Keep ‘sensible’ Covid rules after 19 July, say doctors

Here, on one escalator, “Watchers” can see every variation of mask being used in a crowded space.

Leading doctors from the British Medical Association (BMA) are urging the government to keep some measures in place after 19 July in England to restrict the spread of coronavirus amid an “alarming” rise in cases.

The association warned that maintaining some protective measures was “crucial” to halt the spread of the coronavirus delta variant, which accounts for approximately 95 per cent of confirmed cases across the UK.

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that about one in 260 people in private households in England had Covid-19 in the week to 26 June – up from one in 440 in the previous week and the highest level since the week to 27 February.

The prime minister, Boris Johnson, is confident he can go ahead with the final phase of his plans to end England’s lockdown on 19 July to “get back to life as close to it was before Covid”.

Earlier this week, the new health secretary, Sajid Javid, also confirmed his intention to go ahead with Step 4 of the road map but didn’t explain to MPs what that would entail.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said easing restrictions was not an “all or nothing” decision and that “sensible, cautious” measures will be vital to minimise the impact of further waves, new variants and lockdowns.

The measures would include the continued use of wearing masks indoors and on public transport and “significantly improved” public messaging stressing social distancing and meeting outdoors or in well-ventilated spaces.

Dr Nagpaul welcomed the government’s decision to push back on the lockdown easing last month based on data. Still, he warned that the ministers must not simply disregard the most recent, damning numbers by rushing into meeting their new 19 July deadline.

“We have made excellent progress with both the vaccination campaign and individual action from people across the country over the last 18 months, and the government must absolutely not throw this away at this critical juncture.”

Despite an uptick in Covid infections, Dr Nagapul said that the hospitalisations remained low and stressed that the BMA was not asking for a “full delay” of 19 July but a series of “targeted measures” to help prevent transmission of the virus.

Public Health England figures show a total of 161,981 confirmed and probable cases of the Delta variant, up by 46 per cent on the previous week.

With house prices through the roof, young buyers’ hopes go out the window

All the arguments why it’s not in the government’s interest to let prices fall and especially not crash. – Owl

There is also only a slender link between more homes being built and prices falling. As long as property is viewed as an investment, the demand is there.

Phillip Inman

House prices are soaring and gazumping has returned in property hotspots. The average cost of a home jumped by 13.4% in June from the same month last year, according to Nationwide building society.

This is more than four times the 3% annual rate of growth in wages during April and more than six times the 2.1% increase in consumer price inflation (CPI) registered in May. According to upmarket estate agent Knight Frank, figures out next month are likely to show sales across Britain hitting an all-time record.

Despite all the turmoil sparked by the pandemic, some things have remained the same, and one of them is the British obsession with property. While the order for millions of workers to stay at home looks set to alter their view of how and when to work, and a desire to be green will temper their consumption habits and holiday destinations, the love of bricks and mortar remains supreme.

Lots of people – and not just the wheeler-dealers who clutter the Sunday Times rich list – have become very wealthy from residential property. Shares in housebuilders have soared since 2012 when then chancellor George Osborne propped up the market for newly built homes with his help-to-buy scheme. Persimmon, the UK’s second-largest housebuilder, has seen its shares increase sixfold in the past 10 years, from £5 to £30. The shares are currently worth double their pre-financial-crisis peak of £15.

Pension funds have profited from owning these shares and done little to stop the builders’ top bosses from being awarded bulging bags of cash. In 2017, former Persimmon chief executive Jeff Fairburn was awarded £110m, which he said he would share with a new charitable trust. In February this year the Guardian revealed he had to that point kept it all to himself.

Studies confirm that all the taxpayer subsidies have done is line the pockets of the industry, but it doesn’t seem to matter. As long ago as 2017, investment bank Morgan Stanley calculated that £10bn of help-to-buy subsidy had done nothing to make homes more affordable for first-time buyers, which was the intention, but had instead disappeared into the bank accounts of the industry’s dominant businesses.

There is also only a slender link between more homes being built and prices falling. As long as property is viewed as an investment, the demand is there.

Osborne is one of those to have gained from our buoyant property market. He bought a home in 2006 in London’s Notting Hill for £1.85m and sold it earlier this year for £3.95m.

At 50, Osborne is at the bottom end of the age range for people who have played and won on the property wheel of fortune, not least because the older generation has the resources to put down deposits on second, third and fourth homes. The Intergenerational Foundation has shown that the proportion of over-65s who own their home has risen this century, while it has fallen in all other age groups.

Economists worry about the inequality created by rising property prices, though their main focus is on the instability this creates and the potential for disastrous – and costly – recessions.

The Geneva-based Bank for International Settlements (BIS), which advises the world’s central banks, said in a report last week that all major economies needed to be mindful of rising property prices becoming detached from wages. It warned that when ordinary homes were out of reach of people on average wages, it caused a bubble that might one day burst.

