Otter Restoration project: Stop the Swamp, or future proof against climate change?

Two reports in today’s press show that the Otter Restoration Project is proving to be highly controversial.

From today’s Western Morning News:

ENVIRONMENT: A major floodplain restoration project has come up against opposition from campaigners who argue green landscape will be lost to mudflats amid two years of disruptive works. Philip Bowern reports.

A PLAN to ‘restore’ the lower reaches of Devon’s River Otter (pictured above by Helen Dart) by breaking through flood barriers and allowing a flood plain to develop has come in for opposition from a group fighting the move.

East Devon district council is considering an application presented by the Environment Agency for the Lower Otter Restoration Project. The applicants say they are working with local people and partner organisations, including Clinton Devon Estates, to “adapt and improve the downstream part of the River Otter, its estuary and its immediate surroundings for future generations.”

The scheme, which reconnects the river to its floodplain, will create what the applicants say is an increased area washed by the tides and bring “significant biodiversity benefits.” The Environment Agency says it believes the scheme will compensate for lost areas of inter-tidal habitat in other coastal sites, like the Exe estuary, which have been “squeezed” due to increased development at the coast and the building of coastal defences.

But a group of local people are opposing the plans. They have formed a campaign group called Stop the Otter Swamp and are calling on others to object to the proposals to East Devon council before the advertised deadline for comments on Friday November 13. In their leaflets they warn the proposals will bring about major unwanted changes.

They say: “Residents were taken by surprise when a planning application was lodged at the end of September quite unlike previous proposals, including major construction works in a huge area of land. Few people were informed about it, and most are still completely unaware of a proposal which is of widespread significance.”

The application covers 151 hectares of land in the parishes of East Budleigh, Budleigh Salterton and Otterton, stretching from the Lime Kiln Car Park to an area south of Frogmore House in the the Lower Otter Valley.

Part of the plan would relocate the Budleigh Salterton cricket club away from its current flood-prone site and also, the applicants say, secure the livelihoods of tenant farmers in the area as well as maintain access to South Farm.

But the protesters claim: “If approved, it will destroy the Otter Valley as we know it forever. The green landscape will be replaced by mud flats; trees will be felled; wildlife species such as owls, otters, bats and beavers will be lost and the nature reserve will be disturbed by major building works lasting at least two years.”

The original plan for the changes, which date back three years to 2017, came from landowners the Clinton Devon Estate. The Environment Agency backed the proposals because it has a statutory need to compensate for the loss of mud flats on the nearby Exe estuary.

In a summary of the proposals the applicants say: “The natural environment of the Otter estuary has, for hundreds of years, been modified by humans. These changes have led to a disruption of natural processes with the river no longer able to adapt and move naturally across the floodplain as it once did, nor can it cope effectively with flooding events, which are more prevalent due to climate change. There is a strong argument to take action.”

They say if the plans are not approved there is a risk of further flooding of a road, continued flooding of Budleigh Salterton Cricket Club and the “catastrophic breaching of embankments.”

To comment on the plan go to the East Devon district council planning portal.

From today’s Exmouth Journal:

Act now and work with nature to future-proof our community

Kate Ponting countryside and communities officer for Clinton Estates

A stormy sky over the Otter Estuary

Walking along the South West Coast Path last week and looking at the stormy English Channel, reminded me just how much the sea has shaped our environment here in East Devon.

Two years ago, a very high tide at Budleigh Salterton contributed to the collapse of a section of the South West Coast Path. It was only thanks to the prompt work of the Environment Agency and other partners that a catastrophic breach of the embankments on the River Otter Estuary was averted.

Even so, it was still four months before the footpath could be safely reopened.

The sea is constantly changing the landscape, and climate change is speeding-up those changes so we’ll all have to prepare ourselves for more stormy weather and rising sea levels.

Unless we act soon, nature will certainly breach the man-made embankments of the lower River Otter and the Otter Estuary; eroding the footpath, flooding the cricket club, threatening access to homes and businesses and exposing an old municipal tip.

The Lower Otter Restoration Project, a partnership which includes the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust, has come up with a solution to this problem.

It will mean raising South Farm Road and building a new road bridge to protect access to the area, working to save the South West Coast Path, protecting the redundant tip and relocating the cricket club. It will also recreate a rare wetland habitat which will provide a home for many threatened and endangered species.

Thanks to a time-limited funding package from the EU’s Interreg programme, we have a small window of opportunity to realign the Lower Otter and the Otter Estuary with its natural floodplain through a carefully managed programme of work.

Change will come to the lower Otter valley, the sea and the climate will see to that.

We have two alternatives: do nothing and accept we will have to deal with whatever the changes bring, or act now and work with nature to future-proof our community and protect a much-loved amenity

Johnson’s housing plan threatens his own green pledges

If the prime minister is serious about tackling the climate emergency he needs to start by overhauling his ill-considered planning reforms.

Richard Simmons 

It’s never been clearer: what we build, where we build it and how we move around are some of the biggest causes of carbon emissions. We know from painful experience that the destruction of nature is a common casualty of reckless development. That’s why a robust, locally led planning system is crucial, not the top-down free-for-all proposed by the government earlier this year.

At CPRE, the countryside charity, we want to see affordable, well-designed new homes for rural communities. But these homes should be put there by a locally accountable planning system, not one dictated by an algorithm created in Whitehall. They should also be as environmentally sustainable as possible, from the materials used to the standard of insulation.

