Boris Johnson’s conference speech was all rhetoric over substance

Inside the hall, it was a typical Boris Johnson performance: a cross between a summing-up speech at the Oxford Union, some after-dinner jokes, and the kind of unguided, busking campaign oratory that helped him win the London mayoralty, Brexit referendum, the Tory leadership and the 2019 general election.

Editorial: www.independent.co.uk 

Some of the lines were incomprehensible, meaningless, or both, often pointless schoolboyish puns, such as “Build Back Beaver” and “Jon Bon Govi”, or just random – “Hereward the Woke” and hydrogen-powered buses. There was only one item that could be remotely classified as substance: the £3,000 bonus for teachers of shortage subjects in hard-up areas, and even that wasn’t entirely fresh.

The trick with political speeches, as much as to galvanise the devotees in the hall, is to make them resonate with a much wider public. In this respect, the prime minister’s speech was a disappointment (assuming anyone had much hope for it in the first place).

Outside the hall, Mr Johnson’s boosterism and cheesy gags felt very much out of place. Perhaps it was bad luck or poor planning, but the speech was delivered shortly after about 1 million workers had come off the furlough support scheme, and on the very day that 6 million families were to suffer a reduction in their income of about £20, thanks to the end of the uplift in universal credit.

The breezy, confident tone of the prime minister may have sent his activists back to their constituencies prepared with new excuses for the state of the country, but it seemed entirely inconsistent with the mounting sense of chaos felt across the nation at large. Mr Johnson seemed out of touch; a great fan of Winston Churchill (duly referenced in the speech, a sure sign of a man who knows he needs an audience with him), the prime minister wasn’t offering blood, sweat and tears, but beavers, satire and Google Maps.

He did continue his efforts to turn the post-Brexit shortage of haulage drivers, and much else, into a new economic paradigm – a high-wage, high-productivity economy. Only days ago, ministers were telling anyone who would listen that it had nothing to do with leaving the EU and ending free movement of labour; now the public is expected to believe that it was the master plan all along. Of course, it is nonsense.

In a healthy economy, higher productivity gradually drives and justifies higher wages, and leads to healthier profits without pushing up costs and prices. In a struggling economy, as the UK now is, higher wages are caused purely by a sudden shortage of labour in certain sectors, partly due to Covid-19 in the current situation and exacerbated by Brexit. They will squeeze profits and lead to lower investment and thus lower productivity, and leave the UK with a shrunken economy and higher price inflation. Besides, for many workers, especially in the public services Mr Johnson showered with compliments, there will be real-term pay cuts, and every employee and every employer will be faced with higher national insurance contributions next year.

Not for the first time, Mr Johnson presented himself as a break from the past. He claimed that his government of “reform” was the first to have the “guts” to tackle huge changes such as reshaping the UK’s economic model and “fixing” social care, as well as getting Brexit “done”.

You would not think, listening to Mr Johnson, that the Conservatives have been in power, albeit sometimes including the influence of the Liberal Democrats or the Democratic Unionists, for more than a decade. There was not so much as a nod to his Conservative predecessors; as in the old Soviet Union, David Cameron, George Osborne and Theresa May are non-people, political losers and failures. Maybe, and Mr Johnson has been a consistent election winner, but his alibis – Brexit and Covid-19 – are receding and, like all leaders, he will soon have to show that he can live up to his rhetoric and keep his innumerable promises.

Tesco credits use of rail freight for keeping shelves stocked in supply crisis

Tesco is to increase its use of trains to distribute products by almost 40% as its boss credited investment in rail freight for helping to keep its shelves stocked during the lorry driver crisis.

Sarah Butler www.theguardian.com 

Ken Murphy, the chief executive, said the retailer had continued to cut prices despite commodity price increases and rising delivery costs but admitted it had reduced the level of discount promotions as well as the choice of products, such as pasta, in order to ensure it was fully stocked.

Murphy said the supermarket aimed to deliver 90,000 40ft containers of goods a year to its warehouses via trains by the end of 2021, up from about 65,000 at present. The tactic comes amid a battle for lorry drivers that led Tesco to offer new sign-ups a £1,000 incentive this summer.

Tesco’s rail service already includes five trains a week that bring fresh produce to the UK from Spain. From next month, Tesco will add two new UK food transport train services, including one that will link Spain with Scotland.

Murphy said Tesco was one of only three retailers that used a significant amount of rail freight. “This is a fantastic story from a sustainability point of view but it has really come into its own helping our supply chain resilience,” he said.

The UK’s biggest supermarket doubled profits in the first half of the year as it reduced costs related to the coronavirus pandemic and said its strong supply chain had meant it experienced fewer shortages than rivals despite the industry’s widespread delivery problems.

