Tory fury as Boris FINALLY publishes ‘impact assessment’ of Covid ‘Tiers’

“But the document made clear that it is not possible to say exactly how the tiers will hit local areas – something that has been a key demand of Tory MPs. It also insisted there was no way of quantifying the consequences of not imposing any curbs.” 

[Document was expected at mid day but has only emerged just before 1700. Another example of over-promising then failing to deliver.Bit of a damp squib.   – Owl]

By James Tapsfield, Political Editor For Mailonline

Boris Johnson today insisted he ‘understands’ the scale of anger over the new coronavirus tiers as he finally published an impact assessment of the measures – but the document claimed it is impossible to gauge the economic hit.

The PM appealed for his mutinous MPs to back the new system in a crunch vote tomorrow, as up to 100 threaten to defy the whip and oppose the plan.

The government released its assessment of the economic and social effects of the pandemic and its 

But the document made clear that it is not possible to say exactly how the tiers will hit local areas – something that has been a key demand of Tory MPs. It also insisted there was no way of quantifying the consequences of not imposing any curbs. 

The assessment said it was ‘clear that restrictions to contain COVID-19 have had major impacts on the economy and public finances, even if it is not possible to forecast with confidence the precise impact of a specific change to a specific restriction’. 

Tory rebel ringleader Mark Harper complained that the information was being released too late, just 24 hours before MPs are due to make their decision. ‘This information is what Ministers should have been insisting on before they made their decisions so it surely could have been made available earlier,’ he said. 

Mr Johnson has been scrambling to defuse a massive Tory revolt by offering a series of concessions, including a February renewal date, detailed impact assessments, and more money for pubs and restaurants, and ahead of a crunch Commons vote tomorrow.

Whips are trying to talk round 100 Conservatives on the verge of joining the mutiny, with fury that just 1 per cent of England is being put in the lowest level of restrictions from Wednesday, with many areas in Tier 3 even though they have seen few or no infections. 

Calls for a rethink have been reinforced by more evidence that the UK’s outbreak is shrinking fast, with just 12,330 Covid-19 infections recorded in the lowest Monday toll since September, 

On a visit to pharmaceutical firm Wockhardt at their facility in North Wales, Mr Johnson said England’s lockdown had got the disease under control with the R number – a measure of how quickly the virus is spreading – below 1.

He said: ‘We can’t afford to take our foot off the throat of the beast, to take our foot off the gas, we can’t afford to let it out of control again.

‘The tiering system is tough, but it’s designed to be tough and to keep it under control.

‘I know that lots of people think that they are in the wrong tier and I understand people’s frustration.

‘I particularly understand the frustration of the hospitality sector that has borne so much and been through so much in the last few months, and we will do everything we can, as we have been doing, to protect and to encourage that sector throughout the weeks and months ahead.’ 

Labour is set to save Mr Johnson’s bacon by refusing to help kill off the measures, but being forced to rely on Sir Keir Starmer’s support would be devastating for the premier’s authority. 

Earlier, Environment Secretary George Eustice raised questions about how long restrictions will be needed for this morning, suggesting that ‘we can see a way out of this during the course of early next summer’ – whereas Mr Johnson has previously voiced hope that the crisis will be largely past by Easter. 

And the backlash was further fuelled with Imperial College’s huge monthly React survey finding a dramatic fall off in cases – in line with the daily figures being released by the government.

Extra cash for pubs and restaurants as Prime Minister tries to fend off Tory rebellion

Pubs and restaurants hit by new coronavirus restrictions will be given extra cash to help get them through Christmas, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to announce as he tries to see off a growing Tory rebellion.

By Gordon Rayner, Political Editor and Charles Hymas, Home Affairs Editor 

The Prime Minister has decided the potential closure of tens of thousands of premises is an unacceptable price to pay for a new system that places 99 per cent of England under the toughest Tier 2 or 3 restrictions from Wednesday.

A Government source said: “There are already grants of £2,000 and £3,000 for businesses in Tiers 2 and 3, but we recognise that we need to do more.” 

The new tiers system, which has been described as a death knell for thousands of pubs and restaurants, requires all premises in Tier 3 to offer only takeaway service, while those in Tier 2 can only serve alcohol with “substantial meals” – restrictions which will apply to 99 per cent of the country.  

Mr Johnson will on Monday publish an analysis of the economic, social and health consequences of the tiers amid warnings from up to 100 Tory MPs that they cannot back the plans without knowing their effect.

In a letter published on Sunday evening, Mr Johnson issued a direct appeal to the rebels in the backbench Covid Recovery Group (CRG), saying there was “every reason” to hope and believe “the worst is nearly behind us, so now more than ever is the time to demonstrate unity and resolve.”

Between 70 and 100 Tory MPs are threatening to oppose the Government when the new tiers regime is put to a vote in Parliament on Tuesday, and Mr Johnson has had to up the stakes after promises of a review of the tiers in December and vote to end them in January failed to assuage them.

It leaves the Prime Minister relying on Labour votes, and the opposition has previously demanded extra cash for businesses hit by the toughest coronavirus restrictions in order to support the new system.

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer is to decide if Labour backs or abstains in Tuesday’s vote after he met with Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, on Sunday. 

A senior Government source said: “We understand the fact that the hospitality industry has been particularly hard-hit during the pandemic. The Christmas period is a time of year when establishments would expect to be particularly busy so we are looking at how we can support them over the festive period.”

The Prime Minister said in a newspaper article on Sunday he “grieves” for the pub trade due to the effect of the restrictions he has imposed.

And in a letter to MPs, Mr Johnson admitted pubs and restaurants – which fear mass closures under the Tier 2 and 3 measures by Christmas – were losing out because “there are only a limited number of settings where you can bear down on transmission” if schools and workplaces were to remain open.

Details of the extra support are expected to be announced this week, possibly before the crucial Parliamentary vote.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is understood to have signed up to the plan, which is likely to be funded by extra borrowing in the short term.

In his letter to the CRG, Mr Johnson also pledged new personalised risk assessments to help free vulnerable people from shielding, better communication on how to avoid transmitting the disease, more testing of asymptomatic carriers and regular updates on non-compliance.

At the weekend the Prime Minister had attempted to assuage Conservative rebels by pledging to review all the tiers on December 16 and offering a vote  at the end of January on whether to end the tiers with a sunset clause to abolish them from February 3.

However, Steve Baker, deputy chairman of the CRG, said MPs could not back the plans until they had a comprehensive analysis of whether they were justified.

“We are still waiting for the analysis of the health, economic and social impact. That’s the key thing we have been asking for,” he said.

“The fundamental point is are these restrictions necessary and proportionate to the threat faced by the community as a whole.

“That is the fundamental question when you look at the pain of people losing their businesses, or the 20 and 30-year-olds facing isolation and missing out on the best years of their lives. We need to know if this is necessary and proportionate. It is not enough to say the NHS will struggle because the previous chart turned out not to be true.”

Another senior Conservative from the north of England said: “What they have to have in that assessment if it is to be credible is the number of lives that will be lost a result of lockdown, the mental health problems that will result from unemployment, the number of businesses that will be closed, the cost in GDP terms.

“If they do that, I think it is inevitable that they weaken their argument which is why they have resisted doing it so far.”

There is mounting anger in the hospitality industry at the new restrictions. Legal action is being considered over “flawed and discriminatory” closures of pubs and restaurants after it emerged Government scientists found that the virus does not spread in well ventilated spaces.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, said the evidence showed the Government had treated pubs, restaurants and hotels inconsistently and needed to rethink its approach. “

Depending on the outcome of that, we will then consider our option in terms of the legal next steps,” Ms Nicholls told The Telegraph.

Families ‘facing hardest period in five decades’ as Britain’s economy stalls

Britain is on course for one of the worst periods of income growth since records began, according to an analysis outlining the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Michael Savage 

With the government already under pressure to improve the financial aid it is providing, it emerged that real household disposable income is set to rise by just £220 from 2019 to 2024, the expected period of the current parliament, a lift of just 1%.

The analysis by the Resolution Foundation thinktank, based on official figures, highlights how long the economic scarring from the pandemic will take its toll on household finances. It concluded that it would mark the second worst parliament for income growth since 1955, when records began. Only the 2015-17 parliament, when incomes actually fell by 0.1% a year, has a worse record.

It comes with unemployment set to peak at 2.6 million in mid-2021 and remain high long after the pandemic is over, the foundation said. It warns that a plan to cut universal credit and tax credits in April would see around six million households lose more than £1,000 a year. While many Tory MPs expect the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to cancel the cut, he did not do so at last week’s review of public spending.

Adam Corlett, principal economist at the Resolution Foundation, said: “On Wednesday the chancellor warned that the economic emergency was just beginning – and that’s true of both the public and household finances. Improving the stark outlook for living standards should be a top priority for the government once the pandemic is over, especially if the prime minister wants to go into the next election claiming that people are better off than they were five years ago. The chancellor can start right now by cancelling the planned cut to universal credit next April that would dash hopes of any recovery for millions of households.”

The hit to household income emerges amid a growing outcry over the plight of 2.9 million self-employed workers who say they are facing “a miserable Christmas period” after being excluded from the government’s financial aid schemes. London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, unions and business groups have signed a powerful open letter to Sunak calling on him to intervene.

The groups who have not been helped include the newly self-employed, directors of small limited companies, self-employed workers who have earned £50,000 or more in trading profits in recent years and certain types of freelancers.

