is doing so on our behalves. Her crowdfunding appeal has now reached 92% of its extended target of £50K. Owl thinks it needs one more heave to push it over the line.

As a community we must not let this action fail simply through lack of funds. We must back her courage.

Now to the editorial in full:

The Guardian view of Boris Johnson’s crisis: blunder after blunder 

When the story of the coronavirus pandemic is written, the verdict on Boris Johnson’s government is likely to be damning. Mr Johnson has made mistake after mistake, for which the country has paid a very high price. The prime minister is right in a sense that he presides over a “world-beating” performance: with 64,000 excess deaths, that is one excess death for every 1,000 people, the UK has recorded the largest global spike in deaths compared with the average yearly death toll; and the country will suffer the deepest depression of any developed economy.

Such a claim can be made because there’s no need to wait until all the facts are known. The gaffes are hiding in plain sight. Britain does not require the crisis to subside to analyse the country’s performance. The distinctive British response to this global challenge is one of missed opportunities and dismal misjudgments.

The UK went into lockdown too late, a decision that the former government modeller Neil Ferguson thinks has cost tens of thousands of lives – because the higher the coronavirus infection rate when restrictions were imposed, the higher the death rate. Then the country shut down its testing regime too soon, leaving it unable to track the speed and spread of the virus. During February and March, opportunities to suppress the spread of infection by introducing travel restrictions and quarantine requirements were missed, allowing the infection to be brought into the UK on at least 1,300 occasions.

Entering the lockdown late cost lives, and leaving it early risks more needless deaths. Britain is opening up before dropping its alert level, because the will to hold out evaporated when Mr Johnson did not sack his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, for breaching lockdown rules. Sacrifice could be borne as long as it was felt to be fair.

What Britain is dealing with is a government that has blundered, and continues to blunder. Which cabinet minister is responsible for the official guidance that instructed hospitals to discharge the elderly to care homes when testing and personal protective equipment was non-existent? Who has signed off on the policy to hand over contracts to private companies without competitive tendering or even a cursory check on whether they are up to the job? Which minister decided that local authorities who regularly manage outbreaks of meningitis and sexually transmitted diseases were not needed for the delayed test-and-trace system? [Owl emphasis]

These are the reflexes of unthinking Conservative politicians, who view trade unions, local government leaders and professional bodies as powerful interest groups and influential lobbies to be thwarted, not listened to. In reality, most were attempting to help the government out of a hole by asking it to stop digging. What Covid-19 has revealed is who really makes society work and the value of public servants prepared to put their lives on the line. What the government does with that knowledge will tell the public about the true nature of those that govern it. It is an insult that foreign NHS staff and carers are still being charged for using the health service, despite the prime minister’s pledge to scrap these fees.

The buck stops at Downing Street, which was responsible for the discredited policy of herd immunity and the late introduction of the lockdown. The quickest way back to normality is by controlling the spread of the virus. The prime minister must recognise that mistakes were made and learn from them. The questions of what happened, why did it happen and what can be done to prevent this from happening again need to be answered. It is bizarre that Mr Johnson has precipitately announced a race review, one condescendingly aimed at ending a sense of victimisation, before confirming a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic. There will be real trouble if the prime minister refuses a reckoning with the truth.

Alerts for local coronavirus outbreaks are months away – when will this farce end?

Test, track, trace and isolate is a standard approach to dealing with epidemics.

An example of how it works is currently being dramatised in the BBC 1’s “the Salisbury poisonings”. Wiltshire’s Public Health Officer responded immediately and effectively.

Setting aside the matter of whether or not an emergency plan should have been in place, the Government has had since, shall we be generous and say the beginning of March, to set up a national system that apparently won’t be fully operational until August/September. How long does it take Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings to “Re-invent the Wheel”?

What was wrong with starting with the local system based on local Public Health Officers – not invented here – not fully under Whitehall control? When will this farce end? – Owl

“The government unit designed to stamp out local outbreaks of coronavirus will not be fully operational until the end of summer, its head has said.”

Chris Smyth, Whitehall Editor 
The Joint Biosecurity Centre, launched by Boris Johnson a month ago, says it will not be able to track outbreaks street-by-street for months, potentially slowing plans to ease lockdown by replacing national restrictions with “whack-a-mole” tactics.

Clare Gardiner, its director-general, told MPs that the centre’s aim was to “paint as clear a picture as possible of what happens locally and nationally” but was only providing data on national and local authority level at present.

The centre was announced as part of No 10’s first phase of lockdown easing but amid confusion over its role has become a sub-division of the NHS test and trace service.

