Automatic green light for building new homes, hospitals and schools in biggest shake-up since WW2

Political Editor, Sunday Telegraph, on “Three Homes” Robert Jenrick’s shake-up of the planning system posted previously.

By Edward Malnick, Sunday Political Editor 

New homes, hospitals, schools, shops and offices will be given an automatic “permission in principle” in swathes of the country, under Boris Johnson’s plan for the biggest overhaul of the planning system since the Second World War.

The Prime Minister is preparing to slash red tape to produce “simpler, faster” processes as part of a “once in a generation” reform of the system.

It will see the entire country split up into three types of land: areas designated for “growth”, and those earmarked for “renewal” or “protection”.

Writing in the Telegraph [see previous post], Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, describes the country’s planning system as “complex and slow”. He reveals that under the new system, “land designated for growth will empower development – new homes, hospitals, schools, shops and offices will be allowed automatically. People can get going.”

The shake-up will form the centrepiece of Mr Johnson’s plans to significantly increase the rate of construction in the UK and to “build build build” in order to help build homes and revive the economy following the national lockdown.

Mr Jenrick claims the reforms will create thousands of new jobs in construction and building design.

As part of the reforms, Mr Jenrick is planning a “digital transformation” that would allow residents to view proposals for their area on interactive online maps, rather than viewing “notices on lampposts”.

Writing in the Telegraph ahead of a consultation to be launched this week, Mr Jenrick states that the existing system through which developers and homeowners seek permission to build “has been a barrier to building homes which are affordable, where families want to raise children and build their lives.”

Currently, it takes an average of five years for a standard housing development to pass through the planning system “before a spade is even in the ground.” The Government believes it can reduce the process by up to two years.

Mr Jenrick also warns that the system has caused delays to the construction of new hospitals, schools and road improvements, which are often needed alongside large housing developments.

Under the new system, councils will be asked to earmark land for “growth”, “renewal”, or “protection”, following a planning process to which residents will be asked to contribute.

A digital overhaul of the system will be designed to encourage locals to easily have a say in the creation of local design codes, which would set out the types of buildings that are acceptable in each area.

Developers would be given “permission in principle” for schemes in “growth” areas, with full consent provided once the council has confirmed that the design is in line with local development plans which stipulate the type of buildings that can be constructed on that land.

All proposals would also be checked against the design codes, which would be incorporated into the local plans.

Areas marked for “renewal” would largely encompass brownfield and urban sites. Ministers will consult on how a similar “permission in principle” could work in practice in these areas. One option is to require proposed buildings to be based on designs in official “pattern books”.

Protected areas will include Green Belt land and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Mr Jenrick states: “Our complex and slow planning system has been a barrier to building homes which are affordable, where families want to raise children and build their lives.”

He adds: “Under the current system, it takes an average of five years for a standard housing development to go through the planning system, before a spade is even in the ground.

“This is why the Prime Minister has been clear that we need an ambitious response that matches the scale of the challenge in front of us. A once in a generation reform that lays the foundations for a better future.”

Mr Jenrick insists that the Government is “cutting red tape, but not standards”, saying that the new model “places a higher regard on quality and design than ever before.”

He confirms plans to stipulate that every new street should be tree-lined unless there are exceptional reasons.

The system will incorporate a “model design code” based on recommendations from the Government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, stipulating minimum standards on the quality of design.

“Three Homes” Robert Jenrick describes “Radical and Necessary” planning reforms to get “Britain Building”

Straight from the horse’s mouth, the devil will be in the detail:

Radical and necessary reforms to our planning system will get Britain building

Robert Jenrick 1 August 2020 
During lockdown many readers will have spent more time at home than ever before; a home can be a haven, that provides financial security, roots in a community and a place that a family can call their own

But our country’s outdated and cumbersome planning system has contributed to a generational divide between those who own property and those who don’t. Half as many 16-34 year olds own their own homes, compared to those aged 35-64.

