Owl reviews the Omnishambles of March 2020 locally and nationally: Remember this when you vote in May

The events of last March show time and again our politicians in Central Government, in Devon County and East Devon failing to rise to the challenge and show leadership, with a few shining exceptions.

Around a week ago we marked the anniversary of the start of the first Lockdown and, as this March ends, we begin to emerge from the third.

Owl has been looking back at what was being posted on the “Watch” during March 2020. The posts record local events being overtaken by a faltering National and Local response to the Covid-19 pandemic as it emerged.

Local events start with the collapse of Flybe and a couple of examples of EDDC making massive “investments” of taxpayers money, despite recently having incurred the cost of the “cost neutral” move to Blackdown House. Support for “Independent” EDDC Leader Ben Ingham drains away and a new power group begins to emerge.

Very quickly the local shortage of hospital beds, particularly ICUs becomes evident, but Conservative Councillors stick their heads in the sand. Cllrs Martin Shaw and Claire Wright are among a very small group who continue to speak out.

Even after Lockdown when all the vulnerable are instructed to self-isolate by staying at home and not to move outside for any reason, Abbeyfield continues to close the Shandford Care Home in order to “free up assets”. 

Readers may recall the seemingly deliberate ambiguity of instructions and guidance being issued from No 10. This is reflected in the local response to closing holiday lets etc. Essentially Cornwall and North Devon take the lead but DCC and EDDC drag their feet. Indeed we have the bizarre situation at the end of the month when DCC says enforcement will be removed from many parking places including coastal and tourist destinations. Whilst the Police, having declared a major emergency, have been discouraging people from travelling to just these places as being “not in the spirit” of government emergency legislation.

Below Owl has extracted the more interesting headlines from the EDW March 2020 archive. In most cases they are self explanatory, but in some cases Owl has added further comment. Readers should remember that the EDW posting date may lag the original event report by a day or so which may be significant as events gather pace towards the end of the month. Owl has flagged up some of the nationally important key events to help place things in perspective.

Owl wonders how prospective County Councillors’ electioneering material will stand scrutiny against this body of evidence? 

Where were we at the beginning of March 2020?

March started in the “Contain” phase of a Coronavirus strategy summarised as: Contain, Delay, Research, Mitigate. In other words the government was pursuing a “Herd Immunity” strategy. However, we don’t have an adequate contact track and trace system. Conservative governments have allowed it to wither, and Public Health suffered under the Lansley reforms.

March 2 Boris Johnson attends his first Covid COBRA meeting, having missed the previous five.

(Too busy arranging his divorce amongst other things)

EDW March 3

“When states sell out to developers, housing is no longer a human right” (We need to be reminded where priorities lie, even in a pandemic)

EDW March 4 

“Where has the money come from for the new road?” (Eileen Wragg asks where the money for the “Queen’s Drive” realignment is coming from – gets same “No answer” from Ben Ingham as from previous Tory administration)

“Breaking news: Standard claims Flybe loan has been rejected”  (Flybe collapses a couple of days later)

March 5 We can no longer contain Covid-19, so move into the delay phase

Prof Chris Witty told MPs that the country is moving into the ‘delay phase’ of the government’s battle plan, which sets out action that would be considered as: ‘Distancing strategies – such as school closures, encouraging greater home working, reducing the number of large-scale gatherings – to slow the spread of the disease throughout the population’. Prof Whitty told MPs it is now ‘highly likely’ there is ‘community transmission’ of coronavirus in the country. He said: ‘I’m expecting the number only to go up, and there are now several – not large numbers – but several cases where we cannot see where this has come from in terms of a clear transmission, either because someone has come directly from overseas or because they’ve had a close contact with someone who has recently returned from overseas.

