Police called to Travellers at Sidford rugby pitch – live updates

A large group from the Traveller community has arrived at a rugby pitch in Sidford this afternoon, and police are in attendance.

Alex Green www.devonlive.com (also features in the print edition of The Times)

Photos show a large number of vehicles, including cars and caravans, with a police car in attendance as people look on at the pitch from the edge.

Peter O’Brien, Honorary Secretary at Sidmouth Rugby Club – which uses the Sidford pitch – said that the club is aware of the situation, and informed us that the authorities had been informed.

He said that the most worrying part was the potential that the pitch, which has seen money invested in it to get it into top-quality condition, could be damaged.

Peter said: “The club is aware of it, and has informed the authorities. It’s not our pitch, it belongs to the East Devon Council.

“Obviously it’s not good for us because of the amount of money we’ve spent. Hopefully they won’t be damaging it, but I heard about some damage caused at Topsham recently, so it may well be.

“We would have the council repair them if they were damaged, but we’ve spent a lot of money to get the pitches to the quality they’re at. As I said, we’ve informed the authorities, but there’s not much we can do.”

We have approached Devon and Cornwall Police for more information on this matter.

We’ll keep you updated on this with all the latest developments and photos from the scene via the live news blog below.

Key Events

16:43Alex Green

Sidmouth Rugby Club is ‘aware’ and has informed the authorities

Peter O’Brien, Honorary Secretary at Sidmouth Rugby Club – which uses the Sidford pitch – said that the club is aware of the situation, and informed us that the authorities had been informed.

He said that the most worrying part was the potential that the pitch, which has seen money invested in it to get it into top-quality condition, could be damaged.

Peter said: “The club is aware of it, and has informed the authorities. It’s not our pitch, it belongs to the East Devon Council.

“Obviously it’s not good for us because of the amount of money we’ve spent. Hopefully they won’t be damaging it, but I heard about some damage caused at Topsham recently, so it may well be.

“We would have the council repair them if they were damaged, but we’ve spent a lot of money to get the pitches to the quality they’re at. As I said, we’ve informed the authorities, but there’s not much we can do.”


More photos of the Travellers pitched up in Sidford

Travellers arriving at a rugby pitch in Sidford (Image: Submitted)

Paramedics declare critical incident due to extreme pressure

South Western Ambulance Service has declared a critical incident due to “extreme pressures” currently on paramedics in the region.

Sam Beamish www.devonlive.com

The NHS Foundation Trust has tweeted that some patients may need to wait longer for an ambulance while others might need to seek help elsewhere.

Patients are also being urged to only dial 999 if they’re in a life-threatening emergency.

The statement on Twitter does not give an explanation as to what the extreme pressures are that the service is dealing with, but people are being urged to “make the right call”.

A spokesman for South Western Ambulance Service said: “We have declared a critical incident due to extreme pressures on our service.

“As a result, some patients may wait longer for an ambulance while others could be advised to access alternative services if their call is not life-threatening.

“We need you to only call 999 in a genuine, life-threatening emergency so we can help those most in need.”

South Western Ambulance Service responds to around 2,650 emergency incidents a day.

The service is encouraging people to contact NHS 111 if you have a non-life threatening but urgent medical problem, for example, broken or fractured bones, sprains or burns.

There are also a number of other NHS services available.

South Western Ambulance Service has been approached for further comment on the situation.

Staycation boom forces tenants out of seaside resort homes

The lockdown shackles are off. The great half-term getaway began with predictable traffic chaos on Friday night as Britons finally got the chance to escape to the seaside.

James Tapper www.theguardian.com

But some people living in the resorts are being forced to head in the opposite direction along the clogged-up roads, priced out of their homes by a coastal housing crisis that has been turbocharged by the pandemic.

Landlords in popular seaside destinations are favouring holidaymakers over long-term tenants, leading to a catastrophic shortage of homes. Cornwall currently has more than 10,290 active Airbnb listings. Yet, in comparison, the housing website Rightmove had only 62 properties available to rent across the whole county on Friday evening. Renters in seaside towns are facing unprecedented competition, with some landlords in Cornwall, Kent and Norfolk given the choice between up to 80 prospective tenants chasing a dwindling number of properties.

People who kept their jobs and accumulated some of the estimated £192bn that Britons have saved since March 2020 have been spending it on second homes. Others have moved away from cities, taking advantage of the stamp duty holiday to find a place large enough to make working from home a comfortable option.

Airbnbs are also booming, with the number of active listings on the website up by 43% in Great Yarmouth, 34% in Scarborough and 40% in Bridlington in April compared with the same time last year, according to AirDNA.

Louise, a 42-year-old deputy headteacher, moved from Leicester to Newquay in Cornwall with her husband, a delivery driver, and two daughters in December to take up a job at a primary school. “We started looking in September last year,” she said. “

We sold two properties – I had one and my partner had his. We’ve got a decent deposit, but there was nowhere to buy and nowhere to rent. Estate agents told us that hundreds of people were fighting for the same properties.”

They settled for an off-season Airbnb at a cost of £1,300 a month – just about manageable on her salary of more than £40,000. “I was sure we’d find somewhere but it hasn’t happened. We had to be out last week because the owner would double her money in holiday season.”

On Saturday, Louise and her family packed up and drove back to Leicester to stay with her parents over half-term, with nowhere to live when they return.

The crisis has forced even those who would normally be considered comfortably off to resort to food banks to feed their families. DISC Newquay, a charity for homeless people, was handing out 60 meals on a Monday evening before the pandemic. That has risen to 4,000, according to its manager, Monique Collins. “I think there are over 500 people in the Newquay area who don’t have a home,” Collins said. “I’ve got a pregnant woman who is sofa-surfing. A hospital porter and his wife. I’ve had a girl text me today saying she has to leave by the weekend. People are being turned out because their landlord wants to turn the property into an Airbnb.

“There are no homes. If they don’t stop this second-home ownership, it’s going to turn Newquay into a ghost town.”

Cornwall’s reputation and climate have made it a favoured location for second homes for many years, but Collins said lockdown had turned the situation into a crisis.

House prices have risen by 15% across the county since April last year, but the buying frenzy has seen extraordinary situations – a bungalow sold for £315,000 five minutes after it was listed, according to local reports.

That mirrors a nationwide trend. Rob Love, co-founder of Crowdfunder, which is based in Cornwall, said they had seen nine times as many food bank projects registering for help between 2019 and the pandemic hitting in 2020.

He said: “Cornwall has been badly hit, but food bank use is rising everywhere. It’s a terrible indictment on the UK in 2021 that so many people are struggling to put food on their tables.”

In north Norfolk, Theo Wakeman said he had only been able to view three flats since he started hunting in the Cromer area a year ago. “The estate agents will say, ‘We’ll take your number but we’ve had 80 other applicants’. It’s never less than 20. It’s horrible. I feel trapped.”

The Norfolk coastline from Blakeney to Burnham is known as Chelsea-on-Sea to locals. “The village shop shut down, and now it’s reopened as a hat shop,” Wakeman said. “You can’t buy a loaf of bread, but you can buy a hat.”

Kent’s seaside towns are showing similar scarcity for renters, according to Rightmove. Margate (population: 61,000) and Whitstable ( 32,000) both had 11 properties to rent, and Herne Bay (39,000) had six. Inland, Canterbury (135,000) had 893.

Dan Thompson has lived in Margate in Kent for nine years after being priced out of Worthing in Sussex, but the 47-year-old artist and writer says he is being forced out again.

“I don’t want to go but there’s nowhere to rent here,” he said. “My landlord is selling and there is literally nothing to rent here. I just don’t have a choice.”

Tory plan to turn town hall blue ‘sets a dangerous precedent’

Plans to turn a town hall blue in Darlington to match the council’s ruling Tory group’s colours set a “dangerous precedent” opponents have claimed.

