People won’t follow stricter rules if they’re imposed by an incompetent government

“The Dominic Cummings effect – one law for us and another law for them – has generated more than a burning sense of injustice”

Zoe Williams 

Hypotheticals are more interesting than brass tacks. When it was announced that the police would get access, on a “case by case basis”, to the details of people who had been asked to self-isolate through NHS test and trace, the immediate concern of the British Medical Association was a what if: what if it deterred people from getting tested in the first place? What if they mistook this for the app, which is anonymised, and ceased downloading it? What if (this is my personal hypothetical) this erodes the trust of the one person left in the country who doesn’t know that “NHS test and trace” is actually a euphemism for operation run by the cock-up behemoth that is Serco?

Yet as interesting as those questions are, by far the more pressing one is: how on earth are the police supposed to track self-isolation refuseniks? With whose army? Never mind the powers that have been bestowed on them by rushed legislation, you have to ask who gave the gift of time, the blessing of infinite resource? As the constabulary freely admitted before this pandemic erupted, they didn’t have the manpower to chase down things that were already illegal; a swath of new laws means very little in that context.

Lockdowns function not by force but by consent, which is tougher to generate the second time round. In March there was novelty, there was ambition, there was the human spirit questing for an upside. With no planes in the sky, we could hear birdsong. We could imagine things being better afterwards. Maybe we would learn Spanish. Now we know that those things won’t happen, and it is simply a miserable grind. If we want to understand human behaviour at all, and with it likely outcomes, we need to park moral questions – how can a responsible person put their desire for a pint above their shielding neighbour? – and consider what the factors are for citizenly obedience.

In order to follow strict rules, people need to believe they will make a difference: a drop in cases is not enough. If no progress is made during the lull, it feels like an outcome postponed rather than averted. In areas over which the government has the least purview there has been progress: treatment for the virus in a hospital setting has improved; death rates have gone down. Yet the government has nothing to show for the time we bought it. Indeed, every week since March has brought some new instalment of their inadequacy. When it’s not a calamity directly related to the virus – million-dollar consultants selling mixed messages, PPE procurement from amateur chums – it’s an A-level fiasco, or a university debacle. Deferred gratification is something most of us, at our most responsible, can comprehend, but it presupposes some future that is indeed gratifying. When tomorrow simply looks like a worse version of today – and the spectre of a no-deal Brexit doesn’t help, here – why kick the can down that road?

Compliance relies, furthermore, on altruism, trust, community spirit, notions that only sound abstract until you’re confronted by the chasm of their absence. The very real and fatally corrosive sense that it’s one law for us and another for them – for brevity, the Dominic Cummings effect – has generated more than a burning sense of injustice. It turns out that anyone, if you look closely enough, has breached the intent behind one rule or another, whether it’s Tony Blair returning from the US straight into an eaterie, or the SNP’s Margaret Ferrier boarding a train knowing she had tested positive for Covid-19. Which all raises more of an existential question: are those in power uniquely bad at following rules? Or are they just the most visible of a whole nation of scofflaws? Will I wake from this nightmare to find that nobody was ever obeying anything?

This all could have been allayed if the Barnard Castle visit had had consequences: but possibly the more egregious mistake of the prime minister has been to sporadically try to thrust blame back on to the population for relaxing too much. Some of us spiralled into accusing one another, some disregarded him as a man wriggling on the hook of his own insufficiency, some of us cycle through those two responses multiple times on any given day. But it doesn’t matter who you distrust most, between your fellow citizen and your government, the damage to national unity is the same.

The very low levels of buy-in for the self-isolation rules – only 11% of people who test positive go on to stay at home for a full 14 days – hint at the practical failures that will have an impact on every new guideline. If people can’t afford to stay at home, they won’t. If the state’s best idea of support is to suggest you use your annual leave for your 14-day sojourn, it has effectively resiled from its duty of care, which undermines its rhetoric and credibility. The deficiencies at a regional level carry the same message more starkly: a government that doesn’t care whether or not you can feed yourself has no place in the matter of your health.

The important thing is not to blame one another for the failures of whatever lockdown comes our way. Instead we must demand a functioning find, test, trace and isolate system, administered by local authorities in conjunction with public health, bulwarked by financial support, which would stem this overwhelming sense of futility. The opposition, meanwhile, must avoid painting a fresh lockdown as a moral good: it will maroon itself on the wrong side of a false binary.

• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

Dozens to be deliberately infected with coronavirus in UK ‘human challenge’ trials

Young, healthy people will be intentionally exposed to the virus responsible for COVID-19 in a first-of-its kind ‘human challenge trial’, the UK government and a company that runs such studies announced on 20 October. The experiment, set to begin in January in a London hospital if it receives final regulatory and ethical approval, aims to accelerate the development of vaccines that could end the pandemic.

Ewen Callaway

Human challenge trials have a history of providing insight into diseases such as malaria and influenza. The UK trial will try to identify a suitable dose of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that could be used in future vaccine trials. But the prospect of deliberately infecting people — even those at low risk of severe disease — with SARS-CoV-2, a deadly pathogen that has few proven treatments, is uncharted medical and bioethical territory.

Proponents of COVID-19 challenge trials have argued that they can be run safely and ethically, and that their potential to quickly identify effective vaccines outweighs the low risks to participants. But others have raised questions about the safety and value of these studies, pointing out that large-scale efficacy trials involving tens of thousands of people are expected to deliver results on several COVID-19 vaccines soon.

“Deliberately infecting volunteers with a known human pathogen is never undertaken lightly. However, such studies are enormously informative about a disease,” Peter Openshaw, an immunologist at Imperial College London and investigator on the study, said in a press statement. “It is really vital that we move as fast as possible towards getting effective vaccines and other treatments for COVID-19, and challenge studies have the potential to accelerate and de-risk the development of novel drugs and vaccines.

Dose testing

The planned COVID-19 challenge study will be led by a Dublin-based commercial clinical-research organization called Open Orphan and its subsidiary hVIVO, which runs challenge trials on respiratory pathogens. It will take place in the high-level isolation unit of the Royal Free Hospital in north London, says Open Orphan executive chair Cathal Friel.

