‘There was just no choice’: The 36 hours that forced Boris Johnson to put the brakes on

“Downing Street insisted on Friday night that the Prime Minister and his team had acted on the data, seemingly showing a 63 per cent rise in infections in just two weeks, with a decisiveness critical to keeping on top of Covid-19.”

 

By Robert Mendick, Chief Reporter www.telegraph.co.uk 

When it landed on Boris Johnson’s desk on Wednesday evening, the data made for grim reading.

According to the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) report, coronavirus, suppressed for months under a strict lockdown, was on its way back.

“The ONS surveillance data was the clincher,” said a senior Cabinet source by way of explanation for the dramatic – opponents claimed chaotic – turn of events that followed.

Downing Street insisted on Friday night that the Prime Minister and his team had acted on the data, seemingly showing a 63 per cent rise in infections in just two weeks, with a decisiveness critical to keeping on top of Covid-19.

Within 36 hours of receiving the ONS data, swathes of the north of England had been thrown into a new, partial lockdown and Mr Johnson was forced, as he put it in a televised address on Friday, to “squeeze the brake pedal” across the rest of the nation.

But even MPs within the Conservative Party’s own ranks, as well as much of the rest of the country, were left wondering what had just happened.

The writing had been on the wall earlier in the week with warnings from the Prime Minister that continental Europe was seeing “signs of a second wave”.

Anybody aware that Britain is two weeks behind countries such as Spain and France could have done the maths.

But at 9.16pm on Thursday, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, tweeted the first in a series of Whitehall bombshells, culminating, 15 hours later, in Mr Johnson’s “brakes on” press conference.

“We’re constantly looking at the latest data on the spread of coronavirus, and unfortunately we’ve seen an increasing rate of transmission in parts of Northern England,” Mr Hancock posted in advance of an order that would come into effect only two hours and 44 minutes later.

From midnight, households in Greater Manchester, Bradford, Blackburn with Darwen and six other local authority areas were banned from mixing indoors, or even in the garden.

About four million people were affected, with all this coming on the eve of the biggest Muslim festival of the year, Eid al-Adha – equivalent to cancelling Christmas just as children were putting out their stockings and taking themselves off to bed on Christmas Eve.

Public health officials had examined the data at their own meeting inside the Department of Health on Wednesday – called “silver command” – and it was escalated the next day at a “gold command” meeting, chaired by Mr Hancock and attended by Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical adviser, and Baroness Harding, in charge of the coronavirus test and trace system.

‘The urgency of it was clear’

Immediately after “gold command” ended (at about 6pm on Thursday, according to sources), Mr Johnson convened his own Covid Operations committee – known as “Covid O” – to consider the options.

The Prime Minister chaired the meeting in the Cabinet room, with his Health Secretary alongside him, joined by Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, and Prof Whitty. Other members of “Covid O” joined by Zoom, including Cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Rishi Sunak and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser.

The group was in agreement. A partial northern lockdown (see graphic below) was needed urgently – Eid was to begin the next day and was likely to see thousands of households mingling in joyous celebration – and a further easing of restrictions on August 1 countermanded. England would be going backwards.

On Friday, Mr Hancock was clear that the restrictions on the north had nothing to do with Eid.

In an interview with the Today programme on Friday, he replied when asked if the festival was a factor: “No – my heart goes out to the Muslim communities in these areas because I know how important the Eid celebrations are.”

However, two separate sources have said Eid was discussed at “gold command” on Thursday, but it was agreed that no ministers would mention it in public, fearful of stirring a far-right Islamophobic backlash as well as causing distress in the Muslim community.

A Government source said: “Ministers are very, very alive to the sensitivities of this, given the significance of Eid to the Muslim community. There was just no choice – the urgency of it was clear.”

The source said there was an urgent need to keep households apart, adding: “The point about the data is that what it is showing is household transmission – it’s not about the level it is at now but about where this could lead.”