While house prices have soared since the Millennium, with England seeing an increase at one of the fastest rates in Europe, our complex and slow planning system has been a barrier to building homes which are affordable, where families want to raise children and build their lives.

It’s resulted in delays to vital infrastructure projects that come with new housing. Communities are missing out on new hospitals, new schools and improved roads and restrictions have left derelict buildings as eyesores and empty shops on our high streets, instead of helping them to adapt and evolve.

Local building plans were supposed to help councils and their residents deliver more homes in their area, yet they take on average seven years to agree in the form of lengthy and absurdly complex documents and accompanying policies understandable only to the lawyers who feast upon every word.

Under the current system, it takes an average of five years for a standard housing development to go through the planning system – before a spade is even in the ground.

Seven years to make a plan, five years to get permission to build the houses and slow delivery of vital infrastructure.

This is why the Prime Minister has been clear that we need an ambitious response that matches the scale of the challenge in front of us. A once in a generation reform that lays the foundations for a better future.

So this week I am bringing forward radical and necessary reforms to our planning system to get Britain building and drive our economic recovery.

We are introducing a simpler, faster, people-focused system to deliver the homes and places we need.

Under the new process, through democratic local agreement, land will be designated in one of three categories: for growth, for renewal or for protection.

Land designated for growth will empower development – new homes, hospitals, schools, shops and offices will be allowed automatically. People can get going.

Renewal areas will enable much quicker development with a ‘permission in principle’ approach to balance speed while ensuring appropriate checks are carried out.

And protected land will be just that – our Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and rich heritage – will be protected as the places, views and landscapes we cherish most and passed on to the next generation as set out in our manifesto.

Our reforms seek a more diverse and competitive housing industry, in which smaller builders can thrive alongside the big players and where planning permissions are turned into homes faster than they are today.

Creating a new planning system isn’t a task we undertake lightly, but it is both an overdue and a timely reform. Millions of jobs depend on the construction sector and in every economic recovery, it has played a crucial role. These reforms will create thousands of new jobs, from bricklayers to architects.

We are cutting red tape, but not standards. We will be driven by outcomes, not process.

It is easy to see why so many people are wary of development, when streets of identikit, “anywheresville” housing has become the norm. This Government doesn’t want to just build houses. We want a society that has re-established powerful links between identity and place, between our unmatchable architectural heritage and the future, between community and purpose. Our reformed system places a higher regard on quality and design than ever before, and draws inspiration from the idea of design codes and pattern books that built Bath, Belgravia and Bournville.

John Ruskin said that we must build and when we do let us think that we build forever. That will be guiding principle as we set out the future of the planning system.

New developments will be beautiful places, not just collections of buildings. Good design is the best antidote to local objections to building.

We will build environmentally friendly homes that will not need to be expensively retrofitted in the future, homes with green spaces and new parks at close hand, where tree lined streets are provided for in law, where neighbours are not strangers.

We are moving away from notices on lampposts to an interactive, and accessible map-based online system – placing planning at the fingertips of people. The planning process will be brought into the 21st century. Communities will be reconnected to a planning process that is supposed to serve them, with residents more engaged over what happens in their areas.

While the current system excludes residents who don’t have the time to contribute to the lengthy and archaic planning process, local democracy and accountability will now be enhanced by technology and transparency.

Above all, these reforms will help us build the homes our country desperately needs by unlocking land and new opportunities. In so doing we will provide secure housing for the vulnerable, bridge the generational divide and recreate an ownership society, one in which millions more people can open their front door and say with pride, “welcome to my home”.

Robert Jenrick is the Housing Secretary

The Guardian view on delaying elections: it’s what autocrats do 

Remember that closer to home Cllr. Stuart Hughes whilst Chairman of EDDC (and as such upholder of the constitution)  decidecd to cancel the May 2020 Annual Meeting. The subsequently elected leader of a new administration, when elections eventually took place, Paul Arnott described this decision in the following terms:

“He took the opportunity provided by a change in legislation by the government to prematurely cancel the annual council meeting, and this decision has predictably created five meetings at a time of crisis to do the same business.