The UK government’s COVID-19 Vaccine Taskforce has agreed to pay the company up to £10 million (US$13 million) to conduct the trial, with the possibility of contracting Open Orphan to run several more to test various vaccines. The UK Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which regulates clinical trials in the United Kingdom, and an ethical review committee, still need to approve the initial trial and its design, and that of future studies.

The initial trial will involve an estimated 30 to 50 participants, says Andrew Catchpole, a virologist and the chief scientific officer at Open Orphan who is leading the work. It is open only to healthy adults aged 18 to 30.

The precise design of the study has not been finalized. But it is likely that a small number of participants will receive a very low dose of a SARS-CoV-2 ‘challenge strain’ derived from a currently circulating virus and grown under stringent conditions. If none or few of the participants become infected, the researchers will seek permission from an independent safety monitoring board to expose participants to higher doses. This process will be repeated until researchers identify a dose that infects most of those exposed, says Catchpole.

Once an appropriate dose is identified, Open Orphan could be asked to run a series of challenge trials testing several vaccines. Catchpole says that the design of these trials, including which vaccines will be included, has not been determined. He envisions that some trial participants will receive a placebo injection instead of a vaccine, but he also says that head-to-head trials comparing two or more vaccines could be run. Other vaccine studies that the company runs typically enrol 40–50 volunteers for each trial arm, he says.

Catchpole says that his team will take every precaution against participants in the initial trial developing severe disease. Volunteers will be treated with an antiviral, such as remdesevir, once a nasal swab gives a positive result for SARS-CoV-2 genetic material. In addition to age and health, participants will be screened for risk factors that have been associated with severe COVID-19.

Selecting participants at the lowest risk is the most important safety step in running a challenge trial, says Matt Memoli, an infectious-disease physician and virologist at the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Maryland. “Once you’ve given that virus to the person, anything’s possible,” he says. “You can’t control it, you can only react to it.”

If Open Orphan moves on to vaccine trials, it will aim to recruit around 500 participants altogether, but Friel says the company will need to screen many times more people to identify suitable volunteers. An ethical review board will determine how to compensate participants. Open Orphan typically pays volunteers around £4,000 for their time, says Catchpole.

Ethical issues

There is a concern that people will participate for the money without appreciating the risks, says Nir Eyal, a bioethicist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, who has argued that COVID-19 challenge trials can be run safely and ethically. But a well-designed online course, for instance, could ensure participants understand the risks, he says.

Ensuring participants understand the limitations of challenge trials will also be important, says Seema Shah, a bioethicist at Lurie Children’s Hospital and Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois. With phase III trials of numerous COVID-19 vaccines in the works, she thinks it unlikely that challenge trials will speed the development of the first vaccines. Instead, their payoff could lie in helping to test later-generation vaccines or laying the groundwork for fresh insights into the disease. In this context, says Shah, “It becomes a little bit harder to justify them, and we need to take a close look at risks.”

Meagan Deming, a vaccine scientist and virologist at the University of Maryland Medical Centre in Baltimore, sees challenge trials as more appropriate for studying basic aspects of SARS-CoV-2 infection — such as the potential for reinfection or how previous exposure to cold-causing coronaviruses influences susceptibility to COVID-19 — than for vetting vaccines. Because such trials are likely to involve only young, healthy people, they might not reveal much about how vaccines could protect those most at risk of severe disease, such as older people and those with conditions such as diabetes, Deming says. “There’s a reason we don’t have a lot of vaccines approved by challenge models, because they don’t apply to everyone and you want a vaccine to protect almost everyone,” she says.

Phase III trials might not offer clear evidence of whether vaccines work in older people because of their low participation in those trials, says Peter Smith, an epidemiologist at the London School for Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who has been involved in challenge trials. Researchers will probably need to determine vaccines’ likely effectiveness in older people, based on how their immune systems respond to COVID-19 vaccines prior to exposure to the virus. And compared with field trials, challenge studies are better at identifying the type of immune responses that predict whether a vaccine is likely to work or not, adds Memoli.

Other trials

The United Kingdom isn’t the only country investigating COVID-19 challenge trials. Belgium’s government has committed €20 million (US$23.6 million) for facilities to host challenge trials, potentially involving COVID-19. NIAID is funding the development of two SARS-CoV-2 challenge strains by a lab at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, while a team led by Memoli is also laying the groundwork for such trials. In a statement, NIAID said it was awaiting data from phase III studies before making decisions on COVID-19 challenge trials.

Proponents of the trials argue that the consequences of delaying them should be taken into account, alongside the risks of going forward. For instance, Eyal and economists Pedro Rosa Dias and Ara Darzi at Imperial College London have calculated that speeding the development of COVID-19 vaccines by one month would avert the loss of 720,000 years of life and prevent 40 million years in poverty, mostly in lower-income countries.

But Deming thinks that challenge trials should wait until their value is clearer and the risks can be better mitigated, for instance, by deploying more potent therapies. “We don’t yet know enough about this disease to say for this person: you will not die,” she says. “We’ve learned so much in the past nine months. In a year, we will be able to do this safely.”

‘We had more than 60 calls from test-and-trace’

This helps us to understand where all the money is going – but is it “value for money”? – Owl

Two weeks ago, Martin Usborne, a publisher who lives in east London, found out a close family contact had coronavirus. A few days later his wife, Ann, and their one-year-old daughter, also tested positive.

5-6 minutes

From that moment on, Martin says his wife’s phone would not stop ringing. Over the course of 10 days, Ann had 30 separate calls from NHS Test and Trace that she managed to pick up. On top of this were another 27 calls that were missed. And then there were the half a dozen calls her husband received.

“At one point she would finish one call and as soon as she put the phone down – literally seconds later – another contact tracer would ring. And as soon as that call was over, test-and-trace would call my phone.