EDW March 6

Flybe’s owners did not put their money where their mouths were” 

“District council completes £2.7m purchase of Ocean” (Another major investment of “our” money made by the Ingham regime, more to come) 

“Axminster Carpets has been bought out of administration” 

“Flybe employees at risk of losing entire pensions” 

EDW March 7

Breaking News suspected Coronavirus EDDC HQ in lockdown” 

EDW March 8

“East Devon District Council offices to reopen after Coronavirus scare” (After “deep cleaning” )

“Coronavirus will brutally expose the effect of a decade of public service cuts ” (Warnings about the impact of a pandemic begin to circulate)

“MPs asked to solve social care crisis after Johnson admits he has no plan” 

EDW March 9

“More deep cuts loom as Devon’s NHS must save over £400m by 2024” (Money matters more than lives – how can we take this seriously in the knowledge of the cash later splashed around cronies and consultants?)

“Budget: cash for flood defences to be doubled – County Leader John Hart “off message”?” (Devon County Council Leader, John Hart’s solution to flooding, is to encourage a modern day dad’s army of individuals, villages and Parish Councils, where they care, to do more for themselves. Self-help, he said, is going to be the order of the day. Just weeks before the government announces a doubling of money in the budget!)

“£2.5m road improvements boost for East Devon ‘Airpark’ agreed by EDDC hours before Flybe collapse” 

March 10 Cheltenham Festival starts

The Festival opened on 10 March with at least 60,000 racegoers in attendance each afternoon, while 68,500 were at the track to see the Cheltenham Gold Cup on 13 March. Regarded in retrospect as a super spreading event 

EDW Same Day

“Coronavirus: Devon emerges as disease hotspot as first regional  breakdown of cases revealed” ( Related to skiing trips but ultimately contained) 

EDW March 11

“Villagers in Devon hotspot ‘going stir crazy’” (St Mary the Virgin church, Churston Ferrers, closed when a member of its 50-strong congregation tested positive on March 1. The Grammar School also closed for a week when one of its pupils who returned from a holiday in northern Italy tested positive for the virus. The villagers go “stir crazy”. A foretaste of what is to come.)

“National Park Update – Don’t mention it to EDDC” (Business as usual?)

“District council worker no longer displaying symptoms after Coronavirus scare” 

March 12 – We move into the “Delay” phase aka “Squash the Sombrero”

Boris Johnson announced new measures, including asking people with a cough or a temperature to stay at home.“I must level with you, I must level with the British public. Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”. Public health ceases testing in the community and retreats to testing principally within hospitals. We are now fighting the infection blind.

EDW March 14

“Johnson’s egocentric budget gives him everything and local councils nothing ” 

“Four County Councillors urge the Government to bring forward social distancing measures to reduce the impact of the Coronavirus” (County Councillors Claire Wright and Martin Shaw with two other members of the Health and Adult Care Scrutiny Committee issue a statement, starting: We are gravely concerned that the people of Devon are being excessively exposed to the threat of death through the coronavirus, because the Government is failing to introduce the social distancing measures needed to contain the epidemic. Going on th draw attention to the elderly population and shortage of ICU beds)

“Breaking news: Fifth Councillor joins plea to bring forward social distancing ” (They are now joined by a fifth councillor – the remaining County Councillors DO NOTHING)

EDW March 15

“Robert Jenrick plans for the future to get Britain building” (Another virus starts to spread)

“In the coronavirus crisis, our leaders are failing us – Gordon Brown” 

“Herd immunity: will the UK’s coronavirus strategy work?”

EDW March 16

“Coronavirus: health experts fear epidemic will ‘let rip’ through UK” 

“What’s happening with the Exmouth seafront redevelopment?” 

March 17 NHS cancels all non-emergency surgery

Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveils a package of financial measures, including loans worth £330 billion, to help businesses through the coronavirus crisis and furlough.

EDW Same day

“The five County Councillors’ intervention on Coronavirus last week now looks prophetic.” 

These five were doing their job, scrutinising Health and Well-Being policies as they affect our lives locally on our behalf. Until now the Government has been following a strategy at odds with WHO advice and markedly different from the rest of the world. This has now changed as that strategy has been subject to expert scrutiny and in the face of reality.

Proper and fearless scrutiny is an entirely constructive process.

