Topical Questions (yesterday)

Simon Jupp to Robert Jenrick The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

If you want to work with EDDC, there’s no time like now to start! – Owl

Photo of Simon Jupp Simon Jupp Conservative, East Devon

Since I was elected, I have been speaking up for Exmouth and East Devon in Parliament, and working hard to secure support for our hospitality industry, Exeter airport and the mighty Exeter Chiefs. Exmouth continues to grow, and I want to work with East Devon District Council to help the town stay a great place to live and work. Could the Secretary of State provide an update on when the next round of funding to improve towns, transport and high streets will be made available?

Photo of Robert Jenrick Robert Jenrick The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government

I very much enjoyed visiting East Devon during the general election campaign, and I look forward to seeing Exmouth’s application in due course. As I said then, Exmouth is exactly the sort of town that we want to benefit from the town regeneration funds that we have made available. I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that we are driving forward our plans to boost town centre regeneration in every corner of the country. The levelling-up fund and the UK shared prosperity fund will build on the work of the future high streets fund and the towns fund, and the prospectuses for those will be published very soon. I hope East Devon District Council will work with him to grasp this opportunity and put in good proposals that we can consider carefully.


Boris Johnson Is Finally Being Cautious, But Has He Really Changed?

Extracts from Paul Waugh

“I won’t be buccaneering with people’s lives,” Boris Johnson said. Well, it’s taken 11 months, three Covid waves and more than 100,000 deaths, but he got there in the end. He won’t bucc it up this time, will he?…..

…..It may be that this famously unreflective PM has finally also looked into his own soul in recent weeks. Perhaps the most startling thing written about him last week was Fraser Nelson’s Telegraph column suggesting he has “started to blame himself” for delaying the first lockdown by a week: a decision that Imperial College London has claimed cost 21,000 lives. Whether he’s feeling guilty about locking down late this January too is an open question.

Yet while it will hearten many that Johnson has finally ditched his chaotic crisis management mode of governing, there lingers an unnerving thought: if even this optimism-biased prime minister has started to be cautious, the scientists’ warnings must be pretty worrying. And indeed, the Sage minutes and documents today confirmed just that.

The sheer precariousness of our current position, even with an amazing vaccine rollout, was laid bare in those Sage papers. Lifting restrictions by the end of April, as some Tory lockdown sceptics had demanded, would spark a huge new fourth wave of infections and risk doubling the death toll, they forecast.

Just as worrying were the minutes of the February 4 meeting that stated: “Relaxation of a significant number of restrictions over three months starting from the beginning of April could lead to hospital occupancy higher than the January peak whereas relaxation over nine months would result in a much smaller peak.” Relaxation over three months from April, doesn’t that sound like, er, the roadmap?

That same meeting also advised “an ‘adaptive management’ approach, responding to data, for example setting levels of infection or hospitalisation that would need to be reached before making changes”. “This makes it more likely that the epidemic can be kept under control,” it said. 

But the PM clearly felt that was a bit too sage of Sage because his roadmap lacks any such figures or numbers to measure progress. Instead, we got a series of tentative dates for each stage of unlockdown. So we didn’t get the data points, but we did get the dates. Which wasn’t really the soundbite promised.

Johnson was honest enough to stress to MPs that lifting lockdown will lead to more deaths, partly because even among those vaccinated there will be a “large minority” who remain insufficiently protected. Add in the uncertainty about the impact of the vaccines on stopping transmission and that looks even more candid.

Despite all the uncertainty, Johnson couldn’t at times hide his own desperation for certainty. In his Commons statement, he said he believed his roadmap was “a one way road to freedom”, that “will guide us cautiously but irreversibly” (he said the i-word three times). Yet when asked by SkyNews’ Sam Coates if he would resign if there was a fourth lockdown, the PM wriggled for some wriggle room, saying it was only his “intention” that this was a one-way roadmap.

He was similarly shifty when asked about financial support, even though his own plans would seem to imply that Rishi Sunak will next week have to announce furlough is extended through May and possibly until June 21, when hospitality firms can fully reopen and make a profit. Despite a small change to isolation support for parents of kids with Covid, there was nothing to match Jeremy Hunt’s call for an isolation salary replacement scheme.

There was even a hint of a throwback to our old friend “Whackamole” from some in government today, as we learned that new outbreaks of new variants could lead to local lockdowns. While there will be no return to tiers over the next few months (amid fears the dominant strain travels just too fast), there will be flexibility to crack down in some places.

In fact, I suspect it will be the lack of regional tiering that most triggers the next Tory rebellion. Notwithstanding recent drops, some regional admissions rates are stubbornly higher than others (the midlands are double the rates of London and the south east). If any of those five-week pauses produces data that suggests different outcomes for different areas, there could be trouble ahead. 