“I have no doubt that he hoped for an outcome where he simply stayed in the chair for a second year, described by his leader last week as ‘the regular term’, wrong constitutionally and undesirable politically.

“He claims to have filled the chair as a ‘civic’ role, but this sweeping statement on his way out parrots Tory press release”.

Now read on.

Postponing elections is what autocracies do. On Friday, Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, announced a delay to September’s planned legislative council (LegCo) elections. Ms Lam cited the coronavirus public health emergency as her justification. Yet the real reason is Hong Kong’s political emergency. Hong Kong’s elections have been postponed because even with its very limited democracy, Ms Lam and the Chinese government are afraid the voters will choose a LegCo with greater sympathy for the protests.

In spite of their very different systems, Donald Trump’s reasons for proposing the postponement of November’s US presidential election are essentially the same. Mr Trump also cites the pandemic. But his real motives are also political. He thinks he is losing the campaign. He thinks Joe Biden will be elected in November. He wants to stop him if he can, by fair means or foul. And he wants to discredit his own defeat.

Yet, there are significant differences between the two cases, which need to be understood. These make Mr Trump’s move in some respects even more sinister. There is nothing in the US constitution that permits the president to postpone an election. The date is fixed by law. Such a change would require an act of both houses of Congress, so it is not going to happen. Even Republicans admit this. In any event, a postponement would not allow Mr Trump to continue in office beyond January 2021.

The US has held elections in difficult times before. In 1864, it conducted one at the height of the American civil war. In 1944, it conducted another while war raged in Europe and the Pacific. And in 1918, during one of the worst phases of the Spanish flu pandemic at the end of the first world war, it conducted a third. There is absolutely no reason why the US should treat the Covid-19 pandemic any differently. Democracy demands it.

As there will be no postponement, why then did Mr Trump take the extreme and extraordinary step this week of suggesting that there should be? The reasons go far beyond conventional partisan rivalries and his fear of defeat, real though that now is. And they are deeply sinister. America does not just have a deep tradition of democratic elections. It also has a deep tradition, dating from the foundation of the republic, of trying to stop black Americans from participating in themIn recent years this has taken the form of systematic purging of voter rolls, imposing tough identity checks to register and vote, restricting early and absentee voting, and disenfranchising current and former prisoners. All these and more are practised on an industrial scale by Republican state legislators.

Mr Trump is trying to mobilise these forces to fight dirty on his behalf. He is doing so on the basis of race at precisely the time when America has been galvanised by the Black Lives Matter campaign. He is also doing it to distract from his terrible failings. More than 150,000 Americans have died of Covid-19. The US economy has collapsed by 33% since April.

But Mr Trump is also challenging democracy itself. The election, he said this week, could be fraudulent, inaccurate and crooked. Mr Trump is knowingly stoking the fears of many of his supporters that only a mobilisation on the basis of race, potentially with very violent means, will prevent his defeat. He is preparing the ground for a defiance of the result, and preparing to deny legitimacy to his potential successor. It has the potential to be the most destructive act of this already uniquely dystopian presidency. Even at this late hour, it is a defining moment for the entire Republican party.

Planning Applications validated in EDDC for week beginning 20 July

MPs back Network Rail plans which could introduce a ‘Devon Metro’ train service

Owl thought there was already an hourly service to most of these station. More and extended loop lines – how often have we been promised these.

So what is Owl missing in this “MPs jumping on the station band wagon” story? Ah! could it be sold as all conditional on voting for GESP, reinforcing the tired old Tory “stick and carrot” scare stories?

Worth reading Council Leader Paul Arnott’s comments on the illusion and myths of such plans here as part of the GESP debate

No mention of “greening” the trains either.


The MPs for Tiverton and Honiton and East Devon have given their support to a proposal which would see the creation of a ‘Devon Metro’ train service.


The Devon Metro would be an hourly Axminster to Exeter St David’s service that calls at all stations and could be extended to Barnstaple.