Although this group stressed they were acting in a personal capacity, Owl notices that not one of the majority Conservative members of the committee joined them.

March 18 Schools close

EDW Same day

“A glimpse of hope in dark times? A new power grouping in EDDC” Councillors from the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Independent East Devon Alliance, and an Independent come together to form a new political group. – The Democratic Alliance. They are now the largest group in EDDC

“Coronavirus sees councils cancel meetings and ask public not to go to offices” 

March 19 A second super spreading event takes place

Liverpool v Atletico Madrid bringing 54,000 people into the old atmospheric streets, pubs, bars, shops, chippies and stadium, with 3,000 from Madrid,

EDW Same Day

“How huge regional differences in intensive care bed numbers threaten coronavirus postcode lottery” “The south west looks most vulnerable in terms of ratios. It has the oldest population (so highest expected mortality) and lowest number of critical care beds per head of population. The modelling suggests it needs six times more than currently exists there (600 per cent).”

“Blackdown House – Old Owl makes an observation” Open office working …. well, no door handles but a long way for a sneeze to travel – and that narrow, tall, council chamber has people sitting cheek to cheek …..!

“Scientists have been sounding the alarm on coronavirus for months. Why did Britain fail to act? ” 

March 20 Mr Johnson orders pubs and restaurants to close.

Cinemas, nightclubs, theatres, gyms and leisure centres are also told to shut their doors. But the government declined to go further – for example, forcing non-essential businesses to close. Instead, the prime minister announces a new programme to “shield” the 1.5 million people at highest risk – who will be asked to stay at home for 12 weeks.

EDW same day

“When this coronavirus crisis is over, the people won’t forget who tried to destroy the NHS” 

“Unintended consequences of mixed messages” (Concerning the hospitality sector – stay open or shut). Our two MP’s (and County leaders) have been silent on this.

EDW March 21

“Cornwall tells tourists to ‘stay away’ during coronavirus outbreak” 

“Devon and Cornwall Police have just declared a ‘major incident’” 

“If coronavirus really is a war, shouldn’t opposition parties be invited to join the effort?”

EDW March 22

“The NHS is not being “overwhelmed”.  It is paying the price for 10 years of austerity” 

“Coronavirus update: cabinet squabble over who is to be Leader’s ‘designated survivor’” (The significance of this will become apparent before the end of the month)

“Devon Council asks Government to address concerns over holiday parks” (In this case the North Devon District Council Chief Executive takes the lead, not until 6 April can Owl report that Devon County and East Devon join in – “better late than never”)

March 23: First lockdown announced 

Mr Johnson tells the UK public that they will only be allowed to leave their homes for limited reasons, including food shopping, exercise once per day, medical need and travelling for work when absolutely necessary. All shops selling non-essential goods are told to close, gatherings of more than two people in public are banned.

EDW Same Day

“Food banks are under threat due to coronavirus stockpiling and government inaction” 

“No 10 denies claim Dominic Cummings argued to ‘let old people die’” 

“‘These are not normal times’: MPs across Devon and Cornwall back #ComeBackLater”

EDW March 24

“Britain had a head start on Covid-19, but our leaders squandered it ” 

“East Devon libraries shut after U-turn on keeping self-service facilities open” 

EDW March 25

“A Tory MP Makes £100,000 A Year From A Company That Is Selling Private Coronavirus Tests For £120 Each” (Just the start!)

“The middle class are about to discover the cruelty of Britain’s benefits system ”

“NHS now likely to cope with coronavirus, says key scientist – Neil Ferguson” 

“Closure of East Devon’s offices and amenities” 

“Not too soon to make a provisional verdict: too little, too late” 

EDW March 26

“Coronavirus: Tracking app aims for one million downloads” (Ah – the first of the high tech, and high risk, “panaceas” announced)

“Scientific modelling is valuable – but remember the limitations – only we didn’t.” 

“Mixed messages from EDDC – shopping encouraged but parks, toilets and play areas shut! ” 

“Is EDDC the most irresponsible council in the country?” (Winter car parking rates extended until May across East Devon “in order to better support town centre businesses”.Owl wonders whether LINO (Leader in name only) Ben Ingham and his “Independent” sidekick Geoff Pook have completely lost their marbles.)