For now at least, the PM has a plan. Let’s see if he really has changed, and sticks to it.

“Jumping Jupp Flash” gets new adviser

Though Owl is always on hand to offer advice, our Simon has chosen a BBC Radio London presenter as his new “Head of Office”.

Let’s hope the advice he offers is to work for East Devon and with the District Council. We all remember that despite being chums with “Dave”, Hugo left no legacy of helping  East Devon.

Duncan Barkes moves on from BBC Radio London 

BBC Radio London presenter Duncan Barkes has left radio in London after a ten year stint of broadcasting to the capital to become a political adviser.

Duncan joined Radio London in 2015 to present ‘London’s Late Night Radio Phone-In’ from LBC where he previously presented the late night and overnight shows since 2011.

Previous to this he hosted the overnight show on talkSPORT.

Since July 2020, he has been presenting the weekend early morning shows on Radio London which have also been broadcast on the BBC local radio network and on BBC 5 Live.

His other BBC work has included presenting ‘The Newsroom’ on the BBC World Service and also covering The Nolan Show on 5 Live.

He leaves the BBC to take up the role of head of office and adviser to East Devon MP and Member of the Transport Select Committee, Simon Jupp.

Commenting on his move, Duncan told RadioToday: “Whilst at Radio London I’ve covered two general elections, two terror attacks on the capital, the Grenfell Tower fire and the EU Referendum. I’ve also experienced some of the most challenging broadcasting of my radio career taking hundreds of calls from people affected by Covid-19.

“I am proud to say we took the audience figures of the late night slot to a record high and even broadcast our phone-in live from the back of a black cab.

“Prior to the BBC my LBC years were fantastic and I was chuffed to play a small part in the growth of the station. But it’s time for a change and I have a political itch that needs scratching. Once the pandemic restrictions have lifted, I am looking forward to spending time in the Exmouth constituency office enjoying the delights of East Devon along with some time in Westminster.”

Duncan will still be heard on the radio having recently joined Sussex DAB station V2 Radio to present a Sunday evening show and he also runs an online station called Unforgettable Radio.

Covid vaccines slash risk of infection, illness and death, UK studies find

This appears the most comprehensive report of the encouraging data emerging on the effectiveness of vaccination roll-out in the “real world”. – Owl

Clive Cookson and Anna Gross in London yesterday 

Vaccination against coronavirus provides high levels of protection against Covid-19 infection, illness and death, according to three UK studies released on Monday that provide scientific support for the government’s road map out of lockdown.

The first, carried out in Scotland, found that the Covid-19 vaccination campaign led to a “very substantial” drop in serious illness across all adult age groups. It is the clearest evidence yet that single doses of coronavirus jabs can significantly reduce the risk of hospitalisation, even among the elderly.

Two other studies released by Public Health England echo findings released last week by scientists in Israel where vaccination has been even faster than in the UK. PHE scientists reported that the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine reduced the risk of infection by more than 70 per cent three weeks after the first jab, rising to 85 per cent after the second dose.

Despite the promising news, the government also released studies by modellers at Imperial College London and Warwick university that indicated that another 30,000 people could die in the UK from Covid-19 before the end of June, based on the current vaccination rate and speed of lockdown easing.

The vaccination research in Scotland, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, is particularly relevant to assessments of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which had less clinical trial evidence about efficacy in the elderly than some other vaccines. This had led some European countries to recommend against administering it to those over 65.

Chart showing that Scottish data shows a single dose of Covid-19 vaccines offers very strong protection against hospitalisation, including among the elderly

According to the research, conducted by the universities of Edinburgh and Strathclyde and Public Health Scotland, the chance of hospitalisation from four to six weeks after vaccination was 85 per cent lower after receiving one shot of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine and 94 per cent lower after one shot of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. 

The scientists said their findings were applicable to other countries using the two vaccines but the data were not robust enough to compare the two jabs’ efficacy head to head.

Chart showing that English data shows strong vaccine efficacy among healthcare workers aged under 65, including after a single dose

The second PHE analysis, based on routine testing data in people aged over 80, found that one dose was 57 per cent effective against symptomatic Covid-19 disease from about three to four weeks after the first dose. Early results suggested the second dose in over-80s improved protection against symptomatic disease to more than 85 per cent.

The two PHE studies only had enough reliable data to assess the BioNTech/Pfizer jab, which dominated the early stages of the UK vaccination programme, said Mary Ramsay, PHE head of immunisation. “But the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine data are also showing signs of a good effect,” she added.

