Billions extra for defence? This is Boris Johnson showing off his power

Ancient warriors were said to terrify their foes by piling high their valuables in full view and burning them to flaunt their power. That is now official British defence policy.

Simon Jenkins 

Boris Johnson feels the need to show the world he is fit and well by humiliating his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and indulging his most spendthrift department, defence. He is giving it an extra £21.5bn of taxpayers’ money, a rise of up to 15% in real terms. This has already shattered the foreign aid budget and mocks all talk of belt-tightening to pay for Covid. Johnson has also effectively dumped next year’s “integrated defence review”, a pet project of the now clearly defunct Dominic Cummings. This is chaotic government.

The language in which Downing Street is selling this bonanza leaves no doubt. The intention is to portray the locked-down prime minister as fearlessly decisive. It is to please the US president-elect Joe Biden in the hope of a post-Brexit trade deal. It is “to bolster our global influence” which Johnson knows will be damaged by Brexit. It is also to show other cabinet ministers that blind loyalty – like that of Johnson’s friend, the defence secretary, Ben Wallace – will be amply rewarded.

None of this has to do with defence. As far as that is concerned, Johnson says his spending will “end the era of retreat” and enable Britain to “defend free societies around the world”. What retreat and which societies we are not told. Nor does Johnson list those of his predecessors he thinks are the lily-livered retreaters. We are merely to imagine Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping reeling in terror at the sight of Johnson’s profligacy and power. They will gasp at his ruthlessness in spending so much while snatching food from his schoolchildren’s mouths, starving his care homes of migrant workers, stuffing the chumocracy with £21m backhanders and blowing billions on a Birmingham railway. Such a man, they are supposed to fear, will do anything.

The department now crowing with delight is notorious for waste. Cummings himself blurted out in a March blog that “it has continued to squander billions of pounds, enriching some of the worst corporate looters and corrupting public life via the revolving door of officials/lobbyists”. The Ministry of Defence is said to suffer from a procurement black hole, calculated at £13bn of accumulated overspending on top of its £41.5bn annual budget. Francis Tusa of Defence Analysis describes this hole as “not a Treasury problem but an MoD problem”, adding that the settlement is merely “rewarding bad management”.

We can accept that some of this money is going on sound defence. It will upgrade cyber-protection to defend Britons, says Johnson, from attacks on “the mobile phones in their pockets or the computers in their homes”. That is fine but it is surely appalling that the MoD is only now getting round to a “cyberforce” and “an AI agency to develop autonomous weapons systems”. What has it been doing with our money for the past 20 years?

The answer is that almost all procurement is focused on fighting the infamous “last war but one”. To read modern defence literature is to disappear into memories of the second world war. Billions is spent on tanks, jet fighters, aircraft carriers and Trident missile submarines, poised to “hit back” in a matter of hours,as if Stalin or the dreaded Hun were on the horizon.

 ‘Inexhaustible lasers’: Boris Johnson’s plan for defence after budget boost – video

Desperate to make some use for his new £3bn aircraft carrier, Queen Elizabeth, Johnson is sending it to the South China Sea at vast expense with four protection vessels. It is hard to see what this will do beyond offer target practice for China’s massive air and submarine defences. Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force wants a new generation of Tempest jet fighters. Earlier this year a similar debate broke out over the future of the army’s Challenger 2 tank force, designed to fight El Alamein on the plains of central Europe.

There is no remotely conceivable military threat to what Johnson calls “Britain’s realm” requiring massed conventional defences, nor has there been for 70 years. Other European countries are not quaking in their shoes for want of Britain’s armour. The wars that Tony Blair and David Cameron fought were all ventures of aggression not defence, mostly against poorly armed but highly motivated Muslim countries whose troubles proved too much for us.

These “retreats”, as Johnson calls them, were because defence resources had gone on glamorous kit, rather than on infantry trained for street fighting. Nowadays the principal threat to British interests abroad is precisely such entanglements. The UK’s ability to send soldiers round the world encourages ambitious ministers into senseless interventions. Had Donald Trump won the US election it is possible he would have seduced Johnson into a war with Iran.

Public spending that can only be validated by such abstract nouns as influence and status is likely to be wasted. The only concrete use announced for the cash this week was for the army to police coronavirus, and for procurement to aid “job creation”. There must be less costly ways of achieving these benefits.

As it is, we are left with a budget underpinned by waffle – waffle concealing waste. Some of the money is apparently to be spent on a new military “space command”, so Johnson can send rockets to wage war in space. Citing opportunity cost can be glib, but when 280,000 people are homeless, spending on such boys’ toys is obscene.

• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist

The Guardian view on UK defence plans: spending but no strategy

There was supposed to be a government review of Britain’s foreign, security and military needs. But, as so often, Boris Johnson has put the cart before the horse


Boris Johnson’s statement to parliament on future defence spending showed the prime minister at his worst. The language was grandiloquent – he spoke of ending an “era of retreat” over which, in fact, Conservative governments have presided – as well as bombastic: “tipping the scales of history”. It was studded with dubious invocations of Britain’s past designed to stoke national pride. However, as Mr Johnson has done throughout the Covid crisis and over Brexit, it put the rhetorical cart in front of a horse that is still being tended in the stable.

There were very few specifics about how the £24.1bn extra spending at the core of the statement would actually be used. Some of that sum has been promised already, in the Conservative manifesto. There were even fewer details about how any of it is to be raised, especially in the tight post-Covid public financial world which the chancellor will outline in the spending review next week.

Most frustratingly of all, the post-Brexit strategic choices, which the government’s own integrated review of foreign, defence and security policy was supposed to have resolved, all remained unaddressed. That review has not yet been completed, not least because the US election has changed the global picture. Yet here was Mr Johnson, acting as prime ministers often do, jumping the gun to trumpet his commitment to Britain’s armed forces when they do not yet know how the government really sees their future role.

Mr Johnson has a spending plan but not a strategy. His approach owed more to domestic politics than anything else. He wanted to show he is back in charge after the departure of Dominic Cummings; relieved Tory MPs lapped that up. He wanted to reinforce his appeal to voters who abandoned Labour because they doubted Jeremy Corbyn’s patriotism. Mr Johnson also needed some big spending headlines for Clydeside and Fife to counteract the wanton damage he did to the Scottish Tory cause on Monday by dismissing devolution as a disaster.

In addition, Downing Street clearly wanted a space in the news cycle between Thursday’s upbeat announcements and the chancellor’s less boosterish spending statement. This is likely to rein in many departmental budgets, and will prove a tougher political sell. On the world stage, it was also an opportunity to signal to the incoming Biden administration that Mr Johnson is ready to be the new US president’s military ally. Yet the real-world consequences of the statement are still overwhelmingly unclear and distant. As ever with Mr Johnson, the warm words were the easy bit – and we have learned from experience that the words are not just warm but weaselly.

The way Mr Johnson told it, absolutely everyone in the defence and security world would be a winner. If that is true, then why bother with a strategic review at all? The spending would boost all three armed services (though the navy is the biggest winner), as well as benefiting special forces, research and development, and a new aggressive cyber capability. There would even be a new British space rocket programme (based in Scotland). All this would safeguard “hundreds of thousands” of jobs, and produce a “renaissance” for shipyards across the country (especially in Scotland), as well as turbocharging the aerospace, artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicle industries.

Yet it is simply not true that most defence spending can be treated as investment in this way. Ships, tanks and planes do not pay for themselves. The case for defence spending as a national priority rests squarely on its own terms. In principle, the case for a spending upgrade is strong, not least because of Brexit, and must not be dismissed. But increases have to be paid for, either by cuts to other programmes, by greater borrowing, or by tax increases. Social programmes and the overseas aid budget – both of which are true investments – should not be sacrificed for this. Mr Johnson was evasive when challenged on this on Thursday from both sides of the Commons. Now he needs to be held to account. Cuts in aid and welfare would tip the scales of history in a shameful way. They would do absolutely nothing to help make Britain a stronger and safer society.

Daily Mail carries the most exhaustive account of Cathy Gardner’s case in national media

Virologist whose father, 88, died of Covid in a care home sues the government

By Jack Elsom Martin Robinson, Chief Reporter For Mailonline 

A judicial review will probe whether the Government failed to protect care home residents from Covid-19 following a legal challenge by two bereft daughters.

A High Court judge today ruled in favour of Dr Cathy Gardner and Fay Harris, who are taking action against Matt Hancock, the NHS and Public Health England for their handling of the crisis. 

Dr Gardner argues that the lack of ‘adequate’ measures to protect residents was ‘one of the most egregious and devastating policy failures of recent times’. 

She accused the Government of breaching the human rights of thousands of vulnerable people, including her 88-year-old father Michael Gibson, a retired registrar who passed away at the Cherwood House Care Centre in Oxfordshire on April 3.

Ms Harris, 57, also joined the legal fight after her 89-year-old father Don, an ex-Royal Marine, died in May along with 24 residents of his Hampshire care home. 

The Government and related health bodies oppose the legal challenge and asked the judge to throw out the case.

But Mr Justice Linden told a remote hearing this afternoon: ‘I consider it interests of justice for the claim to be heard.’   

