We need a Covid inquiry, and we need it now

The joint parliamentary committee report “Coronavirus, lessons learned to date” can be found here.

A good summary of the key findings  can be found here.

A more critical review: “Hard hitting” Covid reports fails to land a single punch can be found here.

Two comments from Owl:

We  urgently need to know the: who, what, where and when; and

The Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt’s participation as one of the Chairs, given his responsibilities as a former Health Minister, was/is totally inappropriate.

Jonathan Ashworth, shadow health secretary www.thetimes.co.uk

The findings of the joint select committee report into the government’s Covid response came as a surprise to no one, but to read the litany of monumental and tragic errors catalogued so clearly is still devastating.

We all remember watching in horror as desperate scenes unfolded in northern Italy last year and questions started to be asked as to why we weren’t locking down here. Instead, race meetings and European football fixtures went ahead. The pubs remained open.

We all heard the demands of the World Health Organisation to “test, test, test”, but here testing was abandoned in early March.

We were all angered as our brave NHS staff pleaded for PPE to replace the flimsy bin-bags they were forced to wear or visors and goggles they had to purchase from local DIY stores. Doctors said they were abandoned like lambs to the slaughter.

Most shameful of all was the failure to protect care homes. In the rush to free up hospital beds, the frail were quickly discharged without a test. The virus inevitably spread with an unforgiving ferocity. Boasts of a “protective ring” now ring sickeningly hollow.

The need to free up so many beds was a consequence of needing to find “surge” capacity in the NHS. But that in turn reflects a cold reality: that for ten years the Tories have run the NHS into the ground. The deepest financial squeeze in NHS history, cuts to 15,000 beds and shortages of 40,000 nurses meant we entered the pandemic desperately unprepared.

The reality is that the NHS and social care sector needed protecting even before the pandemic hit.

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The running down of our health service, social care and public health capacity meant that ministers were slow in their eventual response. As the virus began to spread rapidly in the UK, Boris Johnson took an approach that differed from almost every country around the world; he kept society open for longer, favouring herd immunity.

Government officials — experts in “nudge theory” — were sent out to tour TV studios extolling the virtues of allowing the virus to rip through the strong while the weak “cocoon”.

Nadine Dorries tweeted videos of a bucket overflowing with water to explain the approach. Inside government, figures joked of mass “chicken-pox parties”. Meanwhile, our dedicated public health medical experts (none of whom had a seat on Sage) looked on aghast.

The line being taken by uncomfortable Tory ministers is to say that this is all passing judgment with hindsight. But Labour raised questions with the approach throughout March 2020.

As country after country closed its borders or introduced testing of people returning home, in public statements we asked why the prime minister had not done the same. We demanded mass testing and contact tracing to be protected, and support for people to isolate when sick — a demand to this day still not fully met.

Highlighting the monumental scale of the failures experienced at the start of the pandemic is not being done for political point-scoring. It is crucial that the mistakes from the pandemic are learnt, to ensure that catastrophic failures on this scale never happen again.

This means starting a public inquiry now. There is no reason to wait.

But it also means preparing for the coming winter. As case rates remain high, we need proper ventilation for businesses and schools. We need the rollout of vaccinations for children to be sped up, and we need to target the areas that have the lowest vaccination rates to drive up the number of people being jabbed.

Our NHS too must be given support this winter. Today, the Royal College of Physicians has issued a stark warning about hospitals’ ability to cope with winter. No doctor should be forced to make a choice between Covid care and cancer care. But without a proper plan to keep infections down and reduce the pressures on hospitals this winter, it is likely that once again our NHS will be faced with this difficult choice.

Covid has not gone away. We can learn to live with the virus, but that is not the same as pretending that it no longer exists.

The lessons from this report must be that ministers keep on top of the virus — and that preparing for a pandemic can never come too soon.

The cost of “Freedom Day” or how Boris Johnson looks to have thrown  away his “vaccination bounce”

UK’s high Covid case rates buck trend as western Europe outperforms east

Experts have suggested this may be because most western European countries retained significant distancing and other Covid-related restrictions when they opened up during the summer, while England decided to drop almost all of its measures.

Jon Henley www.theguardian.com 

Higher vaccination rates are translating to lower Covid infection and death rates in western Europe than in parts of central and eastern Europe, the latest data suggests – except in the UK where case numbers are surging.

Figures from Our World In Data indicate a clear correlation between the percentage of people fully vaccinated and new daily cases and fatalities, with health systems in some under-inoculated central and eastern EU states under acute strain.

The outlier appears to be Britain, which – though now overtaken by multiple EU states – has vaccinated a similar share of its population to most western European countries, but has an infection rate that more closely resembles those in the east.

Slower vaccination programmes in central and eastern Europe combined with an easing of most social distancing requirements over the summer have led to a dramatic surge in Covid cases in some central and eastern European countries.

Driven by the more infectious Delta variant, the Baltic states of Lithuania (771) and Latvia (737) have the highest rolling seven-day average of new daily cases per million, according to Our World In Data, with Romania (678) and Estonia (675) not far behind.

The same countries, with Bulgaria, are also enduring among Europe’s highest daily fatality rates per million, with Romania on a rolling average of 14 and Bulgaria on 13, followed by Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on 9, 5 and 3 respectively.

Those figures stand in stark contrast to some of the best-performing countries in western Europe: new daily infections per million in Spain, Italy, Portugal, Sweden and France are more than 10 times lower, at about 38, 43, 59, 59 and 76 respectively, with figures for daily deaths per million similarly down at between 0.5 to 0.9.

Health systems in Romania, Bulgaria and Latvia are struggling to cope, with hospitals running at 80% to 100% capacity. Romania last week postponed all non-essential operations, Bulgaria is battling a wave of fake vaccination and PCR test certificates and Latvia has declared a medical emergency.

“If the current flow of patients continues, in one or two days the health system will collapse because we already don’t have enough place to accommodate the sick,” the director of Bucharest’s Matei Bals hospital, Cătălin Apostolescu, said last week.

On Thursday there were 14,457 new Covid cases in Romania in 24 hours, in a country of just over 19 million, while Friday’s death toll was the highest of the pandemic so far, with 385 people dying from coronavirus. For the first time since the start of the pandemic, the country is envisaging sending critically ill patients abroad.

“I fear we are already in the Italy scenario,” said the head of the national vaccination campaign, Valeriu Gheorghiță, referring to the healthcare system in northern Italy becoming overwhelmed in March 2020 during the first wave of the virus.

The correlation with vaccination progress appears plain. Again according to Our World In Data, Bulgaria and Romania have the EU’s lowest immunisation rates, with just 20% and 29% of their total populations having received two doses.

Latvia and Estonia are performing better at 48% and 43%, but even those figures are a very long way from the percentages recorded by many western European countries.

Portugal has now fully vaccinated nearly 86% of its total population, Spain nearly 79%, Italy more than 68% and France more than 66%, with any increase in cases having only a very limited impact on fatality figures.

Official data shows more than 70% of confirmed infections and 93% of deaths in Romania are in unvaccinated people, “We are still a battlefield, sadly,” said Adrian Marinescu, the medical director of the national institute for infectious diseases. “Vaccination is often the difference between life and death for a vulnerable person.”

Bulgaria and Romania face the additional challenge of political crises. Bulgaria is heading into its third parliamentary election in less than a year while Romania’s government was toppled last week in a no-confidence vote, leaving politicians in both countries reluctant to impose tougher restrictions for fear of upsetting voters.

Britain is in the unusual position of having fully vaccinated a relatively high percentage of its population (just over 66%), but also having Europe’s fifth-highest infection rate, at 534 new daily cases per million people – not far behind the Baltics and between eight and 12 times higher that France, Italy and Spain.

After a hugely successful early vaccination rollout, the UK has been overtaken by seven EU states, partly because many continental countries began vaccinating children over 12 as early as June – although other factors, such as strong incentivisation through vaccine passports, have also helped boost vaccination rates in countries such as France.

While the UK’s relatively high vaccination rate means deaths per million are a fraction of the daily total in Bulgaria and Romania, they are still the highest in western Europe, significantly above such countries as Spain, France, Italy and Germany.

Experts have suggested this may be because most western European countries retained significant distancing and other Covid-related restrictions when they opened up during the summer, while England decided to drop almost all of its measures.

Germany and Italy, for example, still restrict large gatherings, while Spain enforces social distancing in schools. Many countries also require proof of vaccination or a negative test to enter public spaces such as museums and theatres, as well as cafes and restaurants, and masks are still mandatory on public transport and in shops.

Christina Pagel and Martin McKee, members of Independent Sage, an expert group critical of the UK government’s approach, wrote last week in the Guardian that the UK was pursuing what they termed a “vaccine just” strategy, while much of western Europe had opted for “vaccine plus”.

