The Diaries on why Hugo Swire launched campaign to save local hospital – to annoy Claire Wright!

Second extract:

“Hugo launches a campaign to save a local hospital for no other reason than to annoy an independent candidate in his constituency who’s been getting on his nerves,……”

“A dynastic sense of entitlement to rule runs through the book……..”

Decca Aitkenhead 

Sasha Swire on the Camerons, Boris and her sensational secret diaries

…..Swire couldn’t care less about the optics of democracy. Her diary is full of references to her “marchioness dowager” mother-in-law, who travels with a butler, records Hugo bunking off from parliament to go shooting and quotes him cracking an eye-wateringly offensive joke about people on benefits while hosting an A-list Tory party fundraising auction. When Cameron’s resignation honours list, in which Hugo was knighted, is roundly condemned in the press, she writes: “I don’t know what all the fuss is about. Why can’t Dave pack out the list with his cronies if he wants to?” Hugo launches a campaign to save a local hospital for no other reason than to annoy an independent candidate in his constituency who’s been getting on his nerves, yet Swire fumes indignantly about Cameron promoting MPs on the basis of their “good back story — ethnic, woman” because “this isn’t the serious politics of government”. By the end of the book I realise I’ve scribbled “Pot, kettle!” in the margins of at least a dozen pages.

A dynastic sense of entitlement to rule runs through the book. One entry huffs, “The thing that’s really got my goat is the fact that [her father] John is not in the Lords,” and Hugo even puts in a call to No 10 to complain on Nott’s behalf. This strikes me as a bit rich, for Swire is endlessly ridiculing everyone else for their vanity and ambition. At one point, I remind her, she notes that the diplomat Hugh Powell, “being a Powell, has a genetic assumption of divine rule and is wondering when and how he is ever going to get into Downing Street”. She nods. “Mmm, he won’t like that. But it’s true.” Weren’t she and Hugo just as bad as everyone else? “Of course we would have been,” she concedes casually…..


Sasha Swire’s Sensational Secret Diaries – which local councillors are the “Toilet Seats”

[Owl can make an educated guess but doesn’t want to spoil the fun for readers.]

Sasha Swire on the Camerons, Boris and her sensational secret diaries

Decca Aitkenhead (a short extract from her interview published in the Sunday Times Magazine)

Two thoughts occur within minutes of picking up Diary of an MP’s Wife. The first is that this is clearly a spoof — probably written by the creators of The Thick of It, or if not then Yes, Minister. The second is: if Sasha Swire really did write this, she has amazingly forgiving friends.

Lady Swire is gloriously rude about almost everyone in the Tory circles she has shared for 20 years. Theresa May is Old Ma May, the former chancellor is Boy George, the foreign secretary is Raab C Brexit. A pair of diligent local councillors are referred to as “toilet seats”, and her close friend Amber Rudd’s dress sense is despaired of. One entry achieves a simultaneous swipe at the wives of both Michael Gove and David Cameron. “Poor old Sarah Gove, who bends over backwards to please the Camerons, was lumbered with cooking all the food while Samantha was upstairs learning to cut patterns (she wants to set up a fashion business). She then had her hair done! Turning up at her own party feeling perfectly relaxed while Sarah is laden down with dishes of fish pie she has herself cooked.” When Cameron, Swire’s great friend, arrives at her Devon manor house, he spots one of her barns and exclaims: “You could put a snooker table in there!” As the prime minister walks on she mutters witheringly to her husband: “So home counties.”

So when we sit down to lunch and she tells me the story of how her private diary came to be published, one of my first questions is naturally: at what point did she contact everyone who appears in it, to request their permission? She stares across the soup at me in surprise. “Oh, I haven’t done that.” She didn’t even tell her husband, she adds, until a publishers’ bidding war was already under way…………………………………

Tory MPs rage at housing plan to ‘concrete’ over the shires

Owl still doesn’t know what Simon Jupp and Neil Parish think.

North Somerset faces an increase of 134% and Somerset West and Taunton 129% (East Devon sounds a mere trifle in comparison at 70% = 1,614 houses p.a.) – from tabulation in print edition. Owl highlights comments by Bob Seely, the Tory MP for the Isle of Wight, which seem to echo what we see here.