The first-stage victory for the women paves the way for a judicial review that could have huge ramifications for the families of at least 30,000 people who died in care homes with Covid this year

Dr Cathy Gardner with her father Michael, a former registrar, who died in a care home after a resident was brought in with coronavirus after being discharged with coronavirus

Fay Harris, 57, whose father Don, a former Royal Marine, was one of 24 residents of a Hampshire care home who died in May after a Covid-19 outbreak, has also joined the legal action

Mr Justice Linden said that the daughters should be given permission to pursue their case on all grounds, saying it ‘crossed the threshold of arguability’.   

Both women are ‘appalled’ by Health Secretary Mr Hancock’s insistence that a ‘protective ring’ had been placed around care homes to shield them during the first wave of the pandemic. 

Dr Gardner’s lawyers claimed that prior to her father’s death the care home was pressured into accepting a hospital patient who had tested positive but ‘had no temperature for 72 hours’. 

Mr Gibson, a retired superintendent registrar of birth marriages and deaths, was primed to catch the illness despite never leaving the home, they said. 

Dr Gardner was so upset that she was forced to say goodbye to her octogenarian father through a care home window and the circumstances before his death that she is suing the government.

Her case accuses the government of unlawfully exposing countless care home residents to substantial risk during the pandemic – and was filed at the High Court in June.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock claimed that a ‘protective ring’ was placed around care homes

Dr Gardner, also chair of East Devon District Council, believes her father’s death was part of a ‘national disgrace’. 

The case will be for the benefit of every individual, including care home residents, staff and family members, affected by the government’s course of action, she says.

Dr Gardner says the government opted for a ‘casual approach’ to protecting care home residents, adding: ‘At worst, the government have adopted a policy that has caused the death of the most vulnerable in our society.

‘It is completely unacceptable that this happened and that responsibility has been avoided.’

On her father’s death certificate it said ‘Covid probable’, because he perished before widespread-testing became widespread in care homes. 

The government has been met with staunch criticism in relation to its handling of care homes throughout the health crisis, with particular policies allowing patients to be discharged from hospitals into care homes without being tested coming under fire.

Dr Gardner’s case, which will be filed at the High Court on Friday, accuses the government of having exposed care home residents to substantial risk during the pandemic

A letter sent to Mr Hancock in June said Dr Gardner believed that the controversial policies adopted by the Health Secretary, NHS England and Public Health England ‘manifestly failed to protect the health, wellbeing and right to life of those residing and working in care homes’.

The letter also claimed: ‘Their failings have led to large numbers of unnecessary deaths and serious illnesses.

‘In addition, the failings of Government have been aggravated by the making of wholly disingenuous, misleading and – in some cases – plainly false statements suggesting that everything necessary has been done to protect care homes during the pandemic.’ 

Ms Harris, who has joined the court action, had planned to treat her father Don, a former Royal Marine, to a special sailing trip in his beloved Portsmouth Harbour to celebrate his 90th birthday last month.

She had found a boat adapted to carry people in wheelchairs so he could see the harbour where he was stationed from the sea again.

But days later on May 1 Mr Harris died at Marlfield care home in Alton after an outbreak of coronavirus. Hampshire Court Council said later that a quarter of the 24 deaths there around this period were Covid-related but could have been higher.

His bereft daughter told The Times: ‘Physically my dad was fit and he was well. He always had a smile on his face. When we left him he was mobile. He was strong and he was a fighter. He had Alzheimer’s and had had care problems but he came through them all. He should not have died, he should have been on that birthday trip.’

The Department of Health has said it cannot comment on legal proceedings. 

How care homes became the Covid frontline: A timeline of failings 

FEBRUARY – SAGE scientists warned Government ‘very early on’ about the risk to care homes

Britain’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, revealed in April that he and other senior scientists warned politicians ‘very early on’ about the risk COVID-19 posed to care homes.

He said: ‘So very early on we looked at a number of topics, we looked at nosocomial infection very early on, that’s the spread in hospitals, and we flagged that as something that the NHS needed to think about.

‘We flagged the fact that we thought care homes would be an important area to look at, and we flagged things like vaccine development and so on. So we try to take a longer term view of things as well as dealing with the urgent and immediate areas.’

The SAGE committee met for the first time on January 22, suggesting ‘very early on’ in its discussions was likely the end of January or the beginning of February.

MARCH – 25,000 hospital patients discharged to homes without tests

In March and April at least 25,000 people were discharged from NHS hospitals into care homes without getting tested for coronavirus, a report by the National Audit Office found.

This move came at the peak of the outbreak and has been blamed for ‘seeding’ Covid-19 outbreaks in the homes which later became impossible to control.

