Britain is broken from a decade of Tory government

There is a very clear reason for the mess the country is in right now. It is called the Conservative Party. It has been in power for over a decade. A lost decade. A wasted decade, in which the big choices and challenges faced have been decided, not with the national interest in mind, but on the basis of the internal divisions and difficulties of the wretched Tory party.

Welcome to a new year of more of the same! – Owl

Alastair Campbell

ABC. A for Austerity. B for Brexit. C for Covid. Draw a Venn diagram of the MPs who argued hardest for austerity, fought relentlessly for a hard Brexit, and are now demanding Covid policy is founded on the politics of Steve Baker and Esther McVey rather than the expertise of Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, and you see at its centre the same Tory MPs who were once marginal but now call the shots in the party of government.

McVey may have been ill-advised to say it out loud, but she was right when she said the Tory rebellion over plan B Covid restrictions had had an effect on the cabinet decision to avoid plan C. Yet again, policy on key national issues is being decided not on the merits of fact and argument, but on internal Tory politics.

Of course Boris Johnson has to go. He is both venal and incompetent, and his moral vacuity has been exposed. But he is a symptom of his party and its politics, a ghastly symbol of that wasted decade, and the Tories cannot be allowed to play their favourite con game, of pretending that a change of leader is somehow a change of government. Labour needs to be wise to this, because it is almost certainly the trick they will now try to pull off.

Let’s just remind ourselves of the Tory decade. First we had David Cameron and George Osborne, whose austerity was a series of brutal political choices dressed up as economic necessity, the consequences of which are playing out now in the shrunken state’s difficulty managing a pandemic.

Then Cameron’s referendum pledge, made not because the country needed or wanted it, but to shut up the anti-Europeans and shore up the right of his party. It worked, short-term, in that it helped him get Europe off the agenda, win an election, get rid of the Liberal Democrats as coalition partners, and govern on his own.

The trouble was, having won, he had to hold the referendum, and suddenly the party divisions exploded once more. Johnson decided his own interest clashed with the national interest, and opted inevitably for the former. His gamble paid off. He won, while Cameron lost and tootled off into a lucrative lobbying sunset, leaving Theresa May to try to make sense of what he had left behind.

This ushered in the “Brexit means Brexit”, “will of the people” chapter of this story of national decline. May appointed David Davis as Brexit secretary, where he failed to see that the complexities of getting a deal required more than the ability to busk your way cheerfully through a Today programme interview.

Having assured the world that it would be straightforward to reach the sunlit uplands, he quickly discovered that, though the promises were easy, the details were not. Unable to find a way of marrying the huge claims made for Brexit with the reality of what Brexit meaning Brexit actually meant, he took the easy way out, and walked, leaving unicorns behind him.

Next to the crease was Dominic Raab. The same unicorns were sought. The same finale. He walked, replaced by Stephen Barclay, who was so lost in the contradictions of Brexit that he ended up voting against a motion he had just argued for in the Commons.

Once May was ousted, with Johnson replacing her and then winning his own mandate on the promise to “get Brexit done” with an “oven-ready deal”, we had the unelected bureaucrat David Frost in charge. Only it turned out that the deal required a lot more cooking, and when it was done, though celebrated by Johnson, Frost and Co as “great”, it transpired that they had broken a whole new set of promises to get it, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the peace process in Northern Ireland – the Brexit circle that John Major and Tony Blair had warned from the off could not be squared. A year on from the celebrations, Frost walked too.

However, now elevated to the Lords, and feted by the libertarian right who had pushed for a hard Brexit when Johnson was still singing the praises of the single market, Frost saw himself as much more than a mere Brexit functionary. Not for him the shameful route of simple failure taken by his three predecessors. He had to have a bigger reason – step forward Covid restrictions, high taxes, the role of the state: the arguments on which those now jockeying to replace Johnson – notably Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss – are focused. All cover for his actually having discovered that unicorn-chasing is fruitless.

So Johnson replaces one former Remainer opportunist, Frost, with another, Truss. Not because she is the most able person, but because she is popular in the party – so if she can do the job well, it helps the government, and if she does it badly, it sees her off as a leadership contender. And her first utterances have been an almost exact echo of the unicorn stance of her quartet of failed predecessors – because that is “what the party wants to hear”, and that is all they care about.

Meanwhile, Brexit is delivering a 4 per cent hit on the economy, double the impact of Covid; and as Frost bleats his opposition to recent tax rises, he appears to lack either the knowledge or the humility to be able to see that Brexit has made such rises inevitable. High inflation, rising taxes, low growth and productivity, real living standards stagnant, chaos for many businesses large and small, and in some cases entire sectors: these cannot be put down to Brexit alone. But it is the single biggest factor, and “nothing to do with Brexit” is just the latest in the long litany of lies told by the Brexit cabal.

Johnson is in a mess politically because of lies told about wallpaper and Christmas parties. But the effects of the far bigger lies told about Brexit – before, during and since the referendum – will sadly be with us long after he is gone, when the Christmas parties are forgotten. Cameron came to power in part by pushing the myth of “broken Britain”. Brexit is in danger of making that myth a reality, and those who brought it about have to pay a far bigger price than merely seeing Johnson forced out of No 10, with another opportunist Tory installed in his place. If Britain is breaking, it is because the Tory Party, and Brexit, have broken it.

Hospital Covid admissions from omicron could exceed second wave, study suggests

Even if omicron turns out to be just half as severe as delta, UK hospitalisations could exceed those seen at the peak of the second wave, according to new modelling.

By Paul Nuki, Global Health Security Editor 

The study, which has been presented to Sage and produced by the University of Warwick, has suggested that the NHS will only escape a re-run of last year if omicron turns out to be five to 10 times milder than other variants.

“Under these assumptions of no additional control [beyond Plan B], and even assuming omicron is just 10 per cent the severity of delta it is still highly likely that hospital admissions will peak above 1,500 per day,” said the authors.

“If we assume that omicron is as severe as delta [black line] then admissions will be an order of magnitude larger, peaking at around 27,000 admissions.”

There is strong evidence to suggest omicron is less severe than delta, but estimates as to how much less severe vary greatly.

Data from Scotland released last week suggested omicron is associated with a two thirds reduction in risk of hospitalisation when compared with delta.

‘Strong controls enacted early bring the greatest reduction in infections, hospital admissions and deaths’

A separate study by Imperial College London looking at early English data suggested people with PCR-confirmed omicron infection were 15 to 20 per cent less likely to require hospitalisation.

The Warwick modelling is not intended to predict what will happen over the next few months. Instead it is designed to inform ministers about the range of possibilities that may unfold.

The authors say that assuming the omicron is 100 per cent as severe as delta (black line on chart) represents a “reasonable worst case”.

They also caution that if the time it takes omicron to become symptomatic is shorter than with delta – as it is now strongly suspected – it would radically alter their results for the better.

“If the generation time of omicron was half that of delta, once the model is recalibrated… this would approximately halve the predicted peak outbreak sizes”, they said.

The modelling also looks at the impact of reimposing restrictions beyond Plan B and finds – unsurprisingly perhaps – that it brings the projections for cases, hospitalisations and deaths down significantly, albeit at a cost to the economy and peoples freedoms.

“Strong controls enacted early bring the greatest reduction in infections, hospital admissions and deaths during the first wave of omicron”, it says.

Ministers will have seen or had the message from the Warwick modelling conveyed to them before Christmas when it was decided to stick to the plan B measures only.

And most experts now agreed that implementing measures now would have a much diminished impact, given the intergenerational mixing that happened over Christmas.

Yet ministers will be watching the live data carefully.

There were a total of 11,452 people in hospital in England with Covid-19 as of 8am on Thursday, according to figures from NHS England.

This is up 61 per cent from a week earlier and is the highest number since February 26.

During the second wave of coronavirus, the number peaked at 34,336 on January 18.

Tory underfunding has put the NHS on death row 


Your report on the state of the NHS (One in four Britons ‘not confident NHS can care for them’, survey reveals, 26 December) was summed up by the quote from Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary: “With record waiting lists, 100,000 NHS staff shortages and 112,000 vacancies in social care in 2019, the Tories left our health service criminally ill-equipped for Covid.”

My husband, in the final stages of dementia and awaiting a place in care, is in a holding ward. Insufficient nurses try to cope, but mouth hygiene is neglected. And no shower or hair wash for more than a month. He deserves better. Hardly God’s waiting room, more like death row. Aneurin Bevan will be turning in his grave.

