Dominic Cummings is hanging by a thread – The Telegraph, a few hours ago

Man you’ve never heard of resigns from job you never knew existed – it doesn’t sound the most exciting of headlines.  Except, that is……..

Ross Clark 12 November 2020 • 12:11pm www.telegraph.co.uk 

Man you’ve never heard of resigns from job you never knew existed – it doesn’t sound the most exciting of headlines.  Except, that is, when it affects a man everyone has heard of and indeed who many believe has the most important job of all as the real leader of the country. So forget Lee Cain and Carrie Symonds – the spat between them is like all those proxy wars in Korea, Afghanistan and so on during the Cold War. The real battle is between the superpowers – Dominic Cummings on the one hand and Tory MPs on the other, with the Prime Minister, like Berlin, sandwiched in the middle.

It is the same battle which seems to rage in all modern governments: between ministers and MPs on the one hand and unelected advisers and Downing Street spokesmen on the other. Remember Alan Walters vs Nigel Lawson in Thatcher’s day, Alastair Campbell vs anti-war Labour MPs in Blair’s day, Nick Timothy vs Tory MPs under Theresa May? It is effectively the same old battle, but getting more vicious with each passing administration. Prime Ministers like small bands of trusted advisers whom they can keep close at hand;  MPs, still less ministers, think they are the ones who should be wielding power and do not like being sidelined.

But no adviser has ever gained quite the profile of Dominic Cummings. For a man who doesn’t much like talking to the press, he attained from the beginning a remarkable public profile. Which other government adviser ever had reporters regularly stationed outside their house? Cummings has attained mythical status as much by fascinating people as by doing things. He is an Eric Cantona of government. He doesn’t much speak to us, but somehow we know him anyway. We know he doesn’t much like Tory MPs and that he holds the civil service pretty well in contempt.

If you are the unrecognised, unknown minister for paperclips all this must be pretty galling. You spent long years on the rubber chicken circuit, speaking to local people about buses, notching up brownie points to impress Conservative association selection panels. You worked your way up via parliamentary assistant to some junior minister. And yet still you are blocked from the Prime Ministerial ear by Cummings, who seems to have spent long years doing nothing at all, other than scribbling an impenetrable blog.   

Cummings was never likely to last a full Parliamentary term at No 10. The wonder is that he has lasted this long. For Boris Johnson the case for keeping him is that he has some super-insight into the minds of voters whom others ignore – a reputation he gained from his role in Vote Leave and in last year’s general election. We don’t, though, know the counter-factual. Maybe Britain would have voted to leave the EU without him – no-one can say for sure that the country wouldn’t have voted 53 percent to 47 percent, rather than 52 percent to 48 percent, had Cummings not offended some people with his £350 million a week claim on the side of the battle bus.

But one thing is for certain: while Cummings may possibly help to win referendums and elections, he certainly can’t help win Commons votes – only MPs can do that. What precipitated this week’s crisis at No 10 was last week’s vote on a second lockdown, where the Government’s 80-seat majority all but evaporated. Cummings, despite his jaunt to Barnard Castle, is a lockdown fanatic. Lee Cain is blamed by many for leaking the lockdown plans which led the Prime Minister to bring forward his announcement of the new restrictions, and to the hurried press briefing with the dodgy graphs.

There are still four years to go before an election – where Cummings could show his greatest usefulness. Commons votes, on the other hand, are going to come around with increasing rapidity. That is why Cummings is hanging by a thread and likely to lose the battle for his job: right now, the Prime Minister needs Cummings’s many enemies more than he needs the man himself.

Departure of Boris Johnson’s aide Lee Cain exposes the cracks in prime minister’s top team

Let’s face it. Government by unelected and unaccountable SPADs has been a costly failure (and a delicious PR disaster). Time for Dominic Cummings to spend more time with his family in Durham? Lockdown would be a good time to make the journey. – Owl

Steven Swinford, Deputy Political Editor | Oliver Wright, Policy Editor | Eleni Courea, Political Reporter www.thetimes.co.uk 

Even by the tumultuous standards of Boris Johnson’s government the rise and fall of his trusted aide Lee Cain has shaken those around the prime minister.