NHS England issued an order to its hospitals to free up as many beds as they could, and later sent out joint guidance with the Department of Health saying that patients did not need to be tested beforehand.

Chair of the public accounts committee and a Labour MP in London, Meg Hillier, said: ‘Residents and staff were an afterthought yet again: out of sight and out of mind, with devastating consequences.’

MARCH – Public Health England advice still did not raise alarm about care home risk and allowed visits

An early key error in the handling of the crisis, social care consultant Melanie Henwood told the Mail on Sunday, was advice issued by Public Health England (PHE) on February 25 that it remained ‘very unlikely’ people in care homes would become infected as there was ‘currently no transmission of Covid-19 in the UK’.

Yet a fortnight earlier the UK Government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling committee had concluded: ‘It is a realistic probability that there is already sustained transmission in the UK, or that it will become established in the coming weeks.’

On March 13, PHE advice for care homes changed ‘asking no one to visit who has suspected Covid-19 or is generally unwell’ – but visits were still allowed.

Three days later, Mr Johnson said: ‘Absolutely, we don’t want to see people unnecessarily visiting care homes.’

MARCH/APRIL – Testing not readily available to care home residents

In March and April coronavirus swab tests – to see who currently has the disease – were rationed and not available to all care home residents suspected of having Covid-19.

Government policy dictated that a sample of residents would be tested if one showed symptoms, then an outbreak would be declared and anyone else with symptoms presumed to be infected without a test.

The Department of Health has been in control of who gets Covid-19 tests and when, based on UK testing capacity.

MARCH/APRIL – Bosses warned homes didn’t have enough PPE

Care home bosses were furious in March and April – now known to have been the peak of the UK’s epidemic – that their staff didn’t have enough access to personal protective equipment such as gloves, masks and aprons.

A letter sent from the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (Adass) to the Department of Health saw the care chiefs accuse a senior figure at the Department of overseeing a ‘shambolic response’.

Adass said it was facing ‘confusion’ and additional work as a result of mixed messaging put out by the Government.

It said the situation around PPE, which was by then mandatory for all healthcare workers, was ‘shambolic’ and that deliveries had been ‘paltry’ or ‘haphazard’.

A shortage of PPE has been a consistent issue from staff in care homes since the pandemic began, and the union Unison revealed at the beginning of May that it had already received 3,600 reports about inadequate access to PPE from workers in the sector.

APRIL – Care home deaths left out of official fatality count

The Department of Health refused to include people who had died outside of hospitals in its official daily death count until April 29, three weeks after deaths had peaked in the UK.

It started to include the ‘all settings’ measure from that date and added on 3,811 previously uncounted Covid-19 deaths on the first day.

NOVEMBER – In response to anger over the continued ban on in-person visits, Matt Hancock vows to introduce a testing regime for visitors by Christmas.  

Dido Harding Also Worked for a Consultancy Firm While Leading NHS Test and Trace

In the first five months after Dido Harding was put in charge of NHS Test and Trace, she held on to a part-time job on the board of Mind Gym, a “business transformation” company that was founded by an Eton school friend of David Cameron, VICE World News can reveal.

As NHS Test and Trace struggled in June and July, Harding even spent time helping to write Mind Gym’s annual report. In that report, the company’s founder and CEO, Octavius Black, said COVID-19 gave the firm a “strong opportunity” to “grow our share of the market”. Harding resigned from her Mind Gym job last month. 

Mind Gym has a turnover of £48 million a year, selling psychology-based consultancy and “behaviour change solutions” to other companies. Black hired Harding as the “Senior Independent Non-Executive Director” of Mind Gym in July of 2018. 

This is a part-time, but high-profile job at the firm. According to Mind Gym’s annual report, Harding was expected to go to a number of company committees as well as acting as “a sounding board for the Chairman”, and being “available to shareholders should they wish to discuss concerns”.

In May, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he was “delighted” to announce that Harding would become the new chair of the NHS Test and Trace programme. Hancock said Harding would “oversee implementation of the new NHS app, mass testing and contact tracing programme”.

This was a crucial job in terms of the UK response to the pandemic, but the announcement did not make clear if it was actually a full-time job. And Harding did continue to work for Mind Gym for a period.

Harding’s appointment was always controversial. The Tory life peer is best known as the former CEO of TalkTalk, and her handling of a 2015 cyberattack on the mobile phone network’s customers, 157,000 of whom had their data stolen. In 2017 Harding left TalkTalk and became chair of NHS Improvement.

Responding to Freedom of Information requests submitted by VICE World News, the Department of Health and the NHS said they do not have records of how many days Harding has worked for NHS Test and Trace.