Hilda Reynolds


You report that one in four of us is not sure that the NHS can care for them. I wonder if this stage in public sentiment was envisaged or even engineered as part of a transition to a system of private healthcare. For almost two years we have been bludgeoned with the command to protect the NHS. But protecting the NHS is not primarily our responsibility – it’s the government’s. There’s nothing inevitable about the NHS having to struggle along on inadequate resources while its staff compensate for the deficit with heroic amounts of goodwill.

Susan Tomes


In the past four months, three friends of mine, all ardent believers in the NHS, have swallowed their principles and paid for private operations to avoid a wait of up to two years for surgery that would restore their quality of life. They have no doubts about the quality of care provided by the NHS, but its underresourcing means that long waits for non-urgent interventions have become painfully inevitable.

With a heavy heart, I fear that I would do the same in their position. This is what 11 years of underfunding has come to. And yes, I do believe that this is a Conservative strategy towards private healthcare, in which, because we can afford to do so, we find ourselves colluding.

Ruth Pickles

Congleton, Cheshire

Covid Cases set to break 200,000

At a critical point in the evolution of the current wave of Covid infection in England (following the data hour by hour), we have the disruption to consistent reporting caused by the holidays coupled with constraints on testing, including PCR.

Owl picks out two observations about trends from the Zoe Covid study:

“The number of daily new symptomatic COVID cases are more than double what they were this time last year and we are just a day or two away from hitting over 200,000.  However, the exponential growth in cases appears to have stopped, and the rise is more steady. Hospitalisation rates are thankfully much lower than this time last year, but they are still high, especially in London.”

“The rise in cases appears to be slowing in the 0-55 age groups. Cases are rising sharply in the 55-75 age groups, which is worrying given this group is more at risk of hospitalisation.” 

According to ZOE COVID Study incidence figures, in total there are currently 192,290 new daily symptomatic cases of COVID in the UK on average, based on PCR and LFT test data from up to three days ago [*]. An increase of 33% from 144,284 reported last week (Graph 1). 

In the vaccinated population (at least two doses) there are currently 78,748 new daily symptomatic cases in the UK. An increase of 40% from 56,346 new daily cases reported last week (Graph 2).

The UK R value is estimated to be around 1.2 and regional R values are; England, 1.2, Wales, 1.1, Scotland, 1.1 (Table 1). 

In terms of prevalence, on average 1 in 32 people in the UK currently have symptomatic COVID. In the regions, England, 1 in 30. Wales, 1 in 41. Scotland, 1 in 51. In London, 1 in 16 have symptomatic COVID (Table 1).

Cases are rising in all regions, particularly in the North West, which has a R value of 1.3. However, cases continue to be higher in London than any other region (Graph 4).

The rise in cases appears to be slowing in the 0-55 age groups. Cases are rising sharply in the 55-75 age groups, which is worrying given this group is more at risk of hospitalisation  (Graph 3).

According to the data, ZOE estimates that 75% of people experiencing new cold-like symptoms are likely to have symptomatic COVID-19. This number has increased since last week, as the data is now showing a fall in the number of non-COVID ‘colds’ and a continued rise in symptomatic COVID infections (Graph 5).

The ZOE COVID Study incidence figures (new symptomatic cases) are based on reports from around 840,000 weekly contributors and the proportion of newly symptomatic users who have received positive swab tests. The latest survey figures were based on data from 67,687 recent swab tests done in the two weeks up to 27th December 2021. 

Dr Claire Steves, scientist on the ZOE COVID Study app and Reader at King’s College London comments on the latest data:

“The number of daily new symptomatic COVID cases are more than double what they were this time last year and we are just a day or two away from hitting over 200,000.  However, the exponential growth in cases appears to have stopped, and the rise is more steady. Hospitalisation rates are thankfully much lower than this time last year, but they are still high, especially in London. The ZOE data is showing that cases are still on the rise in 55-75 year olds so unfortunately it’s likely that this will translate into more hospital admissions in the New Year. 

It’s good news to see that fewer people are newly sick than a few weeks ago. However, the fact that 75% of new cold-like symptoms are COVID, and the classic symptoms are much less common, means the Government advice needs to be urgently updated. We want to see symptoms like sore throat, headache, and runny nose added to the list as soon as possible. 

Looking ahead to 2022, the strategy should be about focusing on maximising our immunity, across the generations, across all sections of society and across the world. Let’s be clear, this is a global pandemic so we need to be looking at other countries and helping vaccination programs everywhere to increase global immunity levels and help reduce the risk of future variants.” 

Graph 1. The ZOE COVID Study UK incidence figures total number of daily new cases over time.

Graph 2. The ZOE COVID Study UK incidence figures results over time; total number of new cases and new cases in fully vaccinated

Graph 3. Incidence by age group 

Graph 4. Prevalence rate by region

Graph 5. Comparison of new onset of cold-like illness and new onset of COVID with respiratory symptoms

Table 1. Incidence (daily new symptomatic cases)[*], R values and prevalence regional breakdown table 

Map of UK prevalence figures

Of course England is running out of Covid tests – the strategy is a flawed one

It has become very clear that there are nowhere near enough lateral flow tests for Covid-19 in England to allow the government’s policy of their indiscriminate use.

Azeem Majeed, a professor of primary care and public health at Imperial College London

Even if funding could be found to buy more tests, it is unlikely that the government could source enough tests to meet current and future demand because of the many other countries that are also trying to obtain the tests as they struggle to control the wave of infections from the Omicron variant.

The government is in part to blame for the current problems with the increased demand for tests. It has encouraged members of the public to test regularly. For example, before social events such as parties and also before meeting friends and family from outside their immediate household.

The very high level of Covid-19 cases in the UK (with around 183,00 cases reported on 29 December) also means that many more people will have been advised to test regularly in line with guidance from Test and Trace. This will include guidance for close contacts of cases who are asked to carry out daily tests for 10 days if they are fully vaccinated and want to avoid isolating. People with a Covid-19 infection can also test themselves on day six and day seven of their illness, and end their period of isolation if they are asymptomatic and the two tests are both negative.

What can we do to improve how well lateral flow tests are used?

The first step is for the government to publish data on the daily supply of tests. We then need clear guidance from the government on what groups should be prioritised for testing and how frequently they should test.

Carrying out several tests in one day is not a good use of these tests. Nor is carrying out daily lateral flow tests after a positive PCR test (other than on day six and seven, as discussed above). Even daily tests are inappropriate in asymptomatic people when there is now such a large gap between the supply and demand for tests.

NHS guidance is for staff to test twice a week with a lateral flow test, but many asymptomatic people are testing more frequently than this. NHS trusts and general practices need to review their testing polices and give clear guidance to staff to protect the supply of tests.

Once we have information on the daily supply of tests, we can then prioritise who will have access to these tests. This kind of prioritisation is quite normal in healthcare and was done, for example, with Covid-19 vaccination to ensure access was given based on clinical and occupational priority.

Groups for priority access to tests should include: NHS staff in patient-facing roles; teachers and other people working in schools; workers in essential parts of the economy such as public transport; and groups such as HGV drivers to ensure that deliveries of essential items continues. It should also include patients who are clinically vulnerable and those following guidance from Test and Trace.

We are also facing a shortage of PCR tests and an important question arises for the government: should we use lateral flow tests to give better access to testing for people with symptoms and reduce testing for people who are asymptomatic?

If this does happen, we will still need to decide which groups have access to lateral flow tests in place of PCR tests. But successful implementation of this policy could allow many more people to receive a test. Although lateral flow tests are not as sensitive as PCR tests, they will still identify many people with Covid-19.

We need to look again at the costs of supplying these tests and to determine what we can afford to spend. Although the tests are supplied at no cost to the public, they are not free and will come at a considerable cost to the taxpayer. Access to diagnostic services and other health services always has to be limited; and based on factors such as clinical need, health outcomes, and cost-effectiveness.

With the country facing record numbers of people with Covid-19, it is important to maximise the benefits of England’s testing capacity. We need the government to act quickly, decisively – and rationally.

Downing Street Christmas party inquiry hauls in aides

One government source said those asked for interview were “pissing themselves”.

Maybe they fear being thrown under one of Boris’ buses, while he walks free? – Owl

Steven Swinford

Downing Street officials and special advisers have been asked to attend formal interviews as part of an inquiry into allegations that parties were held in No 10 during lockdown last year.