“This really was not the easiest situation to deal with, particularly while looking after our two small children,” Mr Usborne told the BBC.

Some calls were made because Ann had been in contact the family acquaintance, who works in her home, while others were to tell her that her young girls (one and three years old) had been near the same person.

‘Dog with the wrong bone’

Next came the calls because Ann had tested positive, calls because her little one had tested positive and then calls to alert her older toddler that she had been in contact with someone else one who had the virus (this time her mother).

The family understands some of these calls were necessary and is keen to stress that everyone they spoke to was kind and considerate and did their job well, but Mr Usborne is very concerned there has been a significant waste of resources.

“The majority of calls were long and repetitive, with different callers reading out the same script each time, asking the same questions and giving the same answers,” he says.

And the family say when they told contact tracers they had heard the exact same thing several times already, the callers apologised but said they would have to complete the entire phone call or it would not register and someone else would simply ring again.

Mr Usborne told the BBC: “Essentially we were dealing with a broken excel spreadsheet, personified by a very nice person.

“In a way it was quite impressive as they were really persistent – but it was like a dog who had got the wrong bone.”

Later in the week, calls from contact tracers became more helpful, with some checking the family were OK and giving them information on when their isolation would end.

But Mr Usborne says they received conflicting advice about how long they had to remain at home. The NHS Covid-19 app recommended his wife stay indoors a few days longer than contact tracers suggested, for example.

He added: “The people were super-nice about it but one contact tracer admitted they worked on a different system to the app and would continue to use theirs. Which one is right?”

‘Losing trust’

They are now not quite certain when exactly it is safe to go out and are isolating for the longest suggested time. And, more crucially, they say they are not sure if they can trust the advice at all.

The family feels there needs to be a lot more done to join up the dots, so that contact tracers are alerted if someone has already been called and the system recognises when callers have already spoken to parents or carers responsible for small children in the same household.

Mr Usborne also feels there should be a way for the hard-working humans on the other end of the phone to override the computer system if a family tells them they have received multiple, repetitive calls, all week long.

According to the Department of Health and Social Care, NHS Test and Trace has reached a total of 901,151 people since it was started.

The first week of October saw the service successfully reach 76.8% of people who tested positive and 76.9% of contacts where communication details were provided.

But there have been issues over the time taken for test results to be returned.

‘Duty to self-isolate’

And the system had its worst week for reaching close contacts who were not in the same household as the person testing positive. Just 62% were reached in the week to 7 October, down from 67% the week before.

In the same week, the number of people transferred to test-and-trace more than doubled, to 88,000.

A spokesperson said the government’s test-and-trace programme “is working hard to break chains of transmission, with over 900,000 people who may otherwise have unknowingly spreading coronavirus contacted and told to isolate”.

“We all have a crucial part to play in keeping the number of new infections down, which is why there is now a legal duty to self-isolate, and steps have been taken to make sure that people are complying with the rules.”

Britain’s second Covid wave is more of a ripple — but still a threat

Coronavirus arrived like a stone thrown into a still pond. Out from this impact surged a first wave, a tsunami of infections that subsumed countries as it spread. Behind it, as many had predicted, has come the second wave, almost exactly six months later.

Tom Whipple, Science Editor

But just as with a stone in a pond, this ripple does not match up to the first. Of all the statistical comparisons between the waves, two from hospitals exemplify the trends that matter. One is a graph going up, and the other a graph going down.

The first, the graph that is going up, shows how fast hospital beds are filling. Between March 1 and April 1, the number of covid patients entering hospital went from 0 a day to 3,500 a day. Between September 1 and October 1, the number went from 100 to 500.

Ours is not the naive, socially undistanced, office-working world of spring 2020. Today, the virus can still spread — we are very far from herd immunity — but with the connections between people and groups cut or fractured it finds its task a lot harder.

Back in March, the number of new infections doubled every three to four days. Today, at the speediest end of estimates, it managed seven to eight days. Probably, it took longer still. This tells us that we have longer to respond, and have to do less to bring outbreaks under control.

However, ours is also a society where there is less that we can do. The easiest social restrictions are already in place. Some, such as school closures, will never be enacted again. This leaves us with just a few tools with which to bring that graph of new hospital cases down.

So far, the levers we have available have not worked so well — as the same graph shows us. The first wave may have been more dramatic, but it also faded faster. After a month, back in spring, new admissions to hospital started to fall. Six weeks into the second wave, and they are still continuing their slow and steady upwards path. If anything, in fact, they are accelerating.

Partly, the trajectory is a sign there has been a shift in who is being infected. This is not a disease that strikes all sections of society equally. When the second wave started, some hoped it would stay where it began, in the young.

Was it inevitable that teenagers and students, tired of a virus that did not affect them but still demanded so much of them, would pass it to their grandparents?

Heat maps of its spread among society show that it seems it was indeed inevitable: the idea we could somehow seal off one section of society appears to be misplaced.

Despite our efforts, an infection of the young is rapidly becoming one of the old yet again. Or as one expert memorably put it, trying to have an infection-free demographic in a pandemic is like trying to have a urine-free lane in a swimming pool.

How worrying is this? With deaths lagged from infections by around a month, it is too soon into the second wave to judge how deadly the virus will be this time.

It is, in fact, hard to even judge how deadly it was the first time. Calculating fatality rates depends on who is counted as a Covid-19 case when they die and who is spotted as a Covid-19 case when they don’t. In April, when testing levels were a 20th of what they are now, scientists estimate that we missed 90-95 per cent of all cases.

We don’t tend to miss ICU cases though. When assessing what has changed, statistics of critical care beds provide a reasonably solid anchor in a shifting sea of data.

This is where the second graph, the one going down, becomes useful. It is a measure of how likely it is that those who go into intensive care, almost entirely the late middle-aged and elderly, will go on to leave it alive.

The graph shows that in the first wave for every ten Covid-19 patients who entered critical care, four never left. So far in the second wave things look marginally more promising. A month after entering ICU, more than seven in ten patients are still alive.