Mind Gym paid Harding a £60,000 per year salary. Harding was paid £65,000 a year for her role as chair of NHS Improvement, but her Test and Trace role is unpaid.

June and July were crucial months for the development of NHS Test and Trace. The new Contact Tracing Service was launched at the end of May, but it was widely seen as botched, and experts estimated the COVID-19 track and trace scheme was missing 75 per cent of cases in June. The COVID-19 tracing app that Hancock had promised in May was launched on the Isle of Wight, only to be withdrawn on the 18th of June because it didn’t work properly. In July the government admitted a quarter of the COVID-19 tests they claimed were counted as complete had not actually been returned in the post.

As well as sitting on the main board, Harding also sat on Mind Gym’s remuneration committee, which decides on executive salaries, and its risk committee. Company papers suggest this would involve around 20 meetings a year, alongside other duties.

Mind Gym papers show Harding was active for the company at this time. As Remuneration Committee Chair, Harding wrote a letter included in the Mind Gym annual report, dated the 10th of June. Harding asked investors to re-elect her to the board at the Mind Gym Annual General Meeting on the 13th of July, which they did.

On the 18th of August, Harding was promoted to the chair of the new National Institute for Health Protection, adding new responsibilities to her COVID-19 work. However, Harding did not finally resign from Mind Gym until the 16th of October.

In the annual report that Harding helped write, Mind Gym CEO Black told shareholders that “In the short term” the outbreak of COVID-19 has “affected our clients and our performance”. But, the report said, “In the medium term, we believe it creates a strong opportunity to accelerate our digital strategy and grow our share.”

Black said, “We are already getting great interest from clients” about how Mind Gym could help them deal with the pandemic. Black said their “pivot to digital” and their “strength in delivering live, bite-size workshops online” meant the firm could do well from the pandemic. 

Mind Gym is well-connected. Black is a friend of former Prime Minister Cameron. Black’s wife, Joanne Cash – who was dubbed the “Tatler Tory” during Cameron’s time in government – also sits on the board of Mind Gym. Cash was a Conservative Parliamentary candidate in 2010. Michael Gove and other key Conservatives went to Black and Cash’s wedding.

Black has good access to Conservative ministers and officials. Hancock had a ministerial meeting with Black in 2016. So did Cabinet Office Minister Ben Gummer. In 2015, Cameron’s government awarded Mind Gym contracts to train senior civil servants.

VICE World News asked the Department of Health if it approved of Harding’s part-time work with Mind Gym, and if they thought it was OK for her to do this extra work on top of running Test and Trace. We also asked if the department in fact believed that Harding’s Test and Trace roles were not jobs that needed her full-time attention. They gave no response.

Mind Gym and Baroness Harding, currently self-isolating after getting pinged by the NHS app she oversees, were also approached for comment. They declined to respond.


Permission granted! Cathy Gardner’s statement on Crowd Justice

As you may have heard in the news Mr Justice Linden granted the case permission to proceed to a full trial. Despite the best efforts of the Government and NHS to get the case thrown out the judge ruled that we had an arguable case with reasonable prospects of success. The judge recognised the wider public interest in the case and that it affects the lives of many people who have lost loved ones in the pandemic. Simply put, he accepted that it is arguable that the Government unlawfully failed to protect the lives of care home residents.

A huge amount of work has been done to get the case to this significant point. There is much more to do. The government and NHS have to file their detailed evidence by 22ndJanuary 2021 and we then have an opportunity to file evidence in reply. For the first time we will see what the Government’s reasoning was in making some of the disastrous decisions they took – for example the requirement to urgently discharge patients from hospital without COVID-19 tests in March this year.

We expect the trial to take place around April/May next year.

We need continue to raise funds to be able to hold the Government to account for the loss of so many lives. I am so grateful for your generosity that has helped us get to this highly significant moment. Please share this page and many thanks again for all your donations and kind comments of support.

EDF confirms Hinkley Point B to be shut down earlier than planned

Cracks in reactor’s graphite core leads to decision to begin process no later than July 2022

Jillian Ambrose

Hinkley Point B and Hinkley Point A nuclear power stations in Somerset.

  Hinkley Point B and Hinkley Point A nuclear power stations in Somerset. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

EDF Energy has confirmed it will begin shutting down the 45-year-old reactors at Hinkley Point B nuclear power plant in Somerset within the next two years, earlier than scheduled.

The “defuelling” will begin no later than July 2022, according to the French energy group.

The shutdown was scheduled for 2023, but cracks were discovered in the graphite core of the reactor.

Matt Sykes, the managing director of EDF Generation, said an inspection of Hinkley Point B’s graphite blocks revealed they were “in exactly the sort of condition” expected after 40 years of generating electricity.