A “Rainbow” Blackdown House? – Owl

BBC News www.bbc.co.uk 

Darlington Town Hall

Plans to turn Darlington Town Hall blue have not been universally popular among councillors: image Google

They said Darlington Borough Council’s £20,000 rebranding would undermine the position of non-political staff.

Conservative deputy leader Jonathan Dulston said the changes reflected an overhaul of the council’s identity.

The town hall’s concrete exterior has not changed since it was opened in 1970 by the Princess Royal.

Labour shadow portfolio holder Nick Wallis said the “botched rebranding” could lead to long-term damage to the council’s reputation.

“They are fixated with PR and the promotion of themselves at all costs,” he said.

“They don’t care about wasting public money if they believe it advances their political interests.”

‘Palette of colours’

The rebranding plans include painting the concrete outside wall of the town hall and changing the authority’s logo to reflect what the council called a “progressive agenda”, the Local Democracy Reporting Service said.

Assets featuring the council’s logo, such as bins, would only be updated during scheduled works or when they needed replacing, Mr Dulston said.

In-house skills and resources had been used, keeping costs to a minimum, he added.

Green Party leader Matthew Snedker said council building paintwork and coronavirus publicity had already changed to blue and further works set “a very dangerous precedent”.

Publicising it on social media before it had been approved by cabinet appeared “to do away with the political process”, he said.

Liberal Democrat group leader Anne Marie Curry said the town hall needed to remain a politically neutral colour and there was a “massive palette of colours they could choose from”.

1,250 new Exeter student flats approved on campus

“Best way to reverse the trend of family homes being occupied by students.” 

Was pressure to find student accommodation one of the driving forces behind the “Greater Exeter Strategic Plan” (GESP) and Exeter’s expansion?

Daniel Clark, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk

They’ll replace existing campus accommodation.

Plans for an extra 1,250 student flats on the University of Exeter campus have been given the go ahead.

The development of the Clydesdale, Nash and Birks Grange Village halls of residence off Stocker Road, has been overwhelmingly supported by Exeter City Council’s planning committee.

Councillors agreed with planning officers recommendation of approval, saying that purpose-built accommodation on the university campus was the best way to reverse the trend of family homes being occupied by students.

Backing the plans, Cllr Rachel Sutton said that it was for the redevelopment of a part of the campus which already accommodates students. She added: “Yes it is at a greater density, but I am quite certain that there are residents in other parts of the city who will welcome this as it means housing currently occupied by students comes back into occupation by families.”

Cllr Ruth Williams added: “The only way to reverse the trend is to build more purpose built student accommodation so we have to recognise if we want to halt the loss of family homes in Exeter, this is what we have to do in providing purpose built student accommodation.”

But Cllr Michael Mitchell said that he was concerned about the building density and the scale of the current proposals and the impact on residents. He added: “This is a massive increase in floorspace and student numbers in the area and up to 1,200 extra bed spaces, on top of what  already exists on site. I don’t have confidence that for local residents this wouldn’t be overpowering and overshadowing and it needs to be scaled back to get my support.”

The outline proposals were approved by 10 votes to one, although councillors called for further discussions around the impact of light pollution.

The planning officers said: “Given the recent number of student accommodation schemes submitted in off-campus locations, the proposal for such a significant number of bed spaces within a sustainable location on campus is to be welcomed. It is accepted that the quantum of development proposed is substantial, however, it is considered that the parameter plans effectively limit the level of development to an acceptable scale.

“The proposed building heights to accommodate this would have a considerable impact on the character and appearance of the area, however, it is an accepted planning practice that where development is considered acceptable in principle, most efficient use of the land should be sought.

“In addition, the Passivhaus approach to the scheme is to be welcomed and is accepted will in some instances dictate the orientation, form and design of the resultant buildings.”

The application will see:

  • The demolition of the existing two and three storey buildings at Clydesdale and Nash Halls and replaced with new student accommodation ranging in height from three to eight storeys. These buildings will include ancillary service such as shops, cafes at the ground floor level and arranged in courtyard settings with associated hard and soft landscaping.
  • The demolition of the existing service centre and replace with student accommodation buildings varying in height from three to four storeys, with a replacement estates service centres to be located to north east part of the University campus
  • The demolition of the existing Birks Grange refectory building and construction of a new six storey student accommodation building, with ancillary social and amenity space on the ground floor.
  • Refurbishment of existing accommodation block A-E of the Birks Grange to achieve equivalent Passivhaus standards to include external alterations to the walls, windows and roof to include solar panels. The demolition of the refectory removes catered halls from this part of the campus, resulting in the need for new kitchens within each flats and which as a consequence reduces the overall number of units.

They are even Changing the Guard in leafy Surrey!

Spelthorne Conservatives ousted from leader and mayor roles

Julie Armstrong http://www.getsurrey.co.uk

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The Conservatives have been ousted from four major roles on Spelthorne Borough Council as a new style of administration was voted in.

John Boughtflower, who has been leader since last June, had the support of all his Conservative colleagues in Thursday’s annual meeting, but 18 Tories are outnumbered by 21 councillors in opposition and Cllr Boughtflower lost the vote to the Liberal Democrats’ Lawrence Nichols.

Despite the opposition being made up of seven different groups, they all also stuck together to choose Joanna Sexton, leader of Independent Spelthorne Group, as deputy leader over Conservative Jim McIlroy.

Independent councillor Ian Beardsmore said: “Just as a historical note, this is the first time in the history of Spelthorne the Conservatives have lost five major votes in a row. I am delighted.”

Cllr Boughtflower fought off a motion of no confidence less than three months ago when the Liberal Democrats and Labour decided to abstain.

The role of council leader has since changed, as Spelthorne council introduces the more democratic committee system, a bottom-up approach.

Decisions will now be made by all members in full council, not just a select few of the ruling party in a cabinet chosen by one person. Expect them to take longer, but everyone who won their ward’s vote will have a say.

Cllr Tom Fidler, who seconded Cllr Nichols for leader, said: “Had we operated under the strong leader model, this would never have been appropriate for Lawrence, because that is not the person he is.

“For him it isn’t about the power, it’s not about the title, it’s about the corporate responsibility.”

Cllr Nichols was accountable for more than £500 million of trade credit risk in his former role as director for a Royal Bank of Scotland subsidiary.

In recognition of the leader’s role no longer including executive responsibilities, the Independent Remuneration Panel has recommended reducing his allowance from £14,616 to £11,000, in addition to the £6,403 allowance received by all councillors.

Ian Harvey elected as 2021-22 mayor

Continuing the trend of removing Conservatives, Ian Harvey outraged some councillors by breaking with tradition to challenge the deputy mayor for the role of mayor – and won.

Proposer Olivia Rybinski, also from the United Spelthorne Group, said Cllr Harvey had “protected Spelthorne council from financial disaster” by making “investments that now generate over half the net council income”.

Normally, after a year of supporting and understudying the mayor, Tony Harman would have progressed to the position.

Cllr Tony Mitchell, who proposed Conservative Cllr Harman for mayor, said: “I have known only once, in 2002, that there was another nomination against the councillor who was to be the mayor.”

He said Cllr Harman had been a “mediating force” as deputy to Cllr Harvey’s recent council leadership and “without his support, Cllr Harvey might not have been able to maintain his role as leader”.

On accepting the robes, Cllr Harvey thanked Cllr Harman for his support to outgoing mayor Colin Barnard.

As mayor, Cllr Harvey will chair all full council meetings for the coming year. He said: “It is unfortunate that we are in such a fractious and divided situation. It is my desire that we can operate in an atmosphere of constructive cooperation and civility and preferably with cordiality. I will do my best to further this.”

He promised that where it was necessary to use the mayor’s casting vote in a tie position, it would not be decided along political lines.

He has not yet chosen his charity of the year but said he wanted to help young people with special educational needs.

Cllr Sue Doran, leader of the Labour group, was elected as deputy mayor.

Pressure grows on Matt Hancock over Covid policy for care homes

Guardian reports on Dr Cathy Gardner’s demand that the health secretary now releases crucial internal documents.