This should not be surprising. Unlike in the spring, the most severe cases today have a drug that works — dexamethasone. They also have protocols that have been refined and improved. In March and April, 60 per cent of those entering ICU were put on ventilators in the first 24 hours.

Today, with better understanding of what helps and what hinders, the proportion is less than half that. Paradoxically, the rise in cases gives us hope this might improve further. As more patients end up in hospital, we have more people to test new drugs on.

By Christmas it is very likely the world’s doctors will be given another proven drug, to complement dexamethasone. Even so, there is no disguising that winter looks likely to be long, depressing and, for many, lonely.

We will not be buoyed by the weather of April. Nor — perhaps — will we be carried along by the cohesion of a country that met its neighbours every Thursday to clap the NHS. But, with a grim determination and a lot of hard-won knowledge, the statistics show that we can still keep our heads above water as the second wave passes.

Minette Batters, NFU president: Boris told me, ‘I would rather die than hurt British farmers’

Minette Batters started her day at 5.30am with 25 press-ups and a run round her farm with her dog to check the sheep, cattle and horses before waking her teenage twins, then jumping in the car with a black coffee to wind her way through the Wiltshire countryside to catch the train to London. There she changed into heels to meet the prime minister.

Alice Thomson and Rachel Sylvester 

Ushered into No 10, worried that she might still have mud on her face and straw in her hair, the National Farmers’ Union president found herself sitting opposite an even more dishevelled Boris Johnson. “I was keen to prove I don’t have a set of horns and I am not a raving lunatic,” she explains. Instead she felt concerned about the prime minister. “He looked like a man understandably with the weight of the world on his shoulders so I said, ‘I want to take farming and food off your desk and I can do that. There is a viable plan.’ I ended the meeting by saying, ‘Look, Prime Minister, I will carry you aloft myself on my shoulders to achieve this.’ He laughed and said he’d have to lose a bit more weight.”

Batters may be half Johnson’s size, but she was determined to explain to him why farmers, chefs and environmentalists are running a campaign to convince the government to think again about their refusal to ensure imported food meets domestic standards after Brexit.

Instead of launching into the pros and cons of chlorinated chicken, the prime minister and the president spent ages chatting about Nethercote, the Johnson farm on Exmoor. “He said where he grew up was a very disadvantaged area with a few sheep. ‘It’s a difficult place to farm and we couldn’t make a living just farming there, Minette,’ he said, ‘but I love it,’ and he sounded sincere.’”

When she finally left, “There was a line of 20 people looking very unhappy, including ministers and the chief whip. I think they were expecting to see Rishi Sunak appear, and they were horrified to see me,” Batters says.

Was she successful? Batters can mimic the prime minister’s voice perfectly, suddenly sounding grave. “He said, ‘I would rather die than hurt British farmers,’ and I think he really means that.” In return, she had prepared her own speech. “You are prime minister at the time the Agriculture Bill goes through and I am president of the NFU and for the first time in 70 years we are setting a new course for the future of British agriculture,” she explained to him. “I told him we both have a moral duty to get this right.”

Batters, a former caterer, then showed the prime minister the million-strong list of those supporting the NFU petition to amend the Agriculture Bill now going through its last stages in parliament. “I explained to him that we now have this extraordinary unprecedented tsunami of a coalition from the best chefs, all the farmers across the country, the environmentalists and all the NCOs, even the mammals’ association.”

Batters explained her request for a trade standards commission with experts on the environment, sustainability, animal welfare and food safety allowed to scrutinise any potential deal. “He looked surprised when I made the point that the US has exactly the same thing, an independent trade commission that reports into Congress. He said, ‘Oh right, I hadn’t realised.’ He has a lot of things on his desk and with Covid he just hasn’t had the bandwidth.”

But his aides could have briefed him. Why does Batters think the government voted against the proposal last week? “I think there has been ping-pong between Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] and the department of trade. They are on different pathways, but only the prime minister can decide his priorities. He is overrun with things, some small, some huge to be sorted out, but it is clear to me now that he just has to make a decision, however tired he is; we can’t just drift towards disaster. So many people care desperately about upholding the values of food production in this country.”

Batters has been surprised by the recent surge in support for farmers. “The chefs have been incredible. We have Delia Smith, Prue Leith, Jamie Oliver, Richard Corrigan and Raymond Blanc, and more, all saying they support farmers — it’s just like Christmas.”

Liberal Democrat, Green and Labour politicians have also visited her farm. “We are an apolitical organisation, so I was pleased when Keir Starmer wanted to come, but I’d also love to have Boris Johnson, to put the record straight.”

Batters was still shocked when she saw the Labour leader outside her stables. “I thought it was a man delivering something. We were in the yard. I knew he was coming to the farm, but then this man walked around the corner in a bomber jacket, black T-shirt, jeans and wellies and I looked at him and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness.’ His wellies and jacket had clearly been well worn; it was so different from the booted and suited Starmer, which is all we ever see usually.”

Covid, she says, has proved how vital the farming industry is to Britain. “We had a nation to feed; every single person couldn’t buy exactly what they wanted to buy during lockdown. I couldn’t find flour at one stage. Now 86 per cent of people say British farmers should grow as much food as they can.”

Yet Britain’s 46,000 farmers, she warns, are fearful they won’t be able to compete with food made to lower standards from abroad. “I have farmers beside themselves about what the future is going to hold for farms that they have been looking after for generations. They have huge amounts of debt and don’t know what the future holds on trade or policy and they are frantic.”

However, the UK can’t block all imports, or it sounds like protectionism and fortress Britain rather than global Britain. “We’ve been very clear from the beginning we are not asking Australian farmers to cut their hedges at a certain time of year. That’s why we have always wanted the compromise route of having experts on a committee who write a report for parliament to sign off before a trade deal is concluded.”

In Britain, she says, “We now have laws that dictate stocking density of poultry sheds, that dictate no growth promoters, and the retailers are always wanting higher standards, but the farmers aren’t getting any more money; they are getting the same for milk and strawberries as 20 years ago. We are now the lowest user of antibiotics in the world, box ticked, we’re on our way to producing carbon-neutral food, and we aren’t getting any reward. Yet we are saying to the rest of the world you can import what you like, reared how you like, bring it on in.”