EDW March 27

“Coronavirus: Prime Minister Boris Johnson tests positive (tested very quickly – unlike other self-isolaters)”(But there is no designated survivor. The country is in great peril as he becomes severely ill. )

“Pandemic psychologist explains lavatory roll panic” 

EDW March 28

“Motorhome owner sent home from Devon after driving from Birmingham” 

“Despite a national lockdown care home residents are being shuffled from one home to another.” 

As the most vulnerable  in society were sent a letter instructing them to stay at home and not to move outside for any reason, the Shandford closure accelerated..

This relates to the closure of the Shandford Care Home in Budleigh. Owl found following this story through February and March, with some deeply personal accounts, utterly unbearable. Closing the home in normal circumstances was bad enough but to persist as the pandemic accelerated verges on the irresponsible. None of those involved: at Abbeyfield or County Councillor Christine Channon and her handpicked adviser Chris Davies intervened. To give him credit Simon Jupp tried, but to use a phrase coined by Sasha Swire: “Jumping Jupp Flash” jumped but failed to flash. 

The closure results from Abbeyfield’s declared aim of “freeing up assets” as it changes its business model to concentrate on larger homes. County Councillor Christine Channon tried to intervene during the autumn 2019 but her handpicked adviser Chris Davis claimed that Shandford was no longer viable in a report never made public. Owl received plausible arguments that there are grounds to challenge the case for non-viability. This heart wrenching saga can easily be followed by using “Shandford” in the EDW search box.

“Advice on protective gear for NHS staff was rejected owing to cost” 

EDW March 29

“Guided by the science – interview with No 10’s Infection guru” 

Although Professor Neil Ferguson is the man we can credit for persuading the government to make the screeching U-turn a couple of weeks ago. This passage from this interview with him by the Science Editor of the Times, worries Owl:

“Yet for other scientists the big problem with Ferguson’s model is that they cannot tell how it works. It consists of several thousand lines of dense computer code, with no description of which bits of code do what. Ferguson agreed this is a problem.

“For me the code is not a mess, but it’s all in my head, completely undocumented. Nobody would be able to use it . . . and I don’t have the bandwidth to support individual users.”

“‘We lobbied to stem the flow’ – MP praises efforts to ward off holidaymakers” Some of our MP’s did and some of ours didn’t. Owl has heard nothing about Neil Parish ‘s  views on this issue. Certainly EDDC didn’t take the firm lead shown by North Devon and North Norfolk District Council. More interested in business than in people? 

“Care homes refusing to take in patients ready to leave NHS hospitals” 

“Mass testing is the fastest route back to normal life” Jeremy Hunt, previous Health Secretary starts to criticise the government – the irony seem lost on him!

EDW March 30

“Mixed messages again, coronavirus crisis: Parking enforcement relaxed in Devon to help residents” 

DCC says enforcement will be removed from many parking places including coastal and tourist destinations.

Police seem to have other ideas and have declared a major incident.

Police have also been discouraging people from travelling to just these places as being “not in the spirit” of government emergency legislation. Does Cllr Stuart Hughes know what is going on?

“Government in talks over state takeover of Flybe?” False hopes – Collapsed airline Flybe’s administrator EY has denied reports that it is in negotiations with the government to buy the regional carrier out of bankruptcy in order to protect the UK’s battered aviation sector.

EDW March 31

Our social distancing is working, says Sir Patrick Vallance” Early indications that infection rates may no longer be doubling every three to four days. The infection rate peaks two weeks later. But the real pressure on the NHS has yet to come. There is a delay between patients becoming infected with Covid-19 and becoming sick enough to need hospital treatment. Sadly, many of those sick enough to be admitted to hospital then need intensive treatment lasting many weeks. The crunch comes in April.

Post Script

It is now estimated that the dithering and delays during March 2020 cost 21,000 lives compared to acting just one week earlier.