But the government’s plans fail to deliver any of this. They’re ambiguous about environmental measures and make few if any promises for when objectives will be met. The government’s aim to deliver carbon neutral new homes by 2050 is actually a sign of failure. This target represents 34 lost years, given that a pledge to achieve the same thing by 2016 was dropped by the Conservatives five years ago.

Boris Johnson is expected to outline his ten-point plan to tackle the climate emergency this week. With so much at stake we need clarity of thought and speed of action. But what’s the point in investing in new technology to capture carbon when our planning system produces dislocated, car-dependent, land-hungry developments, further increasing carbon emissions?

Where’s the logic in planting millions more trees when developers are given a free rein to build on precious countryside even though they could build more than a million homes on previously developed brownfield sites at a fraction of the environmental cost?

The planning system, if properly reformed, can come up with solutions to our environmental problems rather than add to them. It needs to recognise that the built environment, transport and energy play a big role in generating greenhouse gases, and act to change that. Above all we must value nature’s capacity to sustain our world. If the prime minister’s ten-point plan for the environment is to amount to anything, it must force a rethink of his damaging, polluting planning reforms.

Richard Simmons is chairman of the policy committee of CPRE, the countryside charity

Inquiry raises concerns over how £3.6bn towns fund was distributed

Watchdog says process was ‘not impartial’ and decisions were ‘politically motivated’

Rajeev Syal

An inquiry by parliament’s spending watchdog into how ministers distributed £3.6bn to help deprived towns has raised serious concerns that funding decisions were politically biased.

The cross-party public accounts committee said it was “not convinced by the rationales for selecting some towns and not others” when the towns fund was distributed by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, (MHCLG) last year.

Justifications offered by ministers for selecting individual towns were “vague and based on sweeping assumptions” and raised concerns over the decisions being politically motivated, the committee said.

The highly critical report comes after the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, earlier this year denied having any role in selecting his constituency, Newark, for a £25m grant under the scheme, despite having boasted about it during last year’s general election.

Jenrick said the award had been signed off by the then communities minister Jake Berry, while he had approved a grant for Darwen in Berry’s constituency.

Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, said the system gave “every appearance of having been politically motivated”.

“MHCLG must be open and transparent about the decisions it made to hand out those billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, and what it expects to deliver,” she said.

The scheme was originally launched “at pace” in July 2019 to support struggling towns across England.

Officials in the department then drew up a ranked priority list of 541 towns based on need and potential for development for ministers to select from.

While the top 40 “high priority” locations were all confirmed, ministers then picked another 61 “medium and low priority” communities from across the rest of the list including one ranked just 536th.

Although the department was supposed to record the “rationale” for choosing some towns and not others, the committee said it was “not convinced” by some of the reasons given. “The selection process was not impartial,” they concluded.

The committee also complained that the reasons given by the department for not publishing more information about the selection process were “weak and unconvincing”.

It said concerns had been heightened by press statements which wrongly claimed the National Audit Office had concluded that its procedures were “robust”.

While the department’s permanent secretary, Jeremy Pocklington, said he was satisfied the requirements of “propriety and regularity” had been met, the committee said it was “disappointed” that a summary of his assessment remained unpublished.

“This lack of transparency has fuelled accusations of political bias in the selection process, and has risked the civil service’s reputation for integrity and impartiality,” it said.

The MHCLG responded to the report with a statement rejecting the main conclusions. A spokesperson said: “We completely disagree with the committee’s criticism of the town fund selection process, which was comprehensive, robust and fair.

“The towns fund will help level up the country, creating jobs and building stronger and more resilient local economies.”

PR firm hired by UK vaccine tsar linked to Dominic Cummings’ father-in-law

The UK’s vaccine tsar is to pay almost £700,000 in taxpayers’ money on a team of boutique PR consultants whose secretary is a long-time business associate of Dominic Cummings’ father-in-law.

Mattha Busby

Over the weekend, it was reported that Kate Bingham, the head of the vaccine taskforce, who reports directly to the prime minister, was to spend more than £670,000 hiring PR consultants from a firm called Admiral Associates.

The owner and founding managing director of Admiral Associates is listed in companies house as Georgie Cameron, whose husband Angus Collingwood-Cameron is also listed as secretary. He is also a park manager for Chillingham Castle Wild Cattle Association, and a director since 2004 along with Humphry Wakefield, father-in-law of Cummings.

Eight of Cameron’s freelance consultants are overseeing Bingham’s media strategy. There has been growing disquiet after it was claimed Bingham disclosed confidential data about government investment priorities to US financiers before it emerged that she could personally profit from the launch of an investment fund bankrolled by UK taxpayers.

Appearing before a joint select committee hearing last week, Bingham denied any wrongdoing and described the report as “nonsense”, “inaccurate” and “irresponsible”.

On its LinkedIn page, in the only post during the last five months, Admiral Associates appeared to announce it was hiring for the roles to support the UK pandemic response and that they required people skilled in crisis communications.

It said experience of working with or within a healthcare or research setting and/or a government department was an advantage and that remuneration would be “excellent for the right candidates”.

The overarching company last year reported tangible assets of £2,884 and total equity of £194,065. The company filing said: “The director of the company has elected not to include a copy of the profit and loss account within the financial statements.”

The association between Wakefield and the PR company is likely to reignite accusations of a so-called “chumocracy” at the centre of British politics after a number of contracts amid the coronavirus crisis were awarded to allies of the prime minister’s chief of staff without tender.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, said: “These revelations raise yet more serious questions about how taxpayer money is being spent during the pandemic and how government is being run.