The authors of the letter state they are “deeply concerned about the impact of the current gaps in the financial support schemes on our workforce. The failure to address these gaps in the Spending Review this week leaves these workers facing an extremely difficult winter.” The letter, whose signatories include the Bectu and Prospect unions, as well as the Federation of Small Businesses and the Institute of Directors, continues: “We understand that these schemes were set up in haste and that it was difficult at the outset to broaden their scope, however these schemes are now set to run for at least a year and the continued omission of these workers is causing immeasurable hardship and huge mental health consequences for those impacted and their families.

“These workers are facing a miserable Christmas period, and the evidence is mounting that many may turn away from self-employment and freelance work in the future. This is a tragedy for these individuals, their families and their businesses, but it is also a disaster for the economy.”

There have been claims that as many as one million people in the UK are planning to give up being self-employed after seeing their earnings decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic. A report from the London School of Economics found that a two-decade-long trend in favour of more people working for themselves was now under threat.

Ethics watchdog asked to assess if Rishi Sunak broke ministerial code

The government ethics watchdog has been asked to assess whether the ministerial code was breached by Rishi Sunak not declaring in the register of ministerial interests a multimillion-pound portfolio of shares held by his wife and her family.

Juliette Garside

The Labour MP Tonia Antoniazzi has written to Lord Evans, chair of the committee on standards in public life, to ask him to look into the issue “as a matter of urgency”. Her concerns were echoed by the shadow financial secretary to the Treasury, James Murray, who said the revelations raised “serious questions” about the chancellor’s conduct.

The Guardian revealed on Friday that Sunak’s wife, Akshata Murty, was richer than the Queen thanks to a £430m shareholding in the IT multinational Infosys, which was founded by her father and is a contractor to the UK government and public bodies. She also holds direct shareholdings in at least six UK companies. None of these investments were mentioned in the chancellor’s entry in the official register.

Ministers are obliged to publish details of any financial interests held by themselves, and their close family, which are relevant to their role in government and “which might be thought to give rise to a conflict” with their public duties.

“The reports around the chancellor’s financial affairs are extremely concerning, and I am writing to ask you to assess whether this is a direct contravention of the ministerial code of conduct,” Antoniazzi wrote.

The committee on standards in public life monitors the conduct of public office holders and advises the prime minister on ethics. It has no formal powers but its recommendations are traditionally accepted by the government of the day.

Antoniazzi said allegations of a lack of transparency by the chancellor “further erode public trust in politicians and bring parliament into disrepute”.

Murray added: “The ministerial code is clear that ministers must ensure no conflict arises between their position and their private interests, as well as those of their close family members. If the chancellor has nothing to hide, he should come clean to the British public.”

Sunak and Murty have not responded directly to requests for comment. The Treasury said Sunak made a full declaration of his wife’s interests to senior civil servants, and that the decision about what to publish in the list was taken by advisers.

Before entering the Treasury, Sunak met the government’s then head of propriety and ethics, Helen MacNamara, to decide what needed to be declared, a government source said. MacNamara reviewed the interests of Sunak and Murty and confirmed at the time, and again recently, that she was “satisfied” with what had been registered. The former independent adviser on ministers’ interests Sir Alex Allan also approved the disclosures, according to the source.

A Treasury spokesperson said Allan had confirmed he was “completely satisfied with the chancellor’s propriety of arrangements” and that he had “followed the ministerial code to the letter in his declaration of interests”.

Allan resigned from his role this month after falling out with the prime minister over his decision not to take action against the home secretary, Priti Patel. A report by Allan concluded Patel had breached the ministerial code by bullying civil servants.

At the time, Evans, the chair of the committee on standards in public life, said Allan’s departure raised “serious questions about the effectiveness of the current arrangements for investigating and responding to breaches of the ministerial code”.

His committee recently launched a “landscape review” of the institutions, processes and structures that uphold standards in public life, after acknowledging mounting concern about the conduct of Boris Johnson’s government over issues such as the purchasing of PPE.

Transparency International said the register of interests was there to ensure decisions were being made in the national interest, not for “personal gain”.

Alex Runswick, the senior advocacy manager at the campaign group, said: “To rebuild public confidence, we need a political culture where it is common practice to go above and beyond the letter of the guidance in declaring potential conflicts of interest and where there are consequences for breaching the rules.”

First Response Service 

The First Response Service (FRS) puts you and your mental health first, providing a service seven days a week, 365 days a year. The service is an urgent mental health service for people with mental health and learning disability needs.

Callers either experiencing a mental health crisis, or have concerns about someone’s mental wellbeing can now access mental health care, advice and guidance 24/7. 

The FRS will work closely with you, your family/carers and social networks to access the right care at the right time in the right place.

If you are concerned about feeling unsafe, are very distressed or if you are known to our services and there are signs of a mental health relapse, you can contact the FRS by dialling 0300 555 5000.

What happens when I call?

  • The phone will be answered by a mental health practitioner who will listen to your concerns and help you get what you need. 
  • They can offer advice over the phone, or refer or give you information about other services which may help such as The Moorings (a support service run by Mental Health Matters – a mental health charity or put you in contact with other health services).

Who can call?

If you aren’t able to make the call yourself then anyone can call on your behalf, for example a friend, carer, loved one, or your GP. The service is available to anyone aged 18 and above in a mental health crisis currently living in Devon (excluding Plymouth). 

The following could be reasons to call the FRS:

  • Changes to your mood
  • Withdrawing from people (close family, friends or work colleagues)
  • Not taking care of yourself like you usually would 
  • Having increased thoughts about your life not being worth living 
  • Excessive worry 
  • Feeling out of control or unable to cope 
  • Feeling anxious about leaving the house
  • Hearing voices or seeing things that others can’t 
  • Thinking about harming yourself 

By calling the FRS on 0300 555 5000 we can work together to get the right help. 

For professionals

If you are a professional and have concerns regarding a person’s mental wellbeing, believing they are experiencing a mental health crisis, please dial 0300 555 5000 and select option 1 then option 2. 

Covid-19: politicisation, “corruption,” and suppression of science

When good science is suppressed by the medical-political complex, people die

[Go to original article to pick up links to references – Owl]

Abbasi Kamran. (Published 13 November 2020)

Politicians and governments are suppressing science. They do so in the public interest, they say, to accelerate availability of diagnostics and treatments. They do so to support innovation, to bring products to market at unprecedented speed. Both of these reasons are partly plausible; the greatest deceptions are founded in a grain of truth. But the underlying behaviour is troubling.

Science is being suppressed for political and financial gain. Covid-19 has unleashed state corruption on a grand scale, and it is harmful to public health.1 Politicians and industry are responsible for this opportunistic embezzlement. So too are scientists and health experts. The pandemic has revealed how the medical-political complex can be manipulated in an emergency—a time when it is even more important to safeguard science.

The UK’s pandemic response provides at least four examples of suppression of science or scientists. First, the membership, research, and deliberations of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) were initially secret until a press leak forced transparency.2 The leak revealed inappropriate involvement of government advisers in SAGE, while exposing under-representation from public health, clinical care, women, and ethnic minorities. Indeed, the government was also recently ordered to release a 2016 report on deficiencies in pandemic preparedness, Operation Cygnus, following a verdict from the Information Commissioner’s Office.34

Next, a Public Health England report on covid-19 and inequalities. The report’s publication was delayed by England’s Department of Health; a section on ethnic minorities was initially withheld and then, following a public outcry, was published as part of a follow-up report.56 Authors from Public Health England were instructed not to talk to the media. Third, on 15 October, the editor of the Lancet complained that an author of a research paper, a UK government scientist, was blocked by the government from speaking to media because of a “difficult political landscape.”7

Now, a new example concerns the controversy over point-of-care antibody testing for covid-19.8 The prime minister’s Operation Moonshot depends on immediate and wide availability of accurate rapid diagnostic tests.9 It also depends on the questionable logic of mass screening—currently being trialled in Liverpool with a suboptimal PCR test.1011

The incident relates to research published this week by The BMJ, which finds that the government procured an antibody test that in real world tests falls well short of performance claims made by its manufacturers.1213 Researchers from Public Health England and collaborating institutions sensibly pushed to publish their study findings before the government committed to buying a million of these tests but were blocked by the health department and the prime minister’s office.14 Why was it important to procure this product without due scrutiny? Prior publication of research on a preprint server or a government website is compatible with The BMJ’s publication policy. As if to prove a point, Public Health England then unsuccessfully attempted to block The BMJ’s press release about the research paper.

Politicians often claim to follow the science, but that is a misleading oversimplification. Science is rarely absolute. It rarely applies to every setting or every population. It doesn’t make sense to slavishly follow science or evidence. A better approach is for politicians, the publicly appointed decision makers, to be informed and guided by science when they decide policy for their public. But even that approach retains public and professional trust only if science is available for scrutiny and free of political interference, and if the system is transparent and not compromised by conflicts of interest.

Suppression of science and scientists is not new or a peculiarly British phenomenon. In the US, President Trump’s government manipulated the Food and Drug Administration to hastily approve unproved drugs such as hydroxychloroquine and remdesivir.15 Globally, people, policies, and procurement are being corrupted by political and commercial agendas.16

The UK’s pandemic response relies too heavily on scientists and other government appointees with worrying competing interests, including shareholdings in companies that manufacture covid-19 diagnostic tests, treatments, and vaccines.17 Government appointees are able to ignore or cherry pick science—another form of misuse—and indulge in anti-competitive practices that favour their own products and those of friends and associates.18

How might science be safeguarded in these exceptional times? The first step is full disclosure of competing interests from government, politicians, scientific advisers, and appointees, such as the heads of test and trace, diagnostic test procurement, and vaccine delivery. The next step is full transparency about decision making systems, processes, and knowing who is accountable for what.