Chart showing that English data shows BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine offers good protection against infection among over-80s, especially after a second dose

The Scottish study looked at the health records of 5.4m people in Scotland, equivalent to 99 per cent of the population. About 1.14m of those people were vaccinated between December 8 and February 15.

“These are national data strongly demonstrating that the vaccines are providing a very substantial reduction in hospital admissions from day seven onwards,” said Prof Aziz Sheikh, director of the University of Edinburgh’s Usher Institute. “Overall we’re very very confident this is making a difference.”

There is international interest in the impact of the vaccination campaign in the UK, which was the first large country to begin vaccinating its population against Covid-19 with approved inoculations. The UK also unusually opted to extend the interval between doses from four to up to 12 weeks, in order to vaccinate more people with a single dose more quickly.

Sir Mene Pangalos, AstraZeneca’s head of research and development, said he was “extremely encouraged” to see the first evidence of the effectiveness of the vaccine in the “real world”, referring to the Scottish research.

“Comparable vaccine effects were seen across all age groups,” he said. “This data provides further evidence that the vaccine protects against severe Covid-19 outcomes, particularly in older populations who are at the highest risk.”

The PHE study of healthcare workers, called Siren, included 40,000 people who were tested for coronavirus every two weeks, whether or not they had symptoms, between December 7 and February 5. “We are showing a really strong effect in reducing infection,” said Susan Hopkins, PHE’s Covid-19 response director.

Ramsay said: “The BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine is stopping people from getting infected, while also protecting cases against hospitalisation and death. We should be very encouraged by these initial findings.”

Professor Arne Akbar, president of the British Society for Immunology, who was not involved in the research, commented: “Overall these new findings should provide reassurance around the UK’s decision to offer the two doses of the vaccine 12 weeks apart.”

But he added: “It is still the case that the highest and longest lasting protection from getting ill with Covid-19 will only be provided by getting two doses of the vaccine.”

Sir Patrick Vallance, UK chief scientific adviser, welcomed the findings about vaccination but warned that the backdrop to lifting restrictions remained difficult. “We are not starting all this, as of today, from a good position. We’re not now in a ‘let’s release everything’ [situation], we’re in a not-very-good position that is getting better,” he told a media briefing. 

The central message that emerged from all the scientific modelling that fed into government decision-making was to “start from a low baseline to try to get numbers down before you start releasing”, Vallance said. “Go slowly, go in blocks you can measure the effect after four or five weeks,” he added. 

Many epidemiologists expect infections to increase again as restrictions are eased, with R, the average number of people infected by an individual with the virus, rising above 1, and then dropping after more people are vaccinated.

Additional reporting by Sarah Neville

New threat to Judicial Review

Ominous communication from the Good Law Project

Tomorrow [Tuesday 23 Feb], the High Court will hear our application for a cost capping order in our judicial review of Government’s decision to award huge PPE contracts to questionable counterparties.

We have been forced to apply for the order, which would cap the costs of both sides, after Government revealed it planned to spend an eye-watering £1 million defending the case. If we lose, Good Law Project would be liable for these enormous costs. And Ayanda and Pestfix – the fortunate VIP lane recipients of vast contracts to supply PPE much of which we now know to be unusable – are also asking for huge and, we are advised, inflated sums in costs. We are a small not-for-profit, funded by donations from members of the public. We cannot bear this kind of existential risk. 

In an attempt to defend its costs bills, Government has stated that in the last ten years at least 126 judicial reviews have cost over £100k. This may be true. Yet they fail to explain that between 2010-2019, 10,692 judicial reviews were granted permission. In other words, judicial reviews that have cost over £100k represent a tiny fraction of all judicial reviews brought in this period. 

Notably, Government makes no attempt to explain how many judicial reviews have cost £1 million.

Nor do we know why its costs for the three procurement judicial reviews brought by Good Law Project for which we know the costs (two of which were one-day hearings) are for more than £200k, more than £500k, and £1 million.

But you might think it has something to do with the types of points we are making. Last Monday, our case against Michael Gove showed that Dominic Cummings awarded a lucrative public contract to those he admitted were his ‘friends’. Last Friday, the High Court ruled Government had acted unlawfully by failing to publish details of COVID-19 contracts. 

And our judicial review of PPE contracts has already generated an admission from Government that it purchased £155m worth of facemasks that can’t be used by the NHS, fuelled countless newspaper headlines in the UK and around the world, and prompted repeated scrutiny in the House of Commons. And it will get right to the heart of the highly troubling VIP lane largely populated by Ministerial contacts. And all of this before the case even reaches court.

