Morten Morland Times cartoon: September 10 2020
What’s a Prime Minister to do when the Leader of the opposition keeps asking the “wrong sort of questions”? – Owl
John Crace www.theguardian.com
You could sense the impatience in Boris Johnson’s voice. He had come to prime minister’s questions prepared to take Keir Starmer on over the government’s new willingness to break international treaties. But the Labour leader was one step ahead. There was no need for Labour to get involved at this stage, when the EU and large sections of the Tory party were already up in arms at the prospect of the UK acting like a rogue, failed state. Let others do the dirty work for him.
Instead Starmer chose to direct all six of his questions to what was on many people’s minds: the ongoing mystery of why the government’s world-beating track-and-trace system was sending people on a 700-mile round trip on the off chance they will be able to get a coronavirus test whose results will probably be lost. Who was responsible for this mess?
“Of course I take responsibility,” Johnson said, before quickly seeking to allocate blame elsewhere. The real problem was that the scheme was just too successful: thousands of people who had been encouraged to get tested had done just that and now there wasn’t the capacity in the system even though there were 75,000 unused tests each day. It was time to go back to the old days when fewer people were tested and all those contact tracers could get back to making just one or two calls a week.
To be fair to the prime minister, he was a little less rubbish at PMQs than the week before. But not by much. It’s almost as if Boris is wilfully coming to the Commons unprepared as a point of principle. With no answers to any of Starmer’s questions, all Johnson could do was demand to know why he was being criticised.
Not for the first time, Keir tried to talk Boris through the basic format. He got to ask the questions and the prime minister was obliged to answer them. Or not. “The government can’t even manage a basic level of incompetence,” Starmer said. Johnson assumed the Labour leader had made a slip of the tongue and had meant to say “a basic level of competence”. But Starmer had it right first time. Just a basic level of incompetence would be a vast improvement on what the government was currently delivering.
Keir Starmer says government lacks competence over Covid testing shortage – video
But still it niggled Boris that Starmer had not mentioned his plans to rewrite the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol. So he just let rip in a demented monologue. The fact was that when he had said the deal was oven ready, what he had meant was that it was ready for total incineration.
The deal that he had negotiated, forced through the Commons with less than three days debate and on which he had fought and won a landslide election victory had actually been a very bad deal. A complete turkey. Rather than protecting the Good Friday agreement, it had undermined it. So it had always been understood by him – if by no one else – that it would have to be renegotiated before 1 January. It was one of the more bizarre outbursts in a session that is becoming more surreal by the week. It can’t be long before the prime minister is required to take a 700 mile weekly drugs test. For performance diminishing drugs. MPs from both sides of the house could only look on in bewilderment.
There wasn’t a great deal more sense on offer at the Downing Street press conference later in the afternoon, when the prime minister announced the new lockdown measures that Matt Hancock had failed to mention in his statement the day before and had released to the media in the evening instead. In theory, the message should have been straightforward. Social gatherings were to be reduced to groups of six, unless you happened to be on a bus or in the pub in which case different rules applied.
But Boris being Boris just couldn’t help screwing things up. He announced the creation of a new vigilante squad of Covid marshals – presumably recruited from the track and tracers who had spent the last few months sitting next to a silent phone – who would be ready at a moment’s notice to burst in to people’s homes and arrest any stray grannies or grandads that had broken “The Rule of Six”. And yes it was going to be tricky for him too, as it would mean he couldn’t see all of his kids at the same time either. Even assuming they wanted to see him too.
So what you’re basically saying is that Christmas is cancelled, several journalists observed. Boris looked panicked. Only in July he’d said everything would be back to normal by Christmas and he hates to be the bearer of bad news. So he just started making things up. Forget the failed app and all the other broken promises, he said. Forget that he had once dismissed mass testing as a waste of time.
Now he was going for broke with Operation Moonshot. By Christmas everyone would be able to give themselves a daily test and then people could do what they wanted. Think of it like a pregnancy test, Boris said. Though hopefully with fewer positives than he usually got. Hell, theatres could even do tests on the whole audience and just allow in those who were negative. It was a completely bonkers piece of pantomime.
It took Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance to add a touch of realism. We were a long way off either a vaccine or mass testing. The coming autumn and winter months were going to be hard. Future lockdowns might be needed. Yet again, on a day when the country had been crying out for leadership and direction, Boris had gone missing in action.
“Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), said politicians would be “immoral and hypocrites” if they did not back parliamentary moves to guarantee a greater level of scrutiny.”
Is Neil Parish being listen to? – Owl
Judith Evans and Peter Foster in London yesterday www.ft.com
UK farmers are calling for parliament to be given a final say on post-Brexit trade deals as concerns mount that the agriculture sector will face competition from food produced to lower standards overseas.
Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), said politicians would be “immoral and hypocrites” if they did not back parliamentary moves to guarantee a greater level of scrutiny.
She warned the process was “coming to the critical time” to ensure parliamentary oversight and prevent the British food market being flooded with cheaper overseas products made using drugs, pesticides and other chemicals that are banned in the UK.
Boris Johnson’s government is hoping to secure trade deals with the US and other countries to illustrate the economic benefits of the UK leaving the EU.
But British farmers are worried that Washington has listed “comprehensive market access for US agricultural goods in the UK” among its trade negotiating objectives, while the NFU has similar concerns over any deal with Australia.
Ms Batters called for the House of Lords to amend the forthcoming trade bill — which is being debated by peers this week — to give parliament the ability to ratify or veto new trade deals.
She also said the NFU was urging the Lords to vote for an amendment put forward by Donald Curry, a crossbench peer, to the agriculture bill, likely to be debated next week. This would provide parliament with expert advice from the recently formed Trade and Agriculture Commission on the effects each deal would have on UK food and farming.
“If they rip out the amendment on the commission, it shows them to be immoral and hypocrites,” Ms Batters said in an interview with the Financial Times.
Ministers including the trade secretary Liz Truss have repeatedly said they will not compromise on food standards in securing future trade deals for the UK.
But Ms Batters said: “They talk the talk — are they going to back it or aren’t they?”
In July, the government abandoned hopes of reaching a trade deal with the US ahead of the November presidential election, which was seen as a victory for farmers worried that the UK would make concessions on food standards to secure a quick agreement.
As things stand, parliament will have only a limited scrutiny role after the failure of past amendments aiming to increase its involvement in trade deals. Other amendments designed to force food importers to meet UK production, environmental and animal welfare standards also failed.
Ms Batters warned that if the latest moves were also rejected it would be “game over”, with the opportunity lost to uphold food standards and ensure “democratic and transparent” scrutiny of deals.
Following on from the “Moonshot”; does Hercule Poirot have the solution to Matt Hancock’s case of rising infections? Possibly, not.
Daniel Boffey www.theguardian.com
Belgium has been cited by the UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, as a model for getting coronavirus under control – just as its public health body recorded a 15% rise in the number of daily infections compared with the previous week.
Despite a dip in the number of new infections in August, after a tightening of rules by the Belgian prime minister, Sophie Wilmès, the most recent data suggests the country’s success may be short-lived as people return to work and school.
An average of 509.7 people a day have tested newly positive during the past seven days, according to the latest figures by from Belgium’s scientific institute for public health.
Thursday marked the fifth successive day that the number of people newly infected has risen.
Hospital admissions are also up. Between 3 to 9 September, an average of 20.6 new admissions per day was recorded, an increase from 16.7 the week before.
Hancock had praised Belgium as he sought to justify strict new laws on social gatherings in England, including the so-called rule of six people, limiting the size of social groups.
The health secretary said the UK was learning from the experience of other European countries that had recorded an increase in coronavirus infections in recent months.
“Some of those countries have then got that second wave under control,” Hancock said. “If you look at what’s happened in Belgium, they saw an increase and then they’ve brought it down, whereas in France and Spain that just hasn’t happened.”
Belgium had a sustained decrease in the number of people recorded as being newly infected in August, after the government responded to a worrying spike the previous month.
A gradual lifting of social restrictions was halted by the government with the order that each household would only be allowed to meet and have close contact with five other adults from outside their household rather than 15, as had been previously permitted. The so-called social bubbles were to remain the same for a month.
Indoor events were also limited to 100 people or 200 outdoors, down from 200 and 400 respectively. The wearing of face masks in public was made obligatory.
But despite those measures, infections have since risen. Analysis by the Flemish Agency for Care and Health of contacts and sources of contamination, published on Thursday, has suggested a direct link with the start of the school year and the resumption of work after the summer holidays.
My dad died of Covid last Xmas – he’d still be here if China hadn’t lied
Chris Pollard www.thesun.co.uk
THE daughter of a UK Covid victim who fell ill last December says he and many more could still be alive if Beijing had not covered up the outbreak.
Jane Buckland blasted: “If China hadn’t lied to the rest of the world and kept this hidden for so long, it could have saved countless lives.”
Her dad Peter Attwood, 84, became ill with a mystery cough and fever shortly after Christmas — more than two months before officials discovered the virus was spreading in Britain.
Peter died in hospital in January, with heart failure and pneumonia initially blamed.
But tests have now shown Covid was a cause of death — making him the UK’s first recorded virus victim and the first outside China.
Jane, who fears he caught it off her, fell ill with Covid symptoms on December 15 — meaning the deadly bug could have been spreading here at least two weeks before China said it even existed.
Peter, from Chatham, Kent, had never travelled abroad.
Jane said: “Covid has obviously been around for much longer than we know. People have been talking about a cover-up but we don’t know the scale of it.
“My father could still be here if we’d known about the threat of this horrible virus earlier.”
MPs last night said Peter’s case showed China had conducted a sinister cover-up of its outbreak while letting the bug secretly spread around the world.
Jane, 46, said her dad’s coughing got so bad that he was admitted to hospital on January 7.
She said: “The doctors did every test under the sun but couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him.
“His blood tests showed a high level of infection but they had no idea what it was.
“He died on January 30 and the provisional death certificate said it was heart failure and pneumonia.
“The virus was obviously running rampant in this country back in December or maybe even earlier.
“China was covering it up from the beginning.
“I had all the Covid symptoms — dry cough, fever, aches and pains, diarrhoea — before Christmas, but no one knew what it was.
“I went to Christmas parties and was hugging and kissing everyone, even people I didn’t know. That’s what people do at Christmas.
“If we’d known we were possibly spreading a deadly virus, things could have been very different.
“It’s no wonder so many people in this country ended up dying from it. How many lives could have been saved if we’d known what was really going on?
“My dad was elderly and had an underlying heart condition, so he would have been shielding.”
‘MISLEADING THE WORLD’
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said The Sun’s revelations offered damning proof China misled the world about the extent of its Covid outbreak last year.
He said: “This has absolutely proved positive that what was going on back in October in China, where doctors were speaking out and then were silenced, was that China knew all about human to human transfer about this virus and did nothing about it.
“Secondly, the World Health Organisation is also guilty because they failed to press China back in November and December when it became obvious that China had at least an epidemic on their hands.
“None of this was done until later — only at the end of January did China admit it had a problem. Then, it wasn’t until March 11 that the WHO declared a pandemic.”
HAD China come clean about Covid from the off, Peter Attwood might be alive today.
So might many of our 41,586 victims and hundreds of thousands worldwide.
Some scientists believe the disease erupted in Wuhan as early as last October.
China’s instinct was to lie, to cover it up, to play it down, to silence whistle-blowers.
An early global warning might have seen Peter, an 84-year-old heart patient, self-isolate for his protection.
It might even have persuaded Public Health England to grasp Covid’s seriousness, which it shamefully failed to do.
PHE was still minimising the dangers and bragging about its preparations at the end of February. By then Peter had been dead nearly a month.
No one yet knows Covid’s exact origins. And we do not blame China’s people.
But through its secrecy and deceit their Communist regime has worsened the damage this plague has inflicted on the world. One day it must make amends.
Boss of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Tory MP Tom Tugendhat said: “China’s secrecy over the emergence of Covid has put at risk millions.”
Doctors saved some of Peter’s lung tissue because they suspected he may have had asbestosis, a lung condition caused by working around asbestos.
Deaths from it have to be referred to a coroner.
But Peter, a retired car dealership company secretary never worked with asbestos.
Last Thursday, Jane got an email from Kent coroner Bina Patel saying post-mortem tests had detected coronavirus in his lung tissue.
Miss Patel recorded his cause of death as “Covid-19 infection and bronchopneumonia”.
Previously, the earliest-recorded case of coronavirus caught in the UK was February 21.
It was only on March 5 that England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said community transmission was likely to be happening inside the UK.
University of East Anglia Professor of Medicine Paul Hunter said of Peter’s case: “This is a remarkable development because it shows there was some virus transmission in the UK before anyone realised.”
DECEMBER 15, 2019: Jane comes down with Covid symptoms, but dismisses it as a bad cold. She continues to attend Christmas parties and care for her elderly parents.
DECEMBER 21: A cluster of patients with an unknown pneumonia-like illness are identified in China.
DECEMBER 28: Jane’s dad Peter starts suffering from a dry cough. His symptoms continue to worsen.
DECEMBER 31: China alerts the World Health Organisation of the new virus, which has spread in the Wuhan area.
JANUARY 2, 2020: Jane’s asthmatic daughter Megan, 18, has difficulty breathing.
JANUARY 7: Peter has become very ill and is struggling to breathe, so is admitted to a Kent hospital.
JANUARY 11: A 61-year-old man in Wuhan becomes the world’s first known casualty of the virus, believed to have originated in a wet market.
JANUARY 15: Doctors are puzzled by Peter’s illness. Blood tests show a high level of infection, but they are unsure what has caused it.
JANUARY 30: Peter dies. The cause is recorded as heart failure and pneumonia but doctors take tissue samples for further testing.
JANUARY 31: Two Chinese tourists from Wuhan are diagnosed with Covid-19 in York.
FEBRUARY 6: Stephen Walsh, from Brighton, becomes the UK’s third confirmed case. He caught it in Singapore and gave it to others on ski trip.
FEBRUARY 15: The first reported coronavirus death in Europe after 80-year-old Chinese tourist dies in France
FEBRUARY 28: The first British victim dies on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
MARCH 5: The first death is confirmed in the UK as cases of Covid-19 surge.
MARCH 26: New laws give police powers to enforce lockdown. Non-essential shops and businesses are forced to close. Parliament shuts.
SEPTEMBER 3: Kent coroner Bina Patel tells Jane her father died from Covid-19.
“Mission Team”, “Moonshot Headquarters” and “Mission Analysis”, the “future vision” is 10m tests a day in early 2021. But the technology doesn’t yet exist – ring any alarm bells? This PM loves to clutch at straws. Don’t hold your breath! – Owl
Sarah Boseley www.theguardian.com
They call it the “moonshot” – and it is as ambitious as any space adventure.
This is the name given to the government project that aims to ramp up testing to such a scale that it will return the country to some kind of normality. But is it feasible? And what about the cost?
Two internal government documents seen by the Guardian give an indication of the task, and the huge difficulties ahead.
The underlying proposition is simple.
As the documents explain, mass testing of the population on a very frequent basis would allow us all to know who is clear of the virus and allow those people to mix freely again.
The economy and British society as a whole could re-open safely. It would break the chain of transmission. Testing and tracing on this scale would mean the virus would be driven down into such low levels it would be almost eradicated.
One of the documents, titled UK Mass Population Testing Plan, is a briefing memo sent to the first minister in Scotland, which explains it could cost £100bn.
That might be a price worth paying if it worked – however, most of the technology simply does not yet exist. Getting 10 million people tested every day – however quick and simple the process – is a very big logistical ask for a country that has struggled to deliver a few hundred thousand.
The second is a 26-page PowerPoint presentation from the Department of Health and Social Care entitled: Moonshot mobilisation: briefing pack, dated 21 August.
The document is full of diagrams and charts, with pages headlined “Mission Team”, “Moonshot Headquarters” and “Mission Analysis”.
The narrative in both make it clear the prime minister believes the moonshot is the only way out for the UK economy in the face of a probable winter surge. He wants it to be UK-wide.
The documents have been shared with the devolved governments. They have also been to Sage – the government’s scientific advisory committee – and to the Treasury, which is modelling the impact to the British the economy.
And various companies making tests have been sounded out – drawing up much of the plan and leading on various “missions” are employees of Deloitte, the private sector consulting company that has already masterminded the establishment of drive-in testing centres, run by Serco.
The slides show current testing as 200,000 to 800,000 per day, with a rise to 2m to 4m a day in December.
The “future vision” is 10m tests a day in early 2021.
Moonshot is Johnson’s big hope, it makes clear.
“This is described by the prime minister as our only hope for avoiding a second national lockdown before a vaccine, something the country cannot afford. He would also like this to support the opening up of the economy and allow the population to return to something closer to normality,” says the memo.
“This is a top priority for the prime minister who is embedding No 10 staff within the project and has committed to removing any barriers to implementation. He has asked for a Manhattan Project-type approach to delivering the level of innovation/pace required to make this possible. He has also indicated that he would like this to be a cross UK endeavour. The devolved administrations have now been asked at official level whether we wish to embed staff within the moonshot project teams.”
But to some experts, the mission may be seen as more wishful thinking than a feasible way out of the pandemic.
The prime minister has said publicly he wants to move towards mass testing that is as simple as a pregnancy test and delivers a result in 15 minutes.
That technology does not yet exist, but it is a fundamental part of the moonshot package.
The big hope is firstly in saliva tests, which are quick and more comfortable than swab tests for the virus. This part of the plan is under way already.
Saliva tests have been piloted in Southampton, among healthcare workers and their families. The pilot was said to be successful – but no data has been released. It is understood that there were too few infections in the city to prove the tests worked.
That pilot has been extended in Hampshire – the documents suggests it will launch in Manchester as well. Mass screening is taking place in Salford. The same saliva tests are going to be offered to anyone who wants them. It’s both a trial of the saliva test and of people’s enthusiasm for population screening. Testing will take place at train stations and other places yet to be decided, the document says.
The plans suggest that schools, universities and other institutions would follow, while the technology was also to be used to target outbreaks around the country.
The plans feature the initials TBC for much of the detail here – to be confirmed. Finally, private sector organisations would be empowered to deliver testing in workplaces.
Beyond saliva testing, which has not yet been proved to work although it is promising, moonshot depends on a new generation of rapid antigen tests becoming available.
The DHSC has already contracted to buy some of them off the drawing board. It signed a deal with Oxford Nanopore, a young biotech company spun off from Oxford University, for a rapid test that can be turned around in 90 minutes before it had even gained its CE mark.
On 3 August, Hancock announced it was buying “millions of ground-breaking rapid coronavirus tests” from Oxford Nanopore, which features in the moonshot documents, and DnaNudge. They would be “rolled out to hospitals, care homes and labs across the UK to increase testing capacity ahead of winter”, he said.
“We’re using the most innovative technologies available to tackle coronavirus. Millions of new rapid coronavirus tests will provide on the spot results in under 90 minutes, helping us to break chains of transmission quickly,” said Hancock.
The documents do acknowledge that most of those tests are as yet unavailable. They talk of “developing, validating, procuring, and operationalising testing technology that currently does not exist” and “creating significant new logistical and manufacturing infrastructure and capacity”.
The number of people going back to work in offices has flatlined in the past two months despite the government push to get more workers into cities to protect Britain’s biggest urban economies from collapse.
According to analysis of mobile phone tracking data by the Centre for Cities thinktank, worker footfall across 63 of the UK’s largest town and city centres was just 17% of pre-lockdown levels at the end of June, remained at 17% at the start of August and was still at 17% in the last full week of the month.
Worker footfall was down most in Oxford, Leeds and London. Numbers had risen most in smaller cities and large towns such as Mansfield, Basildon and Newport but still remained less than half the normal levels.
In July Boris Johnson urged companies to return staff to offices from the start of August to help reboot the British economy from the deepest recession on record. But many of Britain’s biggest firms have defied the plea. Ministers have warned that home workers could be vulnerable to being sacked.
Despite lockdown measures being relaxed, as much as 39% of the UK workforce continues to work remotely, according to the Office for National Statistics. However, there are significant variations by sector depending on the ease of home-working. As many as three-quarters of IT and professional workers who would usually occupy city-centre offices remain working from home, compared with 14% of staff in health and social care and a fifth in construction and manufacturing.
This month one of the Bank of England’s most senior officials, Alex Brazier, poured cold water on the drive to get workers back to offices, saying it was impossible to use densely packed city offices while adhering to Covid-safe guidelines. Concerns over rising infections, transport capacity and childcare while schools have been closed have also slowed the return to work.
The number of workers in city centres may rise in the coming weeks now that schools have reopened and as some firms bring staff back. The government is pushing to return civil servants to offices by the end of the month, and train operators have restored services to 90% of the usual schedule to carry more commuters.
On Wednesday it was reported that the US investment bank Goldman Sachs would bring back its 38,000 global staff part-time on a rota system.
In contrast to the low levels of worker footfall, the Centre for Cities report shows that visitor numbers shot up in seaside towns and smaller communities in August, aided by warm weather and the government’s “eat out to help out” scheme.
In a boost for parts of Britain that have typically lagged behind the economic performance of bigger cities, seaside towns such as Blackpool, Bournemouth and Southend, as well as smaller places such as Birkenhead and Chatham, proved particularly popular with visitors.
The report says city-centre footfall was above pre-pandemic levels in 14 of the 63 cities and towns studied. Visitor numbers in Blackpool were at 141% of pre-crisis levels, while visits to London were at 31% of normal.
Andrew Carter, the Centre for Cities chief executive, said: “There is little indication that workers are heeding the government’s call to return to their offices, and city centre restaurants, pubs and shops face an uncertain future while they remain at home. Unless we see a big increase in people returning to the office, the chancellor must set out how he will support the people working in retail and hospitality who could soon find themselves out of a job.”
EM 09-07-20 U3A Survey link to Select Committee post Covid 19 inquiry
The Third Age Trust and U3A movement has been given an opportunity to respond to a House of Lords Inquiry.
U3A Movement’s CEO Sam Mauger said, “Many of you have contacted us about Covid and how it has impacted upon you. The Trust can respond to the Inquiry with the points that you feel should be included.”
The button below contains a link to the questions that they are gathering information about.
Please could you respond to the questions by 15 September.
Please share the link with your members and colleagues so they can also take part in the survey.
We will collate the answers and send them in by the deadline of 18 September.
Thank you so much
Chair of the Third Age Trust, Ian McCannah, has created a report based from U3A members’ thoughts on how the U3A movement can move forward post lockdown.
Read the report in the button below.
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