The centre was also billed as the guardian of the national coronavirus alert level, which is still at level four — signifying a high level of transmission — weeks after the government said it was “transitioning” down to three.

Dr Gardiner told the housing, communities and local government committee that the alert level was based on data such as confirmed cases, contact tracing figures and virus modelling.

Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, is said to have ruled against a reduction in the alert level but ministers have eased lockdown anyway.

As cases fall, government science advisers say the key to preventing a second wave will be spotting clusters of cases and eliminating them through aggressive testing and control measures, such as shutting schools and offices at the centre of local outbreaks.

“We’d like to be in the position where we can provide really timely local level data to decision-makers to help them make the right decisions to contain outbreaks. We’d like to be in a position to provide really early warning indicators on identification of clusters at a local level and we’d like to be able to provide feedback to the local level to give an assessment on how effective individual interventions have or have not been,” Dr Gardiner said.

The centre aims to break down real-time data on outbreaks to areas with populations of 1,500. However, Dr Gardiner said: “The expectation is that we will reach full operating capability towards the end of the summer. The capability that we’re trying to build is quite complex, and it will take time.”

Stay away, says Cornwall as lockdown eases

“Cornwall council wants tourists to stay away this summer because residents fear being swamped by the “Magaluf gang” who would normally holiday abroad.”

Unfortunately Owl has received reports from local seaside residents becoming fearful as a result of the recent influx of “day” visitors not paying any heed to social distancing and congregating in large groups. If these visitors paid more respect to the local communities, who feel very vulnerable especially when told that R might be above 1, then Cornwall (and Devon) would have a more welcoming attitude.

Owl thinks the different attitude in the lakes could be that their tourists can be expected to disperse, not concentrate in small seaside towns and villages.

Will Humphries, Southwest Correspondent | Charlotte Wace, Northern Correspondent
3-3 minutes
Tim Dwelly, the council’s cabinet member for the economy, said: “We think it would be better to support the tourist business with grants and support rather than have a summer season.”

Some officials in Cornwall said that it was “pretty irresponsible” of the government to encourage holidays in the UK and that local feeling was “very fearful” of a spike in coronavirus cases.

Mr Dwelly said that the council wanted a slower and more gradual opening up in autumn to avoid a “health scare”. The county has had one of the lowest levels of coronavirus cases of any local authority but has only one hospital with critical care facilities.

Mr Dwelly said that visitors who did come should not expect things to be normal. “You are going to find lots of places aren’t open, lots of places you will need to queue and please don’t be surprised if there are some tensions [with locals],” he said.

Malcolm Bell, chief executive of Visit Cornwall, said that if the government did not allow campsites, self-catering accommodation and pubs and restaurants to open from July 4 then the summer season could be lost.

He said that a third of private jobs in Cornwall were based in tourism and 70,000 were at risk.

Mr Bell said that it would be possible to have a good holiday this year under social distancing but “it will require a lot more planning”.

“There will be a lot more booking ahead involved this year, certainly for accommodation, attractions and eating in pubs or restaurants if that is allowed,” he said.

The Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales are hoping to welcome a new cohort of younger tourists this summer.

A survey of visitors to the Lake District over a recent weekend showed that more than half of people were there for the first time or were returning after a long time.

Richard Leafe, of the Lake District National Park, said: “We obviously want the tourism industry to pick up as early as it can and as early as it is safe to do so, because of the economic impact.”

Kathryn Beardmore, of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, said that the changing age range of visitors had already been “noticeable”. “That has got to be good. The fact that families are coming is really positive,” she said.

Garden community projects could create 200,000 car-dependent families, study suggests

A study into 20 proposed developments suggests transport links and local amenities are poor with communities requiring expanded road systems.

Garden community projects look to be a complete policy failure, an example of “green-washing” –  Owl

By Tom Bawden 

A flagship project to build more than 50 green housing developments looks set to create more than 200,000 car-dependent families, a study warns.

The Government presented its plan to build dozens of sustainable “garden communities” across England as an environmentally friendly way to tackle the housing crisis.

It pledged to create more than 400,000 new homes in idyllic locations with strong public transport links, cycle lanes and good local amenities.

The i newsletter cut through the noise

But an in-depth analysis of 20 of the proposed developments, housing 200,000 families, finds almost all of them have poor public transport provision, making a car a necessity and requiring new road developments for them to be viable.

Sustainable transport

The analysis was carried out by Transport for New Homes, a project funded by the sustainable transport charity the Foundation for Integrated Transport.