The power plant, which has been Britain’s most productive and whose operational life was extended, is offline for further inspections and is scheduled to return to service next year, pending approval from Britain’s nuclear safety watchdog.

“As a responsible operator we feel it is now the right thing to do to give clarity to our staff, partners and community about the future life of the station,” Sykes said.

Tom Greatrex, the chief executive of the UK’s Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), said the Hinkley Point B shutdown was “a reminder of the urgency of investing in new nuclear capacity to hit net zero”.

EDF had expected the shutdown to take place after the start-up of Hinkley Point C, the first new nuclear power plant being built in the UK in a generation, which was originally due to begin generating electricity “well before 2020”.

However, the scheduled start date has been delayed to between 2025 and 2026 owing to slow progress in agreeing with the government a guaranteed price for the electricity produced.

Greatrex said: “Hinkley Point B has produced more clean electricity and saved more emissions, 105m tonnes, than any other single power station in British history. It can only be replaced by new nuclear stations that produce the same reliable, always-on, emissions-free power that Hinkley has provided for more than 40 years.”

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Boris Johnson’s 10-point climate plan, which was revealed on Tuesday, promised to advance large-scale nuclear projects and the developments of so-called “mini nuclear reactors” with a £525m support package.

But the plan failed to give the greenlight to EDF Energy’s planned followup to the Hinkley Point C project at the Sizewell site, which the firm hopes to build alongside a Chinese nuclear company.

The NIA said it hoped the government provided a clear path towards new nuclear capacity in an energy white paper, which is expected before Christmas.

Matt Hancock wrong to say no NHS staff pay for hospital parking

Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces demands to make hospital parking free permanently for NHS staff – after his Health Secretary made a false claim they don’t have to pay.

Mike Kelly

Matt Hancock this week said: “We don’t have parking charges for English hospitals, and we’re not going to for the course of the pandemic”.

But he was slammed after it was discovered at least two NHS trusts have brought back staff parking fees already, The Mirror reports.

And NHS Providers, which represents hospital chiefs, said many more are under pressure to bring back charges due to a lack of guaranteed funds.

Deputy chief executive Saffron Cordery said: “If the Government wants to abolish charges, they’re going to have to give us the money.

“Otherwise you’ll be creating a funding gap which will ultimately impact patients.”

She added: “It is not clear that free car parking for staff is still being funded, because the Government hasn’t been clear how much lost non NHS income will be reimbursed or for what. We would like clarity on that.”

Parking charges for hospital staff in England were suspended in March “during this unprecedented time”.

But in July the Government said the subsidy “cannot continue indefinitely” and would end “when the pandemic begins to ease”.

The NHS People Plan says hospitals “should” keep staff parking free “for the duration of the pandemic” but appears to have no legal force.

Forty-two MPs have now written to Boris Johnson demanding he “step in” and ensure free staff parking is not only guaranteed now – but made permanent.

In the letter 38 left-wing Labour MPs, four Lib Dems, and officers from GMB, Unite and Nurses United write: “NHS staff should not face what is effectively an extra tax on them doing their jobs.”

They add: “Now with the second lockdown and the dramatic rise in cases and hospitalisations, we write to call on the Government to again step in to ensure that all NHS staff in England are provided with free parking.

“And this time, to make it permanent – in line with longstanding commitments in Scotland and Wales.”

Mr Hancock was asked about parking charges for hospital staff in an interview on Monday.

He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain : “We don’t have parking charges in English hospitals and we’re not going to for the course of this pandemic.”

He added: “There are not those charges now and there will not be during this pandemic. Once the pandemic is over, we will no doubt return to this question.”

Yet staff have been charged for parking since the end of June at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust.

Local Labour MP Zarah Sultana, who arranged the letter to the PM, told the Mirror: “The Health Secretary seems so out of touch that he doesn’t even know this has happened.

“It’s disgraceful. Instead of empty gestures, NHS staff deserve a fair pay rise and the end to these parking charges.”

The Trust said it brought back staff parking charges “to accommodate rising numbers of patients” but plans to build 1,600 extra spaces in future.

Harrogate District Hospital has also brought back staff parking charges since September. A spokeswoman said: “This is to protect parking for patients and service users as normal services resumed.”

A survey by NursingNotes earlier this month claimed 58% of NHS trusts reintroduced parking charges for staff between June and August. The trusts were not named and there was no breakdown at the time.

The Government insisted it is reimbursing NHS Trusts for any lost car parking income through “financial envelopes that are in place for the second half of the year”.

A Department of Health spokesman said: “During this ongoing global pandemic we are providing the funding for NHS staff to get free hospital parking, meaning staff should not be charged to park.”

Was the scientific advice for lockdown flawed?

