A week is a long time in the life of a virus – R-rate in South West drops to lowest level in England

A group of experts who have been advising the Government during the coronavirus pandemic say that the reproductive rate of COVID-19 in the South West is the lowest in England – just a week after the region had the highest level.

[Owl adds that the symptom tracker app is showing falls of symptom rates to low levels in North Devon (0.1%), Torbay and South Hams (0.3%) but East Devon is at 0.5.%. There are other metrics than R that are important such as prevalence, which is the number of infectious people and incidence, which is the number of new daily infections. All these are likely to be under-reported for Covid-19 because of the emerging evidence significant numbers of asymptomatic cases in the population.]

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has released the latest information for the R-rate, which indicates the average number of people that an infected person will pass the virus on to, shows that it is currently at 0.6-0.9 in the South West.

This is the lowest range in across England and is a turnaround from a week ago when the region was deemed to have the country’s highest R-rate of 0.8-1.1.

Across England, the R-rate currently sits at 0.7-0.9 which is lower than last week when the figure was 0.7-1.

Taking over as the region with the highest level is the Midlands were the rate stands at 0.8-1 while London and the North West are at 0.7-1.

Elsewhere, the R-rate range in the East of England, South East and North East and Yorkshire is 0.7-0.9.

The latest figures come on the same day that the UK’s chief medical officers agreed to downgrade the coronavirus alert level from four to three.

This means the epidemic is in general circulation but transmission is no longer “high or rising exponentially”.

Earlier today (June 19), NHS England confirmed that hospitals in Devon and Cornwall had gone a fourth consecutive day without reporting the death of a COVID-19 patient.

HUGE boulder plummets onto Devon beach footbridge

An enormous boulder crashed onto a footbridge in Exmouth yesterday (June 18), tearing the metal railings in half.

The rock fell from the cliff face onto the bridge at Orcombe Point.

There has also been another cliff fall on East Beach Sidmouth see Sidmouth Herald

Chloe Parkman www.devonlive.com 

Local resident, Jacky Sayers, 52 was walking along the beach with her dogs when she heard a “massive rumble” seconds before witnessing the large boulder roll down the cliff and smash into the footbridge.

The boulder smashed into the railings (Image: Jacky Sayers)

Fortunately, the 52-year old was stood a “fair distance” away from the bridge at the time or the consequences could have been fatal.

In an attempt to alert local residents of the dangerous cliffs, Jacky uploaded the image onto a local community page.

One viewer commented: “Been looking dodgy for a few months now.”

Another added: “This is why we don’t let our kids near the rocks. Hopefully other parents will do the same.”

It is believed this was the boulder that crashed onto the footbridge

It is understood that this large piece of rock coming away from the cliff face is the same boulder the crashed into the railings yesterday (June 18).

However, this is yet to be confirmed.

East Devon District Council (EDDC), are aware of the incident and a spokesperson said: “We have clarified that the owner of the land in question is the National Trust.

“The bridge is a footpath structure maintained by the Devon County Council rights of way department.”

Devon County Council and National Trust have been approached for comment.

Taylor Wimpey to repay furlough cash putting pressure on other firms

Firms that rake in huge profits have come under pressure to hand back taxpayer’s cash for furloughed staff, after Taylor Wimpey became the latest big employer to vow to return the money.

The housebuilder, which made an £836million profit last year, said it accepted the support as a ‘precautionary measure’ but no longer needed it due to the ‘strength of the business.

Its decision piles pressure on rivals to follow suit and comes after other large businesses such as Ikea, Bunzl and Games Workshop also said they would repay furlough money.

Others such as fashion brand Burberry, housebuilder Persimmon and Paddy Power owner Flutter took a stand by avoiding using the scheme.

Taylor Wimpey’s move was welcomed last night by campaign group, the Taxpayers’ Alliance, which said it should ‘serve as an example for other firms using furlough that have come out the other side in rude health’.

And chief executive John O’Connell warned firms who can return the money, but decide not to, or for those which never needed the support in the first place that ‘taxpayers will have long memories of those that helped in the national effort and those that didn’t’.

It aims to help businesses retain staff who would otherwise have been laid off, providing them with a grant worth 80 per cent or up to £2,500 per month of a furloughed employee’s wages.

