Tories accused of corruption and NHS privatisation by former chief scientist

Boris Johnson’s government has been accused of corruption, privatising the NHS by stealth, operating a “chumocracy” and mishandling the pandemic and climate crisis, by Sir David King, a former government chief scientist.

Fiona Harvey 

“I am extremely worried about the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, about the processes by which public money has been distributed to private sector companies without due process,” he told the Guardian in an interview. “It really smells of corruption.”

King contrasted the success of the vaccination programme, carried out by the NHS, with the failure of the government’s test-and-trace operation, which has been contracted out to private companies.

“The operation to roll out vaccination has been extremely successful, it was driven through entirely by our truly national health service and GP service – just amazing,” he said. “Yet we have persisted with this money for test and trace, given without competition, without due process … I am really worried about democratic processes being ignored.”

He said: “This is a so-called chumocracy, that has been a phrase used, and that is what it looks like I’m afraid: it is a chumocracy.”

Last May, King set up an independent alternative to the government’s Sage committee, which advises on the pandemic. The intention was for the unpaid members of Independent Sage to offer public advice without political influence, after it was revealed that Johnson’s then adviser Dominic Cummings had sat in on some Sage meetings.

King, a former professor of chemistry at Cambridge University, has a long history of working with governments of all stripes. He was appointed chief scientific adviser under Tony Blair in 2000, serving until 2008, and under the Tory-Lib Dem coalition was appointed chair of the Future Cities Catapult, launched in 2013. He also worked under Johnson as foreign secretary during Theresa May’s premiership.

King said: “He was my boss – he wrote me a handwritten letter to congratulate me on my climate success.”

King rejected the argument that the government had to act quickly to counter the pandemic and had been forced to ignore normal processes in doing so. “People say it’s a crisis – I say the government is using a crisis to privatise sections of the healthcare system in a way that is completely wrong,” he said. “A fraction of this money going to public services would have been far better results.”

He accused the government of acting deliberately to carry out ideological aims of privatising the NHS. “It is slipping this through in the name of a pandemic – effectively, to privatise the NHS by stealth,” he said. “I’m quite sure this has not been an accident, I’m quite sure this has been the plan, there has been clarity in this process. The audacity has been amazing.”

King, who has made the climate crisis one of his key areas of focus, is also concerned about the police and crime bill, which would give police the powers to shut down protests regarded as a nuisance.

He said: “It’s extremely worrying, as we pride ourselves in Britain on having developed a true democracy. Any democracy needs to give voice to dissent. There’s a real danger that we’re going down a pathway that leads away from democracy.”

King recently signed a letter calling on the supreme court to reconsider its pursuit of Tim Crosland, a campaigner against the third runway at Heathrow, for contempt of court. “I think he is being set up as an example to others,” said King. “It shows [the government’s] churlish attitude towards people campaigning.”

France to ban some domestic flights where train available

Does this signal the end of domestic flying, or will it be “saved” in the UK by a slow and fuel-dirty rail system connecting the regions, with all the investment concentrated on HS2? – Owl

Kim Willsher 

French MPs have voted to suspend domestic airline flights on routes that can be travelled by direct train in less than two and a half hours, as part of a series of climate and environmental measures.

After a heated debate in the Assemblée Nationale at the weekend, the ban, a watered-down version of a key recommendation from President Emmanuel Macron’s citizens’ climate convention was adopted.

It will mean the end of short internal flights from Orly airport, south of Paris, to Nantes and Bordeaux among others, though connecting flights through Charles de Gaulle/Roissy airport, north of the French capital, will continue.

The climate commission set up by Macron had originally recommended the scrapping of all flights between French destinations where an alternative direct train journey of less than four hours existed.

This was reduced to two and a half hours after strong objections from certain regions and from Air France-KLM, which, like other airlines, has been badly hit by local and international Covid-19 restrictions on travel.

A year ago, the French government agreed a €7bn loan for AF-KLM on the condition that certain internal flights were dropped, but the decree will also stop low-cost airlines from operating the banned domestic routes.

The chief executive of Air France-KLM, Benjamin Smith, has said the airline is committed to reducing the number of its French domestic routes by 40% by the end of this year.

The transport minister, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, told MPs: “We have chosen two and a half hours because four hours risks isolating landlocked territories including the greater Massif Central, which would be iniquitous.”

The measure, part of a climate and resilience bill, was passed despite cross-party opposition. The Socialist MP Joël Aviragnet said the measure would have a “disproportionate human cost” and warned of job losses in the airline sector. Other MPs, including from the Green party, complained that watering down the climate convention’s recommendation had made the measure meaningless.

Mathilde Panot, of the hard left La France Insoumise, said the measure had been “emptied”, while her colleague Danièle Obono said retaining the four-hour threshold would have made it possible to halt routes that “emit the most greenhouse gases”.

The French consumer association UFC-Que Choisir had called on MPs to retain the four-hour recommendation and give the new law “some substance … while also putting in place safeguards that [French national rail] SNCF will not seize the opportunity to artificially inflate its prices or degrade the quality of rail service.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating pre-existing environmental and social crises. It must lead us to rethink our health policies in order to face the challenge of future health crises of infectious origin.”

It added that banning domestic flights if a direct train alternative of fewer than four hours existed it would have a “real impact” on reducing CO2 emissions and would not adversely affect travel times or prices.

“On average, the plane emits 77 times more CO2 per passenger than the train on these routes, even though the train is cheaper and the time lost is limited to 40 minutes,” it said. “Our study shows that … the government’s choice actually aims to empty the measure of its substance.”

Details of the exact routes that will be halted will be published in the official decree. Flights from Paris to Nice, which takes about six hours by train, and Toulouse, four hours by train, will continue.

France’s new law will be watched closely by other countries. Austria’s coalition conservative-green government introduced a €30 tax on airline tickets for flights of less than 217 miles (350km) last June and a ban on domestic flights that could be travelled in less than three hours by train.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands has been trying since June 2013 to ban short domestic flights. In 2019, Dutch MPs voted to ban flights between Schiphol airport in Amsterdam and Zaventem airport in Brussels, a distance of 93 miles. However, the ban was seen as breaking European commission free-movement regulations and was not implemented.

Is a party that sells police stations to criminals so very tough on crime? 

“..Let one anecdote stand in for the bigger picture. The Tories sold half the magistrates’ courts and more than a third of county courts in England and Wales between 2010 and 2020, and about 600 police stations. The same government is engaged in a screeching U-turn today and trying to deal with the tens of thousands of Covid-delayed trials by opening “Nightingale courts”, although I doubt that Florence Nightingale would have sent the lowliest British soldier in Crimea to our fetid prisons.

Bewildered detectives reported to former chief crown prosecutor Nazir Afzal that a police station in the north-west was included in the fire sale and an organised crime group bought it. The gang run it as a pizza restaurant and a front for the distribution of drugs – “extra toppings”. Afzal tells me police intelligence heard the gangsters “crowing” about getting one over on their old adversaries….” (extract)

Full article here: Nick Cohen 

Property developer plans 5,000 UK retirement homes in city centres

Is this the start of the “New Normal”? – Owl

A property developer owned by a French investment management group has announced an ambitious £2bn plan to build 5,000 retirement homes across 40 urban sites in the UK over the next decade.

Julia Kollewe 

As town and city centres are being reshaped as a result of the changes to UK high streets accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, Retirement Villages Group (RVG) said it had won planning permission for a £110m retirement community of 196 one and two-bed apartments to rent or buy in central West Byfleet in Surrey, on the site of a 1960s office block with shops and a car park, which will be knocked down.

In its first move into north-west England, the company, which was acquired by Axa Investment Managers’ property arm in 2017, has also won the go-ahead for a new £65m village of 147 retirement homes on the site of a former garden centre in Chester, 10 minutes from the town centre.

The sites are being developed in response to rising demand from people aged over 65 looking to downsize from their family homes, and keen to live close to town and city centres. Construction will start on both sites this summer and the homes are expected to be put for sale or rental off-plan towards the end of next year.

The homes will be centred around a community square, and residents will have access to a restaurant or cafe, wellness centre with gym and swimming pool, library and support and care services if needed.

Traditionally, retirement villages have been built in rural areas as “gated communities”, but a number of firms have embarked on constructing apartment blocks designed for elderly people in urban areas, taking advantage of empty retail and office sites.

Legal & General has set out plans to build 3,000 retirement homes in UK city centres in a £2bn project in coming years, in an attempt to revive ailing high streets.