This we know from bitter experience. What we also know is that the central banks of all the major economies have pledged to do whatever it takes to prevent a property slump. A dip is OK, but a major correction would be too damaging. The last one is fast disappearing in the rear view mirror. It was in 1989-90.

Threadneedle Street is concerned at the sheer weight of spending connected to property, from furnishings to new patios. Outside the humming property market, a good chunk of the economy is moribund.

There is support from ministers concerned that older, property-owning voters will turn against them if prices are allowed to dive. From the ministers’ perspective, it helps that interest rates are almost zero, and have been since the crash of 2008.

The BIS wants central banks to plan for interest-rate increases some time over the next five years to choke off the current boom.

Maybe rates will rise slightly over that time, but not by enough to trigger a housing crash. That cannot be allowed to happen: the economy and Tory politics say so.

“Slinking” between the lines

Diane Abbott posted this tweet after the Hancock revelations but before Sajid Javid was announced as his successor…

So did she get an inferred answer by reading between the lines of the articles and posts Sarah Vine wrote ostensibly about the Hancock affair during last week? (Extract)

[Sarah] Vine, who is godmother to one of David and Samantha Cameron’s children, raised eyebrows last week when she wrote about how Matt Hancock’s resignation as health secretary after having an affair with his adviser – and breaking Covid rules with someone outside his household or bubble before it was allowed – showed that Westminster life could drive a wedge between partners.

She praised the Camerons’ commitment to one another, saying that “every time he seemed in danger of drifting away on a cloud of self-importance (usually after a few glasses of wine), she would bring him back down to earth”.

“Westminster is a place of myriad distractions for the politician seeking refuge from his or her home life,” Vine continued, adding that because power is an “aphrodisiac”, it was possible to understand “how you can go from being happily married to the kind of person who gets caught so unfortunately on CCTV”.

She added: “The problem with the wife who has known you since way before you were king of the world is that she sees through your facade” and that there were some politicians who could walk away from power and others “who will compromise everything for the sake of it”.

Westminster changes people, Vine said, commenting on how wives of senior politicians “are still more or less the same person they were when they got married” but their husbands sometimes were not.

“Climbing that far up Westminster’s greasy pole changes a person,” she wrote. “And when someone changes, they require something new from a partner. Namely, someone who is as much a courtesan as a companion, one who understands their brilliance and, crucially, is personally invested in it.

“Not someone who thinks it’s all a monumental nuisance and wishes they would get a proper job that doesn’t involve people poking cameras in your face and commenting on your poor choice of footwear.” The insight caused a stir among some commentators.

Labour are calling for “clarification” of the Gove “household” arrangements; but friends of Michael Gove insist no-one else is involved

Labour calls for Michael Gove to ‘tell us who you were living with’ dismissed as smear (Extract)

Friends of Michael Gove insisted on Saturday night that he had been living at his family home throughout the pandemic, as they accused Labour of “shameful” smear tactics for suggesting otherwise.

The comments came after the shadow home secretary said Mr Gove must “clarify” his “household” arrangements, following the announcement on Friday that he and his wife Sarah Vine are divorcing after 20 years of marriage.Nick Thomas-Symonds said although the Cabinet Office minister, 53, was entitled to a private life, he should “clarify” whether social distancing guidelines had been breached, because he had been key to drawing up government rules on how people behaved during the pandemic.

If you are minded to see conspiracy and cover-up everywhere, you will get an eye full here:

What a Vine time to ask for privacy! Gove and Vine get silence and secrecy because they’re ‘made’ in the media.]

Protests call for end to NHS underfunding and understaffing

Dozens of protests have called for an end to underfunding and understaffing in the NHS across England, Scotland and Wales to mark the health service’s 73rd anniversary.

Mattha Busby 

Campaigners from Keep Our NHS Public said they wanted an end to health service privatisation, better pay and to highlight threats to patient safety due to working conditions.

Outside University College Hospital in London on Saturday, NHS health workers and activists chanted: “Boris Johnson hear us shout, pay us properly or get out”. They also begged for the NHS to be kept alive, as it continues to face structural reforms that many say damage efficiency and see some services in effect privatised.

Nearby, a critical care nurse said NHS staff had been so “battered” by the pandemic that “a lot of us are still carrying scars … We’ve seen things we shouldn’t see and its broken a lot of our nurses”, Dave Carr, also a Unite representative, told Sky News.

“The NHS is in an existential crisis. We love the fact we are trusted by the British public to look after their sick [relatives]. So I want them to trust us now when we say if we don’t get a pay rise we are going to continue to haemorrhage nursing staff. Patient safety is already compromised; our NHS is crumbling and around the edges the vultures are privatising lumps of it. It’s on a knife-edge.”

There was anger in March when the former health secretary Matt Hancock recommended a 1% increase for nurses and doctors in consideration of what he said was “what’s affordable as a nation”.

On Friday, the British Medical Association said it planned to ask members about taking industrial action and halting paid and unpaid overtime if the government’s pay offer was not closer to 4%, after years of real terms cuts. The Royal College of Nursing also said it was considering balloting for action over the “slap in the face” pay offer.

Before the protests, co-chair of Keep Our NHS Public Dr Tony O’Sullivan, said the founding principles of the NHS, to institute universal free healthcare, were undermined by government underfunding of the NHS, while “giving priority” to investment with private health companies.

“The weakened NHS has been stretched to breaking point by Covid and the population has suffered,” he said. “Staff are underpaid, overworked and their health put in danger. The new health bill threatens further large scale private contracting.”

Holly Turner, an NHS nurse and founding member of campaign group NHS Workers Say No, said: “I have been dealt over a decade of real terms cuts to my pay despite my workload only continuing to increase. Staff have been victims of avoidable deaths and illness while crony contracts and profit has been placed above workers’ safety. We are struggling to keep our patients safe due to chronic understaffing and unmanageable waiting lists.”

John McDonnell, former Labour shadow chancellor, told a rally outside Downing Street: “We’ve all known people who have been lost in the NHS as a result of this, in my local hospital we lost one of the matrons in the early stages of the pandemic. We cannot let their lives be in vain; they gave their lives to save their patients … We’ve got to ensure in honour of them we save the NHS.”

Almost 800,000 people have signed a petition set up by a nurse from Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, which says the weekly national rounds of applause, broadcast with images of ministers clapping, is “a nice gesture” but that what they most want is for NHS workers to be given a 15% pay rise.

The protests come as the NHS turns 73. More than 70 landmarks across England will be lit up in blue on Saturday to thank staff for their work during the pandemic and commemorate the hundreds of NHS workers who died in relation to Covid.

The NHS chief people officer, Prerana Issar, said: “Each of the colleagues who sadly died while caring for and protecting patients represents an irreplaceable gap in a family and a workplace.

“It is no exaggeration to say that health service staff have helped to keep the country going during the pandemic, and while NHS staff have rightly been celebrated for their contribution, we know that the role played by other key workers – people keeping supermarkets open, refuse collectors, childcarers and other public services – as well as the resilience of the general public, has helped ensure we can start to move forward.”

Reprieve for old railway bridges but dozens more face ugly end

Forty-six disused railway bridges under threat of being filled in have been given a reprieve amid mounting anger over “vandalism” caused by the policy.

Graeme Paton, Transport Correspondent 

Before: The bridge in Great Musgrove, Cumbria, declared unsafe

The Times has learnt that the number of bridges and tunnels on a target list drawn up by Highways England has been quietly cut from 115 at the end of last year to 69 now. The work will be carried out over the next five years.

It is understood that the 40 per cent cut has been driven by new assessments of the bridges combined with possible deals with local councils to carry out repairs as an alternative to infilling.

After: Campaigners said pouring aggregate under the bridge was “vandalism”

After: Campaigners said pouring aggregate under the bridge was “vandalism”

This includes one 162-year-old bridge designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel near Saltash, Cornwall, which had been earmarked for infilling just ten months ago because it was in a “deteriorating condition”.

Highways England now says that it has no current plans to plug the bridge.

The disclosure prompted claims from campaigners that the entire infilling policy was unjustified. There has been anger over the approach particularly after tonnes of aggregate were poured beneath a bridge at Great Musgrave near Warcop, Cumbria, amid warnings from Highways England that it was unsafe. Heritage groups branded the work as “vandalism” and claimed it would have cost just £5,000 to repair it.

Highways England manages 3,200 structures on disused railway lines across Britain on behalf of the Department for Transport. It has identified a series of bridges and tunnels to be infilled or demolished after judging they are at risk of collapse, with maintenance and upgrade costs too high.

However, heritage campaigners said that most bridges are in good working order and many are on disused lines that are earmarked as future cycling and walking routes. Some could be reopened for railways, it has been claimed. The campaigners fear that the policy is being pushed purely because Highways England no longer wants to be liable for the structures.

Yesterday, the government-owned company said that the original list included structures that were “in the process of being assessed for maintenance”. It said that “suitable schemes for 46 bridges from that list remain in development”.

Richard Marshall, Highways England’s historical railways estate director, said: “Most of the 3,200 tunnels, bridges and viaducts that make up the estate were built well over 100 years ago. We will spend £13 million this year on keeping the public safe when using these structures . . . We also recognise their wider social value, and we work with local authorities and other organisations to help them find viable ways to re-use these structures wherever possible. Our remit is to keep old railway structures safe but we aren’t funded to re-purpose them.”

Graeme Bickerdike of the Historical Railways Estate Group, an alliance of engineers, cyclists and heritage campaigners, said: “This apparent 40 per cent reduction in the number of at-risk structures exposes the deceit Highways England has been peddling for the past five months in persistently claiming that these bridges are a threat to public safety and have to be infilled . . . How can we trust their judgment about the remaining 69?”