Austerity is alive and well, and giving public services a kicking

There are plenty of ways to measure austerity. Before, during and after the budget this week, voters will hear Rishi Sunak herald the end of tight spending as the government builds a bridge from the pandemic to a glorious recovery.

Phillip Inman

What economists do when they want to kick the tyres on such claims is look at the Treasury’s books. They want to see whether public spending is contracting or expanding. And if there is a squeeze, we can be said to be living in a period of austerity.

In the period when George Osborne was chancellor, his supporters would claim that after the first two years of his reign, the spending taps were turned on again and austerity was no more.

Many were unhappy that the state was playing a significant role – believing more austerity was justified – while becoming incandescent with rage that those on the left were perpetuating the “austerity myth”.

Most economists continued to tag the Treasury as “austere” because inflation meant that public sector budgets were underwater in real terms. An increase in cash is still a cut when the rate of inflation is higher, and especially when the rising prices are affecting the government and its agencies.

This macro view of government spending is what lies behind Sunak’s shock and disbelief when he is accused of sticking with austerity.

The message from the Treasury is that a chancellor who is on the cusp of borrowing around £400bn to rescue the economy, and who has kickstarted the largest public works programme for 20 years, cannot be bracketed as an austerity-monger with Osborne, and certainly not with Philip Hammond, who doubled down on Osborne’s approach during his years in No 11.

A more nuanced assessment by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that the trends set in the Osborne years – when spending went up in just a few areas of government, while others were left to starve – will continue next year and probably for the rest of the parliament.

Sunak, like his predecessors, will protect health, schools and the state pension. To this short list he will add the police and border control, giving large parts of the Home Office a break from decades of grinding cuts.

Local government, cultural organisations and unloved departments such as Justice have received bailouts that make up some of the shortfall in pandemic spending, but nothing like enough.

If the effect is therefore waiting months to appear at a crown court – if it is finding a library open only on Thursdays, a children’s centre sold or an appointment for a mental health issue delayed by a year – then austerity remains with us.

When the Environment Agency, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Health & Safety Executive have to go on operating with a skeleton workforce, while the Victoria & Albert museum and Tate galleries need to cut staff to pull back from the brink of insolvency, then austerity is a way of life.

And away from Whitehall, the sign on every town hall reads “welcome to austerity” ahead of the sixth year of inflation-busting council tax rises planned for April, which will hit low- and middle-income earners the hardest.

The 5% jump sanctioned by the Treasury is supposed to be a generous loosening of the purse strings when inflation is only 0.7%.

That would be true if the £1.9bn of “spending power” that counties, boroughs and districts will gain were to be drawn from borrowed funds along with the rest of the chancellor’s £400bn. But trapped by Whitehall rules that force them to balance the books each year, councils must either hit communities with a tax rise up to the 5% cap, or reduce services.

One element of the tax increase is a maximum 3% rise in the “social care precept” to cover rising care costs. This is married to a maximum 1.99% increase to cover general running costs. To increase the tax by more than 4.99%, councils must ask taxpayers in a local referendum.

In Hartlepool, the coalition of independents and Tories that runs the council will freeze the tax and largely pay for it by dipping into reserves. But officers says the fund is not big enough to prevent services being cut in subsequent years.

Tory-run Surrey county council covers one of the most affluent areas of the UK, but has still had to cut the number of children’s centres it funds from 58 to 21 over the past two years to balance the books.

Next year it must find savings of nearly £12m in its adult social care department after limiting the precept rise to 0.5% and the council tax rise to 3.49% overall.

Surely marrying cuts to social care with tax rises in the wake of a pandemic is the definition of austerity. And a form of austerity that hurts the very people the government seeks to protect.

Pop-up Glamping site run by event organisers coming to a cliff top near you?

Could be if you live in Otterton – providing competition for the Carters.

Many tented camping sites operate under the “28 day rule”, a form of ‘permitted development’ allowing land to be used without planning permission ‘for any purpose for not more than 28 (now 56) days in total in any calendar year. Although Owl is unclear as to whether this applies in designated landscapes, in this case the East Devon AONB, or whether any form of  licence would be required for the infrastructure and services advertised..

Anyway Owl spotted that a couple of web sites are up and running for bookings in July and August (or were at the time of going to press – see screenshots and advertising text below).

Could this be the next link in the “wall to wall” coastal holiday park development along the World Heritage Coast from “Devon Cliffs” Sandy Bay, in the west, through “Pooh Cottage” Budleigh Salterton to “Ladram Bay”?

“Our family of 5 had a great stay – everything is fantastically done! Beautiful tents, great bedding, fabulous loos – and all run by wonderful staff. I’m running out of superlatives but you get the idea. A real treat!” Clare  [Just when and where did you have this family experience Clare? – Owl]

“Dreamfields (… it sounds a bit like a festival doesn’t it? It looks a bit like one too with a few key elements missing; there’s no stage; no pumping music and definitely no crowds. “I suppose it’s a bit like the VIP chill-out area at Glastonbury,” says Lucy, one of the expert event organisers behind this pop-up glamping site. That sums it up nicely. This is a bell tent camping site with stunning sea views, a stylish tented bar for the adults and an outdoor cinema for the kids.

This is what happens when you let a bunch of experienced event organisers loose in a field. There’s festoon lighting, communal campfires, on-site catering and staff who keep everything running smoothly. These are not your average campsite wardens who’ve chosen an outdoor lifestyle but work-hungry execs from a high-end events company. When all their events were cancelled in 2020, they decided to put their skills and their kit to good use by running a pop-up glamping site. The CEO and the managing director helped pitch tents, the senior operations team welcomed guests and everyone had a good time. So good, in fact, that Dreamfields is returning for 2021 in a new and idyllic location.

This year, they are setting up their 31 bell tents on an organic farm high on a Devonshire clifftop. The location and the layout affords each tent a safe sea view. You’re a couple of fields, a footpath and a number of fences away from the cliff edge but that can’t detract from the scene that awaits every morning when you unzip the tent to receive your campsite breakfast. This is glamping for glampers; beds are made, electricity provided and breakfast is served. Over at the bar; campfires are lit, films are screened and drinks are poured.”

Owl also notes that Lympstone manor has opened five indulgent Shepherd huts – complete with outdoor hot tubs, rolltop baths and walk-in showers, but so far has been unable to find a related planning permission for these structures in the curtilage of a listed building.

NHS GP practice operator with 500,000 patients passes into hands of US health insurer

One of the UK’s biggest GP practice operators has quietly passed into the hands of the US health insurance group Centene Corporation, prompting calls for an official investigation into what campaigners claim is “privatisation of the NHS by stealth”.

Julia Kollewe 

The merger is expected to create the largest private supplier of GP services in the UK, with 58 practices covering half a million patients.

A coalition of doctors, campaigners and academics has voiced concerns in a letter sent this week to the health secretary, Matt Hancock, asking him to order an investigation by the Care Quality Commission.

Operose Health, a UK subsidiary of Centene, has recently taken over the privately owned AT Medics, which was set up in 2004 by six NHS GPs and runs 37 GP practices across 49 sites in London. Operose already operates 21 GP surgeries in England.

