Almost 6m in rural areas at risk of losing jobs

Those living in rural areas are more at risk of losing their jobs due to the coronavirus, a report by a Conservative-dominated group of councils has found.

The study by Grant Thornton UK LLP for the County Councils Network (CCN), which acts for 39 of the biggest English authorities, predicts that almost six million people in England’s counties are working in “at risk” jobs, with 46 per cent of the country’s entire furloughed workforce residing in county areas.

Expressing fears that a significant number of furloughed workers in the counties will not have jobs to go back to once the scheme ends in October, CCN county leaders are calling on the government to provide councils with devolved powers to protect employment.

The leaders say the government must grant councils powers in its White Paper in September, particularly over transport and skills that metro mayors currently have, to avoid attempts at restoring economic growth being “hamstrung”.

Based on the latest statistics to the end of June, Cornwall has the highest proportion of its workforce on furlough (35.1%), with Staffordshire, Worcestershire, Cumbria, Dorset and Devon all also having close to one-third of their workforce on the Government’s scheme, the report, entitled Place-Based Recovery: How Counties Can Drive Growth Post Covid-19, suggests.

The CCN says the Government must avoid the pandemic exacerbating the divide between major cities and England’s shire counties that the Conservatives’ “levelling-up” agenda sought to address.

Cllr David Williams, chairman of the County Councils Network, and leader of Hertfordshire County Council, said: “The scale of the economic challenge posed by coronavirus cannot be overstated and today’s research illustrates how exposed county areas are with over half of those areas’ workforces currently in sectors ‘at risk’. We fear a significant number of those furloughed will not have employment to go back to unless we act now.

“There is a real risk the pandemic simply exacerbates the long-standing economic divide between county areas and the major cities, with urban metro mayors having more powers and resources at their disposal to address the impact of coronavirus.

“County authorities must be a central part of the economic growth jigsaw, alongside the Government’s Plan for Jobs and efforts from business and the education sector. Each area will have differing needs, and we know our residents and businesses well.

“Restructuring councils with devolved powers to new and ambitious unitary authorities will allow us to grasp the ‘levelling-up’ nettle and provide hope to our communities.”

Paul Dossett, head of local government, Grant Thornton UK LLP, added: “While Covid-19 has affected all parts of the country, the impact plays out very differently across different demographics and geographies. How particular vulnerabilities are managed and mitigated, and economic opportunities maximised, will look very different around the country.

“Effective recovery therefore demands an intimate knowledge of place. Covid-19 initially required a central response to managing the spread of the virus but, as we move from managing the crisis to managing the recovery, powers and decision-making need to filter back to local places, enabling them to take action on those issues or opportunities most pertinent to their area.”

 

Giving more power to housing developers puts the UK’s high streets at risk 

“A great deal of democratic energy is channelled by the planning system. If that system is undermined, the energy will not disappear. It will simply be redirected, either through the ballot box or through local flare-ups that blow back on the government. This is a political operation convinced of its ability to hear the voice of the people. Perhaps it needs to listen a little more closely.”

The future of the high street, we are told, is to build more homes on it. You can see the argument. Even before coronavirus, many big retailers were struggling to make rent as people increasingly turned to online shopping. Shop vacancies were rising and commercial landlords, many of them overloaded with debt and watching their share prices tumble, were wondering what to do next. The pandemic has merely hastened the demise of a failing model.

Meanwhile, there is the housing crisis. Put two and two together and you get the government’s move to relax planning regulations so that shops can easily be turned into homes. John Lewis is the first mover, announcing last week that it is planning to turn some of its excess shop space into “affordable housing”. It won’t be the last. At first glance, this all seems fine. Clearly we need fewer shops and more homes. So what’s the problem?

It starts with what we think the high street actually is. Many use the term as shorthand for retail, given that sector’s dominance over our town centres in the past century or so. But a high street is not a sector, it’s a place – and not just any old place. Saturated in history, it is the guardian of a town or city’s identity. It gives us a space to connect with each other, and to nourish our idea of home. In short, a high street is deeply meaningful. If it becomes just another place to live, then our towns and cities will be drained of that meaning.