Once transparency and accountability are established as norms, individuals employed by government should ideally only work in areas unrelated to their competing interests. Expertise is possible without competing interests. If such a strict rule becomes impractical, minimum good practice is that people with competing interests must not be involved in decisions on products and policies in which they have a financial interest.

Governments and industry must also stop announcing critical science policy by press release. Such ill judged moves leave science, the media, and stock markets vulnerable to manipulation. Clear, open, and advance publication of the scientific basis for policy, procurements, and wonder drugs is a fundamental requirement.19

The stakes are high for politicians, scientific advisers, and government appointees. Their careers and bank balances may hinge on the decisions that they make. But they have a higher responsibility and duty to the public. Science is a public good. It doesn’t need to be followed blindly, but it does need to be fairly considered. Importantly, suppressing science, whether by delaying publication, cherry picking favourable research, or gagging scientists, is a danger to public health, causing deaths by exposing people to unsafe or ineffective interventions and preventing them from benefiting from better ones. When entangled with commercial decisions it is also maladministration of taxpayers’ money.

Politicisation of science was enthusiastically deployed by some of history’s worst autocrats and dictators, and it is now regrettably commonplace in democracies.20 The medical-political complex tends towards suppression of science to aggrandise and enrich those in power. And, as the powerful become more successful, richer, and further intoxicated with power, the inconvenient truths of science are suppressed. When good science is suppressed, people die.


  • Competing interests: I have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.
  • Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.

This article is made freely available for use in accordance with BMJ’s website terms and conditions for the duration of the covid-19 pandemic or until otherwise determined by BMJ. You may use, download and print the article for any lawful, non-commercial purpose (including text and data mining) provided that all copyright notices and trade marks are retained.

“Three homes” Jenrick writes exclusively in the Telegraph – shopkeepers to open 24/7?

Invoking the Cromwellian era rather than the Churchillian one beloved by Boris, Robert Jenrick write in the Telegraph:

I am cutting the red tape and allowing shops to extend opening hours this Christmas and New Year

Robert Jenrick

For Christmas shopping the high street in Newark has it all. A picturesque ruined castle, a cobbled market square surrounded by fine buildings that tell the story of England and at every turn charming and eclectic shops, cafés and pubs decorated with festive lights, trees and in different circumstances, an old fashioned grotto that is a favourite of my girls.   

However, in this most unusual and challenging year, Father Christmas is not the only one whose presence is missed.

It is we, the customers, these enterprising shopkeepers would expect to be filling the lanes, laden with bags, giving them the end to the year they need to prosper.

As one said to me recently, not since the end of the Civil War has the town centre been in such a tight spot. Then it was under siege by Oliver Cromwell, today by a pandemic and the unstoppable rise of internet shopping.  

No doubt this year will see record sales online. 2020 will be a watershed, with accelerated market forces already in train.

Of course, new jobs and enterprises are being created to service the demand, including down the road in Newark where thousands are now employed at the vast KnowHow distribution centre that delivers millions of TVs, phones and tablets to our doors.

Our town centres will need to adapt and evolve, seizing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to replace some retail and offices with housing and we in Government are providing the tools to facilitate that, like the right to convert one type of shop seamlessly to another or into a home, sweeping away the outdated Use Class Orders.

And the new right to demolish empty eyesores, enables small builders to regenerate town centres with good quality urban housing and save greenfields from development at the same time.  

But let’s not write off the great British high street. It’s centrality to our sense of place and community is surely too important not to support in its hour of need.

As the national restrictions lift this week, and non-essential retail reopens regardless of tier, across the country we can show our support. And with some imaginative changes from Government we can enjoy the experience safely too.  

Earlier in the year I cut red tape to ensure every pub, café or restaurant in the land could open for takeaway and delivery services, which proved a lifeline for many.

And I changed the law so that any establishment could apply simply and cheaply to use outdoor tables and chairs, playing a part in the alfresco dining revolution we experienced this summer and which I hope will continue this winter, perhaps under cosy blankets and heaters given our climate. Heat Out to Help Out if you like.  

I’ve discovered so much regulation surrounding our high streets, it’s no wonder shopkeepers are having a hard time. 

It seems that every administration since King Henry I granted a charter to Newark’s market has added more complicated and costly rules.

We’re changing that. Councils and others can now hold winter markets with ease. Pubs can erect marquees in their gardens for longer without planning permission.  

I am going further and announcing a temporary relaxation in shop opening hours this Christmas and throughout January, asking councils to allow extended hours for shoppers on every high street Monday to Saturday.

None of us I suspect enjoy navigating the crowds and none would relish that when social distancing is so important to controlling the virus in the final furlong before the vaccine rollout commences.

So, with these changes your local shops can open longer, ensuring more pleasant and safer shopping with less pressure on public transport.

How long will be a matter of choice for the shopkeepers and at the discretion of the council, but I suggest we offer these hard-pressed entrepreneurs and businesses the greatest possible flexibility this festive season.

Therefore as Local Government Secretary I am relaxing planning restrictions and issuing an unambiguous request to councils to allow businesses to welcome us into their glowing stores late into the evening and beyond if wish.

And those stores and supermarkets will be able to replenish their shelves whenever they wish, with flexible deliveries to keep the streets free for the rest of us when we are out and about.  

In a year when Government has necessarily interjected into our lives in ways none of us who value individual liberty would ever have imagined, these changes remind us that we can and must seek every way to reduce the burden of bureaucracy and free our small businesspeople to get on with earning a living and serving the public.

I hope we can return to this Conservative mission more broadly before long.  

So this Christmas, look after one another by following the guidelines, but please support your high street.

Some like Newark have been there for a thousand years and with our help and the right approach from government, I suspect will long outlive the pessimists.

Environment to benefit from ‘biggest farming shake-up in 50 years’

The pattern of farming in East Devon will inevitably change. We are likely to see a lot of “rewilding” (voluntary and involuntary) under new government plans – Owl

For example:

“The wealthiest landowners – those receiving annual payments over £150,000 a year – will face the sharpest cuts, starting with 25% in 2021. Those receiving under £30,000 will see a 5% cut next year.”

“The cuts are expected to reduce the income of livestock farmers, for example, by 60% to 80% by 2024.”

Damian Carrington

Wildlife, nature and the climate will benefit from the biggest shake-up in farming policy in England for 50 years, according to government plans.

The £1.6bn subsidy farmers receive every year for simply owning land will be phased out by 2028, with the funds used instead to pay them to restore wild habitats, create new woodlands, boost soils and cut pesticide use.

The wealthiest landowners – those receiving annual payments over £150,000 a year – will face the sharpest cuts, starting with 25% in 2021. Those receiving under £30,000 will see a 5% cut next year.

Some of the biggest recipients of the existing scheme have been the Duke of Westminster, the inventor Sir James Dyson, racehorse owner Prince Khalid bin Abdullah al Saud and the Queen.

Farmers will also get grants to improve productivity and animal welfare, including new robotic equipment. The goal of the plan is that farmers will – within seven years – be producing healthy and profitable food in a sustainable way and without subsidies.

The environment secretary, George Eustice, acknowledged the damage done to the environment by industrial farming since the 1960s and said the new plans would deliver for nature and help fight the climate crisis. Farming occupies 70% of England, is the biggest driver of biodiversity loss and produces significant greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution.

The radical changes in agricultural policy are possible due to the UK leaving the EU, whose common agricultural policy is widely regarded as a disaster for nature and even critics of Brexit see the changes as positive.

Farming and environment groups largely welcomed the plans but said more detail was urgently required. Brexit is looming at the end of December and uncertainties remain over food tariffs and trade deals. Many groups are also concerned about the potential import of food produced to lower animal welfare and environmental standards.

“[This is] the biggest change in agricultural policy in half a century,” said Eustice. “It makes no sense to subsidise land ownership and tenure where the largest subsidy payments often go to the wealthiest landowners.

“Over the last century, much of our wildlife-rich habitat has been lost, and many species are in long-term decline.

“I know many farmers feel this loss keenly and are taking measures to reverse this decline. But we cannot deny that the intensification of agriculture since the 1960s has taken its toll. Our plans for future farming must [also] tackle climate change – one of the most urgent challenges facing the world.”

The total of £2.4bn a year currently paid to farmers will remain the same until 2025, as promised in the Conservative manifesto. Currently, two-thirds of this is paid solely for owning land, but the proportion will fall to one-third by 2025 and zero by 2028. Funds for environmental action will rise from a quarter of the total to more than half by 2025, with the remaining funds used to increase productivity.

The new green payments will be trialled with 5,000 farmers before a full launch in 2024. But the level of payments for work such as natural flood defences and restoring peatlands and saltmarshes has not yet been set. Nor has the likely cut in carbon emissions been quantified.

The president of the National Farmers’ Union, Minette Batters, said: “Farming is changing and we look forward to working with ministers and officials to co-create the new schemes.”

But she added: “Expecting farmers to run viable, high-cost farm businesses, continue to produce food and increase their environmental delivery, while phasing out existing support and without a complete replacement scheme for almost three years is high risk and a very big ask.”

The cuts are expected to reduce the income of livestock farmers, for example, by 60% to 80% by 2024, Batters said.

Kate Norgrove, of the WWF, said: “Our farmers have the potential to be frontline heroes in the climate and nature emergency, and this roadmap starts us on the right path. It must see increased investment in nature as a way to tackle climate change.”