What upsets her most is when farmers are told that it will be fine because there will be labels on food so consumers can decide. “Out of the home, when you pick up a sandwich, in a hospital or school, there is no requirement to give you the country of origin. Some suppliers will always go for the cheapest even by a couple of pence if they can. But the least well off should be able to eat ethically too. We already have the most affordable food in Europe, with the safest, most traceable animal welfare and environmentally friendly agenda; we are a huge success story. Now we are going to undermine our producers in a way that isn’t fair when they are trying their hardest to provide what we say we want. We can’t be moralistic about how our food is grown here and then import food and not care how the animals are treated abroad.”

But Britain can’t refuse to do any trade deals. “It sounds like we are saying no to American food. That’s not right. Take California. It has very high standards. They have banned all consumption of pork meat produced with growth promoters.”

Brexit, though, makes matters more complicated. She must find it infuriating that more than half of farmers voted to leave the European Union, ignoring NFU advice. “No, I’m a passionate believer in democracy,” she says. “We had a referendum. This is the result.”

Meanwhile, the prime minister has promised to return almost a third of the country to nature by 2030, declaring in his conference speech that people would soon be enjoying “picnics in the new wild belts”. “I do think his commitment is a good one, but he needs everybody else around that cabinet table to back him and to make a success of farming,” Batters says. “And I know there is conflict.”

“Rewilding” the entire country is not the way to do it, she warns, “There are some rich landowners who just think, ‘We can get our food produced somewhere else in the world and we’ll rewild the country and have this lovely quintessential cottage industry of people making bread,’ but if we’re going to deliver on the prime minister’s commitment on the environment, we’ve got to be able to have thriving, profitable agriculture too.”

The “think tank operators” who promote a revolution in land use misunderstand the reality of rural life. “It’s all very well if you live surrounded by four square walls and you’re thumping away on your laptop, but I represent people. These are real, beating hearts that are out in the countryside at the end of farm tracks, small isolated communities and families. This is an old culture that is deep and embedded in our countryside.”

Not all farmers can diversify and have holiday cottages, she says. “I meet a lot of farm businesses who say absolutely no way can they get planning for glamping instead of sheep.” Nor would it necessarily encourage more participation in the countryside since rewilding would leave some areas inaccessible, she suggests. “I have never seen my footpath so busy. It’s been wall-to-wall walkers and that’s been brilliant to see people getting out into the countryside, but if we rewild everything there are all sorts of situations that come about with access.”

Nor, she insists, is it practical to reintroduce lynx and wolves. “We’ve got too many people here. You’d have a lynx released in the Lake District and it would probably turn up in Birmingham before you knew it. The line is with a lynx, ‘They can go and kill a deer and they will keep deer populations down.’ Well, it’s a damn sight easier for them to go and kill a lamb.” As for beavers: “You only have to go to Scotland to see the damage that the beavers have done.”

Over 70 per cent of the country, she points out, is a farmed landscape. “We can only rebuild our stone walls, we can only plant our hedges, we can only feed the nation if we have highly skilled farmers doing it. We don’t necessarily want someone who doesn’t have that commitment to the land.”

Batters, the first female NFU president in its 111-year history, took over the tenancy of her farm in 1998. Her father, who had it before her, “was always quite convinced that women weren’t farmers”, she says. “But the more you’re told you cannot have something from a very young age, the more inquisitive you become about ‘Why can’t I?’ And you start to challenge the status quo.”

Managing the land is far more than a job for her. “For me farming is about a sense of place and identity. I can look to the north towards Salisbury Cathedral, and whenever I come back I see the spire. My small corner of south Wiltshire is just the best place in the world because it’s home. That’s what farming families across the country feel. Some of them will have been there for six or seven generations and they wouldn’t necessarily want to farm anywhere else in the country; that’s quite a unique thing.”

That sense of local identity will matter more than ever after Brexit, she says, combined with a sense that Britain can be the best in the world. “We need to build a global brand. But there’s no point me running Brand Britain when the government is off with Brand America.”

Boris Johnson will not regain his squandered trust

Boris Johnson learnt from his father Stanley the motto: “Nothing matters very much and most things don’t matter at all.” But it’s not true. The opposite is the case for a prime minister whose red box is filled daily with things that matter a great deal indeed — never more so than during a pandemic, with the country heading into an economic downturn as the Brexit deadline looms.

Rachel Sylvester 

Through his frivolity, Mr Johnson has sacrificed trust, the most precious commodity of all in politics, and that is a disaster in the multiple crises he now faces. The negotiations with the European Union depend on building a relationship of trust so that compromises can be broached in a spirit of honest exchange. The prime minister has, however, been playing politics all along. Nobody believes his latest pronouncement that we are heading for no deal with “high hearts”. The boy Boris has cried wolf too many times and so, whatever the truth of it, his declaration is taken — both in Brussels and by business — as the latest piece of posturing.

If he is serious, then that is dangerous because it means the country will be less prepared for the cliff edge. If he’s not, then his games will make it harder to reach a free trade agreement by the end of the year because he has squandered yet more goodwill.

In the same vein, Mr Johnson’s threat to break international law and override the commitments in the withdrawal agreement is seen by some MPs as just another dishonest stunt. One former cabinet minister told me: “It’s my view that they have decided to accept the deal that’s on the table. The whole Internal Market Bill thing is a deliberate piece of theatre to make it look like they’ve had a big fight and stood up for British interests so when they accept it they’ve got cover.”

Again, even if this is all a devious ruse, there are consequences. The damage to Britain’s reputation abroad, including in the United States, has already been done. And, as five British archbishops argued in their letter to the Financial Times, the plan will “further undermine trust” among those who govern the different parts of the United Kingdom, while having “enormous moral, as well as political and legal” ramifications. Like a conjuror, the prime minister is skilled at using diversion to avert the public’s eyes from the illusion but people are starting to see through his tricks.

When it comes to the coronavirus, Mr Johnson has sacrificed the trust of the public and of his own MPs through his chaotic management of the crisis. According to the latest YouGov poll, 32 per cent think the government is handling the pandemic well. Chris Curtis, YouGov’s research manager, believes it is “an opportunity wasted to rebuild trust in our political institutions, as has happened in other countries around the world, but hasn’t happened here because the government are perceived to have done such a bad job”.

There has, in fact, been a further deterioration of trust at every level. Trust has broken down between local and national politicians, between ministers and their scientific advisers and even within the cabinet as different factions argue about the balance between livelihoods and lives. Trust in a future vaccine is so low that there is discussion about calling in the Queen to increase uptake. Trust in the test and trace system is shot to pieces, with many alarmed by the plans to give the police the contact details of those who have been told to self-isolate. The restrictions will only work if people are willing to follow them and the loss of trust is already harming compliance as voters conclude that the government either has no idea what it’s doing or is driven by the wrong motives.

As with Europe, the pandemic has become increasingly about politics, with the prime minister bowing to pressure from the Tory right. The Eurosceptic “Spartans” have become the lockdown hawks and the rebels such as Steve Baker who made Theresa May’s life a misery are now doing the same to Mr Johnson, their former hero. Indeed, MPs take delight in pointing out that the prime minister owes his position to a previous rebellion and so can hardly complain. This disagreement is also about trust. The critics argue the government should have faith in the people to do the right thing — as in Sweden which, according to its chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, has a “trust-based approach”.

Confucius told his disciple Tsze-Kung that three things are needed for government: food, weapons and trust. If a leader cannot maintain all three they should, he said, relinquish the weapons first and the food next. Trust should be guarded to the end because “without trust we cannot stand”. Trust is essential in human relationships and business but also for democracy to function. Black Wednesday and the war in Iraq were tipping points in the relationship between politicians and the voters because they undermined trust. The Liberal Democrats have still not recovered from breaking a decade-old promise not to raise tuition fees.

The philosopher Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve argued in her Reith lectures that the key to regaining trust is simply to be trustworthy. “Deception is the real enemy of trust,” she said, and at the moment the government is not being trustworthy. The truth is Mr Johnson has never valued honesty or reliability. He has been sacked from two jobs for lying and was described by another boss, the former newspaper proprietor Conrad Black, as a “fox disguised as a teddy bear” after he misled him by insisting he would not pursue a political career while editing The Spectator, then applied for a parliamentary seat. The long history of unfaithfulness to women was only reinforced at the weekend by Jennifer Arcuri’s confirmation of their affair.

“I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else,” one teacher wrote of Mr Johnson in a school report. But as prime minister that has implications for the country as well as for his own life. The failure to censure his chief adviser Dominic Cummings when he broke the rules with his eyesight-testing trip to Barnard Castle was the moment at which the public’s respect cracked and the willingness to follow the rules began to erode.

Trust has broken down at the very moment when it is needed more than ever and it’s the prime minister’s fault for trivialising the world around him. It is hard to see how he recovers from that.

Time to stop the coronavirus gravy train

“Lord Agnew wrote last month in a leaked letter to senior civil servants, an “unacceptable” reliance on management consultants has “infantilised” Whitehall and deprived “our brightest [public servants] of opportunities to work on some of the most challenging, fulfilling and crunchy issues”.”

Clare Foges 

As the scale of the coronavirus threat emerged early this year, most scented danger. Others caught the whiff of something else: the gravy train to end all gravy trains. Weekly come the stories of huge sums of public money spent with seeming disregard for value, without tender or transparency, for services of dubious value or poor quality, to companies and consultants which often have close links to power. Though public attention is fixed on lockdowns and curfews, a bad smell grows — and the government would be wise to start clearing the air.

Hundreds of millions of pounds were spray-hosed at companies promising to provide PPE. The crowdfunded Good Law Project has been plugging away for months to seek answers about some of the more questionable suppliers. A sweet manufacturer from Co Antrim swapped gob-stoppers for gowns and won contracts worth £107 million without competitive tender. Ayanda Capital, a family office specialising in currency trading and private equity, signed a £252 million contract for safety equipment, later supplying 50 million masks that could not be used. While there may be good reasons for these decisions, the government’s persistent secrecy on this front does not allay suspicions of incompetence at best and deals for mates at worst.

Occupying the next carriage of the gravy train we have the management consultants, the global giants populated by former government advisers. The Whitehall procurement system “hugely favours large established companies with powerful political connections — true corporate looters”. So said Dominic Cummings once, but these large established companies have done rather well since March. The top Covid supplier by volume is PWC, whose 20 contracts are worth £24 million. McKinsey’s 16 projects add up to £38 million. KPMG was paid almost £1 million for three months’ work on the Nightingale hospital in Harrogate.

Last Friday it emerged that the bill for private consultants on Covid-related projects had reached £175 million, causing Meg Hillier, the chairwoman of the public accounts committee, to explode: “What on earth are they doing? It is a very steep increase in a very short space of time. You cannot just tear up the rules and dish out taxpayers’ money in this way.”

The smell worsens around the test and trace system, run by the McKinsey alumna Dido Harding. Her old company pocketed £560,000 for deciding on the “vision, purpose and narrative” of the programme, a gold-plated slideshow it would be intriguing to see given the shambolic “narrative” surrounding the scheme. More than 1,100 consultants from Deloitte are now working on test and trace, while last week we learnt that executives at Boston Consulting Group are being paid as much as £6,250 a day for their input. Beyond the consultants, companies such as Serco, Sitel, G4S and Mitie provide the call handlers, organise testing sites, dispatch tests and so on, pushing the total cost of the system up to £12 billion.

