Dumped Plymouth Tory explains why he quits

Independents are on the rise in Plymouth but have, as yet, no formal grouping. 

In Owl’s view “Independents” do need to declare some core principles. 

Philip Churm, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk

A former Tory and leading member of Plymouth City Council has been explaining why he will now stand as an independent candidate, against the Conservatives, in the upcoming local elections.  

Cllr Dave Downie (Independent, Budshead) was cabinet member for education, skills and children and young people but was suspended from the Conservative after he challenged a decision by Plymouth Moor View Conservative Association, in January, not to put him forward for selection. 

Cllr Downie said he had appealed the decision to stop him standing for election but wanted an independent panel to hear his complaints. 

“That was my right but it hasn’t transpired,” he said.

“I would assume that Moor View [Conservative Association] were dragging their heels. And then once it came to the next election time I was out anyway. 

“So, I didn’t get my hearing and I was no longer prepared to be a pawn in someone else’s power games.”

As well as leaving the Conservative group, Cllr Downie has also left the Tory party altogether. 

He says his mind was made up after the selection of a new cabinet on Tuesday following the election of a new leader. 

Cllr Richard Bingley (Cons, Southway) was elected as council leader after Cllr Nick Kelly (Cons, Compton) was ousted from his role following a vote of no confidence.  

Cllr Downie, who has lost his cabinet role, says the new cabinet are not up to the job.  

“I did have and do have real concerns about the lack of experience and the cabinet that I think it’s mostly made up of people who have been in council less than one year. 

”So I’m very concerned for the city, for the lack of experience and knowledge that these people are bringing to the table.”

He says he has told the residents in his ward that he will be standing as an independent.

“I have put that out there on social media. I definitely will be standing in Budshead ward.”

He also joins a growing group of independent councillors on the council, many of whom have left mainstream parties. However there is no formal independent group. 

Cllr Downie praised Cllr Chaz Singh (Drake) who left the Labour group in September 2019 and now represents Drake Ward as an independent.   

 “I would love to be elected and work with Cllr Singh, for example,” he said. “Only because we could be called ‘Chaz and Dave.’”  

One third of the city council in Plymouth faces re-election on Thursday 5 May.

Weekly Covid cases in UK increase by 1m, figures show

The number of coronavirus infections across the UK rose by an estimated 1m compared with the previous week, with figures in Scotland at a record high, data from the Office for National Statistics has revealed.

See below for latest data for infections and hospital Covid cases in Devon. The third wave this year may be peaking but over 75s are in the thick of it. Hospital cases are still rising steeply with consequent knock on effects.

Nicola Davis www.theguardian.com

According to the latest information from the ONS, based on swabs collected from randomly selected households, an estimated 9% of the population in Scotland had Covid in the week ending 20 March, about one in 11 people. The figure is the highest recorded by the survey since it began looking at the situation in Scotland in October 2020.

Infection levels also increased in England and Wales, although they decreased slightly in Northern Ireland, with data revealing that about one in 16 people in England had Covid in the most recent week, compared with one in 20 the week before, a rise from about 2,653,200 to 3,485,700 people.

The figure is just shy of the all-time high for England, when about 1 in 15 were estimated to have Covid in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve last year, at the height of the Omicron wave.

Experts have suggested that the recent surge in infection levels in the UK is owing to a number of factors, including the lifting of Covid restrictions to various degrees across the UK, changes in behaviour, waning immunity after the booster programme and – crucially – the rise of the BA.2 variant, which appears to be more transmissible than the earlier form of Omicron.

“The percentage of people with infections compatible with the Omicron BA.2 variant increased in England, Wales and Scotland and decreased in Northern Ireland,” the ONS report states.

Previous ONS figures have suggested that Northern Ireland experienced a rise in BA.2 before other parts of the UK.

On Friday, the UK Health Security Agency reported that cases of the BA.2 Omicron variant were increasing 75% faster than the original variant, BA.1, and now made up almost 89% of Covid infections sequenced in England. There is no evidence that BA.2 causes a greater risk of hospitalisation.

The agency is also monitoring three “recombinant” forms of the coronavirus that can occur when a person is infected with two Covid variants at once. The first, a mix of Delta and BA.1, known as XF, caused a small cluster in the UK but has not been spotted since mid-February. The second, XE, is a combination of BA.1 and BA.2 and is spreading about 10% faster than BA.2 in the UK, with 637 cases identified as of 22 March.

