Planning applications validated by EDDC for week beginning 13 December

Ex-TSB boss is preferred candidate for NHS England chairman role

A banker is set to become the new chairman of NHS England in a bid to make it more “accountable” for its funding. 

The Department of Health and Social Care confirmed former TSB chairman Richard Meddings is the Government’s preferred candidate for the role on Thursday.

The Telegraph reported that ministers wanted Mr Meddings to provide an “outside eye” to make the NHS accountable for its additional funding, and said the Government was anxious to identify a “heavyweight” from the private sector with experience in digital and data, in order to help the NHS make better use of technologies.

The NHS still relies on paper records at some of its hospitals.

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid has invited the Health and Social Care Committee to hold a pre-appointment scrutiny hearing with Mr Meddings.

The role of chairman with NHS England will become available when Lord Prior of Brampton steps down early next year.

The Telegraph also reported that Cabinet ministers stressed their expectation that the NHS must achieve value for money after an additional £5.5 billion was channelled towards it for the second half of 2021 and a national insurance increase is set to fund an extra £12 billion for it next year.

As chairman of TSB, Mr Meddings oversaw what he described as “its most challenging year” in 2018 when it accrued losses of £104.5 million.

The migration of its IT system cost the bank £330.2 million, with higher charges related to customer compensation, additional resources and fraud.

Around 80,000 customers switched their bank account away from TSB the same year.

Mr Meddings is also a non-executive director at HM Treasury and Credit Suisse and is the former group finance director for Standard Chartered bank.

The Department of Health and Social Care said he was selected as preferred chair after an open public appointment process.

Following the select committee hearing, it will then set out its views on his suitability for the role of chair and the Secretary of State will then consider the committee’s report before making a final decision.

Attempts to undermine scientists in a pandemic are shameful

E.g,: ‘Dodgy data’ used in push for tighter Covid restrictions

Health chief accused of disseminating misleading statistics on hospitalisations that overstated the risk from omicron – Telegraph 25 December


Professor Chris Whitty and other high-profile public health officials are tipped for new year honours, and rightly so. Sir Chris, as we may soon learn to call him, and his fellow scientists have been voices of calm, consideration and, above all, truth throughout the pandemic. They have told the public the facts as they emerged, framed them against scientific understanding – so far as it went – and counselled caution.

They were not always right, such as in their early dismissal of face-coverings, but their successes have greatly outweighed their failures. On the big calls, such as radically reducing social interaction, they have been proved right. Where there have been problems it has been because scientific guidance hasn’t been sufficiently heeded.

The rapid development of vaccines – in which Britain played a pioneering role, though it was the result of intensive international collaboration – is one of the great medical achievements of this or any age. Many lives have been saved by the dedication of scientists and clinicians, and by the public’s trust in them.

And yet, even as they are honoured by many, these public servants are also increasingly the subject of derision and abuse, and from people who should know better. Not only is this unkind and ungrateful, but the tendency to undermine public trust in science and medicine actively undermines the effort to control the spread of the virus, relieve pressure on the NHS and save lives.

Sometimes it is said, lazily, that the world has to “move on” and “learn to live with Covid” because of the damage public health measures can do to the economy. An uncontrolled spike in infections, however, will invariably do much more harm to jobs and businesses, even if the value of the lives of those killed – avoidably – by the virus can somehow be discounted to zero.

Worst of all, the political and media tide of criticism of the likes of Professor Whitty – or, most recently, Dr Jenny Harries – feeds the conspiracy theories and the cranks in the anti-vaxxers’ topsy-turvy world. If people want to believe that Omicron, for example, is “mild” and no worse than the common cold or a case of the sniffles, then of course they will be unwilling even to wear a face-covering or avoid crowded spaces. If it is supposed that independent scientists are responsible for “dodgy” data, and that they have some secret agenda to control peoples’ lives for the sake of it, then of course people will cease to take reasonable precautions to protect themselves and others. Careless talk costs lives.

It is shameful, then, that such language is being used against public servants whose only agenda is to protect public health. For issuing warnings about the ominous Omicron variant, officials are derided as “scaremongers”, “doomsday scientists” and “Dr Doom”. The modelling they have to use to assess policy options is supposedly always wrong, even though it is never a prediction of anything more than a range of possible outcomes if no action is taken and public behaviour remains unchanged. It is grotesque that someone such as Jacob Rees-Mogg tries to challenge Sir Patrick Vallance on epidemiology.

When, as now, it becomes clearer that a case of Omicron is less likely to lead to hospitalisation and is thus, on this definition, “milder” than the Delta variant, some media channels and politicians twist this into saying it is “mild”, meaning almost benign. It is not the common cold, however. In truth, it can still kill, and it will certainly add to the pressures on the NHS, which is struggling to catch up with the considerable backlog of non-Covid illnesses.

Spectrums of likelihood are turned into binary facts. So vaccines are said to be no help in preventing transmission, even though they may reduce transmission in some settings. Similarly, because people with vaccines do still succumb to Covid, it is claimed that the vaccines don’t work. It is sometimes said that natural immunity is superior to vaccines (and that vaccines are therefore useless). It is ludicrous, but such crude nonsense is stated with depressing frequency. Sad to say, it carries a good deal of political motivation.

Comparatively modest measures, such as Covid-status certificates or social distancing, are characterised as “lockdown”, when they are not. The cycle of new variants of concern and countermeasures is presented as never ending, yet Professor Whitty has explained, in his patient, honest way, that in around 18 months’ time, new and powerful polyvalent vaccines, as well as a range of improved treatments and techniques, will indeed mean that people can learn to live with the virus – but safely. With widespread polyvalent vaccination, variants will be less likely to be vaccine-evasive, and less likely to circulate freely if basic precautions are taken.

At the moment, it is not possible to learn to live with the coronavirus, because it is still too widespread and too deadly. Therefore, periodic intrusions on liberty to protect lives and to protect the economy will continue to be necessary, as will vaccinations and boosters, and not just in the rich world but globally. Beating Covid will need political leadership, perseverance and money, as well as clear, balanced messaging and honest debate through the media.

There is no need to shoot the messengers: all the scientists can do is point the way.

Boris Johnson to examine hospital data before decision on Covid rules

The Prime Minister says he will not hesitate to take further action on Omicron – despite a revolt in his party when he last imposed restrictions. – various press reports

[Data reporting is often delayed over weekend and holidays.]

Owl not holding their breath.

Jessica Elgot 

Boris Johnson is expected to examine crucial hospital data on Monday before making any new announcement on Covid measures, but has no plans to recall his cabinet, with ministers still deeply sceptical of further legal curbs.

Sources said the prime minister would “take stock” after being encouraged by improving data on Friday, a sign that No 10 is leaning away from stricter curbs in England, but Downing Street sources said he would act quickly if there were new causes for concern.

Instead, Johnson will receive only his regular data briefing over the bank holiday with England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty – expected to be knighted in the new year honours – and the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance.

Key evidence that the government will examine on Monday includes data on the length of stay in hospitals, the transition rates to ICU and new death figures. There is concern among some government figures about undeclared positive cases – including those asymptomatic but also those isolating after a lateral flow test whose results are not recorded by the NHS because they do not take a PCR.

However, cabinet ministers are still highly sceptical of further legal restrictions, a week after a tense three-hour cabinet meeting in which the majority pushed back against any new curbs.

One cabinet minister said the positive data on Omicron’s severity – a Health Security Agency analysis found those catching Omicron are 50% to 70% less likely to need hospital care compared with previous variants – proved they had been right to hold out.

“The data so far is still struggling to be persuasive of legal changes to be required,” one cabinet minister said. Another said it was “right that we didn’t rush last time given positive, early data”.

But a hospital doctors’ trade union urged ministers to implement further measures without delay to help the NHS, including limits on household mixing and table service only in hospitality venues.

Dr Paul Donaldson, the general secretary of the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association, warned Johnson that “it would be ludicrous” not to respond more decisively to Omicron, and that Christmas mingling would inevitably have spread Covid.

“There is a high probability we are moving too late,” said Donaldson, a consultant microbiologist.

“We will soon start to see the impact of Christmas. We are holding out hope that hospitalisations are at the lower end of projections. But given the uncertainty we face it would be ludicrous not to take additional precautions,” he added.

The HCSA also wants to see social distancing measures applied in retail and hospitality settings, such as mask-wearing, table spacing, limits on capacity and queueing systems, as well as social distancing and bubbles in all schools and continued working from home.

The NHS Confederation, which represents health service trusts in England, said any further steps would help the NHS, given the rising number of hospitalisations and staff off sick due to the virus. There were 1,171 people admitted to hospital across the UK in the previous 24 hours, the government disclosed on Friday.

“Any new restrictions which are brought in to help ease the pressure on the NHS need to be clearly explained to the public. Confusion and complacency can make any new restrictions ineffective,” said Matthew Taylor, its chief executive.

The prime minister has pledged to his restive backbenchers, a significant number of whom rebelled over the last set of restrictions, that he will recall parliament before implementing new restrictions but it is possible any vote could be retrospective, should the decision be taken later in the week.

Johnson faced significant opposition from his cabinet before Christmas during a three-hour meeting where the decision was taken to delay any new curbs until after the festive weekend.

The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, and the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, were said to be the most sceptical of restrictions, while the levelling up secretary, Michael Gove, and culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, have urged the most caution.

On Friday, papers released from government scientific advisers showed modelling for the impact of implementing “step 2” restrictions from Tuesday – a date now unlikely to be practicable. That would mean an end to indoor gatherings and introducing the rule of six outdoors, with bars and restaurants only able to serve outdoors.

The modelling suggested that restrictions could reduce deaths by 18% if kept in place until mid-January or 39% if retained until the end of March.

Cabinet resistance to further restrictions is also likely be deepened by the collapse in Johnson’s own poll ratings over the scandal of No 10 Christmas parties and deep rifts with his own party over plan B restrictions to enforce home working, mask-wearing and new Covid passes for large venues.

Speaking to the Observer on Sunday, Conservative MPs suggested that those who wished to eventually replace Johnson should resist further Covid restrictions.

Johnson and the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, are said to be determined that schools reopen on time in January. Step 2 restrictions would allow schools to remain open, as well as non-essential shops, subject to social distancing rules.

New coronavirus restrictions come into force from Monday in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. From Boxing Day, a maximum of six people will be allowed to meet in pubs, cinemas and restaurants in Wales, as well as other restrictions on numbers for larger events.

In Scotland, up to three households can meet, with 1-metre distancing between groups at indoor and outdoor venues such as bars, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and gyms. Table service is also required at places where alcohol is served.

Northern Ireland is also recommending restricting socialising to three households, while up to six people can meet in pubs, bars and restaurants.

However, there are serious concerns in the NHS that the large number of frontline personnel falling sick as infections spiral because of Omicron is hampering the service’s ability to provide care.

Staff absences in England due to Covid have been soaring during December, the latest official figures showed last Thursday. The number of days lost to illness caused by Covid went up by 38% to 124,855 in the week to 19 December, while the number of staff off sick rose by 54% from 12,240 to 18,829, both compared with the previous week.

At some hospitals in London, which has been hit first and worst by the new variant, the number of staff off ill with Covid has trebled since the start of the month, NHS England’s figures showed.

Taylor said that the service was facing a “double emergency” of sharply rising staff absences because of illness at the same time as the demand for hospital care was rising.

Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, has said that the loss of frontline staff to sickness is “a big worry” for hospital bosses who are facing growing demand from patients, especially as the NHS in England has almost 100,000 vacancies anyway.

Home-seekers despair as affordable property vanishes from UK hotspots

With a focus on the problems in Exeter – Owl

Robert Booth 

Jonathan Taylor was pleased by his first peek at a sparkling new studio apartment that could one day become his home. The 24-year-old from Exeter has been living in YMCA accommodation since he was 19 but, as he viewed freshly painted white walls, the reality of a more settled home dawned.

“If I lived in this place I’d feel more important,” he said. “I’d feel I’ve landed on my feet.”

Taylor, who juggles cleaning jobs at a builders’ merchant and a pub, is a victim of what many fear is a deepening housing crisis in the Devon cathedral city fuelled by surging house prices, the spread of short-term Airbnb lets and rising social waiting lists.

It means the chance to rent a decent, affordable home like the one Taylor is viewing is vanishingly rare. The fact Taylor may soon be given a chance to move in is down to YMCA Exeter, which is converting a former Poundstretcher warehouse into 26 homes for priced-out young people for a £140-a-week rent – well below the market rate.

The small attempt at a solution comes as Exeter and many other parts of the UK are facing a new challenge to further complicate the housing crisis: the arrival of metropolitan homebuyers seeking more space and less stress. Pandemic exiles are selling up high-value homes in places such as London and snapping up bigger properties for a fraction of the price.

Latest figures show that Londoners bought more than 112,000 homes outside the capital this year, an increase of 62% compared with 2020, according to the estate agent Hamptons.

They spent £54.9bn, the highest annual spend on record, reflecting soaring property prices, which have been lifted by the government’s temporary cut to stamp duty. The average UK house price has risen from £450,460 in 2020 to £486,890 in 2021.

“It is getting tense,” said Rob Hannaford, leader of the Labour group of Devon county council. “People coming down with big budgets is causing anger and resentment.”

Exeter is among several UK areas that have become honeypots for city people who decided during the lockdowns that another life must be possible. House prices are surging too in Richmondshire in North Yorkshire, Pembrokeshire in west Wales, and the Scottish borders. Cities such as Exeter are seeing already threadbare supplies of affordable housing pushed to breaking point.

“Local people can’t get anywhere in the system,” said Hannaford. “People from London are coming in and putting in a ridiculous offer over the asking price and getting what they want. These might not be houses that local people could afford, but it does trickle down.”

Exeter’s social waiting list grew 47% from 2017 to 2020 to reach about 2,600 households. House prices went up 8.5% in the last year. Meanwhile the population grows, more properties become second homes and private landlords increasingly switch long-term rentals to short-stay Airbnbs.

The pressure is such that Hannaford said the council was even concerned about how to find homes for 67 Afghan refugees currently in a hotel after this summer’s evacuation from Kabul. Attracting social workers, teachers and care workers is becoming harder. There is a plan to build 500 council homes but it is playing catch-up.

Blaming the arrival of outsiders may not be entirely fair given the affordable housing crisis in Exeter has been brewing for years. Landlords have bought up swathes of stock to rent to students and, in a nationally recurrent theme, there is public opposition to construction on the surrounding green fields.

Newcomers resist any suggestion they are causing a problem and some stressed they wanted to become part of the community and contribute with their different skills and experience.

“The pandemic and lockdown gave us some unexpectedly clarity,” said Sabrina Russo, who moved from London to Exeter with her family in December 2020. “We realised that a bigger home, time outdoors and a slower pace had become real priorities … Exeter is friendly and welcoming and we’ve started to meet people and make friends. We bought a house that we love.”

But, said Laura Wright, the Exeter city councillor in charge of council housing and deputy leader, there was “growing alarm at the prices that some people are willing and able to pay to move here from London”.

“As a nation, we have been locked into a way of thinking and acting over the last 20 years which values making the biggest profit possible above collective responsibility for social cohesion and welfare.”

The sharpest house price rises in the year to August have been in desirable, more spacious locations outside the major cities where there have also been substantial increases in people waiting for social housing. The list includes Wychavon, Stratford-upon-Avon, County Durham, Cheshire West and Newark and Sherwood in Nottinghamshire. In these places, average house prices rose between 13% and 20% in a year while waiting lists have lengthened over the last three years.

“My age group is being pushed out of the city,” said Natalie Overson, a 23-year-old who aspires to be a midwife and has been on Exeter’s social housing waiting list for five years. “A lot of it is people buying second homes, or buying to rent out. It is the middle and upper classes that are making it harder for us to live in the cities we grew up in.”

Becky Merriman, 34, a youth worker, has been unable find a rental home in Exeter, which means she has to commute 40 minutes each way and continue to live with her parents.

“I’ve been trying since May and it has been quite traumatic,” she said. “We would ring agents as soon as a property went up [online] and they would say the viewings were all gone in 10 minutes. It’s mentally exhausting.”

In West Devon, which includes half of Dartmoor, house prices have risen 20% in the last year and 800 households are waiting for social housing.

“We as a local authority have got to be building houses,” said Neil Jory, West Devon’s Conservative leader, who added that people moving from London and Bristol was “causing us a great deal of concern”. “There are cases in Devon where teachers have come to the county to work and three months later they have gone back to where they came from because they can’t afford anywhere to live.”