Objectors are concerned because they claim the change of control was approved for eight practices in the London boroughs of Camden, Islington and Haringey in a virtual meeting on 17 December that lasted less than nine minutes, during which no mention was made of Centene and not a single question was asked.

The approval was granted by the North Central London clinical commissioning group (NCL CCG), a local NHS body that purchases health services from GPs, hospitals and others using taxpayer funds.

The campaign group Keep Our NHS Public, Doctors in Unite, Allyson Pollock, a clinical professor of public health at Newcastle University, and others have written to Josephine Sauvage, the chair of NCL CCG, urging her to block the change of control at AT Medics, which has made £35m in profits over the last five years.

During the meeting on 17 December, AT Medics indicated there would be “no change to the board of directors,” according to the draft minutes of the event, which were approved last week.

However, despite this pledge, the change of control was effected when all six AT Medics directors resigned on 10 February, and three new directors were appointed, all of them also directors of Operose. The latter include Prof Nick Harding, who is Operose’s chief medical officer and a practising GP, and Samantha Jones, Operose’s chief executive and a former head of West Hertfordshire hospitals NHS trust.

The letter to Hancock said: “Whilst we imagine you will not be sympathetic to those of us who consider that US health insurers have no place in the provision of NHS services, we ask you to consider carefully the reasons for our request.

“Most of the CCGs have published nothing about this significant change, and held no meetings in public … This matter is an example of the privatisation of the NHS by stealth to which we have consistently drawn attention, and which you have, equally consistently, dismissed.”

Pollock told the Guardian: “What we’re really worried about is changes in the model of care and quality of service, especially in areas of high deprivation. Practices may employ fewer GPs – and they may bring in substitutes for GPs like pharmacists and nurses – there may be cuts in services and reduced access, for example, closures of branch surgeries.”

Operose confirmed the change of control, saying: “The care that we deliver to our patients and the services accessed through our surgeries will not change. We have followed all the required regulatory procedures, including obtaining consent from our CCGs. As a provider of NHS services, care remains free at the point of delivery. In addition, and as with all other GP services throughout the country, we will continue to be regulated and inspected by the Care Quality Commission.”

Operose said only those involved in delivering care had access to patients’ data, and that data would not be shared with with third parties unless obliged by UK law.

Liz Wise, the director of primary care and public health commissioning for the NHS in London, said: “The ownership of the holding company of AT Medics Ltd has been transferred after consent was given by the relevant commissioners. Patient Care remains unaffected by this change and patient data is protected.”

Frances O’Callaghan, North Central London CCG’s accountable officer, said there had been no legal or contractual basis for the CCG to reject the transfer of ownership, and doing so would have posed a risk to continuity of care.

“We followed a robust process to confirm that the transfer would not affect our patients, which included being assured regarding patient data protection. Twelve other London CCGs who commission AT Medics also considered and individually approved the transfer.”

The Department of Health and Social Care said the NHS had always involved a mixture of public and private provision, and it was not for sale to the private sector.

COVID-19 hotspots projected with new website

Owl has just come across this Covid-19 hotspot predictive web site produced by Imperial College. 

Exeter and to a lesser extent Mid-Devon are shown as lingering concentrations of local infection as we move into March

by Hayley Dunning, Dr Sabine L. van Elsland 03 September 2020

Screen shot

A new website uses reported cases and deaths to estimate the probability regions in England, Scotland and Wales will become COVID-19 ‘hotspots’.

The team behind the website, from Imperial College London, define a hotspot as a local authority where there are more than 50 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 of the population per week.

COVID-19 is, unfortunately, very much still with us, but we hope this will be a useful tool for local and national governments trying to bring hotspots under control. Professor Axel Gandy

Using data on daily reported cases and weekly reported deaths and mathematical modelling, the team report the probability (%) that a local authority will become a hotspot in the following week.

The site also provides estimates for each local authority in England, Scotland and Wales on whether cases are likely to be increasing or decreasing in the following week and the probability of R(t) being greater than 1 in the following week.

The reproduction number R(t) indicates the number of people each infected person will pass the virus onto. An R(t) larger than 1 indicates the outbreak is not under control and cases will continue to increase.

Current hotspots

The site will be updated daily. 

The website was produced by the Department of Mathematics in collaboration with the WHO Collaborating Centre for Infectious Disease Modelling within the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis (GIDA), and Abdul Latif Jameel Institute for Disease and Emergency Analytics (J-IDEA) at Imperial.

Lead researcher Professor Axel Gandy, from the Department of Mathematics at Imperial, said: “The model allows us to project where local hotspots of COVID-19 are likely to develop in England and Wales based on the trends that we’re seeing in those areas. COVID-19 is, unfortunately, very much still with us, but we hope this will be a useful tool for local and national governments trying to bring hotspots under control.”

Enabling swift action

The predictions assume no change in current interventions (lockdowns, school closures, and others) in a local authority beyond those already taken about a week before the end of observations. Each local authority is also treated independently of its neighbours in the modelling, i.e. the epidemic in one local authority does not affect or is not affected by the situation in any adjacent a local authority.

The team also note that an increase in cases in a local authority can be due to an increase in testing, which the model does not currently account for. The model also assumes all individuals within each local authority are equally likely to be infected, so demographic factors such as the age structure of the population are not considered.

Dr Swapnil Mishra, from the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, said: “We provide weekly predictions of the evolution of COVID-19 at the local authority level in England and Wales. Our model helps to identify hotspots – probable local areas of concern. We hope that our estimates will enable swift action at the local level to control the spread of the epidemic.”

Doorstep campaigning for local elections to resume in England

Game on! – Owl

Door-to-door political campaigning will be allowed to resume in England from 8 March in the run-up to local elections in May, the government has announced.

Aubrey Allegretti

Activists will be permitted to stand on people’s doorsteps and canvass as long as they abide by the 2-metre social distancing rule.

They will not be able to enter people’s homes and should only access shared hallways in blocks of flats where “absolutely necessary”. The new advice also urges organisers to keep the number of campaigners to a minimum.

Campaign literature should be collected or dropped off without people meeting inside, and planning meetings should take place virtually.

From 29 March, when people will be allowed to gather in groups of six or two households outdoors, the same rules will apply to political campaigning.

When it comes to polling day on 6 May, the government said people must not share a car with anyone from outside their household or support bubble to be driven to vote.

Chloe Smith, the minister for the constitution, said: “Democracy should not be cancelled because of Covid. Voters appreciate being well-informed and campaigning is an important part of effective elections.”

She said the easing of restrictions would ensure free and fair elections that were also “Covid-secure”.

“I urge political campaigners to continue to show social responsibility, and for parties, agents and candidates to ensure that their campaigners understand the clear rules,” she said.

Public Health England advises campaigners to wash their hands or use hand sanitiser for at least 20 seconds on a regular basis and wear a face covering when meeting anyone they do not live with.

Given that the government expects many people to vote by post, it also encourages those who want a postal ballot to apply as early as possible to avoid a rush closer to polling day.

Elections will take place at the county, district and parish level, and mayors and police and crime commissioner will also be elected, including any polls pushed back from last spring because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Parliamentary elections will also take place in Wales and Scotland on 6 May, but the devolved administrations will make their own decisions about whether restrictions should be eased to allow for political campaigning.

