Planning applications validated by EDDC for week beginning14 February

Just how deep are these Russian links to Tories? 

Ex-Tory energy minister Lord Barker is urged by Ben Wallace to quit the Lords over £6million-a-year links to Russian aluminium giant EN+ which boasts a sanctioned oligarch as a major shareholder

  • Ben Wallace said Lord Barker must sever ties with EN + and quit House of Lords
  • Lord Barker retains his seat in the Lords while working full-time for the company 
  • EN+ boasts Oleg Deripaska – a sanctioned oligarch – as a major shareholder

(One time business pal of our ex-MP Hugo Swire)

But all is now well as Sir Hugo Swire starts making films with Johnson’s former mistress

Horse trading in Bristol under Mayoral system

Council budget expected to pass at second attempt despite anger

Adam Postans 

Marvin Rees’s reworked budget is set to be approved despite criticism that he has “disregarded” the will of councillors.

Bristol City Council’s Conservatives have thrown their weight behind the Labour mayor’s spending plans after he incorporated several of their proposals, including restoring Kingsweston Iron Bridge and slashing the cost of bulky household item collections. This is despite councillors voting to reject the Tories’ amendments at the first, aborted attempt to set the budget, on Tuesday, February 15, which ended in “stalemate” when Mr Rees chose to take his permitted five working days to review the changes.

If Labour and the Conservatives now join forces as expected at the second full council meeting on Wednesday, March 2, it would be enough for it to gain the simple majority required. But Cllr Heather Mack, leader of the main opposition Greens, says that while the mayor has accepted some of her party’s amendments, other proposals that were likewise approved by full council last week, including reopening public toilets, have been quietly ditched, while the Tories’ ideas thrown out by councillors have been taken on.

Full council voted in favour of five opposition amendments at the first meeting – four from the Greens, one by Knowle Community Party but neither of the two sets of alterations from the Conservatives. Cllr Mack said the changes agreed would already have been adopted if Bristol had a committee system but that under the mayoral model Mr Rees had “free reign to reject the will of a majority of elected councillors”.

Residents get to decide which of the two systems they want in a referendum in May. Cllr Mack said: “In last year’s local elections Bristol voted Green in record numbers – and this year Greens used our increased power in the council to make a significant difference to the mayor’s budget.

“We put forward sensible amendments to reverse some of the worst cuts proposed by Labour, including cuts to union support, charging for disabled parking bays and scrapping 30 minutes’ parking in residents’ parking areas. So I’m glad that our influence on the budget has led to the administration U-turning on these proposed cuts, and that Green amendments have also been accepted which will mean more investment in tackling illegal parking and more funding for residents’ parking schemes (RPSs) and ‘school streets’ projects that Bristol needs.

“However, it is disappointing to see the mayor disregard some amendments passed by full council at the budget meeting, which would have funded new public toilets across the city, invested millions of pounds into parks and neighbourhoods and supported Jubilee Pool’s community transfer. Under a committee system the council would have already adopted these amendments, but under the Mayoral system one person has free reign to reject the will of a majority of elected councillors.”

Cllr Andrew Brown, deputy leader of the Lib Dems, whose amendments were voted down, said: “We are disappointed that the mayor chose not to engage with groups from across the council chamber when deciding on alternative proposals. However, we note that he has adopted a number of proposals from amendments brought to council.

“We will be examining the detail over the next few days and deciding how to vote. Our preference would be for the budget, as democratically amended by last week’s council, to pass in the first vote of the night.”

The second budget meeting will begin with a debate and vote on the budget as amended by full council last time. But this requires a two-thirds majority to pass because it does not have the mayor’s approval so is classed as an alternative budget, and Labour would have enough votes to block it even without the help of other groups.

If it falls, members will then vote on the mayor’s revised budget, which has 17 changes to the original version but still includes £19.5million of cuts in 2022/23 and £33million over the next few years. Unlike before, it includes at least one new RPS with community support, more traffic wardens, one-off funding for Queen’s Jubilee fruit-tree planting, more money for parks and play equipment, and upgrades to local shopping centres and road junctions impacted by the massive Cribbs housing development, plus the Iron Bridge repairs.

The combined £205,000 cost of reducing fees from £25 to £15 for collecting three bulky household items and scrapping plans to charge residents for private disabled parking bays will be met from cuts to a non-staffing budget to the mayor’s office, with the intention to reinstate that money in future from an as-yet unidentified source. Mr Rees has otherwise protected funding for the mayor’s office, City Office and the authority’s public relations.

But among the budget amendments passed at full council that Mr Rees has not included in his revised proposals are reopening public toilets, reducing £5.5million cuts to the council’s workforce by £1million and creating a loan facility for the new community management at Jubilee Pool in Knowle. Absences aside, Labour’s 24 councillors, plus Mr Rees’s vote, combined with the Conservatives’ 14 members, not including lord mayor Cllr Steve Smith whose ceremonial role as full council chairman traditionally sees him vote only to split a tie, gives them 39 votes out of 70 – passing the 50 per cent threshold.

Conservative group leader Cllr Mark Weston said: “Whilst very disappointed that our amendments fell at the first budget-fixing meeting thanks to opposition from the mayor and Green Party, we have had a productive exchange with the administration over the best way forward and made clear what our red lines would be in return for backing a revised proposal. My colleagues were particularly adamant over the need to resolve the stalled restoration of the Iron Bridge.

“However, it is pleasing to see that a lot of our other major asks have also been included in the altered budget proposals. Here, the increased funding for transport improvements linked to the Cribbs Patchway New Neighbourhood and extra investment in high streets and our parks are significant and welcome. These changes, together with other incorporated content such as the retention of 30 minutes’ free parking in RPSs, have been endorsed by my group so I would expect to see this new consensus to be reflected in the final voting next week.”

Breaking news: Torbay MP and  immigration minister, Kevin Foster “Loses the Plot”

Ukrainians can apply to pick fruit & veg says MP in deleted tweet

Daniel Clark

Torbay MP Kevin Foster has come under fire for a now-deleted tweet in which he said Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion can apply for jobs picking fruit and veg.

The Conservative MP was responding to Plymouth’s Labour MP Luke Pollard to explain that there are a ‘number of routes’ for refugees from the war.

The Tory government has come under pressure to allow Ukrainians refuge in the UK as the invading Russian forces surge toward Kyiv and other key objectives, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson stating that ‘of course’ the UK would help, the Mirror reports.

Labour had slammed the the Government’s refusal to relax visa restrictions for those seeking sanctuary in the UK was “immoral” at a time when the country was under fire, but Home Secretary Priti Patel has accussd the opposition of “appalling misinformation” and saying the claims were “simply untrue”.