Caroline Wheeler, Deputy Political Editor

Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, has been accused of “concreting out, not levelling up” as 30 Tory MPs join a rebel WhatsApp group aimed at fighting his planning reforms.

The cabinet minister is facing a backlash from his MPs after he launched a plan last month to build more than 300,000 homes a year, giving councils compulsory targets and creating local zones in which development is automatically approved.

The plan will use an algorithm to produce targets for every area in England based on “relative affordability” and the extent of development.

But figures released by Stantec, the design firm, show huge increases in house building targets in Tory-held suburbs and shires at the expense of largely Labour controlled cities and towns in the Midlands and the north.

According to analysis being circulated among MPs, the 12 biggest reductions in housing targets on 2018-19 delivery are in Labour-controlled urban areas.

These include Salford (-59% dwellings a year), Newcastle upon Tyne (-56%), Liverpool (-48%), Nottingham (-38%), and Leeds and Manchester (both -30%).

Instead, rural and suburban areas will see the biggest rises, including Three Rivers in Hertfordshire (+292%), Eastbourne (+274%), Epsom and Ewell (+266%), Thurrock (+263%), Oxford (+262%), Havant (+261%), Thanet (+246%), Bromsgrove (+244%,), Tonbridge and Malling (+241%), Arun in Sussex (+239%), Sevenoaks (+222%), Isle of Wight (+199%) and Worthing (+198%).

Leaked messages on the rebel WhatsApp group, which has been named the housing algorithm concern group, show the level of dissent among Tory MPs.

One wrote: “This is lighting a slow fuse for an explosion … when our constituents see that we are fast-tracking housing developments in all the wrong places.”

Another added: “This is the equivalent of Gavin Williamson’s disastrous exams algorithm fiasco.”

A third said: “I have spoken to the chief whip and told him there is no way on earth I will vote for this.”

Bob Seely, the Tory MP for the Isle of Wight, said: “Take my constituency … the proposals will see our target increased by more than 100%. Half the island is designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty, yet we will be ordered to build more houses a year than either Portsmouth or Southampton, both cities with major infrastructure and services, and populations almost 70% larger.”

He added: “It won’t help our young, either. Increasing house building does not necessarily result in increased affordability.

“As with many other parts of the UK, we need one- and two-bed homes for residents, built in sensitive numbers in existing communities, with rent-to-buy schemes to support the young.

“We get three- and four-bed, generic housing in soul-destroying, low density, greenfield estates because that is what suits developers.

“From all sides of the political spectrum, people are fed up. This is concreting out, not levelling up.”

Last night a source close to Downing Street said the prime minister was iaware of the backbench concerns.

Jenrick is likely to face a battle on two fronts as he also seeks to push through his devolution white paper, which will create hundreds of new mayors and merge county and district councils into combined authorities.

One Tory MP said: “Both plans are desperately unpopular in the Tory shires, which are the areas that will be most affected by the reforms. This could finish off Jenrick’s cabinet career.”

A ministry of housing, communities and local government spokesman said: “The current formula for local housing need is inconsistent with our aim to deliver 300,000 homes by the mid-2020s and so we committed to reviewing it at this year’s budget.”


Leaked figures reveal scale of coronavirus test shortage

“The government’s “world-beating” testing programme has a backlog of 185,000 swabs and is so overstretched that it is sending tests to laboratories in Italy and Germany, according to leaked documents.”

Thinking about  the “Moonshot” and the way the Government has outsourced the track and trace system, Owl is reminded of the following quote from John Glenn, US astronaut : “As I hurtled through space, one thought kept crossing my mind – every part of this rocket was supplied by the lowest bidder.” 

Gabriel Pogrund, Tom Calver and Caroline Wheeler 

A Department of Health and Social Care report marked “Official: sensitive” also confirms that most British laboratories are clearing fewer tests than their stated capacity, as they are hit by “chaos” in supply chains.

The government claims that it has capacity for 375,000 tests a day. However, the actual number of people being tested for the coronavirus stalled to just 437,000 people a week at the start of the month — equivalent to just 62,000 a day.