On Tuesday Mr Cain was Mr Johnson’s presumptive new chief of staff, having loyally served him long before he entered Downing Street. But by last night he was gone — losing not only the job he wanted but also resigning from his present role as the prime minister’s director of communications.

His departure, and the events that led up to it, reveal a fractured top team around Mr Johnson that has pitted his Brexit allies against the prime minister’s own fiancée in a battle over what kind of prime minister he should be.

It is a row that has engulfed the highest levels of No 10 and could prove to be a decisive moment for the direction of the government.

The enmity between Mr Cain and Carrie Symonds, herself a former director of communications for the Conservative Party, has long been simmering under the surface but became public yesterday after The Times disclosed Mr Johnson’s intention to promote Mr Cain to a new role.

If he had got the job the appointment would have cemented the influence of Downing Street’s Vote Leave faction around the prime minister, Mr Cain having worked for Dominic Cummings during the EU referendum campaign.

Yesterday, until his resignation, allies of Mr Cain had been insisting that he was the right man for the role, having been acting as the prime minister’s de facto chief of staff for some time.

“His instincts and the prime minister’s instincts are the same,” one government source said. “They have a tight bond. The point of a chief of staff is that they can provide direction and clarity on behalf of the prime minister. Lee can do that.”

Ms Symonds, however, believed that elevating Mr Cain would be damaging.

“She knows he runs the operation in an uncollegiate way where few people can get to him,” one friend said. “There’s not a diversity of opinion, he is not getting good advice. His top advisers are running him into the ground.”

Mr Cain’s potential promotion was always a bit tenuous. Last week he is understood to have tendered his resignation amid suggestions that he risked being marginalised by Allegra Stratton, who was chosen by the prime minister to front daily press briefings.

Ms Stratton has extensive broadcasting experience and previously worked for Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, as his director of communications.

Mr Cain is said to have objected to her appointment. “She was not his first choice, it was very much the prime minister’s call,” a Downing Street source said. “It has not gone well.”

According to Downing Street sources, the pair had not spoken since Ms Stratton moved to No 10 a fortnight ago. “Allegra has made no secret of the fact she wants to do things differently,” one No 10 staffer said.

“You had someone [in Boris] who was the most popular politician in the country who is now one of the least popular. She wants No 10 to be much more open, to take people with it. Both the party and the country.”

Mr Johnson, however, wanted to keep both Mr Cain and Ms Stratton. After Mr Cain suggested he could quit, the prime minister is understood to have “wined and dined” his aide and urged him to stay.

The role of chief of staff was discussed, with Mr Cummings and Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, both of whom are said to have pushed strongly for Mr Cain’s appointment. Two sources familiar with the matter said that Mr Cain had been verbally offered the role. Another disputed this and said that Mr Johnson had not made up his mind.

Either way, Ms Symonds was intent on stopping the appointment. “She didn’t think he was the right person to do it,” an ally said. “Why would the prime minister make the person who ran government communications during the pandemic his chief of staff? It doesn’t make sense.”

Some of Ms Symonds’ allies are concerned she will be “smeared” as a Lady Macbeth figure for intervening in political matters.

“She’s allowed to have a view. It’s a critical decision for the prime minister,” the ally said. “She is deeply political and has extensive experience.”

But Ms Symonds was not alone in her concerns. Ms Stratton is understood to have made clear to the prime minister that she believed Mr Cain’s appointment would have been a mistake.

Munira Mirza, head of policy at No 10, was also said to have concerns, though allies have rejected the claim.

Ms Stratton wants a change of tone. The treatment of Sonia Khan, a former Treasury adviser who was led out of Downing Street by armed police after being accused of leaking, still rankles.

“[Allegra’s] uncomfortable with how we’ve communicated with the public and the treatment of journalists and special advisers,” a No 10 staffer said.