Mr Foster, an immigration minister under Priti Patel, had tweeted on Saturday evening: “Hi Luke, as you are well aware there are a number of routes, not least our seasonal work scheme you will recall from your shadow DEFRA days, which Ukrainians can qualify for, alongside the family route for those with relatives here.”

The tweet was later deleted.

Kevin Foster’s now deleted tweet

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper reacted by tweeting: “My God. People are fleeing war in Europe, the like we haven’t seen in generations, in search of swift sanctuary.

“Yet the immigration minister says the answer is they should put in an application to pick Britain’s fruit & veg.”

The tweet was widely criticised on social media, with Labour and Co-op MP for Leeds, Alex Sobel, replying: “Kevin this is beneath you. I hope you can apologise to the people of Ukraine fleeing for their lives and join the voices calling for the UK to match what our European friends are offering the oppressed masses of Ukraine.”

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon responded to Mr Foster’s words, saying: “I hope we get clarity ASAP from Priti Patel that this is not a Home Office position.

“Migrant seasonal workers make a valued contribution to our economy – but this is not the route to the UK that we should expect those seeking refuge from war to rely on.”

Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw said: “Torbay MP & Tory Home Office Minister Kevin Foster seems to have lost the plot with this tweet. Saying Ukrainians fleeing Putin’s bombs should apply for the “seasonal workers scheme”, when other countries are welcoming the mainly women & children refugees with open arms.”

A Government spokesman said the priority was supporting British nationals and their dependents who are resident in Ukraine who wanted to get out.

“We are working around the clock to process visa applications and are processing many applications in a matter of hours,” the spokesman said.

Application fees had been temporarily waived for those eligible for entry by the family route while those who did not meet the requirements were being allowed entry for 12 months.

While the main UK visa application centre in Kyiv has been closed, the one in Lviv remained open for family members of British nationals in Ukraine. Staff had been “surged” to the centres in nearby countries, including Poland, Moldova, Romania and Hungary, to help those who made it across the border.

“Ukrainian nationals are able to apply for visas from these centres and we have announced concessions for Ukrainians currently in the UK, to extend or switch their visa,” the spokeswoman said.

Stressed NHS staff in England quit at record 400 a week, fuelling fears over care quality

A record number of more than 400 workers in England have left the NHS every week to restore their work-life balance over the last year, according to a new analysis of the workforce crisis hitting the health service.

Michael Savage 

The flood of departures comes with staff complaining of burnout and cases of post-traumatic stress disorder following two years of battling the Covid pandemic. There are now concerns that the exodus is impacting the quality of care, with more than a quarter of adults saying they or an immediate family member had received poor care as a result of the workforce problems.

The findings emerged in an assessment of the health service compiled by John Hall, a former strategy director at the Department of Health and Social Care, for the Engage Britain charity. Concerns over the state of the workforce came top of its list as it investigated the public’s attitude towards health and social care services, which remain under pressure in the wake of the pandemic.

“The workforce crisis in the NHS has clearly penetrated the public consciousness,” Hall writes. “The UK has long had significantly lower numbers of doctors and nurses per capita than comparable systems … More recently, the impact of working conditions is showing an increasing impact on the ability of the NHS to retain staff. Around 50 in every 10,000 staff working in hospital and community health services in June 2021 left the service within the next three months, citing work-life balance as the reason. This was a new record.”

Analysis of NHS Digital figures found that at least 400 staff a week in England are leaving to improve their work-life balance. It comes alongside evidence of high turnover among social care workers. Recent estimates show more than a third (34%) of care workers left their roles in 2020-21.

Earlier this month, former health secretary Jeremy Hunt told the government it had “missed an opportunity” to alleviate the workforce crisis in the NHS and social care, after rejecting the Commons health select committee’s recommendation to overhaul workforce planning. Staff shortages were the main driver of worker burnout, he said

Engage Britain gathered a panel of people from across the country to identify attitudes and concerns towards health and social care services. Patient treatment, support for mental health issues and preventative healthcare were among the main issues identified.

Care work and nursing were named as some of our most undervalued professions, with 69% saying more NHS staff are needed.

One senior occupational therapist, speaking anonymously to the project, said she decided to pay for an expensive operation after injuring her knee because she had seen how overwhelmed the NHS had become. “Waiting for eight weeks might become 12 weeks, or more. Living on my own, I didn’t have anyone to help me, and relying on friends just didn’t feel right. It wasn’t a difficult decision to go private. I just felt lucky I was in the position where I could choose when others can’t.

“I think people generally feel overworked and undervalued in the NHS. There are problems with recruitment and retention of staff. Some vacancies are unfilled for more than a year. The stress levels on staff in under-resourced teams is massive and it’s a major contributor to them struggling with their mental health and wellbeing. Ultimately, people make the decision to leave, or to take early retirement, or seek other careers.”

Jenny Bevan, 74, from Bath, said she was left fearful of returning to hospital after she sought treatment for a hiatus hernia in 2018. She said she felt staff shortages and other stresses on the NHS had played a major role. “The surgery went well, but afterwards I was left in the recovery room for hours. There appeared to be only one nurse and, as the day wore on, the number of patients grew and grew.

“I was anxious because my granddaughter had all my personal belongings and didn’t know where I was. But the nurse wouldn’t let her in to see me. She seemed stressed and clearly needed more help.

“When I had to go to the toilet, I was not allowed to get out of bed so I had to use a bedpan which spilled over and it was just awful. I was eventually transferred to a ward for dementia patients. I was in considerable pain but was told I’d have to wait for the doctor as the nurse wasn’t qualified to give strong painkillers.”

Julian McCrae, Engage Britain’s director, said frontline health and care workers were now “running on empty” and a plan for boosting the workforce was overdue. “NHS workers across the country have spoken to us about feeling overstretched, undervalued and struggling to get support in a chaotic system,” he said. “We can’t allow staff to burn out, while putting patients at risk of mistakes or spiralling downwards as they wait months for treatment. The government must act quickly to expand its promise of reform, based on listening to the people who use or work in the system every day. Only answers rooted in real experiences can deliver health and care that works for us all.”

Boris Johnson’s promise to build 4,000 zero-emission buses makes zero progress

One of Boris Johnson flagship “green” pledges – to provide 4,000 new zero-emission, British-built buses by the end of 2024 – has been cast into serious doubt by UK manufacturers who say they have yet to receive any orders for new vehicles.

Toby Helm 

MPs and campaigners are pressuring ministers for information on when money will be committed to allow the manufacture of the zero-emission buses, which the prime minister promised would form part of a green transport revolution in his first term in Downing Street. He made the pledge in February 2020, just before the Covid pandemic, when he was keen to promote his environmental credentials and show how green policies could benefit people’s lives whileboosting British businesses.

Since then, only a fraction of the necessary funds has been allocated, with £320m being committed by chancellor Rishi Sunak in last autumn’s spending review, towards an estimated total of £4bn needed to put 4,000 green buses on the road.

UK manufacturers say that unless the funds are committed and orders made soon, there will not be time to get the new vehicles into service in time to meet Johnson’s promise.

Paul Davies, managing director of bus manufacturer Alexander Dennis, which is Britain’s biggest bus builder and the world’s largest manufacturer of double-decker buses, said: “The problem is that we are running out of time to deliver on what was promised. If everything is left until the last minute, the danger is we have to look to overseas companies for quicker and cheaper options when the intention was that they would be British-made.”

Buta Atwal, chief executive of another major bus manufacturer, Wrightbus, said he had been encouraged by Johnson’s announcement two years ago but had been left disappointed not to have heard any positive news about orders since. “We invested heavily in zero-emission technology on the basis of the government’s plans. so we are looking forward to the first order.”

Paul Tuohy, chief executive of Campaign for Better Transport, said: “It’s clear from our work with bus operators, local authorities, utility companies and others involved in providing bus services that we are not currently on target to deliver nearly enough zero-emission buses anywhere near fast enough.

“Government must step in to offer more support to the industry in the long term and do more to boost passenger numbers in the short term to give operators the confidence to invest.”

Shadow buses minister Sam Tarry MP said ministers had misled parliament about the programme. “British manufacturers tell me they haven’t received a single order. We’re now more than two years on from when the prime minister promised there’d be 4,000 zero-emission buses on our roads by 2025.

“They’re clearly well off target and this is yet another sign that they’re not serious about their commitment to decarbonise our economy and meet our net zero target by 2050, and they’re not serious about supporting British manufacturing and jobs.”

The Campaign for Better Transport said that of the 38,000 buses nationally, currently only 12% are hybrid and 2% are zero-emission (4% in London and 1% in the rest of England).

In the recent levelling up white paper, ministers said that “over £500m is being spent this parliament on delivering zero-emission buses.”

Labour says this shows that the government is already backing away from its previous commitments, as this would only allow a tiny proportion of the promised number to be manufactured.

Last year, announcing his bus strategy, Johnson said: “I love buses and I have never quite understood why so few governments before mine have felt the same way,” adding that “better buses will be one of our major acts of levelling up”.

A DfT spokesperson said: “The government remains committed to supporting the introduction of 4,000 zero-emission buses and achieving an all zero-emission bus fleet. This will support our climate ambitions, improve transport for local communities and support high quality green jobs.”

Boris Johnson mocking the idea of armed conflict returning to Europe is quite the watch

It’s all about Boris Johnson’s lack of judgement and shallow grasp of events – Owl

Poke Staff 


This clip of Boris Johnson giving evidence to MPs last November went wildly viral for reasons that are about to become obvious.

It’s the prime minister responding to concerns about defence cuts from Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative MP and chairman of the Commons’ defence select committee.

“The old concepts of fighting big tank battles on European land mass are over,” said Boris Johnson last November, as he mocked the idea of armed conflict returning to Europe.

— Adam Bienkov (@AdamBienkov) February 25, 2022

Not just what he was saying, you might think, but the way that he said it.

And here are just a few of the things people said in response to the clip, which (at the time I write this) has been watched nearly 2.5 million times.

Watch this and tell me we are in safe hands.

— Deborah Meaden 💙 (@DeborahMeaden) February 25, 2022

This recent argument between @Tobias_Ellwood and @BorisJohnson is absolutely jaw dropping, and shows how little the prime minister and his advisors understood Putin and his ambitions

— Robert Peston (@Peston) February 25, 2022

This is the man who calls his opposition: ‘Captain Hindsight’.

— Jonathan Pie (@JonathanPieNews) February 25, 2022

Winston Churchill served in the military. The only service associated with Boris Johnson is that of drinks served at “work” events. We can do better. The world is too dangerous to have a buffoon in Downing St

— Gavin Esler (@gavinesler) February 25, 2022

In one word.


— James Oh Brien (@mrjamesob) February 25, 2022

Only one in four people willing to pay for Covid tests

Back to living with the virus “blindfold”, as we were at the beginning in March 2020, not good when a new mutation appears – Owl

Chris Smyth 

Most people say they will stop checking themselves for Covid once tests are no longer free.

Just one in four say they will carry on taking tests if they have symptoms once they have to pay, a finding that is likely to intensify fears that infections could rebound now all restrictions are lifted.

In a YouGov poll for The Times one in six people in England said they would no longer bother to isolate if they were confirmed to have the virus, after a legal requirement to do so was dropped this week.

Public health guidance continues to urge people to stay at home if they have Covid and the poll found that 78 per cent said they probably or definitely would isolate if they tested positive.

Young people are far less likely to stay at home, with 22 per cent of those aged 18-24 saying they would not isolate if they had Covid, compared with 7 per cent of over the 65s.

The poll raises the question of whether people will actually know that they have Covid once free tests end in spring. From April 1, only the most vulnerable will be eligible for free tests in England, with ministers saying they will work with companies to establish a market so that people can pay for tests themselves.

Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, pressed for the end of free tests, which cost £2 billion a month, and won out over Sajid Javid, the health secretary, who wanted wider eligibility.

The poll found just 24 per cent of people would pay to take a test if they had Covid symptoms. The elderly were most likely to do so, but still just 35 per cent of over 65s said they would and 17 per cent of the under 25s.

Even among those who said they would be willing to pay, most would not pay more than £5, with 23 per cent saying £1 was the most they would hand over for a test, and 52 per cent saying up to £5. Just 4 per cent said they would pay more than £10. Officials expect that tests will sell for a few pounds each, with Boots saying this week that it will be selling individual tests for £5.99 or in packs of four for £17.

Internal government debates are still raging over the extent of NHS staff testing and the size of a test stockpile to be kept in readiness for future variants, after Sunak insisted they had to be paid for out of existing health budgets.

Javid has warned this could delay plans for social care reform and bringing down waiting lists.

With masks no longer compulsory in England, fewer people say they will carry on wearing them in shops or public transport than when face-covering rules were similarly relaxed last summer. Some 60 per cent say they will carry on wearing masks, compared with 70 per cent last July.

Rising numbers are also relaxed being around others who are not wearing masks, with an even split between those saying they would and would not be comfortable travelling on public transport when others were not wearing face coverings. This week 43 per cent said they would be comfortable, up from 31 per cent in July. YouGov interviewed 1,504 adults in England on Thursday and Friday.

While government science advisers have largely accepted the argument for returning to normality, they are concerned by the imminent end of widespread testing. Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, told The Times that while England was “in a good position to ease restrictions”, widely available lateral flow tests were “particularly useful when the prevalence is high and I would prefer to see them in place for the time being”.

Party funding linked to Russia – how much have Tories benefited?

Boris Johnson could not have been more clear. “I just think it’s very important that the house understands: we do not raise money from Russian oligarchs.” Some opposition MPs laughed, and it very much is the case that the prime minister was accurate only in a strict legalistic sense.

Peter Walker 

It would be impossible for someone with only Russian nationality, however rich, to donate legally to a UK political party. What has undoubtedly happened is that a series of people with dual UK-Russian nationality, or with significant business links with Russia, have donated heavily to the Conservatives in recent years.

A Labour party calculation based on Electoral Commission information estimated that donors who had made money from Russia or Russians had given £1.93m to either the Tory party or constituency associations since Johnson became prime minister.

Others put the sum higher. Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader, to whom Johnson was replying in the Commons on Wednesday, said the Tories had raised £2.3m “from Russian oligarchs”.

Oligarch is a loose term but is often associated in this context with very rich people who generally made their money amid the financial free-for-all of the post-Soviet and Putin era, and who often keep close links to the Russian president.

Those who have donated to the Tories since Johnson entered No 10 in July 2019 deny either that any of their wealth has murky origins, or that they are under any sort of Russian influence over how they use it.

The biggest single donor of this group is the financier Lubov Chernukhin, who has donated £700,000. A British national since 2011, she is married to Vladimir Chernukhin, a former deputy finance minister under Putin. Documents published in the Pandora papers in October suggest he was allowed to leave Russia in 2004 with assets worth about $500m (£366m) and retain Russian business connections.

The couple’s lawyers say that none of Vladimir Chernukhin’s wealth was acquired in a corrupt manner, and that none of his wife’s donations were funded by improper means or affected by the influence of anyone else.

What is certain is that Lubov Chernukhin is a generous donor and something of a presence in Tory circles; she had the winning bid at the party’s 2020 fundraising ball for the prize of a game of tennis with Johnson.

Shortly before Johnson became PM, Liz Truss, then international trade secretary, posted a photo to Instagram of what she termed a “ladies’ night”, posing alongside Theresa May and a series of other female Tory MPs, plus Lubov Chernukhin.

The industrialist Alexander Temerko, also a UK national, has donated £357,000 since Johnson took office. He is a minority shareholder and co-owner of a company called Aquind. Its majority investor is the Russian-born oil tycoon Viktor Fedotov.

Another big Tory donor in the Johnson era is the businessman Mohamed Amersi, who has given £258,000 over the period.

Amersi advised on a lucrative telecom deal in Russia in 2005 with a company that a Swiss tribunal subsequently found to be controlled by an associate of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Amersi told the Financial Times in July he had made $7m in the country, but only prior to 2008. “Not a penny that I earned in Russia … has even remotely come close to being invested in the UK political system,” he said.

Under electoral laws for Great Britain – they vary slightly in Northern Ireland – donations to parties can be made only by people on the UK electoral register, or from UK-registered companies and other organisations such as unions.

The only people allowed to go on the electoral register in England are British citizens, people with EU citizenship living in the UK, and Commonwealth citizens who can live in the UK.

UK government has abandoned its own Covid health advice, leak reveals

Public health advice is no longer being followed under Boris Johnson’s “living with Covid” strategy to end mass testing, senior civil servants have acknowledged in a leaked account of a cross-Whitehall briefing.

Rowena Mason 

The briefing by a senior member of the Covid taskforce was delivered to civil service leaders across Whitehall on Thursday afternoon, making clear that following public health advice was no longer the sole priority.

The senior official said public health advice would not be met in NHS or social care settings in relation to the testing of staff, and that was a “decision that the PM, chancellor and indeed the cabinet have agreed to”.

On the call, he said: “It will be the case from 1 April that testing in DH own settings including the NHS and adult social care will not fully match the public health advice because of spending considerations. We will not be testing adult social care staff or NHS staff at the frequency recommended by clinicians because there is not the funding to pay for it.”

Johnson has repeatedly stressed throughout the pandemic that he would “follow the science” and listen to his public health experts. However, that appears to have ended with the “living with Covid” strategy, which set out a timetable for winding down testing and scrapping mandatory isolation.

The government has not published its public health advice from the UK Health and Security Agency but it is understood its advisers did not recommend winding down testing unless the prevalence of Covid was at a low level in the UK and that the pandemic was in a “steady state” near to endemicity. The government’s experts do not believe that state has currently been reached.

Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, and Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific officer, stood beside Johnson in a press conference as he announced the strategy but they struck a much more cautious note, urging people to carry on washing their hands and wearing face masks in enclosed spaces.

The strategy to end mass testing was published after a row between Sajid Javid, the health secretary, who wanted up to £5bn more for testing, and Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, who insisted there would be no more cash after spending £15bn over the last year.

The strategy ends most symptomatic and all asymptomatic testing for the general population, as well as for NHS staff. It will be decided over the next month whether very elderly people and some vulnerable people will get free lateral flow tests if they are symptomatic. Medical settings should also get access to testing for symptomatic patients and care home residents as well as symptomatic social care staff.

In the briefing, civil service officers were told there would not be additional funding from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) or the UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA) to cover testing in vulnerable settings overseen by their departments where there was a risk of outbreaks.

This could include settings such as prisons, schools, children’s homes, detention centres, accommodation for asylum seekers and homeless shelters. Cabinet ministers will in future have to decide whether their budgets can stretch to additional testing in their areas and the senior civil service officials from departments across Whitehall were advised there was no expectation in future that they would follow public health advice in full.

The senior official told them he was sure there would be “plenty of other areas across government where ministers decide on balance the funding does not exist to follow the public health advice in full when it comes to recommended testing protocols.”

He made clear that the government was moving from a world where “public health advice is to be followed at all costs, and whatever the fiscal consequences money will be found to do exactly as clinicians recommend, towards a world where public health advice is one of several considerations to be taken into account and balanced decisions need to be made that consider public health advice but don’t necessarily follow it in all cases”. He added: “I think that is going to require a mindset shift across Whitehall.”

A senior official on the Treasury Covid response was also present at the meeting, spelling out that it was considered acceptable for the public health advice on testing not to be followed in vulnerable settings. “Ministers [the prime minister, chancellor and chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster] are not expecting to be continuing testing in these types of setting in the main,” she said.

Civil service officials on the call raised concerns that departments would find it difficult to make decisions about matters of public health on their own, weighing them up against financial considerations. There was also a worry that the costs of testing would have to continue to be absorbed by departmental budgets even if there were a new variant or spike.

The Cabinet Office and Treasury had no comment on the leaked account of the meeting.

Levelling-up should be ‘rural-proofed’, says West Lindsey, Lincolnshire, CEO

“The real challenge is in making sure that levelling up isn’t just seen as giving the major cities what London has. It is also about how you move counties and districts into a position where people feel equal to those who live in larger urban areas in terms of access to services.”

The chief executive of West Lindsey District Council has called for the government’s levelling-up agenda to have a more rural slant to it.

Ian Knowles told Room151 that rural authorities had to rely too heavily on council tax rather than government grant, and that all government policies needed to be “rural proofed”.

“The real challenge is in making sure that levelling up isn’t just seen as giving the major cities what London has. It is also about how you move counties and districts into a position where people feel equal to those who live in larger urban areas in terms of access to services,” he said.

Knowles added that decision-making should take place at a “genuinely local level”, making better use of district councils working with town and parish councils.

“One of the ways to create that rural/urban balance is to make sure the decision making is at the lowest possible level and that is disaggregated to local communities rather than aggregated to a greater level.”

West Lindsey was successful last year in its bid for levelling-up funding and received just under £10.3m to help create a thriving Gainsborough town centre. This includes the construction of a cinema, restaurant and retail units, refurbishing the bus station, creating new homes above shops as well as restoring historic buildings, reviving Gainsborough marketplace and creating safe green spaces and a park that is accessible for children.

Knowles said that preparation for the bid had required ten weeks of planning by senior officers at West Lindsey, at a time when Covid cases were high and resources stretched, but the end result was of “outstanding” quality.

“We received massive support from stakeholders around the town – a lot of businesses signed up to support us, as did the college, university and chamber. We also had great support from Lincolnshire County Council, Sir Edward Leigh, our local MP, as well as strong support from our own councillors.”

Natural England chair backs ‘biodiversity net gain’ plan to boost wild areas

Demand for nature is exceeding supply but new wildlife areas can be created by regulations to ensure housing estates bring about “biodiversity net gain”, according to the chair of England’s nature watchdog.

Patrick Barkham 

Tony Juniper said the post-pandemic surge in people visiting wild places for their mental and physical wellbeing – and to walk lockdown puppies – was concentrating footfall in relatively few nature reserves, which were increasingly used like public parks.

But Juniper, who has been reappointed as chair of Natural England for a second three-year term, said his agency must “increase the supply of nature”.

“Part of the challenge post-lockdown – the footfall in relatively few sites – makes you wonder how we’re going to cope with that increased demand for nature when nature is depleted and fragmented,” he said. “Visitor pressures on protected sites [such as national nature reserves] is a supply and demand question.”

Juniper, a former executive director of Friends of the Earth, has been credited with restoring morale – and adding a 47% budget increase this year – to beleaguered Natural England, which had been decimated by a decade of cuts.

But after three years “building the picture and getting the toolkit and resources to deliver it” he said it was time for him and Natural England to deliver on “the gargantuan task of nature recovery” to help the government meet its ambitious wildlife targets.

The government’s target to protect 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030 was “a big stretch”, he said. “We have targets coming on species abundance and nature recovery, and if we are going to get to those 2030 targets we need to start really hitting the ground now.”

The new “public money for public goods” farm subsidy system, although not fully finalised, should help, according to Juniper, who said he was also hopeful that wildlife could be restored via biodiversity net gain, which from 2023 obliges every housing and infrastructural development to create 10% more nature than was there before.

One-fifth of Tory party donations come from major developers but Juniper said biodiversity net gain was not “just a licence to trash” wildlife. “It isn’t, because we’re not abandoning anything we already have in terms of the existing protections and tests [for wildlife] that need to go through the planning system,” he said.

He admitted there were “tensions” between developers providing nature-friendly spaces close to new homes or boosting wildlife in distant sites. “On the one hand we want more bigger, better, more connected nature-rich places, on the other we want to improve the environments around where people are living,” he said.

Speaking during a tour of 25 acres of arable farmland acquired for restoration to wildlife-rich chalk grassland by the charity Cambridge Past, Present and Future, Juniper said it was important to plan a network of new nature-rich places close to new homes.

The restoration will increase Wandlebury country park by 20% but Cambridge’s population has grown by 20% this century, with an ongoing jobs, development and population boom.

“There’s limited semi-natural habitat around here so creating more of it to be able to serve that population makes sense,” said Juniper. “But doing it in the best possible way to get the biggest strategic impact is the key thing. We don’t want little pocket parks scattered all over the place randomly. We’d like to see the coherent construction of a nature recovery network which is not only taking account of biodiversity net gain but also the existing protected areas and blend that with the new agricultural schemes. It’s a jigsaw to piece together.”

While Juniper has helped win an enhanced role and funding for Natural England, and said he was hopeful of “further increases this year because the work is expanding”, Natural England staff went on strike in January over a decade of pay freezes and below-inflation rises.

Juniper said Natural England’s executive was doing all it could to push for more money for staff. “We’re very aware of the issues being raised by staff around pay. Since I’ve been there we’ve consistently done the maximum we could each year in terms of staff rewards and pay but the big picture is constraint – we have the rules set by the Treasury.”

In his next three years, Juniper said he hoped to create more big national nature reserves and said the issue of out-of-control dogs in wild spaces was raised wherever he went. He said it was still possible to make more space for wildlife and for people.

“Everyone at Natural England is convinced it’s not nature recovery or public access – it’s both. With some limits during the bird breeding season, raising awareness and management, I think we can do that.”

Torbay Health Chief: Covid ‘must not be trivialised’ as rates remain high

Torbay’s health chief has warned people in the bay not to be complacent and “trivialise” Covid-19 despite the lifting of many restrictions across the country.

Guy Henderson 

Speaking as all remaining legal Covid restrictions were removed in England, nearly two years after the first rules were introduced, he said rates of infection in the bay were still “very high”.

People are no longer legally required to self-isolate if they test positive for Covid – although they are still advised to do so.

But they should carry on wearing face-masks and washing their hands often.

In his latest video message, Torbay’s director of public health Dr Lincoln Sargeant said: “The policy has now shifted to living with Covid.

“Cases in Torbay have begun to fall, and all of our data are pointing to the fact that this fall is genuine.

“However, despite the fact that rates are falling, they still remain very high.”

The latest figures show that there are 580 new cases per 100,000 people in Torbay, and 1,000 new cases per 100,000 people in the “peak” age group for infections, those aged from 30 to 39.

“With high background rates the chances that you might come across someone who is infected, and if you are not careful become infected yourself, remain significant,” he added.

While the Omicron variant is milder than the previous Delta strain, it should still be respected, said Dr Sargeant.

“Omicron causes severe illness, particularly among those who are unvaccinated.

“We should not trivialise this disease or feel that somehow it has gone away. It is not just another cold, and the data do suggest that it does have a greater impact than normal seasonal flu.”

Dr Sargeant said public health measures such as regular handwashing would still be relevant, and were already contributing to lower-than-normal levels of traditional winter viruses such as flu and norovirus.

He went on: “While the background rates are still high, it does make good public health sense – and a good sense of courtesy, that face coverings are used in enclosed spaces, particularly indoors and particularly where it is crowded.

“As rates come down we may want to re-evaluate that, but it seems to make good sense.”

He said there were still a number of people in Torbay who had not been vaccinated at all, and a greater number who had not yet had a booster.

“There are people in our population who are clinically vulnerable with conditions which weaken their immune systems,” he said.

“These people will need to be more cautious when they begin to interact with others.

“It is important that we are respectful and mindful that there are others who we come into contact with who are cautious for good reason.

“We should not do anything that would inadvertently put them at risk of infection.

“It is important that we keep ourselves reminded of the good practices that will continue to protect us and protect others in Torbay.”

Rishi Sunak sent Partygate questionnaire by police

Chancellor joins Boris Johnson in effectively being questioned under caution over alleged Covid breaches

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is facing questions from police investigating allegations of lockdown-breaching parties in Whitehall.

Sources close to the chancellor said he had received a questionnaire from the Metropolitan Police asking him to confirm whether he attended the events under investigation and what excuse he had for being there.

The move means that Mr Sunak is effectively being questioned under caution, and could face a fixed penalty fine of £100 or more for breaching Covid regulations.

Mr Sunak was present at an impromptu birthday party arranged for Mr Johnson in No 10’s cabinet room on 19 June 2020.

Police are understood to have been passed a picture of the event taken by an official photographer, which reportedly shows Mr Johnson holding a can of beer and Mr Sunak with a soft drink.

A Treasury source has previously said that the chancellor joined the party inadvertently after going to the cabinet room for a Covid strategy committee meeting.

Around 30 people were present at the event, where cake was served, at a time when indoor gatherings were banned under strict coronavirus legislation.

Questionnaires were sent by the Met’s Operation Hillman to 88 people including the prime minister earlier this month, asking them to provide a “lawful exception” or “reasonable excuse” for their presence at any of the 12 events under investigation.

The document states at the outset that those accused have an opportunity to provide “a written statement under caution”.

Torbay loos to have ‘fair use’ policy

Some people to be allowed to pee for free (but not too much)

Paul Nero

Torbay Council is to introduce a ‘fair-use’ policy for vulnerable people and beach hut users at its public loos.

As part of its budget for next year, the council is giving free ‘passes’ to some people in the area so they can use public lavatories without charge.

But the free-to-pee policy comes with a sting in the tail: the council may be watching so that people don’t spend a penny too often.

Torbay Council, which is run by an alliance of Liberal Democracts and local independent politicians, is putting up council tax by three per cent from April, including a one per cent uplift to improve social care for adults.

With some of the extra cash raised, it is going to invest £1 million upgrading car parks and another million on climate change initiatives.

But among its more inspiring plans is to introduce free loo passes for vulnerable people, and people who hire council beach huts.

The idea has cross-party support.

On its website, the council says: “To keep all of our toilets in a clean and a ‘home from home’ environment we have a fee paying system.” 

Currently it costs 30 pence to use a public loo in Torbay. 

The council had already announced an investment of £1.7 million for upgrading its WCs and it outsources maintenance to a private company called Healthmatic.

In a meeting to approve its new budget from April onwards, it didn’t define which vulnerable people would be eligible for loo passes, but it did point out that both they and beach hut users would be subject to a ‘fair usage policy’ when using the toilets.

It is unclear how many bowel movements or wees per day will count as fair use.

Nor has the council said how it will be monitoring the policy.

‘Fair use’ is a pricing policy often deployed by mobile phone companies selling unlimited data, but nonetheless wanting to limit the data. Torbay Council could well be a pioneer in using the strategy for public lavatories.

Free loo-use provided you don’t take the pee.

Based on the council considering it fair for a vulnerable person to use a public loo, say, three times a week, a Torbay Council loo pass could save eligible individuals £47 a year.

A family of four hiring a beach hut for three months a year and visiting, say, three times a week, with each person going to the loo twice a day, would save about £275.

Some of Torbay’s beaches have pitches for privately owned beach huts as well as some permanent chalets and cabins. Others can be hired at a cost of up £146 a week.

The free loo passes will cost the council a total of £75,000 a year. 

Other Devon councils already allow people to wee for free, but financial pressures is causing some of them to look into their toilets’ provision.

Through the local democracy reporting scheme, Radio Exe has asked Torbay Council to define ‘fair usage’ for loo use, and whether different fair usage allowances will apply to beach hut holders and vulnerable people.

By the time of publication, it hadn’t responded.

Boris Johnson again reprimanded after misleading employment claim

Boris Johnson has been formally reprimanded by the official statistics watchdog for the second time in a month after he misleadingly claimed that there are now more people in work in the UK than before the start of coronavirus.

Peter Walker 

The reproach from Sir David Norgrove, the head of the UK Statistics Authority, follows concerns he raised with Johnson at the start of February about an incorrect claim that crime levels were falling.

In his new letter to Johnson, Norgrove noted that at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday the PM had said there were now more people in employment than before the pandemic began.

However, Norgrove said, this was only the case if you considered only workers on payrolls, which was misleading, as it was more than offset by a drop in numbers of self-employed people – if you include them, the total is now 600,000 lower.

“If, as seems to be the case, your statement referred only to the increase in the number of people on payrolls, it would be a selective use of data that is likely to give a misleading impression of trends in the labour market, unless that distinction is carefully explained,” Norgrove told Johnson.

He added: “I hope you will agree that public trust requires a complete statement of this important measure of the economy.”

Johnson has made the same misleading claim at earlier editions of prime minister’s questions.

On 3 February, Norgrove announced that he would be writing to the offices of Johnson and Priti Patel, the home secretary, to highlight what he called a “misleading” use of crime statistics.

Speaking in the Commons, Johnson had said the government was “cutting crime by 14%”, a reference to statistics between September 2019 and September 2021, a claim echoed in a Home Office press release. However, this was only the case if the statistics excluded fraud and computer misuse, which have risen quickly over the Covid period.

‘Computer says road’: call for change to ‘crude’ planning models

“Crude” computer programs that prioritise new road building should be banned from the design of new housing because they cause billions to be diverted to roads that could be used for creating more compact communities, campaigners claim.

Robert Booth 

Traffic modelling spreadsheets that “almost always tell us that ‘computer says road’” should no longer be used by planners and more money should be spent on building places geared for walking, cycling and public transport, according to a report by the Create Streets campaign.

It has been endorsed by Rory Stewart, a former Conservative leadership candidate; Toby Lloyd, a former Downing Street housing adviser and the Royal Town Planning Institute.

The attack on “big road urbanism” argues that the Department for Transport cost-benefit modelling tools for new roads fail to “properly capture non-travel-time benefits, such as health, wellbeing and the environment … so the answer will always be to build more or bigger roads”.

The Department for Transport strongly denied any bias towards road-building in its modelling, and a spokesperson said: “The environment is at the heart of our proposed transport schemes, and we always encourage sustainable options such as public transport, cycling and walking.”

The Create Streets thinktank is led by Nicholas Boys Smith, a former adviser to George Osborne, and has worked with architects and urban designers close to Prince Charles to argue for more human-scale planning.

It believes billions in taxpayers’ money could be saved by changing decision-making on road building, with smaller sums instead spent on placing shops, gyms and other social infrastructure closer to homes linked by buses, cycle paths and walkways. The result would also be healthier and greener, it argues.

As an example of what it believes is going wrong, it is highlighting plans to spend £1.4bn building one roundabout and 10 miles of new road near Bedford.

The 2km-wide Black Cat interchange covers a space bigger than York city centre, which is one of the UK’s most walkable cities. But transport planners say the project will relieve heavy congestion and save drivers an hour and a half on their journeys every week.

Traffic delays in England were at close to their highest level since 2015 just before the pandemic, but almost halved during the first lockdown. They have since been rising again towards peak levels. The government is pressing ahead with a £24bn road-building and renewal plan announced in 2020.

Several road projects were announced last year as recipients of the £1.7bn “levelling up fund”. Road building is already the single biggest annual outlay for councils, which last year allocated £7.5bn, or 29%, of their total capital expenditure to highways and transport services. They spent ​​£6.1bn on housing.

Create Streets highlights how scores of streets and squares in a popular medieval city like Siena in Tuscany can fit into the space taken by a motorway interchange in Houston, Texas.

“Instead of spending tens of millions of pounds on one junction or on widening a few miles of road, we should instead design better places where more journeys are by foot, bike or public transport,” said David Milner, Create Streets’ deputy director. “We can do this by siting amenities we want to visit in the heart of new developments, not their perimeters.”

Planners and developers have for decades used computer models to determine transport plans that tend to put the needs of rush hour traffic first. The impact of the pandemic, which has led to widespread remote working, and the pressing need to slash carbon emissions from domestic transport, which emits 27% of all of the UK’s CO2, are increasing calls for change.

“We are seeing e-bikes being a car killer,” he added. “They increase the range and the frequency of bike riding.”

The study is also being endorsed by CPRE, the countryside charity, and warns that good design principles for new and regenerated communities are being “cast aside”.

“We are told the ‘infrastructure won’t cope’ or ‘the junction can’t take it’,” said Milner. “Almost every traffic model tells us that ‘computer says road’.”

Andrew Taylor, the planning director of Countryside Properties, one of the UK’s largest housebuilders, is also backing the call for change.

“This is not about avoiding investing in necessary junctions and improvements but about trying to refocus our energies and money on placemaking, 15-minute communities and foot and cycle connectivity within developments to reduce the need for these other physical interventions,” he said

A DfT spokesperson said: “Our modelling works alongside our £5bn transport decarbonisation plan, £2bn of which is specifically invested to encourage active travel.”

Fresh Tory lobbying row over unregulated ‘Westminster Russia Forum’

Concerns have been raised that unregulated pro-Moscow lobbyists at the heart of Westminster are using their links to Tory MPs to gain influence and respectability.

Seth Thévoz 

A group formerly known as the Conservative Friends of Russia (CRF) is advertising its first in-person conference for two years next week, despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Thursday.

Now called the Westminster Russia Forum (WRF), the group’s British organisers often appear on the Russian state broadcaster, RT. The WRF, which loudly echoes official lines from Moscow, has links with numerous Conservative MPs and other senior UK political figures.

The WRF did not respond to openDemocracy’s questions on whether the event on March 4 would still go ahead.

Sue Hawley, the director of Spotlight on Corruption, told openDemocracy: “It’s somewhat chilling that as the UK strikes a tough posture in relation to Russia it could leave such a blindspot at home.”

The WRF is one of a number of so-called Conservative ‘friends of’ groups that have tried to draw in high-profile MPs. The groups act as a conduit between the party and certain countries or regions.

It has existed in some form for a decade, yet is not required to register as a lobbyist, sparking fears that pro-Putin interests could be influencing opinion unchecked. Although the WRF calls itself a ‘think tank’, there is no record of any research ever published by the group.

Hawley added: “Friends of’ groups of political parties are alarmingly unregulated, and provide a back door for unofficial lobbying, access and paid influence. It is high time that these groups were brought out of the shadows, properly regulated, and that the public are able to have far greater insight into how they operate and who is behind them.”

The WRF has hosted events with Tory MPs such as Daniel Kawczynski, Caroline Nokes, John Redwood and John Whittingdale, as well as Labour’s former foreign secretary Jack Straw. Event attendees have included Carrie Johnson, the Conservative Party’s former head of communications and now the prime minister’s wife.

In just over a week, the group says it will hold a ‘Multilateral Relations Conference’ aimed at strengthening links between Russia and the UK. At previous such events, dozens of speakers have urged stronger ties to the Putin government.

Edward Lucas, a foreign policy expert on Russia, told openDemocracy: “This is about as badly timed as possible, to be relaunching their events just as the invasion of Ukraine starts.”

Lucas, a journalist who was involved in calls to dissolve the Conservative Friends of Russia in 2013, has called its return “a mushroom sprouting on top of a compost heap”.

But, he said: “This is the Monty Python end of Russian influence operations. The real problem is the Russian influence operation in the serious think tanks, [in] the City of London, and [in] the large amounts of money being made by bankers, lawyers and accountants who focus on pushing the Russian regime, including by donating large amounts of money to political parties.”

The forum’s organisers are overwhelmingly London-based, with business interests in Russia. Its chair, Nicholas Cobb, runs an energy communications firm focused on Russia and former Soviet republics, who has appeared on Russia Today as a pro-Moscow pundit.

Ben Wells, described by WRF as its ‘in-house counsel’, is a solicitor whose London law firm specialises in work for “Russian-speaking clients”. Ernest Reid, billed on the WRF website as its ambassador at large, has provided commentary for Russia Today and the WRF sympathetic to Russian foreign ministry objectives.

Debate in the WRF seems to be heavily one-sided. Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski – dubbed a “Putin apologist” by other MPs – addressed the group in 2016, complaining “There is very little debate in the House of Commons about Russia.”

Under its original name, the Conservative Friends of Russia, the group facilitated a ten-day, all-expenses-paid junket to Russia in 2012, paid for by the Russian tourist government agency, Rossotrudnichestvo. Guests included Conservative activists such as future Vote Leave chief Matthew Elliott.

The controversial trip attracted significant adverse coverage and, after a further string of scandals, a number of Tory MPs who had been patrons all resigned, including Robert Buckland, Nigel Evans and former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind. One Conservative Party guest on the Russia trip told openDemocracy that the forum’s current setup had “no meaningful connection“ to CFR – but despite its rebrand to WFR, the group today still refers to itself as having been founded in 2012.

openDemocracy has also obtained emails showing that in 2013, during the Tory coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Russian diplomat Sergey Nalobin attempted to organise a similar trip to Russia for senior Lib Dems. It is unclear whether the trip went ahead.

Nalobin, the son of a high-ranking spy for Russia’s Federal Security Service, was subsequently removed from the UK by the Home Office in 2015 in a spying row.

A new target

With MPs less likely to speak at the group in recent years, the WRF has turned its focus to working on public opinion. It has an active Twitter feed, echoing official lines from Kremlin-funded organisations – although it has been uncharacteristically silent since Putin’s movement this week of recognising the separatist ‘People’s Republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east of Ukraine, and since the start of today’s invasion.

Its last activity was a retweet of a report by Russian Foreign Ministry-owned broadcaster Russia Today on 20 February, stating that de-escalation of military tensions in Ukraine was underway.

Back in 2012, the Foreign Policy journal noted that “the website’s news feed…continued to feature only state-owned or state-subsidised outlets”. The CFR said this was “entirely coincidental”.

The government has announced the closure of the Tier 1 ‘golden visa’ scheme used by a number of oligarchs from Russian and former Soviet-bloc countries to relocate to Britain, as well as imposing sanctions against five Russian banks and three Russian oligarchs. openDemocracy this week revealed that more than 200 Russian millionaires had been given ‘golden visas’, despite an earlier government pledge to ‘clamp down’ on the practice.

The WRF’s ‘multilateral forum’ events have grown from 50 attendees at the first in 2015 to 170 in 2020, which drew 47 speakers on UK-Russia relations, and was overwhelmingly effusive on the need for strong ties with the Putin regime.

UPDATE: Following the publication of this story, the Westminster Russia Forum put out an overnight statement disassociating itself from the invasion of Ukraine and saying it had “suspended all planned events until further notice”. 

Its chair Nicholas Cobb subsequently provided openDemocracy with a comment, stressing that the group was member-funded and volunteer-run. “We are in no way funded by either government,” he said, “receive no other support or direction, and are solely interested in promoting stronger trade, cultural and people to people ties.”

He also stressed that the forum was now non-partisan despite its Conservative roots, and said: “We rarely meet anyone from Parliament, our civil service or other political institutions, and have for some years now focused on promoting trade and softer areas of cooperation – none of which requires lobbying.”

The statement concludes: “We are aware that to some our views on promoting dialogue may appear strange but we are committed to doing what we can to promoting grassroots understanding and peace.”

UPDATE (9 March 2022): This article has been amended at the request of Ernest Reid to clarify his role within the WRF.

Care homes in England lose 1,600 beds in six-month period

More than 1,600 care home beds have been lost in just six months, as worsening staff shortages and the financial strain after two years of the Covid pandemic have caused a net loss of 134 homes in England.

[According to this article, there are, currently, only five places available in Cornwall with about 200 people needing them,  including those awaiting discharge from hospital.]

Robert Booth 

The deregistrations, which were not outweighed by new openings, came as staff shortages almost doubled, to 11% of the workforce, from August to the end of January, according to figures released on Wednesday by the Care Quality Commission.

Three-quarters of care homes that responded to a survey also told the regulator they had been unable to recruit staff, the biggest problem being the mandatory Covid-19 vaccine policy, which was scrapped at the start of February. Obligatory double vaccination for social care staff was introduced on 11 November 2021 and about 40,000 staff left their jobs, sparking anger among care home operators who said the staff had been unfairly singled out for the mandate.

Two-fifths of care homes now believe a lack of staff is having a negative impact on care. CQC figures show there was also a surge in incidents affecting the health, safety and welfare of residents in December, which were caused by staffing issues. The area with the biggest reduction in care home registrations was south-east England.

The crisis in staffing has been compounded by Covid outbreaks in care homes, which have forced the organisations to stop admitting new residents. It has increased pressure on homecare services, which are also struggling with their own acute workforce crisis.

In Cornwall the family of a man with advanced multiple sclerosis urgently seeking a care home place was told this week by officials that there were only five places available in the county and that about 200 people needed them, including those awaiting discharge from hospital.

Shelagh Young said her brother, Bob Young, had been left for periods sitting in urine and excrement at his home, and was waiting for a respite care placement. The 58-year-old had wanted to stay at home, previously declining a move to a home. He had had sporadic help from community nurses and a volunteer charity but on Monday told his sister this was “no kind of life”.

She said she sympathised with the county officials who were trying to get him help, but they told her the shortages were linked to a deficit of care workers. Cornwall county council was contacted for comment.

Vic Rayner, the chief executive of the National Care Forum, which represents not-for-profit care operators, said the CQC figures had to be a wake-up call. “We have been warning about this staffing shortage for months now and this data may be the tip of the iceberg. Our members have been telling us that it is proving harder and harder to recruit staff, which is exacerbating the workforce pressures,” she said.

“There is an urgent need to think strategically about the social care needed within communities, and to plan and resource the social care workforce in a way that ensures that people can exercise their right to high-quality social care when and where they need it.”

Kate Terroni, the CQC chief inspector of adult social care, told the CQC board that after nearly 1,900 inspections since the start of December, the area in need of most improvement was found to be infection control.

Families of care home residents are now also concerned that lateral flow tests for visitors to the establishments will no longer be free of charge. The Rights for Residents campaign group described the change as an immoral “pay per view” policy and are demanding reinstatement of the free tests.

CQC reported that it also investigated allegations of blanket visiting bans at 82 homes in recent months, in breach of government guidelines.