Honiton Town Council resumes virtual meetings to limit spread of Omicron variant

Honiton Town Council’s meetings are to be conducted virtually for at least three months after new measures were enacted by the council to limit the spread of the coronavirus. 

Philippa Davies www.midweekherald.co.uk

All town council meetings were halted after the pandemic struck in March 2020, and then resumed remotely three months later. Face to face meetings re-started in June this year, after the emergency legislation permitting remote meetings ended on May 6. 

Under legislation dating back to 1972, there is no scope for local councils to hold virtual meetings and decisions must be taken in person. However, under the same legislation, most council decisions can be delegated to an ‘officer of the authority’, with the exception of financial budgetary decisions. 

At an extraordinary meeting of the council on Monday, December 20, councillors were presented with a motion asking to delegate most decision-making authority to the Town Clerk, and to hold online, ‘consultative’ meetings. 

These virtual meetings will continue until at least May 10 2022. They have worked in the same way as in-person meetings, with the exception that recommendations are made as opposed to resolutions. The consultative full council meeting of East Devon District Council  on December 8 further endorsed this set-up. 

Councillor Jake Bonetta, who sits on both Honiton Town and East Devon District Council, proposed the slightly amended motion to move to virtual meetings. He said: “Conducting virtual meetings not only makes meetings much safer for councillors, officers and residents with the current severe outbreak of the Omicron variant, it also provides easier access for all representatives to access meetings and take part in the democratic process. Consultative meetings are a necessary step until the Government legislates for full virtual meetings, and I call on the Government to enact this as soon as possible.” 

The virtual meetings will be held via Zoom, and will be advertised and open to the public. This is very similar to the current physical set-up of meetings at the council, which have recently started to be recorded and live-streamed through Zoom. Details on how to access these meetings can be found on the agenda for each council or committee meeting. 

On the day of the extraordinary full council meeting, 91,743 people across the UK tested positive for the coronavirus. In East Devon, between December 9 and 15, 717 cases of Covid were recorded – a number which is expected to rise with the increased spread of the Omicron variant. 

Second-home boom boosts tax take

A booming market in second homes has boosted Treasury revenue this year, more than compensating for a stamp duty holiday that let thousands of homebuyers off paying tax.

Carol Lewis www.thetimes.co.uk

HM Revenue & Customs has taken £11.44 billion in receipts from the property tax so far this year. It is the highest amount collected in the first 11 months of a year since 2017.

Rishi Sunak raised the threshold for stamp duty in England and Northern Ireland from £125,000 to £500,000 from July 8, 2020, until June 30, 2021, saving buyers up to £15,000. The threshold was then dropped to £250,000 until September 30, when it reverted to £125,000. There were similar, although less generous, breaks in Scotland and Wales.

The tax break applied to all home purchases, including those of buy-to-let properties and second homes (except in Wales), although the 3 per cent additional home levy still applied in such cases. More than 24,000 second homes were bought in Britain in the 12 months before June 30, according to the estate agency Hamptons, many of them in holiday hotspots such as Cornwall, Devon, north Norfolk and the Lake District.

Figures published yesterday by HMRC showed £1.21 billion in stamp duty revenue in November. This is less than in October, when £1.32 billion was collected, but 22 per cent higher than pre-pandemic levels in November 2019, according to an analysis of the data by Coventry Building Society.

Jonathan Stinton, its head of intermediary relationships, said: “It’s been a big year for the Treasury’s stamp duty receipts, despite hundreds of thousands of buyers being exempt from paying it for the first nine months of 2021. This shows just how high the demand for higher-value homes, second homes and rental properties has been this year.”

HMRC estimates that in the financial year 2021-22 there will be 974,310 residential property sales, making it the busiest year in a decade. The surge in home moves has been precipitated by lockdown disillusionment, increased savings and low mortgage rates. The combination of these factors led many people to adjust their lifestyles during the pandemic: many sought extra space for home offices and bigger gardens away from the cities; some wealthier families decided to acquire second homes in coastal and country regions.

Lucian Cook, head of residential research at the estate agency Savills, said: “We estimate that the stamp duty holiday amounted to a tax break to homebuyers of around £6.4 billion, but given the unexpected strength in the market despite — or arguably because of — coronavirus, receipts to the Treasury have held up remarkably well.

“Over the past 18 months we’ve seen lifestyle drivers and low interest rates support incredibly strong levels of house price growth and a real surge in activity. The Treasury has particularly benefited from high transaction volumes at the top end of the market, where the stamp duty take is highest, bolstered by the 3 per cent surcharge [for those buying second homes] over the period of the stamp duty holiday and beyond.”