However, one figure who worked with Mr Cain and Mr Johnson in Downing Street said he was one of the few people who could get the prime minister to take a decision. “Boris has a tendency to put off making difficult calls but Lee gets into a place where he is prepared to take a decision. There are not many people who can do that.

“Unlike Dom, Boris doesn’t see him as having an agenda. Lee is the prime minister’s man. He created him. Unlike many people he owes everything to Boris.”

Until now Mr Cain had made a remarkable ascent. He was a special adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and briefly at No 10 under Theresa May before working for Mr Johnson in the Foreign Office. One source said that Mr Cain beat Ms Symonds, who was a special adviser herself, to the role.

Mr Cain stuck with Mr Johnson after he left Mrs May’s government, and was instrumental in the Tory leadership campaign that followed. He was rewarded for his loyalty with the role of director of communications.

But Mr Cain’s appointment caused consternation among some Tory MPs who were concerned by the influence of the Vote Leave faction in No 10. And that may be what eventually did for him after the news leaked prematurely.

One said the party would regard it “with some horror” and that it could increase rifts between the No 10 operation and backbenchers. In the glare of publicity Mr Johnson ultimately decided that the risk was not worth taking.

Mr Cain’s previous role will now be filled by James Slack, a civil servant, who has a close relationship with Ms Stratton and previously worked for Mrs May. It signals a less adversarial approach to Downing Street communications.

Covid-positive tests most common with 20s age group in Devon and Cornwall

People in their 20s are still testing positive for Covid-19 more than any other age groups across Devon and Cornwall, except in Torbay where people in their 50s are.

Daniel Clark exmouth.nub.news

Covid-positive tests most common with 20s age group in Devon and Cornwall

The latest figures, based on tests reported between November 3 and November 9, continue to show that as was the case last week, Plymouth, Cornwall and the Devon County Council area, the 20-29 age group are still seeing the highest prevalence of cases.

But in Torbay, that is only the fourth highest age range, with the 40-49, 50-59 and 60-69 age ranges seeing more positive tests.

Across Torbay, Plymouth and Cornwall, the proportion of over 60s testing positive has risen in the last week, but there has been a small drop in the Devon County Council area in that age range.

All four areas have seen a drop in the proportion of those aged 10-19 testing positive – with one explanation likely to involve the time period of when the tests would have taken place coinciding with the half-term break.

The figures related to positive cases reported this week between November 3 and November 9, although do not necessarily relate to specimens from that time period.

In Devon County Council area, the proportion of cases in the 60+ age range have dropped to 20 per cent (from 21 per cent), with a drop in the 10-19 age range (10 per cent, down from 11 per cent), with 21 per cent of positives in the 20-29 age range.

Torbay has the highest percentage of cases in the 60+ age range (26.5 per cent, up from 24 per cent last week) and the second lowest in the 10-19 age range (7.7 per cent, up from 10 per cent). The Bay is seeing 20 per cent of the positive cases in the 50-59 age range, and 18.5 per cent in the 40-49 age range, and just 11.7 per cent of people in their 20s.

Plymouth has the lowest percentage of cases in the 10-19 age range (6.7 per cent per cent, down from 8 per cent), with the second lowest in the 60+ age range (17.7 per cent, up from 14 per cent). More than a quarter (25.8 per cent) of positive tests are in the 20-29 age range.

Cornwall has the lowest proportion of those in the 60+ age range (15.6 per cent, up from 14 per cent), but the highest in the 10-19 age range (14 per cent, down from 16 per cent), and also is seeing more than a quarter (26.6 per cent) of all cases in the 20-29 age range.

Middle class facing £14bn capital gains tax raid on investments

Second-home owners, investors and pensioners face paying tens of thousands of pounds more in tax under a review ordered by the chancellor that could raise £14 billion a year.

[Day of reckoning for all the consultancy bills approaches – Owl]

David Byers, Assistant Money Editor | Oliver Wright, Carol Lewis www.thetimes.co.uk 

Rishi Sunak’s advisers on tax reform have suggested increasing capital gains tax (CGT) in a move that would particularly affect high and middle-income earners.