Throughout last week, people in Covid-19 hotspots across the north of England struggled to get tests and were told to travel hundreds of miles for an appointment. In Bolton, which has the highest infection rate in Britain of more than 180 weekly cases per 100,000 people, no tests were available on the government’s online booking system between Thursday and Saturday.

One man in London with symptoms of the disease yesterday claimed that he had tried to book a test 60 times but found none available. Earlier in the week people in the capital had been told that the nearest site was in Aberdeen, an 18-hour round trip.

Boris Johnson used prime minister’s questions this week to reject claims by Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, that the government’s testing effort was on the brink of collapse.

He has also commissioned Operation Moonshot, an ambitious plan to introduce up to 10 million daily tests by the spring, at a cost of up £100bn.

However, an investigation by The Sunday Times casts fresh doubt on the government’s ability to provide tests for a far smaller number of people.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, pledged last week that testing would be available in schools so that pupils could return safely. But schools of any size are receiving just 10 test kits each, and are being told to use them only in “exceptional circumstances” and where the pupils could not otherwise access tests at home.

Last night one Whitehall source said that the guidance would become even more stringent next week, while tests would be made available to teachers and not pupils.

For those who can get hold of tests, there is no guarantee of rapid results — or of any results at all. Leaked figures show that three-quarters of all tests miss government targets, taking longer than 24 hours from booking to result. One in four take longer than 48 hours.

Documents also show that voiding — the disposal of used tests due to human or technical error — has shot up. Randox, which won a £133m testing contract unopposed at the start of the outbreak, disposed of 12,401 used swabs in a single day on September 2. The company, which is based in Co Antrim, Northern Ireland, has voided more than 35,000 used test kits since the start of August.

Civil servants and laboratories have pointed the finger at each other for the chaos. Internal reports state that tests are mostly voided because of “swab leaks” and “damaged tubes” during transit, or human error, such as people sending urine rather than saliva.

But officials have cast doubt on the feedback coming from some labs, saying that they are freezing or throwing away tests after an arbitrary period.

It was claimed last night that Randox had blamed the high void rates on staff going on holiday. The company has not denied charging the taxpayer for voided results, but disputed the claim that it blamed employees taking leave.

Last week Randox placed job advertisements in an attempt to increase the workforce at its Covid laboratories. One ad read: “No previous experience required.” The adverts said: “It is NOT essential to have a science background.”

Staff have claimed that they are working 12-hour shifts at close to minimum wage to clear backlogs.

The foreign companies that are processing British tests include Eurofins, which is based in Luxembourg and has labs in Germany, and Immensa, based in L’Aquila, central Italy.

A source last night said that thousands of used tests in Germany could be “voided” because they were transported at the wrong temperature. Officials have also been told that processing tests from Britain is “not a priority” at foreign laboratories.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “People ill or with a sick child desperate for a test will be astonished that tests are piling up, left unprocessed, or even thrown away, because of errors in transportation and swabbing, while at the same time we are testing less than capacity. This really is ministerial incompetence at a whole new level.”

Last night Randox said it did not comment on voided tests or rates, but followed “accepted timelines for the validity of a sample, which ensure tests are accurate”. Failure to do so, the company added, would “jeopardise the accuracy and reliability of NHS Test and Trace”.

The Department of Health said: “Test and trace is working and our capacity is the highest it has ever been, but we are seeing a significant demand, including from people who do not have symptoms and are not otherwise eligible.”


Coronavirus cases in care homes spiral again

The coronavirus is spreading through care homes again, according to leaked documents that show the government is failing to protect the most vulnerable from the spiralling number of cases.

Gabriel Pogrund, Tom Calver and Rosamund Urwin

A Department of Health report marked “official sensitive” and circulated on Friday stated that the rate of the coronavirus recorded through satellite tests — almost all of which take place in care homes — had quadrupled since the start of the month. It now stands at an estimated 1,100 new cases every day.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, took an emergency update on Wednesday saying that outbreaks had been detected in 43 care homes after months of calm.

On Friday night he wrote to care home leaders to confirm that the virus had reappeared: “The infections are mainly affecting the workforce but clearly there is a risk the virus will spread to residents or to other parts of the care sector.

“Unfortunately, in some care homes, with recent outbreaks, this does appear to have occurred, with residents also becoming infected.”