There is clearly a place for more homes on the high street, if that is what people want and if the type of housing meets their actual needs. No doubt some commercial landlords (and perhaps John Lewis will be one of them) will be highly sensitive to these requirements and build just the right type of housing. Other developers, such as Grosvenor and U+I, are making serious efforts to build relationships with the communities where they work. It is wrong to dismiss any owner or developer of land as problematic by default.

The problem is that a massive relaxation of planning regulations puts the fate of our towns and cities entirely in the hands of these landlords. For every sensitive developer engaging with communities in good faith, there will be plenty who simply want to maximise profit. That could mean many of our high streets become meaningless places crammed with substandard homes. Certainly all the evidence shows that giving landlords permitted development rights leads directly to poor-quality housing.

The planning system is many things, but above all it is a democratic promise. It is a guarantee that places will not simply develop according to the interests of whoever owns the land, but will also be shaped by public interest. To build, you need public consent.

The government hasn’t just made it easier to turn shops into homes: it has effectively greenlit any demolition of vacant property as long as homes are built in its place. It has also allowed homeowners to build two extra storeys without seeking permission. In other words, it has kneecapped the planning system, and broken the democratic promise it offers. It did all this the day before parliament broke up for the summer, introducing secondary legislation which is difficult to overturn. And these are just the first steps: later in the year it will be announcing a full reform of the planning system with the intention of making it easier to build. Few are hopeful that this will protect the public’s ability to influence what gets built.

As EP Thompson wrote: “Liberty of conscience was the one great value which the common people had preserved from the Commonwealth. The countryside was ruled by the gentry, the towns by corrupt corporations, the nation by the corruptest corporation of all: but the chapel, the tavern and the home were their own.”

The chapel, the tavern and the home: these represent three potential uses of the future high street. As retail recedes, there could be space for more entertainment and experience in the form of pubs, cafes and community centres – whether places of religious or civic congregation – and yes, more homes. These are things which people believe, in some instinctive sense, they jointly own. Now we are in danger of losing what control we still have in fostering these elements of our common life.

A great deal of democratic energy is channelled by the planning system. If that system is undermined, the energy will not disappear. It will simply be redirected, either through the ballot box or through local flare-ups that blow back on the government. This is a political operation convinced of its ability to hear the voice of the people. Perhaps it needs to listen a little more closely.

  • Will Brett is a campaigns, communications and public affairs consultant

Up to 45,000 new homes to get green light ahead of planning shake-up

Projects to build up to 45,000 new homes are to get the green light as part of the latest round of investment from Boris Johnson’s promised “New Deal” ahead of a radical planning shake-up expected this week.

Jessica Elgot www.theguardian.com 

The Treasury is to allocate £900m from funds announced in Rishi Sunak’s budget to more than 300 so-called “shovel ready” schemes, which include the homes, new commercial space and infrastructure projects such as a high-speed rail station in Kent.

The housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, said the investment would be “laying the foundations for a green economic recovery”.

Jenrick and the prime minister have promised major changes to planning laws in England, to be formally announced in the coming days, under which new homes and hospitals could be granted automatic planning permission to speed up building.

Under the plans, local councils will be asked to designate land either as “growth”, “renewal” or “protection”. New developments will be granted automatic permission on “growth” land and “renewal” areas will see developments given “permission in principle” subject to some checks. Only areas given the “protection” status, including the greenbelt, will not have automatic building rights.

The forthcoming reforms have led to warnings from housing charities about the potential risk of low-quality homes.

The government has also confirmed a £360m investment in Mayoral Combined Authority areas such as Greater Manchester and the West Midlands to build 26,000 more homes while protecting greenfield sites, with a further £8m earmarked to speed up the delivery of these new homes on brownfield sites.

The business and energy department also detailed its plans to fund up to two-thirds of the costs of green home improvements for more than 600,000 homes.

Tradespeople must register for TrustMark accreditation for improvements from wall insulation, floors and roofs to the installation of low-carbon heating. Households on low income can receive vouchers covering 100% of the cost of the improvements, up to a maximum of £10,000.