Devon is building 30% more houses than required, including EDDC! – CPRE

Latest government figures show Devon is building a third more houses than ‘required’.

Devon’s Local Planning Authorities – with the exception of Torbay – have over-delivered on housing for the last five years, according to the government’s own figures.

Devon CPRE’s analysis of the Housing Delivery Test: 2020 measurement shows the county as a whole has delivered 30% more new homes than it was required to over a five-year period, in effect building 6,332 more houses than it had to. The government data substantiates what we’ve been saying for years – that Devon is building far more homes than required and the countryside is being ravaged as a result.

The Housing Delivery Test is a measurement published annually by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government. It compares the net homes ‘delivered’ to the homes ‘required’ to be built over the same period.

The 2020 Housing Delivery Test ‘required’ an average of 4,667 homes each year across Devon from 2017/18 to 2019/20. The number of homes ‘required’ is increasingly higher than the true number of homes needed because of the government’s aspiration to deliver 300,000 each year across England. There is no evidence that this number of homes is needed.

Analysis of the 2020 measurement reveals:

Exeter over-delivered by 45%, 25% and 90% over the past three years (average 53%); by 50% overall over the past five years (1,501 excess houses).

Plymouth, West Devon and the South Hams over-delivered by 108%, 5% and 28% over the past three years (average 44%); by 44% overall over the past five years (2,401 excess houses).

North Devon & Torridge over-delivered by 57%, 22% and 48% over the past three years (average 41%); and by 32% overall over the past five years (1,076 excess houses).

Mid Devon has over-delivered by 76%, 19% and 28% over the past three years (average 39%); by 30% overall over the past five years (473 excess houses).

East Devon has over-delivered by 37%, 5% and 28% over the past three years (average 22%); by 33% overall over the past five years (1,155 excess houses).

Teignbridge has over-delivered by 32%, 5% and -35% (under-delivery) over the past three years (average -2%), and over-delivered by 11% overall over the past five years (342 excess houses).

Devon CPRE Director Penny Mills says, “The government’s own figures vindicate what we have been saying for years. In 2018, Devon CPRE commissioned an independent report from specialists at Opinion Research Services to establish the true number of homes needed across the county. It showed that delivering 4,300 homes each year would meet all local needs, allowing for a continuation of past migration trends and a fall in average household sizes. In July 2020, a second report produced for us by ORS concluded that a total of 2.3 million homes are needed nationally over the decade 2020-30 to meet household growth and provide for past under-supply, an average of 230,000 each year, NOT the 300,000 which the government claim.”

Lets hope our local planning authorities, their officers and elected councillors will now start to put our countryside and green spaces first, before permitting any more unnecessary new housing developments.

Managing flood risk – Public Accounts Committee

“The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (the Department) and the Agency have not done enough to determine whether all areas of England are getting a fair share of flood defence investment and that households are resilient to floods.”


Flooding puts people’s well-being and livelihoods at risk and can impact on food production and destroy natural habitats. More extreme weather, as a result of climate change, and increased housing development will increase flood risks. The impacts of climate change can already be seen through the increasing strain on existing flood defences. Only half of the defences damaged in the 2019–20 winter floods have had their standard of protection restored. Despite the obvious risks, the Environment Agency (the Agency) thinks there could still be a large increase in the number of houses built on flood plains over the next 50 years.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (the Department) and the Agency have not done enough to determine whether all areas of England are getting a fair share of flood defence investment and that households are resilient to floods. There has been a significant decline in the proportion of flood investment going to deprived areas since 2014 and there is wide variation in the level of flood defence investment per property at risk across regions. Neither the Department nor the Agency understand enough about the reasons for these investment patterns. We are not convinced that the Department has yet done enough to address the difficulties those recently flooded have in getting affordable insurance, or to remove the obstacles for households to take up individual flood resilience measures. Reforms to the planning system need to ensure that the risks of building in areas liable to flooding are fully mitigated.

The Agency is set to achieve its target to better protect 300,000 homes through its capital investment programme on time and budget, which is a significant achievement. However, the department should recognise that with new build on the flood plain and increased vulnerability to existing properties from climate change the net figure of homes that are better protected is actually less than 300,000. With the level of investment due to increase significantly over the next six years, the Department needs to do more to scrutinise and challenge the Agency’s performance. It also needs to have a better understanding of whether funding to each local authority matches the level of flood risk it faces. We are also concerned to learn that the current indicators used to monitor national flood risk do not cover important elements such as risks to agricultural land and infrastructure.

Budleigh Salterton confirmed as living “Dinosaur” capital of Jurassic Coast

Four of the top five towns in England with the largest population of the elderley are in Devon, new ONS data reveals with Budleigh ahead of Seaton and Sidmouth.

Dominic Kureen [and Western Morning News]

2-2 minutes

New Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures have revealed the towns in England with the highest proportion of over-65 populations, with Freshwater featuring in the top ten.

The 65+ demographic numbers in England’s towns have risen by nearly a third in the last two decades, while in smaller, non-coastal towns the older population has increased by over 40%.

Experts at the Centre for Ageing Better say more needs to be done across society to respond to the population age shift and ensure local places are able to support their residents to age healthily and enjoy later life.

Natalie Turner, head of localities at the Centre for Ageing Better, said: “There’s been a huge change in the population makeup of our towns in the last two decades when it comes to age.

“With many of us set to live years longer than our parents or grandparents, it’s crucial that the places we live are able to help us to stay healthy and independent as we age – from the homes we live in, to the streets and communities around us.”

Top-10 English towns with greatest % of people aged over 65

1. Budleigh Salterton, Devon — 45%

2. Hunstanton, Norfolk — 44%

3. Seaton, East Devon — 43%

4. Sidmouth, Devon — 43%

5. St Leonards, Devon — 42%

6. Mablethorpe, Lincolnshire — 42%

7. Sheringham, Norfolk — 40%

8. Freshwater, Isle of Wight — 40%

9. Ferndown, Dorset — 39%

10. Preesall, Lancashire — 38%

‘Eat Devon fish’ – councillor urges public to support fishermen after impact of Brexit and Covid

‘Eat Devon fish’ – councillor urges public to support fishermen after impact of Brexit and Covid

Daniel Clark, Local Democracy Reporter 

The impact of Brexit on Devon’s fishing industry won’t be fully seen until the restrictions associated with the response to the coronavirus pandemic are relaxed, according to a report to the county council.

But one councillor has said Brexit has been ‘a disaster’ for the industry, and said he wants the council to join local fishermen in calling on the Government to address the problems caused by new export rules, a lack of clarity over fishing quotas, and increased red tape.

The full council heard a report by Cllr Rufus Gilbert last Thursday, in which he said there were potential economic impacts and also opportunities for Devon as a result of the Brexit trade deal and changes to the fishing quota and catch regimes.

But Cllr Gilbert, the Conservative cabinet member for economy and skills, said it was too soon to ascertain the scale of the impact upon the sector and whether impacts are temporary, or likely to be longer lasting.

