‘Support us on curbs or Covid will swamp NHS – Covid-19 is no respecter of boundaries ’

Just in case you were getting a little confused by the mixed messages coming from a government with an 80 seat majority, Michael Gove spells out the “official/agreed/orthodox/canonical/doctrinal/holy writ” line, or possibly not. A day is a long time in politics. – Owl

Oliver Wright, Policy Editor | Chris Smyth, Whitehall Editor | Francis Elliott, Political Editor www.thetimes.co.uk

Every hospital in England faces being overwhelmed with Covid-19 cases if MPs fail to back the government’s tough new restrictions, Michael Gove has warned.

Amid a growing Conservative backbench rebellion over the tiering system, the Cabinet Office minister is calling on MPs to “take responsibility for difficult decisions” to prevent further spread of the disease.

Mr Gove’s intervention, in an article for The Times today, comes as tens of millions of people in Tiers 2 and 3 were warned they were unlikely to be able to socialise indoors until the spring.

The prime minister’s scientific advisers have told him that it won’t be safe for a large number of areas to be moved into Tier 1 until the danger period for the NHS has passed. They conclude that at the lowest level the restrictions are insufficient to stop cases rising.

The prospect of months under onerous curbs will anger MPs in southern England, who claim that their constituencies have had unfair restrictions imposed upon them despite low and falling rates of infection.

Boris Johnson said he understood the frustration but that it was essential to control the virus until a vaccine could be supplied. “I know it is frustrating for people when they are in a high-tier area when there is very little incidence in their village or their area. I totally understand why people feel frustrated,” he said. “Our experience is that, when a high incidence area is quite close to a low incidence area, unless you beat the problem in the high incidence area, the low incidence area starts to catch up.”

Craig Mackinlay, the Conservative MP for South Thanet, which has the second highest R-rate in the country, said this morning that people naturally “self-regulate” when the local R-rate starts to rise. He told BBC Breakfast that he favoured this response to the “draconian” tiers system, which he plans to vote against on Tuesday.

Mr Gove’s intervention is the strongest defence yet of the government’s strategy. He revealed that the decision to impose a four-week national lockdown was taken after scientists warned that the lockdown rules were not enough to prevent the NHS from being “physically overwhelmed”. “Every bed, every ward occupied. All the capacity built in the Nightingales and requisitioned from the private sector too. The numbers infected with Covid-19 and requiring a bed would displace all but emergency cases. And then even those,” he writes.

Mr Gove said that MPs should not fall for “comfortable evasions” that things were now different or put their constituencies ahead of the national interest. “When the country is facing such a national crisis, the truth is that all of us who have been elected to parliament, not just ministers, must take responsibility for difficult decisions,” he writes.

“Covid-19 is no respecter of constituency boundaries and the hardships we are facing now are unfortunately necessary to protect every single one of us, no matter where we live.”

Mr Gove described the new restrictions that will see the vast majority of the country in tougher tiers as “grimly, inevitably, necessary” to prevent the NHS from being unable to treat emergency patients.

“The level of infection across the country remains uncomfortably and threateningly high. Across the UK, around 16,000 beds are filled with Covid-19 patients, which compares with almost 20,000 at the April peak. From the current high base, any sharp uptick in infection could see the NHS under even more severe threat again.”

He rejected suggestions that the measures were economically damaging, arguing that without them “the economy would grind to a halt” as a terrified population stayed at home rather than risked going without care.

Sage documents published yesterday concluded that while Tier 3 was effective almost everywhere, and Tier 2 in most places, Tier 1 had failed to stop cases rising exponentially.

Mr Gove accepted the previous tiers “were neither strong enough to reduce social contact sufficiently, nor applied widely enough to contain the virus’ spread. And that is the difficult lesson we cannot unlearn as this lockdown ends.”

The gathering Tory rebellion could leave Mr Johnson dependent on Labour support if he is to get the new measures approved. Justin Madders, a Labour health spokesman, said the party would wait to see the detailed regulations before deciding which way to vote. He suggested the government could be forced to make concessions.

“I think that that’s part of the debate we’re going to have about making sure that the public has got confidence that this is the right thing to do,” he told Times Radio. Labour is considering abstaining on Tuesday’s vote.

Exclusive: Towns and villages offered escape route from toughest Covid tiers

MPs told rural areas with low infection rates could be ‘decoupled’ from cities that have dragged them into strict restrictions.

[“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!” – to quote Sir Walter Scott]

By Danielle Sheridan, Political Correspondent www.telegraph.co.uk

Towns and villages near Covid hotspots would be lifted out of the toughest restrictions under plans being drawn up by ministers to quell a growing Tory backlash.

MPs have been told that rural areas with low infection rates could be “decoupled” from cities that have “unfairly” dragged them into Tiers 2 and 3 under the Government’s regional approach.

It comes amid a major rift between ministers and scientific advisers, who say areas of England are more likely to go up a tier than down one.

Government scientists have said they expect few changes within the system in coming months, with Tier 2 areas more likely to go up than down and almost nowhere likely to move to Tier 1 until March. They are understood to have told Boris Johnson that he should consider moving Tier 2 areas to Tier 3.