The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a surge in online shopping and exacerbated the decline of big city centre high streets. Many office workers have been instructed to work from home since the outbreak a year ago, prompting companies to draw up long-term plans for more home or hybrid working, split between home and the office.

There is a shortage of purpose-built retirement housing in the UK. A report published last year by Cass Business School, the Association of Retirement Community Operators and the Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation found that just 7,000 new homes designed for older people are built each year. This, it concluded, is “insufficient to serve the 180,000, 65-plus households that will be created each year over the next decade”.

RVG was set up in 1981 to build housing-with-care and today runs 16 sites with 1,500 retirement homes in the UK. In 2017, it was acquired by Axa Investment Managers’ alternative investments and property arm.

Dozens of NHS clinical services axed weekly over state of hospitals – figures

More than 100 NHS treatments or “clinical services” were axed or postponed every week last year because of poor maintenance of hospitals and other health service buildings.

Ben Glaze

Labour research uncovered the “number of incidents caused by estates and infrastructure failure which resulted in clinical services being delayed, cancelled or otherwise interfered with owing to problems or failures related to the estates and infrastructure failure”.

House of Commons Library analysis of latest NHS Digital data shows 5,908 incidents in 2019/20 – up 23% from a year earlier when there were 4,810.

It means an average of 113 incidents each week, or 16 a day.

Clinical service incidents can be caused by power supply problems, equipment failures, waste management issues or problems with heating or flooding.

An NHS intensive care unit was evacuated last month amid fears its roof could collapse.

Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Kings Lynn, Norfolk, declared a critical incident.

Labour plans to tackle Health Secretary Matt Hancock over a £9billion NHS-wide maintenance backlog when ministers answer departmental questions in the Commons on Tuesday.

Shadow Health Minister Justin Madders said: “These figures reveal the true cost to patients of years of underfunding in the NHS.

“Waiting lists were already at record levels pre-Covid and have got worse in the last year and so additional delays and cancellations because the Government has failed to support basic maintenance and infrastructure costs are unacceptable.

“Patients should not be suffering longer in pain because of this.

“The Government’s record on hospitals is shameful.

“Instead of improving or maintaining basic hospital facilities they’re letting the repair bill grow and grow.”

According to NHS Providers senior policy officer Patrick Garratt, the maintenance backlog bill rose by 40% between 2018/19 and 2019/20, from £6.4bn to £9bn.

The Department of Health was approached for comment.

Owl inadvertently lost a recent comment

If you recently made a comment that wasn’t posted please accept Owl’s apologies and re-send it to Owl’s email. (Owl thinks it related to the solar farm post)

Owl gets a lot of spam and very occasionally a genuine comment gets dumped in the spam bin. This time it coincided with one of those occasions when, overnight, WordPress updates the blog admin pages to give them a completely “new look”, leaving Owl’s wings flapping and head spinning. In the learning process the comment got deleted.

Moral of the story is: never try to teach an Old Owl new tricks!

Abingdon Health: We’re going to court – Good Law Project

Another Judicial Review joins the queue.

9 April 

Last week, the High Court granted permission to advance our case against Government for its award of contracts to Abingdon Health for rapid antibody tests. The deal with Abingdon Health has been marred by controversy since the very beginning, with Government suppressing reports that raised the alarm around the effectiveness of the tests and ignoring their own legal advice on the lawfulness of the contracts.

The High Court has now agreed that we can argue our case on the following grounds:

  • there was apparent bias in the award of contracts by Government, given the role the Government’s own scientific advisor Professor Sir John Bell played in securing the deal for Abingdon Health. The Judge observed that Professor Sir John Bell was on ‘both sides of the contract’, given his role both as a key Government advisor and also as a significant figure in the UK Rapid Testing Consortium, which acted as subcontractor to Abingdon Health; 
  • Government awarded the contracts to Abingdon Health unlawfully by giving preferential treatment to Abingdon Health because it was a British company; 
  • the decision to award the contracts to Abingdon Health breached the obligations of equal treatment, transparency and proportionality because Government failed to undertake any transparent or lawful process at all in respect of the award of the contracts;
  • the contract awards led to the grant of unlawful state aid (including Government subsidies for research and components), for which no justification whatsoever has been put forward;
  • Government acted irrationally when awarding contracts to Abingdon Health. In particular, the first contract stated that the tests had to be tested and deemed fit for use by the regulator by a certain date. The date came and went without the tests being validated, yet Government pressed ahead with another contract. 

The full transcript of the judgment can be found here

Until now, Government has refused to engage meaningfully with our case. It was noted several times by the Judge that it was not possible to consider points in detail because of the lack of evidence provided by Government. But the Court’s decision last week means that Government will no longer be able to fob us off. In particular, it will be forced to disclose details of the decision-making process – and the role of Professor Sir John Bell – as part of these proceedings. 

It is perhaps not surprising then that Government is once again estimating an eye-watering bill to defend this case – around £670,000. Despite these huge costs, we will not be deterred. We have applied for a cost capping order so we can continue to push for answers.

This deal has been shrouded in mystery since the very beginning. If you are in a position to donate to the legal challenge, you can help uncover the truth: 

Oldies Stockpiling Space Deepens Housing Crisis 

The percentage of younger generations owning a home has declined since 2003, ownership by the over–55s has held steady, while the over–65s have increased their share.

There are now 5.5 million second homes in England – a 50% increase between 2011 and 2020 – and they are owned primarily by older people.

This skewing of incentives to purchase property as an investment rather than to put a roof over one’s head has broad economic consequences as well. It locks funds to property rather than into more economically productive uses such as business and industrial investment. As a result we impoverish ourselves twice over with overpriced property and an underperforming economy. – Owl  

Intergenerational Foundation (contains link to full report)

COVID-19 has exacerbated housing inequalities between the young and the old according to new research from the Intergenerational Foundation. While younger generations have lost their jobs, their homes and even their mental health during COVID-19, older generations have stockpiled space.

There are now 5.5 million second homes in England – a 50% increase between 2011 and 2020 – and they are owned primarily by older people. According to the think tank, 52% of owners now under-occupy their homes, with housing assets and space passing from renters to owners and from younger generations to older generations. 

The report, which investigates the growing inequalities in housing assets and housing space between renters and owners, between rich and poor, and most significantly between older and younger generations, concludes that England now has two housing nations. The first nation is older, well-housed, often well-off, with space to work and self-isolate. The second nation is younger and live in cramped flats or shared homes with little or no access to outside space.

The report reveals that while the percentage of younger generations owning a home has declined since 2003, ownership by the over–55s has held steady, while the over–65s have increased their share. 

As previous research has shown, as the pandemic has unfolded access to space has driven demand, with older and well-off people buying up larger and more expensive properties in larger numbers. London has led the trend with purchases of second homes outside the capital up 309% over 2019.

Furthermore, space inequality has also increased, with owner-occupied homes enjoying a third more space (108m2) on average than privately rented homes (76m2) and almost double the space as a social home, and just 7% of 55–65 year-olds reporting a lack of outside space compared to 21% of 25–34 year-olds. 

Previous IF research has revealed that, on a country level, before the pandemic struck, more than 1 million children were living in households with one bedroom less than the bedroom standard. Add a pandemic, and these households have experienced less space to move around in than older, more privileged households.

Colin Wiles, report author, comments, “As these figures make plain, as well as a housing affordability crisis, we have an under-occupation crisis. The failure to build enough new affordable homes for the young, combined with government policies that prevent the release of land, tackle the Green Belt, or build retirement homes for the old, have conspired to choke supply, push up prices, and encourage older generations to put off downsizing.

Angus Hanton IF Co-founder, add, “While some progress has been made on levelling the playing field between property investors and first-time-buyers, the government could do much more to incentivise the nation to use our housing stock better. The abolition of the council tax regime and the introduction of fairer property taxation, stamp duty holidays for downsizers, and a commitment to gently lower house prices for the young, are all tools available to policymakers, yet here we are, a decade later, revealing a worsening picture.” 

• All figures are for England 

• The Bedroom Standard is a measure used to analyse the difference between the number of bedrooms needed to avoid undesirable sharing (given the number, ages, and relationship of the household members) and the number of bedrooms actually available to the household.

• Sources: English Housing Survey Tables FA1422; FT1101; FA5401

• Purchase price changes: Office for National Statistics (2020) Living Longer: Changes in housing tenure over time.

• SDLT Transactions: HMRC UK Stamp Duty Tax statistics Table 6c

• London figures from Knight Frank