Mr Hancock raised concern privately that over-emphasising the importance of Eid as a factor could inflame racial tensions.

Another senior Government source said: “There was a massive amount of work being done round Eid, so we were already alive to that. But we were also aware of the downside of doing it the night before Eid, because of the impact that it has.”

Infection rates (see graphic below), the source said, were also high among people of Indian, Polish and Eastern European backgrounds.

“The data from test and trace was clear – the spikes were showing a lack of social distancing within households, and between nearby households,” said a source.

Ministers had already been informed that locking down areas at Eid could stoke tensions. Sage papers released on Friday show that a report from SPI-B Policing and Security sub-Group had warned that local lockdowns would be “potentially problematic” during the festival.

Tory MPs ‘were furious’

Time was running out. At just after 6pm on Thursday, northern MPs were sent an email, posted out by Viriginia Crosbie, an MP and aide to the health minister Helen Whately, advising them there would be a conference call with the minister and with Baroness Harding at 6.30pm.

Some MPs, not knowing who Virginia Crosbie was, either ignored it or hadn’t spotted it as they prepared for a sunny weekend ahead.

Mr Hancock texted at 6.29pm, a minute before the Zoom conference, urging them to tune in. At 6.30pm, the minister talked the MPs through the northern lockdown. Many of them, including a number of Tories holding marginal former “Red Wall” Labour seats, went apoplectic.

“They were furious. They were calling it an outrage. One of them was all over the place, screaming his head off,” said a Labour MP who witnessed the row unfold. “These are Tories who think Boris Johnson can do no wrong, and you could see the scales falling from their eyes.

“Once they got past their anger, they began asking fairly simple questions – and the minister’s answers were completely confused. I got the impression the decision had only just been made.”

Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 committee and the MP for Altrincham and Sale West, said: “These new restrictions have been introduced over a large area, even though there are massive variations in infection rates. It is unfortunate that these restrictions were introduced so quickly and without consultation.”

Another senior Tory, with an affected northern seat, said: “I just think there remains a default position of extreme caution which jars with the reality that we may have to live with Covid for a very long time and we have to get on with life.”

Local officials and police caught cold

Local authority leaders discovered the new measures at about 7pm. Alyson Barnes, the Labour leader of Rossendale Borough Council, said it was hard to take being dragged into a lockdown when the area had recorded just four positive test results in a week.

The largely rural council is wedged between hotspots in Greater Manchester and Blackburn, but she believes the timing was significant. “I think Eid was the propellant,” she said. “I cannot think it is anything else than Eid. They [ministers] are telling us all to stay at home, but they wouldn’t have done it at Christmas.”

Analysis by The Telegraph shows that more than 2.7 million people in northern England woke up to fresh lockdown restrictions despite living in neighbourhoods which have had fewer than four confirmed cases in the last 14 days.

In Rossendale, the overall infection rate is just 4.2 new cases per 100,000 people over the most recent week of data.

Police were also caught cold by Mr Hancock’s announcement. Just two hours before they were due to go on shift, police officers in West Yorkshire were finding out from social media that they would have to apply strict, if not entirely clear, new restrictions.

Brian Booth, the chairman of the West Yorkshire Police Federation, said: “This came totally out of the blue, and we were left with just two hours to work out how how we were going to apply the new rules.

“We are talking about areas and communities where there are already tensions around policing, and our officers do not want to get things wrong and end up making things worse.”

At the “Covid O” meeting in the Cabinet Office that followed “gold command”, the Prime Minister decided to impose the northern lockdown that night but save the decision to scrap plans to relax measures further until the press conference the next day.

Officials then “worked through the night and Friday morning” to prepare the nationwide measures, which included ditching an easing on wedding rules to allow up to 30 guests.

The Cabinet was then told of the measures by the Prime Minister in a Zoom call on Friday morning, followed by a briefing with the devolved administrations and another with opposition leaders. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, announced, in response, a ban on Scottish residents visiting England’s north.

