Lib Dems raise the Cathy Gardner case at today’s PMQ’s

Owl fact checks the PM’s reply


Daisy Cooper (Lib Dem) asks if the PM will apologise to the families of people who died in care homes, and to care worker staff, in the light of today’s court ruling.

Johnson says he wants to renew his apologies, and sympathy, to people who lost relatives in care homes in the pandemic.

He says the government did not know much about the disease at that point. It did not know how easy it was for the disease to spread asymptomatically.

On the court judgment, he says the government will study it carefully.

Fact check from report of judgement:

The judges said the risk of asymptomatic transmission had been highlighted by people including Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, in a radio interview as early as 13 March.

“Non-symptomatic transmission would mean that one elderly patient moved from hospital to a care home could infect other residents before manifesting symptoms, or even without ever manifesting symptoms,” they said.

COVID-19: Daughter of care home victim says government claims of ‘protective ring’ were ‘a lie’

A woman [Cathy Gardner] whose father died from COVID in a care home has said government claims a “protective ring” had been thrown around residents at the beginning of the pandemic were “a lie”. 

Dr Cathy Gardner said her father Michael Gibson died at the age of 88 at a care home in Bicester in April 2020 and took legal action against Health Secretary Sajid Javid, NHS England and Public Health England.

High Court judges ruled government policies on discharging patients from hospital to care homes at the outset of the pandemic were “unlawful” because they failed to take into account the risk to elderly and vulnerable residents from non-symptomatic transmission of COVID.

Dr Gardner told Sky News she “realised something was badly wrong” and wanted to “hold the government to account” because they had “not protected my father” – and strongly criticised claims made by the then health secretary, Matt Hancock.

She said: “They haven’t protected my father and other residents in care homes and I wanted to hold the government to account.

“When secretary of state Matt Hancock said that he’d thrown a protective ring around care homes right from the start – I heard him say that on television and my chin nearly hit the floor because all of us who were involved in any way with care homes at the start of the pandemic knew that was absolutely not true.

“It was a lie. It was a lie then and it is a lie now.

“They didn’t do anything to protect my father, there was no help given to care homes and the death toll in those first few weeks of the pandemic was catastrophic.

“I think they never imagined they were going to be found out. You only have to look at the parties (in Downing Street) to realise they never think they’re going to be found out.”

‘We don’t believe they did anything’

She added: “I think at the time Matt Hancock made that statement about the protective ring, the death toll in care homes was already horrendous.

“I think he was under attack and he felt that he needed to say that they’d done this even though blatantly they hadn’t to those of us who were there at the time and knew.

“They should have taken steps to protect the most vulnerable people. Measures should have been put in place. We don’t believe they did anything.

“There’s no evidence ever been provided that they did anything. Matt Hancock unfortunately made a statement which is untrue.”

Dr Gardner said she holds “many parts of the government responsible” and believes the “focus” at the time was “very much on the NHS”.

She added: “I was really shocked when it was suggested to me that my father had COVID.

‘I never blamed the care home’

“He got ill in March 2020, it was so early. The idea that he caught COVID in his care home just seemed almost impossible to me at the time.

“I never blamed the care home, never – and I don’t blame myself – I trusted that he would be safe in the care home and they did their absolute best.

“But the government had the responsibility and they had the legal duty.”

Dr Gardner’s High Court action was taken with Fay Harris, whose father Donald died – and they had asked two judges to make declarations that unlawful decisions were made.

Lawyers for Mr Javid, Public Health England and NHS England wanted the women’s claim dismissed.

A government spokeswoman had said in a statement outside court during the hearing that “we worked tirelessly to protect the public from the threat to life and health posed by the pandemic and specifically sought to safeguard care homes and their residents”.

BREAKING NEWS: Cathy Gardner wins case

Heart felt congratulations from Owl!

Covid: discharging untested patients into care homes was unlawful, says court

Robert Booth 

The government policy towards care homes in England at the start of the Covid pandemic has been ruled illegal, in a significant blow to ministers’ claim to have thrown a “protective ring” around the vulnerable residents.

The high court judgment was sought by two grieving daughters, Dr Cathy Gardner and Fay Harris, who lost their fathers to the virus in care homes in spring 2020. Michael Gibson died aged 88 in Oxfordshire on 3 April 2020 while Don Harris died aged 89 in Hampshire on 1 May 2020, both after outbreaks in their care homes.

More than a quarter of all deaths among care home residents in March and April 2020 involved Covid-19 – more than 12,500 people. Lawyers for Gardner, 60, and Harris, 58, had argued in a judicial review the government did the “very opposite” of the claim by then health secretary, Matt Hancock, that “right from the start we have tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes”.

After an almost 22-month crowdfunded legal challenge to the legality of policies advanced by the health secretary, Public Health England and NHS England, the verdict was handed down on Wednesday.

Lord Justice Bean and Mr Justice Garnham said: “The decisions of the secretary of state for health and social care to make and maintain a series of policies contained in documents issued on 17 and 19 March and 2 April 2020 were unlawful because the drafters of those documents failed to take into account the risk to elderly and vulnerable residents from non-symptomatic transmission.”

As ministers and officials pushed to free up space in hospitals by discharging 25,000 hospital patients into care homes, government guidance issued on 2 April 2020 said negative tests were not required prior to transfers.

The daughters had argued the failure to protect care home residents was among the most “egregious and devastating policy failures in the modern era”.

During proceedings government lawyers denied any policy failure and told the court that scientists did not advise of “firm evidence” of asymptomatic transmission until mid-April 2020. They said fears of hospitals becoming overwhelmed were “far from being theoretical” and that ministers had to balance competing harms amid enormous challenges.

The judges said the risk of asymptomatic transmission had been highlighted by people including Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, in a radio interview as early as 13 March.

“Non-symptomatic transmission would mean that one elderly patient moved from hospital to a care home could infect other residents before manifesting symptoms, or even without ever manifesting symptoms,” they said.

“The judges found that it was irrational for the DHSC not to have advised until mid-April 2020 that where an asymptomatic patient (other than one who had tested negative for Covid-19) was admitted to a care home, he or she should, so far as practicable, be kept apart from other residents for 14 days.”

The court dismissed the other aspects of the case brought by the claimants, including claims under articles 2 and 8 of the European convention on human rights, and a claim against NHS England.

Swimming pools in UK will close without energy bailout, ministers told

We already know that our “cold fish”: East Devon Tories, and two MPs Neil Parish and Simon Jupp; are opposed to any more subsidies for LED, the “standalone” company that runs EDDC leisure facilities. Indeed, they are currently attacking the Democratic Coalition in their latest Tory “In Touch” leaflet for doing so during the pandemic, despite having subsidised LED themselves ever since they set LED up in 2006.

If you haven’t read this odious little gem, it will be popping through your door soon.  See local Tories sink into nauseating hypocrisy 

Matthew Weaver 

Heating bill increases of up to 150% will lead to the widespread closures of UK swimming pools without an emergency government bailout, ministers have been told.

Campaigners say that even if financial help is provided, swimmers will have to accept colder pools and higher prices.

The sport governing body Swim England and ukactive, which represents gym and pool operators, met the sports minister Nigel Huddleston on Tuesday to make an urgent plea for emergency funds to keep pools open.

Speaking before the meeting, the Swim England chief executive, Jane Nickerson, said: “We need some acute support now. At the moment swimming is not viable unless it’s supported. Our real worry is that doors will just shut because operators will find they can’t afford to run their pools. We need a bailout now because you can’t suddenly make a pool energy efficient.”

The chief executive of ukactive, Huw Edwards, agreed. He said: “Fitness and leisure operators are reaching tipping point as rising energy costs bite, forcing them to consider price rises, service restrictions or permanent closure. Pool operators, in particular, are facing huge bills, with hundreds of facilities across the country just months away from closures and service restrictions.”

The fear of widespread closures comes after the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who is building a private pool in his North Yorkshire mansion, ignored calls for a long-term strategy to keep pools open as part of his spring statement.

Nickerson said public pools were struggling to cope with a total energy bill of £1.25bn this year compared with £500m in 2019, at a time when the sector was still reeling from forced pool closures during lockdown. “Providers have run their reserves down to cope with the pandemic,” she said.

One of the biggest public pool operators, GLL, which trades under the name Better, says its energy bills have increased by at least 150% since April 2019. Its chief executive, Mark Sesnan, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said: “We are heading for a crisis and it needs urgent action. The minister went away with a clear message that we need something to be done. Although he was clear that he would struggle to make a special case to the Treasury.”

Sesnan added: “People need to realise that this is a real and present danger to swimming in the UK. And it will be very difficult to maintain the current stock of pools. The business model has been completely disrupted. Just to meet the energy price increase we need an extra £1 for every person who uses a pool.”

He said the public would also need to accept “more realistic” prices of about £7 or £8 a swim, as well as reduced opening hours and more stringent temperature controls to save on heating bills.

Nickerson said: “Letting people swim in wetsuits is fine for someone like me doing lengths, because I can swim fast to keep warm. But you can’t teach children to swim in cold water – parents won’t take their kids if they see their teeth chattering.”

She added: “If you shut the doors on these pools now you are losing out on kids learning to swim. You won’t die if you don’t learn to kick a football, but you can certainly drown if you don’t learn to swim.”

She is also worried that price rises could make swimming unaffordable for many families. Nickerson said: “We don’t want public pools to become like private health clubs. It should be an activity for everyone, not just for those who can afford it.”

Edwards pointed out the wider health benefits of swimming. He said: “More than 1 million children missed out on swimming lessons during the pandemic and many people’s physical and mental health deteriorated without access to pools and gyms. We need the government to act with urgency to support pools and gyms so that our nation’s health inequalities do not widen any further.”

Pool closures, or threatened closures, have already been reported, including in Halifax, Newport, Shropshire, Falmouth, Croydon and Keswick.

Even before the increase in fuel prices, a report by Swim England last September estimated that 40%, or 1,868, of the 4,336 public pools in England could be forced to close by 2030. Nickerson said: “There was a massive building programme in the 1960s and 70s but those pools have come to the end of their lifespan.”

She said the energy crisis had increased the urgency of replacing those inefficient buildings. “The sector is looking at what it can do to save energy and retrofit buildings. But that won’t happen overnight. And they will also need grants to do it because the payback period is so long,” she said.

A government spokesperson said: “We are in regular contact with Ofgem, business groups and energy suppliers to understand the challenges they face and see how they can best be supported.”

Boris Johnson wants to ease the cost of living crisis without spending money – but can he?

Boris, remember you usually get “Owt for nowt”. Do you understand the urgency? – Owl

Boris Johnson is a big-picture guy. He doesn’t do details. But our prime minister appears to be running short of big ideas on Britain’s cost of living crisis. So he has asked his cabinet colleagues to come up with “innovative” suggestions.

Adam Forrest 

The problem is, their innovative suggestions cannot involve Treasury spending. Mr Johnson told his cabinet he is only interested in cost-free ways to ease the burden of soaring bills and rising prices on hard-pressed families.

Hence the ridicule from opposition parties, who claim that the PM is “completely out of ideas” and that the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is unwilling to provide badly needed help. Is it possible to solve such a lack-of-money crisis without spending more money?

No 10 has hinted at the kind of cost-free things it wants ministers to consider. Whitehall departments are being encouraged to do more to promote existing support schemes that have not been widely taken up.

For instance, the government has estimated that around 1.3 million families could be taking up more support through the tax-free childcare scheme, which offers up to £2,000 a year towards costs.

No 10 has hinted that childcare rules could be changed in a bid to bring down costs – but there is no indication that the amount offered through the tax-free scheme will be increased.

Downing Street is flagging an estimate that 850,000 eligible households are not claiming pension credit, which can be worth over £3,300 a year.

Mr Johnson’s team also pointed at a move to freeze energy bill deductions from universal credit, designed to give claimants a bit more time to sort things out with their gas and electricity providers.

No 10 has not denied reports that the government is considering plans to cut tariffs on food the UK does not produce – such as rice – in a bid to bring down costs for British consumers.

Tinkering at the margins? Perhaps. Will it be enough to ease even the political pressure on the government? Probably not.

Increasingly restless Tory MPs fear that Mr Sunak’s failure to offer more help with bills and benefits at his recent spring mini-Budget will cost the party dearly at the local elections next week.

Backbencher Andrew Bridgen is among those who have said the chancellor may have to consider an “emergency Budget” before the summer recess – something Labour is now demanding.

But Mr Sunak made clear to cabinet ministers on Tuesday that there would be no new money available to spend on measures to tackle living costs.

No 10 says Mr Johnson will hold another meeting to decide on the “non-fiscal” measures “in the next couple of weeks”, with the PM apparently on the same page as the chancellor on holding down debt.

The local elections on 5 May could sharpen minds. If the results are terrible for the Tory party, then speculation about a backbench leadership putsch will hit feverish new heights.

Mr Johnson may find himself knocking on Mr Sunak’s door to ask if he can rustle up a few billion from somewhere to help him – and everyone else – through the summer.

Don’t expect an infrastructure levy any time soon

The government plans to axe section 106 agreements in favour of an infrastructure levy, but Richard Harbord warns that consultation paralysis, levelling-up concerns and developer opposition could block any progress.

[Readers may remember the scandal unearthed through FOIs that the then Conservative controlled EDDC were so focused on “Build, build, build”, around 2016, that they had lost track of S106 payments, including uncollected payments. – Owl] 

There are rumours that central government is planning a reform to the current planning legislation involving the removal of section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. The understanding is that it would be replaced by a levy on developers.

Originally section 106 agreements required developers to build infrastructure whenever they constructed housing estates. They would be required to provide schools, doctors’ surgeries and any other relevant item that the increased number of residents would need. This became, in many instances, the payment of a cash sum to cover the estimated cost of such infrastructure or contribute towards it.

In many local authorities there are considerable Section 106 reserves where these deposits are held but not immediately used. It has also been used to secure a specified percentage of affordable homes (as defined).

This is not actually a new idea because the proposals in the subsequently scrapped planning white paper were for the replacement of section 106 agreements and the Community Infrastructure Levy with a fixed tax on development value paid at the date of occupation.

The government says that it is developing models for a new levy. This, it says, will enable local authorities to capture value from new developments more efficiently. It would be used to finance affordable housing and community infrastructure.

The devil will, of course, be in the detail and consultation will follow. However, an interesting side issue is the government’s tardiness in responding to consultations affecting local authorities. Glacial response times could be another effect of the pandemic, but some are suspicious that there is an unwillingness to deal with politically sensitive issues.

Stuck in the consultation queue

My point is that once the new levy proposals go out to consultation, they may well be stuck in a queue and not reach legislation for some time.

Developers, it has to be said, are not over-excited with the new proposals, arguing that a fixed-rate levy lacks the local flexibility of a section 106 agreement. There is also a feeling that fixed-rate levies may disadvantage certain parts of the country over others and be against the spirit of levelling up.

A figure of £7bn apparently could be raised through the levy, although that sum is not quantified over time a time period. Local authorities will be eager to see how the money is to be distributed and what limits there will be on its use. The spirit of such levies is that they are raised and spent locally. We will not know until we see the detailed consultation.

People feel unsafe amid ‘staggering fall’ in police stations – Lib Dems

One police station has shut every two weeks under the “Law and Order” Party.

No wonder the Tories have made so much of reopening a station in the largest town in Devon, Exmouth, after seven years without.

What about smaller towns?

Remember for every £1 you spend in local taxes on services provided by EDDC you spend £1.6 on the Police. Value for money? – Owl

Amy Gibbons 

The Government is being warned that people feel “unsafe on their own streets” as new analysis suggests more than 200 police stations and counters have closed in the past seven years.

The Liberal Democrats said the figures, which the party obtained under freedom of information laws, equate to the loss of more than one site every two weeks.

It said a total of 217 stations and counters in England and Wales were shut from 2015 to 2021, with an average of 31 closures a year.

London and the South East in particular have seen a “staggering fall” in numbers, the party said, with Thames Valley Police closing the most sites – 23 stations and 44 counters.

Ahead of the local elections in May, the Lib Dems are promoting a three-point plan to crack down on crime and anti-social behaviour.

This would involve restoring “proper community policing”, where officers are more visible, trusted and known personally to local people; and reversing cuts to youth services by investing an extra £500 million a year through a ring-fenced fund to local authorities, it said.

The party also wants to scrap police and crime commissioners and invest what it says will equate to £50 million in savings in frontline policing and solving crimes.

Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said: “Shuttered police stations have become a symbol of the Conservatives’ failure on crime. Too many people feel unsafe on their own streets, and too many criminals are getting away with it.

“The Liberal Democrats are calling for a return to proper community policing, where officers are visible, trusted and focused on cutting crime.

“This May people will have a chance to send Boris Johnson’s Conservatives a message. A vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote for more investment in our police and youth services to help make our communities safer.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Government is already over halfway to recruiting an additional 20,000 additional police officers and the police are being given the powers, tools and funding they need to cut crime.

“It is the responsibility of locally elected police and crime commissioners and chief constables to take decisions around their resourcing and estates.

“However, police stations – which remain one of many methods where incidents can be reported – should be kept open where possible to ensure people feel safe in their communities.”