The proposals it examined are at various stages of development – most are still in planning while in a few cases building has begun but none are complete.

Some 90 per cent of the garden community plans examined were dependent or contingent on road capacity increases, such as enlarging numerous road junctions, new bypasses and fast link roads, the report found.

Meanwhile, about half were associated with new or bigger motorway junctions.

‘Commuter estates’

“It looks like garden communities are to become car-based commuter estates just like any other – exactly what the Government wanted to avoid,” said Jenny Raggett, Project Coordinator at Transport for New Homes

“Rather than seeing the emphasis on public transport that the Garden Communities Prospectus promised, with new stations funded at the heart of the development, or firm investment in modern bus rapid transit, light rail or trams, nearly every Garden Community comes with a long list of road improvements such as bypasses, link roads and new motorway junctions,” she said.

Poor amenities and transport links

Of the 20 garden towns and garden villages examined, only one had both amenities and a railway station within a mile of every home – while one other had a town centre within a mile of every home, but not a railway station.

Steve Chambers, Sustainable Transport Campaigner at Transport for New Homes, said: “Our visits to sites of Garden Towns and Garden Villages highlighted the chasm between the proposed visions and the built reality.”

“We found that because of remote locations, public transport was rarely already provided and funding had not been secured to make it available when residents move in. Walking and cycling were clearly afterthoughts,” he said.

‘Government green-washing’

Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas, said: “This is yet another example of government green-washing. Sticking the sustainable label on a project doesn’t make it so, and building new communities in areas dependent on car-ownership and new roads is the very opposite of sustainable.

“These garden communities need to be completely re-thought so they are not dormitories for car-bound commuters, but genuinely sustainable communities built around walking, cycling and decent public transport links, with housing built to the highest low-emission standards,” she said.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said:
“Many of these Garden Communities are in their early stages of development and we are continuing to work with local partners to get the right infrastructure is in place to ensure these are great places to live and work.”

“Well planned, well-designed, locally-led Garden Communities will play a vital role in helping meet this country’s housing need,” he said.

Long Marston

Long Marston is a proposed 3,500 home garden village within the Stratford-upon-Avon District of Warwickshire. It is far from major population and employment centres.

Located on a former airfield, this garden village will be particularly remote and without a sustainable scale will not support amenities, jobs or public transport.

It is seven miles from the nearest railway station. Residents will have no option other than the car to see friends, get to work or buy a pint of milk. Visions of ‘express bus connections’ are without funding.

There are also unfunded aspirations for new safe walking and cycling routes from the development, but even if they were provided there is little other than open space nearby.

This is a good example of a new development in the wrong place.

Labour demands Robert Jenrick disclose all contacts on Westferry

Labour has demanded that the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, disclose all contacts he had with other ministers and officials before he overruled a planning decision, saving a property developer millions of pounds.

(Perhaps he will hide away in Hereford again – Owl)

Peter Walker
4-4 minutes

Answering departmental questions in the Commons, Jenrick insisted he had behaved properly when he approved the construction of a residential development in east London by Richard Desmond, former owner of Express newspapers.

Jenrick’s decision in January, which overruled the local council and the government’s planning inspectorate, came a day before the introduction of a community infrastructure levy (CIL), which would have cost Desmond’s company at least £40m, to be used for local education and health projects.

It later emerged that Jenrick had sat next to Desmond at a Conservative fundraising dinner in November, and that Desmond donated £12,000 to the party two weeks after the planning decision in his favour.

Jenrick told MPs he was limited in what information he could disclose publicly, as the application for Westferry Printworks, a 1,500-apartment, 44-storey complex on a former printing plant, is live once again.

After the local council, Tower Hamlets, sought a judicial review of Jenrick’s decision, he conceded the case, admitting that he had acted unlawfully.

Quizzing Jenrick in the Commons, the shadow communities secretary, Steve Reed, castigated Jenrick for sending his deputy to answer an urgent question on the matter last week.

He asked: “Given the gravity of the allegations surrounding his unlawful decision on the Westferry development, will he agree to make a full statement to the house, publish all correspondence, and disclose all conversations with other government ministers and officials relating to this case, to reassure the public that the integrity of the planning process cannot be auctioned off at Conservative party fundraising dinners?”

Jenrick replied: “The application to which he refers was a highly contentious one – all the applications that come before the secretary of state are highly contentious. This one had been contested for many years.

“I took that decision in good faith, with an open mind, and I’m confident that all the rules were followed in doing so.”

On handing over information and details of contacts with other ministers, Jenrick said “all of the relevant information” on the matter had been handed to Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, and that he would ask his department’s most senior civil servant what else could be published.