The investment is part of the £5bn New Deal spending announced in June, part of the £600bn-plus Sunak allocated in his March budget for capital projects over the next five years.

Reopening schools without scaled-up track and trace system could lead to worse second coronavirus wave, experts warn

The reopening of schools in September must be accompanied by a high-coverage test-trace-isolate (TTI) programme if the country is to avoid a second wave of coronavirus infections, a study has suggested.

 

Researchers analysed data from the first wave of Covid-19 and modelled the potential impact of schools in Britain reopening in less than a month to understand how the virus can be kept under control.

The study, published in The Lancet Child And Adolescent Health, simulated various scenarios to examine the possible consequences of schools reopening in tandem with parents returning to their offices and increased socialising within the community.

The researchers, from University College London (UCL) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, found that “with increased levels of testing… and effective contact tracing and isolation, an epidemic rebound might be prevented”.

A second study, also published in The Lancet, found low levels of transmissions in schools and nurseries where control measures are in place.

The modelling study found that, in a worst case scenario, a second wave could be over two times the size of the first if there is a “continual gradual relaxation [of] control measures and insufficient test-trace-isolate”.

Dr Jasmina Panovska-Griffiths, who lead the study, said: “Our modelling suggests that with a highly-effective test and trace strategy in place across the UK, it is possible for schools to reopen safely in September.

“However, without sufficient coverage of a test-trace-isolate strategy, the UK risks a serious second epidemic peak either in December or February. Therefore, we urge the government to ensure that test-trace-isolate capacity is scaled-up to a sufficient level before schools reopen.”

It comes after chief medical officer Chris Whitty warned the public may have to trade some liberties in order to secure others, to prevent losing control of the virus, and a member of the government’s Sage group suggested pubs and other venues may have to close in order for schools to reopen.

Professor Chris Bonell, professor of public health sociology at LSHTM and senior author on the study, said the findings should “not be used to keep schools shut” but should be viewed as a “loud call to action to improve the infection control measures and test and trace system”.

“Our findings suggests that it might be possible [to avoid] a second wave, if enough people with symptomatic infection can be diagnosed and their contacts traced and effectively isolated.

“This is a scenario with model, not a prediction of what is going to happen. It all depends on the other measures and the level of TTI coverage,” he said, adding that at the present moment, TTI is “not achieving the levels that we modelled”.

“Looking at the NHS reports from the TTI system, it looks like it’s about 50 per cent coverage.

“It looks from the ONS data like there are about 4,200 new infections per day. And it looks like from the testing data there are about 4,200 testing positive per week. So it looks like about one in seven. So, that’s not good enough, basically,” added Mr Bonnell.

The researchers cautioned that the level of infectiousness in children compared to adults in non-conclusive. The main study used a model that assumed children were as infectious as adults, and they re-ran the model with the assumption that children and young people were half as infectious as adults, with the results remaining the same.

The second study looked at real-world data from January to April tracking the spread of coronavirus within 25 schools and nurseries in New South Wales, Australia.

It found that the risk of children and staff transmitting the virus in educational settings was “very low” when contact tracing and other virus control restrictions were in place.

Commenting on both studies, Professor W John Edmunds from LSHTM, said: “Both studies give potential options for keeping schools open and show the clear importance of adequate contact tracing and testing.

“We urgently need large-scale research programmes to carefully monitor the impact of schools reopening, as Public Health England’s sKID study aims to do. Only in this way can we take the most appropriate measures to mitigate the risks and allow us to reassure parents, pupils and teachers alike that schools are safe to attend.

“There are no quick fixes to this terrible pandemic. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that governments around the world need to find solutions that allow children and young adults to return to full-time education as safely and as quickly as possible.”

UK virologists criticise handling of Covid testing contracts

A group of Britain’s leading virus experts say mistakes are being made in the handling of the Covid pandemic, with testing contracts awarded on apparently ideological grounds to private sector companies rather than based on expertise.