Tom Lancaster, principal policy officer for agriculture at the RSPB, said: “This is a make or break momentfor the government’s farming reforms, which are so important to both the future of farming and recovery of nature in England. [This plan] provides some welcome clarity, but faster progress is now needed over the coming months.”

But Craig Bennett, CEO of the Wildlife Trusts, said: “We are deeply worried that the pilot [environment] schemes simply cannot deliver the promise that nature will be in a better state. Four years on from the EU referendum, we still lack the detail and clarity on how farm funding will benefit the public.”

Other measures in the government plan include funding improvements in how farmers manage animal manure – slurry is a major polluter of both water and air – and a scheme where farmers seeking to leave the sector can cash out all the subsidies payments they are due up to 2028 in 2022, part of efforts to help new farmers enter the sector.

The government said it would be cutting “red tape” for farmers, with warning letters replacing automatic fines for minor issues and more targeted – though not fewer – inspections.

In July, the government said rules about growing diverse crops, fallow land and hedges would be abolished in 2021, claiming they had little environmental benefit. Farming policy is a devolved matter and other UK nations have yet to bring forward firm new plans.

Freedom of information requests dogged by delays and obfuscation: Letters. Plus FOI on Honiton Town Council complaints

Two letters in the Guardian on FOIs

The “clearing house” for requests made under the Freedom of Information Act (‘Orwellian’ government unit obstructs freedom of information, says report, 24 November) may explain an intriguingly detailed response from the Department of Health to a request I submitted in 2013: “We have noted the total number of requests you have submitted under the FOIA … We also note and take account of that fact that you have written on the same issues to the department by way of general policy correspondence both from yourself (on 3 occasions) direct and also via your local Member of Parliament [Oliver Colvile MP] (on 8 occasions).

“We further note that you have submitted specific FOI requests, policy correspondence (including to Department of Health Ministers via Oliver Colvile MP) … now on 6 occasions. We also acknowledge that you have … written to other public authorities in a concerted attempt to obtain such information.”

Disclosure was refused on the grounds that the request was vexatious. This, together with delayed responses to requests, internal reviews, complaints to the information commissioner and appeals to the information tribunal, created a protracted process.

It was not until 2015 that I had gathered sufficient information to demonstrate wholesale inadequacy by the department in its handling of an external contract. Colvile then raised the issue with the chair of the public accounts committee, Meg Hillier MP, who asked the National Audit Office to investigate.

In January 2016, Hillier informed Colvile that, “despite an extensive records trawl”, only “limited information” was available. The NAO had found that “unfortunately, some records of enduring value were not identified as such at the time and are no longer available”.

An independent investigation is needed into the role of the clearing house in coordinating responses to delay, obfuscate and conceal.

Dr Mike Sheaff

Associate professor in sociology, University of Plymouth

• I was interested to read your article on the report by openDemocracy. Since the FoI act came into force in 2005, I have made many submissions to government departments and quangos. The speed of response has slowed markedly and the degree of disclosure has become significantly eroded through redaction or a downright refusal to provide substantive responses.

In one instance, an application to the national nuclear regulator, the Office for Nuclear Regulation, on its review of small modular nuclear reactor and advanced nuclear reactors in August 2019 has still not been fully substantively answered.

The regulator has several times asked me to limit the scope of my application by time periods and areas of interest. I was invited to speak to ONR experts by phone, nominally so they could understand what information I was seeking, but in practice to reduce the scope of my FoI request, to limit disclosure.

I persisted with my application early this year, and in the spring received an opprobrious letter from the chief executive, de facto telling me off for being so persistent and for complaining that the delays were unacceptable.

Now, with the revelation of this Cabinet Office clearing house, I can put two and two together. I have asked the ONR whether it has passed on my original request to this clearing house, rightly labelled Orwellian. I trust it will not take another 15 months to find out the answer.

Dr David Lowry

Senior international research fellow, Institute for Resource and Security Studies, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Read what FOIs have achieved in trying to uncover what lies behind the complaints made against Honiton Town Council

Nearly a third of English hospital trusts exceed first peak of Covid patients

Nearly a third of England’s hospital trusts have exceeded their first-wave peak of Covid patients undergoing treatment, as scientists warned that relaxing or scrapping the three-tier system too quickly could further hamper the NHS.

Ashley Kirk

Hospitals trusts in South Somerset and Devon treated more than twice as many Covid patients on at least one day last week as they did at the peak of the first wave in spring, Guardian analysis shows. However, because tier decisions are based on a range of data, both areas will go into tier 2 from Thursday.

Conversely, Manchester Universities hospital trust last week treated 31% fewer Covid patients than it did in the busiest week of the first wave (295 compared with 428). The whole of Greater Manchester will go into the strictest tier 3 this week.

Although much of south-west England has avoided tier 3, more than half of acute NHS trusts in the region treated more Covid patients on at least one day last week than at their first wave peak. The same was true for half the trusts in the north-west and north-east, and a third of those in the Midlands – almost all of which are in tier 3.

The data comes amid a row over Michael Gove’s warning that the health service, including the emergency Nightingale hospitals, risked becoming “physically overwhelmed”.

The Cabinet Office minister intervened ahead of a Commons vote on the new three-tier system that triggered a backlash from Tory MPs, many of whom claim their constituencies will be subject to overly draconian measures despite low, stable or falling infection rates.

In an attempt to calm the rebellion, Boris Johnson signalled that some areas could be moved into lower tiers after a review on 16 December, if there was “robust evidence” that coronavirus was in sustained decline, with the tiers system potentially shelved in nine weeks unless MPs vote to keep it.

But his confidence in reducing infection numbers within weeks has been questioned by senior scientists and health leaders, while the Guardian’s hospital admissions data analysis points to the risks to the NHS in certain areas.

In the East Riding of Yorkshire, for example, some residents were angered to find themselves in tier 3 despite a lower infection rate (287 per 100,000) in the week to 21 November than several London boroughs, which will be in tier 2 (Havering, for example, had 338 per 100,000 in the same period).

Yet the area’s hospitals are now treating far more Covid patients than in spring. Northern Lincolnshire and Goole NHS foundation trust had 185 Covid patients in the week to 24 November, compared with 75 in its busiest week of the first wave.

Dr Layla McCay, a director at the NHS Confederation, warned: “The national lockdown might be coming to an end but NHS leaders are telling us that they are still facing the triple whammy of treating Covid patients, providing broader care services and preparing for winter.

“While hospital stays because of the virus continue to present massive challenges, this terrible disease is also stretching other parts of the NHS, including primary, mental health and community care, very thin.”

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the chair of the British Medical Association, said it would be a mistake to relax restrictions too early. “If we are to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed this winter and left unable to provide both critical and wider care to all who need it, we must do everything we can to bring the spread of the virus back under control,” he said.

“We don’t know where we’ll be in two weeks’ time, let alone nine weeks, but whatever decisions are made at that time must be based on the most up-to-date data on infection levels and pressure on the NHS.”

Nagpaul described the previous tiers system, introduced in October, as inadequate and ineffective at stopping the rise in infections and warned that without tougher measures this time, another national lockdown would follow.

Scientists echoed the warning. Dr Simon Clarke, an associate professor in cellular microbiology at Reading University, and Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, said they did not expect enough data to have emerged by 16 December for restrictions to be relaxed.

Clarke said that relaxing tier curbs would be more of a political decision than a science-based one. “It is inevitable that it will lead to an increase in the number of new infections. January and February are the worst months for respiratory infections anyway, regardless of the current pandemic. These factors combined will, inevitably, translate into more hospital admissions and fatalities,” he said.

Openshaw said: “We scientists are very concerned indeed about relaxation of precautions at this stage. The rates are still too high, there’s too many cases coming into hospitals, too many people dying. And if we take the brakes off at this stage, just when the end is in sight, I think we would be making a huge mistake,” he told the BBC.

An NHS spokeswoman said: “The number of hospitalisations for Covid-19 varies significantly across the country and while the national volume of patients in the second wave has not yet exceeded the first, some hospitals in certain areas of the country are indeed treating more Covid patients than they did in the spring.”

Covid ‘clusters’ in every part of East Devon & Exeter – but new cases drop

The number of new Covid-19 cases across East Devon and Exeter has dropped in a week – but ‘clusters’ of the virus remain in every ward of both areas.

Evidence now indicates that during the first Tier system, introduced on 14 October, infections continued to rise in many Tier 1 regions. Infections in these regions, including ours, only turned around under the harder restrictions of Lockdown 2. Under the new Tier system, Tiers 2 and 3 have been beefed up but Tier 1 has been left unchanged. – Owl

[Previous post gives latest on National picture]

East Devon Reporter 

Government figures show a further 180 infections have been confirmed across the district in the last seven days, and 141 in the city.

The new cases recorded in East Devon represent a decrease of 64 when compared to the previous week.

Exeter’s number is a decrease of 79.

All 20 wards in East Devon – spanning Exmouth, Honiton, Sidmouth, Budleigh Salterton, Ottery St Mary, Seaton, and Cranbrook – currently have three or more coronavirus infections.

The district’s highest numbers are currently in Budleigh Salterton (22 cases), Ottery and West Hill (20), and Exmouth Town (18).

And the same can be said for Exeter’s 15 wards – with the biggest ‘clusters’ in Wonford and St Loye’s (20 cases), Heavitree West and Polsloe (18), and Middlemoor and Sowton (17).

Week-on-week, the number of confirmed new coronavirus cases across Devon and Cornwall has nearly halved – with figures falling everywhere.

