The Guardian view on scrapping Public Health England: not just wrong, but highly risky

“Research from the Health Foundation showed a reduction of almost 25% in public health spending per person between 2014-15 and 2019-20. PHE itself has an annual budget of just £300m – compared with the £10bn given to Serco, Sitel and other companies for test and trace, with very poor results.”

[From Margaret Thatcher onwards the private sector has been held up to be so much more efficient and cost effective than the public sector. This idea has become another Covid-19 casualty. – Owl]


The government’s desire to pass the buck could put more lives in danger

The decision to scrap Public Health England in the middle of a pandemic that has claimed 65,000 British lives is cynical and wrong. Few will be persuaded by the attempts of the health secretary, Matt Hancock, to portray it as turning a crisis into an opportunity.

The opportunity here is purportedly to better serve the public as the country looks ahead to a significant coronavirus resurgence and a grim winter. In reality, it looks more like the chance to shift the blame for the government’s failures ahead of an inquiry and create the impression that it has fixed any problems that might need solving. As the head of the King’s Fund thinktank noted, PHE seems to have been found guilty without a trial. The move also encapsulates No 10’s fondness for rushing through ideas without consultation or proper scrutiny, and for creating centralised institutions that boost the private sector and are handed over to chums.

It is nonsense to suggest that this hasty reconfiguration will protect the public. Instead, it will cost money, time and attention that is desperately needed to deal with the pandemic, while demoralising staff who are currently employed in life-saving work, and in many cases exhausted by the demands of this crisis. They are unlikely to be impressed by Mr Hancock’s fulsome tribute to them.

As health thinktanks have noted, it is unclear what problem this rearrangement is meant to solve, or how it would solve it. No one is suggesting that PHE’s record is unblemished. There are important questions to be answered about its performance in the early stages of the crisis, including its watering down of guidelines on the use of personal protective equipment. But it is not a failing institution and its weaknesses reflect years of Conservative cuts. Its abolition has been compared to reorganising a fire brigade as it tries to put out a blaze, which is partially true; to be more accurate, the analogy should note that the fire service has already been weakened by having its budget slashed. Research from the Health Foundation showed a reduction of almost 25% in public health spending per person between 2014-15 and 2019-20. PHE itself has an annual budget of just £300m – compared with the £10bn given to Serco, Sitel and other companies for test and trace, with very poor results.

Even in the government’s own terms, this decision is absurd. Weeks after the prime minister launched a drive against obesity, warning that it seriously increased the risks from coronavirus, the new body is jettisoning responsibility for such issues. There is, as yet, no plan for dealing with them. The National Institute for Health Protection will focus solely on infectious diseases, pandemics and what Mr Hancock termed “external” health threats, such as biological weapons. The severing of crucial functions, with no clear plan for how they will be handled is the antithesis of joined-up government.

The sole advantage that could be gained is the ability to bring some much-needed accountability and scrutiny to the two recent initiatives that the new body will incorporate: NHS test and trace, and the Joint Biosecurity Centre. But the very manner of its creation dispels optimism on that score. It was announced to a Conservative thinktank. Its chair, appointed without any kind of open recruitment process, is Dido Harding, the Tory peer who has overseen the testing debacle – and whose Conservative MP husband sits on the board of a thinktank that has published articles advocating the scrapping of PHE and the replacement of the NHS with universal social insurance, though he has distanced himself from these views.

Responsibility for one of the world’s worst death rates lies not with PHE, but on the government’s shoulders. Its decision to abolish the body could have deadly consequences. We cannot afford another gamble with our lives.


Virus spreads faster when air is dry, researchers find

One more health benefit of living by the damp sea? – Owl

Bernard Lagan, Sydney 

A study has found that during Sydney’s peak of coronavirus in March and April more people caught the virus on days when the air was dry. When the city’s air was more humid, fewer people contracted the virus.

The authors of the peer-reviewed study, published in Transboundary and Emerging Diseases, say that dry air increases the virus’s ability to spread. In Sydney a 1 per cent decrease in the amount of water in the air was associated with a 7.7 per cent increase in Covid-19 infections.