More than 9m workers have been placed on the scheme by 1.1m firms, official figures have shown, at a total cost of £20.8billion so far.

Although the scheme is gradually being wound down from August, it is still expected to cost £60billion by the time it is closed at the end of October.

Financial support for firms furloughing workers – was unveiled by Chancellor Rishi Sunak in March and launched the following month

Its use by housebuilders – which have generated vast profits, fuelled in part by the taxpayer-backed Help to Buy lending scheme – has proved highly controversial. Taylor Wimpey would not reveal how many of its 5,800 staff had been furloughed.

But it said all of them had returned to work and that it was expecting to reach 80 per cent of its normal building capacity by the end of this month, with social distancing rules still in place on construction sites.

A spokesman said the builder ‘intends to return the taxpayer funds utilised from the government furlough scheme’.

Rival Barratt Developments was the biggest known user of the scheme in the housing industry, furloughing about 5,500 staff – about 85 per cent of its total headcount.

When asked whether it would make a similar move to Taylor Wimpey yesterday, a spokesman said: ‘It is too early to assess what the full impact of Covid-19 will be on our business but we are keeping our use of funding available through the furlough scheme under review.’

A spokesman for Redrow, which furloughed 1,700 staff, said it would set out its ‘latest position on the government schemes’ next month in a trading update.

Crest Nicholson previously said it furloughed 629 staff but declined to comment yesterday.

However, it is understood that the builder is unlikely to return any taxpayer cash.

Smaller rivals Countryside and Bellway also said they furloughed staff but did not take any money, and instead paid staff wages themselves.

Vistry Group, which did use the taxpayer-funded scheme, did not respond to a request for comment.

A string of companies, including British Airways and Rolls-Royce have applied for taxpayer support under the Job Retention Scheme to pay the wages of thousands of workers.

Just weeks later they have announced brutal job cuts, sparking fury amongst union bosses. Transport committee chairman Huw Merriman accused BA in the House of Commons this week of ‘ripping off taxpayers’.

But BA has said it is battling for survival and desperately needs to slash costs.

Taylor Wimpey is to ramp up building in areas outside the normal commuter belts as people increasingly work from home.

The number of white-collar employees using their home as an office has rocketed during the coronavirus crisis, because of official advice to work remotely where possible.

But that has also meant it is no longer as important for some people to live within easy commuting distance of their employer’s building, the housebuilder’s boss Pete Redfern said.

Taylor Wimpey raised £522million in a fundraising this week and has said it will use the cash to buy land that is being sold at knock-down prices because of the pandemic.

And it is focusing on regions such as East Anglia and the South West, as demand grows for properties in areas further out from big cities that have space for home offices.

Redfern said a shift towards home working had already been seen in recent years but the pandemic would ‘increase that trend towards markets which are accessible and attractive places to live, but don’t work if you have to be in the City every day of the week’.

Taylor Wimpey yesterday said it received strong support for its shares placing on Wednesday night, having originally aimed to raise £500million.

It placed 355m new shares at 145p each, while directors also bought 324,823 and small investors bought 4.9m shares.

Some £1.15million of shares were bought by nearly 330 employees.

Taylor Wimpey stock fell 6 per cent, or 9.05p, to 142.75p yesterday.

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Sidmouth Town Centre to be part pedestrianised from Monday

Plans to temporarily pedestrianise parts of Sidmouth town centre have been given the green light – with the measures to last for three months.

East Devon Reporter eastdevonnews.co.uk 

It means Old Fore Street, New Street, Market Place and Church Street will be closed to traffic between 11am and 5pm from next week.
Vehicles will also be barred from stopping-off on some areas of The Esplanade and Fore Street as part of the bid to boost social distancing and keep shoppers safe.

The rules, detailed in full below, will be in place from Monday, June 22, to September 30 and include provision for taxis and Blue Badge holders.

Sidmouth Town Council has worked with Devon highways chiefs on the temporary restrictions, which have been backed by the chamber of commerce.

They are aimed at making pedestrians feel safer ‘in the often-narrow streets which would otherwise be incompatible with social distancing’.

Town council chairman Councillor Ian Barlow said: “The town council wanted to show visitors and residents that Sidmouth is a safe town to visit whilst still permitting social distancing and that we are adapting to the current challenging situation.

