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 www.dailymail.co.uk

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 www.telegraph.co.uk 

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 www.theguardian.com 

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 www.theguardian.com

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

www.dpt.nhs.uk 

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. www.bmj.com (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.

Footnotes

  • 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.

https://bmj.com/coronavirus/usage

“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 www.telegraph.co.uk

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 www.theguardian.com

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

www.theguardian.com

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

https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/complaints_regarding_honiton_tow_2#incoming-1679492

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 www.theguardian.com

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.”