He is looking for ways to repair the public finances amid the coronavirus crisis. However, any move on CGT would meet fierce resistance from Tory backbenchers who have warned Mr Sunak that it would be politically disastrous by punishing the party’s base.

At present anyone selling shares, a second home or other assets is liable to pay capital gains tax on the profits they have made from the sale.

Those earning less than £50,000 are charged 18 per cent on residential property and 10 per cent on profits from other assets. For those whose income is more than £50,000 the tax is 28 per cent on residential property and 20 per cent on other assets.

In its report for the Treasury, the Office of Tax Simplification (OTS) suggested that the chancellor bring CGT into line with income tax. This would mean higher rate taxpayers facing a flat rate of 40 or 45 per cent.

In a separate recommendation the OTS suggested the chancellor could reduce the threshold at which the levy kicks in from £12,300 to £5,000. This would double the number falling into the net each year to more than half a million. This would be tripled if he cut the threshold further to £1,000.

Mr Sunak needs to find up to £40 billion a year in cuts or additional revenue after the pandemic, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. However, Tory MPs have already expressed strong opposition to any move on CGT. “I think it would be very unwise,” Marcus Fysh, deputy president of the Board of Trade, said. “It would kill off incentives within the economy at a time when we want to stimulate growth. We should be looking at ways of simplifying tax by reducing it.”

Another said: “It has been made clear to Rishi that colleagues will not support it.” A Treasury source played down the report, saying it would not have a bearing on any decision by the chancellor.

The OTS justified aligning the rates by saying that the present disparity “can distort business and family decision-making and creates an incentive for taxpayers to arrange their affairs in ways that effectively re-characterise income as capital gains”.

Bill Dodwell, the group’s tax director, said: “If the government considers the simplification priority is to reduce distortions to behaviour, it should consider either more closely aligning CGT rates with income tax rates, or addressing boundary issues between CGT and income tax.”

Mr Dodwell said that the OTS would publish a second report in the spring, with further recommendations on how the tax can be revised. He stressed that Mr Sunak had not asked him to examine ways of scrapping the capital gains exemption on the sale of main homes, a potentially explosive move.

The government raised £9.5 billion in 2018-19 from 276,000 taxpayers against capital gains of £62.8 billion. Receipts from the tax would continue to be small compared with other levies, suggesting that the chancellor would also have to raise rates elsewhere.

George Bull, a partner at the tax firm RSM, said that changes to CGT would be “attractive to the government”. “In addition to simplifying the tax system, it also promises to dramatically increase the amount of CGT collected each year,” he said.

Nimesh Shah, chief executive of the tax advisers Blick Rothenberg, suggested that the study was politically motivated and went beyond tax simplification, saying: “This report contains more policy direction than any other report I have seen from the OTS.”

A Treasury spokesman said: “We have asked the OTS to examine and provide recommendations on how to make CGT as clear and efficient as possible. Over the last few years the OTS has reviewed nearly all the major taxes but had not yet reviewed CGT. The OTS provides independent advice to the government. It is for the government to make tax policy decisions.”

Tory council leaders warn of severe cuts in England

Tory council leaders have delivered a stark warning to ministers that failure to tackle English local authorities’ cash crisis will force them to cut vital services, from social care to libraries and refuse collection.

Patrick Butler www.theguardian.com

The County Councils Network (CCN), 32 of whose 36 members are Conservative-controlled said just a fifth of authorities were confident they could meet their legal duty to set a balanced budget next year and avoid effective bankruptcy.

Over half of its member councils were planning “moderate or severe” service reductions in adult social care, nearly a third were seeking heavy cuts to road repair budgets, and 33% were considering major savings in library services.

Over two-thirds said that cuts to frontline service would hamper efforts to support the government’s “levelling-up” plans to boost local economies in the north and Midlands, while 60% agreed the cuts would result in greater hardship for residents.