The draconian advice comes despite new figures showing the reproduction ‘R’ rate of the virus to have come down to between 0.9 and 1.0 – its lowest level since August – meaning that Covid may already be in retreat.

Up to 100 Tory MPs are threatening the biggest rebellion of Mr Johnson’s premiership when the new tier system is put to a vote next week amid anger over a broad brush approach that has put low incidence areas into higher tiers because they are in the same county as a city with a high infection rate. 

Government ministers Nadhim Zahawi and Jesse Norman are among those to have publicly criticised the new tiers.

Labour has yet to decide whether it will vote for the tier system, meaning Mr Johnson could face defeat unless he can persuade enough of his own MPs to back down. The Prime Minister said on Friday that he understood the “frustration” of people who have ended up in tier two or three despite low infection rates in their town or village.

According to reports, the Prime Minister has pencilled in Easter Monday as the day when the strict Covid tiers will be lifted.

Ministers and officials are trying to win round Tory MPs by offering them hope that their constituencies will be “decoupled” from hotspots when a review of the tiers is carried out in mid-December. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, is among ministers understood to have discussed the idea with backbenchers, with other ministers and officials also having private talks with MPs.

Seven Tory MPs in Kent are among those in discussions with the Government over “decoupling” low-incidence rural areas from hotspots in the county, which is in Tier 3 along with 41 per cent of England’s population.

Tom Tugendhat, the MP for Tonbridge and Malling, said: “Many of us are talking to his [Mr Hancock’s] team at the moment – we are seeing where we are going to get. I’d like the Government to come to the right conclusion. It’s an error.”

Many MPs have pointed out that both Slough, in Berkshire, and Scarborough, in North Yorkshire, have already been “decoupled” from their regions by being put into different tiers.

Former Cabinet minister Liam Fox, the MP for North Somerset, said: “Why should we be punished for Bristol not being able to get its numbers under control? We weren’t the ones having raves and protests. We are being victimised because of the city authorities’ failure to get this under control. It appears to lack consistency and logic. 

“I’ve made my feelings known within the party and expect these things will be reviewed before the vote on Tuesday. There have been hints by ministers that there will be decoupling.”

Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tories, said: “The tiers have been applied in an unjust and unfair way, putting whole counties into lockdown when significant areas have very low levels of infection.”

Andrew Bridgen, whose North West Leicestershire constituency has been put into Tier 3 because of high rates in Leicester, said: “A lot of us were in lower tiers and now we are in higher tiers. If there is any hope of salvation, we’ve got to be decoupled from Leicester.

“Our figures are dropping. It’s all about hope – and if we are linked with Leicester, then we have no hope.”

Business minister Mr Zahawi said he had spoken to Mr Hancock and “made clear to him the very strong feelings” among his constituents in Stratford-upon-Avon, which is in Tier 3 because infection rates in Coventry and Solihull have “counted against us”. 

He said he was “pushing for” Warwickshire to be “reconsidered alone” so it can drop to Tier 2.

Mr Johnson said: “I know it is frustrating for people when they are in a high-tier area when there is very little incidence in their village or their area. I totally understand why people feel frustrated.

“The difficulty is that if you did it any other way, first of all you’d divide the country up into loads and loads of very complicated sub-divisions – there has got to be some simplicity and clarity in the way we do this. The second problem is that, alas, our experience is that when a high-incidence area is quite close to a low-incidence area, unless you beat the problem in the high-incidence area then the low-incidence area, I’m afraid, starts to catch up.”

Downing Street has insisted it is possible that some of the 99 per cent of the country in tiers two and three could drop down to lower tiers when a review based on the newest data is announced on December 17.

However, it emerged on Friday that while Mr Johnson faces a fight for the support of his own MPs for the tier system, he also faces a battle with his scientific advisers, who believe the restrictions should be toughened rather than relaxed.

One senior Government scientist said he was “not expecting big changes to the tiers in the next few months”, adding that he “would be surprised if we saw large numbers of areas get down to Tier 1” before spring heralds the rollout of a vaccine.

The adviser said he anticipated that some areas would rise from Tier 2 to Tier 3 after Christmas, while it was possible some areas could drop from Tier 3 to Tier 2 in time.

He added that “from now … into February is going to be the most difficult”, anticipating heavier pressures on the NHS after Christmas when rises in respiratory viruses and flu are typically seen, saying: “All those things conspire against being able to relax tiers.”

The same source called into question Mr Johnson’s reliance on mass testing to get areas out of Tier 3. The Prime Minister has cited the use of  it in Liverpool as the reason it became the first part of the country to leave the highest tier, and Number 10 has said hundreds of millions of tests will soon be available.

But the source said it would be “optimistic” to think that mass testing could reduce an epidemic by 15 to 20 per cent and that repeated testing in high-risk groups was likely to be more effective than offering it to the whole population less frequently.

On Friday night, Michael Gove defended the tier system in The Times, describing it as “grimly, inevitably necessary” to prevent the NHS from being unable to treat emergency patients.