I can hear the exasperated ministers’ cry: “Don’t you know there’s a bloody war on?” Don’t you realise that speed was of the essence, that when infections were surging the government didn’t have the luxury of conducting long tender processes? Or that when doctors are resorting to wearing bin liners it’s all hands on to the pump to provide PPE? Or that national diagnostic systems are not constructed without extra manpower? Having worked in government I have some sympathy but what does seem extraordinary is the reluctance to require much in the way of performance in exchange for these vast sums of money.

It would be hard to quibble with the sums spent on test and trace if the whole thing had been running as though on oiled castors, but it hasn’t. In the week ending October 7 only 62.6 per cent of close contacts of people who tested positive were reached through the system — the lowest percentage yet. A clear failure, yet where are the reparations, the resignations, the contracts terminated? In the web of contractors and sub-contractors the thread of accountability is lost. Last month David Davis, the Tory MP and former cabinet minister, asked the Department of Health and Social Care “what performance targets are in place for commercial providers of track-and-trace functions” and “what penalties can be imposed for failure to meet those targets”. Last week the health minister Helen Whately replied that such penalties were not included in contracts with Serco or Sitel because they “are often unenforceable under English law”. Come again? What is the point of a contract if between the lines it reads “please take a lot of money with no penalty if you don’t deliver”?

The government must start to correct its mistakes now, before the inevitable public outrage. It shouldn’t be difficult to provide the reasoning behind its choices of PPE suppliers or to give an update on how these firms have performed. Surrendering basic information on these deals only at the prodding of crowdfunded campaigners like the Good Law Project is not a good look. Where companies have failed to deliver, the government should be publicly, vociferously pursuing them on behalf of the taxpayer and including performance targets and penalties in future contracts.

Beyond this housekeeping is a greater challenge: addressing the government’s over-reliance on the private sector to think for it, strategise for it and deliver core functions for it. Of course the virus was going to demand more hands to the pump, and importing experts is not in itself a bad thing; most of us do not wish to go back to pure state monopolies with their inefficiency and grinding slowness. But the extent of the Covid gravy train reveals more clearly than ever how dramatically the capability of the state has been eroded.

It’s a vicious circle: cut back on public-sector expertise and you rely more on expensive outsiders; rely more on outsiders and the public sector can “safely” be shrunk further. As the Cabinet Office minister Lord Agnew wrote last month in a leaked letter to senior civil servants, an “unacceptable” reliance on management consultants has “infantilised” Whitehall and deprived “our brightest [public servants] of opportunities to work on some of the most challenging, fulfilling and crunchy issues”. And although there is a place for the Sercos and G4Ss to help with the delivery of public services, surely outsourcing should not be the default for a well-resourced, modern state?

There’s nothing wrong with good private companies filling gaps where necessary, but long term we should be aiming for a public sector that has in-house expertise and does not require armies of management consultants to keep the cogs turning. If, as Boris Johnson is fond of saying, we are to “build back better” after all this, ambition must not be limited to new railways, houses and energy projects but to a rebuilding of the run-down parts of government too.

On Simon Jupp: “they [the Tories] would have been better off with Iggy Pop in my opinion”

Guess who gave us these piercing quotes about leading local Tories?

[Full quote] Of the selection of Simon Jupp: “If they wanted someone charismatic, which is what I think they tried to do, they would have been better off with Iggy Pop in my opinion. People would be able to relate to him more than a DJ from Plymouth.“

The same source also thought Geoffrey Cox, MP for West Devon and Torridge, “needs to be questioned now and again, I think he’s a bit too full of himself for my liking.”

No, not  Sasha Swire this time but our “born again Conservative” Ben Ingham just a year ago in November 2019 when he was contemplating running for parliament. 

Imagine Owl’s astonishment to hear that the Conservatives are considering him as a potential candidate to run as a County Councillor next May!

Owl is not at all surprised that Ben has ambition to be a County Councillor. No doubt sees himself as a future leader. But are the Tories really that desperate?

Owl understands that he had a recent shot at the Exmouth and Budleigh Coastal Division but lost out to that old stalwart, sitting tenant and strong advocate for Jupp, Christine Channon.

Watching them vote is excruciating” 

Sasha Swire describes the voting procedure at the “Fuhrerbunker” of a local Conseravtive AGM (West Hill) in this manner:  “Watching them vote is excruciating – some unable to lift hands, others shaking one using one arm to raise the other – a portrait of our current membership”. More specifically on Budleigh: “No more than 20 in the hall. Jeremy asks for apologies, Jill Elson says my sister as she is stuck in Tesco’s.”

This time the meeting would have had to be held online and Owl imagines the logging on process for members might have been a bit taxing and taken a long time, as would the voting process. Owl even wonders whether there was any time left for the candidates to present their “credentials” before bedtime. (Alas, there are no voting figures available).

Owl suggests Ben has a pop nearer to his home patch where he might achieve better name recognition – how about the Exmouth Division (which includes Lympstone and Woodbury)? He might unseat the current DCC Vice Chair, Councillor Jeffrey Trail!

Or maybe it’s time to change political colour again.

Laurence Fox has just launched a new political party to “reclaim” British values from politicians, who he says have “lost touch with the people”.

Latest news, Flybe could be back next year after deal struck to restart airline

Flybe could be flying again next year, after administrators announced a deal had been struck with investors to restart the regional airline.

Gwyn Topham

The Exeter-based Flybe went bust in early March, with the impact of the coronavirus crisis on passenger demand proving the last straw for the struggling airline.

The administrators EY said Flybe’s brand and remaining assets had been sold to Thyme Opco, a company affiliated to Cyrus Capital, which had pumped money into the Virgin Atlantic-led rescue attempt in 2019.

The deal could mean Flybe restarting as a regional airline in the UK in early 2021. Administrators said they would work with the new owners and the UK Civil Aviation Authority to prepare for its return to the skies.

Simon Edel, a joint administrator, said it would be great news for communities around the UK who had relied on Flybe: “The restart of this iconic brand, which was once Europe’s largest regional airline, will provide a potentially significant boost to aviation jobs, regional connectivity and local economies.”