“We are quickly running out of ways to meet the funding shortfall without dramatic reductions which will make visible and damaging changes to highly-valued services,” said David Williams, CCN chair and leader of Hertfordshire county council.

“The financial support provided by government over the past year has been very welcome. But even before the onslaught of a second wave, councils were facing difficult choices and they are now left with little room to manoeuvre over the coming months as they face further escalating costs resulting in an immediate cliff-edge next year.”

The warning comes as all councils continue to struggle with serious financial pressures stemming from the pandemic, including the spiralling cost of providing personal protective equipment, coupled with an abrupt fall-off in council tax and business rates income.

The survey of CCN members, carried out in October, found that 60% were anticipating having to make a “fundamental reduction” in frontline services. Without extra government funding, over half said they would cut access to care packages for older and disabled residents, with many planning to introduce new care charges.

Although recent rises in numbers of vulnerable children mean children’s social care budgets will be relatively protected, over a quarter of CCN member councils were planning reductions to child protection, early years and youth services budgets.

The survey shows over half of CCN councils are planning reductions to school transport services, libraries, education support, recycling and waste collection. Nearly half predict cuts to road pothole filling services.

The CCN’s members provide local council services in about two-thirds of all Tory-held parliamentary constituencies, including in home counties heartlands such as Kent, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Hampshire.

The government is expected to set out its funding plans for English local government though the Treasury spending review scheduled for the end of this month.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “We’re giving councils unprecedented support during the pandemic, with nearly £1.2bn in non-ringfenced emergency funding for county councils. Additionally, their core spending power increased by £974m in 2020-21 even before emergency funding was announced.”

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

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

Rajeev Syal www.theguardian.com

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.”

Oxford v Pfizer: how costs and logistics could still see Oxford’s vaccine win out

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has already acknowledged there will be ‘enormous complexity’ in administering the Pfizer solution

By Sarah Knapton, Science Editor www.telegraph.co.uk

Pfizer’s vaccine announcement is undoubtedly a shot in the arm for ending the coronavirus pandemic, but behind the scenes at Whitehall, ministers will be secretly praying that Oxford University will soon catch up.

The cost of rolling-out the US/German jab is likely to be at least ten times higher than our home-grown version, and the logistics of distributing a vaccine which needs to be kept in dry ice is staggering. 

It is like backing the winning horse only to realise you’ve been hit with an eye-watering bill for veterinary fees and stabling.

Matt Hancock has warned the mass distribution would be a “colossal exercise” involving not just the NHS but the Armed Forces. 

The Health Secretary acknowledged there was “enormous complexity” in administering the Pfizer vaccine.

“You can’t take it out of that freezer more than four times on its journey from the manufacturing plant into the arms of patients [so] that brings its complications,” he said. “The AstraZeneca vaccine is easier to deploy logistically.”

Although the Government has not yet disclosed full details of the deals with Pfizer or AstraZeneca (the company producing the Oxford vaccine) the US is being charged around £29.47 for the two doses needed for each person. 

In contrast, EU countries have been offered a dose of the Oxford vaccine for just £2.23.

The price of the Pfizer drug is likely to be higher for Britain, because the US deal was brokered by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (Barda) which helped to fund Pfizer’s vaccine. 

Likewise, Britain has undoubtedly secured a discount for the Oxford vaccine, because it funded much of the research.

So if the Oxford vaccine fails to deliver quickly, Britain could be left with a far higher bill for a mass vaccination programme than it was expecting. 

The fact the Government placed an order for 100 million doses from AstraZeneca compared to 40 million for Pfizer shows where its loyalties lie.  

And now that it’s clear the Pfizer drug needs two jabs, the Government order has essentially been cut in half, meaning just a third of the population could be vaccinated, way too few for herd immunity. 

The Oxford jab is cheaper because it relies on traditional methods of vaccine production. In this case, the spike protein of coronavirus, which helps it attach to human cells, has been inserted into a common cold virus. 

Once in the body, the immune system spots the new invader and produces t-cells and antibodies that will kick into action should the real virus turn up.