He added: “We want to ensure that the correct processes of the planning system are followed, so that means publishing documents while bearing in mind the legitimate interests of the parties to this case, which remains a live planning application.”

Pressed further on the matter by Labour MP Liz Twist, Jenrick defended the fact that he took the decision on Desmond’s development even after sitting next to him at the fundraising dinner.

“My department knew about my attendance at the event before I went to it,” he said. “They knew about the fact I had inadvertently sat next to the applicant – I didn’t know who I was going to be seated by until I sat at the table – and I discussed and took advice from my officials within the department at all times.”

Desmond has not responded to previous requests for comment.

Should scientists be on the podium?

Owl noticed that the “alter boys and girls” were absent from last night’s daily briefing ritual. Should scientists be on the podium?

COVID-19 has given rise to an interesting piece of political performance in our democracies: the daily briefing.

Like most traditions, the briefings emerged half-formed. At the beginning, as the wave of infection spread and grew, they took the form of emergency broadcasts. Over time, they adapted to the situation and incorporated the appropriate experts. But across the world the variable geometry of the briefing set-up was revealing of the place granted to science, and most of all of the place leaders were granting themselves.

In Greece, incredibly successful in its management of the virus, politicians knew better than to take centre-stage – the health minister is a retired professional basketball player. In his place was the soft-spoken expert on infectious diseases, Sotiris Tsiodras, who became the nation’s favourite doctor.

In France, science was referred to and consulted but remained largely invisible. The message was political decisions guided by science.

Britain went for a different approach. After a series of blunders, the only solution was to shore up any pronouncement by flanking politicians with an expert on either side. The fact that science had to make such a bombastic entrance to be heard is testimony to what the government’s first reflexes were.

As the prime minister fell ill with the virus and then left hospital to recuperate, it marked the resurrection of politics in the midst of a barely controlled maelstrom of scientific expertise and political tragedy.

These contexts offer different lenses through which to view the relationship between experts and politicians. Some of it has to do with the variable geometry of institutions – in Germany and Canada, for instance, health is devolved respectively to Länder and provinces. As is the management of health emergencies.

Those circumstances both curtail the role of national politicians but also amplify the role of scientific experts, who become central in this form of decentralized management and decision-making. The main point however is that regardless of how the optics have been engineered, the return of science and of experts has been widely noted. The phrases ‘guided by the science’, or ‘follow- ing the science’ have defined this pandemic moment. For politicians it has been seen as a guarantee of competence – whatever cynical distancing from decisions it might also have provided.

The sharing of the podium among politicians and experts has brought a number of uncomfortable truths into sharp relief. Above all, and somewhat paradoxically, as politics sought to cosy up to science – and as science duly obliged – the size of the gap between the imperatives that drive each of these activities shattered some long-held truths about what evidence is, and how policymakers can use it.

As the crisis evolved, and despite the claims of many a technocratic government over the past 30 years, it became increasingly clear that evidence is not necessarily about certainty. And, perhaps even more usefully, that neither is science, which is based on the very opposite of certainty – doubt. Good science is always about testing your hypothesis, testing your results, it is about remaining humble in the face of evidence that can evolve and be debunked by new theories and the testing of those theories. Evidence, in other words, can change – hence the difficulty of basing final decisions on something that is by definition, potentially provisional.

These dynamics were laid bare as scientists sought to understand a new virus and its behaviour. As was the centrality of disagreement and divergence in the culture of science – disagreement is the lifeblood of progress. This has hopefully become far clearer to the lay public.

Politics, on the other hand, is about decisions – so even though politics must look to science, it cannot look to science for certainty.

As politicians and policymakers struggled to enact policy and define new parameters for the management of a health emergency that threatened to engulf our people and our economies, it became increasingly clear that science can only advise on the basis of what it knows – and some- times it doesn’t know for sure.

There are a number of lessons here. The first is that by turning evidence into the holy grail of policymaking without bothering to define evidence, the policymaking of the past 30 years was good at passing the buck – think of Margaret Thatcher’s mantra ‘there is no alternative’ – but it set itself up for hard times when a crisis such as this one revealed the dynamics of good science and the limits of evidence.

The second lesson should be that good democratic politics needs to be about uncertainty and doubt … and give priority to judgment, what Aristotle called ‘prudence’ – the capacity to interpret, the courage to decide, in difficult moments.

And politics is, well, an art.