Our litigation is exposing Government’s cronyism and failures to procure in the best interests of the British taxpayer. We want to continue. But we are a tiny organisation pitted against the resources of the state. Unless we are granted a cost capping order tomorrow we will not be able to. We will update you on the hearing and what that means for the PPE case in due course. 

Thank you, 

Jolyon Maugham QC

Director of Good Law Project

Fresh evidence prompts calls for probe into anti-Labour ‘dark money’ groups

The UK’s elections watchdog has been urged to investigate whether ‘non-party’ campaign groups collaborated to flood social media with anti-Labour attack ads.

Peter Geoghegan, 21 February 2021

As openDemocracy recently revealed, a series of so-called ‘third-party’ campaign groups spent more than £700,000 attacking Jeremy Corbyn and Labour policies during the 2019 election campaign without declaring any of their donors.

Now new evidence has emerged raising questions about whether campaigners were working together behind the scenes.

Under British electoral law, campaigns are prohibited from joining forces to plan to get around legal spending limits.

A group run by Tory activist Jennifer Powers spent £65,000 on dozens of ads attacking Jeremy Corbyn and Labour on housing policy without declaring any donations.

Powers flatly denied collaborating with anyone else, telling the Daily Mirror she merely had an “amateur interest” in housing, and it was a “kitchen table” operation.

But emails obtained by openDemocracy and shared with the Daily Mirror reveal striking similarities with another campaign run by a former Boris Johnson aide.

The Fair Tax Campaign, founded by Alex Crowley, a former close aide of Boris Johnson, ran around 100 ads worth £63,105 across just two months leading up to the 2019 poll.

Emails sent to the Electoral Commission to formally register the groups were sent just a day apart in October 2019, and used almost identical language.

Both included the phrase: ”Having reviewed [my/our] budget I can confidently say that our campaign will comfortably exceed the spending threshold for registering a third party campaign…”

And added: “Given it would be reasonable and prudent to assume that a General Election is imminent, and therefore any issue campaigning will take place in the context of a live electoral contest….”

Screenshot 2021-02-21 at 15.53.57.png

Letter from Alex Crowley, Fair Tax Campaign, to Electoral Commission

Screenshot 2021-02-21 at 15.53.45.png

‘Near identical’ letter from Jennifer Powers to Electoral Commission

Asked about the similarities, Powers said: “Don’t remember them, never spoke to them.”

She added: “I did follow all the rules that are set out by the electoral commission.

“I just happen to have, I guess, an amateur interest in housing policy.”

Cowley said: “The Fair Tax Campaign complied with the strict rules set by the Electoral Commission, and Facebook’s advertising policies.”

Analysis of both campaigns’ websites revealed their privacy policies were more than 70% identical – but that the text appears on no other site online.

The website for Powers’s campaign has been taken offline but the site is still accessible on internet archives. Both Powers and Crowley’s campaigns stopped buying Facebook adverts immediately after the general election.

A former MP has written to the Electoral Commission calling on the watchdog to launch an inquiry, raising concerns about co-ordination between third-party campaign groups and the potential for US-style ‘Super PACs’ to anonymously fund British political campaigns.

In a letter to Electoral Commission chief Bob Posner, Unlock Democracy director Tom Brake wrote: “More than a dozen third-party campaigns that had spent heavily in the 2019 election reported that they had received no funding above the £7,500 threshold for declaring individual donations, and therefore did not have to supply details of any donor to the Electoral Commission.”

Brake, who lost his seat as a Liberal Democrat in the 2019 general election, added that “as a candidate in eight general elections who has had to fundraise for each of those elections, the sums raised (and then spent) by some of these groups in a very short period of time, without receiving a single donation above £7,500, is astounding.”

British electoral law has tight rules on coordination between political campaigns. Any coordinated campaigning must be declared as ‘joint working’ and campaigns involved have to declare their spending together.

In 2018, Dominic Cummings’s Vote Leave was found to have broken the law by failing to declare joint working during the Brexit referendum.

Mr Brake said the near-identical texts “could be a complete coincidence but I consider it would be in the public’s interest to seek to establish this.

“Particularly as joint-campaigning or coordination in other areas, over messaging for instance, needs to be accurately reported.”

In 2019 it was reported Crowley, who left Number 10 just a month before the election was called, had worked on a fake grassroots campaign pushing for a no-deal Brexit.

The Guardian reported Crowley had overseen the “Mainstream Network” Facebook campaign alongside employees of the lobbying firm run by Lynton Crosby, the Australian political strategist who helped run three Conservative general election campaigns.

In November 2019 one of the Fair Tax Campaign’s ads was banned by Facebook, after the campaign failed to properly declare it as a political message.