“Both require vaccinating as many people as possible,” Pagel and McKee wrote. But while Britain had relied only on vaccines – where it was now starting to fall behind – “face coverings and vaccine passports remain widespread across western Europe”. They said England, “not for the first time, is the odd one out in Europe.”

Covid rates up in all areas of Devon

Coronavirus infection rates have gone up in all ten areas of Devon.

Daniel Clark www.devonlive.com

Torridge continues to have the highest coronavirus infection rate in Devon, as the area recorded a rate of 451.1 cases per 100,000 people in the week ending October 7, according to the latest data from the UK Health Security Agency.

The lowest infection rate is in Mid Devon, where the rate is 291.8 cases per 100,000 people.

In Devon as a whole, the infection rate is now 357.9 cases per 100,000 population – slightly higher than the national average, which is 356.6 cases per 100,000 people.

A total of 4,330 people tested positive for coronavirus across Devon in the week which ended on October 7. The county-wide weekly total has increased by 566 cases compared to the previous week, which means the infection rate was up 15 per cent in the last week.

The infection rate is higher than the national average in 4 areas of Devon. It is lower than the national average in 6 areas.

Deaths

In the week ending October 7, a total of 11 people died within 28 days of a positive Covid test across Devon, which is 8 fewer than the week before.

Cases reported in each of the ten areas

There was a rise of seven per cent in cases in East Devon over the week ending October 7, and the infection rate is now 336.3 cases per 100,000 population.

East Devon recorded 498 positive Covid-19 tests over the seven-day period, and that is 33 more than the previous week.

Teignbridge saw a total of 463 cases in the week ending October 7, which is 37 more than the previous week. That is a rise of nine per cent.

In Teignbridge, the most recent coronavirus infection rate is now 342.9 cases per 100,000 people.

In Torridge, there were 310 positive Covid-19 tests in the week ending October 7, which is 55 more than the previous 7 days.

Torridge has the highest infection rate in the region. The infection rate in Torridge is up slightly compared with the previous day and the week-on-week trend is up by 22 per cent.

In North Devon, the latest infection rate is 410.5 cases per 100,000 people and the number of cases has gone up by eight per cent.

A total of 403 people tested positive for Covid in North Devon over the seven days ending on October 7, which is 29 more than the week before.

In Exeter, the number of cases is up by nine per cent compared to the previous week – leaving the infection rate at 315.0 cases per 100,000 population.

There were 420 positive Covid-19 tests in Exeter in the week ending October 7, which was 35 more than the previous 7 days.

There were 241 positive tests over the last week in West Devon, which is 68 more than in the previous week.

The week-on-week trend in West Devon is up by 39 per cent and the latest infection rate is 429.3 cases per 100,000 people.

Plymouth recorded 1016 coronavirus cases, which is 126 more than in the previous seven days.

The latest infection rate in Plymouth is 386.5 cases per 100,000 people and that is up 14 per cent week-on-week.

The trend is up in Torbay, where there were 478 positive Covid-19 tests in the week ending October 7, which is 130 more than the previous 7 days. That is up by 37 per cent compared to the previous week.

The latest infection rate in Torbay is 350.9 cases per 100,000 people, which is lower than the national average.

South Hams is an area where the trend is up. The latest infection rate here is 293.4 cases per 100,000 people.

There were 258 cases recorded in South Hams, which is 17 more than the previous week – a rise of seven per cent.

Mid Devon, which has the lowest infection rate in the region, recorded 243 positive Covid-19 tests in the week ending October 7, which is 36 more than the previous 7 days.

The coronavirus infection rate in Mid Devon is now 291.8 cases per 100,000 people and is up by 17 per cent week-on-week.

Derelict land to be transformed to deliver new homes

Regeneration projects in Devon and Torbay have been awarded more than £8.4 million of Government funding.

www.devon.gov.uk

Photo of an excavator/digger

The Devon and Torbay One Public Estate Partnership has announced that it has received £7,056,470 of Brownfield Land Release Funding (BLRF), and £1,360,474 of Self and Custom Build Grant funding to help drive economic recovery.

Councils are supported through the One Public Estate programme to deliver initiatives which create economic growth by unlocking land for new homes and jobs; providing new opportunities to save on running costs or generating income funding; or transforming services.

The Devon & Torbay One Public Estate partnership is made up of 10 local authorities (Devon County Council, East Devon District Council, Exeter City Council, Mid Devon District Council, North Devon Council, South Hams District Council, Teignbridge District Council, Torbay Council, Torridge District Council and West Devon Borough Council) as well as the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership, Devon & Cornwall Police, Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service, the NHS, and South Western Ambulance Service.

Councillor Rufus Gilbert, Cabinet Member for Economic Recovery and Skills, said:

“The Devon and Torbay OPE Partnership has successfully received the full amount of its bid in this latest round of funding, highlighting the benefits of working closely together. All of these schemes will regenerate and redevelop sites to open up opportunities for housing and economic growth as we look to ensure a strong recovery right across Devon.”

The successful bids for BLRF Funding are:

Exeter City Council –

Exeter City Council has been awarded £5,966,470 for the following sites:

• Cathedral and Quay car park

• Mary Arches car park

• Bonhay Meadows

• Belle Isle

• Exeter Canal Basin

Councillor Laura Wright, Deputy Leader of Exeter City Council, said: “This is excellent news for Exeter. This funding will help kick-start some very innovative housing projects which have been identified for key strategic sites in Exeter. We need to create more quality homes in the city but, to protect the greenfield ridges surrounding Exeter, we need to prioritise building on previously developed brownfield sites. So it is excellent news that the funding is now in place to further progress these important schemes.”

Torbay Council –

Torbay Council is receiving £675,000 for the redevelopment of Brixham town centre multi-storey car park and £415,000 to carry out groundworks at Torre Marine.

The multi-storey car park was demolished in 2004. It is hoped that this funding can help deliver a scheme that will see up to 70 residential units built on site. The project will address the aspirations of residents by bringing forward more affordable housing in the area. The new housing will be built without the loss of any car parking spaces, delivering on Brixham’s Town Centre Regeneration Strategy.

Torre Marine has been the subject of various planning consents over the years but none have been delivered. The funding will be used to try to develop a viable scheme to build 78 Assisted Living care units to be maintained and managed by a registered provider. The aim of the project is to address an under supply of extra care units within Torbay, helping to reduce waiting lists for such specialist accommodation and improving health outcomes for residents.

Councillor Steve Darling, Leader of Torbay Council, said: “It is fantastic that Torbay has secured this funding to allow us to hopefully accelerate the development of these two key sites, if initial investigation works go to plan. In Torbay this summer we have seen record numbers on our housing waiting list and a severe shortage of care accommodation. The lack of housing supply has created a housing crisis in Torbay, therefore a project to accelerate the building of new housing is great news for our residents and local community.”

The Self and Custom Build Grant Funding has been awarded to:

Teignbridge District Council –

Howton Field £585,474

Orchard Lane £275,000

Teignbridge District Council Executive member for housing, Councillor Martin Wrigley, welcomed the funding: “Custom and self-build homes are an attractive option for many people so receiving funding to cover some of the high infrastructure costs on these council owned sites is welcomed. Our plans for 10 – 20 custom build homes at Howton Field near Newton Abbot are well advanced with planning permission already achieved.

“The Orchard Lane site at Dawlish was highlighted in our recent local plan sites option consultation and so any building would be subject to the outcome of that consultation, member consideration and approval as well as planning permission being sought for around six affordable custom or self build homes. If approved, some of the funding would enable us to offset the open space loss by improving play equipment on a nearby site.”

North Devon Council –

Bicclescombe depot £500,000

This government grant is going to enable North Devon Council to deliver the necessary groundworks and infrastructure to release the former Bicclescombe Depot site in Ilfracombe for up to 15 serviced building plots, including affordable housing. It is a great opportunity to open up a site to local residents to build their own homes, but it needs this up-front investment to make it suitable for housing.

There are over a hundred people on North Devon’s register seeking suitable building plots so there is demand for this type of opportunity. Once the Council has secured outline planning permission and delivered the infrastructure, individual serviced plots will be made available for those wishing to physically self-build their own home or those who wish to commission a new home that is delivered by professionals on behalf of new homeowners following a collaboration between a developer and an owner to design or customise their home to suit their individual needs.

North Devon Council’s Lead Member for Economic Regeneration, Councillor Malcolm Prowse, says: “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring this site back to life and offer local people a chance to build their own homes. This site has long been a thorn in our side due to the complications on site making it unviable but thanks to this government investment, we can finally overcome all of those hurdles to the benefit of the community and the local economy.”

Almost £58 million has been allocated by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) to councils across the country to develop brownfield land into quality housing to help people onto the property ladder while transforming derelict local areas.