As of yesterday afternoon (Friday, November 27), government statistics showed that 1,266 new Covid cases had been confirmed in the last week across Devon and Cornwall.

That is compared to compared to 2,367 cases in the previous seven days.

Clusters across district and city

Twenty ‘clusters’ – where three or more Covid cases have been confirmed – have been identified in East Devon:

  • Budleigh Salterton (22 cases);
  • Ottery St Mary and West Hill (20);
  • Exmouth Town (18);
  • Exmouth Withycombe Raleigh (16);
  • Sidmouth Sidford (14);
  • Exmouth Halsdon (13);
  • Cranbrook, Broadclyst and Stoke Canon (12);
  • Honiton South and West (nine);
  • Exmouth Brixington (nine);
  • Clyst, Exton and Lympstone (eight);
  • Exmouth Littleham (six);
  • Axminster (six);
  • Newton Poppleford, Otterton and Woodbury (six);
  • Sidbury, Offwell and Beer (six);
  • Honiton North and East (five);
  • Seaton (five);
  • Feniton and Whimple (four);
  • Dunkeswell, Upottery and Stockland (four);
  • Kilmington, Colyton and Uplyme (four);
  • Sidmouth Town (three).

The ‘clusters’ data, last updated this afternoon (Saturday, November 28), is based on a rolling rate of new cases by specimen date ending on November 23.

‘Clusters’ remain in all of Exeter’s 15 wards:

  • Wonford and St Loye’s (20 cases);
  • Heavitree West and Polsloe (18);
  • Middlemoor and Sowton (17);
  • Mincinglake and Beacon Heath (12);
  • Pennsylvania and University (11);
  • Exwick and Foxhayes (ten);
  • St Leonard’s (nine);
  • Alphington and Marsh Barton (nine);
  • Countess Wear and Topsham (nine);
  • Heavitree East and Whipton South (nine);
  • Pinhoe and Whipton North (eight);
  • St Thomas West (seven);
  • St James Park and Hoopern (six);
  • St Thomas East (six);
  • Central Exeter (six).

New cases across Devon and specimen dates

Of the 1,266 new cases confirmed in Devon and Cornwall since November 20 up to yesterday afternoon (Friday, November 27), 141 were in East Devon and 220 in Exeter.

There were 59 cases in Mid Devon, 104 in North Devon, 231 in Plymouth, 33 in the South Hams, 73 in Teignbridge, 119 in Torbay, 51 in Torridge and 43 in West Devon.

Cornwall recorded 232 cases.

Of the 1,266 new cases, 970 had a specimen date between November 20 – 26, with 152 of these in East Devon and 101 in Exeter.

There were 40 in Mid Devon, 84 in North Devon, 179 in Plymouth, 25 in South Hams, 62 in Teignbridge, 86 in Torbay, 42 in Torridge and 28 in West Devon.

Cornwall had 171 cases.

Hospital admissions

The number of people in hospital in the South West has in the last seven days has fallen from 942 to 938.

There are currently 67 patients in mechanical ventilation beds, up from 65 last Friday.

The number of patients in hospital across Devon and Cornwall following a positive Covid-19 test has risen since last week – but only just.

NHS England figures show that, as of Tuesday morning (November 24), there 272 patients across both counties compared to 265 on November 17.

There were 128 people in the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital (up from 106), 53 in Derriford Hospital in Plymouth (down from 90), and 35 in Torbay Hospital (down from 39), 29 in North Devon District Hospital (up from 18).

There were 16 patients in mechanical ventilation beds (down from 19); five at the RD&E, five at North Devon District Hospital, one in Torbay Hospital, and ten at Derriford Hospital.

In the last week, there 21 deaths within hospitals in Devon and Cornwall within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 death.

Nine of these were in Exeter, two in Torbay, six in Plymouth, three in North Devon, and one in Cornwall.

Tier 2 is ‘best chance’

Devon’s director of public health Steve Brown said this week that Tier 2 restriction will give the county ‘the best chance’ to see cases continue to fall.

He added: “When we were in Tier 1, prior to the current national restrictions, we saw continued rising cases.

“It’s only been recently, as a result of the national lockdown, that we have seen those cases plateau and ultimately start to fall.

“Devon going into Tier 2 is the best chance for us to continue to see those cases fall.”

Covid infections in England fall by 30% over lockdown – React study

Coronavirus infections in England have fallen by about a third over lockdown, according to a major study.

[Next post gives latest information on local infections – Owl]

By Rachel Schraer 

Some of the worst-hit areas saw the biggest improvements – but, despite this progress, cases remained high across England.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the data showed the country could not “take our foot off the pedal just yet”.

The findings by Imperial College London were based on swabbing more than 100,000 people between 13-24 November.

The React-1 study is highly respected and gives us the most up-to-date picture of Covid-19 in the country.

Its researchers estimated the virus’s reproduction (R) rate had fallen to 0.88. That means on average every infection translated to less than one other new infection, so the epidemic is shrinking.

Run alongside pollster Ipsos MORI, the Imperial study involved testing a random sample of people for coronavirus, whether or not they had symptoms.

The results of these tests suggested a 30% fall in infections between the last study and the period of 13-24 November.

Before that, cases were accelerating – doubling every nine days when the study last reported at the end of October.

Now cases are coming down, but more slowly than they shot up – halving roughly every 37 days.

In the North West and North East, though – regions with some of the highest numbers of cases – infections fell by more than half.

The findings suggest cases are now highest in the East Midlands and West Midlands.

Lockdown came into force across England on 5 November but national data, based on people with symptoms, suggests there was a spike in cases in the week after.

This was put down to pre-lockdown socialising, since it takes five days on average after catching the infection for it to be detectable by a test.

R was last below 1 on the 14 August

R was last below 1 on the 14 August

Despite clear improvements, overall cases remain high.

An estimated one in 100 people have coronavirus – double the rate in September when infections began to rise.

The study also found certain groups had a higher chance of testing positive over this period:

  • People of Asian ethnicity
  • People living in the most deprived neighbourhoods
  • People living in the largest households
  • Roughly 96 people in every 10,000 had coronavirus, down from 132 per 10,000 just before lockdown
  • There were about 72,000 new infections a day, compared with 100,000 at the end of October

Prof Paul Elliott, who leads the study, said the data offered “encouraging signs” for England’s epidemic.

“These trends suggest that the tiered approach helped to curb infections in [the worst-affected areas] and that lockdown has added to this effect.

But he said: “As we approach a challenging time of year, it’s even more vital that through our actions and behaviours we all play our part in helping to keep the virus at bay.”

‘Moving in the right direction’

Prof Kevin McConway, a statistics professor at the Open University, urged caution over the figures.

He said: “Things have started moving in the right direction again, but we’re by no means in the position we were at the end of the summer, or even the start of the summer. We can’t stop taking great care yet by any means.”

The government suggested England’s new tier system, coming into force on Wednesday, would be “crucial” to keeping infections falling.

The three-tier system is tougher than the similar one in place before 5 November, under which cases continued to rise.

It will see regions placed in one of three tiers: medium, high and very high.

In total, 99% of England will enter the highest two tiers, with tight restrictions on bars and restaurants and a ban on households mixing indoors. Only Cornwall, the Isle of Wight and Isles of Scilly will be in the lowest tier.

Elsewhere in the UK, Northern Ireland has begun a two-week circuit-breaker lockdown, while in Scotland each area has been placed in one of five tiers.

In Wales, First Minister Mark Drakeford said pubs, restaurants and bars will be subject to stricter restrictions – which are not yet finalised – in the run-up to Christmas. They will come into force from Friday, 4 December.

These findings of the React-1 study are interim, meaning they still need to be reviewed.

Call for govt help to cover East Devon recycling contractor’s extra costs

East Devon District Council (EDDC) is to ask central government for help meeting the extra costs its recycling contractor has incurred during the coronavirus crisis.

Daniel Clark 

The authority’s cabinet was informed that Suez had been impacted by lockdown and residents having to stay at home, writes Local Democracy Reporter Daniel Clark.

A meeting on Wednesday heard that a big increase in the volume of rubbish left for kerbside collections was compounded by the loss of key frontline staff through shielding and self-isolation.

“None of this had been planned or budgeted for and the service was working outside of normal contract arrangements,” councillors were told.

Members agreed to consider an extraordinary additional claim submitted by Suez for costs incurred in responding to the pandemic conditions.

A further report will detail the exact amount the contractor is asking for.

But councillors also resolved to lobby MPs for support from central government to help cover the costs.

EDDC’s strategic lead for finance Simon Davey said that the cabinet would need to know the amount of money involved and that officers are currently seeking legal advice around contracts

Councillor Geoff Jung, portfolio holder for coast, country and environment, said: “This is a large amount of money, but they have had to do far beyond their own contract to cover what they have been having to do since March.”

Cllr John Loudoun added: “If there are extra costs identified, then we should ask our MPs to lobby for some or preferably all of the extra costs identified.”

Cllr Philip Skinner said this was a very sensible suggestion and one his Conservative opposition group would support.

He said: “We need to put party politics to one side as this is something never come across before, so we need to make sure the financial position we are in is as sound as can be.”

Cabinet heard that Suez had submitted a claim for reimbursement of additional costs that had arisen through operating in pandemic conditions.

These included itemised details of additional labour, vehicles and fuel during the peak lockdown period.

As the costs had arisen through a response to ‘extraordinary and unforeseeable’ circumstances, they were not budgeted for, the meeting heard.

Councillors were told route changes that had also taken place had also ‘blurred the lines’ between operational costs and Covid costs.