As coronavirus began spreading around the world at the start of 2020, in the UK there were weaknesses in the expert analysis of its likely impact, according to a BBC documentary.

This confirms Owl’s long held view that the scientific advice was too reliant on the blinkered use of opaque theoretical models (algorithms if you like) by individuals working in isolation. 

See, for example, the section on care homes. “The failure of those models, I guess, was that we didn’t know how connected the social care settings were with the community,” he says.” 

Where was the application of common sense in all this?

By Richard Cookson

“There is going to be a lot of criticism of the scientists – because it’s easy to have hindsight.

“It’s easy to say if only we’d done this a week earlier we’d have saved 5,000, 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 lives. But if you look at where we were in February, would you really have made these decisions any differently? I don’t think you would have.”

Those are the words of Prof Calum Semple of the University of Liverpool, one of the key scientists advising the government on Covid-19.

Ever since the novel coronavirus arrived in the UK, ministers have repeatedly said they were “following the science”.

But the UK has ended up with one of the worst death rates in the world – coronavirus has killed more than 50,000 people so far.

So how good was the scientific evidence provided in the run-up to lockdown?

Virus got a headstart

On 23 January 2020, a woman unknowingly infected with coronavirus flew to the UK from Wuhan and passed through the airport undetected. Eight days later she, and a family member, became the first confirmed UK cases.

But what wasn’t understood was how many others then followed in their footsteps through February and March – not just from China, but from across Europe.

“What we hadn’t realised was that the virus had already moved into Italy, France and Spain, and was in the ski resorts,” says Prof Semple, who is on Sage, the government’s scientific advisory group.

“It turns out that we had probably 1,500 cases that came in during that period, and that’s why Britain was hit so hard. We were given a really bad dose at a very early stage in a large number.”

Prof Graham Medley, who chairs the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M), which feeds in to Sage, agrees.

“If I could have known one thing, it would have been the number of imports coming in from mainland Europe.

“I should have thought that if northern Italy has got an epidemic then it’s quite likely that other places in Europe have probably got an epidemic as well, and I didn’t think that.”

Prof Gabriel Scally, a public health expert and former health adviser to Labour, said: “There was a steady flow of people coming in from various countries as the virus spread.

“We left our borders open, we left our door open to the virus, and that contributed substantially to the very rapid growth in the virus that we subsequently saw.”

Poor early data

Information about those early cases was fed into a database called the First Few Hundred (FF100), which was closely studied by modellers for clues about how the virus might spread .

But there was a problem. “Unfortunately the First Few Hundred data was not as good as we expected,” says another SPI-M member, Dr Thibaut Jombart, from Imperial College London.

“There were clearly quite a few mistakes: basic information, basic epidemiological information, was missing.

“At the time I was coming back from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where I spent six months as part of the response to an Ebola outbreak – a very, very messy situation in a warzone, you expect messy data there. It felt like the data situation was less good in the UK than it was in the DRC.”

But Prof Medley, who is based at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, defends the FF100 data. “Modellers always want more and better data. Yes, you could always want it more complete, you could always want it more accurate, but nonetheless the data that we had fulfilled our purpose.

“We were in quite a good position to understand what might happen in the United Kingdom.”

Data was not just key to understanding where coronavirus was coming from, but who was worst affected.

Care home flaws

By mid-February, evidence from China showed older people were particularly at risk.

In the UK, modellers warned government that the virus could kill tens of thousands, and advised “cocooning” would reduce deaths.

But Dr Ian Hall, of SPI-M, admits models did not reflect how care homes actually work, or identify the serious risk posed by agency staff working in different homes.

“The failure of those models, I guess, was that we didn’t know how connected the social care settings were with the community,” he says.

“As modellers we didn’t know – I’m sure there are lots of academics and policy-makers out there, that could have told us this, if we’d asked them.”

Coronavirus would go on to kill more than 20,000 people in care homes.

Timing the peak

The modellers were also trying to predict when the UK would see the peak of cases.

In early March, SPI-M was still estimating it was 12 to 14 weeks away. “We were planning for a pandemic that was fairly slowly growing, on the basis that we had kind of a ramping up of social distancing, over a period of time,” says Dr Hall.

But one member of the committee, Prof Steven Riley, from Imperial College, believed the government’s strategy was seriously flawed and would leave intensive care units overwhelmed for a long period of time.

On 10 March, when official figures suggested there had been a total of 913 cases – but experts now estimate there were 75,000 – he submitted a paper calling for an immediate lockdown.

He says: “Based only on my knowledge of the epidemiological situation, I did think, at that point, there was an argument for stringent social distancing, for lockdown, as soon as possible.