And he added that it was apparent that the fishing and fish processing sectors in the UK and EU have been seriously impacted by the effects of the Covid pandemic, and it was difficult to unpack the impacts upon the sector from post-Brexit trade friction and the very far-reaching drop-off in demand due to the pandemic.

Cllr Gilbert said that the easiest thing people could do now was to ‘eat Devon’s fish’, adding: “I urge everyone to help the fisherman by eating their fish.”

How has Brexit affected Devon’s fishermen?

In his report, he added: “In the immediate period after December 31, port operations seem to be working more smoothly at Channel ports after the Covid-19 disruption from December 23. There is however some initial disruption to some goods heading to Northern Ireland and the continent as a result of new paperwork and local reports of difficulties exporting some fish and shellfish due to delays in animal health regulations being implemented.

“UK fisheries products now face customs and SPS health checks upon EU entry. Post Brexit customs checks have since January 2021 been holding up seafood exports, as entire trailers need to be checked, rather than samples according to the Scottish Seafood Association. In addition, multiple technical issues such as bar codes not being recognised by border control as well as IT issues have prevented loads leaving French ports in teething troubles of the new system.

“It has emerged since the UK fully left the EU and the Brexit transition period that third countries, such as the UK, have to purify their shellfish catch domestically before it is sanctioned for export, despite no change to UK standards, or water quality subsequent to 31st December 2020. The process adds significant costs and delays, with some British businesses impacted warning that this will cause issues of viability.”

Cllr Gilbert added: “During 2020 and in 2021 to date, demand for fish has fluctuated significantly and is generally down due to the pandemic impacts on closed fish and chip shops and restaurants, both in the UK and in other countries. As and when full re-openings take place demand is likely to change and potentially increase, and the fishing industry is operating at approximately 15 per cent of normal because of weather, time of year, Covid and the obvious hurdles of additional excess paperwork not being fully understood.

“There are potential economic impacts and also opportunities for Devon from the current trade friction and changes to the fishing quota and catch regimes. We are as yet unable to ascertain the scale of impact upon the sector and whether impacts are temporary, or likely to be longer lasting, including any potential future uptick in UK demand and changes in trends towards the consumption of different species.

“Most importantly it is, however, apparent that the fishing and fish processing sectors in the UK and EU have been seriously impacted by the effects of the Covid pandemic and associated lockdowns upon the restaurant, hotel and catering trade and knock-on demand for fish. It is as yet difficult to unpack the impacts upon the sector from post-Brexit trade friction and the very far-reaching drop-off in demand due to the pandemic.”

‘A lot of fishing boats aren’t going out’

Cllr Rob Hannaford, leader of the Labour group, had asked for the report on the effects of the new EU trade deal on Devon’s fishing industry.

He said: “It was a question that we needed to ask, but I am taken aback by the deal and how affected the fishing industry has been by the export rules and quotas and red tape.

“I hope it can be resolved quickly as lots of fishing boats aren’t going out at the moment, and unless we get the exports done correctly, once we are out of the pandemic, we won’t be able to take advantage of them.”

He added: “The poor deal Brexit has been a disaster for our fishing industry, and all the people, businesses, and communities that rely upon it. I want Devon County Council to join with local fishing industry leaders in calling on the government to address the growing crisis in the fishing sector due to complicated new export rules, a lack of clarity about fishing quotas, and an increase in red tape.

“Post-Brexit export arrangements have meant a dramatic increase in the amount of paperwork needed before Devon seafood can be exported into the EU. Fishing industry leaders say that these new regulations are costing more money and causing shipments to be delayed or even cancelled, putting significant pressure on an already struggling sector.

“These changes are affecting all aspects of Devon’s fishing industry but are being felt most acutely by our award winning shellfish producers. That’s why we are calling on the government to step in now and provide more additional support. The fishing industry plays a vital role in our economy in Devon and immediate action is needed to secure its long-term future.”


Potential boost for Sidmouth sea defences after change to funding eligibility

A ‘bigger and better’ Sidmouth sea defence scheme is back on the table after changes to the eligibility for funding from various bodies including the Environment Agency.

Philippa Davies

East Devon District Council revealed the news in a public meeting with the Sidmouth and East Beach Management Plan Project Advisory Group on Thursday, February 25.

It means Sidmouth could get the vital coastal defences it needs, better protecting the town from major storms and the East Beach cliffs from further erosion.

The advisory group voted overwhelmingly in favour of pausing the current working draft option to look again at alternatives that were previously felt to be unaffordable.

An urgent report is now set to go before the district council’s Cabinet asking for councillors to decide whether they want to investigate options previously dismissed because of insufficient funding, including but not limited to offshore rock islands.

What happens now?

The current preferred option at Sidmouth is to invest around £9million in a coastal defence scheme which would involve beach replenishment, periodic beach recycling, a new rock groyne on East Beach and modifications to the River Sid training wall.

It would also include raising the height of the splash wall along the seafront slightly and topping it up with temporary storm barriers or strong glass panels when needed.

If the council’s Cabinet agrees to investigate and test the feasibility of other options, it will take up to six months for engineers and specialist consultants to review and assess the alternatives.

Following the studies and investigations, a report would then be presented to the Sidmouth and East Beach Management Plan Project Advisory Group. Its members would be asked to recommend what the town would prefer to do – whether that would be to go ahead with the original preferred option or use the additional funding on a different option which may be more beneficial to Sidmouth’s coastal defences.

The council’s Cabinet will make the final decision on which option goes ahead.

What would the timescale be?

Time is an important factor. If the current preferred option gets the green light, construction could start within two years. There would also be a potential for the new extra funding to be used for future maintenance, ensuring the beach can be recycled/recharged.

However if a different and more expensive option is chosen, construction could take around four years to start.

The Cabinet will be recommended to agree that, if the chosen option incurs further delays to the project, a temporary structure could be placed at the base of the cliffs, to help protect the River Sid wall, low-lying properties in the town and the properties above Sidmouth’s eroding cliffs.

Councillor Geoff Jung, East Devon District Council’s portfolio holder for the coast, country and environment, said: “As the East Devon councillor responsible for coastal protection, I would like to thank the advisory group for their contributions and assistance in providing the guidance and help on how we are to proceed with the scheme to protect Sidmouth seafront and East Beach.

“The scheme that was originally underfunded and unpopular has now been provided with extra funding. This will enable an improved design that may overcome the more controversial elements of scheme.

“Although the beach and the cliffs are protected as a World Heritage site of the Jurassic Coast, it is hoped temporary time-limited permission will be able to satisfy the regulations and conditions of the designated site, so we are able to progress work not otherwise possible with a permanent scheme.

“Once the final scheme is finally approved the stone used in the temporary revetment could then be used elsewhere within the scheme.”

Mobile Covid testing centres coming to Honiton, Exmouth and Axminster

Mobile community Covid testing centres offering results within an hour are set to visit Honiton, Exmouth, and Axminster after a successful trial in Exeter. 

A new unit was tried out at Devon and Cornwall Police’s Middlemoor HQ on Friday, February 19.

It has been bought by the county council and, from this week, is hitting the road offering rapid testing to the public in areas with the highest rates of coronavirus.

More mobile facilities are ‘expected to come online soon’, says the authority.