Robert Booth www.theguardian.com

Matt Hancock is facing further pressure over the measures put in place to protect care homes early in the coronavirus pandemic following allegations from Dominic Cummings that he misled the prime minister over the issue.

A woman whose father died of Covid in a care home that admitted an infected hospital patient is demanding that the health secretary release crucial internal documents about his risk assessment before thousands of people were discharged into care homes without tests.

The move is part of a potentially explosive high court case against Hancock, the NHS Commissioning Board and Public Health England scheduled for a three-day trial in October. It is likely to shed new light on this week’s claim and counter-claim between the prime minister’s former chief adviser and Hancock over care homes policy in the first weeks of the pandemic.

Cathy Gardner, who lost her father, Michael Gibson last April, said her lawyer was seeking the key documents before the autumn hearing to decide whether the discharge policy had broken the law. Government research this week concluded that hospital discharges had caused 286 Covid deaths, but the actual toll is likely to be significantly higher when fatalities who were not tested before death are counted.

Cummings told MPs about a discussion in government of the risks associated with the discharge policy, which he recalled as “Basically, ‘Hang on, this sounds really dangerous, are we sure?’”

He said the view was that there was no alternative because of the need to free up NHS beds to deal with the coming wave of patients. Crucially, he said, Hancock assured him and the prime minister that people who were being discharged into care homes from hospital would be tested.

Hancock responded on Thursday by saying he had told Downing Street they would be tested when sufficient capacity was available. He said it hadn’t been possible to test hospital discharges at the start of the pandemic, but he put that capacity in place.

Government guidance issued on 2 April 2020 said: “Negative tests are not required prior to transfers/admissions into the care home.”

The UK already had capacity for 10,000 daily tests at the start of April 2020, but Hancock said “we had to prioritise it by clinical need”. Between 17 March and 15 April, when tests were finally required before admission into care homes, around 25,000 people were discharged from hospitals into facilities, the National Audit Office has found.

The row has left people bereaved by Covid angry and frustrated at a lack of transparency. “People need the facts, instead of all this ‘He said, she said’,” said Gardner.

Gardner alleges that Hancock, the NHS Commissioning Board and Public Health England contravened the European convention on human rights, the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act when their policies allowed people to be discharged into care homes without being tested. The health bodies strongly dispute the claim.

Political allies backed Hancock on Friday. The business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, said care home residents “were protected as far as we could. We were absolutely focused at that time on saving as many lives as possible”.

But Sam Monaghan, the chief executive of MHA, the UK’s largest provider of not-for-profit care homes, which lost 121 residents to Covid in the three weeks to 7 April 2020, described the discharge strategy as “like putting kind of a live explosive into a box of tinder”.

Sarah Knowles, whose father Graham died of Covid in a Manchester care home on 27 April 2020, said the policy was “just wrong” and highlighted other vulnerabilities. She said her father’s carers were improvising face masks from plastic document folders in April.

“They should have had PPE,” she said. “It makes me angry. If people were discharged into the care homes, they should have been tested.”

Amos Waldman, 41, whose grandmother Sheila Lamb died of Covid on 2 April 2021 in a care home in north London, said: “It feels as though they are trying to cover their own backs with one eye on the future public inquiry.”

The Department for Health and Social Care has been approached for comment.

Mid Devon District Council gets £50K to develop “Beautiful” design codes

  • 14 councils across England given £50,000 each to develop new design codes [includes Mid Devon]
  • Codes will set out design principles for new development in local areas
  • Local design codes will be expected to enhance the character of the local area – for example by using honey-coloured stone in the Cotswolds or red brick in the Midlands
  • Selected areas will test how to give communities a real say in the layout, design and appearance of buildings in their area – helping the country Build Back Better

[Is six months long enough for a serious trial? – Owl]


A new national design code meaning areas are beautiful, well-designed and locally-led is being tested across 14 areas in England, Housing Minister Rt Hon Christopher Pincher has announced today (21 May 2021).

The code will ensure future developments are beautiful and fit in with local character.

It gives local planning authorities a toolkit of design principles to consider for new developments, such as street character, building type and façade as well as environmental, heritage and wellbeing factors

The shortlisted councils [includes Mid Devon – Owl] will take part in a 6-month testing programme to apply the National Model Design Code (NMDC) in their area and help Britain Build Back Better, by making sure current and new residents alike will benefit from beautiful homes in well-designed neighbourhoods.

It is intended to provide councils with the guidance and parameters to shape new developments in a way which reflects what their communities truly want.

The measures mean the word “beauty” will be prioritised in planning rules for the first time since the system was created in 1947 – going back to a previous time when there was a greater emphasis on whether a building was considered attractive to local people. The government recently consulted on changes to the National Planning Policy Framework to take this forward, alongside the draft NMDC.

The Conservative Party received tens of thousands of pounds from non-existent companies

  • EXCLUSIVE: The Conservative Party accepted tens of thousands of pounds from companies that had been struck off, an investigation by Insider has found.
  • Tory politicians, including one currently serving government ministers, received the donations.
  • Political parties are obliged to carry out checks on any company offering them a donation.
  • Labour is calling for the Electoral Commission to launch an urgent investigation.
  • “This just doesn’t pass the smell test,” Labour Party chair Anneliese Dodds told Insider.

Henry Dyer www.businessinsider.com

The Conservative Party pocketed nearly £30,000 from companies that were no longer trading at the time the donations were made, an analysis of Electoral Commission records and Companies House data by Insider has found.

Under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, UK political parties can only receive donations from actively trading companies and they are obliged to carry out permissibility checks on all donations from companies.

However, Insider’s investigation has found four donations from three companies that official records show were either dissolved or in the process of dissolution, with two of the donations received by currently serving government ministers.

Following Insider’s findings, the opposition Labour party called for an official investigation into the donations.

Anneliese Dodds MP, Chair of the Labour Party, told Insider: “This just doesn’t pass the smell test. The Conservatives need to explain why it seems they pocketed tens of thousands of pounds from companies that only existed on paper.

“The rules are clear: political parties must check that companies making donations are carrying on business in the UK. The Electoral Commission must launch an urgent investigation to find out what’s happened here – and any breaches of the law should be punished fully.”

Two donations received by a government minister

The first donation identified by Insider was to Wendy Morton, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Aldridge-Brownhills, and a junior minister in the Foreign Office, from a company called Unionist Buildings.

Companies House records show that Unionist Buildings was struck off the register on 17 January 2017, following an application, filed on 21 October 2016, by its directors.

However, Electoral Commission records show Morton’s local association received £6,000 from Unionist Buildings on 2 June 2017, less than a week before the 2017 general election. The donation was accepted on 5 June 2017.

Nearly three years after Unionist Buildings was struck off the register, Morton declared a further £4,000 received by her local Conservative association from Unionist Buildings and registered on 9 January 2020. Her entry also contains the £6,000 donation from 2017.

At the time Morton received the £4,000 donation in January 2020, she was a junior minister in the Ministry of Justice.

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by Unionist Buildings, who did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication. Morton did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication either.

Donations were received from dissolved companies

Another donation was received from a company whose sole director was Conservative minister Charlotte Vere.

Vere is a Conservative life peer and a junior minister in the Department for Transport.

Companies House records for the firm Conservatives In, established to support the Remain vote in the 2016 Brexit Referendum, show it was struck off the register on 2 May 2017 following an application, filed on 3 February 2017, by Vere, the company’s sole director from June 2016 onwards.

On the application which Vere signed on 10 January 2017, she declared that “none of the circumstances described in section 1004 or 1005 of the Companies Act 2006 […] exists in relation to the company”.

Section 1004 of the Companies Act 2006 states that a company may not apply to be struck off if it has, “at any time in the previous three months […] traded or otherwise carried on business”.

But Electoral Commission records show that less than three months prior to this, Conservatives In gave £9,754.98 to the Conservative Party’s central office. The donation was made on 22 December 2016, the day after Vere was appointed a government whip in the House of Lords. 