Sales rose 3% to £27.3bn in the six months to 28 August and profits soared by 107% to £1.1bn.

Tesco said its shoppers had sought out clothing and other household goods while it got a boost from more families holidaying in the UK because of travel restrictions and the Euro 2020 football tournament, which was postponed to the summer of 2021.

“As industry supply chains came under increasing pressure, we were able to leverage our strong supplier relationships and distribution capability to maintain good levels of availability for customers, contributing to our market outperformance,” it said.

Tesco’s online business continued to grow – by 2.3% – and shoppers stuck to big shops and large supermarkets as Covid concerns remained. Sales in its convenience stores fell as those in commuter areas lost out from the switch to working from home. The company is testing out a fast-track grocery service – Whoosh – from its convenience stores and this is now in 60 shops.

Murphy said Tesco was launching a £500m share buyback for investors as it expected to make up to £2.6bn of profits for the full year, about £700m more than previously anticipated.

Shares in Tesco jumped 5.9% to 268.05p, the top riser on the FTSE 100 index.

The profits upgrade came despite a £193m payout to shareholders related to a legal case linked to an accounting scandal at Tesco from 2014. A recovery at Tesco’s bank, which returned to profit, helped offset continued additional costs relating to Covid-19 and the repayment of business rates relief to the government.

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Murphy said sales growth continued to be strong and he did not expect any significant stock shortages in the run-up to Christmas because Tesco would use its strong relationships with suppliers to secure enough goods.

The supermarket has secured 10% more turkeys for Christmas than last year, for example, with sales of frozen birds already running ahead as shoppers aim to secure a festive centrepiece early.

Future profits will be partly boosted by a new target of £1bn in cost savings over the next three years. Tesco’s finance director said this would not be about significant job cuts but about many efficiencies, including more automation in warehouses and considering the closures of some head office space now that more staff were working from home.

The group will take on 30,000 temporary staff in the run-up to Christmas and Murphy said half of those were already in place and he did not expect major problems with recruiting the rest.

Devon covid up again

Covid cases have again risen in the Devon County Council area and Plymouth, but fallen slightly in Torbay.

Ollie Heptinstall, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk

In the week to Thursday 30 September cases increased by 20 per cent in the Devon County Council area and six per cent in Plymouth but were down by seven per cent in Torbay.

All three council areas are below the national average of 348. Devon’s  cases per 100,000 people now stands at 311, while the numbers in Torquay and Plymouth are 338 and 256 respectively.

Of the county’s eight district areas, North and Mid Devon recorded the biggest rises of around 45 per cent, putting North Devon infection rate now above the national average at 380 cases per 100,000. Mid Devon’s is still significantly lower at 247.

Torridge and Teignbridge also had increases of around a third (35 per cent), with the infection rate in Torridge now above the UK figure. East Devon mirrored the county with cases here going up by a fifth, while Exeter’s cases increased by 24 per cent.

Elsewhere, South Hams recorded the only significant fall in Devon, of 27 per cent, though West Devon did see a minor drop of four cases compared to the previous week.

Last week the covid enhanced response area for Devon and Cornwall, put in place after infections soared during the summer tourist season, came to an end after public health officials didn’t request an extension.

HOSPITALISATIONS

Despite fluctuating case numbers in some parts of the county, there seems to be a clear trend downwards in the number of people being treated for covid in Devon’s hospitals. The figure is again down on last week – by 24.

Latest figures for Tuesday 28 September show 73 covid patients in the county’s hospitals, 28 of which are at Derriford in Plymouth, 28 at the RD&E, 10 in Torbay, 5 in North Devon and two at Devon Partnership mental health trust sites. Of the total number of patients, eight are on mechanical ventilation beds.

DEATHS

Fourteen more people died in the county within 28 days of testing positive for covid in the latest complete weekly period (up to Wednesday 29 September). Nine were in the Devon County Council area, three in Plymouth and two in Torbay.

A total of 1,225 people in Devon (including Plymouth and Torbay) have died within 28 days of a positive test since the pandemic began.

VACCINATIONS

The government has announced that vaccination percentages for the UK “will not be updated while we work on a solution to include 12-15 year olds”.

Last week’s figures showed the number of people aged over 16 who have received at least one dose of a vaccine was 87 per cent in the Devon County Council area, 86 per cent in Torbay and 84 per cent in Plymouth.

The proportion of people who were fully vaccinated with both jabs was 82 per cent in Devon, 79 per cent in Torbay and 77 per cent in Plymouth.

From the Devon Covid Dashboard

Current rises in East Devon are concentrated in two age groups: 0-19 and 40-59 year olds; school children and their parents?