It was added that there was likely to be an additional increase in cardboard with more people online shopping for Christmas.

‘Tipping point’ negotiations are now set to begin with Suez over collection tonnages to establish what are and are not Covid 19 costs.

Tory MP Makes Jaws Drop With Tweet About Opening Nightingale Hospitals

A Tory MP has been accused of “staggering” levels of ignorance after suggesting Nightingale hospitals and the NHS could be run at full capacity with a full staff to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Chris York 

John Redwood, MP for Wokingham, made the clam in a tweet on Sunday despite long-running concerns about personnel shortages in the health service.

The MP wrote: “Why not open and staff all the Nightingale hospital capacity they need for CV 19 cases and get the rest of the NHS back to full capacity for everything else?

“No need to scare us with the idea the NHS will not cope.”

According to a recent report by The Kings Fund, there is currently a shortfall of just under 84,000 workers across NHS hospitals, mental health services and community providers.

The report blamed “a prolonged funding squeeze combined with years of poor workforce planning, weak policy and fragmented responsibilities” while the Tories have been in power for the “workforce crisis”.

This has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic as frontline health workers catch Covid-19 or are forced to self-isolate. Earlier this month it was reported 30,000 NHS staff were off as the country braced itself for the second wave of the virus.

Redwood’s tweet was met with widespread disbelief.

Redwood has been contacted for comment.

Elsewhere, Boris Johnson has warned there will be “disastrous consequences” if new tiered coronavirus restrictions aren’t introduced this week.

Never the one to waste the opportunity of using five words when two will do, the PM used a series of obscure war references to warn of the potential “disastrous consequences for the NHS”.

Boris Johnson’s secret meeting ended in tiers — but it could have been worse

Boris Johnson could not quite decide if his attempts to channel Winston Churchill in the fight against the coronavirus had reached the equivalent of the Battle of Britain, when national survival was secured, or El Alamein, when the slow advance to victory began.

At a time of crisis, how good is Boris Johnson at making decisions? – Owl

Tim Shipman and Caroline Wheeler 

It was 8.15pm on Wednesday when the prime minister began summing up the conclusions of a closely guarded meeting of eight ministers that decided tier levels across England and the fate of millions. Several times the prime minister conjured up his hero’s spirit: “Is this the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end?” he mused. After what one witness described as “several mixed metaphors”, Johnson settled on: “I think we’re at the beginning of the end of the second half.”

The prime minister’s verbal contortions illustrate the dilemma for a government unsure whether imposing new control tiers is the final fix before a vaccine and mass testing save the day, or another false dawn that heralds a long winter of discontent that will stretch to Easter and beyond.

Wednesday’s meeting decided which areas would be in which tiers. Its conclusions have enraged MPs and council leaders in largely Covid-free areas who have been coupled with virus hotspots. The real story of that meeting is that it might have been worse. The story of the next few months is that it still might be.

“We’ve got to sort this out,” Johnson said, opening the meeting, before handing over to Matt Hancock, the health secretary, who presented to the virtual meeting for 20 minutes. The data, Hancock argued, left little room for doubt where most of the country should be placed. With the virus falling, but not fast enough, Manchester was always going to be tier 3 — not least because of tense relations with its mayor, Andy Burnham.

Liverpool — the guinea pig for mass testing — would get a reprieve. “Liverpool had to be in tier 2 to show you can turn these things around,” said one minister.

Hancock focused on the difficult marginal areas. The word that kept coming up was “contagion”. Stratford-upon-Avon is largely clear of Covid-19, but it is near Solihull, which is “really bad”, and people travel there to work and shop. The same problem arises in Kent, where the Medway towns have infection rates double the rest of the county and many times those of rural areas.

Throughout the meeting, the ministers discussed breaking the Covid zones down to district council level, as many Tory MPs wanted. In the end, they all agreed this was impractical. “We kept running up against the contagion effect,” one said. “Clarity of messaging was also going to be a problem.”

The crunch concerned London. Hancock admitted that across the capital “the numbers are trending down”. In much of south London, infection rates are low. In Newham in the east, and around Ealing in the west, they are sky high. The health secretary proposed three options: the whole city in tier 2 or tier 3, or most in tier 2, with the worst pockets in tier 3.

Alok Sharma, the business secretary, had fought before the meeting to ensure all three tiers would allow non-essential retailers and services such as hairdressers to remain open and the former 10pm curfew be extended to 11pm.

He backed tier 2 and so — with caveats — did Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, and Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary.

It was Michael Gove who demanded the most draconian crackdown, going further even than Hancock by declaring: “It’s got to be tier 3 across the whole of London.” The Cabinet Office minister revived warnings from the Sage advisory group of scientists that hospitals could be swamped over winter. “He did a proper, three-minute-long speech which seemed designed to ensure his views got out there,” said one of those present.

Rishi Sunak, the chancellor and the most outspoken advocate of keeping the economy open, was too busy with the spending review to attend the meeting, sending John Glen, the economic secretary to the Treasury, in his place.

Crucially, Glen was armed by Treasury officials with key data on the economic damage that would be caused by putting London in the top tier in the run-up to Christmas, the busiest shopping time of the year.

Glen questioned Hancock’s data, declaring there was “a lag” in the health secretary’s figures. He also argued that “tier 2 is like the old tier 3”, saying Sage had previously advised ministers that would be enough to reduce infections and a further crackdown was not needed.

The Treasury’s trump card was figures showing that if London was put in tier 2 the restrictions would mean 50,000 jobs were put at risk, many of them in hospitality. The kicker was that if the capital was placed in tier 3 the number of jobs at risk would rise to a staggering 550,000. The difference was potentially half a million jobs — about one in nine of all jobs in the capital.

Glen’s intervention, coupled with the knowledge that Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, was “threatening to kick the f*** off if London went into tier 3”, led Johnson to make his decision: “I’ve listened to Michael, but we’ve got to think about the economic situation as well. My view is that we should have London in tier 2.”

In Downing Street they regard this plan as an attempt to “build a bridge from here to Easter”, to keep a lid on the virus until the twin battalions of what Johnson calls “the cavalry” or “the artillery” arrive in the shape of a vaccine or more widespread mass testing.

Tory MPs are in uproar at the plans, with 70 having written a letter of protest and about 50 planning to vote against their own government on Tuesday when parliament is asked to approve the scheme.

Labour will wait until tomorrow before deciding how to vote but the Tory chief whip, Mark Spencer, told Johnson on Wednesday night: “This is going to be difficult but we’ll get it through because the opposition won’t oppose it.”

But last night Johnson wrote a letter to the 70 rebels, pledging that some areas being put into tier 3 will be allowed to move into tier 2 in mid-December and announcing that the whole tiers system will be abandoned in February unless MPs vote to extend it.

Despite the climbdown, the Covid Recovery Group of rebels, co-ordinated by Steve Baker, a veteran of Brexit rebellions, is demanding that the government publishes impact assessments of the plans before the vote.

Senior officials do not think the economic document will calm things. It will combine Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) and Bank of England figures into an “apocalyptic” analysis of how the economy is likely to shrink by up to 12% this year and be between 3% and 6% smaller than it would have been in the long term. “We aren’t going to sugar-coat things,” a Treasury source said.

Treasury officials, stung by public scepticism about their predictions over Brexit, will not present nationwide jobs warnings, but if the dire predictions about London were extrapolated across all the 23 million people who will be in tier 3 it would mean between one million and two million jobs are at risk.

In a virtual meeting with Tory backbenchers last week, Johnson told MPs that the OBR was “too gloomy” about the economy bouncing back.

Even before last night’s letter, he ordered that the first review of the new tiers on December 16 be “a real moment” in which millions will be moved from tier 3 down to tier 2.

“In two more weeks we will have more data on how the national lockdown has helped bring the numbers down,” a senior figure said.

“There are a load of places that are on the borderline between 2 and 3 and by mid-December the data should allow some to move down.”

The biggest of those might be Manchester. Edward Argar, the health minister, was asked repeatedly by MPs on a Zoom call on Thursday about what the exit strategy is for those areas in tier 3.

An MP from Greater Manchester who was on the call said: “He just couldn’t answer the question. Some of us believe Andy Burnham has pissed off Matt Hancock so much, we will be in lockdown in perpetuity.”

But it is now clear Burnham has been tipped the wink by ministers that his region will be downgraded to tier 2. An ally said: “We are about two weeks behind Liverpool so we see no reason why we won’t be in tier 2. We have been reassured that the review will be meaningful.” That is supported by senior figures in No 10. “December 16 is a big deal,” one added.

If this helps to placate Tory backbenchers, it will put the prime minister into conflict with the scientists. Sage minutes, shown to ministers last week, reveal that the experts remain implacably opposed to any loosening of the rules in the run-up to Christmas.

They predict that the R number, a rating of the virus’s ability to spread, could double from just under one to about two, leading to exponential growth. On Friday the scientists advised against singing, dancing, playing board games or hugging relatives at Christmas.

No 10 is furious with the Department of Health, where senior figures have briefed MPs that they would like to impose a fourth, higher tier — rebranded as “3-plus” — in January if Christmas sends infections up. A No 10 source said: “They have been pushing this for weeks. It is simply not going to happen.” Hancock denies this is his view.

Downing Street is similarly quick to leap on overly optimistic briefings by officials elsewhere in Whitehall that the purchase of hundreds of millions of quick- turnaround “lateral flow” tests mean a “test and release” scheme could be set up to enable theatres to reopen for pantomimes and for people to attend the traditional Boxing Day football matches.