A memo sent to the health secretary’s team lists care homes in Bristol, Nottinghamshire, Wiltshire and Wolverhampton as among the worst hit.

At the start of the pandemic the decision to move hospital patients into care homes, often without testing, contributed to 20,000 Covid-related deaths.

To prevent another outbreak, the government promised weekly testing for staff and monthly tests for care home residents in July. It reached the target only last week.

The majority (52%) of Covid-19 tests carried out by care homes take more than 72 hours to be processed.

In his message to care homes, Hancock ended with a warning about the potential dangers as winter approaches: “This winter will place unique pressures on the health and care system. Covid-19 will be circulating with seasonal flu and other viruses and transmission may increase.”

On the same day, scientists at Imperial College London warned that the R infection rate had reached 1.7 — meaning that cases were doubling each week.

Last week care homes in Newcastle, Gateshead and Sunderland shut their doors to visitors because of early signs that the virus was returning.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “Failures over tracing and isolation now mean infections are rising. Failure to protect care homes early on meant many lost their lives. It would be unforgivable if the same mistakes were made again.”

A health department source said: “We have been doing everything we can to ensure care home residents and staff are protected, including testing all residents and staff; provided 200 million items of protective equipment, ring-fenced £600m to prevent infections in care homes and made a further £3.7bn available to councils to address pandemic pressures.”


The Observer view on Boris Johnson’s lamentable summer 

Corruption and incompetence now define Number 10

Observer editorial

Boris Johnson has succeeded in achieving something no other sitting prime minister has done to date: he has made himself the target of excoriating criticism from not one or two, but three former leaders of his party, two of them also former prime ministers. It is an extraordinary indictment of his incompetence and his failure to take the business of governing this country seriously.

What prompted this was the unprecedented admission by one of his ministers that the government planned to break international law. In a Commons debate about the government’s internal market bill, the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, confirmed that in giving ministers the power to unilaterally overturn parts of the EU withdrawal agreement, the bill contravenes international law. In order to get there, the attorney general, Suella Braverman, had to, incredibly, assert in her legal advice that international law is trumped by parliamentary sovereignty, in contravention of the Vienna convention, and that the bill does not flout the ministerial code that places a duty on them to comply with the law.

This was an incendiary interjection during a critical week in the Brexit negotiations. If it was intended as a threat to bring the EU closer to the UK positions on the level playing field and fishing rights, it has backfired: the EU has threatened legal action if the government does not alter the bill by the end of the month. The UK’s threat to break a treaty it has already signed has further undermined trust and reduces the chance of the bare-bones free trade agreement that the government aspires to.

The real intention was, presumably, to signal to voters that the blame lies with the EU if no deal is reached, with all of the consequences that would have for an economy that has just suffered its biggest ever contraction as a result of coronavirus. It raises the question of whether there is any principle that Johnson would not trample over if it suits his political agenda.

In threatening to rip up the Good Friday agreement, which guarantees that there will be no border on the island of Ireland, even if that means introducing customs checks and, potentially, tariffs in the Irish Sea in the absence of a free trade deal, the government has further underlined its casual indifference to the Northern Ireland peace process. Any government that prioritised the longevity of the Good Friday agreement would have pursued a Brexit that kept the UK aligned with the single market and customs union; instead, Johnson has shown he is willing to play petty politics with a peace agreement that ended a conflict that cost thousands of lives.

The consequences will be felt not just in our relationship with the EU but in our relationship with the United States: Democratic lawmakers have already said that there will be no trade deal with the UK if Brexit undermines the Irish peace process. There are also broader repercussions for Britain’s international standing. So much of our criticism of dictatorships and rogue states around the world is founded upon their disregard for the rule of law, from China to Russia to Iran. How can Britain claim to speak with any authority when this charlatan is our prime minister?

Time and again, Johnson has shown that he is willing to take unconscionable risks in his political games, regardless of the consequences. It is a Vote Leave approach to governing that prizes populist slogans over real change, soundbites that poll well over any attempt to govern with competence. We have seen the costs in the government’s mishandling of this pandemic; a number of unforced errors have contributed to Britain’s terrible excess death rate.

And now, as a former chief scientific adviser warns that the UK is on “the edge of losing control” of the virus, there are alarming signs that the government has not used the summer hiatus to get a grip. The test-and-trace system, absolutely key to minimising a second wave of infection, is seriously underperforming. In many areas of the country, it is proving impossible to book a coronavirus test. The government is failing to enable people who have symptoms to stay at home by increasing statutory sick pay from its pitiful level of £96 a week; little surprise then that rates of compliance with the guidelines around self-isolation are far too low when many parents simply cannot afford to take a hit of hundreds of pounds if a family member develops a cough or a temperature.

Instead of addressing these serious failings, the government has tried to distract from them with a pie-in-the-sky £100bn “moonshot” pledge to carry out up to 10m instant Covid-19 tests a day next year. Instead of making it financially possible to comply with its guidance, the government has sought to shift the blame for rising infection rates to the public, despite the mixed messages it sent suggesting that the worst of the virus was over. Instead of preparing for a second wave, it spent the summer picking fights: stirring up strife with anti-racist protesters and the teachers’ unions, and sacking civil servants while insulating ministers from the consequences of huge errors such as the A-level grades scandal.

This is the government we have as Britain heads into a dangerous autumn, on the cusp of a second pandemic wave and at the most crucial stage of Brexit talks yet. Just as we have rarely been more in need of sober and competent stewardship, we have a prime minister who regards politics as a game and who views fomenting culture wars as fruitful political strategy. His government’s response – to the avoidable loss of life, or the blighting of a whole generation’s life chances, or the threatened breakup of the union – is lamentable.


Exasperated parents in England say test and trace still a ‘shambles’

Never mind just wait for the next moonshot.

Remember you can find advice on how to get a test in Devon here. – Owl

Aaron Walawalkar 

Exasperated parents in England have complained of a test-and-trace system still in “shambles”, with some struggling to book appointments for their children who have developed symptoms since returning to school.

One Brighton primary school teacher, who did not wish to be named, told the Guardian she had tried to book a test for her three-year-old daughter since Friday morning, but the only option offered was in Aberdeen – more than 600 miles away.

It comes after the health secretary, Matt Hancock, pledged on Monday that no one should have to travel more than 75 miles each way to get a test. The head of NHS test and trace subsequently issued an apology to people in England who have either been unable to secure a test or have been told to travel hundreds of miles.

Jack Cousens, a Basingstoke councillor, chronicled the difficulties he faced in trying to secure a test for his six-year-old son over the course of 12 hours on Friday.

In five separate attempts, he was told “there are no tests available right now,” and to check again later.

“It would be laughable if it weren’t so shambolic,” he said. “The PM and health secretary need to take responsibility here, own the problem and find a way to fix it.”

On his sixth attempt he succeeded in booking the last available slot at a Salisbury testing centre a “short-ish jaunt away”.

But author Clare Josa, from Salisbury, told the Guardian on Thursday that she was advised to travel to a test centre 140 miles away when trying to book an appointment for her husband.

“I’ve tried every hour (waking hours) since Monday lunchtime and there are zero postal tests available and, all but one time, there haven’t been any test centre tests either,” she said.

“My husband is too ill to drive and I don’t want to spend six hours in a car with him if he might be contagious. The Salisbury test centre is two miles from our home and friends who have driven past it say it looks empty.”

She added that her eight-year-old son had been sent home from school on Monday due to a cough and cold. The school nurse agreed to use one of the schools “precious” 10 Covid tests on him – which was sent to the lab the following morning – but by Thursday she had still not received any result.

Chris Kimberly, from Milton Keynes, tweeted about a similar experience. He said he had been trying to get a test for his son, who has developed a persistent cough since returning to school last week, for hours. “This is a shambles he said,” he said.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “NHS test and trace is working and our capacity is the highest it has ever been but we are seeing a significant demand for tests including from people who do not have symptoms and are not otherwise eligible.

“New booking slots and home-testing kits are made available daily for those who need them and we are targeting testing capacity at the areas that need it most, including those where there is an outbreak, and prioritising at-risk groups.

“Our laboratories are processing more than a million tests a week and we recently announced new facilities and technology to process results even faster. If you do not have symptoms and are not eligible to get a test you can continue to protect yourself if you wash your hands, wear a face covering and follow social distancing rules.”