Government faces another judicial review this time over PPE procurement

The UK government is being sued for awarding a pest-control company with 16 employees a $135 million PPE contract

  • The UK government is being sued over a decision to give a local pest-control firm a £108 million ($135 million) contract to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) during the coronavirus outbreak.
  • On Monday, the nonprofit Good Law Project issued proceedings to launch a judicial review.
  • The group said the government only considered one company, Pestfix, for the contract and is yet to disclose the details.
  • “It’s hard to imagine a good reason why this contract would be given to this company selection. And failures in PPE provision make it vital we understand where procurement is going wrong,” the project said.
  • Pestfix defended its work to the Financial Times, calling itself “a success story” and saying it has nearly fulfilled its contract.
  • The UK Department of Health and Social Care told Business Insider it is unable to comment on ongoing legal proceedings.

The UK government is being sued for awarding a company with just 16 employees a £108 million ($135 million contract) to supply it with personal protective equipment (PPE) at the height of its coronavirus outbreak.

Pestfix was the only bidder competing for the contract in early April, according to the Good Law Project nonprofit, which on Monday issued proceedings for judicial review at the High Court.

The size of the contract, apparent lack of advertising, and the fact that there was only one bidder competing for it, led the Good Law Project to submit a series of questions to the government for answer.

The UK has signed around 100 PPE contracts with various private-sector companies, according to the group. Those contracts were worth around $438 million in total. The Pestfix contract made up almost a third of this.

The Good Law Project say it had spoken with a “big market participant” which told them that “no one in the market knew that the contract was up for grabs.”

It also said the purchase order for the “enormous sum of money” was issued on April 10, “three days before the contract was concluded.”

The Good Law Project said the government is yet to publish a notice announcing the awarding of the contract, which should have been done within 30 days of signing it, as required by law.

“It’s hard to imagine a good reason why this contract would be given to this company selection. And failures in PPE provision make it vital we understand where procurement is going wrong,” the Good Law Project said.

Pestfix, meanwhile, has defended its contract with the government.

It told the Financial Times on Monday: “We are a success story. We have not been sitting around on social media casting around for equipment; we had a thriving supply chain with China before the contract. We have nearly fulfilled our NHS contract and supplied over 67 million pieces of equipment.”

A spokesman for the UK Department of Health and Social Care told Business Insider: “We are unable to comment on ongoing legal proceedings against the Department.”

The Cabinet Office did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.

“Three homes” Jenrick Says He ‘Inadvertently’ Sat Next To Richard Desmond At Tory Fundraiser

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick has said he “inadvertently” ended up sitting next to Richard Desmond at a fundraising dinner before he went onto approve the Tory donor’s property scheme. /

Jenrick has admitted he “unlawfully” gave the go-ahead to the 1,500-home development at the former Westferry Printworks site on London’s Isle of Dogs in January.

His decision came weeks after the dinner and the day before Tower Hamlets Council approved a new rate for its Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) – a move that would have increased the property owner’s financial liability to the authority by between £30m and £50m.

The Mail on Sunday first reported that Desmond sat next to Jenrick at the bash in November last year. Jenrick says he refused to discuss the project when it was raised by Desmond.

Figures from the Electoral Commission also revealed Desmond gave the Tories £12,000 two weeks after Jenrick approved the scheme.

Speaking in the Commons on Monday, Jenrick said he was “confident that all the rules were followed” and that he would “entirely stand behind the decision”.

Labour’s shadow housing secretary Steve Reed accused Jenrick of being caught up in a “cash for favours” row.

Jenrick handed Desmond’s £1bn project a last-minute reprieve after the local council and the independent planning inspectorate both decided it should be refused. They had said it lacked enough affordable housing and conflicted with local conservation policy.

Jenrick said on Monday: “It isn’t unusual for a secretary of state to come to a different conclusion to a local authority.

“It isn’t unusual for a secretary of state to come to a different conclusion than a planning inspector, no disrespect to the great people who work there.”

But he told MPs he had now handed “all of the relevant information” on the decision to the cabinet secretary.

Jenrick said he had “inadvertently sat next to” Desmond at the dinner. “I didn’t know who I was going to be seated by until I sat at the table,” he said.

In March Tower Hamlets council began legal action alleging that the timing of the decision appeared to show bias.

Jenrick accepted his decision letter was “unlawful by reason of apparent bias” and confirmed it was deliberately issued before the new CIL policy could be adopted.

He agreed planning permission should be quashed and decided by a different minister.

A Conservative Party spokesperson said: “Government policy is in no way influenced by party donations – they are entirely separate.

“Donations to the Conservative Party are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and comply fully with the law.”

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