Covid: Little headroom before NHS becomes “heavily stressed”

COVID-19: UK has little ‘headroom’ for coronavirus cases to surge before NHS ‘heavily stressed’, professor warns

Connor Sephton news.sky.com 

The UK has little “headroom” for rising coronavirus cases before the NHS becomes “heavily stressed”, an expert has warned.

Professor Neil Ferguson – a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – told MPs that levels of transmission in the UK are currently far higher than in other countries.

At present, about 600 people are being admitted to hospital with COVID-19 every day. He believes the NHS may struggle to cope if this doubles to 1,200 in the winter months.

The government has previously said that mandatory face masks could return, COVID passports could be introduced and people could be told to work from home once again if pressure on the NHS needs to be alleviated.

Speaking to the all-party group on coronavirus, Prof Ferguson said: “We are starting with quite a high incidence and so we don’t have very much headroom for increases.

“If we compare, for instance, incidence of COVID cases per day in France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Portugal, there is a much lower level than us, so they can afford to see something of a surge of transmission, which they may well, without unduly stressing the health system.”

The SAGE member went on to warn, “we are much closer to the limit of what the NHS can cope with”.

Prof Ferguson’s modelling was instrumental when the UK first went into lockdown in March 2020, but he said there is a high level of unpredictability when it comes to what will happen this winter.

He added: “We could see continued flat incidence, even slow decline if we get boosters out quickly.

“So it’s not guaranteed we will see a large winter surge by any means, but we can’t afford, at the current time, to have too much of a winter surge before really the NHS is very heavily stressed.”

The professor said that, given a political decision has been made to “live with COVID”, keeping a close eye on the data will be crucial.

“The lesson we have learned is that if you start seeing an upward trend and that is sustained for a period of time, then you need to get ahead of it,” he added.

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Whitty: ‘Near certainty’ unjabbed kids will get COVID

Prof Ferguson also said that he had been more content with the timeliness of the government’s interventions to curb the spread of coronavirus since last December.

He said people in the UK are not having the same level of contact as they were before the pandemic, which is helping the situation.

However, the professor pointed to data that suggests the UK is now behind Spain and Portugal – and probably France and the Netherlands – in terms of population immunity.

He added: “I personally think it’s unlikely we’ll see a very large wave comparable to what we saw in the second wave last year, but we could still see quite a substantial wave of transmission, and the real challenge will be the extent to which that stresses the NHS, where capacity is limited.”

When it comes to the long-term view, Prof Ferguson said he believes the UK will see seasonal surges of transmission that will “challenge the health system on top of flu and everything else”.

“Whether we need in some years to come to rely on some degree of mitigation beyond just vaccination remains to be seen,” he said.

Government data released on Monday showed that the UK had recorded 35,077 new COVID-19 cases and a further 33 coronavirus-related deaths in the latest 24-hour period.

By comparison, 37,960 cases and 40 deaths were recorded over the same period one week earlier.

The number of people in hospital with COVID-19 stood at 6,556 – down from 6,905 seven days earlier – with 805 of those on ventilators.

Invoking the “Magic Potion” Boris Johnson solves the Productivity Puzzle at a stroke!

Solving this puzzle has evaded Heart of the South West for years but yesterday Superman found his Kryptonite.

After two shots of the game changing “magic potion invented in Oxford University and bottled in Wales” Boris Johnson felt empowered, in his conference speech, to share with us his solution to the productivity puzzle. This is the essential key to his “vision for Britain” “building back better”.

“We are not going back to the same old broken model with low wages, low growth, low skills and low productivity, all of it enabled and assisted by uncontrolled immigration.

And the answer to the present stresses and strains, which are mainly a function of growth and economic revival, is not to reach for that same old lever of uncontrolled immigration, to keep wages low.

The answer is to control immigration to allow people of talent to come to this country, but not to use immigration as an excuse for failure to invest in people, in skills and in the equipment, the facilities, the machinery they need to do their jobs.

The truckstops – to pick an example entirely at random – with basic facilities where you don’t have to urinate in the bushes.

And that is the direction in which this country is going now. Towards a high wage, high skill, high productivity and yes, thereby low tax economy.”…..[interesting non sequitur! – Owl]

……“And that is how we solve the national productivity puzzle: by fixing the broken housing market, by plugging in the gigabit, by putting in decent safe bus routes and all other transport infrastructure and by investing in skills skills skills.”

Easy peasy, except none of these things are going to happen here any time soon are they?

Watch and read every boosterism of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party conference speech here inews.co.uk [Or possibly not, it doesn’t travel very well!]

Elsewhere Owl reads that an announcement is expected shortly to raise the minimum hourly wage to to the high rate of £9.42.