Tiers for Fears – most data looks dire – but how worried should we be?

This week there has been a dramatic change in the number of deaths caused by coronavirus in England – with dire predictions for the winter ahead.

So what’s going on?

Nicola Davis www.theguardian.com

Last week, a report from Public Health England suggested new cases might be flattening off, but they now seem to be soaring: Why?

The latest figures from PHE showed that in week 42, ending 18 October, there were 101,887 cases, compared with 91,501 cases reported the week before. This amounts to an 11% increase, compared to a 30% increase in the previous week, and a 76% increase in the week before that.

These figures have been revised upwards since last week due to delays in turnaround time, but they appear to show the rise in new Covid-19 cases is slowing.

But there are important factors to consider: while national capacity for testing has increased over time, local capacity varies, which could influence the trend in some results.

In addition, the PHE data largely reflects people who have been tested for Covid because they had symptoms: surveys from the Office for National Statistics and the React-1 study by researchers at Imperial College London involve taking samples from randomly selected members of the public, meaning they are not affected by fluctuations in testing capacity, and pick up asymptomatic cases.

Both of these studies focus on cases in the community – so do not include hospital data – but vary in participant numbers and timing of data collection.

Models by the MRC Biostatistics Unit in Cambridge, meanwhile, use a number of existing datasets to model infections including those in hospitals and care homes.

All of these studies contain levels of uncertainty, but they suggest new cases are rising in most, if not all, parts of the country.

That message is backed up by data on Covid hospital admissions and deaths, which follow a similar, albeit delayed, trajectory compared with infections.

Is there any evidence that the tiered system has slowed the rate of infections?

According to Prof Steven Riley, a co-author of the React-1 study, there is evidence of a slowing in the uptick in new infections in the north-west while the epidemic may no longer be growing in the north-east – although prevalence remains high.

That may suggest tier 3 restrictions are having some impact – but infections are rising in most parts of the country.

Some reports have suggested the death rate will flatten out and not reach the peaks of the first wave, although more may die overall. What is the science behind that?

Experts say it is perfectly possible that this may happen, with the second wave more prolonged than the first.

One reason is that unlike the first wave, when there was a national lockdown, the tiered system means infections may continue to grow in regions below tier 3. They could end up escalating through the tiers, until they reach the highest level.

At that point, restrictions may be tight enough to reduce R, but once restrictions are relaxed, infections could climb once more. The upshot is that the tier system could act rather like a thermostat, with incidence (and therefore deaths), ending up roughly steady.

Has the R gone up significantly?

Possibly. The MRC data suggests R is almost certainly above 1 in all parts of England, with the possible exception of London, although there has been a decrease in R over the past few weeks in most regions – but this is based on data that is, overall, less up to date than that of the React-1 study. The latter puts the R for England at 1.27-1.88, up from 1.05-1.27 two weeks ago.

Riley said the React study found a small dip in R a few weeks ago, suggesting the difference may be down to time lags in data used by the MRC. “We only need small changes in the average behaviour to go from 1.1 to 1.6,” he said, adding that just an extra one or two risky contacts per person might make the difference.

Importantly, R remains above 1 for most, if not all, of the country. That means new infections are growing.

What’s the most reliable picture? How worried should we be?

The ONS and React-1 surveys are the most reliable for a snapshot of the situation, while the daily PHE data is most up to date but prone to biases in sampling. To get a true picture of the situation, it is worth considering all the data, from the different infection studies to numbers for hospital admissions and deaths. But the outlook is very concerning.

“From our data there is a very real threat to the hospital system across the UK over the next two months,” said Riley.

Additional reporting by Niamh McIntyre.

Covid outbreak at Lympstone marine camp

Commando training continues though

Radio Exe News www.radioexe.co.uk

The Ministry of Defence says the Royal Marines’ Commando Training Centre at Lympstone has been affected by an outbreak of covid-19. Although they haven’t confirmed numbers, separate government figures show a cluster of 26 people confirmed with the virus in the Lympstone and Clyst St Mary area.

A Royal Navy spokesperson says: “We can confirm that a number of personnel at the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines (CTCRM) have tested positive for covid-19. Personnel who have been in contact with those testing positive are self-isolating in line with Public Health England guidance.

“There is no impact on other trainees at CTCRM. The safety and welfare of our people remains paramount.”

Devon 20-somethings are covid magnets

The figures, concerning positive cases reported in the week to 27 October, reveal that in the Devon County Council area, which excludes Torbay and Plymouth, the 20-29 age group has the highest number of cases.

Daniel Clark, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk

Devon 20-somethings are covid magnets

They account for most cases

New statistics have been released showing the breakdown of positive covid-19 cases by age group and local authority area.

The figures, concerning positive cases reported in the week to 27 October, reveal that in the Devon County Council area, which excludes Torbay and Plymouth, the 20-29 age group has the highest number of cases.

Torbay has a higher number of new cases being reported in the 70-79 age group than the 10-19 age group, the only area in Devon to do so, and the Bay has the highest rate of cases for the 80-89 and 90+ age groups.

Torbay has the highest percentage of cases in the 60+ age range (17 per cent) and the lowest in the 10-19 age range (just six per cent), with 16 per cent of cases in the 20-29, 40-49 and 50-59 age ranges and 23 per cent in the 30-39 range.

In the Devon County Council area, 14.5 per cent of the cases confirmed are from the 60+ age group, with another 14 per cent in the 50-59 age group, with the 20-29 (28 per cent) and 10-19 (19 per cent) with the highest amount.

In Plymouth, just 13 per cent of cases are in the 60+ age group, with 32 per cent of cases in the 20-29 age range, and 13 per cent in the 10-19 age group.

Croydon council on verge of bankruptcy after risky investments

Ministers have sent in a taskforce to oversee Croydon council after an audit report revealed the Labour-run authority is on the verge of bankruptcy following a string of risky property investments and a failure to keep control of social care budgets.

Patrick Butler www.theguardian.com 

Auditors heavily criticised the south London council for ignoring more than three years of internal warnings over its finances, accusing it of “collective corporate blindness” and fostering a governance culture in which poor spending decisions were not robustly challenged or scrutinised by councillors.

The council has a £60m black hole in its budget, and only £10m of financial reserves, auditors revealed, in a report that carried strong echoes of similarly deep-rooted corporate failings at Tory-run Northamptonshire county council, which declared itself effectively bankrupt in 2018.

The auditors, Grant Thornton, said Covid-19 had “ruthlessly exposed” the council’s fragile underlying financial position. “Whilst the … pandemic has created significant financial pressures for local government, the depth of the issues facing Croydon existed prior to the pandemic.”

The report’s other findings include:

  • Croydon borrowed £545m during the past three years to invest in housing and commercial property. This included a £200m loan to its own housing development arm Brick By Brick, which has yet to return a dividend. The council has capital borrowings of nearly £2bn.
  • It invested £30m in the local Croydon Park Hotel in 2018-19. This went into administration in June. It also spent £46m on a shopping centre. The council’s strategy of “invest[ing] its way out of financial challenge” was “inherently flawed”, as councillors did not properly understand the retail and leisure markets, auditors said.
  • It allowed a £39m overspend on adult and children’s social care to spin out of control after 2017 when an Ofsted inspection branded its children’s services “inadequate”, and subsequently used accounting tricks to mask its failure to control costs in these departments.

The audit report revealed that Croydon’s top finance official drafted a formal section 114 letter to council bosses in September signalling the council was effectively bankrupt but this was not published following discussions with the former leader, and other senior managers.

There has been a clearout of Croydon’s top management in recent weeks with the former council leader Tony Newman, the deputy leader Alison Butler and the former chief executive Jo Negrini all leaving their posts. The new leader, Hamida Ali, has promised “decisive action” to bring the council’s finances under control.

On Thursday the local government secretary, Robert Jenrick, confirmed that Croydon had approached the government for special financial help, and announced that a rapid review of the council’s governance, culture and risk management would be carried out.

He said: “The public interest report published this week is damning about the dysfunctional governance within Croydon council, who have been entirely irresponsible with their spending and investments. There are serious questions [for] local leaders to answer, and we are stepping in to get the situation under control.”

Although it stops short of a full Northamptonshire-style statutory intervention in the day-to-day running of Croydon’s affairs for now, the review will closely examine the council’s financial plans and commercial investment strategies to see if more formal involvement is required in the future.

Ali said: “While a decade of austerity and the Covid-19 crisis have had a major impact on our finances they do not excuse the issues this report has laid bare. The council fully accepts the findings and recommendations of this report and the council’s new leadership will take swift and decisive action to stabilise the council’s finances and governance.”

Croydon’s parlous financial state, while pre-dating the pandemic, has highlighted the increasingly fragile state of council finances across the UK. Manchester city council warned on Thursday it faced “unpalatable cuts” to services if the government did not step in with extra funds to tackle an anticipated £105m budget shortfall in 2021-22.

Manchester’s leader, Sir Richard Leese, said: “At the start of this crisis the clear message from government to local authorities was ‘spend what you need to’ but since then they have changed their tune. We need them to honour that original commitment. Failure to do so would mean that we will be forced into totally unpalatable cuts.”

Concrete desert warning from National Trust over new planning rules

Boris Johnson’s planning reforms risk creating “concrete deserts” that are “devoid of green space”, the director of the National Trust has warned.

George Grylls, Melissa York www.thetimes.co.uk

Hilary McGrady said that she had “significant concerns” about the scale and pace of the plans, calling them “too dismissive of what currently works”.

In August, No 10 announced the biggest shake-up in planning laws in 70 years with Mr Johnson determined to construct 300,000 homes a year as part of his “Build, Build, Build” agenda.

Rural land in the green belt and in Areas of Outstanding National Beauty will fall into protected zones — where applications will probably face rejection. In areas marked for renewal, most proposals will be approved. Permission will automatically be granted for development in growth areas.

The basis for the present system is the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, has said the planning process is broken and Mr Johnson has said that “newt-counting delays” prevent greater housebuilding.

Ms McGrady, who represents 5.6 million National Trust members, said that reforms would not work without “genuine public scrutiny”. “What should we make of the proposed growth, recovery and protected areas? Certainly they must not lead to concrete deserts devoid of green space, lacking corridors for nature and sustainable travel.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “These claims are entirely wrong, and ignore the fact that our reforms to the outdated planning system protect green spaces and will create beautiful and well-designed communities, with green spaces and tree-lined streets as the norm. Local communities will be able to choose land for ‘protection’, helping them pass on valued green spaces for future generations.”

Under existing rules, the public can object to developments at two points in the planning process: when the council draws up a local plan and when a specific building applies for permission.

The government argues that the second part of the process is too often dominated by “a small minority of voices” and wants to minimise consultation at this phase.

Ms McGrady questioned the government’s plan to enshrine beauty in new design codes after Mr Jenrick said that he would legally enforce tree-planting in new developments and demand that future buildings take architectural inspiration from “Bath, Belgravia and Bournville”.

She said: “More tree-lined streets and a ‘fast track for beauty’ sound good, but how will this happen?’ We must not take a skin-deep approach when nature is in meltdown and we are in the teeth of the climate crisis.”

Tory backbenchers including the former cabinet ministers Jeremy Hunt and Chris Grayling have reservations about the reforms. About 80 Tory MPs are in a Whatsapp group that is co-ordinating opposition to the changes.

One MP said: “The government is not listening. Dominic Cummings holds parliament in contempt and he’s just bulldozing these plans through.”

A source of contention is an algorithm that calculates where the 300,000 houses will be built each year. The formula will concentrate building in London and rural areas, but scale back projects in northern cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle.

In the Commons this month, Theresa May said the algorithmic approach was “mechanistic and ill-conceived”. Ministers would not reform the system by removing local democracy and cutting the number of affordable homes that are built, she said.

Tory minister who voted against free school meals made £65 expense claim – for book about childhood poverty

A Conservative minister who voted against free school meals had earlier made a £65 expense claim – for a handbook about childhood poverty.

www.independent.co.uk 

Robin Walker, minister for Northern Ireland, bought the Child Poverty Action Group reference manual last June and then charged it to the public purse.

But last week he was among hundreds of Tories who voted down a parliamentary motion aimed specifically at alleviating such deprivation by extending free school meals over the half-term and Christmas holidays.

The vote – demanded by the Labour party after a petition by footballer Marcus Rashford – was defeated by 322 to 261 in the Commons.

The decision was widely criticised, with businesses and charities across the country coming forward to offer free half-term food to struggling families.

But Mr Walker, who was himself educated at the private St Paul’s School in London, said his decision – to deny poor children a hot meal every day – had been “misrepresented”.

“I think the vote on Wednesday was how we help not whether we help,” he told the Worcester News. “We are definitely going to make sure that there is support for the most vulnerable people and the debate was about whether the best to do that was through free school meals or through the welfare system.

“The motion I voted for was providing extra support through the welfare system.” 

Speaking about the £65 book – which could have paid for almost 30 free school meals – he said: “It was actually something that a previous caseworker ordered because she wanted to get some training on how to make referrals for cases where we thought people were at risk.

“We ordered that as a training resource and handbook.

“It’s to help the team make sure they know the right organisations to go to. We haven’t ordered it again this year because we already have one and we don’t feel need to subscribe to it annually.”

Mr Walker has previously served in the Scotland Office and the Department for Exiting the European Union.

And for Sasha-holics there is still more

“I don’t say it, but I think f**k the lot of them. Loyalty is always a one-way-street.” These are the words of Sasha Swire in her recent tell-all book: Diary of an MP’s Wife, Inside and Outside Power .

Lifting the lid on the Camerons in Devon

Gillian Molesworth www.devonlive.com

For those wishing to look as f******t as Sasha here’s where to go [fragrant]:

Hugo, You Can Stop Campaigning – Guido Fawkes

What a hoot! – Owl

[look at the online article to get the full experience]

order-order.com

Hugo Swire’s wife caused quite a stir with her cracking diary detailing the behind-the-scenes joys of the Cameron chumocracy.  A bemused co-conspirator, Tony Colvin, got in touch to query these advertisements running on Guido. For Hugo…

They invite you to find out what Hugo Swire MP is doing for East Devon. Not very much Guido suspects, given he stood down as an MP in 2019. Which meant he fortunately didn’t have to face irritated and embarrassed Tory colleagues. The local Tory MP is now Simon Jupp.

These are Google adverts bought programmatically. Presumably a year after the campaign ended somebody is still automatically paying for them on their card – hopefully not the taxpayer. As much as Guido appreciates the revenue, perhaps somebody, somewhere, ought to cancel the order?

Nearly half of councils in Great Britain use algorithms to help make claims decisions

Today is the last day of public consultation on the “mutant” algorithm and other measures proposed in “Planning for the Future”.

Automated decision-making “black box” programmes are increasingly being used – probably by those who don’t have a good understanding on how they work. In fact may not be transparent even to experts for commercial reasons – Owl 

Niamh McIntyre www.theguardian.com 

Nearly half of councils in England, Wales and Scotland have used or are using computer algorithms to help make decisions about benefit claims, who gets social housing and other issues, despite concerns about their reliability.

A Guardian freedom of information investigation has established that 100 out of 229 councils have used or are using automated decision-making programmes, many without consulting at all with the public on their use.

This is despite one council admitting that results from one algorithm showed it was only 26% accurate in some instances. The company behind it said it was because people often entered information wrongly.

Another council dropped an artificial intelligence tool to process new benefit claims, saying they were not satisfied with its reliability.

A range of private companies are selling machine-learning packages to local authorities that are under pressure to save money. The systems are being deployed to provide automated guidance on benefit claims, help decide who gets social housing, and allocate school places among a range of other uses.

Concerns have been raised about the arbitrary nature of these programmes, which inform important decisions about people’s lives, and their scope for making mistakes.

Martha Dark, the director of the digital rights group Foxglove, said: “It is very worrying to see so many councils putting in place algorithmic systems without any public consultation. These systems are clearly being used to make huge decisions about people’s lives.”

The use of artificial intelligence, or automated decision-making, has come into sharp focus after an algorithm used by the exam regulator, Ofqual, downgraded almost 40% of the A-level grades assessed by teachers. It culminated in a government U-turn and the system being scrapped.

One of the most used algorithms among councils is that for risk-based verification, a process in which claims for housing and council tax are automatically processed to determine the likelihood of fraud. Those that are considered higher risk are slowed down and people are asked to provide more evidence.

The programme is still being used by South Ayrshire council. When asked about the accuracy of this programme, the council said it had used the company Northgate Public Services, and the programme was found to be 26% accurate at finding low-risk claims, 36% accurate for medium-risk claims and had a 40% accuracy rate for high-risk ones. The service cost £41,500.

A spokesperson for South Ayrshire council said: “All applications are manually processed by staff – we do not use robotics to verify any application or evidence submitted. The type of risk associated determines the type or level of evidence required to verify the claim and so improves efficiency in claims processing.”

Northgate Public Services said the accuracy rates quoted were not related to the effectiveness but rather claimants often inputting incorrect data.

Wigan council uses an algorithm to allocate social housing. It says answers are submitted and a points-based system then decides which category to place people into. The council uses Northgate housing software to sort candidates into groups. The company stressed it was not involved in banding and assessment criteria, which is instead put in place by councils.

Wigan said applicants and council tenants are placed in either group A, B or C when they are able to demonstrate that they meet the appropriate criteria in either their permanent or temporary home. Group A includes young people leaving local authority care, those in severe hardship and those leaving the UK armed forces. Group B includes those living in poor housing conditions. Group C includes those living outside the borough with no local connection, among other criteria.

Nicolas Kayser-Bril, from Algorithm Watch, a non-profit group looking at algorithmic decision-making processes, said that while the council should be commended for its transparency, “there seems to be ample room for arbitrariness”.

“There will never be a way to objectively define who should be first in line for affordable housing. Transparent algorithms can help, but so can professional caseworkers who take the time to discuss with the applicants. Revealingly, none of the criteria in the list concerns the wishes of the applicants. Instead, they attempt to define the ‘good pauper’, much like in previous centuries.”

Joanne Willmott, Wigan council’s assistant director for provider management and market development, said: “Applications are assessed and prioritised based on answers submitted by customers around their own individual circumstances on our online housing application portal and then assessed in line with the allocation policy. A final check of the application is manually carried out.”

Flintshire council, which says it used the company Civica at a cost of £961.40 a year to process new claims for the period 2014 to 2018, said the service was terminated, as the council was not satisfied with its reliability.

A spokesperson for Civica said: “While the authority did not continue with this approach which was based on a third-party algorithm, the company continues to provide the core revenues and benefits software for Flintshire county council which is a longstanding customer.”

A Local Government Association spokesperson said: “Councils have been trying to improve how they use data in recent years, and predictive analytics is just one example of this. Good use of data can be hugely beneficial in helping councils make services more targeted and effective … But it is important to note that data is only ever used to inform decisions and not to make decisions for councils.”

Teddies and paper plates protest over free school meals snub removed from outside HQ of East Devon MP

Anyone seen Eyore?- Owl

A mum has asked the MP for East Devon why teddies and paper plates used in a peaceful protest over free school meals were removed from outside his Exmouth HQ.

East Devon Reporter eastdevonnews.co.uk 

The items were placed in front of Simon Jupp’s Mamhead View constituency office to challenge the Tory Government’s decision to block plans to extend support for food-deprived children over the holidays.

Conservative Mr Jupp voted against the bid – which has been championed by Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford – in the House of Commons last week.

Exmouth mum-of-two Rosie Johnson said she and her family were so ‘disheartened’ by the move that they and friends decided on the peaceful protest.

She told East Devon News: “We try to teach our children about compassion and empathy.

“We should be able to look to our elected representatives as examples of this, but instead find ourselves turning to professional footballers.

“We were so disheartened by the vote against extending free school meals that we decided to join our friends in making a peaceful protest outside Simon Jupp’s office.

“We wrote messages, none of them abusive or threatening, on paper plates and left them with teddies.

“They were removed without any explanation even though they were not causing an obstruction and had not damaged any property.

“It was always our intention to remove them at the end of the day but we weren’t given that opportunity.

“This issue is too important to be dismissed.

The peaceful protest of teddies and paper plates outside East Devon MP Simon Jupp's constituency office in Exmouth. Picture: Rosie Johnson

The peaceful protest of teddies and paper plates outside East Devon MP Simon Jupp’s constituency office in Exmouth. Pictures: Rosie Johnson

But the items were removed 'without explanation'.

But the items were removed ‘without any explanation’.

“Children should not be going to bed hungry in one of the richest countries in the world and we should be ashamed to be relying on charities, businesses and celebrities to bridge the gap.

“We are looking for other ways to publicly protest this decision.”

Rosie, whose children are aged 11 and six, added:  “We don’t qualify for free school meals, but having previously been a primary school teacher for 15 years I’ve seen the effects of hunger on young children up close and just how essential free school meals and fresh fruit daily were to the health, wellbeing and educational achievement of the children in my care.”

She asked Mr Jupp on Twitter: “A peaceful, non-disruptive protest against the free school meals decision has been removed from outside the constituency office. What do you want me to tell my daughter?”

A spokesperson for Mr Jupp told East Devon News today: “Items left outside the constituency office in Exmouth can be claimed by contacting the office.”

Asked why it was deemed necessary to remove the teddies and paper plates from outside the premises, the East Devon MP’s office did not respond.

The Government had previously extended free school meals to eligible children during the Easter holidays and, after Mr Rashford’s campaigning, did the same for the summer.

But it has refused to do so again.

A bid tabled by Labour to give each disadvantaged child a £15 a week food voucher was defeated by a majority of 61 with 322 votes to 261.

Mr Jupp claimed the vote was ‘more about Labour party lines than actually helping anyone’.

“Tackling child poverty is a challenge and I am determined to ensure families in East Devon get the support they need,” he said.

“I believe the best way to do that is through the welfare system, rather than through schools.

“No child should go hungry, and a great deal of work and investment is going into helping families keep food on the table.”

Mr Jupp said the Government had extended free school meals support during lockdown and families received more than £380million in supermarket vouchers.

He also pointed to Whitehall bolstering the ‘welfare safety net’ with an extra £9.3billion this financial year.

Mr Jupp added: “It is important to remember that free school meals are not a general welfare measure.

“They are aimed at providing healthy meals for children in school to ensure disadvantaged students can learn to the best of their ability.

“Fundamentally, it shouldn’t be up to schools to provide meals for children indefinitely during the holidays and it’s right that we use the tools in place to help parents put food on the table.

“Struggling families need more individual support than the sticking plaster debated and I’d urge any family in this position in East Devon to contact me if they do.

“I promise to help them access available support packages and won’t hesitate to highlight any issues with the Department for Work and Pensions.”