Vere’s entry on the register of ministers’ interests in November 2019 disclosed that her husband, Mike Chattey, is the head of fundraising at the Conservative Party. He has held the position since 2009.

Baroness Vere did not respond to a request for comment.

A company listed as a donor denies knowledge of donation

for the firm Stridewell Estates show it was also struck off the register in November 2016, following an application made in August 2016.

Over three years later, the Conservatives accepted a donation of £10,000 from Stridewell Estates. 

A spokesperson for Stridewell Estates told Insider that the entry on the Electoral Commission’s website “must be a mistake.” She said “no payments were made from this company after it was dissolved. It is very possible that the company that donated has been recorded incorrectly.” 

The spokesperson was unable to provide further details by the time of publication.

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by Stridewell Estates.

“This just doesn’t pass the smell test”

Insider referred all of these donations to the Conservative Party. A spokesperson for the party said: “Donations to the Conservative Party are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission and are published by them.”

The party did not seek to claim that any of the donations did not occur.

A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission said: “Political parties can only accept donations over £500 from permissible sources. This includes companies who are registered and incorporated in the UK, and who carry on business at the time they make donations. 

“We carry out our own permissibility checks on donors, though the legal responsibility lies with the parties to ensure that they only accept money from legal sources. Should there be evidence that the rules have been broken, we would consider it in line with our Enforcement Policy.”

Campaigners say there needs to be a stronger set of regulatory requirements for parties to ensure that they are receiving donations from permissible sources. 

Susan Hawley, executive director at Spotlight on Corruption, told Insider: “It is high time that political parties be placed under a proper legal obligation to do thorough background checks on the origins of donations and the Electoral Commission be given robust powers to penalise them when they fail to do so. 

“The public need to have confidence that electoral finance is squeaky clean and there aren’t any loopholes that would allow illegal or foreign donations which might skew our electoral process.”

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Covid: What happened to care homes early in the pandemic? Reality Check

Testimony from the prime minister’s former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings highlighted the issue of care homes during the first wave of coronavirus.

By Reality Check team www.bbc.co.uk

“We were told categorically in March [2020] that people would be tested before they went back to care homes. We only subsequently found out that that hadn’t happened,” Mr Cummings told MPs. He claimed it was Health Secretary Matt Hancock who said this.

Mr Hancock said: “My recollection of events is that I committed to delivering that testing for people going from hospital into care homes when we could do it…I then went away and built the testing capacity… and then delivered on the commitment”.

So, what actions did the government take and what guidance did it give the care sector in England, where there have been more than 40,000 deaths involving Covid-19.

Moving patients from hospitals to care homes

On 19 March 2020, NHS guidance said that “unless required to be in hospital, patients must not remain in an NHS bed”.

This policy was implemented to free up beds in advance of an expected surge in coronavirus patients.

On 2 April, the rules on discharging to care homes were clarified, saying “negative [coronavirus] tests are not required prior to transfers/admissions into the care home”.

Even elderly patients who tested positive could be admitted to care homes, according to the document, if measures – such as wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) and isolation – were used.

From 15 April, the government said that all patients discharged from hospitals would be tested for coronavirus.

By this time, an estimated 25,000 patients had been discharged to care homes. In July, Panorama gathered data from 39 hospital trusts, which showed three-quarters of people discharged were untested.

Up to this point more than 5,700 care home residents had died in England and Wales (either in homes or in hospital).

Public Health England has published research into the impact of hospital transfers. It found that 1.6% of the lab-confirmed outbreaks in care homes that they knew about by mid-October 2020, had come from people discharged from hospitals.

But it is not clear what percentage of outbreaks up to 15 April (when the testing policy changed) were the result of patients being moved to homes.

And it is important to note that, at this time, there was a lack of testing so not every outbreak may have been recorded. Also, the figures do not count people who were not previously care home residents who were transferred into them from hospitals.

The government has repeatedly said that decisions to discharge patients from hospitals during this time were made by medical professionals on a case-by-case basis.


On 14 March 2020, the government began prioritising the most vulnerable individuals for testing, including those in hospitals and care homes.

If an outbreak was suspected, a handful of residents at a home could be tested.

Reality Check understands that some care providers found access to testing to be very limited at this time.

Chart showing coronavirus deaths

Figures for March to May 2020

On 15 April, the social care action plan was launched, as care home deaths in England were peaking at around 400 a day. This included a pledge to test all care staff who needed one, for example if they were in a household that was self-isolating.

At that point, just 1,000 care staff had been tested out of an estimated half a million who work in care homes.

All care home residents with coronavirus symptoms would also be tested.

On 28 April, this was extended to all care staff and residents, regardless of whether they had symptoms.

It’s important to remember that early in the pandemic it wasn’t widely understood that people who didn’t have symptoms could pass on coronavirus.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

In March 2020, specific guidance related to coronavirus said that the PPE in care homes should be similar to that used in hospital settings.

The government launched the National Supply Disruption Response on 13 March, a centralised line for care and health providers to raise concerns.

This was followed on 19 March by a promise to deliver 300 masks to each care provider.

Concerns over PPE peaked at the end of March and early April, as bodies such as Unison, the Royal College of Nursing and care homes themselves highlighted shortages.

Because care homes are generally privately-run, they are responsible for purchasing their own PPE. Many found their local suppliers were running low and that they were competing with better-funded hospitals.

A letter from the government on 2 April recognised “the challenges providers may have experienced in obtaining PPE supplies over recent weeks,” and promised that the supply chain would be bolstered, with support from the armed forces.

On 10 April the government announced a PPE action plan, which included freeing up up 34 million pieces of equipment to “local resilience forums” who would then distribute it to care homes through local authorities.

By this point, 3,100 care home residents had died in England and Wales.

Visiting care homes

General guidance produced on 25 February 2020 included advice for carers on what to do if they came into contact with someone with Covid-19 – but there was nothing advising against visits to care homes.

In one section it said: “It remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected.”

Another section said: “Currently there is no evidence of transmission of Covid-19 in the United Kingdom. There is no need to do anything differently in any care setting at present.”

However, the government’s own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) had advised on 10 February that “it is a realistic probability that there is already sustained transmission in the UK, or that it will become established in the coming weeks.”

Updated chart

Figures for 2020

On 3 March, the government released its coronavirus action plan – the document did not mention restricting visits to care homes.

By 5 March, England had had 273 cases of people with the virus.

That day the Chief Medical Officer for England Prof Chris Whitty told a committee of MPs that as there were cases that could not be traced back to people who had come from abroad, it was “highly likely therefore that there is some level of community transmission in this virus in the UK now”.

Italy suspended visits to care homes at this point, five weeks after recording its first case. A day later, Nursing Homes Ireland, which represents hundreds of care homes in Ireland, banned non-essential visits, just six days after the first confirmed case in the country.

On 10 March, Prof Martin Green, head of Care England which represents independent care providers, directed criticism in an Independent article at the government for its response.

At this point in England nearly 800 people had caught the virus, but the article noted that the generic guidance published by Public Health England appeared out of date, as it said there was no evidence of transmission within the UK. Prof Green said: “There is no evidence of a plan. I’m not even certain they have these plans and aren’t just making them up as they go along.”

Nevertheless, some homes were deciding to close their doors to visitors, with care groups Barchester and HC-One stopping non-essential visits on 10 March and 12 March.

Scottish Care – a representative body for social care in Scotland – advised care homes to close to visits on 11 March.

On 13 March, the government’s guidance from 25 February was updated to say that “care home providers are advised to review their visiting policy, by asking no-one to visit who has suspected Covid-19 or is generally unwell, and by emphasising good hand hygiene for visitors”.

On the same day Bupa and Four Seasons care homes stopped non-essential visits.

It wasn’t until 16 March that it was announced that social distancing should be carried out by everyone, in particular those aged over 70 and vulnerable people.