There was still confusion, though. One senior MP was called by Mr Hancock and seemingly assured that weddings with 30 guests were still on the table, only for Mr Johnson to cull that three hours later.

At the televised Downing Street press conference, while the Prime Minister was telling the nation it was time to put on the brakes, Prof Whitty, standing alongside him, was seemingly hitting reverse.

“We have probably reached or neared the limits of what we can do in terms of opening up society,” he said, adding that it was now wrong to  think “we can open up everything  and keep the virus under control”.

On some readings of the data though, the correct course of action is, less clear.

The ONS estimated that 35,700 people in England were infected with Covid-19 between July 20 and July 26, or one in 1,500 people. The week before, statisticians had calculated around 27,700 were infected, or about one in 2,000.

However, the ONS data has been jumping around wildly since surveillance testing began, ironically because cases in the community are so low. On June 25, cases were worse than they are now – at one in 1,100 – and a fortnight later had swung to one in 3,900.

The new calculation is based on just 59 people testing positive out of 116,026 swab tests (0.05 per cent). The previous week, just 45 people tested positive out of 114,674 (0.39 per cent). It means the tipping point for a northern lockdown may have rested on just 14 extra positive tests.

The ONS also admitted it was unable to spot any concrete regional differences. In fact, its data showed the north-west as having one of the lowest incidences of Covid-19, while suggesting cases were rising in the East Midlands and London.

Dr Daniel Lawson, a lecturer in statistical science in the School of Mathematics at the University of Bristol, said politicians were being forced to grapple with huge uncertainty and were fearful of acting too late.

“The ONS survey data provides some evidence of an increase. But there is a difficulty in measurement,” said Dr Lawson. But he had every sympathy for ministers, warning: “Acting too late can make lockdowns longer and increase mortality.”

Boris Johnson is taking no chances.

New daily COVID cases remain stable in the UK

covid.joinzoe.com 

COVID in the population remains stable across the UK

According to the latest COVID Symptom Study app figures, there are currently 2,110 daily new cases of COVID in the UK on average over the two weeks up to 25 July 2020 (excluding care homes) [*]. The latest figures were based on the data from 13,063 swab tests done between 12 July to 25 July. A full regional breakdown can be found here.

The latest figures suggest that the number of daily new cases in the UK population is currently stable, as the number has remained around the 2,000 mark for the past few weeks. The data also highlights that the surge in numbers that was seen in the North of England has now stopped.

The latest prevalence figures estimate that 29,174 people currently have symptomatic COVID in the UK. The prevalence data over the last few weeks also suggests that the amount of symptomatic COVID in the UK population has remained stable. The numbers are still higher in the North of England but the numbers have not increased since last week.

The COVID Symptom Study app’s prevalence estimate is still within the confidence bounds of the most recent and smaller ONS Infection survey two weeks ago with an estimated 27,700 people (95% credible interval: 18,500 to 39,900) in England during the one week period from the 13-19 July 2020.

This week, the COVID Symptom Study’s Watch List identifies an updated top 10 Upper Tier Local Authority (UTLA) regions to watch. These are the regions that have the highest estimates of symptomatic COVID in the past week. A number of regions remain in the top 10 again this week, including Blackburn with Darwen, Kirklees, Rotherham and Blackpool. The Welsh regions like Wrexham and Neath Port Talbot have dropped out of the top 10 and have been replaced with more northern regions including, Wigan and Wakefield.

Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London, comments: 

“The numbers are holding steady for now. From last week, we have seen the Welsh regions doing much better and dropping out of the top ten. But now we are seeing the Watch List entirely made up of regions in the North of England. However, it’s not all doom and gloom for the North of England as we have seen the surge in numbers stop, so the data suggest that things are improving.

Interestingly, when we take a look back over the long term plotting of the number of daily new cases we haven’t seen a real decrease since early June. It’s unclear what led to the leveling off but we will continue to keep a close eye on the data to make sure we do detect any potential up tick in numbers in the coming weeks.”