Sarah Boseley www.theguardian.com

In a letter to England’s chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser, nearly 70 clinical virologists say they have been sidelined by the government and excluded from discussions on how to respond to the pandemic.

New 90-minute tests announced with fanfare by ministers on Monday were the latest example of how virologists were being bypassed, they say. They have been using rapid tests such as these already – but say they have no knowledge of or information on the DnaNudge or LamPORE tests that the government is contracting to buy.

The UK Clinical Virology Network wrote to Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, on 10 July but say they have had no response. The experts in testing for viruses such as Covid-19 mostly work in 40 NHS and Public Health England (PHE) laboratories across the country.

They were writing, they said in their letter, “to express our concern over lack of engagement by policymakers with clinical virology expertise in the UK in the management of the Covid-19 (Sars-CoV-2 pandemic)”.

The letter adds: “Our skills have been underused and underrepresented (albeit to differing extents within the devolved nations of the UK), resulting in lost opportunities to establish a coordinated robust and durable testing framework for Sars-CoV-2.”

Deenan Pillay, a professor of virology at University College London, is one of the signatories. “There’s always new tests being developed. And it’s almost as if they’re being pushed as a sort of magic bullet … it’s almost like getting stuff out to actually reassure the public rather than the more boring but really hard work of doing proper contact tracing,” he told the Guardian.

He and others think the government is convinced that only the private sector can rise to the pandemic challenges. But, he said, a series of mistakes and problems had arisen from failing to consult with clinical virologists.

In March the government rushed into buying antibody tests that were then found not to work well enough.

In the same month, it set up drive-through testing centres and so-called Lighthouse labs – privately and publicly operated – to increase the number of swabs taken and processed, but did not have the systems to feed the data into the NHS and public health authorities around the country, where it is needed.

“If you’re going to build a Lighthouse lab or a new lab somewhere, to have it under control of an NHS laboratory would be the obvious thing,” said Pillay. “It was the first thing I said when Deloitte phoned me and asked me for advice on setting up Lighthouse labs.

“I said, well, the most important thing is not just the test – it is the data. How are you going to get it [to] assimilate into NHS data systems? And again, that was overlooked. I think we now realise that was a major error.”

The only clinical virologist on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) is from the main PHE reference laboratory, he said.

Prof Will Irving at the University of Nottingham, another signatory, pointed to centralised control of the response when Lighthouse labs were set up. “We never quite reached capacity. We could have done more testing,” he said of the Nottingham laboratory.

“When I first saw the email that … the army were going to come up to the university the next day and collect whatever machines we could give them to go down to the Milton Keynes Lighthouse [lab], my first reaction was – that’s a really good idea. You put all these capabilities in a very large warehouse, and you work it 24 hours a day. You can do a huge amount of testing.

“But just like whoever first thought of that, I hadn’t thought it through. And in fact, the actual testing in the laboratory – of taking the sample and determining whether or not it’s got virus in it – is far and away the easiest part of the whole process,” he said.

Diagnostic laboratories such as his had rigorous processes for getting the results where they should be, so patients could be treated, contacts traced and local public health officials notified of what was happening in their area.

Instead, it emerged that some Lighthouse labs sent home volunteers because there were too few samples to process, while some patients got wrong or delayed results. “We heard stories about thousands of samples being sent to the United States for testing which is just plain ridiculous,” he said. “And it just seems there is a rush to do everything privately.”

The virologists still hope they can help, advising that private testing centres and labs should be at least partnered with an NHS or PHE diagnostic laboratory. “It is not too late to effect change. The Covid-19 pandemic response will need to evolve through the coming winter and beyond … We ask that you reach out to the clinical and academic virologists in all countries of the UK,” the letter says.

A government spokesperson said: “We have made significant strides in our approach to tackling coronavirus and have been guided by the latest scientific advice throughout … At every stage, the government’s response has been informed by the advice of experts from SAGE and its sub-committees. Our approach is kept under constant review as new international and domestic evidence emerges.”

At least one in five infected with COVID-19 don’t show any symptoms

covid.joinzoe.com /post/covid-antibodies

Have you had COVID-19 without knowing? New study reveals at least one in five people infected don’t show any symptoms

A new antibody testing study led by researchers at King’s College London has shown that one in five people in London and the South East of England who have been infected with coronavirus didn’t show any symptoms of COVID-19, while more than a quarter who did fall ill didn’t have the three core signs of the disease: persistent cough, fever and loss of smell (anosmia).

This is the first UK-based study linking detailed ongoing symptom collection data with antibody testing, and highlights the likely extent of COVID-19 infection across the region.

To understand the true picture of the disease we not only need to know who is infected right now – currently determined through swab testing – but the extent to which people have previously been exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, as revealed by testing for antibodies in the blood.

The virus is difficult to study as some people become seriously or fatally ill, others will have a wide range of less severe symptoms, while some will have very mild or no symptoms at all (asymptomatic).

The researchers carried out antibody testing on blood samples from 432 adults aged 18-89 in the ongoing TwinsUK study living in Greater London and South East England, 382 of whom had also been regularly logging their health over three months using the COVID Symptom Study app. Participants were also given a swab PCR test to check whether they were currently infected with coronavirus, and asked if they had ever previously been tested.

The team discovered that one in 8 (51, 12%) were positive for viral antibodies. This is approximately double the proportion estimated by a recent ONS survey of antibody testing in the UK general population.

Focusing on 48 people with a positive antibody result who had also been regularly logging their health, the researchers found that nearly one in five (9, 19%) never experienced any COVID-19 symptoms throughout the duration of the study.

More than one in four (16, 27%) who had antibodies and experienced symptoms didn’t have the 3 core NHS symptoms of persistent cough, fever and anosmia. However, loss of smell alone was still highly specific for having COVID-19, compared with the combination of all three symptoms, highlighting its importance as a key early warning sign of the disease.

Additionally, around half of the app users who reported symptoms that were highly predictive of COVID-19 did not have antibodies against the virus, confirming other studies showing that current antibody testing misses a substantial fraction of cases.

This could be some because antibodies fade quickly in some people, or they never create an antibody response at all. Further work by the team is looking into whether alternative aspects of immunity, such as T cells, may also play a part in the immune response to the virus.

Understanding the true extent of infection and transmission is vital in order to effectively identify and contain further outbreaks across the UK. This study highlights the fact that a significant proportion of the population in London and the South East are likely to have been exposed to coronavirus, many of them without showing any symptoms at all.

Study lead and consultant geriatrician Dr Claire Steves said:

“Our findings highlight the fact that a significant proportion of people who get infected with coronavirus don’t have any obvious symptoms but may still pass the disease on to others. It’s essential that we all take steps to protect the health of everyone by sticking to social distancing guidelines, wearing face coverings in public and following good hand hygiene practices.”

“Testing is much more available now,” she added, “So if you have symptoms you can’t explain – get a swab or saliva test, as that way you will know to protect yourself and the people around you.”

COVID Symptom Study lead Professor Tim Spector said:

“These results suggest that both swab and antibody testing significantly underestimate the extent of coronavirus infections in the population. We need to combine testing approaches together with getting as many people as possible logging their daily health through the COVID Symptom Study app to really understand the spread of the virus and control it over the months ahead.”

The findings are available online as a pre-print, and have been submitted to a scientific journal for rapid peer review and publication.

 

Frontline healthcare workers more likely to test positive for COVID despite PPE

covid.joinzoe.com /post/healthcare-workers-ppe

A new study published in Lancet Public Health has found that front-line healthcare workers with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) have a three-fold increased risk of a positive SARS-CoV-2 test, compared to the general population.

Those with inadequate PPE had a further increase in risk. The study also found that healthcare workers from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds were more likely to test positive.

Using the COVID Symptom Study App, researchers from King’s College, London and Harvard looked at data from 2,035,395 individuals and 99,795 front-line health-care workers in the UK and US. The prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 was 2747 cases per 100,000 front-line health-care workers compared with 242 cases per 100,000 people in the general community. A little over 20 percent of front-line health-care workers reported at least one symptom associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection compared with 14·4 percent of the general population; fatigue, loss of smell or taste, and hoarse voice were especially frequent.

BAME health-care workers were at an especially high risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection, with at least a fivefold increased risk of infection compared with the non-Hispanic white general community.

Professor Sebastien Ourselin, senior author from King’s College London said: “The findings of our study have tremendous impact for healthcare workers and hospitals. The data is clear in revealing that there is still an elevated risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection despite availability of PPE.

“In particular we note that that the BAME community experience elevated risk of infection and in some cases lack access to adequate PPE, or frequently reuse equipment.”

Researchers say their study not only shows the importance of adequate availability and use of PPE, but also the crucial need for additional strategies to protect healthcare workers, such as ensuring correct application and removal of PPE and avoiding reuse which was associated with increased risk.

Differences were also noted in PPE adequacy according to race and ethnicity, with non- Hispanic white health-care workers more frequently reporting reuse of or inadequate access to PPE, even after adjusting for exposure to patients with COVID-19.

Joint first author Dr Mark Graham from King’s College London said: “The work is important in the context of the widely reported higher death rates amongst healthcare workers from BAME backgrounds. Hopefully a better understanding of the factors contributing to these disparities will inform efforts to better protect workers.”

Dr Claire Steves, lead clinical researcher from King’s College London said: “I’m very pleased we have now introduced masks and social distancing where possible for all interactions in hospitals – to protect ourselves and the population we serve.  We need to ensure this is reinforced and sustained throughout the health service – including in health care settings outside hospitals, for example in care homes.

“Additional protective strategies are equally as important, such as implementing social distancing among healthcare staff. Stricter protocols for socialising among healthcare staff also need to be considered.”

Help to Buy scheme extended until 2021 after new builds suspended due to Covid19

The Government’s Help to Buy scheme has been extended until 2021 to help buyers whose purchases were put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Emma Munbodh www.mirror.co.uk 

The department for housing said new builds that have been delayed due to the virus will have an extra 60 days to complete, with the building deadline extended from December 2020 to February 28 2021.

In a statement, the Government said the March 31 2021 deadline for most sale completions remains the same.

Where necessary, extensions may be granted for homebuyers who have experienced severe delays because of the pandemic and reserved properties before June 30.

These buyers will get an extension to complete their purchases by May 31 2021.

Help to Buy equity loans can offer a lifeline to first time buyers hoping to get on the property ladder alone.

Customers need a 5% deposit, and the government lends up to 20% of the value of the home (up to 40% of the value if you are purchasing in London).

However it’s due to end on April 1, 2021, to make way for a new version of the scheme until March 2023.

The new scheme will introduce property price caps and be restricted to first-time buyers only.

Housing Minister Rt Hon Christopher Pincher MP said: “This government is committed to helping a new generation to realise their dream of home ownership, and since 2010 we’ve helped more than 640,000 families into home ownership through our support including Help to Buy and Right to Buy.

“Today’s announcement will help provide certainty and assurance for Help to Buy customers whose new homes have been delayed due to coronavirus and affirms the government’s commitment to helping more people to own their own home.”

However critics are calling for a 12 month extension instead.

Alex Rose, of property website Zoopla, said: “The devil is in the detail, and many would argue that a two-month extension might not give housebuilders enough time to meet these build deadlines.

“Residential construction is currently operating at between 60pc and 85pc of normal output. Many developers are behind with their build schedules.

“While we’d hoped for a more encompassing extension, every ounce of support helps at this stage.”

Demand for Help to Buy has increased dramatically in the wake of coronavirus, as banks withdrew low deposit mortgages en masse when the pandemic hit.

Although some lenders such as Nationwide are now offering mortgages for buyers with 10% deposits, 5% deposit mortgages have largely disappeared.

The scheme, which only applies on new builds, can also be used in conjunction with the Chancellor’s stamp duty holiday, which raised the nil-rate band on homes from £125,000 to £500,000 until March 31 2021.