Johnson told MPs at the 1922 committee: “We have cornered the market” in the tests, but a No 10 source said: “We are some way off that.”

The prime minister’s inner circle is cautious about predicting the end is in sight. Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, has privately warned senior members of the civil service that they will continue to work from home until at least Easter.

A Whitehall source said: “The strategy they are working towards is to try and get things back to normal in the spring but that will depend on how successfully they roll out the vaccination scheme.”

There are some grounds for optimism. This weekend Sharma signed a deal for another two million doses of the Moderna vaccine, bringing the total number to seven million.

Ministers hope the Pfizer vaccine, of which Britain has ordered 40 million doses, will get the green light from safety watchdogs and will start being given to the over-70s and the clinically obese by December 7. However, the logistics of distributing the Pfizer drug, which has to be kept at minus 70C, is “daunting”.

The Oxford University vaccine being made by AstraZeneca has also hit bumps, with claims that the trials were poorly structured. But Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, told No 10 officials last week that it is still on track.

Key people, including NHS workers, teachers and police officers, will get it first although it is understood that the government has the capability to deliver only one million doses a week. No 10 says that will be scaled up.

Military chiefs are preparing for a flood of requests from councils for help with mass testing and vaccine distribution. They will open a “clearing house” team in the headquarters of the army’s 14,000-strong Covid Support Force to process the requests. Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, told MPs last week that he could not replicate the Liverpool testing regime nationwide because“I don’t have that many people”.

Normal life might be around the corner, but the liberation force will not be the artillery or the cavalry. Johnson had better hope that whoever it is can score a late winner in the second half.

Angry Tory MPs turn on Gove after ‘overwhelmed NHS’ claims

Boris Johnson was facing a growing Tory mutiny over new Covid-19 restrictions last night as furious Conservative MPs accused the government of exaggerating capacity problems in the NHS in an attempt to win their support.

[See the two contrasting posts of yesterday: “Boris offers escape route for towns and villages” and “Support our curbs or Covid will swamp our NHS”. Distinctly mixed messages. – Owl]

Toby Helm

Ahead of a crucial Commons vote on the new three-tier system on Tuesday, an extraordinary row erupted over claims by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove that the NHS, including the newly constructed Nightingale hospitals, could be “physically overwhelmed”.

Writing yesterday in the Times, Gove revealed that the earlier decision to impose a second national lockdown had been taken after ministers had been presented with a grim picture of rising Covid-19 cases and Nightingale hospitals at capacity.

“Every bed, every ward occupied,” Gove wrote. Attempting to force rebel Conservatives into line, he told elected members that they had “to take responsibility for difficult decisions” in the national interest.

In a desperate attempt to win potential rebels round, the prime minister wrote to all MPs spelling out that regulations putting areas in tiers would end on 3 February and be reviewed every fortnight until then. He also promised the analysis demanded by many MPs of the health, economic and social impact of Covid-19 and the measures taken to tackle them.

But as Tory MPs objected to Gove’s tone, the argument was stoked further as other Conservatives revealed to the Observer that health minister Nadine Dorries had told a group of them last week that the Nightingale hospitals were in fact largely unfilled because people regarded them as “dark and dingy”, and that it was proving difficult to find the staff to run them. A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care denied she had used those words and said: “Each NHS Nightingale has been developing a clinical model that can be scaled up as and when additional capacity is required in the region. This model ensures that the right skill mix of staff will be available from NHS trusts in the region, NHS professionals and direct recruitment if required.”

A spokesperson for the NHS confirmed that just two of seven Nightingales – Manchester and Exeter – had begun to admit patients.

One senior Tory said: “Ministers like Gove cannot at one and the same time be saying we are on the brink of being overwhelmed unless we adopt far tougher measures, while admitting they are not using any but a tiny number of the emergency capacity beds we have, and that, anyway, they don’t have the staff. If it is as bad as he says, what have they been doing since March?”

Tobias Ellwood, one of the Tory MPs threatening to vote against the government on Tuesday, said Gove had been “completely disingenuous because every one of our Nightingales is underused – they are largely dormant”. On Twitter, he added: “Let’s not place areas in higher tiers, due to local bed pressure when other beds lie empty.”

Johnson announced on Thursday that 99% of the population of England would enter the highest two tiers, with tight restrictions on bars and restaurants, and a ban on households mixing indoors. Only Cornwall, the Isle of Wight and the Isles of Scilly will be in the lowest tier.

Many Tory MPs say the new system imposes excessively tight restrictions on areas with fewer cases which border regions with higher numbers of cases. They have called on ministers to produce more evidence for their decisions and also to publish analysis of the economic cost of imposing the new regime. They also want boundaries to be drawn at a more local level.

Charles Walker, the vice chairman of the 1922 committee of Tory MPs, said he would vote against the government on Tuesday and believed that Gove’s approach had backfired.

He said: “Michael Gove’s intervention has not helped the government’s case. I, like most MPs, have perhaps one or two emails a week from people saying ‘tighten the rules’ but scores from people running businesses asking how they can survive. Members of parliament who have deep concerns about the latest round of restrictions are acting in good faith by representing those who elected them. They are doing what they were elected to do.”

In his letter to MPs the prime minister called these “tough times” requiring “tough decisions”. He said areas could move into lower tiers from 16 December and the government would spell out what was needed before this could happen. A Cabinet meeting on 17 December would spell out what tiers would operate from 19 December. After the fourth fortnightly review on 27 January, parliament would have another vote “determining whether the measures stay in place until the end of March”.

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, which will be placed in tier 3, accused the government of repeating scare tactics used by ministers during his recent rows with Westminster.

“Gove and the government have form on this,” he said. “They used the same scare tactics against Greater Manchester when they tried to browbeat us into accepting their original flawed tier 3 proposals. It didn’t work then and people should be sceptical of it now.” He said all MPs in tier 3 areas should “think twice” before voting for a system that would give their councils no extra support than those in tier 1 or 2, adding: “It will decimate their towns and cities and is a deliberate act of levelling down.”

The occupancy rate of Manchester’s Nightingale hospital, he said, was low, while locally the number of intensive-care Covid-19 patients had fallen to its lowest level since early November.

At least 10 Tory MPs are expected to vote against the government on Tuesday, with some two dozen or more said to be deeply uneasy and waiting to see if the government makes concessions. Former Cabinet minister Damian Green, the MP for Ashford in Kent, said: “Unless I see new convincing evidence, I will vote against.” Seven Tory MPs from Kent are due to meet Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock on Monday.

Tory MP Dr Ben Spencer said: “As a doctor, with all my body and soul we absolutely cannot let our NHS be overwhelmed and I agree with Michael Gove that MPs must take responsibility for difficult decisions. That’s why to make these decisions MPs need the harm/benefit analysis and the predicted impact of these restrictions on NHS capacity for their local areas.”

Steve Baker, deputy chair of the 70-strong Covid Recovery Group, which has raised deep concerns of the plans, said he was grateful for the “constructive approach’ and would study the details of Johnson’s letter before Tuesday’s vote. Labour has yet to decide how to vote and is pressing for more financial support for hard-hit areas and businesses.

Bharat Pankhania, senior clinical lecturer at Exeter University Medical School, warned that the risks to individuals were being ignored by those seeking tier relaxation. He said: “It is all very well talking about numbers and infection rates but what about the person who gets infected and ends up with permanently damaged lungs? They are done for life. These are the factors that we should be focussed on.”

Coronavirus expert David Matthews of Bristol University added that the government needed to be much clearer about its motives for imposing strict new measures. “It is imposing them because we don’t want cases to start rising again,” he said. “If unchecked, that would mean people will be left to die, untreated, in their own homes because there would be no hospital beds for them because there were so many other sick individuals. If a person gets seriously ill with Covid, they should have the right to have emergency treatment, dexamethasone, and oxygen in emergency care units. Keeping case numbers low is therefore essential.”

Meanwhile, hospitals have been told to prepare for the rollout of a coronavirus vaccine in as little as 10 days’ time, with NHS workers expected to be at the front of the queue. NHS bosses said hospitals in England could expect to receive their first deliveries of a vaccine produced by Pfizer/BioNTech as soon as Monday 7 December, with regulatory approval anticipated within days.

Planning applications validated by EDDC for week beginning 16 November

‘Why did it take nine hours to go 130 miles in our new electric Porsche?’

“To really help the revolution get to full power before 2030 we need a concerted effort from local authorities to take up the charging point grants – only one in six do, according to AA research, and for those premises providing chargers to ensure they work.”

Miles Brignall

A couple from Kent have described how it took them more than nine hours to drive 130 miles home from Bournemouth as they struggled to find a working charger capable of producing enough power to their electric car.

Linda Barnes and her husband had to visit six charging stations as one after another they were either out of order, already had a queue or were the slow, older versions that would never be able to provide a fast enough charge in the time.

While the couple seem to have been “incredibly unlucky”, according to the president of the AA, Edmund King, their case highlights some of the problems that need ironing out before electric car owners can rely on the UK’s charging infrastructure.

The couple, who love their new fully electric Porsche Taycan 4S, which has a range of about 250 miles, contacted the Guardian to describe how difficult it is to recharge a car away from home. Their journey would have taken two and a half hours in a conventional car, they say.

The pair are not the first owners who love their electric cars to complain that the UK’s charging network is poorly maintained, complicated and hugely difficult to navigate via its various apps and payment systems.

The latest electric cars require fast 50kW-100kW chargers to refill on the go but they are hard to find and are often out of action.