In contrast, the Pfizer vaccine is a ‘messenger RNA’ vaccine which sends a piece of genetic code into cells instructing them to make the spike protein themselves. No vaccine has ever been successfully created in this way before, so it carries the expense of novelty.

And because the Pfizer drug relies on a live piece of RNA it needs to be kept at super cold temperatures to avoid the genetic code being destroyed. 

Sir John Bell who is heading Oxford’s programme, said the cold storage problem meant it was unlikely that GPs would be unable to carry out the inoculations. 

The vaccine needs to be transported in liquid nitrogen, or stored in a container which maintains a temperature four times lower than a domestic freezer.

“The Pfizer vaccine needs a cold chain at minus -80,” said Sir John. “The idea that that’ll be done through local GPs sounds a bit unlikely to me.”

To make matters worse, the two Pfizer jabs need to be given three weeks apart, a further logistical headache for the Government.

Dr Jonathan Stoye, group leader, Retrovirus-Host Interactions Laboratory, at London’s Francis Crick Institute, said: “One can foresee at least two drawbacks to the Pfizer vaccine, even assuming it works as well as we currently think.  

“First, it requires two injections for full effectiveness, spaced three to four weeks apart.  Second, it needs to be stored at -80 degrees before use.  Both properties will severely complicate administering the vaccine.”

Many experts believe that Pfizer jumped the gun on Monday (announcing interim results ahead of scientific peer-review) and think Oxford is not too far behind. The group looks to be just weeks away from releasing its own findings. 

If previous announcements are anything to go by, the team will release the results on the same day as publication, meaning they can go straight to regulators for approval. 

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has been working closely with both Pfizer and AstraZeneca which should expedite the approvals process.

Prof Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said: “We continue to work on the vaccine and anticipate early efficacy readings in the coming months should the transmission rates remain high.

“Ideally, we need several of these to be successful for the best possible results for humanity.” Sir John, who is leading Oxford’s vaccine research, has also said the team was just weeks from a result. 

He told MPs at the Health Select Committee that he believed there was a “70 to 80 per cent chance” that the vulnerable would be vaccinated by Easter, so that life could begin to return to normality.

“That’s provided they don’t screw up the distribution of the vaccine,” he added.

County Council’s operation to stop Christmas holiday hunger: Selaine Saxby tweets

A major operation is under way in Devon to combat holiday hunger for children this Christmas.

[And Selaine Saxby MP who previously said she “very much” hopes businesses offering to feed hungry children for free “will not be seeking any further government support”, provokes a predictable comment when she tweets. her support ]

Daniel Clark www.devonlive.com

Devon County Council is set to lead the operation to organise networks of providers across the county and will use a £2 million Government grant to support vulnerable children and families in the most effective way.

Leader of Devon County Council, Cllr John Hart, told Wednesday morning’s cabinet meeting: “We are going to receive just over £2 million from the Government and we now have the opportunity to do the right thing.”

Over the next few weeks a range of community kitchens, holiday clubs, charities and local businesses will be enlisted to coordinate help and support for those who need it the most in every district in Devon.

They will ensure that every child entitled to Free School Meals will be able to get free food over the Christmas holiday, during the Easter half-term and the Easter holidays.

Devon’s Cabinet member for communities, Cllr Roger Croad, added: “We need to act quickly to ensure that no child goes hungry this Christmas.

“We envisage that in most areas there will be a range of solutions and options that are geared to meet the needs of their individual communities.

“These are likely to include holiday clubs providing food, cooking sessions, community meals, offers from local cafes and businesses and community larders.

“Our top priority is to ensure those in receipt of free school meals have enough to eat over the holidays. But we also want to help and support people with wider vulnerabilities.”

Cllr Hart added: “This pandemic has been so cruel to so many people. We are aiming to support those families who were suddenly left without money, without a job and without savings as a result of coronavirus.

“This partnership of local organisations tailoring support to the local needs of their communities coupled with the Devon-wide organisation of the county council seems a really good way forward.