One in 16 homes in the UK are expected to have changed hands this year, but the demand far outstrips supply, and each estate agency branch has an average of one home for sale for every 24 would-be buyers, according to the property portal Rightmove. Across the UK only 400,000 properties are now for sale.

At this point in 2020 the number was 630,000, the independent property data analyst TwentyCi said yesterday. It added that if the property market continued as it was, all stock would run out, except in inner London, by the end of next year. Worst affected would be the southwest, where there would be no homes left to sell after seven and a half months.

Anthony Codling, chief executive of Twindig, a property platform, said: “We were surprised that the level of residential housing transactions bounced back so quickly after the end of the stamp duty holiday.

“[It] implies there is more to the underlying level of housing transactions than the impact of stamp duty holidays alone. The pandemic is having a significant impact on where and how we choose to live and where and how we choose to work, and it seems that the race for space is not over just yet.”

‘National emergency’ as care rationed due to staff with Covid

Social care bosses have made an impassioned plea for the public to stay at home “as much as they can”, as the sector experiences a “national emergency”.

Tuesday hawkish ministers demand “incontrovertible evidence” that Omicron risks overwhelming the NHS to justify the cost of taking action

Max Channon www.devonlive.com

Vital care is being rationed like never before and the situation is worsening each hour as care staff isolate or are off sick with the rapidly spreading Omicron variant, the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (Adass) said.

The sector was already struggling with workforce shortages before coronavirus, and carers are now having to make “excruciatingly painful choices” about who gets support.

Adass is calling for the public to “keep social activities and social contacts to a minimum”, and stay at home unless they are providing care or support.

The group said it is appealing to people to do the right thing, in the absence of any further restrictions being set out by the Government.

The Government’s Plan B is in operation, but the Prime Minister has said no further curbs will be introduced in England before December 25.

Adass president Stephen Chandler called for people to “please stay at home as much as you can, unless you are providing care and support”.

He said: “Staff absences due to the rapid spread of Omicron and the need to self-isolate now mean that there are not enough pairs of hands to provide care for everyone who needs it.

“Every day we are rationing care in ways that we never have before.

“We are making incredibly difficult decisions about who gets care, how much care they get and who misses out – with obvious concerns that this will lead to people becoming isolated and, ultimately, to the loss of lives.

“This is now a national emergency for social care and we need your help to limit the spread of Omicron and to make lives bearable for people over the coming weeks.”

Other “small but important steps” the public can take include providing care and support for family members where possible, checking in on neighbours, volunteering to assist the support efforts of the local council or charities, and getting a booster jab, he said.

New Covid patient deaths at Devon hospitals

A further 13 Covid patients have died at Devon’s hospitals, it can be confirmed.

Tuesday Boris Johnson confirmed his view that there is insufficient evidence to justify new measures. 

Jamie Hawkins www.devonlive.com

New data from NHS England confirmed the deaths happened at the RD&E, Derriford Hospital in Plymouth, Torbay Hospital and the North Devon District Hospital.

The patients have died in these hospitals after testing positive for coronavirus. The recent deaths happened as follows:

  • RD&E – Two new deaths were recorded on December 19
  • Torbay Hospital – Four new deaths: November 18, December 4, and two on December 15
  • North Devon District Hospital – one death on December 18
  • Derriford Hospital – six deaths on November 27, 28, December 18, two on December 19 and one on December 20.

The latest Covid related deaths mean that a total of 353 people have died at the RD&E from the virus, 180 at Torbay Hospital, 132 at North Devon District Hospital and 324 at Derriford Hospital, and 984 across all of Devon’s hospitals.

It comes as people infected with coronavirus can now take two lateral flow tests to reduce the self-isolation period from 10 to seven days.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said those infected with the virus can take two lateral flow tests 24 hours apart on day six and seven of their isolation period, which if negative means they can stop quarantining.

The UKHSA said people who leave self-isolation on day seven are strongly advised to limit close contact with other people in crowded or poorly ventilated spaces, and to continue working from home.

This comes after analysis by the UKHSA suggested that a seven-day isolation period alongside two negative lateral flow test results had nearly the same protective effect as a 10-day isolation period without testing.

Studies have also demonstrated that lateral flow device (LFD) tests are just as sensitive at detecting the Omicron variant as they are for Delta.

UKHSA chief executive Dr Jenny Harries said anyone with coronavirus symptoms should still get a PCR test as soon as possible.

She said: “Covid-19 is spreading quickly among the population and the pace at which Omicron is transmitting may pose a risk to running our critical public services during winter.

“This new guidance will help break chains of transmission and minimise the impact on lives and livelihoods.

“It is crucial that people carry out their LFD tests as the new guidance states and continue to follow public health advice.”

Covid round-up as daily cases soar above 100k for first time

A further 106,122 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases have been recorded in the UK as of 9am on Wednesday, the Government said, the first time daily reported cases have risen above 100,000.

Data on Omicron are being monitored “hour by hour” – the Prime Minister

Max Channon www.devonlive.com

The Government said a further 140 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19.

Separate figures published by the Office for National Statistics show there have now been 173,000 deaths registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.

A total of 51,577,782 first doses of Covid-19 vaccine had been delivered in the UK by December 21, Government figures show. This is a rise of 39,955 on the previous day.

Some 47,156,899 second doses have been delivered, an increase of 54,085.

A total of 8,008 people were in hospital in the UK with Covid-19 as of December 21, Government figures show.

This is the highest number since November 22 and is up 4% from a week earlier.

During the second wave of coronavirus, hospital numbers peaked at 39,254 on January 18.

A combined total of 30,844,888 booster and third doses have also been given, a day-on-day rise of 968,665.

Separate totals for booster and third doses are not available.

It comes after Wales announced it would be bringing back Level 2 Covid restrictions from 6am on Boxing day.

Last night, Boris Johnson said there would be no further Covid restrictions put in place in England before before Christmas.

Earlier today, a new formulation of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine has been approved for use in children aged five to 11. However, for now it will only be offered to children who are in a clinical risk group, or who are a household contact of someone (of any age) who is immunosuppressed.

Elsewhere, the latest data from South Africa suggests the Omicron variant caused a ‘short’ wave that was “not very severe in terms of hospitalisations and deaths,” according to a senior researcher.

However, Marta Nunes, senior researcher at the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics, warned against other countries reading too much into this.

She said: “Each setting, each country is different. The populations are different. The demographics of the population, the immunity is different in different countries.”.

Covid: Ministers watch data as studies say Omicron risk lower

This is good news in the longer term. 

Put simply: if Omicron is twice as infective but half as virulent we still have a problem with overloading the NHS in the immediate future.  Unfortunately we have been running with very high levels of overall Covid infection, particularly in Devon. – Owl

Doug Faulkner www.bbc.co.uk

The UK government says it is monitoring Covid data after early studies found the Omicron variant may cause milder illness than the Delta variant.

Scientists said the findings are good news but warned a big wave of cases could still overwhelm the NHS.

New rules have been set out in Wales and Northern Ireland but no further curbs have been announced in England.

Boris Johnson has ruled out any changes before Christmas.

That leaves England out of step with the other nations of the UK – which have all announced further measures to kick in from Boxing Day.

The prime minister has warned the variant “continues to surge across the country faster than anything we have seen before”.

In an article for the Sun he urged people to take “extra special care” to protect themselves and their families against Covid this Christmas.

Early data from South Africa and studies in England and Scotland published on Wednesday suggest Omicron infections may be milder and lead to fewer hospital admissions.

Analysis by researchers at Imperial College London found around a 40% reduction in the risk of being admitted to hospital for a night or more compared with Delta, while an Edinburgh University study suggested there was a 65% lower risk of being hospitalised with Omicron – but it was based on only a few cases.

In South Africa, a study suggested Omicron patients were 70-80% less likely to need hospital treatment. However, it suggested there was no difference in outcomes for the few patients that ended up in hospital with Omicron.

Imperial College’s Prof Neil Ferguson said the research was “clearly good news to a degree”.

However, he warned the reduction was “not sufficient to dramatically change the modelling” and the speed that Omicron is spreading could still mean hospitalisations “in numbers that could put the NHS in a difficult position”.

While the analysis showed evidence of a moderate reduction in the risk of hospitalisation from the Omicron variant, he said this appeared “to be offset by the efficacy of vaccines against infection”.

Dr Jim McMenamin, the national Covid-19 incident director for Public Health Scotland, said the University of Edinburgh’s findings were “a qualified good news story”, but that it was “important we don’t get ahead of ourselves”.

He said a “smaller proportion of a much greater number of cases” could still mean a “substantial” number of people may experience severe Covid infections which could lead to hospitalisation.

The UK Health Security Agency is expected to publish early real-world data on Omicron soon, which could give further indications of the variant’s severity.

Graph showing Covid cases in the UK since March 2020

From Sunday nightclubs in Northern Ireland will have to close and from Monday further restrictions will come into force, including a return to table-service only in hospitality venues.

Also on Sunday, Wales is returning to the rule of six in pubs, cinemas and restaurants.

The number of military personnel supporting the Welsh Ambulance service will nearly double in the new year, with another 183 troops to help out from 4 January – taking the total to just over 400.

The Chief Executive of NHS Wales, Judith Paget, says almost a fifth of healthcare staff could be off work at the peak of the Omicron wave.

In Scotland there will be limits on the size of public gatherings for three weeks from Sunday, and from Monday new restrictions will be placed on pubs, restaurants and other public indoor spaces – including a one metre distancing rule between groups, and table service where alcohol is served.

Simon Jupp: “Once again, our hospitality sector and high street shops are struggling”

This is an example of “crocodile tears”. Simon Jupp is part of the problem rather than the solution. Here is a review of the evidence.

(See his weekly press column and accompanying photo after Owl’s comments.)

The Vote Against

Only last week, Simon Jupp MP abstained in a parliamentary vote on the retrospective extension of mandatory face coverings and voted with the 100 odd rebels against the introduction of covid passes or proof of negative lateral flow tests to enter large venues.

These were designed to reduce the spread of Omicron: helping to save lives; reduce the demands on our hard pressed health services, and protect the economy. So why fail to support them?

The consequences of rebellion in a national crisis

By siding with the rebels on what many of us, including HM Opposition, believe to be a national imperative. Simon’s indulgence has created a “lame duck” Prime Minister at a critical time.

These political games have caused a collapse in public confidence. As a result the public have taken their own action. BBC Spotlight last night reported a 60% reduction in the last week in footfall in Devon’s High Street.

But it gets worse. The core of this rebel group is driven by a right wing libertarian ideology which includes a demand for a low tax economy. The Chancellor of the Exchequer (and wannabe contender for the throne), Rishi Sunak caught at this critical time away from his desk in California, has consequently, failed to act swiftly and decisively for fear of upsetting them (and his chances). 

Economic support in context

The one-off grants of up to £6,000 per premises belatedly offered to compensate businesses for the collapse of Christmas bookings in the hospitality sector doesn’t seem to include the support chain.

This largesse needs to be seen in the context of day to day Downing Street expenditure. £6K looks insignificant compared to the guesstimated £200K cost to redecorate the Johnson’s flat. Though it’s probably a bit more than sum spent on the series of “no rules were broken” “Secret Santa Christmas Gatherings” and similar “wine and Stilton” events held in the past year.

Put your money where your mouth is

Readers may recall last September: “This week’s PR disaster, Simon Jupp Doomed by his choice”. When Simon was pictured banging the drum for the hospitality sector alongside “yesterday’s man” Robert Jenrick and a couple of empty “Doom Bar” pints.

His pint of choice this time is “Old Speckled Hen”. Excellent Beer, but brewed in Oxfordshire.

Supporting local business means just that Simon. Why don’t you put your money where your mouth is and support, a Devon beer?

“Relax with an Otter”.

“Old Speckled Hen” image used in the Exmouth Journal

Weekly column: Impact of Covid on the hospitality industry

www.simonjupp.org.uk

The festivities are looming and there are a few things I would like to share with you as we head towards Christmas.

Once again, our hospitality sector and high street shops are struggling as we continue to get to grips with Omicron, the latest Covid variant.

Footfall is down and from talking to those who run pubs and restaurants, many bookings have been cancelled or people are simply not even bothering to turn up for their table. Casual staff have had their shifts cut, just before Christmas. Clearly, many are deciding to reduce their socialising to limit the risk of catching or spreading this virus. Many businesses have invested in their premises to improve ventilation to keep us safe.

We need buoyant, sustainable, and successful high streets and hospitality businesses in East Devon as both are vital to the local economy. I want you to know that I am once again lobbying the Treasury to consider bespoke financial support for those businesses affected by this significant drop in custom because of the latest developments.

I would also like to thank the many people we rely on at this time of the year who don’t get a festive break. The emergency services, NHS staff, carers, the RNLI, those working in retail or volunteering for a charity and many, many others. Thank you for doing what you do and for the sacrifices you make every day. Christmas can be a challenging time for some, and we should all be grateful for those who go above and beyond to make it safe, bearable and a little less lonely for many.

Again, I am not sending any Christmas cards this year. I have donated the cost of sending cards across the constituency to support local charities in East Devon. This year, I have donated to Sidmouth Independent Lifeboat, Budleigh Lions and Exmouth-based charity Rock2Recovery, which was setup by former Royal Marine Commandos to support veterans in our community.

Despite the current challenges we are all facing, may I wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas.

Since this column was submitted, additional support has been provided to the hospitality and leisure sectors from the Chancellor. This column first appeared in the Exmouth Journal on Wednesday 22nd December 2021 and in the Sidmouth Herald and Midweek Herald later in the week.