“The public deserve urgent answers as to how a small PR agency with close links to the PM’s closest adviser was simply gifted such a large contract – and what exactly was delivered for such a price tag.

“We know Dominic Cummings doesn’t think the rules apply to him, but this is no way to treat taxpayer money. The prime minister must be transparent about the processes he has put in place to allow such potential breaches of public trust.”

According to the Sunday Times, £500,000 has already been spent on the team, which is contracted until the end of the year, suggesting each consultant is on the equivalent of £167,000 a year. There was not been an open procurement process but this is not unusual practice in some circumstances.

Bingham, who is married to the Conservative minister Jesse Norman, is herself in a temporary role and had always been expected to step down later this year. The role was not advertised and it has been reported she may have been headhunted by Johnson, from whom she won praise for her work on procuring coronavirus vaccines.

It was reported those assisting Bingham, who reports directly to the PM, are helping her prepare for media appearances, drafting statements and overseeing a vaccines podcast on Spotify, which has broadcast eight episodes since August.

The preamble for one episode reads: “Developing a vaccine is one thing, but manufacturing it in very large amounts is a significant challenge in itself.” Another episode discusses how to reassure people who may be reluctant to take a vaccine.

The apparent PR push comes as the health secretary, Matt Hancock, said on Tuesday he had asked the NHS to get ready for a rollout of the vaccine as soon as next month.

The Collingwood-Camerons and Admiral Associates did not return requests for comment. A No 10 spokesperson said: “It is ridiculous to make such an imaginary and tenuous link. Dominic Cummings has never heard of Georgina or Angus Cameron.

“Specialist communications support was procured by the Vaccine Taskforce in line with proper practice.”

ONS releases weekly Covid-19 death figures for South West

The number of new deaths relating to coronavirus have been registered in the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures across Devon and Cornwall has fallen.

Daniel Clark

The figures from the ONS, relating to the week of October 24 and October 30 but registered up to November 7, show that 11 of the 332 deaths registered in the two counties had Covid-19 mentioned on the death certificate.

The previous week saw 14 of the 313 deaths mention Covid-19 – although a 15th death has subsequently been added into the figures.

Of the 11 deaths from the most recent week of figures, six were of people from Torbay, with five hospital deaths and one in a care home, while two people from Plymouth, and one from Mid Devon, the South Hams, and Torridge died in hospital as well.

A further three deaths – two in Plymouth and one in Teignbridge – occurred in previous weeks but were only registered in the most recent dataset.

The Teignbridge death occurred in hospital in the week of October 17-23, with a Plymouth death in hospital in the week of September 26-October 2, and a care home death in the week of September 5-September 11 added.

Previous weeks have seen 15, 6, 5, 2, 0, 3, 1, 2, 0, 1, 2, 1, 0, 1, 1, 2, 2, 5, 1, 7, 10, 11, 15, 38, 44, 70, 85, 107, 90, 60, 16 and nine deaths registered.

The Isles of Scilly has still yet to see a COVID-19 related death, while Exeter has now gone 20 weeks, West Devon eight weeks, Cornwall three weeks, East Devon two weeks, and North Devon and Teignbridge one week without a new death registered in the most recent weekly figures.

In total, 624 deaths from coronavirus have been registered across Devon and Cornwall, with 332 in hospitals, 245 in care homes, 46 at home, one in a hospice, and one in a communal establishment.

Of the deaths, 213 have been registered in Cornwall, 106 in Plymouth, 77 in Torbay, 51 in East Devon, 39 in Exeter, 35 in Teignbridge, 27 in North Devon, 22 in Torridge, 21 in Mid Devon, 19 in West Devon, 14 in the South Hams and none on the Isles of Scilly.

The figures show in which local authority the deceased’s usual place of residence was. For instance, if someone may have died in Derriford Hospital but lived in West Devon, while the death may have been registered in Plymouth, their death would be recorded in the mortality statistics for the ONS figures against West Devon.

Deaths that have occurred in hospitals following a positive coronavirus test since October 30 will be recorded in next week’s figures, as long as the deceased lived within Devon and Cornwall, the death has been registered, and COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate


Place of death
Area nameHomeHospitalCare homeHospiceElsewhereTotal
Isles of Scilly000000
East Devon119290051
Mid Devon31440021
North Devon215100027
South Hams01220014
West Devon6670019

WEEK 44 (week ending October 30)

Place of death
Area nameHomeHospitalCare homeHospiceElsewhereTotal
Isles of Scilly000000
East Devon000000
Mid Devon010001
North Devon000000
South Hams010001
West Devon000000

Natural England ‘cut to the bone’ and unable to protect wildlife, say staff

The government’s conservation watchdog has been “cut to the bone”, with staff underpaid, undervalued and overworked and feeling unable to protect England’s most valuable wildlife sites, according to a new report and testimony from workers.

Phoebe Weston 

Natural England, which is sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), has a range of responsibilities, including monitoring and protecting the country’s most valuable habitats such as sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) and national nature reserves (NNRs). It also works with farmers to protect biodiversity and advises the government on environmental policy, planning and licensing.

Defra’s funding for the agency has dropped by £165m since 2008, and as a result it is struggling to carry out these statutory duties, according to Prospect trade union’s Natural England 2020-21 report. “There’s a certain weirdness to working in Natural England in that everyone knows that we’ve been absolutely cut to the bone,” one employee told the Guardian. “Everyone knows we can’t do basic statutory stuff, let alone the bigger, exciting projects we want to do.”