Separately, newly-released minutes of a Sage meeting on November 19 show that scientific advisers believe the relaxation of rules on household mixing over the festive period will result in increased prevalence in a similar way to students returning to university in September.

We are all Johnson’s exes now, led on by false hope and dishonesty. Still, see you guys in tier 4 in January.

“Now is not the time,” gibbered the prime minister, “to take our foot off the throat of the beast.” Its throat? A lot of people feel like they’ve been living in the beast’s colon for most of the year. Still, see you guys in tier 4 in January.

Marina Hyde www.theguardian.com 

Incredibly, the above was not even the worst line of Boris Johnson’s Thursday evening press conference. Johnson is unaccountably celebrated as a brilliant prose stylist but frequently spouts the sort of sub-inspirational shit you might see slapped on a photo of a crossroads on Instagram. This outing was a case in point, as the prime minister intoned: “Your tier is not your destiny – every area has the means of escape.” Wow. I want to say “#makesuthink”, but I’m going to go with: “Then tell us what the means of escape is! Why does everything have to be a bleeding ring quest?”

Unfortunately, the government doesn’t even trust its own MPs enough to divulge what precisely will set your area free. And, as I mentioned last week, many of you will be quite bored with taking lectures in personal responsibility from a man who doesn’t even take personal responsibility for an unspecified number of his own children.

For now: out of the frying pan, into the burns unit. Last month, before Johnson belatedly got around to announcing the national lockdown in a Halloween performance of quite terrifying ineptitude, over 50% of England was in tier 1. When the nation “emerges” four weeks later, it’ll be more like 1%. Boris Johnson has 99 problems, but the Isles of Scilly ain’t one.

Almost the entire country will now be in the toughest two tiers – which are themselves not the tiers you might have known and loved the first time round. There have been “modifications”. Furthermore, there is the situation of areas such as Kent, which went into this lockdown in tier 1 but which Johnson has deemed will come out of it into an even harsher version of tier 3. Like Taylor Swift’s, his tiers ricochet.

It is fair to say the reaction to yesterday’sannouncements is widespread WTF-ery. If you are able to follow all the news obsessively, these latest developments might not come as a shock. Since the beginning of our plague year, Johnson’s failure to grasp any of the nettles at any of the points they needed to be grasped has arguably long set us up for a bleak midwinter. And a bleak early winter, and a bleak late winter.

There’s a reason the Office for Budget Responsibility places the UK on the naughty step of charts comparing not just European death tolls but also economic damage, despite the country having had to endure some of the most stringent restrictions in the continent. And it’s not because it’s “just one of those things”. Johnson’s government has fallen between every stool. Worse, they were so hell bent on not having to learn from the first wave via any sort of inquiry, that many of the mistakes have since been repeated in the second wave. If there is a third wave, expect yet another runout for all your favourites.

As I say, lots of hyperengaged people may already feel they knew what “the end of lockdown” would look like. If, however, your main preoccupation has been with keeping your head/business/life above water, you might have taken a very different signal from the government over the past few weeks, when you’ve had a second to pay attention. You might have assumed that the thing which followed the lockdown would be – how to put this? – less lockdowny. You might have assumed, what with all the deceptive performative fussing over Christmas and so on, that we would return on 2 December to something better than we left on 4 November. You might even remember successive promises of Johnson’s to “turn the tide” in 12 weeks (March), and a “return to normality by Christmas” (July).

Alas, all of these little white lies are a function of Johnson’s character. From the very start of this pandemic, the prime minister has confirmed he is temperamentally unsuited to delivering bad news. Instead, he has opted to deliver bad news hopelessly belatedly, and good news self-defeatingly prematurely. The effect is to make people feel constantly cheated, even when the news is better than might have been expected had their expectations been managed more fairly or reasonably. Hence why, up and down the country today, people feel led up the garden path. If they watched Thursday’s Downing Street press conference, they will know to expect more of the same as we move forward. No sooner had Johnson explained how your tier wasn’t your destiny, than chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, explained that even the new tier 2 would only hold infections level. Tier 1 would result in a rise.

Naturally, there is a certain irony in seeing Tory MPs who voted for Johnson now outraged to discover that he won’t tell them the truth. Had you given a look to camera this morning every time an MP said something like “the prime minister needs to be straight with people”, you’d have had whiplash before breakfast.

Much worse are the ones still quietly making excuses for his character failings, like he’s some special case. Even at his lectern, Johnson seems to cast himself as the chorus to events, as opposed to the guy who decrees them. All the sighs and the winces and the “I wishes” – we are for ever being encouraged to see things as happening to the prime minister, as opposed to at his behest. He lacks the leadership qualities required to own his response.

No doubt his last defenders would claim that Johnson is simply giving people hope. If so, then he is demonstrably going the wrong way about it. Johnson has become a specialist in dashing hopes falsely raised (by him). Yet hope is hugely important, now more than at any time this past year, and a better leader – even an adequate one – should be able to inspire without misleading.