It comes as part of Network Rail’s recommended improvements for the Exeter to Waterloo Line which currently receives regular complaints of overcrowding.

Network Rail’s plan, which is known a Continuous Modular Strategic Planning report (CMSP), would also see an extension of the Honiton Loop westward for up to 3km, a new loop in the Whimple and Cranbrook area, an additional platform at Cranbrook Station and an extension to the existing Tisbury Loop.

However, any plans would need approval from the Government, and groups such as Salisbury to Exeter Rail Users’ Group have encouraged MPs to put pressure on the Minister of Transport to ensure the process continues at a speedy pace.

Tiverton and Honiton MP Neil Parish said: “Network Rail’s plan for the Exeter to Waterloo route is hugely encouraging, identifying the key issues with the line and coming up with viable solutions.

“Faster travel times between East Devon and Waterloo are much needed, as is better connectivity around the greater Exeter area, using the Devon Metro to improve local services between Axminster, Honiton and Exeter.

“With growth in housing and employment in the region, there is a clear business case for more public transport investment. “I will be making that very case to the Transport Minister, who I know is working hard to reverse the Beeching cuts and invest in clean, green, public transport to connect our towns and spread opportunity.”

Simon Jupp, MP for East Devon, said: “We must continue to invest to improve our railway network in the South West to keep the region connected and competitive.

“I have written to the Secretary of State for Transport to support the new proposals which would improve connectivity and boost our economy in East Devon. I am already working with MPs in the region and Devon County Council to push for this investment.”

Political pay-offs in Lords appointments – need for constraint

Boris Johnson’s 36 new peerages make the need to constrain prime ministerial appointments to the House of Lords clearer than ever

Boris Johnson’s long-awaited list of new peerage appointments was published today [31 July 2020] , and includes 36 names. Instantly, by appointing such a large number of new members to the Lords, Johnson has undone years of progress in trying to manage the size of the chamber down – returning it to over 800 members. Here, Meg Russell, a leading academic expert on the Lords and adviser to two different parliamentary committees on the chamber’s size, analyses the numbers – showing the detrimental effects on both the chamber’s overall membership and its party balance. She argues that Johnson’s new peerages make it clearer than ever that constraints must be placed on the Prime Minister’s power to appoint to the Lords.

Professor Meg Russell 

News reports about Boris Johnson’s first major round of Lords appointments have focused largely on personalities – the appointment of cricketer Ian Botham, the return to the fold of Conservative grandees such as Ken Clarke and Philip Hammond, who Johnson stripped of the party whip last year, and his reward of former Labour Brexiteers. But while some of these names may be notable, the bigger and more important issue is how Johnson’s new appointments will affect the Lords as a parliamentary chamber, and how they show up – yet again, and powerfully – the problems with the largely unregulated appointment process.

It is remarkable that in 2020 there are still no enforceable constraints on how many peers a Prime Minister can appoint to the second chamber of the UK legislature. Formally appointments are made by the Queen, but convention requires her to act on prime ministerial advice. The Prime Minister can choose when to appoint, how many to appoint, and what the party balance is among new members. A House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC) was created in 2000, but has very limited power. It merely vets the Prime Minister’s proposed nominees for propriety (e.g. ensuring that their tax affairs are in order), and recommends an occasional handful of names for appointment as independent members. It can do nothing to police the numbers, or even the broader suitability of the PM’s own appointees. In theory, a Prime Minister could simply appoint hundreds of members of their own party (indeed, during the Brexit debates there were threats to do so both from the now Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg and from Johnson himself). Appointees could even all be personal friends of the Prime Minister. The sole constraint is HOLAC’s propriety check (which is rumoured to have angered Johnson by weeding out some of his nominees) and any fear of media or public backlash. This unregulated patronage is one of the last vestiges of pure prime ministerial ‘prerogative’ power. Following last year’s Supreme Court case, even the previously unregulated power to prorogue parliament now exists within some legal constraints.