That day, the prime minister was asked about care homes and said: “We don’t want to see people unnecessarily visiting care homes.” By this point there had been 3,200 cases in England (although the figure given by the authorities at that point was less than half of that; positive cases are now dated to the day the sample was given).

In the period between 25 February and 16 March, 14 deaths of care home residents were reported along with 30 outbreaks in England’s 15,000 care homes.

On 21 March, guidance was introduced to encourage medically vulnerable people to remain indoors as much as possible until the end of June – a process known as shielding.

On 24 March, lockdown began with people ordered not to leave their homes at all except for “essential” reasons, which didn’t include visits to care homes.

Finally, on 2 April another document from the Department of Health and Social Care said that “family and friends should be advised not to visit care homes, except next of kin in exceptional situations such as end of life”.

Speaking on 15 May, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that on the basis of the 13 March guidance “many of the care home providers, for instance Care UK, at that point stopped visitors”.

There have since been extensive changes to the guidance, with restrictions relaxed as lockdown eased.

This piece was originally published in July 2020 and has been updated to include the findings of the PHE report into the impact of patients discharged from hospitals to care homes in 2020.

Tory Rebel Warns Boris Johnson Of Election ‘Spanking’ Over Planning Reforms

The Tories’ voter coalition could “unravel” in an election “spanking” over Boris Johnson’s planning reforms, one of the party’s MPs has warned.

Arj Singh www.huffingtonpost.co.uk

Bob Seely told HuffPost UK’s Commons People podcast that “dozens” of Conservative MPs were now lining up against the prime minister’s plans because they fear house-building would be concentrated in the party’s southern heartlands.

He warned that the planning bill could give the Liberal Democrats a chance to “revive” in the south and start threatening Tory seats, stressing the party this month lost control of the council in his Isle of Wight seat “because people are fed up” of planning.

The new proposals risked becoming a “developers’ charter” to build on greenfield land, Seely warned.

He told Commons People: “If we end up with a developers’ charter, it won’t work and we will take an absolute spanking in the local elections and probably national elections from now on.

“And we will immediately start to unravel that amazing coalition that we’ve got.

“And actually that’s a really dumb thing to do.

“Tories lost control in the Isle of Wight because people are fed up, in part, of planning, people are fed up, in part, of development.”

Johnson is facing fresh rebellion over planning after MPs on his own side last year effectively killed off a so-called “mutant algorithm”, which would have dramatically increased house-building in southern Tory cities and shires.

But the PM is believed to think home ownership is key to cementing the party’s gains in the so-called “red wall” in the north and Midlands and returned with fresh proposals to overhaul planning in this month’s Queen’s Speech.

The government has said it wants to speed up the planning process to deliver new homes and infrastructure more quickly, at the same time as protecting the environment, as part of efforts to hit Johnson’s target of building 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s.

But Tory rebels and countryside campaigners have warned that the bill will divide places into areas earmarked for either growth or protection, and that growth areas would undermine local democracy and give developers a green light to build on rural land.

Former prime minister Theresa May has said it would mean “the wrong homes being built in the wrong places”.

Seely meanwhile warned the government against casting opponents of the bill as “nimbys”, adding: “If you start throwing meaningless insults, it proves you’ve lost the case and actually, nimbys tend to be Tory voters.

“They are people that love their area, that care about it, who care about their communities, who very often take a part in the local plans because they realise they need homes, very often for their kids and grandkids.

“But at the same time, they reject the unsustainable, destructive, mass-produced, large-scale, low-density, car-dependent greenfield housing estates that just spoil the areas they are built on.”

Seely said the rebels are trying to unite around three issues: that development should be community-led, that it should be ambitious and focused on brownfield sites like London Docklands, and that it must be environment-led.

He said: “How on Earth are we going to meet carbon targets when we know the most inefficient form of housing environmentally, ecologically is low density greenfield housing?

“If government is going to be coherent, you can’t have an ‘anything goes, concrete the south-east and we’re going to be very, very green’ [strategy] – you do one or the other, you ain’t doing both”.

Seely also said there could be close to 100 Tory MPs opposed to the plans.

“There’s not 100 but there isn’t that far short of it – but those are people who have been concerned about the algorithm as well,” he said.

“If you are stripping away some local democracy and that’s combined with higher targets and no community say, and it gives a chance in the south for the Liberals to revive, then I think you are going to start to feel pressure.”

Is it time for the East Devon AONB Partnership to “Come Out”?

From a planning correspondent:

This self- congratulatory e-mail from the East Devon Area of Natural Beauty set me thinking

 “After a successful bid for funding, the East Devon AONB partnership are looking forward to delivering a brand-new programme to help people creatively connect, experience, and better understand our natural environment. 

Over the next year, on behalf of the AONB, artist Emma Molony will work with a range of creative facilitators, organisations, and the non-arts sector to co-deliver a series of high quality, accessible and inclusive art experiences for schools, families, wider communities, and marginalised groups.

Supported by the Arts Council England (ACE) lottery fund, the project will work to build links between community, cultural and landscape partners, bringing together different fields of expertise to engage rurally and culturally isolated communities in East Devon.”

AONBs and National Parks are of equal importance regarding landscape and scenic beauty and have EQUAL STATUS when it comes to planning decisions on landscape issues.

They both exist for the purpose of conserving and enhancing their natural beauty. National Parks, BUT NOT AONBs, in addition to this, have other very important purposes;

a) to promote understanding and enjoyment of the area’s special qualities by the public and because of this extra (and substantial) layer of responsibility they have their own independent National Park authorities with full planning powers running them.

b) the National Parks conservation and enhancement purpose specifically includes “wildlife and cultural heritage”.

East Devon planning watchers may be surprised that AONBs have a planning role at all, given the silence of the East Devon AONB Partnership on even the most sensitive planning applications in its area. East Devon District has 2/3rds of its district covered by the two AONBs of East Devon and the Blackdown Hills. So what part will East Devon AONB play in this difficult time when the government has a BUILD BACK BETTER agenda and EDDC has to find close to 1,000 new build houses a year? 

I think the answer may be found in their latest management plan.

On planning matters the partnership will: 

“Respond to planning consultations in accordance with the AONB protocol AS RESOURCES ALLOW” 

But on the other hand, resource seems to be directed to secondary, and arguably less contentious priorities: “Whilst recreation is NOT a primary purpose for designation, it is recognised that DEMAND SHOULD BE MET THROUGH ACTIVE MANAGEMENT

See: https://www.eastdevonaonb.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/AONB-Partnershipplan_lowres_final.pdf

This active management can be seen in the variety of projects which have been undertaken and are now being actively pursued. The latest very commendable project (see above) required much active management to acquire the Arts Council England (ACE) lottery fund funding. The project will work to build links between community, cultural and landscape partners, bringing together different fields of expertise to engage rurally and culturally isolated communities in East Devon, not part of its statutory remit. One of the latest projects –“Saving the Grey Long Eared Bat – East Devon AONB “ is, again, not a statutory obligation. 

So, to the person in the street, it looks like the partnership has chosen to include projects not part of their primary purpose and relegate their statutory planning responsibilities only when resources allow.

 If the partnership wants to act like a National Park, it should “come out” and actively join and promote the “East Devon and Dorset National Park” initiative, so that these commendable ideas can be properly resourced. We might also get a bit of landscape sensitive planning as well. 

Hancock faces calls to explain Covid test failings at care homes

Matt Hancock is under mounting pressure to explain why the government failed to protect care home residents at the outset of the Covid pandemic, as he sought to salvage his reputation after Dominic Cummings accused him of lying.

Heather Stewart www.theguardian.com 

The health secretary claimed for the first time it “wasn’t possible” to test all care home residents for Covid before they were discharged from hospital last March, because the testing capacity was not yet available.

But the shadow social care minister, Liz Kendall, said that explanation “simply doesn’t stack up”.

“There were over 530,000 tests carried out in the UK by 20 April, yet they couldn’t test 25,000 people discharged from hospitals to care homes, after we saw it sweep through care homes in Italy, France and America?” she said. “The reality is, they wanted to free up the beds and they didn’t prioritise older people.”