Alas, Johnson continues to confuse giving people hope with placating them with fibs, only to let them down later, like he was always going to have to anyway. The pattern is not unfamiliar. There are women in several London postcodes to whom the prime minister once gave hope, only to later turn out to have been making false promises. Hang on to your lunch, but perhaps we’re all those women now. We expect him to do this; we expect him to do that. So we became hopeful, after a fashion. When the time comes, of course, Boris Johnson doesn’t think he can be reasonably expected to do the things he suggested he could – indeed, he protests that he never really suggested them anyway.

So yes, this is the way he has always been. At the time of the leadership election, there were all sort of open-minded Tories who voted for Johnson, apparently convinced the personal was not political. That was a misapprehension. Your tier might not be your destiny – but in his job, your character always is.

• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist

• Join Marina Hyde and Guardian parliamentary sketch writer John Crace as they look back at a political year like no other. Thursday 10 December, 7pm GMT, 8pm CET, 2pm EST Book tickets here

Harsh benefit cuts to blame for rising poverty, former Conservative Cabinet minister admits

Harsh benefit cuts are to blame for rising poverty in Britain, a former Conservative Cabinet minister has admitted – as he pleaded with Rishi Sunak not to repeat the mistake.

www.independent.co.uk

In remarkably candid comments, Stephen Crabb said the steep reductions in Universal Credit – begun by George Osborne five years ago – had failed to raise wages, as the former Chancellor hoped.

“Five years on, looking back, I would say we took too much money out of Universal Credit. We squeezed too hard,” said Mr Crabb, a former Work and Pensions Secretary.

And he admitted: “That’s what gives you a lot of the reasons behind the increase in hardship in this country.”

The backbencher spoke out amid rising criticism of the current Chancellor for planning to slash £20-a-week from Universal Credit payments next April.

The football star Marcus Rashford, who forced a climbdown on free school meals, has now thrown his weight behind the campaign to retain the increase put through at the start of the pandemic.

But Mr Crabb warned some ministers saw restoring the cut as a way to start plugging the £40bn black hole in the public finances, without there being “a political price to pay”.

He criticised a “missed opportunity” to help poorer families, when the bleak economic outlook for 2021 was already crystal clear.

“There will certainly be more people unemployed, there’ll be more families relying on Universal Credit and more people relying on it for greater periods,” he told BBC Radio 4.

“And the thing about Universal Credit is that the longer you are on it, the harder it is to make ends meet.”

Six million households face the £1,000-a-year cut to their incomes, if Universal Credit is reduced again – just as unemployment is expected to soar to 2.6 million, Mr Sunak has acknowledged.

In a further criticism of the government’s anti-poverty record, campaigners have attacked a near-doubling of the number of households hit by the overall cap on benefits.

There were 168,400 households subject to the cap in August 2020 – up from around 77,913 households in February, before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

The limit is set at £20,000 a year for families outside London, and £23,000 for those in the capital – with ministers rejecting pleas for it to be relaxed while the Covid-19 crisis continues.

There are 600,000 more children living in relative poverty since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, official figures show.

That total grew by 100,000 last year alone, leaving 4.2 million youngsters in the UK – or 30 per cent – existing below the poverty line.

Mr Crabb said the Treasury, under Mr Osborne’s leadership, “hated Universal Credit” until it realised it was a mechanism to slash benefits, in comparison with the existing tax credits system.

It only “got behind it” when it “spotted an opportunity for rolling out a cut to the welfare budget”.

East Devon council makes funding pledge over Cranbrook town centre

East Devon councillors have backed making funding available to support the building of a long-awaited town centre in Cranbrook.

Daniel Clark eastdevonnews.co.uk 

District authority chiefs agreed to persist with work on a draft masterplan  – and continue to negotiate with a consortium of developers over their vision.

The masterplan approach seeks to use the East Devon New Community Partners (EDNCp)  as a starting point, incorporating plans for a library, youth centre, children’s centre and a hub for ‘blue light’ services.

But the proposal would also make the remainder of town centre land available for a mix of commercial, community uses and a leisure centre rather than for housing.

The location of an extra care facility would be changed, while provision may be made for a hotel.

East Devon District Council’s (EDDC) cabinet agreed on Wednesday that funding ‘in principle’ be made available to support the pro-active delivery of the town centre.

This would be based on the draft masterplan, although a detailed business plan to understand the streams of funding and the level required would need to come back for final approval.

Councillor Kevin Blakey, who represents the Cranbrook ward, said a figure in the ‘tens of millions of pounds’ would be needed.

Cllr John Loudoun, portfolio holder for policy co-ordination and regional engagement, added: “It is important that the residents of Cranbrook understand the administration’s intent and desire to try and finally deliver for them a town centre and a town centre that does actually work for them and not just the developers.

“This is a significant commitment to the residents and we want to sort this out once and for all for the better good.”

A draft supplementary planning document (SPD) and  delivery plan will now be presented to the authority’s Strategic Planning Committee in December.

Councillors on the committee were last month urged to by town representatives to accept the EDNCp proposals.

The developers’ offer would see work take place sooner, but would be less ambitious than a proposed masterplan council officers are in favour of.

But the calls were rejected, with members instead voting to continue negotiations with the EDNCp to improve its offer, and that work should continue on an SPD.

Algorithms: Public sector urged to be open about role in decision-making

Public sector bodies must be more open about their use of algorithms in making decisions, ministers have been told.

BBC News www.bbc.co.uk 

A government advisory body said greater transparency and accountability was needed in all walks of life over the use of computer-based models in policy.

Officials must understand algorithms’ limits and risks of bias, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation said.

Boris Johnson blamed a “mutant” algorithm for the chaos over school grades in England this summer.

Ofqual and other exam regulators across the UK were forced to back down following a public outcry over the use of a computer program to determine A-level and GCSE grades after the cancellation of exams.

The regulator’s chief executive resigned after the algorithm used to “moderate” marks submitted by schools and grading centres resulted in nearly 40% of them being downgraded, in some cases by more than one grade.

It was accused of breaching of anti-discrimination legislation and failing to uphold standards.

‘Promote fairness’

The government was forced into another U-turn last month over aspects of its planning reforms after Tory MPs accused ministers of relying on a faulty computer-based formula to decide house building targets across England.

In a new study, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation said there needed to be greater awareness of the risks of using algorithms in make potentially life-changing decisions and more done to mitigate them.

Those running organisations, it said, had to remember they were ultimately accountable for all their decisions, whether there were made by humans or artificial intelligence.

Its recommendations include requiring all bodies to record where algorithms fit into their overall decision-making process and what steps are taken to ensure those affected are treated fairly.

While organisations should be actively collecting and using data to identify bias in decision-making, it said there was a risk techniques used to mitigate bias, such as positive discrimination, could fall foul of equality legislation.

It urged the government to issue guidance on how decision by algorithm must comply with the Equality Act.

Adrian Weller said there was an opportunity for the UK to demonstrate global leadership in the responsible use of data and ensure appropriate regulatory standards were in place.

“It is vital that we work hard now to get this right as adoption of algorithmic decision-making increases,” he said.

“Government, regulators and industry need to work together with interdisciplinary experts, stakeholders and the public to ensure that algorithms are used to promote fairness, not undermine it.”

The Information Commissioner’s Office urged organisations to consult guidance on the use of artificial intelligence.

“Data protection law requires fair and transparent uses of data in algorithms, gives people rights in relation to automated decision-making, and demands that the outcome from the use of algorithms does not result in unfair or discriminatory impacts,” it said.

Boris Johnson Dumps Tory Manifesto Pledge Of Superfast Broadband For All By 2025

Boris Johnson has been accused of trying to bury bad news after the government quietly ditched his pledge to give all homes superfast broadband by 2025.

Paul Waugh www.huffingtonpost.co.uk 

The prime minister came under fire from business and telecoms chiefs as the small print of the chancellor’s spending review revealed that planned spending on the roll-out of the technology had also been slashed from £5bn to £1.2bn.

Labour said Johnson had been caught “sneaking out” the abandoned target and the spending cut as the country focused on plans for new coronavirus tiers.

Up to 5 million people are set to lose out as a result and critics have pointed out that high-speed broadband is needed more than ever during the coronavirus pandemic as home working becomes the norm.

The Tory election commitment to deliver “gigabit-capable” broadband to every home and company across the UK within five years was a landmark pledge, bringing forward by eight years a similar goal of predecessor Theresa May.

Johnson repeatedly campaigned on the promise, which he said was a central part of his “levelling up” agenda to make rural and urban parts of Britain ready for a post-Brexit future.

The broadband pledge was first made in his speech on the steps of Downing Street when he first took office. He had ridiculed May’s own 2033 timetable as “laughably unambitious”.

The manifesto boasted: “We know how difficult it will be, so we have announced a raft of legislative changes to accelerate progress and £5 billion of new public funding to connect premises which are not commercially viable.”

But buried in this week’s spending review was a sharp drop in planned spending. The accompanying National Infrastructure Strategy confirmed the target of 100% of homes with superfast broadband by 2025 had been watered down to a “minimum of 85% coverage” by that date.

The strategy said that the government would “seek to accelerate roll-out further to get as close to 100pc as possible”.

Shadow digital secretary Jo Stevens told HuffPost UK: “Not only is this broken promise another kick in the teeth for businesses and families up and down the country, it’s yet another example exposing his hollow promises.

“This year has underlined just how essential good broadband is for businesses, families and individuals. No one should be held back and penalised because of poor broadband connection. Sneaking this out in the spending review is not good enough – the government should be much more ambitious for our country.”

Johnson said in October last year he was not sure what gigabit broadband was but promised it would be “sprouting through every home like a kind of very informative vermicelli”.

Government insiders say that the main reason for the change was feedback from some industry providers that the works on the hardest to reach 20% of homes could not be achieved within the PM’s timeframe.

But without the cash, several firms say privately that they are more likely to focus on the more commercial rollout of the broadband network.

Some in Whitehall also claim that both the pandemic and the decision to exclude Chinese firm Huawei from future infrastructure plans have setback the scheduled works.

Craig Beaumont, of the Federation of Small Business, said: “Covid has shown that a good connection at home is fundamental for work and business.

“This is not good news for businesses in rural areas, nor those made redundant in the coming months who we hope will want to become self-employed and set up in business from their kitchen table.”

The broadband industry is entering the key deployment phase for the new gigabit capable network and many firms are demanding immediate clarity on the remaining £3.8bn and how they should recalibrate their build plans, recruitment and investment decisions.

The industry’s Internet Service Providers’ Association said it was disappointed to see only a quarter of the committed spending on broadband allocated across the next four years.

Andrew Glover, chair of ISPA, said: “The announcement scaling back the government’s ambitions for supporting broadband rollout in the hardest to reach areas is a blow to rural communities.

“This will not stop providers from continuing to press ahead with their commercial rollout plans, but it puts an even greater emphasis on tackling the regulatory and practical barriers that make rollout more difficult than it should be.

“As our experiences over 2020 have proved, our broadband infrastructure is fundamental to propping up the UK’s economy in periods of lockdown, so we urge the Government to ensure that this policy pivot does not lead to longer term digital exclusion of those in harder to reach areas.”

Sarah Lee, head of policy at the Countryside Alliance, said: “The spending review has prompted questions over when, how and whether rural communities will get gigabit broadband.

“This is a significant concern for rural communities and businesses who now more than ever need better digital connectivity. If ever the business potential of the countryside is to reach its full potential, indeed recover economically from COVID-19, it must have gigabit broadband sooner rather than later.”

Digital minister Matt Warman had told MPs on the digital select committee a few weeks ago that the 2025 100% rollout was “a stretch goal that we are more than capable of meeting.”

Kevin Brennan, a Labour MP on the committee, accused Warman at the time of spouting “meaningless drivel”. Brennan told HuffPost UK: “This is typical of Boris Johnson’s casual relationship with keeping his word – if he pledged a target to keep 50% of his promises few people would even believe that.”

A DCMS spokesperson said: “We remain committed to ensuring the UK’s hardest-to-reach areas benefit from our record £5 billion gigabit broadband investment. We will continue working with the industry to maximise rollout in rural areas to get as close as possible to nationwide coverage by 2025.”

Rishi Sunak’s failure to give councils the funding they need will cost lives

Rishi Sunak’s spending review will cost lives and cause yet more cuts in local services. But he still found the cash for a red wall bung.

Richard Vize www.theguardian.com 

If there were any lessons about spending priorities during the pandemic it is that investing in public health services saves lives, but Sunak offered nothing. The core public health grant – this year at £2.4bn – has been slashed by a fifth in five years. The hollowing out of this vital public service has been a central factor in the UK having a Covid-related death rate worse than the US and Brazil and five times that of Germany.

Covid-19 suppression and preparing for future pandemics will remain a core task, and the failure to give councils the resources to do the job will drive up the death toll. When billions can be found for the NHS it almost feels like a calculated insult. No wonder a despairing Jeanelle de Gruchy, president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, described Sunak’s refusal to increase the public health grant as “completely incomprehensible”.

Social care funding was increased by a derisory £300m. So far, more than 18,000 people have died in care homes with Covid-19. Perhaps social care providers should top up their funds by investing in Serco. Its part in the failing test-and-trace system has seen its underlying profits increase to around £165m and shares jump 18%. Or perhaps they could pick up a PPE contract in Matt Hancock’s local pub.

But there were some winners: Conservative MPs. Sunak found nearly £5bn for a “levelling up” slush fund, to be run from Westminster and doled out in lumps of up to £20m where bids are backed by the local MP. Projects need to be delivered during this parliament, ie by the next election. It is a shameless example of what the Americans graphically call “pork barrel politics” – local politicians bringing home the pork from federal funds to curry favour with local electors and businesses.

They have had a dry run with the £3.6bn towns fund, with Tory seats and targets being the big beneficiaries. The Commons public accounts committee could start drafting its inevitable inquiry report now on how the levelling up fund was abused to prop up Tory seats in the red wall.

Sunak’s pay freeze for most local government staff, teachers, police and many more punishes frontline workers who have put themselves at risk to protect the public from Covid-19 and keep services going. It is shameful that council staff who have been going into people’s homes to provide care are going to be rewarded with a real terms pay cut.

Sunak claimed in his speech that public sector workers had not lost jobs because of the pandemic. But thanks to his imposition of further austerity on local government, significant numbers of council staff can expect to join the ranks of the unemployed in the coming months.

Counties in England are already warning of cuts to statutory services. Hull city council fears being overwhelmed by Covid costs, while Leeds and Nottingham are planning hundreds of redundancies. And Croydon’s financial implosion shows the perils of pushing local authorities to take ever greater risks to generate income and improve their area.

Ministers have reneged on their promise early on in the pandemic to meet all councils’ costs. Levelling up should mean improving the life chances and living conditions of the most deprived communities, not cutting their services again.

Not even 60,000 deaths can teach this government the value of investing in public services, the limits of central control or the lethal consequences of a desperately unequal society.

And compared with the budgets to come, this was supposed to be the good news.

  • Richard Vize is a public policy commentator and analyst

Huge wealth of Rishi Sunak’s family not declared in ministerial register

The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is facing questions over the transparency of his financial affairs after a Guardian investigation established that his wife and her family hold a multimillion-pound portfolio of shareholdings and directorships that are not declared in the official register of ministers’ interests.

Nolan principles again – Owl

Juliette Garside www.theguardian.com 

Akshata Murty, who married Sunak in 2009, is the daughter of one of India’s most successful entrepreneurs. Her father co-founded the technology giant Infosys, and her shares in the company are worth £430m, making her one of the wealthiest women in Britain, with a fortune larger than the Queen’s.

Sunak is bound by the ministerial code, which requires him to declare any financial interests that are “relevant” to his responsibilities, and which could conflict with his duty to the public. Ministers must also declare those interests of their close family, including siblings, parents, spouse and in-laws, which might give rise to a conflict.

But Sunak’s entry mentions no family members other than his wife, and only refers to her ownership of a small, UK-based venture capital company. Research by the Guardian shows that Murty and her family hold many other interests, including:

• A combined £1.7bn shareholding in Infosys, which employs thousands of staff in the UK and has held contracts with government ministries and public bodies.

• A £900m-a-year joint venture with Amazon in India, through an investment vehicle owned by Murty’s father.

• A direct shareholding by Murty in a UK firm which runs Jamie Oliver and Wendy’s burger restaurants in India.

• Five other UK companies where Murty is a director or direct shareholder, including a Mayfair outfitter that supplies the tailcoats worn by pupils at Eton College.

Sir Alistair Graham, a former chair of the committee on standards in public life, which acts as a watchdog for UK public office holders, said it was vital that Sunak declare the financial interests of himself and his close family given “the chancellor’s capacity to determine the government’s financial and business policies”.

“He seems to have taken the most minimalist approach possible to this requirement. Perhaps Rishi Sunak should carefully read the ‘Seven principles of Public Life’ to make sure he is fulfilling the two principles of ‘Honesty and Leadership’.”

Sunak and Murty have not responded directly to requests for comment. The Treasury said all the proper procedures for declaring interests had been followed, and that decisions about what to declare were not taken by ministers themselves but by civil servants and independent advisers.

A Treasury spokesperson said the prime minister’s independent adviser on ministerial interests “confirmed he is completely satisfied with the chancellor’s propriety of arrangements and that he has followed the ministerial code to the letter in his declaration of interests”.

Ministers are held to a higher level of disclosure than MPs. The code of conduct states they must provide a “full list in writing of all interests which might be thought to give rise to a conflict”. This list “should also cover interests of the minister’s spouse or partner and close family which might be thought to give rise to a conflict”. Advisers then decide what to put on the official list of ministers’ interests.

Sunak and family’s financial interests

After becoming chief secretary to the Treasury in July 2019, Sunak revealed for the first time that he was the beneficiary of a blind trust. He also included Murty for the first time, stating: “Mr Sunak’s wife owns a venture capital investment company, Catamaran Ventures UK Ltd.” There is no information about his own family or his wife’s parents and siblings.

Catamaran represents just a small part of the interests held by the chancellor’s wife. The source of her extraordinary wealth is a stake in Infosys, founded by her father NR Narayana Murthy (his children have dropped the “h” from their surname).

According to the Infosys annual report, Akshata Murty owns a 0.91% stake in the group; that stake is currently worth £430m. Each year, her shares entitle her to millions in dividends. Of all the family, only her brother, Rohan Murty, owns more of the company. The combined family holding is worth an estimated £1.7bn.

Graphic displaying the connection between Rishi Sunak’s in law’s and their investments

 Illustration: Guardian Design/AP, AFP/Getty Images, Getty images

Murty’s holding is not secret, and it is not clear why it was not declared in the register. The interest could be seen to present a conflict, because Infosys is a contractor to the UK government and publicly funded organisations.

Since 2015, the firm has won taxpayer-funded work worth £22m, according to filings on the government’s contracts website. These include a £5m deal with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, awarded in 2018, which runs until 2021.

Infosys has also worked for the Home Office and has signed a framework agreement with Whitehall, which means it can be awarded contracts without competition. The company employs an estimated 10,000 staff in the UK, some of whom benefited from Sunak’s furlough scheme.

The Murty family has invested part of the wealth created by Infosys through Catamaran Ventures, which takes stakes in growth businesses. It is understood Murty has no financial or legal interest in the Indian arm of Catamaran. However, the fund benefits other family members, including her father. One of its most successful deals is a partnership with the online retailer Amazon.

Together they own Cloudtail, one of the largest sellers on Amazon’s Indian marketplace, with revenues of over £900m last year. The investment could be seen as a conflict of interest, given that the chancellor is responsible for decisions about how to tax large digital corporations, such as Amazon, in the UK.

Murty set up Catamaran’s UK arm with Sunak in order to invest her private wealth. He transferred his shares to her just before entering parliament and she is now the sole owner. Through it, she has invested in a clutch of start-up businesses. What Sunak has not declared is that his wife also holds direct shareholdings – in her own name, rather than through Catamaran – in at least six UK companies.

She is an investor and director at the gentlemen’s outfitters New & Lingwood, which measures Etonians for their tailcoats, and sells silk dressing gowns for £2,500 each.

Murty also holds shares in a UK business which operates Jamie’s Pizzeria, Jamie’s Italian and Wendy’s outlets in India, the nanny agency Koru Kids, and gyms operator Digme Fitness, where she is a director. Both Digme and New & Lingwood have furloughed staff during the pandemic. Soroco, a software company co-founded by her brother, lists Murty as a director of its UK arm.

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

Allan resigned from his post last week following a dispute over the publication of a report into allegations of bullying by the home secretary, Priti Patel.

Boris Johnson’s ‘mutant’ planning algorithm could scar England for ever

When Dominic Cummings stormed out of Downing Street earlier this month he left behind a time bomb more explosive than any pandemic recession or no-deal Brexit. Those pestilences will pass. If enacted, the Cummings-inspired white paper Planning for the Future will scar England’s face for ever.

Simon Jenkins www.theguardian.com

The paper promises to shift the appearance of England. It intends to throw open landscapes, especially across the south-east, to uncontrolled “build, build, build”. It will tip wealth yet further towards London and end any levelling-up of the north. It will abolish the ages-old distinction in British planning between built-up areas and the 70-80% of land that is still rural. It will leave poorer city centres to decline, result in villages doubling or trebling in size, and building dribbling from one town into the next. Fields and open spaces will disappear.

The white paper was slipped out with a minimum of publicity in August by Boris Johnson’s housing minister, Robert Jenrick. It was based on that latest Whitehall fad, an algorithm, prepared by various construction and development lobbyists and targeted at encouraging building where it was “most needed”, an outrageous euphemism for “most profitable”.

What has been dubbed the mutant algorithm has attracted the ire of the entire planning community and, more seriously for the government, of many Tory MPs who see their rural and semi-rural constituencies effectively being decontrolled. The unpublished algorithm – or is it a formula? – confuses housing need with demand reflected in price. Local planning authorities are told to zone some areas for “protection” – national parks, green belts and “outstanding” natural beauty areas – but elsewhere land is to be left free for building, with no need for specific planning permission. Planners expect that, among other results, this will put the overwhelming majority of farmland “into play”. One told me: “It puts every meadow under a death sentence.” No other modern country has decontrolled its land use to this degree.

As for the levelling-down of the north, the policy is little short of sensational. It reportedly requires housebuilding in Newcastle to fall by 66%, Manchester by 37% and the north-east generally by 28%. In the south-east outside London, development would rise by 57%, and in Kensington the algorithm reportedly posits a ludicrous 633%. Building round Cotswold villages is required almost to double.

The Local Government Association has professed itself baffled that Jenrick should so “seriously jeopardise levelling up”. The Royal Institute of British Architects predicts that the end of planning permissions will lead to “the next generation of slum housing”. The countryside charity CPRE could not see the point of cutting carbon emissions while directing housebuilding to new settlements reliant on cars, requiring “a massive loss of countryside”. The policy amounted to “build and be damned”. The planning lawyer and former supreme court judge Lord Carnwath has written to Jenrick protesting the document’s “levelling the foundations” of English planning, while “not beginning to make the case … for the disruption caused”.

The boundary between landscape conservation and nimbyism has always been hard to draw, but it is vividly illustrated in the catalogue of ministerial hypocrisy on planning. As prime minister, Johnson has told his own constituency it “needs” 446 new houses, while as MP he has objected to a scheme for 514. He now intends to remove his liberty to object. Meanwhile the home secretary, Priti Patel, has objected to 225 houses in her constituency, defence secretary Ben Wallace to 210 in his and the Cabinet Office’s Michael Gove to 44 in his.

One of Johnson’s many glib promises is to build 300,000 houses a year. This figure snatched from the air seems vaguely related to household formation, immigration and price, the latter two of which are now falling. The policy has nothing to say on vacancy rates, security of tenure, or the absurd VAT tax for new building but not for house conversion and downsizing. It has nothing to say on the million unused planning permissions or on the regular claims that London alone has brownfield land for another million people – planned homes waiting to be built. As for England’s 280,000 homeless people currently in urgent need of social housing, forget it. In other words, this is government modelling at its dumbest.

At the time of the 2012 Olympics, the English countryside ranked in polls as one of the things people most prized about England. Johnson and Jenrick do not care for this view. Those holding it are to be stripped of any control over the countryside, in deference to Whitehall and its Tory-donating developers.

Land-use decisions cannot be quantified. A good planner – a near defunct profession in England – is charged with enacting Alexander Pope’s maxim that we should “Consult the genius of the place in all”. Democracy awards this consultation to the community, not to wealth. How communities shape and develop their neighbourhoods is the most sensitive of political decisions. It is also one of the few remaining areas of local democratic discretion in England.

The reality is that Johnson’s targets and Jenrick’s models are meant to please the volume builders of rural executive estates. They do not care how land is curated, countryside protected and the north-south balance adjusted. They mock the idea that communities should “take back control” of their most precious resource, land. Fifty years ago, Britain had an admired global reputation for town and country planning. As in so many branches of our government, that reputation is collapsing.

• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist