Early days but fall in Covid cases is reason to be cautiously optimistic

There is something unexplained going on in the data. Tim Spector’s symptom tracker app appeared to have picked up a turning point a couple of weeks ago, but that was considered to be a sampling blip. His app still indicates widespread infections in the South West, see below, and no fall nationally. – Owl

Tom Whipple, Science editor www.thetimes.co.uk 

It is great news that cases are falling. It is also slightly mysterious. In only a few days we have gone from rapid increases to rapid decreases. The graph of UK cases looks like a spiky Matterhorn.

What is confusing is that if this change was a result of infections and vaccinations only we would expect the rounded dome of a Mont Blanc-style summit, as we slowly edge up to and then pass herd immunity.

So what is happening?

The first thing to note is that we have yet to see most of the effects of England’s July 19 reopening percolate through. Neither, though, have we seen the (hopefully) opposite effect of schools closing for summer.

What is happening now, which cannot be explained by falling test numbers, largely represents trends that came before.

It may be partly the consequences of the Euros ending. We know that football affected case numbers because for the first time we could see a gender split. There was a divergence between men, who watch a lot of football, and women, who not only watch it less but are less likely to do so while congregating in crowds with flares up their bottoms.

The fall may also be the effect of better weather — for both fire safety and infection control reasons it is greatly preferable to have such celebrations, and more staid gatherings, outdoors.

Vaccines have had a huge effect, yet it still remains the case that every thousand fewer infections translates into about one fewer death.

But if behaviour rather than immunity is the most plausible explanation, there is also still some reason for wariness. After all, behaviour, not to mention lifted restrictions and worsening weather, can take cases in both directions.

Both Blackburn and Bolton had early outbreaks of the Delta variant and became the Petri dish for the nation’s third wave. In May their peaks declined, which led some to suggest they had reached herd immunity, but they are rising again.

Even so, this is a good day. Many thought reported cases would keep rising until we hit 100,000 a day. Many looked at the trajectory and thought 200,000 a day — a figure that could threaten the NHS — would not be unreasonable.

Today, with due caveats and uncertainty, it is plausible to believe that we have peaked at 50,000 and are on our way down. All of which means there is reason to be cautiously hopeful.

From Zoe Covid Symptom Tracker

China’s nuclear power firm could be blocked from UK projects

Has Heart of the South West (HotSW) been betting on the wrong horse? – Owl


China’s state-owned nuclear energy company could be blocked from all future power projects in the UK, with ministers understood to be investigating ways to prevent its involvement.

The move would exclude China General Nuclear (CGN) from the consortium planning to build the £20bn Sizewell C nuclear plant on the Suffolk coast, as well as one in Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex.

A Whitehall source confirmed a report by the Financial Times that first revealed the government is exploring ways of removing CGN from future projects.

The move would be likely to stoke further tensions between the UK and China and would also mark a toughening of Britain’s stance towards Beijing. It would come amid major concerns about Beijing’s clampdown in Hong Kong and the treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

China’s involvement in nuclear power in the UK dates back to an agreement endorsed by then prime minister David Cameron and Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2015.

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “Nuclear power has an important role to play in the UK’s low-carbon energy future, as we work towards our world-leading target to eliminate our contribution to climate change by 2050.

“All nuclear projects in the UK are conducted under robust and independent regulation to meet the UK’s rigorous legal, regulatory and national security requirements, ensuring our interests are protected.”

Former Tory councillor got £120m ‘VIP lane’ government contract for face shields now lying unused

More cronyism. – Owl

A former Tory councillor was given a £120m government contract for personal protective equipment (PPE) which is now lying unused because of concerns about its quality, it has been revealed.


Steve Dechan, who owns medical device manufacturer Platform-14, had his offer to supply protective equipment from China fast-tracked through the government’s controversial “VIP” lane.

The Sunday Times newspaper reports that fewer than 1 in 400 of the face shields procured by the company on behalf of the government have been used, because the regulator does not believe they meet the right standards.

The original order for 120 million shields has delivered just 274,200 into the NHS supply chain, representing 0.23 per cent of the overall stock.

It means the shields used so far have cost the equivalent of £423 each, despite similar ones being available to buy online for less than £1.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has to authorise all PPE that is not CE marked (an EU designation that means it complies with European standards).

But the regulator said: “None of the documentation provided to HSE indicated the product to be CE marked.”

The regulator wrote to officials in September last year saying the shields “cannot enter the NHS supply chain” and repeatedly refused to approve them.

But in February, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) stepped in and directly approved the face shields, with 274,000 used in the NHS so far. At the height of the pandemic last year, none could be used.

Mr Dechan told The Sunday Times that the “application and usage [of the shields] is entirely a matter for the DHSC”.

He said they had met “the required standards” and added: “As an NHS supplier for nearly 10 years, we will continue to provide innovative solutions and support trusts and patients across the UK.”

The reports come amid concern about the government’s procurement during the pandemic. The National Audit Office (NAO) found that firms referred to the VIP lane were 10 times more likely to have been given government contracts to supply PPE.

The NAO, the government’s spending watchdog, said in a report in November 2020 that there was a “lack of transparency and adequate documentation of some key decisions, such as why particular suppliers were chosen, or how the government identified and managed potential conflicts of interest in the awarding of some contracts”.

Another report released by the Commons Public Accounts Committee on Sunday said that the government is still wasting vast amounts of money on PPE that is “not fit for purpose” a year and a half into the pandemic.

Official figures show that overall nearly 7 per cent of all items purchased by the DHSC have failed quality checks, while ministers are spending £6.7m every week to keep the items stored.

An eye-watering 2.1 billion items have already been found unsuitable for use in medical settings, and 10,000 shipping containers are still to be unpacked.

The same committee also warned of “significant financial risks for decades to come”, with the estimated lifetime cost of all the government’s Covid measures reaching £372bn in May 2021.

There is a way to save our coastal resorts… welcome to Zoomtown-on-Sea

“It is a once in a century chance on which our political establishment should capitalise, especially the Tory party, which represents nearly all the coastal constituencies it so shamefully neglects.” 

Will Hutton www.theguardian.com 

Britain’s coast is in desperate trouble. As more of us head for our beaches this summer than since the 1950s, spare a thought for the 3.5 million who live on the coast all year round – disproportionately poorer, iller, older, more mentally depressed, in low-paid temporary work, more overweight and more prone to suicide, drug abuse and self-harm than if they lived just a few miles inland. Levelling up is too often associated with derelict industrial Britain, but it is on our coast that the crisis over living standards, life expectancy and health is most acute. If the EU referendum was lost anywhere, it was lost here.

The story is hardly new, as the chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, recognised in last week’s devastating report on the health and wellbeing of coastal communities. As he says, Blackpool has more in common with Hastings 255 miles distant, in its chronic ill health and poor public health services, than Preston just 15 miles inland. Even adjusting for deprivation and an elderly demographic, rates of mental illness and heart and kidney disease in coastal communities are roughly 10% higher than the national average – just one dimension of the “ shit-life syndrome” endemic on our coast. The quality of NHS care in response is enfeebled by major shortages of health and social care staff – 15% fewer postgraduate medical trainees, 15% fewer consultants and 7% fewer nurses per patient in coastal towns compared with the average inland. In any case, medical and public health services can only make so much progress in the teeth of the economic and social forces that create such a lack of wellbeing. Locked in a despairing vicious circle, coastal towns, often beautiful and with healthy sea air, are forgotten casualties because problems seem worse inland. There must be, declared Whitty, a national strategy to engage with this national wrong.

The underlying reasons are well known. The “blue economy” – fishing, shipping, shipbuilding, port traffic and tourism – has been hit hard by deep-seated trends. Industrial fishing has fatally wounded local fishing fleets; containerisation has killed small ports; shipbuilding has migrated to Asia; the British usually holiday abroad. The evaporation of a vibrant private sector with nothing spontaneously taking its place has seen wages, rents and local house prices suffer, on average over a quarter lower than a few miles inland, so that in general coastal towns have become poverty sinks. Neglect and deprivation beget still more, while teachers and doctors are reluctant to make their lives in these run-down places, exacerbating the decay.

What has given the decline its own special British twist is the way political and administrative centralisation, systemically denying local capability to raise taxes, borrow and spend, has interacted with a refusal to recognise that public and private are necessarily a symbiotic whole, more obvious on the coast than inland. Unless there is a vigorous public infrastructure of beautiful seaside fronts, promenades, well-tended beaches and amenities there cannot be successful coastal private enterprise. But that is impossible to create without sustained public resource and the accompanying structures.

Coastal communities in Holland, northern France, Denmark and Germany battle similar forces to our own, but their localities are afforded more chances to pull themselves up. Our coast’s decline is littered with examples of local energy and initiative running into difficulty for lack of any supportive, long-term framework, so that for every successful beachside art gallery or revived old port there is a parallel story of bankrupt pier companies and amusement parks. The doctrine in response is not to empower, but, rather, create Whitehall-controlled funds for which local communities bid against each for fixed pots of money. The root-and-branch overhaul in the way our towns and cities are governed, from which coastal towns would be prime beneficiaries, is abjured. The heroin addicts hanging out in the derelict seafront bandstand are umbilically linked to our pre-modern system of government.

The prime minister did not single out the plight of coastal communities in his recent speech on levelling up ten days ago – on the government website but surreally with no punctuation –, in which he simultaneously deplored so much spatial inequity in Britain while arguing that tall poppies should remain tall. Hence levelling up – not down. But importantly, he did call for more enabled local leaderships, the mayoral model to be extended to shires and counties, which could then put their plans to the centre. He envisages an extension of the existing model: more people to bid for these fixed pools of cash on which Whitehall would decide.

It can’t and won’t deliver what he wants. Yet for all the derision directed at his over-hyped speech so much of which was reheating pre-existing policies, at least he has put spatial inequality at the political forefront, while recognising any success must involve local leaders. It has created a unique moment that coincides with another break from the past. The working from home revolution prompted by Covid is creating the first mass re-engagement with our coast since the 19th century. Thus the Rightmove property network reports a 115% increase in inquiries this summer from city dwellers about buying property in seaside towns. House prices on the Cornish coast have exploded, while Scarborough is reinventing itself as “Zoomtown-on-sea”.

It is a once in a century chance on which our political establishment should capitalise, especially the Tory party, which represents nearly all the coastal constituencies it so shamefully neglects. Britain’s coast should become the spearhead of a green revolution, cementing the growing readiness of city dwellers to live there. There should be massive investment in beautifying our seafronts; in green energy for which the coast is so suited; in super-broadband; in upgrading housing stock; in quality attractions and creative quarters populated by a new generation of art and music colleges. St Ives, Hastings and Margate have shown what can be done with modern art – it can be universalised. All public sector workers in coastal communities should receive a coastal pay uplift. Coastal authorities should be allowed to experiment with spending, borrowing and tax freedoms.

The coast could and should become emblematic of health and vitality – a source of national pride. Chris Whitty is right. What has happened to our coast is shameful, not least as a public health disaster. It can and must be reversed.

Is “Experience” the future of the High Street with department stores of fun?

I’m taking a spin on a go-kart track with a difference. It’s the old beauty hall of the Debenhams store in south-west London.

By Emma Simpson www.bbc.co.uk

The escalators are the only trace of the former department store which remain. All four floors are now being transformed into a high-tech entertainment venue.

As we filmed, shoppers stopped to take photos when the shutters briefly opened giving a glimpse of the flashing lights and builders beavering away inside.

“We’re creating a department store of fun,” says Michael Harrison, the co-founder of Gravity which is due to open on 1 August.

“We have three bars, two restaurants, go-karting, a bowling alley, huge screens to watch sporting events and adventure golf. This is the future of the High Street. It’s about experience,” he says.

Michael has no shortage of retail landlords now ringing him up offering him potential new locations.

They’re grappling with the need to rethink, or repurpose, empty shops. Latest figures suggest one in seven stores, on average, are lying vacant. And in some places the number is far higher.

The UK’s biggest property company, Landsec, owns the Southside shopping mall where Gravity is based. Its other centres include Bluewater in Kent and Trinity in Leeds.

Landsec boss Mark Allan thinks a quarter of what is currently retail space will need to be turned into something else.

“For me, it’s really difficult to think of an example where you have 25% of something that it exists in the UK that is no longer required. And so you’re not going to solve that sort of a problem by tinkering around the edges,” he says.

The pain won’t be evenly spread either, says Mr Allan: “Some places are going to be virtually empty and they are not going to survive as retail in any shape or form.

“Some are going to be absolutely fine – rents are lower, sales are lower and they’re worth less than they were but fundamentally they’ve got a role to play longer term and some places are going to be in the middle where they are going to survive but they need some investment.”

Some industry experts think the amount of redundant retail space is even higher. So how did we get here?

We’ve seen a huge proliferation of shops over the last 40 years. Retail has just been growing and growing, from out of town retail parks and shopping centres to so called clone towns dominated by chains, who were willing to pay higher rents.

That retail property boom is now over. Many of our town centres will have to find a new purpose.

We’ve been talking about how to save the High Street for more than a decade but the pandemic has turbo charged the problems now.

Mr Allan says it’s time to act. “Covid has been a tipping point. If we don’t tackle it over the next couple of years together then there’s a real risk some of this redundant retail property sits there for decades empty and that would be a disaster for the communities where that property is located.”

And he says there’s no single party that can solve the problem: “This needs people to come together. I think it’s a significant moment and a really big opportunity, particularly for those centres and high streets where there is no future for retail, for radical, bold, thinking. I think it could be exciting.”

Stockton-on Tees has one of the boldest plans to reshape its entire town centre. It has decided to demolish a large part of its high street.

The local council bought Stockton’s two shopping centres and plans to knock one of them down, creating a new riverside park to make the town a greener, nicer place.

The £37m project is largely being funded with money from the Tees Valley Combined Authority and the Government’s Future High Streets Fund.

The Castlegate mall was built in the 1970s, an era when local authorities were falling over themselves to attract big retail development.

media captionFormer staff reminisce about life at their town’s Debenhams branch

“Retail is still very important, but we now need to consolidate it to meet the demand,” says councillor Nigel Cooke, cabinet member for regeneration.

Businesses who want to stay will eventually move into the other shopping centre further up the street.

The scheme is part of a wider masterplan to market Stockton as an events town. The main high street, the widest in the UK, has been spruced up with new paving, lighting and a big water fountain. The council is also paying for the renovation of the town’s Grade II-listed art deco Globe Theatre.

“I think it is money well spent and I am convinced it’s the right thing to do. We need to get people back onto the high street either to live, to work or to enjoy themselves,” insists Mr Cooke.

“It would be easy to hide under my desk and say guys, we can’t do anything, let’s just wait for the good times to come back. But we have to do something.. nothing is risk free, it’s about managing the risk.”

But Stockton has now got a large, empty Debenhams to contend with, too.

Town centre regeneration is often complicated stuff, with a myriad of owners, stakeholders and issues to solve.

It’s taken Stockton 13 years to get this far and it’s only a third of the way through. But given the magnitude of the challenges now, doing nothing is no longer an option.