She accused Hancock, who previously claimed to have thrown a “protective ring” around care homes, of changing his story to “wriggle out” of responsibility.

On Wednesday, during seven hours of evidence to MPs, Cummings accused Hancock of promising ministers that all care residents in England were tested before being discharged back to their homes and then lying about this.

Hancock denied the claim and a No 10 spokesperson said on Thursday night : “The prime minister has full confidence in the health secretary and will continue working with him to protect public health and save lives.”

The UK has one of the world’s worst coronavirus death tolls: more than 127,000 people have died including more than 40,000 care home residents.

Data from Public Health England (PHE) released on Thursday found the transfer of patients with Covid from hospital to care homes resulted in 286 deaths. It said 96 outbreaks in care homes were related to this problem – about 1.6% of all care home outbreaks – and that the vast majority of these were identified during a matter of weeks in March and April 2020.

While PHE said the number of care home outbreaks seeded by hospital patients being discharged with the virus was “relatively small”, the “potential for their preventability … must be fully acknowledged”.

Many at Westminster believe Hancock may have been saved from being reshuffled out of his post by Cummings’ attack because the prime minister will not want to appear to be following the prompting of his embittered former aide.

Hancock’s defence at a Downing Street press conference came after Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser repeatedly took aim at the health secretary. In particular, he claimed Hancock had lied to the prime minister, falsely telling him care home residents would be tested before being discharged from hospital.

Hancock did not directly refute that claim at the press conference. He said his “recollection of events” was that “I committed to getting the policy in place but it took time to build the testing”.

He added: “I then went away and built the testing capacity … and then delivered on the commitment that I made.” He also defended his 100,000-a-day testing target, which Cummings claimed had distorted government priorities.

Cummings, who was ousted from No 10 in November, said that despite Hancock’s promise in March, testing of hospital patients being moved to care homes “only happened very partially and sporadically” – meaning Covid “spread like wildfire inside” them.

The Conservative MP Dan Poulter said Hancock’s remarks suggested there should be an immediate inquiry into Covid-related deaths in care homes.

Poulter, who is vice-chair of the all-party-parliamentary group on Covid, said: “It is one of the most troubling aspects of this pandemic that the elderly have borne the brunt despite being the most vulnerable in society. We must ensure these mistakes are not repeated and that care homes are never again treated as an afterthought in pandemic planning.”

Allies of Hancock have reacted furiously to Cummings’ testimony, saying he frequently briefed journalists against the health secretary and falsely took credit for his successes. One friend suggested Cummings may have had a grudge against Hancock since the pair were both Conservative advisers during the coalition government a decade ago.

Johnson himself dismissed Cummings’ claims on Thursday, saying they didn’t “bear any relation to reality”.

Cummings claimed the prime minister was unfit to lead the country through the pandemic, still regretted ordering the first lockdown last spring and had stubbornly rejected scientific advice last September. Cummings told stunned MPs at his marathon hearing that “tens of thousands of people died, who didn’t need to die”.

In response to questions during a trip to a hospital in Essex, Johnson denied that his delay in ordering a second lockdown last autumn against the advice of scientific advisers led to unnecessary deaths.

The prime minister said he had grappled with the question of whether to enforce another lockdown, which he knew would be a “very, very painful, traumatic thing for people” and had to “set that against the horrors of the pandemic”.

He insisted: “At every stage, we’ve been governed by a determination to protect life, to save life, to ensure that our NHS is not overwhelmed, and we’ve followed to the best we can the data and the guidance that we’ve had.”

Hancock faces his own grilling before the health and technology committees in June, where he is likely to be quizzed about the situation in care homes and the availability of personal protective equipment.

The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, also wrote to Hancock on Thursday, claiming he had been “disrespectful” towards the families of Covid victims by dodging critical questions at an earlier hearing before MPs.

Hinkley C: Hundreds more needed to finish nuclear power station

Update on our local “Golden Opportunity” and cornerstone of economic growth as our LEP, Heart of the South West (HotSW), would have us believe. – Owl

Another 1,700 workers are to be hired over the next year to help build the Hinkley C nuclear power plant in Somerset

By Dave Harvey Business Correspondent, BBC West www.bbc.co.uk

The new roles will bring the total working on the site to more than 7,000, according to EDF, the French energy firm leading the project.

The plant is due to open in June 2026 and not in 2025 as planned and will cost between £22bn and £23bn.

But critics have pointed out that Hinkley’s energy will be expensive.

Why does Hinkley need these extra people?

When the power station plan was first approved, EDF predicted the workforce would peak at around 5,000.

Although construction never stopped at Hinkley during the pandemic, work certainly slowed down.

Every day, thousands of workers are brought in by fleets of buses but necessary social distancing cut the numbers on each bus, making it harder to get them in. On site, new Covid safety rules mean every job takes a little longer.

Firms supplying parts and raw materials have also fallen behind. Overall, EDF admitted the project has gone about six months behind schedule.

The plant is due to open in June 2026 and not in 2025 as planned and will cost between £22bn and £23bn.

Those planning the construction have also changed their approach.

Originally, they had planned different types of work in sequence: first big groundworks, then civil engineering like huge concrete structures, then electrical and mechanical systems.

Now they can do many of these jobs at the same time, speeding up progress, but requiring more people.

Where will they all come from?

The company promised that at least a third of its employees would be local. During the original row over planning for Hinkley, opponents claimed that local people would only get unskilled, low-paid jobs.

EDF insisted they would hire and train people in Somerset, and they have spent millions with local colleges doing so.

Since 2016 the company has trained 14,000 people via schemes such as a new welding skills centre at Bridgwater College.

Tracie Skinner is one of the most recent trainees. At 45, she has had several different jobs, but thinks the welding qualification will open up better job opportunities.

“It’s a new skill full of possibilities,” she said.

Woman welding in protective gear

Tracie Skinner is a trainee welder on a course paid for by EDF Energy at Bridgwater College

“I’m not sure where it’s going to lead me. I might end up as the Banksy of welding, or working out at Hinkley, or wherever.”

About 9,000 people like Ms Skinner have registered with EDF’s Hinkley job agency.

When contractors on the project need people, they ask the on-site agency to find them first, rather than advertising nationwide. As a result, about 35% of the workforce is local.

Local companies have also won contracts to work on the project, through a match-making scheme run by the Somerset Chamber of Commerce.

One of them is a small electrical firm called Elecsis, based in Bridgwater, which makes hi-tech switching gear for electrical control systems.

I first met Chris Pratt, the managing director, at a breakfast meeting run by EDF for local firms in 2012.

After nearly a decade of waiting, listening, then designing and pitching for work, he has finally got a contract.

This time I met him in the middle of the huge building site, examining the building where his equipment will eventually go.

“It’s going to be quite something when the boys actually get on site and start fitting,” he told me.

“The design work alone has taken 18 months, being involved with a nuclear power station takes some doing.”

Who is paying for it all?

EDF. The original contract signed with the government in 2016 agreed that any cost overruns would be paid by EDF, not the UK Government or British electricity bill-payers.

The price for Hinkley’s electricity was fixed in a so-called “strike price” at £92 per megawatt hour, rising with inflation. That will not go up beyond that limit, even if the costs of building Hinkley Point C rise.

But critics have pointed out that Hinkley’s energy will be expensive.

The latest offshore wind farms have agreed strike prices of around £40 per megawatt hour.

Roy Pomfrey lives near the plant and has been a member of the Stop Hinkley campaign since the beginning.

“This increase is just evidence that EDF have made a complete pig’s ear of their calculations from the start,” he told me.

“If we’d put the money into renewables from the outset, we would already have a return on our investment.

“Renewables are already, at most, half the price of Hinkley, and while Hinkley will only get dearer, the cost of renewable energy will only come down.”

When will it be finished?

The latest forecast date for Hinkley Point C to generate electricity is 2026.