Aside from general concerns about patronage, there are two main interconnected problems caused by unregulated appointments on the House of Lords. First, the ever growing size of the chamber. Second, the lack of any rational basis for its party balance. 

The size of the House of Lords has long been controversial. Significant political energy has recently gone into trying to contain, and to manage down, the chamber’s number of members – but Johnson’s appointments put that into reverse.

As the first graph shows, 20 years ago (shortly after the House of Lords Act 1999, which removed most hereditary peers) the chamber had just over 650 members – leaving it similar in size to the House of Commons. Subsequently, numbers crept up gradually under Prime Minister Tony Blair, who made 374 peerage appointments in just over 10 years (figures here, from the House of Lords Library). Since this outstripped the number of departures from the chamber (primarily resulting from deaths among older peers), its size gradually grew. The problem then accelerated significantly under Prime Minister Cameron, who appointed 245 new members in only six years. This quickly took the overall size of the Lords to well over 800 members. For contrast the second chambers in FranceItaly and Germany respectively – whose first chambers are similar in size to the House of Commons – comprise 348, 320 and 69 members respectively. Famously the Chinese People’s Congress – arguably more of an annual conference than a parliament – is the only chamber in the world larger than the House of Lords.

Size of the House of Lords 2000 – 2020

Lords graph 1

Notes: All figures are from House of Lords Library/House of Lords Information Office. All except the most recent are for January of the relevant year. ‘Total including in eligible peers’ includes members on leave of absence or otherwise temporarily disqualified (who in principle could return).

Various people and groups raised the alarm about these developments. The Constitution Unit published two reports on the chamber’s growing size – in 2011 and 2015 – and the matter was debated regularly in the Lords itself, and considered by the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. In 2016 that committee’s successor, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), announced an inquiry into the size of the Lords (for which I served as specialist adviser). Later that year the matter was debated in the Lords, and a motion was agreed that ‘this House believes that its size should be reduced, and methods should be explored by which this could be achieved’. That vote led to creation of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House, chaired by Lord Burns (for which again I was an adviser), which reported in November 2017. The Burns committee set out a detailed plan to reduce the Lords’ size to 600, via a combination of retirements and voluntary constraints on the Prime Minister’s appointment power. It demanded, in the first instance, adherence to a ‘two out one in’ principle, so that the number of new peers should be just half the number departing, until the target size was reached. PACAC endorsed this broad approach in November 2018, but wanted both quicker and firmer action. This included a suggestion (recommendation 5) that the Cabinet Manual should set out new limits on the Prime Minister’s patronage powers.

As the graph above shows, there was a gradual slow decline in the size of the Lords over this period, from a high point in 2016, due to a combination of retirements, deaths, and the limited new appointments by Prime Minister Theresa May. May’s response to the Burns report was to pledge restraint, and she created just 43 life peers during her premiership – an annual rate around half that of David Cameron. Sadly, as the graph shows, this carefully-negotiated progress under May will be totally wiped out by Johnson’s 36 new appointments. Despite an early plea to the new Prime Minister from the Burns Committee, urging him to ‘take the same constructive approach to our work as his predecessor did’, no such commitment followed. By January, the Lord Speaker, former Conservative Cabinet minister Norman Fowler, was driven by rumours of the number of impending appointments to call for a complete moratorium, lamenting that ‘My chief hope had been that the Prime Minister would follow the course of his predecessor… I fear that my hopes may soon be dashed’. Sadly all of his hard work, and that of the Burns committee, will be undone by Johnson’s large round of new appointments.