Hinkley Point C: French watchdog fines EDF €5m for false claims on cost

Heart of the South West’s flagship project for solving our economic woes is in trouble again for spreading “false information” on costs. Also:

EDF warned on Thursday of a “high” risk of further delays to the project due to the coronavirus pandemic, which could push back Hinkley’s start-up date to 2027 and raise costs further.

Jillian Ambrose www.theguardian.com 

The French market watchdog has levelled a €5m (£4.5m) fine against the energy giant EDF for misleading investors about the cost of the Hinkley Point C new nuclear project.

The regulators found that the French state-owned energy company spread “false information” about its agreement with the UK government to build Britain’s first nuclear reactors in more than 20 years.

The AMF, France’s financial markets authority, said the company may have set EDF’s share price “at an abnormal or artificial level” by claiming in a news release dated October 2014 that the terms of its deal with the UK government were “unchanged” from the 2013 agreement.

“There had in fact been significant changes to the financing plan by guaranteed debt,” according to the AMF.

They also levelled a €50,000 fine of €50,000 against Henri Proglio, EDF’s chief executive officer at the time, for overseeing the company’s failure to disclose key changes to the Hinkley Point contract.

The fine was handed down amid growing frustration in France over the “unacceptable” delays and cost overruns at the Hinkley Point project, which EDF is building alongside the Chinese nuclear company CGN.

EDF, which declined to comment on the fine, warned on Thursday of a “high” risk of further delays to the project due to the coronavirus pandemic, which could push back Hinkley’s start-up date to 2027 and raise costs further.

The project was forecast to cost £18bn when it received the green light from the UK government in 2016, but EDF estimates the costs have since climbed to between £21.5bn and £22.5bn.

In the UK, concerns over China’s involvement in the project are steadily rising as diplomatic tensions between China and western nations continue to mount.

EDF hopes to build a follow-up project with its Chinese partners at Sizewell B on the Suffolk coast, but the UK government has delayed plans to set a new financing framework for the project while MPs within the Conservative party call for a review of China’s involvement in Britain’s nuclear ambitions.

Big money politics is ripe for funding reform

Philip Collins www.thetimes.co.uk 
If every party donor were like Stuart Wheeler then British politics would have no funding problem. But they are not and it does. Mr Wheeler, who died last week, was generous with his fortune in pursuit of causes he championed but, in his singular and remarkable way, he wanted nothing in return beyond victory for his ideas. When Mr Wheeler offered £5 million to William Hague’s Conservative Party in 2001 it was on the strict condition that he should receive no honour, direct influence or favour of any kind.

Few donors, however, have such pure motives. Most gifts to political parties are offered on the basis that there should be a return. The exchange is never explicit and very often donors end up disappointed. But there is no doubt that many donations are offered in the hope that a place in the House of Lords, or some favourable policy, might be forthcoming.

This is why it matters, as the intelligence and security committee’s report on Russia pointed out, that political parties are exempt from the requirement for transactions of more than £10,000 to be reported to the National Crime Agency. The report showed that “several members of the Russian elite . . . are identified as being involved with charitable and/or political organisations in the UK, having donated to political parties . . .”. The coffers of the Conservative Party, for example, have been replenished by gifts of £1.7 million from Lubov Chernukhin, whose husband is a former deputy finance minister in Moscow. In 2014 Ms Chernukhin paid £160,000 to have a game of tennis with Boris Johnson and David Cameron. Alexander Temerko, a former Russian oil executive, has also donated a great deal to the Conservatives. Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, Alok Sharma, the business secretary, Simon Hart, the Wales secretary, Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, and Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the international development secretary, have all received funding from these sources.