“The point that I thought needed to be addressed as a matter of urgency, was that initially we should lock down in order to have time to formulate a more precise strategy.”

SPI-M’s Prof Mark Jit was asked to investigate what the true numbers might be.

“I think everyone knew that they were not picking up all the cases. The big question was by how much were they underestimating the number.

“We decided to look at the number of cases in intensive care units. We knew for each of these cases there will probably be many hundreds of thousands of people who have Covid but didn’t have it that seriously.”

His calculations predicted that by mid-March there would soon be close to 100,000 new cases each day. “That was extremely worrying because 100,000 new cases would mean that about a week later we would get 20,000 new hospital patients a day.

“There was the sense that, OK. we really need to get this information to Sage to make decisions about what we’re going to do in the UK.”

At the same time, other modellers realised that the NHS data they were relying on for their modelling was out of date.

“The data coming in from the UK which we thought was up to the minute was in fact in some cases up to a week old, and so really we weren’t looking at a snapshot of how the epidemic was developing now, but how it was in the past,” says Dr Nick Davies, who is also on SPI-M.

“That was the first time when I started to feel like things really were not under control.”

In a TV address the previous evening, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had told the nation: “Now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel. We need people to start working from home where they possibly can. And you should avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues. Without drastic action, cases could double every five or six days.”

But at the University of Manchester, SPI-M’s Dr Lorenzo Pellis was looking at data from Italy, and realising that the virus was spreading in Britain at almost twice the speed that had previously been thought.

“I got really concerned,” said Dr Pellis. “I was coming out with really short times between that day and potentially breaching hospital capacity.”

It meant the NHS was just days away from being swamped by coronavirus patients.

The analysis was fed back to Sage. “And that led to the cascade to full lockdown,” said his SPI-M collegue Dr Hall.

Lockdown too slow

So do the scientists believe they should have acted earlier?

“I obviously feel that it’s incredibly tragic what has happened in the UK and of course I wish that interventions had been brought in earlier”, says Dr Davies.

“Our own modelling suggests that had lockdown been imposed a week earlier, we may have avoided about half or slightly more than half the number of deaths.”

“I think we got ourselves into a mess by relying on modelling and allowing modelling to drive the whole response,” says Prof Scally. “I think the failure of the science, so to speak, will be seen as one of the most important features in what has been a very, very poor response to this global health tragedy.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “This is a new virus and an unprecedented global pandemic and our priority from the outset has been to save lives. We have been guided by the advice of experts from Sage and its sub-committees and our response helped to ensure the NHS was not overwhelmed.”

‘Lockdown 1.0 – Following The Science?’ is on BBC2 at 21:00 GMT on Thursday 19 November and on the BBC iPlayer afterwards.

Change better managed than panic reaction

Letter in this week’s Exmouth Journal sets out local amenity society’s position on LORP:

The Otter Valley Association has been involved since the inception of the Lower Otter Restoration Project (LORP) and is a member of the technical steering group, trying to give a local flavour and input to the proposals.

In general the OVA is supportive of the project, based on the understanding that change is inevitable with climate change, higher sea levels and more violent storm events.

We consider that change would be far better as a managed process, and not as panic response to a disaster.

The managed process of LORP has attracted the necessary funding to make a proper scheme, whereas major storm damage – tomorrow, next week… – would not be repaired the latest Coastal Management Plan policy.

During the process the OVA representatives have been keen to emphasise the continuation of public access and enjoyment of the area. Particularly the retention of the footpath from the Lime Kiln car park to White Bridge.

We will be continuing to liaise during the construction phase to try and ensure that the necessarily disruptive works cause minimum effects to the use by the public, though for site safety reasons there will inevitably be diversions and/or temporary closures.

If funds were unlimited, there are undoubtedly other things the OVA would like to have seen included. But we are realists in recognising that the proposed scheme is the best available, and far better than the ‘do nothing’ option’.

The changes will be difficult for a number of our members who know, love and enjoy this very special area of the local countryside.

However, we have come to understand that the alternative of doing nothing is not sustainable.

Change is inevitable and we consider that change would be far better as a managed process, and not as panic response to a disaster.

In the longer term, the project will bring significant wider ecological benefits through the re-creation of a more naturalised estuary that enables a more dynamic transition from a fresh water to a brackish system. This should greatly add to the value and integrity of the existing Otter Estuary Site of Special Scientific Interest and the vulnerable wildlife that depends on it, including wintering waterbirds.

It should also increase the area’s resilience to our changing climate through restoration of natural processes and provision of the natural flood risk management benefits that saltmarsh and mudflat are known to provide.


Vice Chair Otter Valley Assocation on behalf of the OVA executive committee