They will be available in Honiton, Exmouth, Axminster, Okehampton, Tavistock and Ivybridge ‘in the coming weeks’.

Devon County Council (DCC) says mobile testing centres will be a ‘vital part’ of its efforts to offer rapid testing.

It will target anyone who leaves their home to work or volunteer, and who may come into contact with others.

A DCC spokesperson said: “Around one in three people who have coronavirus do not show any symptoms and may unwittingly be spreading the infection.

“Regular rapid testing identifies those non-symptomatic carriers of the virus – and anyone regularly in contact with others is encouraged to take these quick tests twice a week to prevent the potential spread of the virus.

“And if they do test positive, they are required to self-isolate immediately to prevent them from transmitting it to others.”

Devon’s director of public health Steve Brown said: “These new mobile test centres will help us to offer more rapid Covid-19 tests in more locations to those who need it.

“The tests are quick, painless and easy to book with results back within an hour via text or email.

“By being regularly tested it could prevent you unintentionally passing the virus to others.

“But please remember, while a positive test will require you to self-isolate at home, a negative test does not remove the need to continue following national guidance around social distancing, wearing a face covering, and washing your hands properly and regularly. These simple steps are still vital in preventing the transmission of the virus.”

The mobile centre trialled at Devon and Cornwall Police’s Exeter HQ saw specially-trained members of the constabulary test Middlemoor-based officers and civilian staff.

Temporary Assistant Chief Constable Steve Parker said:

“We welcome the co-operation of Devon County Council in providing this testing service to our officers and staff.

“Working closely and collaboratively with our partners has been a critical part of the multi-agency response to the pandemic throughout the last year.

“The support will enable at least some of our staff to have a test and allow them to be reassured if they are negative for Covid-19, but also take immediate, preventative action if they test positive.

“We continue to explore any avenue which could help protect our staff from exposure to Covid-19 and in turn enable us to continue to provide frontline service delivery to the communities of Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.”

More information on community testing in Devon is available here.

Town halls to seize empty shops to put them back to use, under Labour plans to revive high streets

Town halls would be able to seize empty shops and bring them back into use, under Labour plans to revive decaying high streets.

The party will accuse the government of overseeing “a decade of decline” that has weakened the economy and society – vowing to give local councils beefed-up powers to act.

Under changes to come into force in August, restaurants, banks, gyms, creches and offices will also be fast-tracked for residential use.

That policy will see high streets “sold off to the highest bidder for poor quality housing without planning permission”, the shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds will allege.

Vowing to fight back instead, she will say in a set piece speech: “Britain’s high streets are at the heart of local communities

“It is not just a string of shops and post offices, it’s a place that people want to have pride in. The high street goes to the heart of Labour’s vision to make Britain the best place to grow up and grow old in.”

Labour believes a new “empty shops order” can enable councils to seize the initiative and ensure premises are used either for shopping, small businesses or “other enterprises”.

The idea was put forward a decade ago by Mary Portas, the broadcaster appointed by David Cameron to carry out a high streets’ review, but never enacted.

Ms Dodds will propose that town halls would first work with the owner of an empty shop, to restore it to use – but, if that fails, take it over and carry out any necessary works.

Councils would be permitted to charge rent and, after recouping the cost of carrying out any improvements, that rent would then pass to the property owner.

Last summer, the prime minister sparked a row by announcing that redundant buildings would be demolished and rebuilt without a normal planning application.

Pubs, libraries and village shops “essential to the lifeblood of communities” would be protected – but the move was condemned by campaigners who protested it was already far too easy to build poor quality homes.

Speaking in London, Ms Dodds will say: “The Conservatives have presided over a decade of decline in Britain’s high streets that has left our economy insecure and the foundations of our society weakened.

“Labour’s plan would help secure the future of the high street. It would give local communities a proper stake in their town centres, support new businesses to open up on our high streets and help rebuild our economy post-pandemic.”

Could it be an election year? Alison Hernandez off the leash

The Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon and Cornwall is urging people to report incidents of dog theft to police officers in order to help them better understand the scale of the problem in the region.

Police commissioner urges public to report dog thefts

Molly Dowrick 

Alison Hernandez, who has been the commissioner for Devon and Cornwall Police for almost five years, says she has heard “numerous” accounts of potential dog theft incidents in the region – but officers appear “sceptical” about the size of the problem.

Ms Hernandez has penned an extensive report on the need for “harsher penalties” for pet theft and is urging local people to complete a national survey on dog theft.

She says she wants to stamp out pet theft in the South West region and is calling for urgent reform to ensure pet theft is treated as seriously as it should be.

In her statement – which you can read in full on her campaigns website here – Ms Hernandez says pet theft is currently the worst it has ever been, with 80% of pets stolen never being returned to their owners.

Ms Hernandez said: “Pet theft is not treated with the seriousness it deserves and reform is urgently needed.

“During the pandemic, dog ownership and prices have risen significantly – pet theft is now the worst it has ever been, rising in some areas by 250%.

“Tragically, just one in five pets are ever returned to their owner. Only about 1% of pet thefts lead to charges.

“I know how much my family love our cat Mylo and would be devastated if he was stolen, along with many cat and dog owners.”

She continued: “Because punishments are often related to the monetary value of a pet, they usually result in trivial fines rather than imprisonment.

“Although the Theft Act of 1968 allows a maximum penalty of up to seven years, this never seems to happen. The majority of prison sentences awarded are less than six months. This Act is over 50 years old and may need amendment.

“Pet theft is Low Risk and High Reward, attracting organised crime.”

Ms Hernandez comments come after a Freedom of Information request from our crime reporter Carl Eve which disclosed that Devon and Cornwall Police logged 73 dog theft crimes in 2020, covering a total of 78 dogs.

Of these incidents, the most common place for a dog theft crime was a dwelling (36 incidents) and from a road (12 incidents), though other dogs were reportedly taken from farms and gardens as well as a dog taken from each of the following categories: a beach, a business, a shop, a stable.

Ms Hernandez’s comments come after people across the region have flooded neighbourhood groups on social media with reports of alleged dog thefts.

Last month, many Plymouth residents said they feared their homes had been marked as targets for potential dog-snatchers after spotting strange cable-ties affixed to lampposts allegedly outside homes with dogs.

But police soon confirmed that there was no evidence to suggest people putting up cable-ties had a sinister motive or that these the cable ties marked houses for dog thieves.

Tips to keep your dogs safe from theft

from the RSPCA:

  • Don’t leave your dog outside a shop on his own or in a car alone
  • Teach your dog a reliable recall for when you are out walking
  • Check your garden to make sure it is secure and if you have a gate then fit with a lock
  • Neuter your pet as this can reduce the likelihood of roaming
  • Make sure your pet is wearing a collar with an ID tag and that it is up to date: it is a legal requirement for a dog to have an ID tag with your name and address on it (The RSPCA also recommends including your mobile phone number on any ID tag as this can help reunite you with your pet quickly should he ever get lost or stolen)
  • Microchip your pet and keep the details up to date, so that if your pet does go missing or is stolen then there is a higher chance they can be reunited. It is a legal requirement to have your dog microchipped in England and Wales.

‘People’s Covid Inquiry’ To Look Into Government’s Handling Of Coronavirus

Frustrated by the government’s reluctance to hold a public inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic any time soon, and worried about a “rapid rewriting of history”, a group of legal and medical professionals have taken it upon themselves to conduct their own.

Chris York

The People’s Covid Inquiry will on Wednesday night begin the first of eight virtual hearings to be held over the next 16 weeks, examining every aspect of how the pandemic has affected the UK and what Boris Johnson’s government did and didn’t do to stop it.

The initiative, organised by the campaign group Keep Our NHS Public (KONHSP), comes amid growing calls for an immediate public inquiry so that lessons can be learned and applied in an attempt to limit further loss of life.

When asked last month if a public inquiry would be held, a government spokesperson told HuffPost UK ministers had been “clear” that there would be “opportunities in the future to look back, analyse and reflect on all aspects of this pandemic”.

They added: “As the prime minister has said, this will include an independent inquiry at the appropriate time.”

When that “appropriate time” actually is has not been specified.

“We don’t think the government will hold a public inquiry for a long time, until it’s not politically damaging to them,” Dr John Puntis, a consultant at Leeds Teaching Hospital and Executive Committee member of KONHSP, told HuffPost UK.

“They couldn’t come out of one well.”

Wednesday’s inaugural session is titled: “How well prepared was the NHS?” It will examine Conservative policy in the decade leading up to the pandemic as well as how the government coped when it began. 

It will be chaired by Michael Mansfield QC and feature health experts as well as frontline workers and bereaved relatives who will share their own personal experiences.

  • Jo Goodman – co-founder Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice
  • Professor Sir Michael Marmot  – director, UCL Institute of Health Equity, UCL Dept of Epidemiology and Public Health
  • Holly Turner – children’s mental health nurse/CAMHS
  • Professor Gabriel Scally – president Epidemiology and Public Health Section Royal Society of Medicine, visiting professor of Public Health, University of Bristol, member of Independent SAGE
  • John Lister – health journalist and campaigner

“It’s not just about experts,” said Puntis. “It’s also about taking testimony from ordinary people so we have nurses, frontline workers, bereaved families – it’s about giving them on opportunity they wouldn’t necessarily get in an official inquiry.”

Puntis acknowledges that without the resources available to the government, the People’s Covid Inquiry can’t hope to conduct as thorough an examination as a full public inquiry could achieve, but he says doing what they can now is crucial.

“It’s important to have it now while it’s fresh in people’s memories and document it and then this will be a body of evidence that we will pass on to the Department of Health [and Social Care] and the Commons health select committee,” he said.

“We then hope this will prompt them to hold an inquiry or feed into a subsequent and much better resourced inquiry.”

A major concern has been prompted by comments health secretary Matt Hancock made this week when he denied there had been a shortage of PPE in the early days of the pandemic.

“History’s already being rewritten,” Puntis said.

“Last spring and summer there were healthcare workers who could not get PPE. I’ve got junior doctors in my family who did not have the right PPE – they still don’t, actually.

“And you’ve now got Matt Hancock saying: ‘No, there wasn’t a shortage.’ I am very worried about this rapid rewriting of history.”

Every two weeks for the next 16 weeks, the People’s Covid Inquiry will examine a different area, including: 

At the time of writing, 120,757 people had died in the UK within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19. But alongside the grim daily death tolls, the government has been keen to share news of the so-far-successful vaccine rollout and the PM’s roadmap out of lockdown announced on Monday.

“The vaccination rollout is being framed by the government as: ‘Forget everything bad that’s happened, we’ve done a great job,’” Dr Puntis said.

“Whereas actually, the death toll absolutely refutes that.”

Why we’re suing over the £23m NHS data deal with Palantir – openDemocracy

The government is battling ‘vaccine hesitancy’. How does sneaking through a massive deal with a controversial spy tech firm help?

Mary Fitzgerald

Imagine you’re doing something unlawful – how do you avoid getting sued? Lately, if you’re Boris Johnson’s government, it seems you try sneaking it through before anyone notices.

Unfortunately for them, it didn’t work this time. We’ve just issued a lawsuit over their £23m NHS data deal with controversial ‘spy tech’ company Palantir.

We’re taking the government to court because, right before Christmas, they quietly gave this CIA-backed firm a major, long-term role in handling our personal health information, and in England’s cherished National Health Service.

The government claimed the initial Palantir ‘datastore’ deal, signed last March, was a short-term, emergency response to the pandemic. But December’s new, two-year contract reaches far beyond COVID: to Brexit, general business planning and much more.

And, as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reveals today, it comes after years of Palantir lobbying top UK and NHS officials, courting them in London, San Francisco and Davos – over dinner and watermelon cocktails.

Health secretary Matt Hancock and his advisers must have known it wouldn’t look good.

Palantir is best known for powering US intelligence operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its founder Peter Thiel, a Trump-backing Silicon Valley billionaire, famously once wrote: “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” Palantir’s tech has been accused of creating ‘racist’ feedback loops in US ‘predictive policing’ software. Its own staff have criticised its role in Trump’s brutal deportations of undocumented migrants.

How does all this sit with the current drive to combat ‘vaccine hesitancy’ among Black, Asian and migrant communities in the UK? Striking quiet deals with firms like Palantir, especially with no real public dialogue, risks demolishing trust in the NHS among the very communities where the government now urgently seeks to shore up trust.

As Kailash Chand, former deputy chair of the British Medical Association, put it: “The secrecy around what the government is doing with NHS data, working with companies like Palantir, will damage what trust is left amongst ethnic communities, for migrants, and in the NHS family as a whole. It makes it difficult for people like me to convince ethnic minority people that this is being done in their best interests.”

The NHS is at a crossroads

This isn’t just about Palantir. The future of the NHS is being written now, in the latest chapter of the pandemic. The government has put us on notice that sweeping changes to our health service are on the way. They present both opportunities and grave risks.

The government has a legal duty to consult us, citizens and NHS users, before they strike massive deals which affect that future. In doing so, they need to take important steps (like conducting ‘data protection impact assessments’) to ensure our health information and our rights are protected. They haven’t done this for the Palantir datastore: that’s why we’re bringing this case.

More broadly, our elected leaders need to explain their long-term plans for our cherished NHS – enabling genuine public debate about them.

The government’s published plans for overhauling the NHS include new rules for handling the nation’s health data, and involve handing over almost all power over the NHS to Matt Hancock. By scrapping many NHS procurement rules, they open the door for big tech firms to take ever-greater slices of the NHS pie – including access to our health data for profit, and unaccountable influence over vital healthcare decisions. These are issues in which the public deserves a say.

Our NHS: worth more than a watermelon cocktail

How did we get here? Was it really, as some suggest, that the government suddenly turned to Palantir in an emergency because there was no other choice?

It seems not. As the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s reporting reveals, Palantir has been intensively lobbying top UK and NHS officials.

On 2 July 2019, the night before the launch party of NHSX – the UK’s flagship digital health initiative – emails released through Freedom of Information show Palantir hosting the chair of NHS England, Lord David Prior, for dinner and cocktails. (Prior is a Conservative peer and former junior minister.)

Palantir’s UK chief, Louis Mosley, emailed his pitch the very next day: “I’m more convinced than ever that the UK is uniquely placed to pioneer the next generation of medical discoveries and treatments.” [The next two paragraphs of Mosley’s email are, strangely, redacted].

Prior responded just hours later to thank Mosley “for the watermelon cocktails” and added: “[redacted] If you can see ways where you could help us structure and curate our data so that it helps us deliver better care and provides a more insightful data base for medical research, do be in touch.”

The correspondence is clear. The UK government was keen to lay a path in the NHS for Palantir – undermining official claims that the Covid datastore was an emergency fix with no long-term plans in prospect.

Health data, yes – but only with public trust

There are countless ways in which trustworthy and public-spirited use of data could benefit the NHS, and all of us, in tackling disease and delivering better public health outcomes. Several important patient juries on the use of health data consistently show that people are cautiously open to data use for the right reasons: to improve care, and so long as benefits are distributed equally and fairly to all patients.

But proceeding without public trust undermines our chances of achieving any of this. It doesn’t help that, under the new Palantir contract, we have no idea what is going into the long-term datastore: for the first time, the government has completely redacted the list of health-data sources fed into it.

This approach carries echoes of the ‘’ debacle from 2013 to 2016. This was another massive health data centralisation plan involving big private firms that failed because the government didn’t consult on its plans and communicated them badly – and lost public trust as a result. So many people opted out (some 1.2 million patients) that the NHS abandoned the programme.

The NHS story could go two ways. We could channel all the solidarity and goodwill – expressed not just in thousands of claps and posts but in community support groups and voluntary initiatives – to build an NHS that is well-funded, well-staffed and fit for the future. But this future is only possible if we, the public, are in the driving seat.

If our legal challenge is successful, it’ll be an important step towards making sure our NHS health data can be used only in ways the public can trust. After a year of repeated ‘COVID cronyism’ scandals and massive failures – from Serco’s disastrous mishandling of ‘test and trace’ to last week’s ruling that Hancock acted unlawfully over PPE – it’s time for a different approach.

Plans to use council car parks for evening entertainment and to install electric charging points revealed – East Devon

Plans to install electric vehicle charging points across seven car parks in the district are set to go before East Devon District Council’s (EDDC) Cabinet. 

This is one of a number of exciting projects, recommended for approval or investigation by the authority’s ‘Car Parking Task and Finish Forum’ (TAFF).

An investigation into how the car parks can be used at off peak times, such as the occasional evening cinema, farmers market or car boot sales has also been recommended by TAFF.

It is hoped it could generate additional income while also providing exciting services that residents and visitors can enjoy, although mindfulness would be needed so it does not encroach on existing businesses.

As well as this, the TAFF are keen to look at whether a small area of some car parks could be considered for hiring out electric bicycles so residents and visitors could explore the local area on two wheels rather than four.

The group has also recommended a number of trial contactless machines be installed to minimise the need for residents to touch buttons while paying for parking.

If given the go-ahead is given by Cabinet, the first part of the project will see charging points installed across seven car parks that are able to serve 14 vehicles at a time.

The TAFF hope the charging points will serve both residents and visitors alike, whilst reducing carbon emissions as the public move to using more electric and hybrid vehicles – supporting the EDDC emergency climate declaration and action plan.

The installation of the charging points comes as part of the Innovate UK funded Exeter Rapid Charging Project to install and operate up to 30 further rapid charging units in EDDC’s public car parks in 2021.

The TAFF has also supported further plans for another six or seven car parks to be considered for future expansion of charging points to meet any gaps in provision.

Drivers will need to pay to use the charging points but will not have to pay for parking as long as they don’t exceed their charging time.

Councillor Val Ranger, who is the vice-chairman of the Car Parking TAFF and ward councillor for Newton Poppleford and Harpford, said:

Members of the TAFF were keen to congratulate officers for the work done on the future provision of electric charging points in our car parks.

TAFF have been working to ensure that public car parks owned by EDDC are effectively managed and providing a valuable service whilst paying for themselves.

Mindful of the sanitary situation and how best to protect car park users and council staff, East Devon council is keen to offer contactless solutions for paying parking charges to anybody who wishes not to touch the machines.

The TAFF suggested trialling these entirely contactless in some car parks with several machines, reducing or removing the need to touch buttons or screens when paying for parking.

Paying for parking remotely from a mobile phone for example also removes the need to queue at machines and allows users to top up and extend their parking time from the beach or restaurant without having to return to their vehicle.

Contactless card payment can be faster than paying in coins also- a benefit in busy car parks.

TAFF will also be reconsidering the signage at car parks, and fitting more prominent and clearly worded signs to advise residents of the lower cost options available to them such as annual permits.

The forecasts that spooked Boris Johnson into slowing exit from lockdown

“I won’t be buccaneering with people’s lives” Boris Johnson, Monday

Haroon Siddique 

On Monday, Boris Johnson announced his roadmap for lifting all Covid restrictions by 21 June but faced criticism from some Conservative MPs for not providing for a speedier return to normal life. Here is some of the evidence the government and its scientific advisers have been considering, outlining the risks of lifting restrictions too early.


Based on modelling by Warwick University and Imperial College London, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M), a subgroup of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage), warned that “rapid relaxation [of restrictions] results in a very large wave of hospitalisations and deaths”.

It said that if all restrictions were lifted by 26 April (scenario one), even under the most optimistic of assumptions, including 4m doses of vaccine a week from 22 March, there would be “another wave comparable in size to January 2021, resulting in a further 62,000 to 107,000 deaths in England”. More pessimistic vaccine efficacy led to a prediction of 102,000 to 176,000 further deaths.

Explaining the likely resurgence were restrictions lifted earlier, SPI-M says: “There are still many people in vulnerable groups who do not have protection; neither directly (either because they have not been vaccinated or because their vaccination has not prevented them from becoming infected then ill) nor indirectly from wider population immunity (because many younger age groups have not yet been vaccinated or infected).”

Hospital admissions

With warnings that the NHS is “on its knees” after three waves of the pandemic, ensuring it is not overwhelmed by a fourth wave is one of the key factors in the decision about whether to lift restrictions.

For its paper, discussed by Sage on 4 February, SPI-M asked University of Warwick and Imperial College to model four scenarios, with scenario one envisioning the earliest return to minimal measures (26 April) and scenario four the latest (2 August). SPI-M said: “All four scenarios modelled lead to a substantial resurgence in hospital admissions and deaths.” It found the models from the two universities to be in “remarkable quantitative agreement about hospital admissions”.

Daily admissions for Covid peaked at 4,134 on 12 January, but on Monday stood at 904. The most optimistic interpretation of scenario one in Warwick’s modelling suggested a resurgence in admissions later this year, peaking at between 4,000 and 6,500 admissions a day.

Hospital occupancy

In the same document, SPI-M said: “Unless vaccine efficacy is significantly better than assumed here, it is highly likely that hospital occupancy would be higher than that seen in January 2021, if all restrictions are lifted by the start of May, even under the optimistic vaccine rollout scenario modelled here of 4m doses per week from the end of March.”

The number of beds in England occupied by Covid patients peaked on 18 January, at 34,336. This has since fallen (the figure was 14,137 on Monday) but the modelling warned of a reverse if restrictions were lifted too early. Under the most optimistic interpretation of scenario one, Warwick’s modelling suggested occupancy of approximately 20,000 to 50,000 beds.

SPI-M wrote: “Relaxation of current restrictions would be safer the lower the prevalence and hospital occupancy reached before any relaxations commence. This would give a longer time window to respond if it becomes apparent that the relaxation of measures is leading to an unsustainable rise in hospital admissions. Lower prevalence of infection will also reduce the risk of the evolution of new variants.

“Hospital occupancy is still very high and will remain so for a significant length of time. SPI-M-O’s [the operational subgroup’s] medium-term projection of hospital occupancy in England on 8th March is between 5,600 and 12,1001.”

Avoiding another lockdown

It is universally agreed on all sides of the argument that avoiding another lockdown is vital, whether to preserve people’s mental health or to prevent businesses being forced into closure or to lay off employees. SPI-M makes clear that lifting restrictions in haste would risk a fourth national lockdown based on the modelling.

It states: “As restrictions are relaxed virus transmission will increase. The more slowly restrictions are relaxed, the greater the number of hospitalisations and deaths prevented by vaccination and hence it would be less likely that restrictions would need to be reimposed later to avoid hospitals being put under extreme pressure. Rapid relaxation results in a very large wave of hospitalisations and deaths.”

Johnson has left a minimum of five weeks between each stage of restrictions being lifted and this, again, is supported by the evidence presented by SPI-M. It says: “It is much less likely that restrictions would need to be reimposed if an approach were taken in which each step was followed by a careful evaluation of data before any further unlocking was allowed. Several weeks between steps are required to determine if that change has significantly increased transmission.”

Restoring wetland drained over 150 years ago for farmland – Ozzie style

Bringing an Australian wetland back to life

In the shadow of Australia’s Grampians National Park lies Walker Swamp, a once-thriving wetland that was artificially drained and farmed for over a century.

But it is now welcoming new life once more, after a huge restoration project.

Its revival is one “message of hope” amid so much grim environmental news, ecologists tell the BBC.

Video by Isabelle Rodd

How the NHS can meet the demands of an ageing society


Bruce Keogh (The NHS rose to the challenge of Covid, but its next test may be even harder, 18 February) makes salient points about the post-pandemic NHS, with emphasis on older people. The six tests are useful, but his focus on digital technology does not reflect the needs of older people, many of whom do not use it. In fact at times, it seems an administrative deterrent to manage demand rather than to enable patients to access services. Will the NHS fund digital training for older people?

His comments about keeping older people out of hospital are doomed unless four critical issues are dealt with: reform of the funding system for social care; doing away with the iniquitous system of “continuing healthcare”, classing those with dementia as not ill and robbing many older people of their life savings; raising the “carer’s allowance”, recognising that this care saves the NHS large sums every year; and moving healthcare staff from hospitals to the community, enabling GPs to provide a more comprehensive service.

Without these actions, the NHS will continue to be hamstrung in its efforts to reduce unnecessary admissions and long stays in hospital.

Ron Walton

Penarth, South Glamorgan

• There is a danger of missing the crucial issue of how integrated health and social care will be delivered at a local level. During the pandemic, the NHS introduced a system called “discharge to assess” (D2A). The immediate pressure was to get patients out of hospitals as soon as possible, but D2A is part of a continuing “home first” approach. D2A assumes that the majority of patients can be discharged straight home from hospital. It does provide for patients who may need more support before returning to home-based independence, but the numbers are assumed to be small and they are supported only on a limited basis.

Because of the closures of community hospitals and a lack of resources, too many people fall through the gaps between hospital and home, NHS and local authority, and are sent home without adequate support, or placed in care homes miles from where they live.

The promised reform needs to guarantee that integrated health and social care is properly provided after people are discharged from hospital, across the country, at a local level.

John Forsyth

Penzance, Cornwall

Most pheasants sold for food ‘contain lead shot’

Almost all pheasants sold for food in the UK contain toxic lead shot, scientists have found.

Despite voluntary ban declared a year ago.

There is also concern that the large and increasing release of gamebirds and associated shooting practices may be having negative impacts on the UK’s native wildlife.

By Victoria Gill  Science correspondent, BBC News 

The discovery comes one year into a five-year transition to non-toxic shotgun ammunition – a move backed by nine UK shooting organisations.

Of 180 birds examined by the scientists, 179 were shot with lead.

One shooting group said finding humane and effective alternatives to lead would take time.

‘No detectable impact’

The team, consisting of scientists and conservationists based across England and Scotland, bought wild-shot common pheasants that were sold by game dealers, butchers and supermarkets around the UK.

With labs closed in lockdown, the scientists carried out the pheasant dissections in their own kitchens.

“We took out the shot and sent it off for analysis and 99% of the ammunition we extracted was lead,” said Prof Debbie Pain, from Cambridge University.

“So really that hasn’t declined at all since the shooting organisations signed up to the voluntary ban.”

That voluntary ban was a declaration in February 2020 by shooting and countryside organisations, which all committed to phasing out lead shot and transitioning “completely” to non-toxic alternatives. Those alternatives are already widely available and include steel, bismuth and tungsten.

That commitment, the scientists conclude, has not yet had any detectable impact.

Lead is toxic even at very low concentrations, as Prof Rhys Green from Cambridge University explained.

“Over time, it has been banned from a progressively lengthening list of products, including plumbing, paints on things like children’s toys and as an additive to petrol. And the maximum allowable concentration of lead in many foods has also been limited by an EU directive, which still applies in the UK,” he said.

“But game meat products are not included on that list of foods, for reasons that are unclear. Currently, the amount of lead in game meat sold for human consumption is not regulated by law.”

Lead shot also builds up in the environment.

“When lead is shot into wildlife, it can be eaten by predators like scavenging birds,” Prof Pain explained. “And a lot of lead gunshot falls into the environment and it can then be eaten by wildfowl and terrestrial birds and cause poisoning.”

media captionDanish hunter Niels Kanstrup explains why he believes lead shot is a “poison for hunting”

The evidence about lead in the environment has led to an EU-wide ban on the use of lead shot over wetlands. But, because that restriction did not enter into force before the end of the Brexit transition period, it will not apply in the UK.

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (Basc), which previously argued against any change in the rules on lead ammunition, now supports the voluntary transition, but told the BBC that “change is difficult” and would take time.

“Lead shot is the traditional ammunition for live quarry shooting – it has been for generations,” said Steve Bloomfield from Basc. “[Our members] have to take time to try the alternatives – and those alternatives have to be effective and humane.”

In Denmark, hunters have had to use those alternatives since 1996, when lead shot was banned for all hunting.

Prof Green said he hoped these findings would speed up the move away from lead shot.

“I hope, within a few years, lead shotgun ammunition is not being used at all for game shooting in the UK,” he told BBC News.

“I have an open mind on whether this can be achieved through voluntary change or requires a government ban, but the evidence so far indicates that the voluntary approach needs to step up its effectiveness dramatically if it is to remain credible.”