“We have such a beautiful town and want people to know that it’s a safe to visit and shop in, too.”

David Cook, chairman of Sidmouth Chamber of Commerce, added: “Our shops and businesses are working hard to take measures to ensure that they can trade at this time.

“By allowing more space for people to freely walk and browse whilst socially distancing, the council has created a more enjoyable atmosphere for everyone whilst still allowing traffic access to the town and esplanade.

“Sidmouth is open for business.”

The exact measures, finalised by Devon County Council this week, are:

  • No person shall cause or permit any vehicle to wait on the sections of affected roads.
    Roads affected – Fore Street from its junction with East Street for a distance of 50m in a southerly direction.
  • No person shall cause or permit any vehicle to wait except taxis on the sections of affected roads.
    Roads affected – Fore Street, east side from a point 4m north of its junction with The Esplanade for a distance of 20m.
  • No person shall cause or permit any vehicle to wait except blue badge holders on the sections of affected roads.
    Roads affected – Fore Street, west side from a point 5m north of its junction with The Esplanade for a distance of 20m.
    Disabled Blue Badge holders would be exempt for a maximum of three hours on this restriction.
  • No person shall cause or permit any vehicle to proceed on the sections of affected roads except for access and permit holders between the hours of 11am and 5pm.
    Roads affected – Old Fore Street.
    Between 5pm and 11am the existing prohibition allowing permit holders and loading for goods vehicles will still apply.
  • No person shall cause or permit any vehicle to proceed or wait on the sections of affected roads except for access between the hours of 11am to 5pm.
    Roads affected – New StreetMarket Place and Church Street.


Another Game Changer bites the dust – another shambles

The government has been forced to abandon a centralised coronavirus contact-tracing app after spending three months and millions of pounds on technology that experts had repeatedly warned would not work.

UK abandons contact-tracing app for Apple and Google model

Alex Her www.theguardian.

In an embarrassing U-turn, Matt Hancock said the NHS would switch to an alternative designed by the US tech companies Apple and Google, which is months away from being ready.

At the Downing Street briefing, the health secretary said the government would not “put a date” on when the new app may be launched, although officials conceded it was likely to be in the autumn or winter.

The idea behind the NHS app was that it could trace anybody that a person with coronavirus symptoms came into close contact with by using the Bluetooth connectivity on a standard smartphone, and notify them to self-isolate.

Ministers had insisted on using a centralised version of the untested technology in which anonymised data from people who reported feeling ill was held in an NHS database to enable better tracing and data analysis. This version was not supported by Apple and Google.

Work started in March as the pandemic unfolded, but despite weeks of work, officials admitted on Thursday that the NHS app only recognised 4% of Apple phones and 75% of Google Android devices during testing on the Isle of Wight.

That was because the design of Apple’s iPhone operating system is such that apps quickly go to sleep when they are not being used and cannot be activated by Bluetooth – a point raised by experts and reported by the Guardian in early May.

The Department of Health and Social Care refused to say how much had been spent on the effort, although official records show three contracts worth £4.8m were awarded to the developer VMWare Pivotal Labs for work on the app.

Silkie Carlo, the director of the privacy charity Big Brother Watch, said: “This just shows what a mess the centralised data-hungry approach was. Government was wrong to waste precious time and millions of pounds of public money on a design that everyone warned was going to fail, and now we’re back at square one.”

Hancock had been particularly enthusiastic about the NHS app and had at one point said it would be “rolling out in mid-May” across England. Officials had denied the Apple-Google alternative was being evaluated, although on Thursday it was revealed that in fact work was going on to assess it from 6 May.

On Thursday, Hancock said the alternative was not ready either because it could not measure distance accurately. In some cases it cannot distinguish between phones 1 metre and 3 metres away – even though one is inside and one outside the current 2-metre physical distancing limit.

Experts say an app would be useful to track the potential spread from an infected person on public transport or in any other situation where they come into contact with people they do not know. But the distance measurement problem means it cannot be relied on to make decisions about who should self-isolate.

In the press briefing, Hancock tried to shift the blame on to Apple, saying: “So as it stands, our app won’t work because Apple won’t change their system, but it [the NHS app] can measure distance and their app can’t measure distance well enough to a standard that we are satisfied with.”

When asked whether he had unwisely stuck to the wrong approach, Hancock said: “I’m from Newmarket, we back both horses.” He went on to argue that testing the Apple–Google alternative for several weeks meant the government could make the leap from one system to another with confidence.

Apple did not immediately comment but in a statement on Thursday night, Google said: “We welcome the announcement from the UK government today. We have developed an Exposure Notification API with Apple based on consultation with public health experts around the world, including in the UK, to ensure that our efforts are useful to authorities as they build their own apps to limit the spread of Covid-19, while ensuring privacy and security are central to the design.”

Earlier this week Italy and Germany launched their own apps nationwide based on the Google-Apple model. The Italian app has been downloaded 2.7m times, while the German app was taken up 6.5m times on Tuesday, its first day.

Speculation about the fate of the NHS app had been circulating for weeks after Hancock’s mid-May deadline was missed. On Wednesday, James Bethell, a junior health minister responsible for the app, told MPs it would not be ready until the end of the year. “We’re seeking to get something going for the winter, but it isn’t a priority for us,” he told a parliamentary committee.

At one point it had been hoped that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would also use the app, which is intended for England in its revised form. But the repeated delays had prompted the other nations to reconsider.

Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “This is unsurprising and yet another example of where the government’s response has been slow and badly managed. It’s meant precious time and money wasted.

“For months, tech experts warned ministers about the flaws in their app, which is why we wrote to Matt Hancock encouraging the government to consider digital alternatives back in May.”

Sal Brinton, the Liberal Democrat health spokesperson in the Lords, said: “Lord Bethell and Dido Harding [who is in charge of the test-and-trace programme] have already said it will be some months before England has that full service, probably winter. We need it now, and changing to an app that still has technical issues with Bluetooth distracts from the importance of fast, effective tracing by experts.”


No.10 Must Stop Treating Tory MPs Like ‘Hobbits’ To Be Ignored, Ex-Minister Says

Downing Street needs to establish regular contact with Tory MPs instead of treating them like “annoying hobbits in the shire” who do what they are told, a senior party figure has said.


Robert Halfon blamed mistakes like the failure to extend free school meals into summer – until footballer Marcus Rashford forced a U-turn – on No.10 failing to use its “political nous” and being unaware of pressure from MPs’ constituents.

He urged Downing Street to “dramatically transform” its political operation by holding regular forums with MPs who are “in touch” with constituents’ concerns and “really get” the issues they face, arguing it could help avoid errors in future.

It comes amid rising Tory discontent at No.10’s handling of coronavirus, the Dominic Cummings lockdown scandal, and repeated U-turns in recent weeks, and after officers of the powerful 1922 backbench MPs’ committee reportedly urged Boris Johnson to tear down the “iron curtain” surrounding the PM.

Halfon told HuffPost UK’s Commons People podcast: “I love Tolkien so I’ve been re-reading Lord of the Rings and Dominic Cummings seems to have taken on the mythical status of Wormtongue to King Theoden of Rohan, and of the villain that everybody loves to hate.

“And MPs of course are considered by the No.10 policy unit as annoying hobbits in the shire […] and we’ll just do what we’re told to do.

“So it has been difficult. I think sometimes they don’t understand the pressures from constituents.”

Halfon, who chairs the Commons education committee, called on No.10 to establish “serious regular contact programmes” so they can understand what is going on in places like his Harlow constituency or “blue wall” ex-Labour seats in places like Stoke.

He said: “I don’t understand why there isn’t any radar system whereby No.10 – there are people in No.10 with enough political nous to know that issues like free school meals, for example, are going to be a mega hot potato and to prepare a battle plan and to talk to MPs.

“I think there are a lot of Vote Leave people at the heart of No.10 and they fell out with some of the MPs at the time, I think their view about MPs is coloured from that time – MPs are just annoying hobbits from the shire who have to be tolerated, in essence.”

He added: “It needs to be dramatically transformed, it needs to be a much better political operation in No.10 where they bring MPs in to discuss these issues – have regular contact with MPs in marginal seats.”

The former minister also urged the prime minister to appoint a senior “bruiser” in the mould of John Hayes, who acted as the minister responsible for the Tory party under David Cameron, to act as a mediator between parliament and No.10.

“You need those people who are bruisers, who understand the party – it’s in their blood for 20 years, 30 years – who can speak to any MP, who can relate to any MP, who is a people person,” Halfon said.

“You need someone like that who can understand what is going on and not give the impression that we are just annoying legal necessities who just do what we’re told.”

Halfon added that it would be someone “who really knows the parliamentary party and can go to the prime minister and say ‘sort this out’.”

“That’s what the prime minister needs. He needs someone acting as a lighthouse to stop the ship hitting the rocks, and he hasn’t got a lighthouse at the moment,” Halfon said.

East Devon District Council – the pendulum swings

What follows is Owl’s early interpretation of the most significant changes to have been announced to date and the changes in the pipeline to the power structures of East Devon District Council. Owl has applied “best endeavours” to ensure the details correct at the time of publication and hopes there are no significant errors.

We await the conclusion of the final Act V to ratify nominations of individuals to posts.

New Initiatives

There are three new cabinet portfolios: Democracy and Transparency; a new focus on Covid and on climate change.

The role of Assistant Portfolio Holder has also been created to help the following four portfolio holders: The Economy and Assets portfolio; Coast, Country and Environment portfolio; Climate Action portfolio and The Finance portfolio.

Quite how these work is, as yet, unclear but Owl sees in the Agenda pack for next week’s Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM – (Act V)) that a new section defining their roles is to be included in Article 6 of the constitution. 

The Agenda pack says that instead of the Cabinet setting up “Think Tanks” to assist portfolio holders  this will now be done by “Portfolio Teams”. Portfolio Teams will be cross-party, have up to 15 members, on the basis of the political balance as far as possible, and that delegated authority given to the Monitoring Officer to work with Group Leaders to constitute the membership of the Teams rather than it being a matter for Council to approve. 

The Agenda pack also says that the new administration is of the view that the role of Lead Member needs review and is likely to be superseded by an effective Portfolio Team approach as well as the work of the Governance Review Working Party. 

Owl has already mentioned that The Development Management Committee will revert to its original title of Planning Committee. A few words, but highly significant ones.

The shift in the Power Balance

Prior to the election of May 2019, the Conservatives (who had been in power since 1974) had a majority of 9 seats. The May poll left them with only 19 against 20 seats for Independents, 11 for East Devon Alliance, 8 for Liberal Democrats and 2 for the Green party. Cllr. Ben Ingham (who resigned from the Conservative Party around 15 years ago but campaigned and was elected as an Independent) took control of the council by forming an informal  partnership/coalition with the Conservative councillors. There were no Conservatives in Ben Ingham’s Cabinet but Conservative Cllr. Stuart Hughes became the Chairman of the council and, crucially, Conservatives were given key roles in influential committees.

Gradually members of Ben Ingham’s Independent Group have defected.

In March 2020, members of the Green, Independent East Devon Alliance (EDA) and Liberal Democrat (LibDem) parties and an Independent Councillor combined to form a new group with the title the Democratic Alliance numbering 23 – now 24. The Democratic Alliance Group (DAG).

In the second week of May 2020 eight members of Ben Ingham’s Independent Group resigned from the group. One joined the Democratic Alliance (see above) and seven created the Independent Progressive Group (IPG).

Soon after, the two groups (Democratic Alliance and Independent Progressive Group) signed a Memorandum of Understanding to work together. Given that they had 31 out of a total of 60 EDDC councillors, they held a majority. Owl uses the abbreviation MG (Majority Group) to describe them in the tables that follow.

Cllr Paul Arnott and Cllr Eileen Wragg were subsequently elected Leader and Deputy Leader; Cllr Dr Cathy Gardner and Cllr Val Ranger were elected Council Chairman and Vice Chairman.

How the new Power Balance is reflected in the allocation of seats on Committees

(Political power balance rules do not apply to the Cabinet nor does it apply to the appointment to outside bodies which yet have to be announced.)

The new cabinet May 2020

(Leader appointments, political balance does not apply)

Councillor Megan Armstrong MG (IPG)  Sustainable Homes & Communities portfolio holder 

Councillor Paul Arnott MG ( EDA) (Chairman of Cabinet – Leader of Council) 

Councillor Jess Bailey  MG (IPG) Corporate Services and Covid-19 Response & Recovery 

Councillor Paul Hayward MG (EDA)  The Economy and Assets portfolio, assistant portfolio holder Cllr Geoff Pratt MG (IPG)

Councillor Geoff Jung MG (Ind)  Coast, Country and Environment portfolio, assistant portfolio holder is Cllr Eleanor Rylance. MG (LibDem)

Councillor Dan Ledger MG (EDA)  Strategic Development portfolio

Councillor Paul Millar MG (Ind)  Democracy and Transparency portfolio

Councillor Marianne Rixson MG (EDA)  Climate Action portfolio holder, assistant portfolio holder Cllr Denise Bickley MG (EDA)

Councillor Jack Rowland MG (EDA) The Finance portfolio holder, assistant portfolio holder is Cllr John Loudoun MG (EDA)

Councillor Eileen Wragg MG (LibDem)  (Vice-Chairman of Cabinet, Deputy Leader of Council) 

Note: three of these were genuine independents in the Ingham Cabinet  (Megan Armstrong, Jess Bailey and Geoff Jung) – four if you include Paul Millar who resigned last September and who was not replaced (too radical?)


(nominations to be ratified on 24 June)

Next to the cabinet, the real power in the council lies in the business conducted by a handful of politically balanced committees. So who chairs these and the balance of parties within them is critically important. Remember that the Chairman has the casting vote! 

There are a total of 113 seats across the 11 formal committees in EDDC. EDDC treats the DAG and IPG as separate entities, but since they have signed a Memorandum of Understanding Owl has introduced an additional row in the table to give the combined total for ease of comparing numbers with those of the Opposition and the remaining “unaligned” groups. The smaller groups such as the Independents and Cranbrook Voice appear to have done proportionately better than the larger groups through generous rounding.

This first table shows how these 113 seats are allocated across the political groupings

Democratic Alliance Group (DAG) 24 members 40% 46 seats 
Independent Progressive Group (IPG) 7 members 11.67% 13 seats 
Total Majority Group (MG) 31 members 51.67% 59 seats
Conservative Group The Opposition 20 members  33.33% 38 seats
The Independents (Rump of Ingham’s Group) 5 members  8.33% 10 seats 
Cranbrook Voice (CV) 3 members 5%  6 seats 
Independent 1 member 1.67%  0 seats
TOTALS 60 100 113

The second table lists nominations for the EGM as Committee Chairs and Vice Chairs. The table also shows individual affiliations.

Committee Chairman Vice Chairman
Overview Committee Nick Hookway MG(IPG) Vicky Johns MG(IPG)
Scrutiny Committee Colin Brown Con Val Ranger MG(EDA)
Housing Review Board  Tony McCollum MG(IPG) To be appointed by Housing Review Board 
Strategic Planning Committee  Dan Ledger MG(EDA) Olly Davey MG(Green)
Planning Committee Eileen Wragg MG(LibDem) Sarah Chamberlain MG(LibDem)
Audit & Governance Committee Sam Hawkins CV Paul Millar MG(Ind)
Standards Committee Chairman of the Council  No appointment required 
Interviewing (Chief Officers) Leader Deputy Leader
Investigating and Disciplinary Committee  Deputy Leader  No appointment required 
Employment Appeals  Fabian King MG(LibDem) No appointment required
Licensing and Enforcement Joe Whibley MG (Ind) Kim Bloxham CV

This last table shows membership of five selected key Committees – the number of allocated seats and Proportional Balance 

Number in Group % of Council membership 15 seats: Scrutiny

Chair Con

13 seats Overview

Chair IPG

15 seats Strategic Planning

Chair DAG

16 seats Planning

Chair DAG

10 seats Audit and Governance

Chair CV

24 Democratic Alliance Group (40%) 6 5 6 7 4
7 Independent Progressive Group (11.67%) 2 2 2 2 1
31 Total Majority Group  (51.67%) 8 7 8 9 5
20 Conservative Group (33.33%) 5 4 5 5 3
5 The Independents (8.33%) 1 1 1 1 1
3 Cranbrook Voice (5%) 1 1 1 1 1
1 Independent (1.67%) 0 0 0 0 0