Their journey shows the scale of the challenge the government faces if it is to have a working infrastructure in place ahead of its ban on new petrol and diesel cars in 2030.

Linda Barnes says they knew they would have to stop for a fast charge on the way home but were unprepared for what happened next.

“We left Bournemouth with 45 miles of range left and followed the car’s navigation system to the nearest fast charger, plugged it in but nothing happened,” she says. “A parking attendant told us it had been out of action for weeks.”

After a tour of several chargers, they were left wondering if they might have to stay the night in a hotel. A nearby Porsche garage with a slow charger gave them a free boost to get them to the next motorway services. When they arrived there, a woman who was using it told them she had only got it working by calling the helpline and that the call centre was about to close.

At their next stop, there was a queue to use the 7kW slow charger, which was working but came with a “distinctly unhelpful” 45-minute time limit, at which point another driver suggested a nearby hotel that had charging points.

Rather than risk driving there and use up more power, the couple phoned, only to be told by staff that they had no idea what type it was or if it was even working.

When they finally got to a working fast charger at a motorway services – via two more that were not operating – they were met with eight shiny Tesla chargers but discovered they were out of bounds because they are only available to the brand’s owners.

Fortunately, there was another fast charger that was available and they were finally able to get enough power to get home with only 11% battery power to spare.

Linda says the sense of relief was enormous. “We ran through the entire gamut of emotions in those nine hours – resignation, range anxiety, annoyance and disbelief that this was happening – and finally elation when we realised we’d get home,” she says.

“At one point I thought we might have to spend the night in the motorway service area. We would have stayed in the hotel if it hadn’t been the night that the second lockdown came into force.”

Thinking that they had just been unlucky on their first outing, the next day Linda’s husband drove to their nearest town where there are three charging points in a car park. None were working.

“He then drove to a local pub where there is one in the car park – that was not working, either. Undeterred, he drove to the local BP fuel station but, sure enough, that was not functioning. There was no helpline number on the charging point and the assistant in the service station couldn’t help and said it was nothing to do with them.”

Linda says she now knows why most drivers charge their cars at home overnight and avoid using the public network. “Our car is lovely to drive and electric cars are the future. However, someone needs to get a grip of the charging infrastructure,” she says. “On the plus side, we have discovered that electric car owners are a helpful bunch and everyone we met tried to help.”

The AA’s King, a keen electric vehicle driver, says the couple were very unlucky with their first non-home charging experience: “This couple are very lucky to have a Taycan, which is the best electric vehicle I have ever driven. For most electric vehicle drivers, charging at home and at work gets them where they want to go and back.

“However, the reliability and availability of public charging does vary, with much criticism aimed particularly at charging on some motorway service areas but things are fast improving.”

He cites companies such as Gridserve, which has a state-of-the-art charging station near Braintree in Essex, and InstaVolt, which has won three customer awards this year for the reliability of its 500kW rapid charging network.

“Electric vehicle consumers want more interoperability, more chargers, greater reliability and a contactless experience. To really help the revolution get to full power before 2030 we need a concerted effort from local authorities to take up the charging point grants – only one in six do, according to AA research, and for those premises providing chargers to ensure they work. Driving an electric vehicle is great fun and can save you money and save emissions. Let’s make sure the future network can help save range anxiety,” he says.

Charging points: what you need to know

• There are more than 11,600 public charging sites in the UK, located at motorway service areas, supermarket and local authority car parks and, increasingly, pubs and restaurants. However, they come with a variety of sockets, power sizes, and a baffling array of payment methods – depending on the provider.

• Some are free to use but most have a fee, particularly the rapid chargers that will provide 80% recharges in 40-60 minutes. Some require users to sign up for an app and special payment card; the better sites let you pay contactlessly with a standard bank card – but there are not enough.

• Paid-for charging sites typically cost 30p per kWh, which is about twice as much you would pay if doing it at home. You will pay about £10 for 33kWh of electricity at a rapid charger – in most cases enough to drive about 130 miles.

• In something of a rerun of the Betamax v VHS video battle of the 1980s, there are three types of connector being used, so most drivers have to carry two leads around. The good news is that new cars sold in Europe are moving to one standard, CCS faster charging, which should make life much easier. Drivers connecting to low-power 7kW public chargers use their own cable, while the higher-powered 50kW and 100kW sites have built-in cables, similar to a petrol pump.

• Too often, chargers are simply out of order, a really big problem if you were banking on being able to use one to complete a journey. The various apps will often tell you it is working but the information can be out of date.

• This article was amended on 28 November 2020. An earlier version incorrectly referred to a ban on new “petrol and electric” cars in 2030, rather than petrol and diesel cars.

Politicians were once held to account – now nothing stands in their way

Most people in Britain were brought up in a country that offered the faint hope of justice. The police would investigate corruption, if only occasionally. Politicians would dodge and weave but avoid flat-out lies. Political parties had moral standards, however flexible, and if a minister disgraced himself or herself they could resign. Opposition politicians, journalists, satirists, charities and alliances of concerned citizens worked on the assumption that if they exposed wrongdoing there was a chance it would stop.

 Nick Cohen 

I don’t wish to romanticise the past. My small point is that we have not always been as shamefully governed as we are governed today. Countries change and not always for the better. Corruptions of public life in Britain that were once challenged now pass unpunished. The old codes that restrained the powerful have proved useless against politicians who say: “We can break them and no one can stop us.” Boris Johnson’s administration now lies as a matter of policy and a matter of course.

Do I hear you say that all politicians lie? Not like members of this government they don’t. Today’s ministers do not just avoid the question. They lie outright, loud and proud. To confine myself to the past week, ministers said the electorate “settled the argument” about a no-deal Brexit in the 2016 referendum and the 2019 general election. The record shows Leavers promised voters “the easiest deal in human history” in 2016 and an “oven-ready” deal in 2019. They were still telling the Leave voters they cozened that we should be able to enjoy the benefits of being in the EU after leaving. If there is chaos at the ports and job losses, it will be because the EU willed suffering on us as a punishment, rather than because Boris Johnson foisted a hard Brexit on his country, with predictable and inevitable consequences.

It may seem like a lost age, but not so long ago allegations of corruption warranted police investigations. In 2006, a Scottish Nationalist MP alleged Labour was selling peerages in return for political donations. The Met questioned Labour fundraisers and ministers in Tony Blair’s government, up to and including Blair. What makes the past seem almost rosy is the sequel. The Crown Prosecution Service said there was not enough evidence to prosecute. Labour did not turn on the Metropolitan police and force its chief commissioner out. Blair did not claim that the police were pursuing a political vendetta. He and his government took the investigation on the chin and accepted scrutiny as the price of governing in a democracy.

The police have prima facie grounds this weekend to investigate the billions in Covid contracts this government has sluiced out of the Treasury to friends and allies. Cronyism wasn’t a small error of judgment. It was such an accepted part of the spending splurge that the National Audit Office found civil servants had established a VIP fast-lane “to assess and process potential PPE leads referred by government officials, ministers’ offices, MPs and Lords, senior NHS staff and other health professionals”.

If Cressida Dick, commissioner of the Met, and Lynne Owens, director general of the National Crime Agency, were to investigate, they would do so in the knowledge that the Johnson administration menaces everyone who holds it to account. The Electoral Commission investigates allegations against Vote Leave and Conservative MPs. The government proposes to abolish it. The Supreme Court rules that Johnson cannot arbitrarily suspend parliament. The government proposes curtailing its powers.

You can guess how a police investigation would be dealt with. Tory newspapers and websites – probably the Telegraph and Guido – would look for the smallest piece of dirt to smear Dicks and Owens as Remainers or liberals. The courtier intellectuals at Policy Exchange would develop strategies to stop the “activist” police officers pursuing “political prosecutions”. Ministers would endorse them and before you knew it the police would be under attack. Even if they want to investigate, the police must have noticed that the Priti Patel case ended with the guilty minister staying in her job while the honourable investigator resigned.

Do you still think nothing has changed? Let’s see what else I have. Staying with last week, governments once believed manifesto promises were sacrosanct. On Wednesday, the Conservatives tore up their manifesto promise on international aid.

When Labour was in power, journalists deplored its reliance on spin. Johnson wrote in 2006 that Blair was “luxuriating in power, while all 3,000-odd government spin doctors… squander untold millions burnishing his image”. (It wasn’t true but back then no one thought it worth their time exposing Johnson. Britain might not be in such a squalid state if we had.)

Last week, the Open Democracy website revealed a government led by Johnson, the enemy of spin, had set up an “Orwellian” unit to obstruct the release of sensitive information requested by the public under the Freedom of Information Act and to compile blacklists of journalists.

In 2014, Ed Miliband forgot to mention the deficit in his conference speech. Johnson seized on the “Freudian slip” as proof Labour was unfit to govern. Last week, his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, issued a spending review and did not mention Brexit once, which certainly showed he was unfit to govern, The media did not pile into Sunak’s “Freudian slip” as they piled in on Miliband and not only because of pro-Tory bias.

Time is on the side of authoritarian rulers. The Tories know that, however furious the cries of anger, they have an 80-seat majority and the next election won’t be for years. The scandal will fade. They will endure.

I am not about to offer false optimism. People once believed the way they could win change was by shaming the double standards of rulers hiding behind masks of virtue. Now there are no easy ways of coping with rulers who have no shame, who feel no need to pretend to be virtuous because they can govern with impunity. The only answer is to tell yourself to keep pounding away in the faint hope that a kind of justice will come years from now. I accept this isn’t the most rousing of slogans.

• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist