How Can A Government That Spends Billions On Mass Testing Quibble Over Helping The Low Paid?

“a government that is shelling out billions on rapid tests while still quibbling over financial support for people on universal credit is not a great look”

Paul Waugh www.huffingtonpost.co.uk [extract]

Given the lack of evidence so far about the impact of vaccination on transmission of the virus, it’s notable that mass testing is still a key weapon (alongside lockdown itself) in curbing the spread. In a long evidence session before the Public Accounts Committee on Monday, the whole issue of testing came up repeatedly and we got at least a few new facts.

Dido Harding sounded more bullish than she has for a long time, pointing out that Test and Trace coped well with the Christmas surge in cases with capacity to spare, saying its national structure meant it was able to handle the new cases in a way local teams simply couldn’t on their own. Still, the turnaround times for PCR labs are well off the PM’s own 100% target (set for last June) for in-person test results to be received within 24 hours.

Harding was pretty cautious about when schools could reopen, stating only that the pilots for rapid, daily testing that had been running since the autumn had to be updated to cope with the new variant of Covid. But asymptomatic, rapid testing is Test and Trace’s biggest new challenge, with more than 100 companies (she revealed the list now includes John Lewis as well as food manufacturers like Moy Park) trialling schemes where staff who test negative can come into work.

What struck me most was the sheer scale, in numbers and cost, of the mass testing programme planned. “Hundreds of millions” of lateral flow tests have been ordered, Harding said, and DHSC expects to spend a whopping £15bn in just four months on testing. MPs were told that 90% of the massive £22bn budget would go on testing, not tracing. And the bulk of the new tests would be lateral flow tests, because PCR capacity. Moreover, 30 of 207 new contracts awarded since November had been done without competitive tender, and most were for mass testing.

Perhaps the most eye-catching revelation of the session came when DHSC second permanent secretary David Williams revealed almost casually that 900 staff from consultants Deloitte are working for Test and Trace, at an average cost of £1,000 a day. That’s nearly a cool one million quid every day being paid out to a private consultancy. Just why NHS staff or civil servants can’t now provide that service remains a mystery to several MPs, including committee chair Meg Hillier.

I’d be surprised if the £900k-a day-to-Deloitte-alone cost is not raised by Keir Starmer in PMQs this week, given his own emphasis on government failures to give taxpayers value for money in the pandemic. This fits with Anneliese Dodds’ wider pledge last week that the NAO would do an annual audit of a Labour government’s spending (perhaps to reassure the public about her more radical fiscal rule suggestions of only balancing the books over a 20 year period but that’s another story).

Rapid testing may prove a more valuable tool than some government critics assume (I’m writing more about this later this week). Yet a government that is shelling out billions on rapid tests while still quibbling over financial support for people on universal credit is not a great look.‌….

Blue lights on A303 to get the jab on time?

Comment from a correspondent upgraded to a post:

Dear Owl,

I, too, watched Spotlight on the BBC last night and was shocked to hear the reporter say that only 2/3rds of the over 80s of the 10 practises which use the Exmouth Vaccination Centre at the Tennis Club have been vaccinated. This centre has been open since before Christmas so, with very little mathematical skill, it can easily be worked out that the centre will have to dramatically increase its output to vaccinate the approximate 3,000 left in this priority group by the February 15th deadline. And of course there are quite a few over 70s in the area which Boris has promised will be included by that date.

Perhaps the Director of the centre is hoping that the over 80s in Budleigh Salterton that have received letters inviting them to attend Taunton Racecourse will take this kind offer up. This Taunton hub was set up for the people who live within 45 minutes of the hub (mostly in Somerset). If we in BS took up this offer there would be a lot of flashing police blue lights on the A303 as the over 80s tried to complete this journey in 45 minutes. And, remember, they would have to do so again for the follow-up jab. That could be four journeys for an elderly couple.

Why have Devon and Cornwall missed out on a hub?

Kind Regards

A Budleigh Resident

PS There is a new activity in the town – what is the method for choosing those who have already had the vaccine which seems haphazard? Not age, not alphabetical order, not existing conditions, not post codes. Perhaps Doctor’s lists? But I prefer “your mother’s maiden name.”

[Owl understands that patients must take the second vaccination from the same place as the first]

Another day, another headline

Covid jabs diverted to over-80s in vaccination blackspots

www.thetimes.co.uk 

Coronavirus jabs will be diverted to areas falling behind on vaccinating the over-80s amid concerns about regional disparities in the programme.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said that stocks would be prioritised for areas with a large number of unprotected over-80s, despite a promise yesterday to let GPs begin vaccinating younger patients…..

Yesterday it was:

“Full speed ahead with vaccination of over-70s”

Followed by:

“Don’t forget last of the over-80s in vaccine queue, says minister

Vaccine priority: who should get the Covid jab next in UK?

The first phase of the UK’s Covid vaccination programme is under way, with priority groups including health workers and vulnerable groups. But debate continues over who will get first access to the vaccine among the rest of the population.

Nicola Davis www.theguardian.com looks at the options.

Black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities

According to data from the Office for National Statistics for deaths between 2 March to 28 July 2020 in England and Wales, males of black African ethnic background had a death rate 2.7 times higher than those of white ethnic background, while among women the death rate was almost twice as high for black Caribbean females as white.

“All ethnic minority groups other than Chinese had a higher rate than the white ethnic population for both males and females,” the report says.

Dr Mohammad Razai, the lead author of a study on the issue from St George’s, University of London, said people from ethnic minority backgrounds were more likely to have poor outcomes if exposed to coronavirus.

“Therefore, any meaningful risk assessments should take ethnicity into account in combination with these other factors, and where it has been assessed that their risk is high, ethnic minority groups should be prioritised for Covid-19 vaccination,” he said.

Teachers

Data from the ONS, covering 2 September and 16 October 2020, found no evidence of a difference in the rates of positive coronavirus cases between teachers and other key workers in England, such as those in healthcare. The data also showed no evidence of any difference compared with other professionals overall.

But Dr Patrick Roach, the general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said teachers should be prioritised to make sure schools can stay open without disruption.

“Teachers and education staff are unable to practise social distancing from their pupils and few are provided with essential PPE,” he said. “Many schools are continuing to operate through the lockdown with very high numbers of children and young people on site and alternative, special and nursery provision continues to operate as normal.”

Police

Police leaders say forces need to have priority access to Covid vaccines to keep officers safe as they deal with members of the public, and prevent the service from being hampered by staff sickness.

“My colleagues are at the frontlines of this pandemic, risking infection from this vile and deadly disease every day to keep the public safe. We have a growing number of officers who are off sick after catching the virus or who are off self-isolating – this creates a serious concern over policing maintaining resilience,” said John Apter, the national chair of the Police Federation.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council has also raised the need for officers to be vaccinated.

Retail staff

ONS figures for England and Wales between 9 March and 25 May 2020 reveal that for both men and women, sales and retail assistant roles were among the occupations that had increased rates of Covid deaths compared with the general population.

Paddy Lillis, the general secretary of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw), said close proximity to the public as well as the indoor working environment were among the factors behind this.

“Retail workers, including grocery delivery drivers, have played a key role in ensuring the country is able to get through the current crisis. These critical workers have played a vital role in our communities ensuring that food remains on the shelves,” he said.

“Given the risks involved in their public-facing roles, retail workers should be one of the groups prioritised [for vaccination].”

He said Usdaw also wanted to see other key workers in settings such as food manufacturing and pharmaceutical distribution prioritised for vaccination.

People with learning disabilities

Jackie O’Sullivan, the executive director of communication, advocacy and activism at the learning disability charity Mencap, is among those calling for people with learning disabilities to be prioritised for vaccination.

“Those with a severe or profound learning disability are in group six [on the priority list for the first phase of the vaccination programme], but people with a more mild or moderate learning disability are not being prioritised at all – yet we’ve seen no evidence that they are at any less risk of dying from Covid,” she said.

“Prioritising the vaccine for all people with a learning disability would mean that doctors can roll it out without having to make time-consuming distinctions between the types and severity of disability.”

Dimensions, a not-for-profit organisation providing support to people with learning disabilities and autism, said people with learning difficulties had a Covid death rate more than four times higher than the general population.

“The increased mortality can most likely be attributed not only to clinical issues associated with having a learning disability, but also barriers and systemic inequalities experienced by people in health services,” said Steve Scown, the chief executive of Dimensions.

Transport workers

According to ONS figures from the first wave in England and Wales, bus, coach, van and taxi drivers had an increased risk of Covid-related death among men, while Transport for London has said that by 11 January, 57 of its staff had died from the disease.

“From getting key workers to hospitals and moving vital supplies around the country, our transport key workers have kept the country moving through the pandemic. Many have lost their lives to the virus, but they bravely continue to serve during this time of crisis,” said Manuel Cortes, the general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA).

Politicians

In the US, members of Congress are at the front of the queue for the vaccine, even getting the jab before many doctors and other health workers. Some have argued that vaccinating politicians builds trust among the public.

“We should do MPs and core house staff as well so we can get our democracy back,” the Conservative backbencher Steve Brine told the Telegraph last week. “Parliament is a shadow, at best, of itself and it’s never been more important we can ask questions. Good policy comes through scrutiny, in my experience.”

Asked whether MPs should be among professions prioritised in the next phase of vaccinations, Boris Johnson’s spokesman said this would be a matter for the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).

“JCVI are looking at what phase 2 should look like, and whether certain professions that are at higher risk of exposure should be prioritised.”

However, the JCVI has previously said it will not advise on which occupations will be prioritised for the next wave of vaccinations.

Vaccinating the over 70’s – story changes

During Monday the way this story has been reported in the Times changed significantly.

It started under the headline “Full speed ahead with vaccination of over-70s”, by evening the bullish tone of this article had changed to the more reflective:

Don’t forget last of the over-80s in vaccine queue, says minister

Owl had spent the day collecting anecdotal accounts from over 80s some who have been vaccinated and quite a few who haven’t been contacted yet.

At the beginning of January Owl posted the following estimates of the numbers eligible for vaccination in the most vulnerable groups in East Devon:

17,322 care home staff and residents, frontline healthcare workers and over-80s.

6,780 over-75s

11,738 over-70s and clinically vulnerable

Last night on BBC Spotlight the Clinical Director of the Woodbury, Exmouth and Budleigh (WEB) Primary Care Network, which covers 10 GP practices spoke. The reporter indicated that so far around two thirds of the 9,000 over 80s had been vaccinated. So there is still a queue to get through before moving to the next group, reflecting the high proportion of the elderly in East Devon.

Axminster’s over 80s, however, should be vaccinated by the weekend according to Axminster Nub news.

Owl’s take on the change in tone in the National Press is that this is another example of mixed messages coming from the government, tarnishing what is fundamentally a good news story.

Is Boris the culprit?

www.thetimes.co.ukDon’t forget last of the over-80s in vaccine queue, says minister

Four million people have now been vaccinated against Covid amid confusion over which areas will begin immunising over-70s.

A cabinet minister has complained that unvaccinated over-80s will be left distressed and annoyed as younger people are called for jabs, as Boris Johnson defended starting on over-70s while hundreds of thousands of older people remain unprotected.

GPs who have already vaccinated their older patients will now be allowed to move on to over-70s, but many are complaining that their vaccine supplies are being diverted elsewhere.

It remains unclear whether areas that still have large numbers of over-80s to reach should start on younger patients. Officials said it would be a clinical judgment, with no precise threshold set for how many over-80s need to be vaccinated before jabs can go to younger people.

Along with over-80s and care home residents, NHS and care staff are part of an initial priority group covering 6.7 million people. Another 5.6 million people in their seventies and the clinically extremely vulnerable became eligible from today.

During a visit to Oxfordshire, the prime minister said: “We’re getting it out as fast as we can, four million done so far, I think we’ve done more than half of the over-80s, half of the people in care homes, the elderly residents of care homes.

“Those groups remain our top priority, they’re an absolute priority for us, but it’s right as more vaccine comes on stream to get it into the arms of the other groups on the JCVI [joint committee on vaccination and imminisation] list.”

Mr Johnson said that “the pace of the rollout is very encouraging” but played down prospects of easing restrictions while the NHS is still under huge pressure.

“You can’t just open up in a great open sesame a great bang because I’m afraid the situation is still pretty precarious, as people can tell,” he said.

Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minster, insisted that only areas that have vaccinated the majority of over-80s should be offering jabs to younger people. However, the government did not say how many areas have vaccinated more than half of over-80s.

Speaking on LBC Radio, Mr Zahawi told over-80s who had not yet been vaccinated: “Don’t worry, we’re only really doing the over-70s in areas where they’ve reached the majority of the over-80s. So you will get a call, you will get a letter and you will be offered that vaccine and you will be protected by mid-February.”

Mr Zahawi praised areas such as Cockermouth in Cumbria, Yateley in Hampshire and parts of the Cotswolds which have vaccinated more than 90 per cent of their over-80s.

GP centres which started in the first wave in mid-December and have local venues more suitable for mass vaccination have found it easier to move faster, and rural areas doing well say that enthusiastic staff and volunteers have also proved invaluable. Some such areas started over-70s last week, but have complained that their vaccines supply has been diverted to areas that have moved more slowly.

Each GP centre has been managing the process in its own way and Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, raised concerns about allocation in her Suffolk Coastal constituency this morning.

“Something is not quite working right yet though, particularly in one part of the constituency, as I am hearing from people in part of the area that 80+ and 90+ year olds have not been contacted while some 70+ patients in the same GP practice were invited for vaccination,” she wrote on Facebook.

“I know it is both distressing and annoying when people hear that other cohorts of a lower priority (according to the JCVI) are being vaccinated ahead of our oldest and most vulnerable.”

She later said on Twitter that she had since been assured that letters and messages would go out today to all over-80s in the area who have not been contacted.

Asked about her comments, Mr Johnson’s spokesman said: “we continue to make the vaccines available and distributed equally across England and the UK. That will remain the case. But in some areas where they have already vaccinated the majority of those four high-risk groups, we want to ensure we maintain momentum and continue to rollout the vaccine to more and more people who are at higher clinical risk — that’s why we sent out the letter to the over-70s.”

He said that “depending on where they are, the timing will be slightly different but the important point is that this allows areas that have already vaccinated a majority of those over 80, care home residents, frontline NHS and care home staff to keep the momentum up and to start giving it to further-at-risk people.”………

Holiday homes inspected in Devon covid crackdown

Police and council officers will be working together and stepping up enforcement action in a crackdown on those breaching Coronavirus regulations in North Devon.

Daniel Clark www.devonlive.com

The police will accompany council officers on inspections of holiday homes and extra council staff are being diverted into North Devon Council’s Covid enforcement team.

The council is also working closely with the Health and Safety Executive’s Spot Check initiative and 340 local businesses have already been approached to check they are Covid-secure.

While North Devon has the second lowest infection rate in England – only Torridge is lower – the two agencies will be taking action to protect the community from anyone breaching the rules.

Their four strand approach involves acting on reports of breaches of regulations and virus outbreaks, using intelligence to identify potential breaches such as the advertising of holiday lets, inspections of high risk places such as supermarkets, offices and showrooms and checks on temporary accommodation to ensure vulnerable people are being accommodated safely

Cllr David Worden, leader of North Devon Council, said: “The vast majority of local people are abiding by the rules but there are still a minority who are posing a huge risk to others by not taking the measures that are needed to prevent the spread of this killer virus.

“We only ever carry out enforcement as a last resort but some people have left us with no choice so now is the time to step up our efforts to protect the rest of the community.”

Local Policing Area Commander for North and West Devon, Superintendent Toby Davies added: “We will continue to work closely with our council colleagues in maintaining the safety of our communities.

“We recognise this has been an incredibly challenging time for everyone and the community response in helping to stop the spread of this cruel virus is hugely appreciated. Whilst most adhere to the rules, disappointingly we continue to see a minority who blatantly disregard the rules, and risk further spread of the virus.

“We have invested a considerable amount of time and energy helping to engage, explain and educate – and people have had plenty of time to fully understand the rules. As such, those who continue to blatantly breach the rules, do so knowingly, and can expect robust formal action.

“This partnership response sends out a strong message, that the police and the council will work together and not tolerate people who risk spreading this virus. Please stay at home and stay safe.”

Devon County Council slams government’s ‘Victorian era’ free school meal scheme

Any families in Devon getting “not acceptable” free school meals are being urged to contact councillors with the evidence so the situation can be addressed.

Francesca Evans seaton.nub.news 

Devon County Council’s Cabinet heard that there was at least one school in Devon where food parcels that had been provided to parents were well short of the standards expected.

And they slammed the government’s “Victorian era” style solution of providing food parcels during lockdown rather than the voucher system that they provided during the school holidays.

Social media on Tuesday was flooded with images of “woefully inadequate” packages received by parents in place of the free school lunches that their children would usually receive at school.

Cllr Alan Connett, who represents the Exminster and Haldon ward, said that he had made aware that one school in his area had provided food parcels that were “ridiculous”.

He said: “Some of the food boxes are brilliant, but others were ridiculous and I can understand why parents were upset, so there is some variance in Devon.”

Cllr Rob Hannaford added: “As we have now found out there are problems in Devon, so I would urge any local families that are receiving inadequate and unacceptable food parcel, to please contact their local county councillors directly with the evidence to make sure that we are all aware where the problems are occurring to help action improvements.”

Cllr Roger Croad, Cabinet member for community, said that he totally agreed with the concerns over the food parcels and that he was much more in favour of the voucher scheme as an alternative.

He said: “We should make some strong representation to the efficacy of food parcels in this day at age. It smacks of a Victorian era and should be overcome and that is down to the government led one size fits all solution.

“The vouchers over Christmas went down well and the government needs to be aware of the dissatisfaction.”

More than 15,000 children across Devon received food vouchers this Christmas as part of a £1million programme by the county council to combat holiday hunger.

But while Devon County Council were responsible for issuing the vouchers over the holiday period, during term time, the funding from government goes directly to the schools.

Dawn Stabb, the council’s head of education, added: “Schools are told to use food parcels if they can. The majority of pictures seen were national but we have been made aware of one school in Devon where the food parcel was not acceptable and we will follow that up with the school.

“The council doesn’t commission any provision during term time for food parcels and it is all done through the school, but we have made the voucher system available for schools to buy into if they wish. Some schools are doing vouchers, some blended, and some food parcels, but I don’t have the figures at this time.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson subsequently told the Education Select Committee on Wednesday that he was “absolutely disgusted” by the photos of the food parcel’s contents, and that his department had made it clear “this sort of behaviour is just not right [and] will not be tolerated”.

He said the government would “support any school that needs to take action” and “name and shame those that are not delivering against the standards” set by the Department for Education and that schools will be able to offer vouchers rather than food parcels from next week.

MPs pass motion urging Boris Johnson not to cut universal credit for millions

Conservative Anne Marie Morris, MP for Newton Abbot, voted for this motion, the remaining local Tory MPs abstained as instructed.

www.independent.co.uk

Boris Johnson is facing rising pressure not to remove support for millions of families in the middle of the pandemic as some of his own MPs backed a Labour motion demanding the government abandons a cut in universal credit.

It comes amid a major row over whether to extend the £20-per-week increase in benefits that is due to expire at the end of March. The £6bn measure was introduced at the onset of the Covid-19 crisis to alleviate pressures on low-paid families.

In the absence of a guarantee the support will be extended in the spring, the Commons voted in 278-0 in favour of the non-binding motion on Monday evening, urging the government to maintain the payments as the country suffers the economic fallout from Covid-19.

It passed after the prime minister – bruised by a previous row over a similar motion on free school meals – instructed Conservative MPs to abstain on the issue to avoid the prospect of a potentially damaging defeat on the issue.

Despite ministers describing the Labour motion as a “political stunt”, six Conservatives voted with the opposition including Stephen Crabb, the former work and pensions secretary, Robert Halfon, the chair of the Commons Education Committee, and backbench MPs Peter Aldous, Jason McCartney, Anne Marie Morris and Matthew Offord.

During the debate Mr Crabb urged the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to increase the uplift for another 12 months and provide certainty to low-paid families.

He told MPs: “The question for us right now is whether at the end of March this year, just 10 weeks away, it’s the right time to begin unwinding this support – specifically to remove the extra support for universal credit claimants – and I don’t believe it is the right moment.”

Conservative MP Simon Fell echoed Mr Crabb’s comments, saying “now is not the time” to cut the benefit, adding: “This uplift was brought in to help people through the extreme challenges of the pandemic and those challenges haven’t passed. Indeed, as furlough ends we may be entering even more challenging times.”

However, alongside several Tories, he argued it was “absolutely right” that decisions are taken at the Budget in March by Mr Sunak rather than through Labour’s Opposition Day motion. Reports have also suggested the chancellor is mulling a one-off £500 payment to claimants to avoid the uplift in payments becoming permanent.

Earlier on Monday, Mr Johnson repeatedly declined to state whether or not the increase will be extended when questioned during a visit to Oxfordshire.

“What we have said is we will put our arms around the whole of the country throughout the pandemic,” he told reporters. “We have already done £280bn worth of support and we will keep all measures under constant review.”

Sir Keir Starmer called Mr Johnson “pathetic” for telling Tories not to vote on the motion and said that “in their heart of hearts”, Conservative MPs would back Labour’s move.

After the vote, shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Reynolds added: “It is disappointing that the Conservative government refused to vote with Labour to provide families with certainty and secure our economy. They can still do the right thing and drop their plans to cut universal credit.

“Britain is facing the worst recession of any major economy because of the government’s incompetence and indecision. Families cannot be made to pay the price.”

Alison Garnham, the chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said: “The pandemic and its economic fallout are far from over and families are looking to the government to provide some security of income and some certainty so that they can plan for the future.”

“In dodging a decision on the universal credit uplift the government today failed to provide that security and certainty.

“The £20 uplift has acted as a stabiliser for millions of families forced on to universal credit by coronavirus. If it is not retained and extended to all legacy benefit claimants, struggle will turn to real hardship for many more families – at the bleakest point – and more children will show up in the poverty statistics.”

A report published by the Resolution Foundation also warned on Monday that Britain’s poorest households would be pushed further into poverty if the government cut the increase, worth £1,040 a year, with millions facing the sharpest drop in living standards in a generation in 2021.

The think-tank estimated that withdrawal of the benefit increase this spring would drive up relative poverty from 21 to 23 per cent by 2024-25, pushing a further 730,000 children into poverty.

“Deciding if the £20-a-week uplift to universal credit should be extended will determine whether millions of households are able to enjoy any sort of living standards recovery next year,” said the Resolution Foundation’s senior economist Karl Handscomb.

“And looking further ahead, the decision on whether to keep the UC boost will help define whether this is to be a parliament of ‘levelling up’ living standards, or pushing up poverty.”