Following a decade of cuts, this year the agency was awarded an additional £15m to recruit around 200 new staff, including roles to help deliver the Environment bill legislation going through parliament. While the report welcomes this investment, it calls it a “drop in the ocean” and warns that “urgent, radical investment is needed”.

“Public awareness of the plight of biodiversity and fragility of our landscapes has finally come to the fore … but it is clear from the trajectory of both funding, pay and staff numbers that to meet the ambitions and challenges set out in this report, and to not let the green recovery fall flat, government must step up and make good the damage done,” the report says.

Natural England’s “lack of money is affecting everybody because it is the paymaster for a lot of local nature conservation efforts – it’s the spider in the middle of the web,” said author and conservationist Peter Marren. “I don’t think most people have ever heard of Natural England, it’s not a high-profile public body. This is happening because nobody cares about it … apart from the tight circle that work in nature conservation.”

Natural England teams are increasingly being centralised in small regional hubs due to staff shortages. Management of SSSIs – which cover 8% of England – is mostly dealt with remotely, by email and phone. Previously, one person would manage 10-15 SSSIs, now they have up to 40. More than 60% of SSSI sites are in “unfavourable” condition, and half of them haven’t been monitored in six years, which is a statutory duty, meaning the reality could be worse.

Pay has been an ongoing issue at Natural England. Last year staff were in their eighth year of a 1% cap on pay, which has since been lifted. Only 9.5% of staff believe their pay adequately reflects their performance and the gender pay gap across the agency is 8.4%.

One employee, who left last summer, told the Guardian she was earning £20,000 for four days a week and worked two extra jobs to make ends meet. She had been working for a decade before joining the agency and had two first-class degrees from Oxbridge. When she raised the pay issue with her manager she said she was told, “it’s normal for people in Natural England to have second and third jobs to get by”.

She described working at the agency as stressful: “Natural England staff are the medics of the environment and they are watching their charges – the environment, species, habitats – going extinct and rotten every day. The grief and trauma of working in the natural environment in this country is intense. In Natural England it’s a nightmare.”

This week staff were planning to strike over pay issues. In response, Natural England set up a pay reform project and union leaders have given the agency six months before it will consider industrial action again. A union representative told the Guardian; “It’s hurtful that we’re not valued like our counterparts in Defra. Our work is technical, specialist and high risk, but not properly recognised by the government and yet it depends on us for advice. It’s a plea, really, for the government to recognise the vital work that Natural England does for nature and people.”

Public sector investment in conservation has fallen in real terms by 33% in five years, according to the 2020 biodiversity indicators report. Natural England chair Tony Juniper has previously said that ongoing budget cuts have left the organisation “massively depleted”, and he has been lobbying for more funding.

Mike Clancy, Prospect union general secretary, said there was a “yawning gap” between the government’s rhetoric on climate change and biodiversity, and the reality of years of underfunding environmental agencies.

“Protecting nature means investing in the people who do that work,” he said. “Natural England is at the heart of this agenda but it can only be effective if it is properly funded and the importance of its staff properly recognised.”

Natural England has an “absolutely critical job” in turning around catastrophic wildlife decline, said Craig Bennett, chief executive of Wildlife Trusts. “If our nation is to have the natural world that we yearn for, then ministers need to give Natural England the money and powers it needs to do its job, and let it get on with it.”

Green party peer Natalie Bennett said people protecting nature are doing so “on a shoestring” due to the severity of cuts. “We’re one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries, yet Natural England has been under-resourced at every turn and this threatens the work of its expert staff … clearly funding needs to be restored.”

Marian Spain, chief executive of Natural England, said the agency is embarking on a nature recovery network, rebuilding resilient landscapes, restoring wildlife, improving soil health, and helping people to connect to the natural world. “Our staff do an extraordinary job in caring for the natural world and we are committed to making sure they are rewarded fairly for their hard work,” she said in the comment, which came via Defra.

“This government has set out ambitious environmental targets, which Natural England is well placed to deliver on – however ongoing and significant investment will be needed if we are to truly realise the ambition of leaving the environment in a better state than we found it.”

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features

Retirement village bosses defend keeping gym and pool open

How the other 1% live! – Owl

Reassurances have been made following safety concerns raised over an Exeter retirement village which has kept its swimming pool and gym open during the second lockdown.

Anita Merritt

Millbrook Village in Topsham Road, a retirement community operated by Inspired Villages, offers an extensive range of facilities for its residents including a relaxation pool, fine dining restaurant, gym and studio, a library, a private cinema, and a concierge service.

It also usually offers an inclusive programme of social activities and events.

While leisure facilities across England had to close as of last Thursday due to current lockdown restrictions, some degree of normality has been able to continue at Millbrook Village.

Devon Live has been contacted by a member of the public concerned that the on-site gym and swimming pool remaining open would pose a health risk to residents.

But management say that, with the introduction of extra measures, the facilities are safe to use.

Jamie Bunce, CEO of Inspired Villages, said: “The health, safety and wellbeing of residents and colleagues are our top priorities. We have taken serious action to protect lives and keep our retirement communities free from outbreaks of Covid-19 and are pleased to report we have had no cases at the village.

“To maintain this protective shield, we have extra cleaning and infection control measures in place. The bar and restaurant are closed, residents get a ‘buddy call’ from a village team member every day, and the team is delivering grocery essentials and cooked meals to doorsteps for residents who would like this support.

“The mental wellbeing of our residents has been another important focus for us. The exercise room, swimming pool and residents’ lounge are not premises open to the public, but are extensions of residents’ homes which support their mental and physical wellbeing during this challenging time.

“To keep residents safe, we have introduced a single household booking system, with spaces thoroughly cleaned between sessions. Online exercise classes have also been made available to residents if they would prefer to exercise in their own home.”

Millbrook Village was built in 2014 and has 206 luxury two-and three-bedroom cottages and one-and two-bedroom apartments for those aged 55 and above.

The retirement village says it is proud of how it tackled the first lockdown imposed in March and how it kept its residents safe and happy.

Leah Jackson, a dedicated wellness navigator, who is responsible for supporting the requirements and interests of residents previously told Devon Life: “The pandemic brought about many restrictions to public movement. Our main concern was how we could help residents stay connected and remain active whilst keeping everyone safe and well.

“From online Pilates classes to a pop-up shop with all the essentials people were struggling to find in supermarkets, which we deliver to residents’ doorsteps, we are offering a variety of services to maintain the high standard of living for which Millbrook is renowned. Having a video catch-up with a G&T in hand is also proving to be a popular alternative to popping to the neighbour’s house.”

She continued: “Due to our close-knit on-site community and support network, we were able to tackle the challenge really effectively – the village team really pulled together to support the residents, who were really understanding of why we were introducing the safety measures we did.

“If anything, lockdown highlighted just how much Millbrook Village can cater to our residents’ needs without needing to leave the grounds. “

Boris Johnson’s ‘moonshot’ testing scheme to cost £43 billion

The scale of the contracts, which was disclosed by the Financial Times, dwarfs the annual budgets of some government departments. The Department for Transport has a budget worth £24 billion, the Cabinet Office £15 billion and the Home Office £14 billion. It is also more than the entire annual expenditure on policing in England and Wales.

At some point there will be a day of reckoning – Owl

Steven Swinford, Deputy Political 

The government is preparing to spend more than £40 billion to help deliver on Boris Johnson’s “moonshot” pledge for mass coronavirus testing across the UK.

Public Health England has issued a contract worth £22 billion for a new national testing framework, which includes the manufacture and development of tests for the NHS over the next four years.

The NHS has issued another tender worth £20 billion which includes on-the-spot tests and diagnostics equipment. It said that the value of the contract had increased from £5 billion to £20 billion because of the pandemic and “immediate overall increased spend in support of [the] Covid-19 testing programme”.

A third tender for £1billion, covering just three and a half months, offers £912 million for the supply of rapid turnaround “lateral flow” tests. The contract could be enough to supply tests to cover the entire population.

The scale of the contracts, which was disclosed by the Financial Times, dwarfs the annual budgets of some government departments. The Department for Transport has a budget worth £24 billion, the Cabinet Office £15 billion and the Home Office £14 billion. It is also more than the entire annual expenditure on policing in England and Wales.

The disclosure came as Matt Hancock, the health secretary, announced that mass coronavirus testing would be rolled out to 67 local authorities in England.

A total of 600,000 rapid coronavirus tests, which are capable of giving results in an hour, will be sent out across the UK this week to start the next phase of mass testing. Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and the West Midlands are among the areas that will receive the tests.

Since Friday every resident in Liverpool has been entitled to receive a test under a scheme run by the army.

Speaking in the Commons this afternoon, Mr Hancock said: “The next step is to roll out this mass testing capability more widely. So I can tell the House that last night I wrote to 67 directors of public health who have expressed an interest in making 10,000 tests available immediately and making available lateral flow tests for use by local officials, according to local needs, at a rate of 10 per cent of their population per week.

“That same capacity — 10 per cent of the population per week — will be made available to the devolved administrations too.”

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said directors of public health had been prioritised for the first phase of rapid community testing based on the local prevalence of Covid-19 and expressions of interest to the department.

However, any director who wants to start rolling out local testing using lateral flow tests can do so by contacting the DHSC.

The department said local teams could direct and deliver testing “based on their local knowledge”.

Coventry city council, which is among the local authorities to be part of the mass testing programme, welcomed news of additional tests.

Liz Gaulton, the city’s director of public health, said: “Anything that will help in the battle to reduce the number of positive cases in the city is to be welcomed.”

George Duggins, Labour leader of the council, welcomed the initial batch of 10,000 tests destined for the city but warned against complacency.

He said: “Although this news of the additional testing for the city is welcome, it is noticeable it comes with no additional funding for rolling it out or implementing, which means additional expense to all local authorities.

“We will of course do that, but all local authorities need to be recognised and reimbursed for the considerable work they are all doing in helping to fight the pandemic.”

Wolverhampton’s director of public health, John Denley, said the lateral flow tests would “help us to break chains of transmission much more quickly”.

He added the city “expressed an interest” in bringing testing to Wolverhampton after observing results of the Liverpool pilot and said tests would be provided “in the coming days”.

Test and trace: Where did it all go wrong?

It was, Boris Johnson promised in the spring, the route out of lockdown and the best way of “getting our country back on its feet”.

Failings of the £10Bn private sector led omnishambles exposed – Owl

Billy Kenber, Investigations Reporter | Chris Smyth, Whitehall Editor

A nationwide system of testing and tracing to identify infections and stop the virus spreading; requiring a small minority to quarantine so that we could “release 66 million people” and allow Britain to return to something approaching normality, Mr Johnson said.

Instead, six months later, the country is back in lockdown and NHS Test & Trace, set up at great expense by a coterie of management consultants and outsourcing giants, has failed in the task the prime minister set it.

Earlier this year the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) estimated that a successful testing and contact-tracing system could reduce the crucial R number by 0.4, similar to the impact of closing every school in the UK.

By the autumn it concluded it was having only a “marginal” effect. Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, said that cases were now too high for the system to work and even Mr Johnson expressed his “frustration” and said this week that he was “perfectly willing to accept the failures of Test and Trace”. This is what went wrong.

Scramble to launch

Identifying those who have come into contact with someone diagnosed with an infectious disease and asking them to self-isolate has been an established public health tactic for centuries, and Public Health England began contact tracing as soon as the first coronavirus cases in Britain emerged last February.

Within weeks, however, a lack of testing capacity led the government to abandon these efforts. It took another month before Matt Hancock, the health secretary, announced plans to resume contact tracing. This time, he said, the government would recruit thousands of staff to run a brand new contact-tracing system.

In choosing a centralised approach, ministers followed the path they had taken with testing when it was decided that the only way to reach the scale required was to start from scratch, overlooking the “small boats” strategy of using lots of smaller existing facilities around the country.

In doing so, they ignored calls from local leaders to draw on the expertise of local public health teams, trading standards and sexual health services for whom tackling outbreaks of food poisoning, measles or sexually transmitted diseases was “bread and butter work”.

Like the large “lighthouse laboratories” set up to increase testing, Downing Street elected to hand over responsibility for this new tracing system to private contractors, awarding large contracts to the outsourcing giants Serco and Sitel. The task of running it and launching a planned contact-tracing app went to another veteran of the private sector: the Tory peer Dido Harding.

Baroness Harding of Winscombe, 52, who is married to a Conservative MP and went to university with David Cameron, had limited public health experience. Her corporate career, which included stints at Tesco and Sainsbury’s, was best known for her disastrous handling of a data leak at the telecoms company TalkTalk. Nevertheless, sources said she felt unable to decline the role, which she saw primarily as a logistical challenge, when she was personally asked to take it on by Mr Johnson.

“She is someone who is a very effective doer and she was told to do it through national structures,” a friend said.

The “army” of contact tracers hastily assembled included as many as 18,000 call centre staff paid no more than £10 an hour and in some cases drafted in from providing customer service for a package holiday company. They were to be tasked with calling the close contacts of those who had tested positive for coronavirus.

Alongside them were a few thousand “tier 2” clinically trained staff hired to make first contact with those whose test results showed they had caught the disease. A smaller number of senior “tier 1” staff were recruited to handle complex cases, such as those involving care homes or hospitals.

The online training offered was chaotic and at times appeared ill-suited, with staff required to complete a module on workplace fire safety despite working from home. With no access to the software they would use to read scripts and enter people’s details, staff were unable to practise their roles.

The phoney war

On a Wednesday evening in late May, as the scandal over Dominic Cummings’s lockdown trip to Durham continued to swirl around Westminster, newly hired contact tracers watching the daily Downing Street press conference received some surprising news. Mr Hancock announced that the system would be going live the very next day, four days earlier than the scheduled June 1 date.

The launch the following day was beset by technical problems, with tracers unable to login with the credentials sent out late the night before and Sitel declaring a “critical incident”.

From there, for many staff, the waiting began. Initially data from only certain kinds of testing sites was filtering through and thousands of tracers were left with long, empty shifts with no calls to make. One reported going 20 shifts without speaking to a single coronavirus patient, spending the time upholstering furniture and watching Netflix. It rapidly became apparent that far more staff had been hired than were needed. In briefings with journalists Lady Harding was bullish, saying that it was better to have too much capacity rather than too little.

But fewer and fewer shifts were made available to book, leading some specialist clinical staff to leave in search of steady income from locum jobs elsewhere. By August, as cases died down in the warm summer months, the government announced that 6,000 tier 3 call centre staff would be laid off.

It was the first stage of a gradual retreat from a centralised system, prioritising speed of scale-up, to a localised one prioritising on-the-ground knowledge — a shift that remains incomplete.

‘They’re just bombarding you’

When they did get through, call centre staff were tracing barely half the contacts they were told about, a proportion that has never got much beyond 60 per cent, far below the goal of tracing 80 per cent of contacts within 48 hours of a case being reported.

Things were not helped by the speed with which tests results were being returned and cases were making their way into the system. When they did arrive, coronavirus patients and their contacts could expect a deluge of phone calls. For households with young children, the system’s inability to flag them as linked cases meant they would be repeatedly rung as close contacts of the original case.

“If you have a large family which includes school-age kids, if your husband gets a positive test you’re called as a contact of your husband and then you’re called for every child because they have your phone number and not a seven-year-old’s obviously. Then when you test positive as well you are called as a positive case, your husband is called as a contact of the second positive case in the household and so it goes on every time someone tests positive,” one tracer said.

With no way to flag that all of the cases are in the same household, she said that “if I know it’s a large household I’ve stopped taking phone numbers . . . I just say don’t give it to me, so at least they’re getting repetitive emails rather than repetitive phone calls”.

As lockdown eased, and more contacts were made in everyday life, performance slipped further as ever more of the work fell to the tier 3 tracers. They found that many people simply never picked up, assuming that the missed calls from an 0300 number were unwanted sales calls and ignoring the voicemails being left.

For those that did, compliance with the request to self-isolate for a fortnight was often low. Government surveys have found that only 11 per cent of those asked to isolate by contact tracers are actually doing so for the full two weeks, in what is increasingly seen as a fatal problem.

In recent weeks the service has begun making regular “support calls” to check if someone is still isolating. In early October, Simon Tomlinson’s partner tested positive and one of their two daughters then followed suit, meaning the whole household had to isolate.

“It was just a constant phoning and text messages and emails. They’re just bombarding you,” Mr Tomlinson, 46, said.

“They were calling all times of day. One day we got a text on her phone at 7.05 on a Sunday morning, then some days they would call me two or three times a day. Even when I’ve answered the phone and spoke to them in the morning, they’ve called back again in the afternoon.”

When he explained he’d already spoken that day the caller would continue with their script and ask him to re-answer the same questions checking whether he was continuing to isolate and asking whether he had developed any symptoms, he said.

“It’s just like speaking to robots rather than actual real people. If you don’t answer the phone then they phone every two to three hours leaving exactly the same voicemail.” Mr Tomlinson, who lives in Solihull, estimates that he and his partner, who was listed as the contact number for their two daughters, were contacted by phone, text and email up to 200 times over the course of a fortnight.

“It’s absolutely crazy — just a waste of people’s time and resources,” he said.

Local knowledge

From the outset, there was one part of NHS Test & Trace which drew on local experts. Complex cases in hospitals and care homes were escalated to tier 1 tracers and handed over to local teams employed by Public Health England. They proved far more effective, with success rates of over 95 per cent. But despite this success, the system was slow to hand over a larger role to local authorities.

It took months for local directors of public health to get access to the detailed, postcode-level data on test results and longer for local authorities to get proper access to a central database of cases.

The problem was partly a technical challenge to link up different systems but officials also cited data protection concerns when withholding the kind of data local leaders wanted.

When Leicester became a coronavirus hotspot in June, leading to a local lockdown, the town’s mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, complained about the lack of specific information on cases. “I made the point personally to the prime minister early in our [local] lockdown that we needed to have the information about positive tests . . . together with ethnicity and place of work and full address,” he said. “And even now we don’t get that full information with the data that’s passed on to us.”

Lady Harding acknowledged the need for a greater emphasis on a local approach, saying contact tracing should become “local by default”, but change came slowly.

Over the summer, the first pilot programmes saw normal Covid cases handed over to the local authorities — separate to local public health teams — for tracing if they could not be reached by national tracers within 24 or 48 hours. The contacts of these cases were then put back into the national system to be called by tier 3 tracers.

These teams, able to go out and knock on doors, proved significantly more successful at reaching people, with success rates of about 90 per cent. They have also proved well-placed to offer the kind of practical help — support accessing government self-isolation payments and getting shopping and medicines delivered by volunteers — which encourages people to comply with isolation.

Sir John Oldham, a former adviser to the Department of Health, said that “the contrast between the central system and the capability and effectiveness of the local public health teams and leadership has been stark. Centuries of experience in contact tracing informs us [that] the local community has to be the hub and should be the immediate focus of reform of Track and Trace.”

In some areas, the local authorities have also been actively carrying out “backwards tracing” where, instead of just seeking to identify who was in close contact with a positive case in the 48 hours before they were tested, staff seek to make connections between cases and trace the likely source of outbreaks.

To do this work, councils drafted in staff who normally performed other duties; in Manchester, firefighters were brought in to boost numbers. But local authority leaders have said they will need more funding from central government if they are to scale up this work.

Others have complained that they are hindered by the speed at which test results reach them. Leicester’s mayor said cases now take an average of six days from testing to being handed to the council for tracing. In eight cases it has taken 14 days, leaving staff no chance of reaching contacts while they might be unknowingly infecting others. Maggi Morris, a public health consultant in the West Midlands, said the council she is working with often hears about cases before they are logged in the national system’s database.

Tussles over access to the Test & Trace database of cases and their contacts also continue. A local service launched in Southend in late October was delayed by several weeks because of difficulties getting access to the data, a local councillor said.

“Quite rightly the national system want to know that people’s data is being handled in a correct manner, and that’s right and proper, but the delays that we were experiencing stopped us from launching earlier,” said Trevor Harp, the council’s cabinet member for health and adult social care.

An autumn rush

As officials were slowly granting local authorities a role in tracing, the return of schools and universities in September brought a huge increase in demand for coronavirus tests. At the same time, the return of universities prompted an exodus of highly trained scientists who had been seconded for six months to help run the lighthouse labs, while the promised expansion of capacity with new facilities in Newport and Charnwood was behind schedule. The combination of events left the system ill-equipped to cope and the resulting bottlenecks in processing tests led to a rationing of testing slots and farcical scenes as suspected Covid cases were told their nearest testing centre with availability was hundreds of miles away. The proportion of test results from walk-in centres that were returned within 24 hours of booking fell from 77 per cent in July to 8 per cent in October.

Meanwhile, the success rate of national contact tracing continued to fall. A spreadsheet error meant that 15,000 cases were initially missed and clinical contact tracers who a few months earlier had whiled away their shifts completing puzzles and reading books now found themselves in huge demand. At present, more than 120,000 people a week are being transferred to the contact tracing service, ten times the figure in early September. In some areas local health teams, without the funding to scale up, have been handing back positive cases who have not been reached because they are overwhelmed.

NHS leaders, witnessing hospital wards filling up as Britain was unable to control cases, have become some of the loudest critics of the tracing system. Last month NHS Providers labelled it as not “fit for purpose” and the NHS Confederation has said its poor performance was costing lives. NHS sources have also expressed irritation at the system’s use of NHS branding when the health service has no role in its administration.

The belated launch of a much-maligned contact-tracing mobile phone app in late September did little to help. A technical problem meant the app gave false alerts to users and those who did test positive could be left confused as to how long to isolate for, with the app giving a different date to the instruction delivered by contact tracers.

As a short-term solution, some call centre staff were upgraded to tier 2 roles, previously filled exclusively by those with clinical training, and were now responsible for making calls to those who had tested positive for coronavirus or the relatives of someone who had just died from the disease.

Existing tier 2 staff were perturbed by the decision, which some described as “potentially dangerous” because of the lack of medical knowledge. “There are things that clinically you pick up on — things like if somebody is quite breathless — where I’ve had to get them to hang up and call 111,” one said. “There have been case workers in the past who’ve had cases collapse on them [during a call] and have had to call an ambulance.”

The service is now looking to rehire some of the previously laid-off workers, with recruitment adverts urgently hunting for those looking to rejoin Test & Trace.

In the meantime, as the system flounders, some institutions and companies appear to have lost confidence in it and are going their own way. Imperial College London has set up its own contact-tracing service and placed an advert for £38,000-a-year clinically trained tracers on six-month contracts. At least one private business is also recruiting someone to oversee contact tracing for its staff.

Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said that “ministers made three big mistakes for which we are now paying the price”, citing use of “a centralised, heavy, top-down system” over “locally led ‘shoe leather epidemiology’ tracing”.

He said that “secondly on compliance, it should be obvious that people would struggle to isolate if financially penalised” — a point also pressed to ministers by Lady Harding, resulting in the introduction of £500 grants in September.

While Mr Johnson praised the system for reaching its target of a capacity of 500,000 daily tests by the end of October, Mr Ashworth’s third criticism is that “it’s still not clear what the strategy is regards testing, other than big headline-grabbing claims”.

Missed opportunities

Looking back, many involved with the system question why more was not done to fix its problems and hand a greater role to local areas in the summer. The problems and the solution, they say, have been obvious for months.

“When the sun was shining, literally, the roof should have been built and it should be watertight. That wasn’t the case,” said Sir Chris Ham, former chief executive of the health think tank the King’s Fund.

“Local authorities, public health teams are trained to do contact tracing . . . and even more important, they know their communities,” he said. “And it’s been very clear . . . in recent weeks and months, unless you are part of a community where you’re doing the contact tracing, then your ability to reach contacts and then support people to isolate is very, very limited.”

Professor Robert West, a member of the government’s Spi-B behavioural advisory group, said the system had fallen short at every stage.

“It’s been a cascade of problems. We’ve not been successful in finding people who are infectious. Then we’ve not been successful in contacting them. Then we’ve not been successful at getting them to self-isolate. That means you end up with a very small number of the people you need in quarantine.”

As the country returned to lockdown, public health experts said it represented a last opportunity to restructure the system and dramatically improve the country’s ability to identify and persuade those likely to have Covid to isolate. A recent report by the Association of Directors of Public Health said: “The simple reality is that the current system is neither ‘fully operational’ nor ‘world-beating’.”

Contact tracers suggested that a publicity campaign was needed to ensure people recognise the 0300 number calling them is NHS Test & Trace and a change to the system “so that we’re not calling people multiple times, constantly calling people — they get fed up of it”.

“Why didn’t they fix it over the summer?” one clinical contact tracer said. “Since May we’ve been saying the same thing, where the hell were they?

“We all joined to try and help and make a difference and I’ve lost confidence in the role because I don’t think it’s helping.

“I need people to pick up the phone to me and not be cross and have some confidence that we’re competent.”

Sir Peter wants the government to hand over all tracing to local authorities. “There is no need for us to jump through the hoops of having a national tracing system,” he said, arguing that it was “failing and chaotic”.

“Mayors and council leaders up and down the land will say if only we were trusted with the information and it came straight to us in a timely fashion we’ve got the resources to do it but also the experience and the local knowledge.”

Sir Peter said that “any local council . . . at a fraction of the cost of the national scheme could easily have scaled up”.

Meanwhile, pressure grows on Lady Harding. She has received praise for her drive and can-do attitude even from critics who questioned whether she has focused on the right priorities. This week she defended her team’s efforts, saying they had “built a system the size of Asda from scratch in five months”. Appearing before MPs on Wednesday, she dismissed the suggestion that the summer months had been wasted, saying they had been used “to great effect to dramatically expand our testing capacity” which grew faster than any other country in Europe. A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Social Care credited NHS Test & Trace with reaching “1.7 million people who may otherwise have unknowingly spread coronavirus” and said they had worked “hand in hand with local authorities and directors of public health”.

Lady Harding said she was “very supportive” of a “locally led, nationally supported model of contact tracing”.

“We are working really hard,” she added. “We have 150 local authorities working with us on contact-tracing partnerships as we speak and another 150 about to go live and we’re really keen to experiment and pilot with all of those local authorities to do more and more.” Asked why, six months into the pandemic, these schemes were only being piloted, she said “we’re learning all the time”.

Sir Chris Ham argued that perhaps the biggest challenge is not just fixing or restructuring the tracing system but reclaiming the public’s trust.

He said: “Fundamentally, even if we had a fully functioning test, trace and isolating system in place, if each of us is unwilling to play our part in adhering to the rules that have been put in place, then frankly we’re not going to achieve the progress we need to contain the growth of infections and to put us back into a position where the restrictions can be relaxed.”