The second problem created by unregulated appointments is their relationship to the chamber’s party balance. A primary reason that prime ministers appoint to the Lords is to strengthen the position of their own party. A recurring problem over the history of the Lords is that incoming prime ministers often seek to rebalance against their predecessors’ appointments. But the Conservatives have been in government for 10 years, and became the largest party in the Lords in 2015 – as seen in the second graph. This also shows that Labour became the largest party in 2006 – a full nine years after coming to office – and stayed only fairly marginally ahead for the remainder of its term. In contrast the Conservatives were already well ahead of Labour before Johnson’s new appointments. These included 19 Conservatives and only 5 Labour. Over 10 years the number of Labour peers has declined from 211 to 179, while the number of Conservatives has grown from 189 to 261. A Labour lead of 22 when the party was last in office has now become a Conservative lead of 82. The Burns committee report, like various others mentioned above, strongly emphasised the need for balanced appointments according to a clear formula – in order to remove the long-running incentive for ‘tit for tat’ appointments. Johnson has very plainly flouted this principle, leaving Labour at a major disadvantage, and weakening parliamentary oversight powers as a result.

Balance of parties and groups in the House of Lords 2000 – 2020

Lords graph 2

Notes: All figures are from House of Lords Library/House of Lords Information Office. All except the most recent are for January of the relevant year.

So what is the solution? It cannot simply be higher numbers of retirements from the Lords. As Lord Fowler put it in January, ‘It is both unsustainable and unfair for peers to retire, only to find that they are immediately replaced by a Prime Minister who appoints more than the number who have departed’. As recognised by all the prior reports cited above, without constraints on the Prime Minister’s patronage there is no guaranteed means for the size of the chamber to be controlled.

We may now return to a battle of spin over who gets the blame for the chamber’s bloated size – the Prime Minister or the House of Lords itself. An oversized membership certainly damages the reputation of the Lords, and of parliament overall, as well as generating inefficiency, reduced effectiveness, and unnecessary public expense. None of this is good for the health of our democracy. But make no mistake, any such problem is wholly of the Prime Minister’s making – the Lords, particularly under the recent leadership of Lord Fowler, has made huge efforts to contain the situation.

Parliamentarians and parliamentary committees must now urgently return to this matter, not least as there is already talk of a further round of Johnson appointments to comewhich would worsen matters further still. Short term, some have suggested that frustration in the Lords could spark radical non-cooperation, through peers refusing to ‘introduce’ excessive new members. In April Conservative Lord Balfe suggested that introductions should be limited to the number set out in the Burns committee report. But this approach would be controversial and ultimately unsatisfactory.

Longer term, the Burns committee sought carefully to lay out a non-legislative solution, based on common understandings and restraint. Commitment to these principles should immediately be reiterated in the Lords, by key parliamentary committees, and by other party leaders. But sadly, in an environment where those at the heart of the government machine have become dismissive of  constitutional convention and constraint, the only sure way to control the size of the Lords is to legislate to remove the Prime Minister’s unfettered power.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the Constitution Unit we have launched a special fundraising initiative, encouraging supporters to make donations incorporating the figures 2 and 5. If you value our work, and would like to contribute to its future continuation, please consider making a one-off or regular donation. Contributions are essential to supporting our public-facing work. Find out more on our donations page

About the author

Professor Meg Russell is Director of the Constitution Unit, and a Senior Fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE) studying ‘Brexit, Parliament and the Constitution’. She is author of The Contemporary House of Lords: Westminster Bicameralism Revived (Oxford University Press, 2013), and has served as specialist adviser to both the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the Size of the House, and the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, both on inquiries into the size of the House of Lords.

Boris Johnson’s ‘squeeze the brakes’ news conference: what he said – and what he really meant

The Independent’s chief political commentator imagines what was going through the prime minister’s mind as he explained the tightening of coronavirus restrictions


What Boris Johnson said: Two weeks ago, I updated you from this podium on the progress we had made as a country against coronavirus. And in many ways that progress continues.

What he really meant: That progress does not continue.

What he said: But I have also consistently warned that this virus could come back and that we would not hesitate to take swift and decisive action as required.

What he meant: I have always delivered mixed messages.

What he said: I am afraid that in parts of Asia and Latin America the virus is now gathering pace. And our European friends are also struggling to keep the virus under control. As we see these rises around the world, we cannot fool ourselves that we are exempt.