That is nearly nine years after the switch-on originally predicted in 2007 by EDF’s UK chief executive, Vincent de Rivaz.

Many of the subsequent delays were political, as the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government agonised over nuclear power and haggled with EDF over the price.

But there have also been construction problems, and then the pandemic set it back another six months.

Cranes at the Hinkley site

Eventually, Hinkley Point C will provide 7% of the UK’s total electricity

Now the company clearly hopes to accelerate out of lockdown.

Eventually, Hinkley Point C will provide 7% of the UK’s total electricity and catering for up to six million homes.

The full 2021 Hinkley Point C Socio-Economic Impact report can be read here.

Plans for Hinkley Point C were announced more than a decade ago and they gained government approval in 2016.

Hinkley Point A ceased producing electricity in 2000, while Hinkley Point B will be decommissioned no later than July 2022 due to its age.

Cummings’ testimony: a vivid portrait of failure – Guardian Editorial

A self-serving witness can still give evidence that is both damning and true.


A year ago, Dominic Cummings gave a press conference from the garden of 10 Downing Street to explain why he, as the prime minister’s most powerful adviser, should be allowed to breach lockdown rules when ordinary citizens were confined to their homes. His explanation, involving the claim to have tested his eyesight by driving with his family in the car, was famously improbable.

That episode damages Mr Cummings’ credibility as a witness before a committee of MPs seeking to learn lessons from the government’s handling of the pandemic. No one who watched Wednesday’s testimony was left doubting that he intended to settle scores and divert blame away from himself. He apologised for mistakes that were made, but as a prelude to self-exculpation, even over that family trip to County Durham. His regret was not having acted sooner to contradict a prevailing government view last March that the virus should be allowed to run through the population, generating natural immunity. He had been right all along, and should have forced the prime minister to act, he said. Well he would, wouldn’t he, as Mandy Rice-Davies might have observed.

A self-serving motive does not render the whole account invalid. Much of it is corroborated by other sources and the evidence of what happened to the country. Even when it was clear that Britain was heading quickly towards catastrophe, the prime minister was either unwilling or psychologically unable to take the necessary action.

As the crisis unfolded, this fundamental flaw in Boris Johnson’s character resurfaced as the cause of confusion, delay and, by extension, unnecessary death. Mr Cummings reports that the prime minister likes “chaos” as a mode of government because it forces others to await his arbitration, thereby bolstering his power. That is consistent with other accounts of Mr Johnson’s modus operandi: maintaining a deliberately weak cabinet, contradicting himself, making false public statements, making policy commitments one day and U-turning the next, procrastinating while the options narrow. That temperamental inadequacy would be problematic under normal circumstances. During a pandemic, it has proved lethal.

Some of the worst failings of government were, no doubt, compounded by mediocrity and a lack of agility throughout Whitehall. Mr Cummings is right to raise the alarm about a civil contingencies apparatus that existed to cope with rare emergencies and failed to perform that one basic function when required. The threat of a pandemic had been known for years, yet the government found itself making up the plan as it went along.

For all the systemic unreadiness and alleged dishonesty of cabinet ministers, the central problem – the broken piece in the machine that escalated every hazard into a disaster – was the man whose job it was to lead. No country went into the pandemic fully prepared. All had to improvise responses and learn from evidence as it emerged. Mr Johnson failed to do that, not just at the start, but throughout last year.

Britain has suffered one of the highest per capita death tolls in the world not only because its organs of state were unready, but because its prime minister was unfit. Mr Cummings is not the most reliable narrator of events in which he played a crucial role. Yet the picture he paints of a prime minister lacking the judgment and character to navigate the crisis tallies with a Downing Street spectacle that the country witnessed last year, lurching from panic to complacency and back again – “a shopping trolley smashing between aisles.” Testimony from a man at the very heart of that disaster might well be skewed by vendetta, but it also contains frighteningly plausible insight into the way Britain is governed. The full picture will emerge only in time, but some judgments are already available based on known facts. “Tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die,” Mr Cummings said. Tragically, it was the truth.

Cummings brought to life what many already knew about Johnson’s failures

Late-night battles, expletive-ridden rants, Jaws references and Spiderman memes – the dramatic details of Dominic Cummings’ seven-hour testimony captivated Westminster on Wednesday.

Heather Stewart www.theguardian.com

But strip away all the chaos and colour, and the bleak picture left behind was of a prime minister utterly unsuited to the historic and unprecedented task he was handed.

Of course, Cummings is a deeply unreliable witness: self-interested, embittered about his departure from Downing Street and inconsistent – to put it generously – about his lockdown-busting trip to Durham.

At times he appeared to be pursuing something close to a vendetta against the health secretary, Matt Hancock, whom he claimed to have repeatedly urged the prime minister to sack, and whom he accused of a litany of lies and other failures.

Yet the broad thrust of his attack on Boris Johnson had the ring of plausibility, mainly because it chimed so squarely with much of what was already publicly known, from the botched early response to the pandemic to Johnson’s refusal to order a September lockdown.

On Wednesday Cummings put that narrative on the record and brought it alive, with added layers of excruciating detail.

He described the prime minister’s dogged refusal to listen to scientific advice or learn the lessons of the March lockdown. He told of Johnson’s repeated references to “the mayor from Jaws” and his tendency to disappear off on holiday or become distracted at critical junctures.

The prime minister was “about a thousand times too obsessed with the media” and “changes his mind 10 times a day, and then calls up the media and contradicts his own policy, day after day after day”, Cummings said.

Instead of a smooth-running machine, with the prime minister at the centre, Cummings claimed the cabinet was barely involved in key decisions, and went as far as saying that Johnson deliberately embraced political disorder.

Cummings said Johnson told him last summer, when the senior aide was threatening to resign, that “chaos isn’t that bad: it means people have to look to me to see who is in charge”.

Perhaps most damning, though, was Cummings’ account of the autumn, when many scientific experts were calling for a circuit-breaker to prevent the virus running out of control after schools reopened.

Unlike in March, when data was hard to come by and the pandemic was extremely novel, there was by now ample information as well as the hard-won experience gained from the spring lockdown.

Cummings claimed the prime minister continued to insist, in the face of all the evidence, not only that another lockdown was not necessary but that the first one had been the wrong move, which he was somehow gulled into.

“There’s this great misunderstanding people have that because it [Covid] nearly killed him, therefore he must have taken it seriously,” Cummings said in a reference to the prime minister’s brush with death in March 2020. “But in fact, after the first lockdown, he was cross with me and others with what he regarded as basically pushing him into the first lockdown. His argument after that was: ‘I should have been the mayor of Jaws and kept the beaches open.’”

Of course, Johnson did eventually order that second lockdown, at the end of October and several weeks later than advised. By this time, Cummings claimed, Johnson was so infuriated that he said he would rather see “bodies pile up” than implement a third lockdown – corroborating a report that the PM has denied.

And, Cummings argued, the bodies did pile up across a year of poor decision-making. The official UK Covid death toll now stands at more than 127,000.

Being prime minister doesn’t just mean the Downing Street address and the cheering crowds: it carries the responsibility of life-and-death choices freighted with historical significance. That’s the reason candidates for the job are often asked: “Would you press the nuclear button?”

Once they disappear inside the big black door of No 10, the nation has no choice but to rely on their judgment as they make those life-and-death decisions. On Wednesday it was hard to listen to the man Johnson chose as his closest adviser and conclude that he made them well.

Matt Hancock cost lives with lies about care home Covid tests, Dominic Cummings claims

Matt Hancock repeatedly lied during the pandemic and was guilty of “criminal, disgraceful behaviour” that cost lives, Dominic Cummings claimed yesterday.

(See also  COVID-19: Matt Hancock fighting for his political life after Dominic Cummings’s brutal demolition job – Owl)

Chris Smyth, Whitehall Editor | Steven Swinford, Political Editor www.thetimes.co.uk

The prime minister’s former chief adviser said the health secretary should have been sacked for at least 20 reasons.