The third, XD, is another blend of Delta and BA.1. While it has not yet reached the UK, it has surfaced in France, Belgium and Denmark, and scientists are watching it closely because it is essentially the Delta variant with the Omicron spike protein.

The ONS figures also show that infection levels rose in all age groups in England. While the percentage of people testing positive was highest in children between two years old and school year 6, infection levels reached unprecedented levels in older adults: among those who are 70 or over, the figure hit an estimated 5.7% on 19 March.

While all regions of England experienced a rise, the highest levels of infection were in the south-east, with about 7.5% of people – or one in 13 – estimated to have had Covid during the week.

Sarah Crofts, the head of analytical outputs for the Covid-19 Infection Survey, said: “Our latest data show infection levels have continued to increase in England, Wales and Scotland, driven by the rise of the Omicron BA.2 variant.

“Northern Ireland was a few weeks ahead of the rest of the UK in this rising variant, where we now see a welcome decrease. Meanwhile, Scotland has now reached the highest level of any UK country seen in our survey.

“Across England, infections have increased in all regions and age groups, notably the over-50s, who are at their highest levels since our survey began.”

The figures come the week before free community testing ends for most people. After 1 April, most people in England will have to pay to take a Covid test, while advice to stay at home if someone has Covid symptoms is also set to be scrapped.

While vaccinations, improved treatments and a shift in variant severity have all helped to weaken the link between infections, hospitalisations and deaths, the recent surge in the number of people with Covid has nonetheless affected the NHS, with an uptick in hospitalisations – including an increase in those primarily being treated for Covid – increasing concerns about infections in vulnerable people and posing logistical challenges. Some hospitals have suspended visiting because of rising infection levels.

Latest data from Devon Covid Dashboard

Confirmed Cases by age

Hospital cases for the whole Devon Integrated Care System i.e. including Plymouth and Torbay

Tory peer lobbied for PPE firm months after lawyers said she had stopped, leaked emails suggest

Leaked emails suggest that the Conservative peer Michelle Mone lobbied a health minister on behalf of a company seeking Covid contracts – five months after the point at which her lawyers said she had stopped doing anything for the firm.

David Conn www.theguardian.com 

The documents add to questions surrounding Lady Mone’s account of her involvement in PPE Medpro, which was awarded government contracts worth more than £200m to supply personal protective equipment early in the pandemic.

Several months later, according to the leaked emails, Mone was trying to help PPE Medpro secure a lucrative contract to supply the government with Covid-19 antigen tests.

Mone has repeatedly sought to distance herself from PPE Medpro, whose business she first recommended to the government in early May 2020.

When Mone’s referral of May 2020 became public, she said her involvement in the company went no further than a single recommendation to the then Cabinet Office minister Theodore Agnew. Her lawyer said: “Having taken the very simple, solitary and brief step of referring PPE Medpro as a potential supplier to the office of Lord Agnew, our client did not do anything further in respect of PPE Medpro.”

However, emails seen by the Guardian from October 2020 suggest that Mone was by that point still promoting the company, which was selling Covid tests.

Anthony Page, one of PPE Medpro’s directors, emailed the Tory peer James Bethell, then a minister at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), on 6 October mentioning Mone’s involvement.

“I write to you in my capacity as UK managing director of PPE Medpro,” Page said. “I understand that Baroness Mone has kindly made you aware of the company and our recently developed coronavirus antigen rapid test.”

The email continued: “By way of introduction, PPE Medpro is a PPE and medical product supplier that, in recent months, has successfully completed orders of 235m units to DHSC.”

In addition to his role as the sole public face of PPE Medpro, Page is a longtime senior employee in the Knox Group, the Isle of Man-based financial services firm run by Mone’s husband, Douglas Barrowman.

Lawyers for Mone, who sold her stake in the Ultimo lingerie company before David Cameron made her a member of the House of Lords in 2015, have said she “was not connected to PPE Medpro in any capacity” and “has no involvement in the business”.

Barrowman’s lawyers have similarly distanced him from the company, but they have not denied that he benefited financially from PPE Medpro’s business.

Last month the Guardian revealed that leaked files appear to suggest that both Mone and Barrowman were secretly involved in PPE Medpro’s mask and surgical gowns business.

The newly leaked emails between Bethell and Page suggest that Mone was subsequently also involved in supporting PPE Medpro’s attempt to secure a slice of the testing market.

In his 6 October 2020 email, Page told the Tory minister that the “consortium behind PPE Medpro” had partnerships with two factories that could produce 1.9m Covid tests a day. “We are able to start production immediately following agreement of terms and on receipt of signed contract and PO [purchase order] from DHSC. I would welcome a dialogue with you and/or your team to get things moving.”

According to a government source, Bethell then referred PPE Medpro to a specialist team of officials and consultants who gave him prompt, attentive service. PPE Medpro, the source added, was among a number of companies referred as potential Covid-testing suppliers that were given a similar priority service.

The source, a government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described the process of prioritising well-connected firms offering coronavirus testing kits as akin to the government’s “VIP lane” for well-connected PPE firms.

Despite the special attention, Page appears to have become impatient with his treatment by the department, complaining in an email to officials and copying in Bethell and Bethell’s private secretary.

PPE Medpro ultimately failed in its testing bid. However, the government source believes officials gave PPE Medpro undue priority because of its political backing.

“Given their lack of experience, PPE Medpro should have been turned down at the start for testing contracts, which were such a vital part of our response to the pandemic,” the official claimed. “But instead we tutored that company through the process because we knew that senior people were involved: we were very aware that Baroness Mone had held that initial discussion with Lord Bethell.

“The concerns were already starting about the VIP lane that operated for PPE, yet here we were giving a special service to companies just because of their political connections.”

Mone appears to have been still contacting officials on behalf of PPE Medpro four months after her contact with Bethell, and nine months after she first recommended the firm to Lord Agnew.

Jacqui Rock, the chief commercial officer for NHS test and trace, told colleagues in February 2021 that Mone was “incandescent with rage” at the treatment of PPE Medpro over testing contracts, saying they had been “fobbed off”, and was planning to speak to Michael Gove and Matt Hancock about her concerns.

Mone’s lawyer did not respond directly to questions from the Guardian about her referral of PPE Medpro to the government for Covid-19 tests, saying: “She has no involvement in the business.”

Bethell did not respond to a request for comment.

A DHSC spokesperson said there had been “a rigorous scientific validation process with officials to ensure no products were progressed that did not meet the required specification”.

Page denied that the company was given preferential treatment because of Mone’s recommendation, saying that PPE Medpro had already been working with the DHSC, so already had the necessary contacts. He blamed the company’s failure to secure testing contracts on “adverse press” and “the process being frustrated by the various testing phases,” although he said they “passed at each phase”.

More crocodile tears over P&O?

Grant Shapps calls for P&O Chief Executive to resign and Boris Johnson agrees.

No doubt, were he to go, there would be relief all round. But a much bigger question would remain. Is the parent company of P&O, DP World, a suitable strategic partner for the government-backed freeport scheme?

Also how surprised should Grant Shapps have been following his meeting with DP World last November? – Owl

P&O Ferries may not regret breaking law, but the UK should regret dealing with its owner 

Nils Pratley www.theguardian.com

More than a few business chancers have appeared before Commons select committees over the years, but it’s hard to recall a chief executive who has admitted that his company carefully assessed its options and decided that breaking the law was its best bet.

Peter Hebblethwaite of P&O Ferries, the firm that sacked 800 seafarers last week, offered candour and cynicism in the same breath. “There’s absolutely no doubt that we were required to consult the unions. We chose not to do that,” he said. For good measure, he said he would take the same decision again.

Naturally, Hebblethwaite laced his account with pleas that P&O Ferries wasn’t viable unless it replaced its UK crew with foreign agency workers being paid salaries as low as £5.15 an hour. No doubt he’s correct about the many millions P&O has been losing amid the pandemic and energy crises, but this was a brazen attempt to claim that protecting wealthy parent DP World’s investment was more important than staying within the law. Trade unions would never accept P&O Ferries’ proposals, said Hebblethwaite, so there was no point negotiating with them.

Via video link from Dubai, Jesper Kristensen, the chief operating officer of marine services at DP World, weighed in that P&O Ferries was not a rogue part of the corporate empire. Hebblethwaite would not be sacked, the mass dismissal of the UK crew had been blessed in advance and DP loved doing business in the UK, where its major investments are the Thames and Solent port terminals.

Government ministers spluttered in the following session to explain why they had not immediately run off to the high court last week. The gist of it was that the Insolvency Service must be given time to get on top of the legal details. In due course, ministers would look to close any loopholes in the law to better protect employees.

Wherever those subplots lead, one move for the government ought to be straightforward: DP World, for all its wealth and state backing, cannot be considered a suitable partner for the UK’s freeport programme. A company that declares a casual relationship with UK employment laws does not belong in a government-backed scheme. Nor, frankly, should it be here at all.

But how surprised should Grant Shapps have been?

P&O Ferries: questions raised over Grant Shapps’ meeting with DP World 

www.theguardian.com 

The UK transport secretary, Grant Shapps, met the DP World boss Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem last November and told him that he was “aware of the issues at P&O Ferries” but recognised “you will need to make commercial decisions”, according to official minutes of the meeting.

The revelation raises further questions about whether Shapps could have acted to head off the mass sackings last week at the Dubai-owned ferry operator.

National Trust vows to ‘bring back the blossom’ as new research reveals massive drop in orchards since 1900s

“The south-west, which was home to the largest area of orchards at the beginning of the 20th Century, has experienced the loss of nearly 24,000Ha (around 74 per cent), over twice the size of Bristol – of its orchards, the single biggest loss in terms of hectares of any region.” 

www.nationaltrust.org.uk (Extract)

The National Trust study is the first comprehensive review of both traditional and modern orchards in England and Wales. Data from historic maps has been compared with data from People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and Natural England, and analysed using artificial intelligence (AI) mapping technologies from ArchAI Ltd. It is aimed at improving understanding of the historic loss of blossom across landscapes, and the impact on nature and wildlife.

The research exposed a huge 81 per cent decline, (78,874Ha), in traditional orchards in England and Wales – equivalent to an area close to the size of the west Midlands – spelling bad news for nature.

And, even when taking each country in isolation, England’s figures alone revealed a loss of 82 per cent of traditionally managed orchards (77,926Ha) – twice the size of the Isle of Wight.

‘Total blossom’, ie the area from all types of orchard in England has more than halved (56 per cent) since around 1900, with 41,777Ha left growing today. 

In Wales a loss of 948Ha of traditionally managed orchards, 48 per cent, since around 1900, is significant but compares much more favourably than England, likely due to the number of orchards in Wales which are small  family-scale orchards that are not exposed to the development and modernisation pressures experienced in England, particularly in the commercial sector. 

‘Total blossom’ from orchards in Wales has fallen by 38 per cent to 1,240Ha since around 1900.

Tom Dommett, Head of Historic Environment at the National Trust says: “Using cutting edge technology we now have a much better understanding of how we’ve managed landscapes in the past, which is invaluable when thinking about how to tackle the nature and biodiversity crisis that we are facing, and restoring nature.” 

Looking in more detail at orchard loss in the regions, the north of England, whilst being home to only a relatively small proportion of the orchards in England and Wales in 1900, has seen the largest regional declines in orchard area, with 80 per cent in the north-west, 78 per cent in the north-east and 77 per cent in Yorkshire and Humber.  

However, the south-west, which was home to the largest area of orchards at the beginning of the 20th Century, has experienced the loss of nearly 24,000Ha (around 74 per cent), over twice the size of Bristol – of its orchards, the single biggest loss in terms of hectares of any region. 

London and the south-east fared much better with the smallest overall orchard losses of 24 per cent, largely due to the number of significant modern orchards which have been planted.  However, the region has seen a reduction of 84 per cent in the area of traditional orchards, representing big losses in nature value.

In a bid to bring blossom back to landscapes in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the charity has now vowed to plant four million blossoming trees as part of its commitment to plant and establish 20 million trees across England, Wales and Northern Ireland by 2030.

It is also planting new traditional orchards at sites to include Stourhead in Wiltshire, Arlington Court in Devon, Kingston Lacy in Dorset, Brockhampton in Herefordshire, Attingham Park in Shropshire, Westhumble in Surrey and is planting new fruit trees at Cotehele in Cornwall which is already home to traditional orchards.    

For further information and to make a donation towards the National Trust’s tree planting ambitions visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/blossom-watch