A Thyme Opco spokesperson added: “While we plan to start off smaller than before, we expect to create valuable airline industry jobs, restore essential regional connectivity in the UK and contribute to the recovery of a vital part of the country’s economy.”

The idea of relaunching an airline may raise eyebrows in a sector that has seen a huge downturn in traffic, with most carriers laying off about a third of staff and reporting enormous losses during the pandemic.

Flybe, which flew about 8 million passengers a year between 81 airports in the UK and Europe, had long struggled financially. It was promised fresh investment when a consortium of Virgin, Stobart Air and Cyrus Capital took over the airline in 2019. Virgin Atlantic had planned to rebrand the airline and integrate it as a feeder for its long-haul routes from Manchester and London.

However, by January the airline’s troubles were such that the new owners sought a government bailout, before the impact of Covid-19 took Flybe into administration in March.

The pitched battle over lockdowns is missing the point: Covid-19 is a class issue

Just as our final exit from the EU comes into view, noise from the media and politics about Covid-19 is sounding discomfortingly similar to the furies that erupted around the 2016 referendum.

John Harris 

On one side stands the political right, opposed to lockdown, apparently spurning the advice of experts, and seemingly convinced that a mixture of true-Brit common sense and derring-do will somehow see us through. The left, meanwhile, emphasises the importance of “the science”, and the prospect of disaster. As in the US, it is beginning to feel like any contentious political question will now trigger these polarised responses – not necessarily in the population at large, but certainly among the people whose opinions define what passes for the national conversation.

News coverage of the second wave has so far tended to focus on which places should go in which official tiers, the distinction between pubs and restaurants, and the decision to send students back to universities. What has not been discussed nearly as much is the plain fact that the coronavirus crisis – even more so in its second phase – is all about basic inequalities, and the kind of questions of work, housing and poverty that deep crises always bring to the surface. In other words, Covid-19 is a class issue. That may sound simplistic, but what it actually denotes is an intricate set of considerations that the argument over lockdown is not acknowledging.

Since the start of the crisis, I have been regularly talking to many of the leaders in the north of England whose anger at condescending treatment from Boris Johnson and his colleagues continues to make the headlines. As many of them see it, one reason for the recent increases in infection is that the initial lockdown affected many of their areas differently than more affluent places. Rather than retreating inside to bake their own bread and have work meetings on Zoom, people in such trades as construction, warehousing and care work had to carry on venturing outside and mixing with others in the first wave, so levels of the virus remained comparatively high, even before the summer reopening then took them back to dangerous levels. Clearly, the ability to render yourself housebound is also dependent on whether your domestic environment makes remaining at home either viable or all but impossible. The basic point was recently nailed by the Financial Times writer Anjana Ahuja: “This crisis has broadly separated us into the exposed poor and the shielded rich.”

Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester mayor, recently told me about one correlation that highlights this disparity. He said that in a swathe of the country that takes in Greater Manchester, east Lancashire and West Yorkshire, Covid hotspots map on to areas that were the focus of the last Labour government’s so-called Pathfinder scheme: the programme that aimed to replace old housing by bringing in private developers, and left a legacy of unfinished work and huge resentment. “The quality of housing in those areas is still extremely poor,” said Burnham. “Lots of families live intergenerationally. It’s very overcrowded. How would you self-isolate in a situation like that?”

This is a good riposte to the oft-heard suggestion that most people who fail to follow the rules are degenerate “Covidiots”, and further proof that in a society as insecure as ours, trying to stringently control anything – let alone a highly infectious disease – will tend to be very difficult indeed. According to research done at King’s College London, only 18% of people self-isolate after developing symptoms, and only 11% quarantine after being told by the government’s test and trace system that they have been in contact with a confirmed case. Among the factors the study associates with non-compliance are “lower socio-economic grade”, and “greater hardship during the pandemic”. A lot of people, it seems, would like to do what they are told, but simply can’t.

This is the basic point the government does not seem to have grasped – painfully highlighted by Johnson’s claim that infections increased because the public became “complacent”. Threatening people with fines of up to £10,000 if they fail to self-isolate – and, we now learn, passing their details to the police – is an example of the same cast of mind, less likely to persuade people in precarious circumstances to follow the rules than to keep their distance from the authorities. The fact that some people on very low incomes are finally eligible for a lump sum of £500 to cover a fortnight’s quarantine will not solve what is obviously a massive problem; in terms of basic practicalities, it is of a piece with Rishi Sunak’s plan to pay only two-thirds of lost wages to people affected by local restrictions.

But before anyone on the left starts feeling too self-righteous, they also have questions to answer. There is a cold, dogmatic attitude in certain quarters that seems to define itself against anything that smells of Tory laissez-faire. Earlier in the year, it was manifested in rigid opposition to schools reopening, as some people averted their eyes from the inequalities the suspension of education was making worse. Now, some of the same voices stridently argue for strict national measures, as if that proposition is straightforward. It is actually not just complex, but full of potential contradictions. A prime example: given that poverty and precarity are what make millions of people vulnerable to both Covid infection and the life-threatening complications that can come with it, the hardship that any lockdown creates will make those problems even worse. This, surely, is the circuit that desperately needs to be broken, but after so many wasted years it will take a long time to do it.

In the meantime, a daily ritual of political futility goes on. Some people on the right yearn for a return to shrunken government, rugged individualism and the primacy of “the economy”, whatever that is. On the opposing side, people would like us to diligently follow the edicts of a reborn state, but social conditions are too far gone to allow many people to do anything of the kind. To those at the sharp end of this crisis, neither position will sound particularly convincing.

So it is that increasing numbers of people ignore the current political drama, and muddle through as best they can. Parallels with the vote to leave the EU are not only about the divisive arguments that have gripped the political class, but the fact that many of the same places whose experience fed into their vote for Brexit – Hartlepool, Preston, Oldham, Middlesbrough – are also suffering the worst of the pandemic. The inequality they embody remains the essence of the 21st-century British condition: four years on from 2016, this is still a country so imbalanced that it keeps falling over.

• John Harris is a Guardian columnist