Michael Ward, an epidemiologist at the University of Sydney and co-author of the study, told Sydney Morning Herald: “Every time we look at it we find humidity is linked with cases. And we cannot really explain that any other way.”

The same trend has been found in a study of China’s Covid-19 outbreak and the coronaviruses that caused the Sars and Mers respiratory diseases.

The researchers gathered postcode data from 1,203 local infections between February and May and correlated it with readings from weather stations.

A study in China found that for each 1 per cent increase in relative humidity on a cold day, new Covid-19 infections fell by between 11 per cent and 22 per cent. Droplets shrink in dry air, which allows them to “get further down the respiratory tract”, Tony Cunningham, of the Centre for Virus Research in Sydney, said.

Philip Russo, president of the Australasian College for Infection Prevention and Control, said that “humidity and temperature also influence behaviour regarding crowding, indoor versus outdoor activity, ventilation etc”.


English councils facing £2bn ‘perfect storm’ may be forced to slash services – IFS

Councils in England face a £2bn “perfect storm” over the next few months and will be forced to cut services if the government does not meet the cost of soaring Covid-19 spending, the Institute for Fiscal Studies thinktank has warned.

Patrick Butler

Without additional financial support, councils “face a difficult choice between depleting their reserves to low and potentially risky levels or cutting spending on important local services”, the IFS said.

Although the government has so far provided £5.2bn in extra funds, councils expect to spend £4.4bn more than expected on the pandemic this year, as well as £2.8bn in losses from fees and charges, leaving them with a £2bn shortfall.

Even if the government offers additional support this year, the crisis facing local government is likely to continue into 2021-22 when collapsing council tax and business rates collection since lockdown start to feed into council budgets, it added.

David Phillips, an associate director at IFS, said: “Even if more funding or flexibilities are forthcoming this year, councils will still not be out of the Covid-19 woods.”

Although the simplest way of preventing cuts would be for ministers to provide more grant funding, they could also consider relaxing rules that prevent councils from borrowing money to fund day-to-day services, the IFS said. “This would help spread the pressure over several years and mean councils could avoid needing to make immediate cuts to balance their budgets.”

Although English councils collectively have around £3.3bn of available reserves, the amounts vary widely between authorities. The IFS estimates that around 40% of councils would still be unable to balance their books even if they spent all their reserves.

Cllr James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, which co-funded the study, called for the government to meet all extra cost pressures and income losses in full “so that councils aren’t faced with making tough decisions on in-year cuts to services to meet their legal duty to set a balanced budget”.

He added: “Councils need to be able to lead their communities out of this crisis and support recovery, but they cannot do this successfully and also address pressures in social care if they are having to focus on addressing budget cuts.”

A government spokesperson said: “We’re giving councils unprecedented support during the pandemic to tackle the pressures they have told us they’re facing. This includes £4.3bn funding, compensation for irrecoverable income losses, and a scheme allowing them to spread their tax deficits.”

This lapdog cabinet is the weakest in a century

“Johnson and Cummings rule from the Trump playbook. Its first page asserts that, if a leader has the power to do something he wishes, heedless of whether it is unprecedented, unsporting, unethical or merely cynical, then do it: consider most of the latest Lords elevations. The two men have no design for making Britain a better place; instead only for Brexit and their own survival, as evidenced by the unprecedented expenditure on opinion polling, to assist delivery of what seems popular.”

Max Hastings 

Boris Johnson occupies Downing Street with a parliamentary majority of 80. Even if Sir Keir Starmer turns out to be Joan of Arc, there is little prospect of Labour displacing the Tories before 2024. Thus critics of this administration, rather than merely wringing our hands, should instead propose ways in which it might govern a little better.

Its gift for winning votes is proven. Johnson’s magic in enthusing his admirers is indisputable. Yet, outside election campaigns, telling the nation what it wants to hear — for instance assuring us, as the prime minister did last month, that it will all be over by Christmas — gets a government only so far.

He and his chief adviser have yet to show that making the country work is their thingy: witness the exam chaos; the intractably muddled planning reform proposals; that, after the fiascos of Covid-19 management, among major European nations Britain has by far the lowest proportion of its labour force back in offices and factories; and much else.

The cabinet cries out for reinforcement by some men and women competent to get stuff done. Pessimists claim that the talent is not out there. It seems mistaken, however, to idealise the parliaments of the past: remember all those Tory squires and Labour union hacks. Some of Tony Blair’s appointments were almost as embarrassing as Gavin Williamson: think of Geoff Hoon, though few people do.

Today there are men and women on the back benches, starting with Jeremy Hunt, Tom Tugendhat, Greg Clark, Edward Timpson and Stephen Hammond, who would make far more plausible ministers than those we have got. Their elevation depends, however, on Johnson, or perhaps Dominic Cummings, relaxing their marking of the loyalty exam all candidates are required to pass before being considered for admission to office.

In the summer of 1980, a year after Margaret Thatcher gained power, the tensions between “wets” and “dries” within her government were fare for headlines, occasional frenzies. Such grandees as Sir Ian Gilmour, Peter Walker, Francis Pym, Jim Prior and even Lord Carrington made little secret of their view that “the Lady” was potty.

John Major was throughout his premiership morbidly personally insecure. Though he and his foremost colleagues Michael Heseltine, Ken Clarke and Douglas Hurd were on the same side ideologically, he seemed fearful that all three were more substantial people than himself. The relationship between Tony Blair and his chancellor, Gordon Brown, was chronically difficult, latterly poisonous.

My point here is that friction and faction are commonplaces of government. Normal prime ministers feel obliged to work with colleagues whom they dislike, and who do not much care for them. Political parties embrace differing strands of opinion, sometimes about key aspects of policy. Leaders think it wise to give jobs to all but the most extreme dissenters, so that they may relieve themselves towards the outside of the tent, rather than the reverse.

Moreover, prime ministers must choose colleagues from a limited pool of remotely capable people. If they require office-holders to display blind fealty, they get compliant bunglers. Leaders who possess wisdom and self-confidence are willing to pay a price for talent, which includes knowing that their big beasts privately mock them, as was the fate of Harold Wilson at the hands of George Brown, Dick Crossman and Roy Jenkins.

A year into the Johnson government, the prime minister suffers few such embarrassments. It would be hard to identify a cabinet member who has got into the papers for abusing their leader behind his back. His is the most loyal administration of modern times.

Ah, you interject, this reflects our national crisis: ministers recognise that they must hang together, or separately. Yet throughout the 1982 Falklands conflict there were Tories who said privately that they thought the dispatch of the task force absurd. During the Second World War there were many moments when Winston Churchill’s colleagues, not to mention his commanders, confided to journalists their despair about the nation’s leader.

No, the present façade of solidarity is absolutely not the way normal government is. It has been brought about by the insistence of Johnson and Cummings upon fidelity to themselves, and to their interpretation of Brexit, as almost the sole qualification for office.

This is why today’s cabinet is the least impressive of the past century, granted the exceptions of the chancellor and Michael Gove. Power is monopolised by No 10 in a fashion unknown between 1940 and 1945, and indeed during the Thatcher era.

We are witnessing an attempt to impose upon Britain a presidential polity, wherein almost every key initiative derives from the prime minister’s unelected chief adviser. Who has ever before heard of a figure such as Cummings making a tour of military installations, such as he recently undertook, before overseeing reform of Britain’s defences?

From October, we are promised daily televised prime ministerial press conferences, further personalising the government and airbrushing into irrelevance Johnson’s stumblings at prime minister’s questions. If Alastair Campbell had created such a forum for Tony Blair, both men would have been accused of megalomania.

Frontbench unity is a fine thing, but not if a cabinet is unified in inadequacy. We should instead aspire to see Britain run by an administration that once more suffers from all the frailties Cummings abhors — argument, faction, leaks, rebellions, backstabbing, if only bigger beasts can be permitted to supplant the lapdogs in key jobs.

Months before Covid-19 struck, my wisest old friend said of Johnsonian governance: “We must never allow ourselves to be lulled into thinking that what is happening is normal; that it represents the usual give-and-take of democratic politics. It does not. It is strange and new and bad.”

Johnson and Cummings rule from the Trump playbook. Its first page asserts that, if a leader has the power to do something he wishes, heedless of whether it is unprecedented, unsporting, unethical or merely cynical, then do it: consider most of the latest Lords elevations. The two men have no design for making Britain a better place; instead only for Brexit and their own survival, as evidenced by the unprecedented expenditure on opinion polling, to assist delivery of what seems popular.

The British people should recognise that one-man rule is as damaging of our parliamentary system as are referendums. And Conservative MPs should demand that some of the ablest of their number are no longer excluded from office, merely because they are suspected of harbouring doubts about the emperor’s taste in tailoring.

Owl reflects on Thursday’s EDDC full council vote on GESP

Virtual meeting of the Council, Council – Thursday, 20th August, 2020 6.00 pm

This will be the first full council meeting since the New Regime took control. It will also be a key one. Under Agenda Item 9 is a list of Recommendations being put to the Council, including:

  • To notify our district partners that we are withdrawing from the GESP;
  • In that letter we offer assurance that we will fulfil our duty to co-operate in an ongoing and positive partnership; 
  • That this Council immediately begins the process to renew our local plan and that the Strategic Planning Committee meets as soon as possible to explore and define the processes involved.

The new spirit of cooperation and openness, introduced twelve weeks ago when Cllr Paul Arnott became Leader of the new Majority Group of Democratic Alliance and Independent Progressive councillors, has gone down well with residents. [Owl has many ears to the ground].

What residents sought when they removed the Conservative majority just over a year ago, amongst other things, were: a change in tone where people were listened to; elimination of “cronyism”; and a new direction. 

The first is becoming evident in debates. The last two of these were clearly on display when the Strategic Planning Committee boldly proposed the recommendation to pull out from the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan (GESP). (Mid Devon have become minded to do the same since).

Now we must hope that the full council will back that recommendation, bearing in mind that the Strategic Planning Committee is politically balanced and does reflect the full council (passed by 8 votes to 4).

Since the Strategic Planning Committee met, some of the government plans for the planning system have become clearer. Assuming there is no, to be hoped for, “Mother-of-all, screeching U-Turns” and these changes go ahead, the Government will have effectively ripped up any current “duty to co-operate” and have left local authorities precious little time to “zone” ALL their land or presumably see zoning imposed on them. (And Owl believes it would be very convenient for a central authority to focus on sites in a GESP that were still on the table).

It is impossible to do the two things together at the same time. EDDC simply cannot afford to waste any more effort on GESP. The past effort expended on GESP has been at the expense of reviewing the Local Plan which must form the basis of such a review. 

Owl understands that there are only a handful of areas pursuing the GESP “Strategic Planning” methodology most of which are more urbanised. If this methodology was such a suitable vehicle for rural planning it would be ubiquitous. So the Tory argument that this is the only way, for example, to get infrastructure projects cannot be true. Indeed, major road and rail projects in the South Western peninsula are not going to be taken because of GESP. 

Owl has already dealt with the “growth regardless” argument for carrying on. GESP is based on an unachievable high growth scenario and the numbers are but a “minimum” starting point.

Those Conservatives arguing that this is the best way and right time to consult communities are being disingenuous.

The form of “consultation” proposed is NOT a decision about which sites would be chosen, taking into account residents’ views, only a long “laundry list” of potential sites – any or all of which could be chosen whether resident consultees agreed or not. So “consultation” in this case is only the usual “tick box” exercise that is essentially meaningless.

Just to remind everyone, when Conservative Controlled EDDC councillors rejected the GESP in the autumn of 2018 they described it as just a “PR exercise” and “not fit for purpose”. Has anything really changed?

Add in Covid-19 and it should be clear to everyone that GESP is well and truly dead, having been overtaken by events.

Owl hopes that EDDC will hold a recorded vote so that each community can see which way their councillor or councillors voted.