The problem with this is less exotic than it looks at first sight. The point at issue here is not nationality. Ms Chernukhin and Mr Temerko are British citizens and all the donations are clearly within the rules. The problem is that rich people can buy access and influence. That is how our politics is funded. We need political parties and they need to be funded in order to be able to operate. Yet we do not like the way we do it. Seventy-five per cent of respondents to a survey by the Electoral Reform Society said they thought donors had too much influence on our politics. Sixty-five per cent said they thought knighthoods were up for sale and 61 per cent believe that the system of party funding is corrupt.

Yet it is a lot easier to complain about party funding than to know how to fix it. The amount that any individual or organisation can give could be capped at a low level but this will inevitably lead to a funding shortfall. In 2011, Labour’s general secretary told the Committee on Standards in Public Life that the party would have folded if a proposed cap on donations of £50,000 had been introduced years earlier. Such a limit would reduce the influence purchased but, unless the public start making voluntary donations to political parties in their millions, it halts the necessary funds.

The only other option is to lay the burden on the taxpayer, which is hardly the most popular of options. It is, in fact, standard practice in many places for the taxpayer to make a direct contribution to the funding of democracy. In Germany it is written into the federal constitution that any party gaining more than 1 per cent of the vote is entitled to state funding up to a maximum of 50 per cent of its income. About a third of party income in Germany comes from taxpayers. Popular outrage after a series of funding scandals led the French, in 1988, to introduce public funding. The Australians did the same in 1984 and Canada did likewise in 2003.

Britain actually has its own version of state funding already. Since 1975, the official opposition has been given a grant which is known as Short money in the House of Commons, and Cranborne money in the House of Lords. Opposition parties receive £18,044.80 for every seat won at the last election plus £36.04 for every 200 votes gained by the party. They are entitled to travel expenses of £198,231.77 between them, apportioned in line with the number of votes won. The opposition leader’s office is awarded £840,712.01 towards running costs. Sometimes, when opposition parties are shunned by donors, these sums mean they become, in effect, state-funded. Between 2001 and 2003, the Tories received more in public grants than in private donations. The argument about state funding is not whether we should introduce it. It’s about whether we should extend it.

There is a strong argument that the financial weakness of a party is a consequence of its political weakness rather than a cause. The inability of the Labour Party, since the departure of Tony Blair, to attract much funding from business is not just an accident. It is an accurate description of the kind of party that it has become. There is an argument that the need to seek funding from donors is a way of keeping a party honest. It is surely preferable, too, for voluntary associations to be funded out of private resources rather than to rely on public funds.

That said, it is a matter of concern, in a time when the reputation of politics is low, that such a critical discipline should be thought to be corrupt. The ideal outcome would be a cap on donations, complete transparency for all gifts — and not just those above £7,500 as at present — but sufficient breadth of donors that enough money comes in. But if that does not produce a formula that makes democratic politics possible there is only one way to solve the problem and that is to call on public funds. State funding of political parties is a rotten idea but it may not be quite as rotten as bankrupt politics.

When William Hague received Stuart Wheeler’s donation and the insistence that there must be no strings attached, he is said to have grinned and said that it was rather like a visit from Father Christmas. Stuart’s wife Tessa apparently phoned one of their daughters to let her know. “Darling,” she said, “we have to face facts. We are now the wife and daughter of a madman.” They weren’t. They were the wife and daughter of a good man. There are never enough like him and there is one fewer now he is gone.

Extending help-to-buy will only make the housing crisis worse 

“Help-to-buy was premised on the idea that the problem of unaffordable house prices could be solved by making it easier for potential buyers to access a mortgage. But given that mortgage lending is a key driver of house prices, the scheme always risked pushing up prices further, thus benefiting existing owners rather than new buyers. Predictably, this is exactly what has happened.”

Laurie Macfarlane, economics editor at openDemocracy and a fellow at the UCL Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose  www.theguardian.com 

In moments of crisis, British chancellors have often resorted to throwing money at the housing market. Behind the slick PR machine, Rishi Sunak appears to be following the same old playbook. After cutting stamp duty in July’s summer statement, the chancellor is now reportedly planning to extend the help-to-buy scheme, which was due to be scaled back later this year and phased out entirely by 2023.

