Now is the time to level up the economy in SW, PM told

This is the latest concerted publicity push by those behind the “Great South West”. This enterprise is headed by Steve Hindley, Chairman of Midas property services group and backed by, amongst others, The Western Morning News and Pennon, owner of South West Water. 

The Great South West is yet another unelected, unaccountable, organisation pitching for a £2M set-up fund to design our future. Owl has previously described it as the LEP for LEPs (Local Enterprise Partnership). It covers the four counties in the peninsular: Somerset, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall and their respective LEPs.

It makes sense to consider strategic infrastructure investment decisions across the peninsular as a whole. The LEPs are not the right bodies to replace the regional development agencies. What worries Owl is that the Great South West looks (and sounds below) as if it sees itself as a contender for a devolved Combined Authority.

Owl also notes that plenty of recovery plans are being made but asks the question: do we yet know what the impact of covid-19 on our economy will be? The new normal will be different to “Build,build,build”. Are they consulting with us or our elected leaders?

“Happily consult my diary” from the PM sounds like a maybe, nothing definite. (East Devon is currently having a master class on how, even if your MP has the PM’s private email and telephone number, no great favours for the South West can be expected.)

HANNAH FINCH, Western Morning News

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised to ‘consult his diary’ on discussions to ‘turbo-charge’ the economy of the South West. Johnson said that he shares the vision of a prosperous Great South West during Wednesday’s PMQs.

The prominent mention follows a visit by South West MPs to Downing Street in November 2019 where Johnson pledged to Back The Great South West. Now, business and economic leaders are calling from less talk and more action.

Susan Davy, Chief Executive of Pennon Group – which has been spearheading the Back the Great South West campaign, said: “This latest recognition of the Great South West by the Prime Minister is welcome but we need firm Government commitments to the region. In line with the ‘build back better’ agenda there is a clear opportunity for the South West to become a leader in clean, environmentally sustainable growth. Businesses in the region ourselves included – will continue to help drive this forward but better digital and transport connectivity is badly needed.

“We heard similar positive words from Mr Johnson at 10 Downing Street back in November and, while we welcome further dialogue on the issue, it is time the region was given the support it deserves.”

The Prime Minister was responding to a question by Totnes conservative MP Antony Mangnall, who asked: “The Prime Minister is rightly levelling up across the country, giving that issue both barrels, but I know that the South West has often been overlooked. Will he reassure this House and Members from across the South West that we will invest in digital and transport infrastructure, we will turbocharge opportunity and we will provide the growth that they need in the South West? To that effect, will he meet a delegation from the South West to discuss the opportunities before us?”

The Prime Minister cited investment in schools at West Alvington Church of England Academy and Eden Park Primary and Nursery School, before adding: “As for his request [to meet a delegation], I will happily consult my diary.”

The Great South West has been asking for a £2million push to set up the Great South West partnership – a region-wide organisation to rival the Midlands Engine and Northern Powerhouse. It predicts that the funding could drive a £45billion uplift to the economy with green energy at its heart. The need for the funding alongside more government infrastructure spend will be top of discussions. Gary Streeter MP, chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group tasked with the Great South West agenda, welcomed further talks.

He said: “South West MPs would be delighted to take a delegation from the Great South West board to see the PM to discuss this vital issue

He added that any meeting would likely be after the White Paper on Devolution is published – due before the end of the year and setting out a placed-based regional strategy for the levelling up of regional prosperity. Steve Hindley, Chairman of the Great South West Steering Group said: “I’m delighted to hear the Prime Minister yet again mention the Great South West with enthusiasm. When we met with him last year at Number 10, he gave assurance that the south west could expect more investment in infrastructure; and indicated that we needed to be more ambitious in our asks for the set up funding for the Great South West partnership. £2million is what we need initially to drive a £45 billion uplift.

“We look forward to working with our partners in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly and Dorset LEPs, the Local Authorities, our business community – including the Western Morning News which has been a vocal and valuable advocate – and indeed our wider south west stakeholders in the Western Gateway which is our neighbouring “powerhouse economy” and the latest to get formal recognition and funding from Government. We firmly believe that now more than ever is the time to Level Up.”

The Heart of the South West is soon to publish its Building Back Better plan – setting out opportunities to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. Earlier this year, just before lockdown hit, Heart of the South West and LEPs in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly and Dorset published its Great South West prospectus, “Securing our Future’:

Karl Tucker, Chairman of the Heart of the South West LEP said: “Our area has the potential to create a low carbon economy based on clean and inclusive growth.

“The opportunities and aspirations of the Heart of the South West dovetail with those of the wider region; and together we can build back an economy that’s not only better in terms of prosperity, but environmentally too.”


Contact-tracing app for England and Wales ‘hampered by loss of public trust’

Dominic Cummings’ lockdown travels and the exams fiasco could have contributed to dooming the government’s Covid contact-tracing app before it even launches, a technology expert has warned.

Alex Hern 

Evidence of low uptake overseas also suggests the app may not live up to ministers’ early hopes of a panacea. In late May, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, admitted it was “the cherry on the cake but [not] the cake”; in recent weeks it has barely been mentioned.

The app, which is due to launch in England and Wales on Thursday 24 September, will use the bluetooth signal in mobile phones to track close and sustained contact between users and then warn those who may have been exposed to an infectious person that they should self-isolate.

But to succeed at that goal, the app will need to be installed by a large proportion of the public. That could be hard to achieve, warned Imogen Parker, the head of policy at the tech thinktank Ada Lovelace Institute, because of a series of trust-diminishing scandals over the summer.

“In March, it was suggested that we would need 80% of smartphone users to install the app for it to reduce infections. But internationally, the best case scenario we’ve seen has been about 40% uptake, and that’s in small countries like Iceland and Singapore. Examples from larger countries like Germany and Ireland suggest we’re looking more like 18-30% a few weeks after launch,” she said.

“In the UK, uptake is going to be related to trust in government. While we were doing some public work on trust over May, you had the Barnard Castle incident; after that you had the A-level algorithm. But the flip side is that the NHS brand itself is incredibly trusted.”

Parker also raised alarm at the prospect of large numbers of people being advised to self-isolate based on “false positive” results. “The best data I’ve seen suggests 45% false positives and 33% false negatives,” she said, “but phone proximity isn’t everything. The growing body of evidence about things like the substantially limited risk outside versus inside really matters. We need to make sure the app can identify risk, not just identify phones.”

The latest version of the contact-tracing app is substantially rebuilt from an earlier version. It was pulled from public release at the last minute after tests in the Isle of Wight revealed several flaws with the iPhone version. Some of those changes should help increase uptake and efficacy, said the University of Oxford’s Prof Christophe Fraser, a scientific adviser to the national test-and-trace programme.

“We and others have shown through simulations, where we show the integration of the app with manual tracing, social distancing, and so on, even 10 to 15% uptake can have an effect,” he says.

The newest version of the app is built with a framework created by Apple and Google, which means it can begin working even before it is installed on devices. It also includes a QR code-led “check-in” function, which lets users record that they have been to public locations and receive alerts for any outbreak linked to that venue.

Those features, Fraser says, should help people see that the app isn’t just important for public health but for individual outcomes too. That means that even “false positive” warnings can be useful.

“Localised contact tracing provides information, even if you’re not infectious,” he said. “It’s not really a ‘false positive’, because it’s very important to know that Covid-19 is spreading in your local area. We’re faced with a difficult winter, a grave winter, and every little behavioural nudge matters. A little bit of ventilation, mask wearing and hand hygiene does make a difference.”

The Department of Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.


COVID-19 cluster zones in Devon – where there are cases

A live Government dashboard has pinpointed the areas of Devon where COVID-19 cases are on the rise.

Miles O’Leary

The latest coronavirus cluster map for Exeter has identified four cases have arisen out of the Pennsylvania and University district. 

Whilst another four cases have also been confirmed in Clyst, Exton and Lympstone.

Other pockets of Exeter may have COVID-19 but the number of cases in those areas are either below three or nil.

Elsewhere, Launceston has become Cornwall’s fourth new cluster with three cases.

Paignton, Torquay and other areas of the Bay do not appear to have cases of more than two.

Likewise with Newton Abbot and down in South Devon.

The latest COVID-19 cluster areas in Devon, chiefly in the Exeter area (Image:

Over in Plymouth, there are nine cases in Derriford and Estover, 10 in Mutley and another three in neighbouring Peverell.

The map divides the country into small patches of around 7,200 average population and are called Middle Super Output Areas (MSOA).

A cluster is recorded when three or more cases have been confirmed in the space of seven days.

The latest information concerns the spread of COVID from September 10 to September 16.

Plymouth’s Mutley and Peverell areas have had three or more COVID-19 cases

Overall, the number of new coronavirus cases confirmed across Devon this week have fallen compared to last week’s figures.

Government statistics show that 155 new cases have been confirmed across Devon and Cornwall in the past week, in both pillar 1 data from tests carried out by the NHS, and pillar 2 data from commercial partners, compared to 154 new cases confirmed last week.

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Of the 155 new cases, 9 were in East Devon, 12 in Exeter, 4 in Mid Devon, 4 in North Devon, 45 in Plymouth, 4 in the South Hams, 7 in Teignbridge, 2 in Torbay, 6 in Torridge, and 2 in West Devon.

Despite this, in Torbay new cases have fallen dramatically from 12 to 2, while in the Devon County Council area, they have dropped from 71 to 48.


All you need to know about FinCEN documents leak 

Leaked documents involving about $2tn of transactions have revealed how some of the world’s biggest banks have allowed criminals to move dirty money around the world.

They also show how Russian oligarchs have used banks to avoid sanctions that were supposed to stop them getting their money into the West.

It’s the latest in a string of leaks over the past five years that have exposed secret deals, money laundering and financial crime.

What are the FinCEN files?

The FinCEN files are more than 2,500 documents, most of which were files that banks sent to the US authorities between 2000 and 2017. They raise concerns about what their clients might be doing.

These documents are some of the international banking system’s most closely guarded secrets.

Banks use them to report suspicious behaviour but they are not proof of wrongdoing or crime.

They were leaked to Buzzfeed News and shared with a group that brings together investigative journalists from around the world, which distributed them to 108 news organisations in 88 countries, including the BBC’s Panorama programme.

Hundreds of journalists have been sifting through the dense, technical documentation, uncovering some of the activities that banks would prefer the public not to know about.

FinCEN Files

  • 2,657documents including
  • 2,121 Suspicious Activity Reports

Two acronyms you need to know

FinCEN is the US Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. These are the people at the US Treasury who combat financial crime. Concerns about transactions made in US dollars need to be sent to FinCEN, even if they took place outside the US.

Suspicious activity reports, or SARs, are an example of how those concerns are recorded. A bank must fill in one of these reports if it is worried one of its clients might be up to no good. The report is sent to the authorities.

Why does this matter?

If you are planning to profit from a criminal enterprise, one of the most important things to have in place is a way of laundering the money.

Laundering money is the process of taking dirty money – the proceeds of crimes such as drug dealing or corruption – and getting it into an account at a respected bank where it will not be linked with the crime.

The same process is needed if you are a Russian oligarch whom Western countries have taken sanctions against to stop you getting your money into the West.

Banks are supposed to make sure they don’t help clients to launder money or move it around in ways that break the rules.

By law, they have to know who their clients are – it’s not enough to file SARs and keep taking dirty money from clients while expecting the authorities to deal with the problem. If they have evidence of criminal activity they should stop moving the cash.

Fergus Shiel from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) said the leaked files were an “insight into what banks know about the vast flows of dirty money across the globe”.

He said the documents also highlighted the extraordinarily large amounts of money involved. The documents in the FinCEN files cover about $2tn of transactions and they are only a tiny proportion of the SARs submitted over the period.

What has been revealed?

  • HSBC allowed fraudsters to move millions of dollars of stolen money around the world, even after it learned from US investigators the scheme was a scam.
  • JP Morgan allowed a company to move more than $1bn through a London account without knowing who owned it. The bank later discovered the company might be owned by a mobster on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list.
  • Evidence that one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest associates used Barclays Bank in London to avoid sanctions which were meant to stop him using financial services in the West. Some of the cash was used to buy works of art.
  • The UK is called a “higher risk jurisdiction” like Cyprus, according to the intelligence division of FinCEN. That’s because of the number of UK registered companies that appear in the SARs. Over 3,000 UK companies are named in the FinCEN files – more than any other country.
  • The United Arab Emirates’ central bank failed to act on warnings about a local firm which was helping Iran evade sanctions.
  • Deutsche Bank moved money launderers’ dirty money for organised crime, terrorists and drug traffickers. More details (BuzzFeed News)
  • Standard Chartered moved cash for Arab Bank for more than a decade after clients’ accounts at the Jordanian bank had been used in funding terrorism.

Why is this leak different?

There have been a number of big leaks of financial information in recent years, including:

The FinCEN papers are different because they are not just documents from one or two companies – they come from a number of banks.

They highlight a range of potentially suspicious activity involving companies and individuals and also raise questions about why the banks which had noticed this activity did not always act on their concerns.

FinCEN said the leak could impact on US national security, compromise investigations, and threaten the safety of institutions and individuals who file the reports.

But last week it announced proposals to overhaul its anti-money laundering programmes.

The UK has also unveiled plans to reform its register of company information to clamp down on fraud and money laundering.


Behind the cock jokes and red trousers, Sasha Swire’s diary is a chronicle of the Tory party’s ruin

Who is this Tory Hooray – Hugo Square? – This story just won’t go away! – Owl

Camilla Long

Across the hills and dales of this land, they live in well-upholstered obscurity. Red of face, thin of hair, bad of breath and sharp of trouser, the classic Tory Hooray is — or was, until recently — the party’s most valued foot soldier. If you’d had the misfortune to attend any Cameroon gathering between 2008 and 2012, you’d have met hundreds of these honking gropers, hoofing down champers and making cock jokes, nuzzling your ear and rasping, “You look like a bit of a goer,” while a light Ibiza techno pool party beat played softly in the background.

In Diary of an MP’s Wife, Sasha Swire confirms that by 2010 the party was more or less ruled by these faceless crashers, none more faceless and crashing than her own red-trousered husband, Hugo Swire. As a friend cried last week: “But who is Hugo Square? I’ve met him four times and still have no idea who he is.” I can tell you exactly who he is: the man who killed the Tory party. He is all of them. If you have read the extracts of her viciously funny book, you cannot help but feel utter fury towards the phalanx of entitled, drunk, snobby shaggers — including, according to recent reports, Sir Hugo — ushered in by David Cameron. Hugo himself spends half his time tittering with ladies-in-waiting — at one point one of them is placed next to someone whose name sounds like “Fat Cock” at a Singaporean banquet at Buckingham Palace — and the other half comparing poor Michael Gove’s penis to a Slinky (“it comes down the stairs before the rest of the body”).

When not joshing about trouser snakes, he’s falling over. Opening the Hugo Swire Centre at the Shanghai branch of the Berkshire public school Wellington College — in itself monstrously strange, especially as Swire went, obviously, to Eton — he throws himself to the floor because he thinks the celebratory firecrackers are a terrorist attack. Arriving on official business in Seoul, he greets the Korean delegation drenched in loo water because he couldn’t understand the buttons on “the most complicated lavatory he has ever seen”. Yeah, that’s right. Cameron had the pick of the intake, but the person he spends most of his time texting is stupider than a toilet.

What was Cameron doing filling his party with Old Etonians? It is almost touching to read how Dave, in an attempt to appear socially concerned, wanted to fill the top ranks with “ethnic” women who have “a good back story”, only to find himself falling back on the honkers he really feels comfortable with, like Swire, who, having been appointed some kind of minister in a teeny job at the Foreign Office, tells his staff he wants visiting his office “to be like walking into Mussolini’s office in 1941 — formal double-door openings”.

No wonder the party is broken; no wonder membership is plummeting and Boris Johnson can’t do better than the crepuscular Matt Hancock as health secretary. Why would anyone good be drawn to politics if the best (tiny) jobs were going to men who demand their wives call them “minister” and slept through the night of the EU referendum?

Cameron himself comes across as the prime minister that never was, a great hole of PR nothingness. He is a man whose first thought on seeing a barn is: put in a snooker table. He is superficial and naff — “so home counties”, as Swire herself might put it.

These are seriously empty people, for whom appearance and lifestyle are everything. You have only to look at the weird things they eat (strawberry fool, vongole, chocolate brownies with shredded beetroot — all at once) and the weird people they desperately hang out with (Martina Navratilova and Michael Barrymore) to know they are suffering some kind of colossal identity crisis. It says everything about their world that the diarist they get is a sex-obsessed, frothy, social-climbing, unfulfilled Tory matron who shrieks about the menopause at Chequers. Even John Major got Alan Clark.

People with a genuine interest in politics are scorned as weirdos — George Osborne is seen as peculiar for being fascinated by it and wanting to stay on after the referendum. Gove is attacked as a “radical” and “iconoclast”, the Hooray’s way of saying “lower middle class”. Dave himself is so wet — a lover of Poirot — that at one point Swire asks him: “Are you actually a Conservative, Dave?” You finish the book wondering if the best thing to come out of Brexit is the fact that we are now free of these poseurs.

Planning Applications validated by EDDC for week beginning 7 September

Furious Tory activists accuse Sasha Swire of ‘betraying friends’

Oh dear the “toilet seats” seem to be suffering from a sense of humour failure at the moment and the secret diaries aren’t even published yet.

Looks to Owl that EDDC Conservative Councillor Maddy Chapman, Exmouth Brixington, will be crossing Hugo Swire off her Christmas List as well.

(Will Hugo notice, Owl wonders?)

from Nick Constable 

The wife of ex-Minister Hugo Swire has been accused by furious Tory activists in his former constituency of ‘betraying’ friends with her indiscretion-heavy memoir.

Sasha Swire’s tell-all book – Diary Of An MP’s Wife: Inside And Outside Power – lifts the lid on sex and political shenanigans in the party, describing David Cameron as ‘drunken Dave’ with a filthy mouth, Boris Johnson as ‘calculating’ and Theresa May as a ‘glumbucket’.

Lady Swire, 57, sent her diaries to a publisher last year after her husband retired as East Devon MP.

Last night Maddy Chapman, a Conservative district councillor there for 12 years, said local party members were ‘absolutely disgusted’ at the way she had breached the confidence of friends.

Sasha Swire, pictured with husband Hugo, has been accused by furious Tory activists in his former constituency of ‘betraying’ friends with her indiscretion-heavy memoir

‘She has shown herself for what she is,’ said Mrs Chapman. ‘She has absolutely no class whatsoever.

‘This has not gone down at all well in the constituency. Everyone I speak to is less than impressed and some, including myself, are absolutely disgusted.

‘Sasha Swire has never mixed within the local community, not even within our local party.

‘I suspect a lot of people will be crossing the Swires off their Christmas card list.


[Cllr Maddy Chapman’s claim that Lady Sasha “has absolutely no class whatsoever”, misses the point. Sasha operates in a class way beyond Maddy’s. Completely different rules apply – Owl]

Mrs Swire’s Diary……..a constituent’s view

From a constituent:

If, as she reports, Mrs Swire was her husband’s “part-time” political researcher surely we are due a refund on the £35,000 FULL-TIME salary WE paid her during that time?

Did this “research” for which we paid include endless poor taste remarks about sex and the cupping the testacles of at least one man in public?  Are we due co-author payments?

Who are the “toilet seat” East Devon Tory councillors?  And what does this soubriquet mean?  Were they simply there for Hugo to defacate on?

What really happened with the (young, female) Guatemalan ambassador (we await Hugo’s diary for that one perhaps).

And why and how did Nadine Dorries ever get in the position where (she alleges) she was offered a chance to “feel the mink” under Hugo’s coat in the back of a taxi?

How did Hugo REALLY feel about Claire Wright? [Owl has been asked to insert this photograph as a possible potential diarist clue]:

This constituent can’t wait for Hugo to write HIS diaries …

June 10th: made honey with my bees …..

July 20th: Sasha cupped X’s danglers again – what a lark – the toilet seats were shocked

August 15th: had another unavoidable meeting with toilet seats – God how I want to be back with my honey …..

Why Boris Johnson is constantly surprised when his government fails

A Government aided by “superforcasters” who struggle to see into next week and are particularly bad at forecasting the consequences of their own actions.

Andrew Rawnsley 

When Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner published their much-discussed book, Superforecasting, one admiring reviewer thought it contained essential lessons for governing. He wrote: “Forecasts have been fundamental to mankind’s journey from a small tribe on the African savannah to a species that can sling objects across the solar system with extreme precision. In physics, we developed models that are extremely accurate across vastly different scales from the sub-atomic to the visible universe. In politics, we bumbled along making the same sort of errors repeatedly.”

Presumably in the hope of improving the government’s powers of prediction, Dominic Cummings, for he was that reviewer, put Superforecasting on the summer reading list that he issued to ministerial advisers. Alas, it does not appear to have enhanced the ability of the prime minister, his visually challenged colleague or anyone else in this government to see into the future. These are members of a regime that struggles to see into next week. They are particularly terrible at forecasting the consequences of their own actions.

The expression on the face of Number 10 is that of a man who never looks where he is going and is then constantly surprised to find that he has stepped in dog excrement. There is an ever lengthening list of things that they could be reasonably expected to have anticipated and yet didn’t. They did not foresee that using an algorithm to depress the A-level grades of thousands of young people would distress them and dismay their parents. They did not foresee that a campaign fronted by an eloquent football star to extend the provision of free school meals would strike a chord with the public. They did not foresee that applying a surcharge to foreign-born workers staffing the NHS would cause a massive backlash.

Multiple debacles, rebellions and reverses have even some of those who were once Boris Johnson’s most fervent cheerleaders in despair. This persistent blundering has flowed from a fundamental inability to read the public mood or get on top of events. Throughout the coronavirus crisis, the government has been constantly behind the curve. How did Mr Cummings put it? “We bumble along making the same sort of errors repeatedly.”

They are no better in their specialist subject of Brexit. When Mr Johnson signed the withdrawal agreement with the EU that he sold to the British public as “fantastic”, he failed to foresee that he would soon afterwards describe the agreement as so dreadful that he would have to threaten to break it. When he made the declaration that he was ready to violate international law, he failed to foresee that this would trigger condemnation from every living former prime minister and many senior Brexiters.

In normal times, this inability to anticipate the consequences of its own decisions would be an embarrassing trait in a government. In the context of the Covid catastrophe, it is a deadly characteristic. When infection rates were surging across Europe at the outset of the pandemic, ministers did not foresee that it would be folly to allow race meetings and football matches to carry on as normal. Among other things they did not foresee was the fatal consequences of decanting elderly patients from hospitals into care homes without first checking whether they were free of the virus.

Seven months into the pandemic, and with alarming signs of a swelling second wave, some have learned from the benefit of experience. Scientists have a better understanding of the virus and doctors have improved their methods of treatment. Yet the government’s skills of prognostication are not showing a matching degree of improvement. As the number of hospitalisations accelerates upwards, roughly doubling every eight days, it has again been found wanting in relation to testing for infection. There is particular anger among MPs and those they represent in virus hotspots, where it is particularly vital that testing happens rapidly, that people are being told there are no appointments available or that they will have to travel hundreds of miles to get a swab.

In response to the outcry, Dido Harding, the Johnson-appointed head of the testing effort in England, tried to argue that the system is the victim of an unanticipated surge in demand. Not so. This spike was both predictable and predicted. Since the early summer, the government has been urging people to return to the office and bring “bustle” back to high streets. Many Britons have been travelling around the country or holidaying abroad. The reopening of schools has brought the usual seasonal spread of start-of-term coughs and sniffles. You didn’t need to be the world’s smartest epidemiologist to anticipate that a large expansion of social contact would increase the potential vectors of infection for disease. And that, in turn, would lead to a surge in demand for tests.

Sometimes ministers have foolishly implied that the public is at fault for putting too much stress on the system. It is true that there are people without symptoms seeking tests because a family member or workmate may have contracted the virus. It is entirely natural that people will take a precautionary approach. “Play it safe” has been the thrust of government advice for months. That has been accompanied by repeated ministerial exhortations to remember that the disease can often be asymptomatic, especially among younger people. Public expectation that the system would have the capacity to provide a test to anyone who wanted one has been further fuelled by the constant prime ministerial hyperbole that the government is building a “world-beating” system. In mid-July, Matt Hancock implied universal availability by urging people to get tested if they had “any doubt” about being infected. Now the health secretary plans to ration access.

The testing chaos, coming in the wake of so many other fiascos, has the Tory press beginning to wonder whether Mr Johnson is fit to be in Number 10. “WHY ARE THEY STILL FAILING THE TEST?” demands the Daily Mail. “Losing Track” and “Johnson Adrift” were the lead editorials on successive days in the Times. The cover headline of the most recent edition of the Spectator, which is usually very friendly to its former editor, asks “Where’s Boris?” and is accompanied by a cartoon depicting him alone in an oarless boat on a heaving sea.

This echoes the wail of Tory backbenchers that the prime minister needs to “get a grip” and “rediscover his mojo” and “give us a sense of direction”. The implication is that the remedy for a wretched performance is for Mr Johnson to impose more of his personality on the government.

This has it precisely the wrong way round. His character is the central source of the repeated inability to anticipate and address challenges. All governments absorb the character traits of the person at the top. The person at the top of this government doesn’t think through the consequences of his actions, is cavalier about detail and bored by complexity, prefers the quick hit of a snappy populist slogan to the steady slog of competent administration. All this was known about him long before the Tory party made him its leader. His flaws as a prime minister are a revelation only to those who wilfully ignored his biography and his record.

He has spent a career living for today and letting tomorrow take care of itself. Colleagues and ex-wives can testify to his compulsion for over-promising and then under-delivering. He has been a gusher of dramatic and bogus predictions of what his government will achieve – “a moonshot” this, a “game-changing” that – because spouting wildly boosterish claims is so much easier than getting stuff done.

Funnily enough, the book Superforecasting identifies one of the core reasons why this government is failing. “The worst forecasters were those with great self-confidence who stuck to their big ideas,” wrote Mr Cummings himself. They are lousy at understanding the world and coming to good judgments about it. “The more successful were those who were cautious, humble, numerate, actively open-minded, looked at many points of view.” Now, which is a better description of the Johnson-Cummings method of government? “Cautious, humble, numerate, actively open-minded, looked at many points of view”? That doesn’t sound like them at all. “Great self-confidence”, which leaves them stubbornly wedded to their “big ideas”? That’s much more like it.

Their biggest idea of the moment is that leaving the EU’s single market without a deal would be fine even in a double-whammy combination with a re-escalation of the coronavirus crisis. Bear in mind his previous record as a soothsayer when the prime minister confidently predicts that a crash-out Brexit would be a “good outcome”. I hazard a guess that this is his most calamitously wrong forecast of all.

  • Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer


Hands, face, space? Johnson’s Covid message has got priorities wrong, scientists warn

The latest drive to help halt the spread of Covid-19 has been criticised by senior scientists for placing insufficient emphasis on the issues of ventilation and the need to stay apart from others.

They say the government’s “hands, face, space” campaign stresses handwashing and the wearing of masks as key factors in controlling coronavirus transmission, while the need to keep apart has been downplayed, despite it being the single critical factor involved in the spread of Covid-19.

“As long as people keep emphasising handwashing over aerosol transmission and ventilation, you are not going to control this pandemic,” virologist Julian Tang, of Leicester Royal Infirmary, told the Observer.

He pointed to studies that suggest contact is the cause of transmission of the Covid-19 virus in only about 20% of cases while aerosol transmission, often in poorly ventilated rooms, accounted for the rest.

He was backed by the anthropologist Jennifer Cole, at Royal Holloway, University of London, who said the government’s recommendations had been placed in the wrong order.

“Space is the largest mitigating factor in the spread of Covid-19, indoors or outdoors. Wearing a face covering does not make it entirely safe to go within 2 metres of others; keeping your distance is still the best strategy,” she said. “Handwashing is important, but surface transmission plays a much smaller role than exhaled droplets, so it is odd that ‘hands’ has been listed first.”

Cole said this emphasis could lead to unnecessary concern over the likelihood of surface transmission from groceries, mail and other deliveries. At the same time, physical distancing was sometimes difficult in an indoor setting, she acknowledged. If so, people should simply not enter. “They should not just assume that a face covering and washing their hands will protect them if they do.”

This point was also emphasised by Tang. “The only thing that really works against this disease is keeping distant from other people. The trouble is that when a situation looks worrying, for instance on public transport, you can ramp up your precautions.

“The trouble comes when you relax – for example in the pub – and you don’t keep your distance and your friends shout loudly to be heard and the virus gets sprayed about. That is why we are getting outbreaks – because people are not keeping their distance and not applying rules as they might elsewhere.”

The failure to emphasise the critical importance of aerosol transmission was outlined in a letter to the World Health Organization, signed by several hundred scientists earlier this year. “Current guidance from numerous international and national bodies focuses on handwashing, maintaining social distancing, and droplet precautions but … do not recognise airborne transmission except for aerosol-generating procedures in healthcare settings.

“Handwashing and social distancing are appropriate, but in our view, insufficient to provide protection from virus-carrying respiratory microdroplets released into the air by infected people,” the letter states.

The WHO originally placed little importance on aerosol transmission, said Tang, but changed its guidelines in July in response to the letter and now recognises its importance, particularly in poorly ventilated spaces.

“Unfortunately, people are still not getting the message – that is why they have got that hand, face, space message the wrong way round. It should be space first – and by a long stretch. Then think about your hands and face. Until we get that right we are going to continue to be in trouble.”