“I believe it will be an effective and practical way of combating holiday hunger and I want to thank all of the groups that will be working with us.”

The latest statistics show that 14,774 children in Devon are registered for free school meals – 15 per cent of the total school population.

It follows the Government’s U-turn on providing free school meals over the holidays to the poorest children which has been welcomed by Devon’s head of education who said it is a massive step forward of getting support to families.

The UK government had extended free school meals to eligible children during the Easter holidays earlier this year and, after a campaign by Manchester United and England striker Marcus Rashford campaigning, did the same for the summer holiday.

Initially though they refused to do so for half-term and the Christmas holidays, before making a U-turn this week when a winter grant scheme programme of £400m was announced by Government to provide support with food and bills, with a holiday food and activities programme to be expanded.

Speaking at Tuesday’s Devon County Council children’s scrutiny committee, Dawn Stabb, the council’s head of education, said that if properly implemented then it should be a significant step in the right direction for helping children.

Committee chairman Cllr Rob Hannaford had prior to Monday’s announcement put forward a motion to December’s full council meeting that would see the council resolve to use some of the allocated hardship funding to ensure that all eligible children receive free school meal vouchers for the Christmas and New Year holiday period.

He said: “I welcome the change of direction and that had caused a lot of controversy and there were so many families affected by the issue.”

Asking Mrs Stabb, he said: “In your opinion, does the current package do all that we would want it to do in Devon and what members wanted it to and can you see in the new scheme, much welcome as it is, any gaps we may need to plug to make sure no families slip through the net?”

In response, she said while they only currently have the headline figures, it is a massive step forward of getting the support to families.

She added: “The route is correct, the principle is correct, we have the infrastructure in place to deliver it, but we don’t have the exact detail as to how the funding will be applied or any other restrictions. I cannot give a categorical answer but if it is properly implemented, it should move us significantly in the right direction. The key focus is to ensure food makes its way to children.”

Cllr Frank Biederman added: “I am thankful that the Government has listened and acted and have moved in the right direction,” while Cllr Richard Hosking said that rather than a ‘change of heart’, it was a ‘change in circumstances with the second lockdown’ that led to the U-turn.

In a report to the meeting, she said that there were 14,774 pupils claiming free school meals in Devon, which at £3 per meal, meaning it would cost £44,322 per day to provide a meal to these children, with 15 per cent of all pupils eligible.

In Torridge, 18 per cent of pupils would be eligible, with 17 per cent in North Devon and Exeter, 15 per cent in Mid Devon and Teignbridge, 14 per cent in West Devon, 13 per cent in East Devon and 12 per cent in the South Hams and of pupils who live in Plymouth but who study at schools in the Devon County Council area.

The report added that every single area had been an increase in claimants in October compared to pre-lockdown levels.

Asked whether she thought schools would have to close, Mrs Stabb said that the Government had been clear that keeping them open was a priority.

She added: “The number of infections coming down in Devon’s school. When I last reported to the committee there were 30+ schools and 1600 pupils off self-isolating and that it now down to 20 school and 382 children self-isolating.

“There is no national indicator of spread within the school environment and cases are coming from contacts outside the school, with no evidence of increased risk of children attending schools. From the figures we are seeing in Devon, there is nothing to suggest it would warrant a school closure.”

Selaine Saxby MP on Twitter

[In a now-deleted Facebook post Selaine Saxby, who represents North Devon, wrote: “I am delighted our local businesses have bounced back so much after lockdown they are able to give away food for free, and very much hope they will not be seeking any further government support.” ]

twitter.com

No child should ever go hungry, and the extra £2M for @DevonCC will ensure local families that need extra support with food and bills this winter can access it, which is very welcome news.

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From comments in the Guardian:

This is very the same Tory MP who wasn’t satisfied with just voting against feeding hungry kids.

She said that businesses who helped feed hungry kids should not ask for any government help in lockdown.

She actually wanted to punish businesses for stepping into the breach left by her Party.

The hypocrisy is quite breathtaking.