The most serious charge laid against him by Cummings is that infection spread “like wildfire” in care homes because he falsely claimed that patients were being tested for coronavirus before being discharged from hospital.

Cummings also claimed that the health secretary repeatedly misled Boris Johnson and ministers and that the cabinet secretary “lost confidence” after finding Hancock was lying.

Sources sympathetic to Hancock dismissed Cummings as a “psychopath” and a “complete snake” who had never challenged the health secretary directly about his claims.

Today the health secretary is planning to make an announcement about plans for Covid-19 at a Downing Street news conference in an attempt to show he is too busy fighting the pandemic to do battle with Cummings.

At the health select committee yesterday, Cummings said that at points he called for the health secretary to be sacked almost every day.

A government spokesman said: “We absolutely reject Mr Cummings’s claims about the health secretary”, adding that Hancock had “worked incredibly hard in unprecedented circumstances to protect the NHS and save lives”.

No 10 said Johnson had confidence in Hancock, although it did not deny Cummings’s claim that the prime minister had considered sacking him.

Cummings accused Hancock of performing “disastrously below the standards the public would expect”.

He said: “I think the secretary of state for health should’ve been fired for at least 15, 20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions in meeting after meeting in the cabinet room and publicly.”

Cummings claimed that Hancock had attempted to blame Sir Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England, and Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, for problems with the procurement of PPE. He said he had asked Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, to investigate the claims and he concluded that they were “completely untrue”. Cummings said that Sedwill then told the prime minister that he had “lost confidence” in Hancock’s honesty and advised that he should be sacked.

“I said repeatedly to the prime minister that he should be fired, so did the cabinet secretary, so did many other senior people,” Cummings said.

An estimated 35,000 care home residents died during the first wave. Cummings dismissed ministers’ claims to have “thrown a protective ring” around social care as “complete nonsense”.

As the NHS prepared for the pandemic in March, thousands of elderly people were discharged to care homes to free up beds. Some homes refused to accept patients who had not been tested for coronavirus but Department of Health guidance on April 2 insisted that tests were not required.

Cummings said yesterday: “Hancock told us in the cabinet room that people were going to be tested before they went back to care homes. What the hell happened?” He said that Downing Street did not understand until April that “many, many people who should have been tested were not tested, and then went to care homes and then infected people, and then it’s spread like wildfire inside the care homes”.

On April 15 fresh guidance stipulated people should be tested before admission to care homes. “All the government rhetoric of ‘we put a shield around care homes’ and blah blah, was complete nonsense — quite the opposite of putting a shield around them, we sent people with Covid back to the care homes,” Cummings said.

While last year Hancock was credited for scaling up testing to carry out 100,000 tests a day by the end of April, Cummings argued this was an “incredibly stupid” stunt. He said that the health secretary had been “interfering with the building of the test-and-trace system, because he’s telling everybody what to do to maximise his chances of hitting his stupid target by the end of the month”.

Cummings said: “He should have been fired for that thing alone: it meant that the whole of April was hugely disrupted by different parts of Whitehall fundamentally trying to operate in different ways, completely because Hancock wanted to be able to go on TV and say, look at me, my 100k targets. It was criminal, disgraceful behaviour that caused serious harm.”

He also accused the health secretary of misleading statements about how the NHS had coped. In the summer he said that everybody who needed treatment got the treatment that they required,” Cummings said. “He knew that that was a lie because he had been briefed by the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer himself about the first peak, and we were told explicitly people did not get the treatment they deserved, many people were left to die in horrific circumstances.”

Last night Hancock said: “I haven’t seen this performance today in full, and instead I’ve been dealing with getting the vaccination rollout going, especially to over-30s, and saving lives. I’ll be giving a statement to the House of Commons tomorrow.”

“It is my hope the Government can root-out the cause of illegal deforestation”

Neil Parish www.devonlive.com


As I write this, the Environment Bill is about to return for its remaining stages in the Commons. This landmark piece of legislation sets ambitious targets for protecting and revitalising our environment, both here in the UK and internationally. The Bill also presents a prime opportunity for the UK to tackle one of the key drivers of climate change: deforestation.

In 2020 alone, over 11,000 square kilometres of the Amazon were lost to deforestation, the highest in 12 years. That is nearly twice the size of Devon destroyed in a year. Illegal deforestation not only destroys precious rainforests, which act as vital carbon sinks and biodiversity hubs, but dismantles the lands and livelihoods of local communities and indigenous peoples.

The Government has taken bold steps to halt deforestation, including banning the use of certain materials associated with illegal deforestation and demanding larger companies carry out proper due diligence within their supply chains, ensuring they are not linked to illegal forest destruction. While commendable, I believe these measures should be strengthened, and I have tabled amendments to the Bill to do just that.

We must go further to ensure the Bill does not exclude the finance sector, who are in many cases bankrolling deforestation. Global Witness’s Money to Burn report found UK financial institutions, including many well-known high street banks, had invested £5 billion between 2013-2019 in companies that were found to have illegally deforested land. UK pension pots may well be being used to indirectly fund illegal deforestation.

My first amendment aims to cut this funding stream by barring lenders from providing financial services to enterprises that illegally deforest land. Banks, investment firms and pension trusts cannot be allowed to profit at the expense of irreplaceable rainforests and ecosystems.

We must also ensure the lands of indigenous communities are protected. Research has shown more people than ever were killed in 2019 for defending their homes against illegal land clearance. That is why I have tabled a further amendment aimed at ensuring the free, prior, and informed consent of affected indigenous peoples has been obtained, before businesses can fund enterprises which harvest materials from rainforests.

With the United Nations Climate Change Conference and the G7 summit fast approaching, the UK must show global leadership by bolstering our efforts against the degradation of unique forests, while ensuring the lands of indigenous peoples are properly protected. By adopting my amendments, it is my hope the Government can root-out the cause of illegal deforestation and safeguard our environment for generations to come.

Value of UK house sales forecast to leap 46% this year as boom continues

The total value of homes sold in the UK is expected to reach £461bn this year, a jump of 46% on 2020, indicating the current housing market boom is likely to continue, according to a new prediction.

Rupert Jones www.theguardian.com

The property website Zoopla said its projections indicated the property market in 2021 was on course to be the busiest for 14 years.

Its figures come on the back of data showing that the sector has defied expectations over the past year to notch up double-digit price growth.

Last week the Office for National Statistics said average UK house prices in March had increased by 10.2% in a year – the highest annual growth rate since August 2007, before the financial crisis hit.

The stronger-than-expected growth has been fuelled by a combination of factors, including the stamp duty holiday introduced last summer, new government guarantees for mortgages, and the “race for space” that has seen many would-be homebuyers prioritise properties with bigger gardens and more room for working from home.

Zoopla – which claims its figures are based on the largest underlying data sample of any UK house price index – said its projections indicated that home sales would reach 1.52m in 2021 – a rise of 45% on 2020. If that were to happen, it would mark the highest level of activity since 2007 and mean that this year was one of the top 10 busiest years since 1959.

Meanwhile, the value of homes sold in 2021 is expected to reach £461bn, said the website. This would represent a rise of 46%, or £145bn in monetary terms, on 2020, when the figure stood at £316bn. It would amount to a jump of 68% compared with 2019.

Demand for family houses is exerting upward pressure on prices, and it is locations away from London and the south-east where buyer interest continues to be strongest.

Zoopla said the “hottest” housing markets – in terms of both price growth and the time taken to secure a sale – were Wales, Yorkshire and the Humber, and north-west England.

In the more central parts of London, by contrast, homes are taking nearly two months to sell, which is two weeks longer than the 2017-19 average, while inner London prices are almost unchanged on a year ago.

Average prices are falling in the City of London (down 2.5% year-on-year), Kensington and Chelsea (down 1.7%), Westminster (down 2.2%), and Hammersmith and Fulham (down 1.4%). These areas have been particularly affected by the global shutdown of international business and leisure travel due to the pandemic, said Zoopla.