In Britain, we’ve seen our fair share of disastrous policies in recent years, but few have been as predictably self-defeating as help-to-buy. Introduced by George Osborne in 2013 as a means of helping people onto the housing ladder, it was clear from the outset that the policy would do more harm than good.

Help-to-buy was premised on the idea that the problem of unaffordable house prices could be solved by making it easier for potential buyers to access a mortgage. But given that mortgage lending is a key driver of house prices, the scheme always risked pushing up prices further, thus benefiting existing owners rather than new buyers. Predictably, this is exactly what has happened.

Since 2013, average house prices have increased by 38% – far outstripping growth in average wages. This has increased the value of the existing housing stock by more than £2tn – a handsome windfall for those lucky enough to share a slice of it.

Although the scheme has supported around 272,000 property transactions, a recent National Audit Office report found that 63% of people buying a home under the scheme could have done so without help from the state. Earlier this year, the Financial Conduct Authority warned that help-to-buy customers are more exposed to changes in “economic conditions”, and face a greater risk of negative equity.

Seven years after the scheme was introduced, the prospect of home-ownership remains little more than a pipe dream for millions of households. The combination of surging house prices and stagnant wage growth has priced a whole generation out of the market. Today, those in their mid-30s to mid-40s are three times more likely to rent than 20 years ago.

For those stuck in the private rental market, the proportion of income spent on housing costs has risen dramatically from around 10% in 1980 to nearly 40% today – among the highest in Europe. And it is here that we find the dark side of Britain’s housing story.

While economists and politicians hail a booming housing market as a sign of wealth creation, in reality it’s one of the most powerful forms of wealth redistribution. When the value of a house goes up the total productive capacity of the economy is unchanged, because nothing new has been produced: it merely constitutes an increase in the value of an existing asset. While this increases the net wealth of individual homeowners, for everyone else it means facing higher rents in the rental market, and having to save more to take out a larger mortgage.

The reality is that the housing ladder is rather like a zero-sum game: the wealth enjoyed by some is mirrored by the deprivation and exclusion of others. In Britain, it’s about time we confronted this uncomfortable truth.

There was a time when increasing access to mortgages helped to spread the benefits of homeownership. But this always had diminishing returns: as banks have become ever more addicted to mortgage lending, a powerful feedback loop has emerged between mortgage lending, house prices and levels of household debt. Extending Help to Buy would be like trying to kick a drug habit by going on one final binge. It might delay the ultimate day of reckoning, but it will make the underlying problem much worse.

The biggest winners would be private developers, for whom help-to-buy has always represented an unprecedented gold rush. In response to the subsidies provided by the scheme, developers simply increased the price of new developments by the same amount, pocketing the difference. Help-to-buy subsidies have poured billions into the coffers of Britain’s large developers, leading to record-breaking profits and eyewatering bonuses. That these companies are among the loudest voices calling for the policy to be extended should serve as an obvious warning.

Help-to-buy is not the only policy that has contributed to Britain’s housing crisis, but it embodies the kind of doublethink that has long shaped British housing policy. Although intended to get more people on the housing ladder, the scheme has kicked the ladder ever further out of reach. Despite being designed to boost housing supply, the scheme has empowered private developers whose business model depends on releasing new homes at a painfully slow rate.

With Covid-19 further exposing Britain’s stark housing divides, the need to chart a new course has never been more urgent. The long term-aim must be to return to a society where houses are viewed as somewhere to live, not as vehicles for accumulating wealth. This means weaning ourselves off our addiction to house price growth, and embracing a new public-led approach to development.

Achieving this won’t be easy: it means taking on the unholy alliance of private developers, banks and – most difficult of all – ordinary homeowners, many of whom now view ever-rising house prices as normal and just. This requires careful handling, and a plan for moving forwards one step a time. If the chancellor is serious about tackling the housing crisis, then scrapping help-to-buy in its entirety would be a very good place to start.