Sue Gray, the civil servant leading the inquiry, has emailed more than a dozen people about the events. One government source said those asked for interview were “pissing themselves”.

Gray was drafted in to take over from Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, after The Times revealed that a Christmas party was held in his office during lockdown. Case said he was aware of the gathering but had not participated.

The inquiry is likely to focus on a gathering in Downing Street on December 18 last year. Several of those present told The Times that there was cheese and wine, music and that the event went on until 2am. No 10 has denied that the event was a Christmas party.

However, the gathering was planned for three weeks, with invitations sent to officials and advisers on WhatsApp while the UK was in full lockdown.

The event was attended by Jack Doyle, the prime minister’s director of communications, who handed out awards, something insiders said he did every week.

He is said to have left the party for meetings with Boris Johnson, including urgent discussions on whether to effectively cancel Christmas for millions of people by banning households from mixing. Johnson made the announcement the following day.

Johnson has repeatedly said he has been “assured” by senior advisers that the event was not a party. However, he was forced to order an investigation amid public outrage over the event.

There are suggestions that up to seven lockdown-breaking gatherings took place in November and December last year. Gray’s investigation will examine the event on December 18, a reported leaving event for a No 10 aide on November 27 which was said to have been attended by Johnson, as well as a party at the Department for Education. Sajid Javid, the health secretary, has said that Gray will be free to investigate other events.

Downing Street staff were also pictured drinking in the No 10 garden during the first lockdown in May 2020. The government has insisted that it was a work meeting.

PCR tests in Devon unavailable for second day

How to keep Omicron at bay – stop testing! – Owl

“The Prime Minister has now found himself caught between the Covid Recovery Group and supporters and the scientists.”

Does this rate as another Omnishambles?

James Johnson

No PCR test centres Devon have booking slots available for the second morning running as the Government comes under pressure to up the capacity of its testing.

A new record was set for the daily number of coronavirus cases on Wednesday, as all four UK nations reported their figures for the first time since Christmas Eve.

At times yesterday, there were no PCR tests or lateral flow tests available to order online, and in the morning there were no drive-in test centres available.

This morning in Devon, there are no test centres showing as having bookings available. For a short time there was availability but by 9.20am this had switched to none available.

The Government’s website showed availability for home-delivered tests but again by 9.20am this had reverted to none available.

Officials acknowledged that during periods of exceptional demand there could be “temporary pauses” in ordering or receiving tests, in an attempt to manage distribution across the system.

The reduced postal system over Christmas has also added to the issues.

No test centres available in Devon for the second day running.

No test centres available in Devon for the second day running.

But Health Secretary Sajid Javid admitted there were global supply issues to a senior Tory MP.

Sir Roger Gale said that Mr Javid had confessed there was a problem with supplies – previously ministers and officials had insisted they had sufficient stocks but the problems were in delivering them to people’s homes or pharmacies.

The North Thanet MP said: “Saj was very honest with me, he said, ‘look, there isn’t a quick fix’.”

Sir Roger said “we have created the demand in England which we now can’t satisfy” as a result.

He added: “The Prime Minister has now found himself caught between the Covid Recovery Group and supporters and the scientists.

“We are now facing the situation where No 10 is saying go and get tested and the Department of Health is saying we haven’t got the tests, we can’t do it.”

He said Mr Javid is “busting a gut” to get supplies, “but we’re competing with a global market”.

Without lateral flow tests government policy is in jeopardy

It is almost a cruel hoax that is being perpetrated on the people of England.


Whereas in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland there are restrictions on new year and Hogmanay festivities, and they have already had their disappointments, in England the apparently magnanimous UK government has said the parties can go ahead, virtually unhindered. Boris Johnson may even have saved his premiership by following the instincts of his rebellious backbenchers in sweeping away the puritan doubts of his advisers, and restoring Merrie England in the face of a pandemic: trebles all round. 

“Enjoy yourselves … but be cautious” is the message from his health minister, Gillian Keegan, doing the broadcast rounds. The key to that, though, is to take a lateral flow test (LFT) before venturing out or greeting guests for a home celebration. All very practical and sensible – except of course that there is a shortage of lateral flow tests, and has been for a while. The independent pharmacists describe the situation as “patchy”.

Visits to the NHS website are met with a message that postal deliveries are not possible. Parallel problems have arisen with the more accurate and involved PCR tests. Given the timings, it will now be impossible for many would-be revellers to swab themselves before they try to remember the words to “Auld Lang Syne” and they say hello to 2022. The temptation to skip the test is obvious; but so are the grim consequences.

The dire situation with the tests also threatens the ability of people to return to work after an infection. The condition for coming out of self-isolation is for two negative LFT tests taken 24 hours apart. Without these, it is impossible for anyone to tell if they are still infectious, even if they feel well. A further reduction in quarantine times to five days – which would help more people return to work and normal family life – while there is such a shortage of tests looks impossible. In England, despite the formal stance of lightened restrictions, the shortage of LFTs means that self-imposed lockdowns for many will feel as complete as at any other time during the past 21 months of crisis. The test shortages also distort the Covid statistical system and detecting the rise of Omicron in relation to the Delta coronavirus variant.

Therefore, much of the basis of the government’s policy towards Omicron is in jeopardy, because the tests people need aren’t there, and, in fact, because the effective rate of booster vaccinations remains too low overall to gain full herd immunity (given the lag of at least seven days for the booster jab to be properly effective), the successful booster campaign needs more time to rebuild the wall of coronavirus protection. It seems quite certain that the spread of the virus will be greater than if the tests were available freely. Even if Omicron doesn’t overwhelm the NHS, the inevitable spikes in hospitalisations will add to the challenges facing the health service, and make treating non-Covid cases harder.

While parliament is in recess, the prime minister invisible until now, and with the seasonal distractions, it’s worth noting that there has been little attempt by the authorities to explain exactly why the LFT shortage has arisen. The UK Health Security Agency blames “supply-side difficulties”, which is merely a restatement of the problem. It is said that there is no shortage of stock, but just of logistical capability, which, again, is no use to anyone (and sounds like a disturbing echo of the excuses offered last year for the severe shortages of personal protective equipment).

The Royal Mail, other delivery services and the pharmacies have done an admirable job in supplying these invaluable kits over many months. Why are they now being blamed by some for the problem? Why does there seem to have been little attempt to boost their supply? Is it poor planning by the UKHSA over many weeks as the limited plan B restrictions (which implied more lateral flow testing) were being contemplated? Perhaps the contracts with suppliers based in China were faulty. Some Tory MPs are claiming there is a global shortage of LFTs.

There may be many factors at work, but the public has a right to know what has gone wrong and why. With a relatively long shelf life, it should have been possible to stockpile many more lateral flow tests, and indeed PCR tests as the Omicron variant emerged a month ago, and case numbers were forecast to ramp up. It wasn’t done. Why? 

Hospitals in England asked to look for up to 4,000 emergency Covid beds

Hospitals have been asked to identify sites for up to 4,000 emergency beds to deal with a potential wave of Omicron admissions in England, as cases hit a record 183,000.

Rowena Mason 

On Wednesday, more than 10,000 patients were in hospital with Covid, a figure not reached since March.

NHS England confirmed that it was creating new small-scale “Nightingale” facilities with up to 100 beds each at eight hospitals across the country. The health service said it had asked trusts to identify empty spaces to accommodate beds in places such as gyms or teaching areas. NHS managers are aiming to create up to 4,000 beds as surge capacity if needed, with work on the first tranche, in temporary structures, starting this week.

A number of huge temporary hospitals, called the “Nightingales”, were built in exhibition halls in the first wave of the pandemic but were dismantled without being used to capacity.

The new approach will ask for surge capacity to be built in the grounds of hospitals to make it easier for staff to move between new and old sites and keep patients closer to diagnostics and emergency care. The first sites will be at Preston, Leeds, Birmingham, Leicester, Stevenage, St George’s in London, Ashford and Bristol. There are currently almost 90,000 adult acute and general beds available in England, with occupancy at about 90% on 19 December.

The announcement came as new data showed there were 10,462 people in hospital in England with Covid as of Wednesday, although it is still unclear how many were admitted with the disease and how many are there for another reason while also testing positive.

The number of patients on mechanical ventilation has remained fairly stable in recent weeks and even reduced since November. On Wednesday the number of deaths reported was 57.

Boris Johnson returned from his Christmas break at Chequers on Wednesday with a visit to a vaccine centre to urge people to get their booster jabs, saying up to 90% of people in intensive care had not received their third dose. He said people should celebrate New Year’s Eve but called on them to exercise caution and take tests.

The prime minister also warned that Omicron continued to “cause real problems” even though it was “obviously milder than the Delta variant”.

The NHS has called on people to have a “jabby new year”, highlighting research from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre (ICNARC) that found that at the start of last month about three out of five patients in London’s intensive care units had not received a jab, a figure that it said was rising.

Prof Stephen Powis, the NHS national medical director, said the health service hoped never to have to use the surge beds but added: “Given the high level of Covid-19 infections and increasing hospital admissions, the NHS is now on a war footing.”

Sajid Javid, the health secretary, also said it was “absolutely right that we prepare for all scenarios and increase capacity”.

With the government still concerned about the possibility that the high case numbers of Omicron could overwhelm the NHS, Johnson is holding off from cutting the Covid isolation period to five days for those without symptoms.

The prime minister has come under pressure to reduce the UK’s isolation period again, after the US decided to halve it for those without symptoms from five to 10 days as long as they wear a mask in public.

The UK reduced its quarantine period from 10 to seven days last week if people test negative by lateral flow, but some other countries around the world are now looking at going further.

Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University and the government’s life sciences adviser, has indicated support for a shorter isolation period “if it was supported by lateral flow data”.

A No 10 source said everything was “kept under review” but insisted that there were “no immediate plans” to revise the quarantine period again so soon.

Several Tory backbenchers called on the government to consider a move similar to the US. Andrew Bridgen urged Johnson to reduce the isolation period, saying the biggest threat to the NHS was “forced absentees due to self-isolation”.

David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, said a five-day isolation period followed by a lateral flow test “sounded sensible” for Omicron cases. “If the Americans are doing it, the question is why are we not doing it, not why we should,” he said.

Davis also called on the government to make sure it has enough doses of therapies such as Paxlovid that can reduce the risk of hospitalisation in severe Covid cases and to improve data on how many people are in hospital because of the coronavirus, rather than for another condition while also testing positive for the virus.

Lee Anderson, a 2019 intake Tory backbencher, said “all options to get people back to work quicker should be looked at”. Another MP added said “isolation could be a bigger issue than actual illness” and they would “support a review at the very least”.

Chloe Smith, the minister for disabled people, health and work, said on Wednesday there were “no current plans in England to change the period” for isolation. She told BBC Breakfast on Wednesday: “Of course, we have actually only recently taken it down from 10 to seven, and we want to look at that – we want to make sure that that is working as we believe it ought to. We think the current period, therefore, is the right one, so we haven’t any plans to change that further.”

NHS managers have said they are as worried about the impact on patient care of staff shortages from people having to isolate as they are about surging admissions from Covid.

The chief executive of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson,said the effect of greater social mixing over Christmas was still to come. He told BBC Breakfast: “We’re now seeing a significant increase in the level of staff absences, and quite a few of our chief executives are saying that they think that that’s probably going to be a bigger problem and a bigger challenge for them than necessarily the number of people coming in who need treatment because of Covid.”

In response to the new Nightingale sites, Hopson said it “must be the right ‘no regrets later’ move to make these preparations now” but highlighted the difficulty of staffing them.

“Given the other pressures on the NHS and the current level of staff absences, staffing this capacity would be a major challenge,” he said. “But co-location on existing hospital sites maximises the NHS’s ability to meet that challenge.”

Exclusive: the drug of choice for Tory rebels

Hopium – a judgement altering hallucinogenic derived by distilling minced facts and discarding all but the most volatile condensate, the so-called opinion fraction. Dulls the critical faculties.

Usually taken aurally in tea rooms and bars, especially in the Palace of Westminster.

Particularly effective in those of a conservative and rebellious disposition, especially with libertarian tendencies.

Common side effects include: delusions of infallibility and loss of sense of reality.

Contraindications: not to be taken by anyone seeking to be taken seriously. 

Suppliers can be found through various WhatsApp groups and from any registered Tory Shaman.

(With acknowledgements to London Playbook for seeding the idea)

Shrinking real incomes are a new year nightmare for the chancellor

Is the Government losing control over when to call the next election?

Not so long ago it seemed possible that Boris Johnson could call an early election, as early as the end of 2022 or maybe early 2023, on the back of a successful vaccination programme, after declaring “victory over Covid.” Now so many dark clouds are gathering on the economic front that it is hard to see either him or his successor having many favourable options (e.g. after a “give away” budget or with rising income expectations) prior to hitting the buffers on Thursday, 2nd May 2024. – Owl 

There’s little cheer for the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, as he looks to spin a positive narrative about the UK economy in the year ahead.

Wage growth is expected to stay below inflation throughout 2022, according to a forecast from the Resolution Foundation, an economic think tank that examines living standards. In its words: “The medium-term outlook for wages is uncertain but far from rosy.”

The upshot: families can expect an extremely painful £1,200 hit from next April on average, as taxes and energy prices rise.

The holiday season was cancelled for some Treasury officials when the Bank of England revealed in mid-December that it now believes inflation could reach 6 per cent in spring next year. Few officials can remember a time when price growth was so strong. The central bank’s forecast is three times the Bank of England’s 2 per cent inflation target.

But few economists expect there to be much aid from Threadneedle Street in the coming months. Higher domestic interest rates can do nothing to quell energy price spikes on international markets.

So, what can No 11 do? It can hope that wages stop climbing across the board, as wage growth can end up feeding inflation in a self-perpetuating spiral. This was the nightmare scenario of the 1970s, as Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at UK in a Changing Europe, told The Independent on Wednesday – the worst possible fear for the Treasury.

The Treasury could rethink April’s tax rises, intended to help pay for NHS repairs after the pandemic via higher national insurance contributions. These will eventually be switched towards funding social care against the backdrop of an ageing population.

Yet that would force the chancellor to borrow more, particularly if GDP growth continues to lose momentum or even swing negative in the first half of next year – and he will be keen to avoid further borrowing, having already had to offer huge sums to support the economy through the pandemic.

After the epic costs of furlough, and other mitigations to help businesses and consumers through the impact of Covid-19 restrictions, many Tory MPs and cabinet ministers are opposed to any further splurges.

Swift tax cuts to ease the pressure on household budgets are unlikely to be introduced. Although Sunak’s Budget underlined his ambition to be a low-tax chancellor, the tax burden is now at its highest level since the early 1950s.

The chancellor has tasked officials with creating a blueprint for lower taxes in recent weeks, with the aim of reporting early on in 2022, and Sunak is set to deliver a spring statement in March next year. Still, it is not clear whether he might announce tax-cut plans early in 2022, particularly as the Treasury wants to have just one annual Budget each autumn.

Investment in skills and infrastructure, along with relaxing immigration rules, are potential routes for boosting productivity – the “goldilocks” growth that increases profits and wages without feeding inflation. The Treasury has shown it is keen to try to focus on these areas, with policy ambitions such as those laid out in its net zero review.

Still, productivity growth has been the holy grail of many governments, to little avail. And where policy efforts have paid off, none have been short-term wins.

Sunak is very eager to boost productivity, and has made a close personal study of the issue, but he will also understand it is no overnight salve in the face of rising inflation.

The impact on the UK’s poorest households is likely to be so severe that the government will be forced to act. The harder question is whether even the weak GDP growth the UK has achieved in recent months can be sustained if consumers, particularly those who have added to their savings during lockdowns, are too worried about the economy to go out and spend.

Households will be feeling the pinch in 2022, but there may still be some pent-up demand to tap once the cloud of Omicron lifts a little. That could help improve the outlook for the chancellor’s ability to borrow – based on his fiscal rules.

However, Sunak will be left with few tools in his armoury if savers do not become spenders in the year ahead. It will be similarly bleak if wages continue to climb, because businesses may be forced to slash headcount to allow them to offer above-inflation salary increases to key staff. And higher wages could further feed inflation.

Although this kind of wage-driven domestic inflation is something that the Bank of England can address, raising its key interest rate adds to businesses’ and households’ borrowing costs, potentially acting as a handbrake on GDP growth.

A hard, lasting squeeze on incomes in the run-up to the next general election – something that some inflation and GDP forecasts are starting to hint at – could be very costly indeed. There is no stronger example of cut-through than what is left in the bank account at the end of the month.

What to do about the UK’s unvaccinated? No 10’s (and Simon Jupp’s) Covid dilemma

Covid cases Wednesday catch up with delayed holiday reporting

Daily reported coronavirus cases in the UK jumped to a record 183,037 on Wednesday. (Close to the doomsters’ forecast). See BBC here. (Reports over the next few days may be subject to test availability).

And a total of 10,462 people were in hospital with Covid in England as of Wednesday morning, figures from NHS England show.

This is up 48% from a week ago and is the highest number of admissions since 1 March.

Not all the patients in hospital will have been admitted for Covid – latest data suggests about three in 10 have the virus but were admitted to hospital for something else.

Hospital numbers are rising more slowly than cases though, once again showing the Omicron variant is leading to milder illness.

However, the numbers who are seriously unwell with Covid are still going up. (Small percentages of a very large number can still be large).

The high stakes gamble

Boris Johnson has staked everything on the booster programme to avoid the need for further restrictions. Indeed, thanks to rebel MPs such as Simon Jupp he has no other political choice and his future, and our health and welfare, may depend on its success. 

The article below suggests there is growing frustration with the unvaccinated. If all forms of exhortation, nudges and persuasion fails and restrictions are deemed necessary, Johnson may have to confront a difficult choice, unpalatable to his party, about whether everyone – the vaccinated and the unvaccinated – are all in it together any more. 

So how does a “Libertarian”  such as Simon Jupp react: back further restrictions or mandatory vaccinations? Owl assumes he will be getting advice from someone he trussts.

Get the message?

Johnson broke cover on Wednesday, having laid low for a week, to talk to the press. He used the term “booster” in just about every other sentence, suggesting a sense of desperation. His message wasn’t subtle 

“I’m sorry to say this but the overwhelming majority of people who are currently ending up in intensive care in our hospitals are people who are not boosted,”

“I’ve talked to doctors who say the numbers are running up to 90% of people in intensive care, who are not boosted.

“If you’re not vaccinated, you’re eight times more likely to get into hospital altogether.

“So it’s a great thing to do. It’s very, very important. Get boosted for yourself, and enjoy New Year sensibly and cautiously.” [This overlooks the fact that all covid vaccinations take a couple of weeks to become effective.]

No 10’s Covid dilemma

Rowena Mason

A growing sense of frustration with people who have not been vaccinated against Covid has been creeping into the speeches of senior government figures from Sajid Javid to Boris Johnson in recent weeks.

The health secretary has accused those who have chosen not to take up the offer of free vaccination of taking up hospital beds, damaging society and potentially harming their families as well as themselves.

The prime minister also began rolling the pitch for a possibly tougher approach towards the unvaccinated when he spoke of the need for a “national conversation” about how the NHS would cope with the Omicron wave and further new variants.

“I don’t believe we can keep going indefinitely with non-pharmaceutical interventions, restrictions on people’s way of life, just because a substantial proportion of the population still, sadly, has not got vaccinated,” he said.

Given the libertarian instincts of today’s Tory party, No 10 has followed the path of allowing people to choose freely whether or not to get vaccinated, unless they want to work in the NHS and the care sector.

A mandatory vaccination policy would almost certainly result in a challenge to Johnson’s authority from his backbenches. Those same MPs, however, are also opposed to national restrictions that hit all of society to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed.

If another Covid wave were to push the health service to the point of collapse, Downing Street would face two possibilities: lock down everyone or reserve the harshest restrictions for the 5 million people who have declined to be vaccinated in the hope it would ease the burden on hospitals and slow the spread of an outbreak.

Javid has estimated that 90% of the most severely ill in hospital at the moment are unvaccinated.

Urging people to have a “jabby new year”, the NHS said on Wednesday that research from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre (ICNARC) found that at the start of last month about three in five patients in London’s intensive care units had not had a jab, and that the figure was rising.

Some countries have already decided that choosing not to be vaccinated should carry a cost, given the impact on wider society of Covid spreading more quickly among the unvaccinated and the greater potential for hospitalisation.

Greece and France went down the Covid passport route as early as July. Israel and Denmark also adopted pass systems early, phased them out, and then brought them back when infections were surging.

In Italy, proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test has been required for many indoor public places since October and a new super-green pass was added in December that is available only to people who have been vaccinated or recovered from Covid in the last six months.

All moves by the UK government so far to encourage vaccination have been firmly rooted in persuasion and “nudge” theory. It has been almost all carrot and no stick, even when it comes to Covid passports. Ministers insist they should not be called “vaccine passports” because people will be allowed to show a recent lateral flow test result instead.

The approach of encouragement is continuing, with a campaign texting everyone to “get boosted now”. But there also now appears to be an attempt to introduce an element of social stigma to vaccine refusal, and a move to suggest it is people’s civic responsibility to get jabbed.

No 10’s view is that there is still scope to drive up vaccination rates further – particularly when it comes to the booster – and that this is preferable to using vaccination status as a dividing line. Almost 90% of over 12s have now had a first dose, 82% have their second and 56.5% are boosted.

One major missing piece of the puzzle, currently under consideration, is a strategy that gets to the bottom of why 5 million people remained unvaccinated, especially those in communities with an ingrained distrust of authority.

No 10 even turned to an artificial intelligence (AI) company earlier in the year to determine the causes of vaccine hesitancy, but Whitehall sources acknowledge there is still a lack of understanding about how many of the unvaccinated remain so because of entrenched anti-vax ideology, misconceptions that could be turned around, a lack of time or transport to get to vaccine centres, or just apathy.

One option being weighed is the idea of greater personal outreach – learning from the personal touch of GPs who have phoned all their most vulnerable vaccine refusers. Ministers are even thinking about teams of door-to-door vaccinators who could deliver shots on the spot.

If this last push were not to work, however, and further restrictions are deemed necessary, Johnson may have to confront a difficult choice, unpalatable to his party, about whether everyone – the vaccinated and the unvaccinated – are all in it together any more.

Tory aristocrat uses £300k from government’s Levelling Up Fund to fill potholes on his driveway

What else would you expect a Tory Eton Toff, estimated to be worth £15 million, to do with a “Levelling Up Fund” – the clue is in the name! – Owl

A Conservative aristocrat dipped into the government’s Levelling Up Fund to the tune of £300,000 in order to fill half a mile of potholes on his driveway, it has been revealed.

The fund, which was supposed to support left-behind communities, was used by the Eton and Oxford-educated former Tory peer to repair roads on his land in East Sussex.

The track leads to Charleston Farmhouse, an independently run museum and art gallery within the grounds of his Firle Estate.

Charleston Farmhouse

The museum applied for the funds, even though the drive itself is owned by the millionaire aristocrat.

Visitors to the former home of Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister, had complained for years about the potholes.

One warned in a review: “You risk your car’s suspension – and you need to wear a sports bra.”

But despite the viscount’s wealth being estimated at £15 million, his Firle Estate Management team helped the Charleston Trust secure the cash from the Getting Building Fund, part of the Levelling Up Fund specifically aimed at helping Covid-hit infrastructure, the Mail Online has reported. [The Mail account contains a more colourful report about the “Virile Viscount” and close friend of Prince Philip]

“Arms around people”

Boris Johnson announced the Getting Building Fund to show his administration was “putting its arms around people at a time of crisis”.

The Trust blamed ‘poor drainage’ for corroding the driveway to obtain the grant.

But according to Harry Fone, grassroots campaign manager at the TaxPayers’ Alliance, the cash injection doesn’t represent value for money for the public.

The Charleston Trust said: “Our charity is grateful to South East Local Enterprise Partnership and the Government’s Getting Building Fund for providing the funding needed to rebuild the severely damaged access track.

“The new road provides safer, easier, and greener ways for visitors to reach Charleston and will help support the recovery and growth of the region’s creative and visitor economy.”

The South East Local Enterprise Partnership, through which the grant application was made, said the fund has created 11 new jobs and “helped to boost the local creative and cultural sector”.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “Charleston is internationally recognised as a site of cultural importance and this funding will help open it up to more visitors and improve its contribution to the local economy.”

Another record daily rise in UK Covid cases, but Omicron ‘appears less severe’

The evolution of Covid since August in Devon has followed a rather different trajectory from the rest of England.

From the end of August through to December we have had three distinct waves of infections in the 0-19 age range, followed by smaller waves in the 40-59 year olds. These are much less pronounced in the national figures and resulted in Devon having one of the highest overall levels of infection. This has been attributed to “Freedom Day”, the “Boardmasters” festival effects and general “Staycations” in the region.

From December the pattern has changed. 

Nationally, infections in all age groups began to rise in early/mid December, the surge attributed to Omicron. In Devon, however, infection rates have fallen throughout December in the 0-19 age group, and are currently stable in the 40-59, 60-79 and 80+ age groups. The only age group to see infections rising is the 20-39 year olds. For the moment it looks as if we have yet to see the expected Omicron surge. The social dynamics over the holiday period will undoubtedly have an impact one way or another.

[See the extract from the Covid dashboard that Owl has posted below this article.]

Nicola Davis

The UK has seen another record rise of daily Covid cases, with 138,831 reported in England, Scotland and Wales alone – but a leading scientist said the Omicron variant was “not the same disease we were seeing a year ago”.

According to official figures from the UK government’s coronavirus dashboard, a record 117,093 cases – infections that are picked up through testing – were reported for England on Tuesday, up from a previous high of 113,628 on Christmas Day. In Wales 12,378 cases were reported on Tuesday, also a record high.

The Scottish government later reported 9,360 cases in the past 24 hours, making the total of 138,831 cases higher than at any other point in the pandemic for the entire UK, despite data missing for Northern Ireland.

It came as Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Omicron “appears to be less severe and many people spend a relatively short time in hospital”, and high Covid death rates in the UK are “now history”.

There were also calls from some scientists for the period of self-isolation to be cut. Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said people with Covid should eventually be allowed to “go about their normal lives” as they would with a common cold.

“If the self-isolation rules are what’s making the pain associated with Covid, then we need to do that perhaps sooner rather than later,” he told BBC Breakfast. “Maybe not quite just yet.”

Prof Tim Spector, who runs King’s College London’s Zoe Covid study, said reducing the period of isolation would “protect the economy”.

Currently, people in England who have tested positive for Covid can cut their self-isolation from 10 days to seven if they have negative lateral flow tests on days six and day seven. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it remains 10 days.

Data from NHS England released on Tuesday revealed that the number of patients in hospital had risen by more than 1,000 in a day, with 9,546 beds occupied by people with Covid on Tuesday, compared with 8,474 the day before – although some trusts, thought to have about 220 Covid patients in total based on recent submissions, did not report their figures for Monday.

Tuesday’s hospital figure is a 38% increase on that reported on 21 December and the highest since 3 March, although far below the peak last winter of more than 34,000 people in hospital with Covid.

Dr Simon Clarke, an associate professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, cautioned the latest daily case figures do not take into account changes in testing behaviour over the festive period, or delays in processing tests.

Clarke added that while some people in hospital with Covid will have been admitted for a different reason, the situation should not be dismissed as insignificant.

“These are vulnerable people whose condition is serious enough to require them to be in hospital over Christmas,” he said. “There is no condition I know of that cannot be made worse by Covid-19.”

However, some scientists have struck a more upbeat note. Bell said that although hospital admissions had increased in recent weeks as Omicron spreads through the population, fewer patients were needing high-flow oxygen and the average length of stay was down to three days.

“The horrific scenes that we saw a year ago of intensive care units being full, lots of people dying prematurely, that is now history, in my view, and I think we should be reassured that that’s likely to continue,” he said.

The figures came a day after Downing Street confirmed that no new coronavirus restrictions would be introduced in England before the new year. In the rest of the UK, a raft of measures are in place, including the closure of nightclubs in Wales, and limiting socialising in Scotland to groups of up to three households.

The decision has been criticised by some scientists, with one expert describing it as “the greatest divergence between scientific advice and legislation” since the start of the pandemic.

While the latest data suggests the risk of being admitted to hospital is up to 70% less for people with Omicron compared with those infected with Delta, the sheer numbers of people with the new variant has caused serious concern in terms of the number of people requiring hospital care and widespread impact on staffing.

According to the Office for National Statistics, an estimated 1 in 35 people had Covid in the week ending 19 December, a figure that was even higher in London, at 1 in 20.

Experts have cautioned that it is not yet clear how the virus has moved through the population over Christmas, and what will happen once the rate of infection begins to rise in older people.

The disparity in Covid rules and guidance across the four nations of the UK has also led to other concerns, including that partygoers might travel across the border from Wales to England to celebrate new year.

Nick Newman, chair of the Cardiff Licensees Forum, said he expected many people to leave Wales for England. “It’s 40 minutes from Newport to Bristol and it’s easy to get from north Wales into Manchester or Liverpool. English businesses are going to benefit.”

Meanwhile, those in England attempting to follow government advice to take a lateral flow test before mixing with others faced difficulties on Tuesday.

Pharmacies in England have reported running out of test kits before Christmas, with deliveries of supplies delayed by the Christmas and Boxing Day holidays – and some pharmacies remained shut on Monday and Tuesday due to the bank holidays.

Availability of walk-in lateral flow or PCR tests in England was also disrupted on Tuesday morning, while people attempting to order lateral flow tests online in England also faced obstacles.

Comparison of confirmed infections, by age groups, for Devon and England from May 2021

‘Murdered’ king may have escaped to Devon

The story of the ‘princes in the tower’ – young royal brothers aged nine and 12 – alleged to have been murdered by their uncle more than 500 years ago, may have taken another twist, with claims the older one may have escaped to a tiny Devon hamlet.

Paul Nero

Researchers say that the boy who should have become Edward V was smuggled to Coldridge in Mid Devon, not far from Winkleigh and Crediton, where he lived out his life as a man called John Evans.

The popular story is that Edward and his kid brother Richard of Shrewsbury were killed on the order of their uncle, Richard III, also known as Richard of York.

The team which led a length investigation to find the body of Richard III near Bowsworth Field, where he was killed in battle, has now released the results of its latest enquiry. 

His bones were found under a car park in Leicester in 2012.

The investigators believe St Michael’s Church at Coldridge holds the key to the mystery. Historic documents they have discovered suggest Yorkist symbols and an effigy of a man called John Evans are clues left for future generations to connect the dots.

Lead researcher John Dike told the Daily Telegraph.“The idea of a missing prince lying low in Devon might appear fanciful at first. With all the secret symbols and clues, it sounds somewhat like the Da Vinci Code. But the discoveries inside this church in the middle of nowhere are extraordinary.”

He continued: “Once you take all the clues together, it does appear that the story of the princes in the Tower may need to be rewritten.”

William Shakespeare’s version of Richard III popularised the idea that the young princes were murdered in the Tower whilst they waited for the coronation of the elder boy. Richard then claimed the throne, but his reign lasted only two years before he died at the hands of the first Tudor king, Henry VII.

M5 J27 plans could see new surf lake and outdoor adventure zone

The leader of Mid Devon District Council says it’s time to “start the dialogue” about development around junction 27 of the M5.

Will this create a new economic development zone to the east of Exeter? Will there be a TESP (Tiverton economic strategic plan)? – Owl

Ollie Heptinstall 

The Local Plan allocation includes a site of approximately 71 hectares adjoining the southbound carriageway of the M5 motorway adjacent to junction 27 for major development.

The allocation makes provision for an agronomy visitor centre, 1,000 square metres of ancillary retail, an outdoor adventure zone including a surf lake, lagoon, beach, high ropes adventure area, and an outlet shopping village.

Now at a meeting of the community policy development group, Councillor John Downes (Lib Dem, Boniface) said investment in the area could return “significant revenues” to the council, given the need to balance the books.

The council’s senior officers are tasked with finding savings, with Mid Devon estimating a total shortfall of just over £1 million next year – rising to a projected £1.6 million in 2026/27.

Leader Bob Deed (Independent, Cadbury) said Cllr Downes’ comments were “music to my ears,” adding that it was “time to start a dialogue” on the future of the junction.

He likened it to the lengthy process of reopening Cullompton railway station, which stemmed from starting a committee seven years ago. It recently moved a step closer after receiving millions of pounds from the chancellor’s budget.

“Now that was a 10-year project from the outset because things do take time, especially on the rail.

“We’ve now got something similar as a challenge in junction 27 and what it needs is there to be a caucus that are interested in developing junction 27, if for no other reason, than it will produce employment for people within the district and income for Mid Devon.

“So, I’m very interested and will support the economy [policy development group] through John Downes if you like, to seriously start the dialogue to do something with the junction 27 area.”

Junction 27 and Eden Westwood plans pictured here are a major talking point of the Local Plan

Junction 27 and Eden Westwood plans pictured here are a major talking point of the Local Plan

He said it was time to “take the brakes off the development” that’s delayed progress for six years.

Deputy chief executive Andrew Jarrett acknowledged that, while both junction 27 and junction 28 at Cullompton could see “significant both commercial and residential growth,” the economic challenge meant any development may not be as quick as people would like.

He added: “It would be brilliant for Mid Devon – and this is just from a financial perspective – if there was sizable development of both of those motorway junctions.

“That would see a very, very different financial sure for Mid Devon District Council’s bottom line. And also, this is just again my opinion, and for many residents of the district and increased jobs, etc, etc.

“I know there are always mixed feelings and emotions about the size of the economic growth in a beautiful rural area like we live in, but it has to be the right growth at the right time in the right place.”

Sir Tim Smit, the man behind the Eden Project as well as promoter Malcolm Dudley Williams, have backed plans to create a £200million surf lake and a ‘mini’ Eden Project. It is a partnership project by the Eden Project and investors Friends Life, part of the Aviva Group.

The Eden Ark will be at the centre of the scheme that will be split into four zones and will include a hotel, a visitor hub, an artificial surfing lake, a food hall, outdoor play areas, cafes and restaurants, shops for small businesses and a designer clothes outlet discount shopping centre.

The surf lagoon will be at the heart of the outdoor adventure zone, similar to Surf Snowdonia, Wales.

Health minister Gillian Keegan dismisses calls for further support for the hospitality sector as venues remain ‘pretty full’

Was Health minister Gillian Keegan on Simon Jupp’s Christmas card list? – Owl

Sophie Morris 

A health minister has defended the government’s decision not to offer the hospitality sector more financial support, saying venues remain “pretty full”.

Business leaders have issued a fresh call for more economic help for the hospitality sector after fears around the new Omicron variant led to a steep decline in trade in the usually busy run-up to Christmas.

But Gillian Keegan said the government had already issued a £1bn package of measures for the sector before the festive period and implied further assistance is not necessary as “people are still going out”.

A man walks past a largely empty restaurant in central London on 21 December

A man walks past a largely empty restaurant in central London on 21 December

Asked if businesses need more financial support if the government is calling for people to remain “cautious” with their New Year’s Eve plans, Ms Keegan said: “Well, that is why we have put a package of measures, a £1bn package of measures in place just before this period.

“But I have been out a couple of times – my sister is over from the States, so we have been out to a couple of restaurants – and they have been pretty full.

“So, you know, I’m obviously in London at the moment, but I think people are still going out, but they are just taking a lateral flow test before and obviously being a bit more cautious.”

New Year’s Eve parties given the green light

The minister added that, after Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced no new restrictions would be implemented in England before 2022, people should “enjoy” themselves over the New Year, “but cautiously”.

Ms Keegan suggested those attending events should consider going to well-ventilated places if possible and take a lateral flow coronavirus test beforehand.

The industry has broadly welcomed the health secretary’s announcement that there will be no new COVID restrictions ahead of the New Year beyond the Plan B measures already in place.

Treasury support ‘won’t go far enough’

However, the British Chambers of Commerce warned the move would not make up for hospitality venues’ lost trade during what should have been the busiest time of year, as people stayed home to avoid catching coronavirus.

“I am delighted to see that we are protecting New Year’s Eve, but it just won’t go far enough,” its president Baroness McGregor-Smith told the BBC.

She added that while the Treasury has announced grants of up to £6,000 for businesses affected, some were losing more than that each day. She has urged the government to extend the business rates relief and the emergency rate of VAT beyond the end of March.

Chief executive of Adnams brewery Andy Wood agreed, saying there had been a 50% drop in visitors to pubs and hotels after England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty urged people to be cautious about socialising.

“There is going to need to be support for the sector through the dark months of January, February and March,” he told the BBC.

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‘Last weeks of December were a stealth lockdown’

Latest COVID data

Pressed on whether more restrictions could be brought in early next year, Ms Keegan said ministers “watch very carefully all of the data” – including the number of hospitalisations.

The health minister also confirmed that 32.4 million boosters have been administered.

While there is relief among business that New Year’s Eve celebrations will be able to go ahead in England, some scientists have expressed concern about the lack of new restrictions following the surge in COVID cases.

The decision also means England is out of step with the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, which have all brought in new post-Christmas COVID rules.

The latest government figures showed there were a record 113,628 new COVID cases in England on Christmas Day, with 1,281 new COVID-19 hospital admissions – up 74% week on week and the highest since 16 February.

As of 8am on 27 December, there were 8,474 people were in hospital in England with COVID-19 – the highest number since 5 March.

Restaurants ‘pulling hair out’ after brutal festive season

“Reassuring words” from the Government over the past 48 hours:

“There will be no further measures before the new year,” Javid told reporters, adding: “When we get into the new year, of course we will see then whether we do need to take any further measures.”

He said that the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the virus now accounted for around 90% of cases across England and urged people to celebrate New Year cautiously.

UK care minister Gillian Keegan followed up with: “People should enjoy themselves but be cautious when celebrating new year.” 

So Celebrate; don’t celebrate? – Owl

Lewis Clarke

It’s not been the season of festive cheer for Mid Devon’s restaurants, with owners’ pulling their hair out over Christmas party cancellations.

Earlier this month, government advisors, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, urged caution on people going out to celebrate due to fears over the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

Rhys Roberts of Visit Devon said this is the worst crisis he has known in his 30-year career.

He said Christmas cancellation rates are said to be running at between 13-15 per cent nationally, but he said, “that is not what I am being told,”

“The current levels are running at between 40 per cent and 50 per cent, and that is simply not sustainable.”

Charles Lloyd runs the Mount Pleasant Inn in Nomansland, near Tiverton, said: “We are almost being treated as if we are the acceptable collateral damage in trying to save the NHS.

“There is no clear message coming out of the Government. It is obvious pubs are hurting.”

The Hartnoll Hotel in Tiverton has seen 80 per cent of its bookings cancelled, with customers demanding refunds.

Shane Naylor, general manager, explained: “By October, we had been fully booked for Christmas hotel bookings, we had been fully booked for our Friday and Saturday Christmas parties during December, so much so that we had also opened up Thursday dates too.

“Since the Government announcing that people can still go out but be cautious, 80 per cent of Christmas party bookings were cancelled, all demanding refunds.

“Since that announcement, we have had over 350 cancellations; that week alone was 200 cancellations. Our Christmas break package was full, and now we only have six rooms booked.”

He said they were ‘very annoyed’, adding: “In my opinion, the Government are very clever in what they have said. Telling people to be cautious and not go out but actually not imposing any restrictions means we cannot claim any financial assistance.

“£6,000 will not go very far. I have a monthly wage budget of £70k at the moment we are not even breaking even we are now losing money.

“Because the Prime Minister cannot make his mind up and give clear guidance, we are not even sure if we should order the food in for New Year, so we have a choice order the food, and if restrictions come into place, we end up losing the money or risk not ordering the food, and we have no food for New Year. The Government need to introduce a flexi furlough scheme for the hospitality sector, at least for three months to help us support our staff.”

In terms of staffing levels, he added: “We finally managed to retain our staff during the staff shortage because we were loyal to them and ensured they had the hours and increased wages.

“But not as we do not have the clientele, we are reducing hours like no tomorrow. Staff are finding other jobs, which means we will go into the New Year with staff shortages again. We have had a few staff call in sick due to isolation but not many.

“It’s troubling times. We do not even know if we will be able to open in January. Ninety per cent of our January bookings have cancelled.”

Another restaurant in Tiverton, Elsie May’s on Phoenix Lane, is often busy at Christmas.

Elsie May’s in Tiverton

Mandy Jenks, from the family-run business, said: “We went from being fully booked for our Christmas party nights to having some cancellations. This was due to the parties reducing their numbers with people having to self-isolate.

“One particular Friday evening in December, we went from fully booked to having availability three times. It ended up being half full, which isn’t ideal. A couple of our cancellations have been from the corporate companies instructing the staff to cancel.

I guess they need to ensure they have enough staff to carry on trading.

She added: “Our daytime business has been reasonably and consistently good due to the loyalty and support of our regular customers who have been amazing.”

She said that staffing levels for December had been good, but they struggled in November.

“We still have our covid screens, face masks and waitress service in place and will continue to do so for our customer’s peace of mind.”

The restaurant closed from 4 pm on December 24 until January 4 to allow staff rest and time off with their families; however, there are fears for the return.

“I am worried about our January and February trading going forward as it is normally a very quiet time, but I feel this year will be worse.

“Whilst I welcome the Government help, it is nowhere near enough. The return of Flexi Furlough would be very welcome for these two months.”

Meanwhile, in the Culm Valley area, it is a similar story.

At the Five Bells in Clyst Hydon, the month started well for bookings and parties before cancellations began.

James Garnham said: “The reaction was unsure; we had Christmas parties ringing us up to say they might cancel, but weren’t sure what to do, and in the end, a lot of them did cancel because it was better to be safer.

“For us, it was like the Government had said this is another lockdown, but without it being mandatory. We feel that a lot of people have listened to the Government, but many haven’t.

“People are careful with meeting up in bigger groups now but still are happy to meet in smaller groups. We also think that people are choosing to book during times that they feel would be quieter in the pub, so our Tuesday and Wednesday daytime and evening bookings have been very busy, but the weekends have been quiet because people think there will be another 50 people in the building with them.”

He said that the Government grant would provide for ‘basic losses for a day or two.

He added: “Whilst any help is welcome, it’s not going to go far, for us or any hospitality business out there. We need more support, and another VAT cut or extension to the current VAT cut is needed.

“Whilst we are open, there are still restrictions that stop us trading as we would pre-pandemic, so we need the support to keep hospitality alive.

“For us, we have a big year planned with some national recognition coming our way. But we need our doors to be open and staffed accordingly to make 2022 our biggest year yet, and these are the two issues that worry us the most.

“Staffing is still a struggle, especially chefs. The never-ending cycle of lockdowns needs to end so that we can be clear to run out business the way we want to, whilst keeping the safety of our customers at the top of the list of priorities.”

He concluded: “The Government also needs to do something to promote the hospitality industry employment rates by creating incentives to stay in the industry.”

At Porters, a bar and grill in the heart of Cullompton, the owner, Billy Porter, predicts up to £12,500 in lost revenue.

“We were taking a lot of Christmas parties and Christmas bookings in October and early November,” he said. “We were very well booked up by the start of December.

“When government advisors started telling people to restrict their social interactions, we found small tables cancelling and the odd person on their tables. This all added up.

“When announcements were made, everybody in the restaurant was devastated to hear these things because it’s obvious the reaction the public. We had 150 individual cancellations; we lost about three or four Christmas parties, including one table of 30 who decided not to come.”

Billy Porter in Porters

He said the government support was ‘absolute rubbish.

“We’ll be getting around £2,700 in help, but I estimate we’ve lost around £12,500 in sales. The financial support doesn’t touch the sides.

“People are still worried about what they’re going to do in January and February, so it’s wholly inadequate what they’ve been pressured into giving us.

“Heading into 2022, I’m worried, being cautious and not as optimistic as I’d like to be. I’d like to think that we can find a way of finally knocking this Covid thing on the head. I don’t think the Government are ready to go anywhere near that yet. People listen to the Government and the media.

“I don’t think we’ll see so many cancellations for the foreseeable future, but bookings are going to be few and far between, and maybe people will walk in off the street if they want to go out for a meal, but I can’t see bookings being very good.”

In the rural village of Bampton, The owners of The Swan pub and Spelt café – Paul and Donna Berry – have also struggled.

Donna said: “Things have been very slow, very quiet, with lots of cancellations, especially at The Swan.

“At Spelt, we’ve been lucky to only lose the odd couple, but the rest of the party have come. One day last week, we had over 40 booked in the evening at The Swan and only did ten. We lost 24 for Christmas Eve, and the bookings are falling apart.

“We were going to do the Christmas draw for the Foxhounds on Sunday evening, which takes up the whole pub, but they cancelled, and we ended up just shutting the whole pub for the night.”

She added that Spelt had been lucky thanks to loyal customers but that Paul at The Swan had been ‘pulling his hair out.

“The money from the government will not cover it,” Donna said. “We’ve been told we can claim up to £6,000, and I’m certainly not going to get anywhere near that, and neither is The Swan.

“What we’ve lost in takings, as compared to the Christmas of 2019 we were rammed.

“Now we’re just sitting around waiting for another lockdown; there is so much uncertainty. I think they’re going to make it so hard that we won’t be able to open.

“We’ve got outdoor space, but who’s going to sit outside? We can get as many heaters and umbrellas out there, we’ll serve takeaways, and carry ongoing for as long as we can.”

Donna Berry and Spelt / The Swan

She said that restaurants and pubs were ‘a lot safer than the supermarkets’.

“Our staff have their masks on, everywhere is sanitised after anybody leaves, we’ve got space, we’re not bundling people on top of each other. We’re one of the safest places to go; I’d rather come here than go to a supermarket.

“I think it’s got to come to a point where we’ve got to try and get back to some sort of normality.

“Paul is ripping his hair out; he’s at the end of his tether.”

Community care services could be rationed in England

Care services in the community could be rationed amid the spread of Omicron, which is causing staff absences in England’s public services to rocket.

Nicola Slawson 

Choices will need to be made about what services can and cannot be covered, according to Patricia Marquis, the England director of the Royal College of Nursing.

“Services are already really stretched and it won’t take a lot – either further staff absences or increasing numbers of patients needing to be seen because the hospitals are full – to really push the services over the edge,” she said.

Marquis predicts that as services begin to reopen after Christmas, it will become clearer how much more pressure they are facing.

Community nursing is a particular area of concern and those services could end up being rationed, Marquis said. “Everyone automatically thinks about hospitals, but staff shortages aren’t just affecting hospitals. Limiting the number of community services that are available will possibly need to be considered.”

Stephen T Chandler, president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, also warned that social care provided in people’s homes could be badly hit by the Omicron wave.

“In some places, people are having to wait longer to be discharged from hospital or may be waiting longer for people to come out and assess them. In some instances, it will result in some services being unavailable in the short term and that’s what we mean by rationing,” he said.

A day care facility in Oxfordshire has already had to temporarily close due to staff shortages, he said. Homecare is likely to be badly affected, as it is harder to redeploy staff.

“The best-case scenario would be a stranger would come into your home who is not familiar with your care and the worst case is the number of visits having to be reduced,” he said.

Chandler said care provided in the community plays a crucial role in protecting the NHS as it can reduce the number of people visiting hospital. “This is why it is so critical that you don’t have anything happening that would risk that,” he said.

Meanwhile, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the council of the British Medical Association, warned that GPs are being hit by staff shortages and said the government’s focus solely on hospitalisation data when making decisions about further Covid restrictions was shortsighted.

Nagpaul said: “To me the elephant in the room is the alarming levels of NHS staff shortages, and hospital data do not include general practice, which is being impacted significantly.”

The BMA has been told that large numbers of appointments are being cancelled as a result. “We’re also seeing cancellation of clinics for blood tests, for example where nurses are off sick. Reception staff are also going off sick, which means phones are going unanswered.”

When people can’t get GP appointments, A&E visits usually increase, so there is a knock-on effect on hospitals. “The government’s focus purely on hospital absence and Omicron hospitalisation is missing the larger picture of the impact on general practice, which is for patients that first point of contact.”

Public transport also continues to experience pressure due to Covid-related staff shortages. The Rail Delivery Group, the British rail industry membership body, said that on Monday 6.8% of trains were cancelled, up from an average of 5.4% in the seven days to Friday 24 December. The annual average of cancellations is 2.9%.

A spokesperson said: “Our staff are working in difficult circumstances and, like everyone else, they are susceptible to the virus.”

Waste collection services also continue to be disrupted in some areas of the country, with Basingstoke and Deane borough council having had to announce on Christmas Eve that some collections may not take place owing to Covid-related staffing issues.

Bin collections for Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire between Christmas and the new year also had to be revised, with some collection dates delayed by five days.

Green bin collections in the area were suspended from 13 December due to the number of absent drivers and loaders, particularly due to Covid-19 or self-isolation, the Greater Cambridge Shared Waste Service said, with rounds not due to return to normal before 24 January.