What he meant: I have been world class in my ability to fool myself that we are exempt. Yesterday I claimed “massive success” on the day the Office for National Statistics found that England had the highest number of excess deaths in Europe.

What he said: Last night the health secretary announced new restrictions on household contact in the northwest.

What he meant: He didn’t do it very well and a lot of people are very cross with him, so you note I say “the health secretary” (that’s Matt Hancock) not “the government” (that’s me, buck stops here etcetera).

What he said: Even as we act locally, it is also my responsibility to look again at the measures we have in place nationally in light of the data we are seeing about incidence.

What he meant: Responsibility? Who wrote this bit?

What he said: You will remember that at every point I have said our plan to reopen society and the economy is conditional – that it relies on continued progress against the virus, and that we would not hesitate to put on the brakes if required.

What he meant: I definitely said it and it’s your fault if you think I said get back to work; get yourself a sandwich; here’s a tenner to paint the town red. I was very clear. I said: go to work, don’t go to work.

What he said: With those numbers creeping up, our assessment is that we should now squeeze that brake pedal in order to keep the virus under control.

What he meant: I am the Lewis Hamilton of public health policy. Where’s the reverse gear?

What he said: On Saturday 1 August, you’ll remember, we had hoped to reopen in England a number of higher-risk settings that had remained closed. Today, I am afraid we are postponing these changes for at least a fortnight.

What he meant: That’s tomorrow, by the way. Tomorrow’s off.

What he said: We will, of course, study the data carefully and move forward with our intention to open up as soon as we possibly can.

What he meant: Chris Whitty says we can’t and I have to do what he says or the public inquiry will tear me to shreds.

What he said: We also said we would pause shielding nationally from 1 August – based on clinical advice, that national pause will proceed as planned, and our medical experts will be explaining more about that decision later and about shielding later today.

What he meant: The messages get so mixed at this point that it is probably best if I just hand over to someone in a metaphorical white coat.

What he said: Most people in this country are following the rules and doing their bit to control the virus. But we must keep our discipline, we must be focused and we cannot be complacent.

What he meant: Some people have been tearing the pants out of the guidance.

What he said: It means a greater police presence to ensure face coverings are being worn where this is required by law.

What he meant: I don’t believe in this and the police don’t want to do it, but I have to say it because otherwise it will look as if I’m not taking it seriously.

What he said: This is how we will avoid any return to a full national lockdown.

What he meant: If you don’t do as you’re told, you will be letting everybody else down and worst of all you will be sent back into your houses and told to stay there.

What he said: I do believe that getting our children back into school on 1 September, or 11 August in Scotland, is a good thing. That should be a national priority; that should be something that we aim to deliver.

What he meant: But is it going to happen? Don’t ask me, I’m just the prime minister.

What he said: The only real utensil we have for controlling the spread of this new virus is human behaviour.

What he meant: And if I can’t sprinkle my answers with Bjork references, what even is the point of being prime minister?

What he said [when John Stevens of the Daily Mail asked about his summer plans]: I will be working flat out as you can imagine; I may allow a brief staycation to creep on to the agenda if that’s possible.

What he meant: Remember when David Cameron had to go on holiday to Cornwall, sulked about it and then jetted off somewhere sunnier? That.

What he said: Ultimately, you know, it’s up to everybody, it’s, it’s up to the whole country to get this right and to do it together.

What he meant: How do you put this thing into reverse?

‘There was just no choice’: The 36 hours that forced Boris Johnson to put the brakes on

“Downing Street insisted on Friday night that the Prime Minister and his team had acted on the data, seemingly showing a 63 per cent rise in infections in just two weeks, with a decisiveness critical to keeping on top of Covid-19.”


By Robert Mendick, Chief Reporter 

When it landed on Boris Johnson’s desk on Wednesday evening, the data made for grim reading.

According to the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) report, coronavirus, suppressed for months under a strict lockdown, was on its way back.

“The ONS surveillance data was the clincher,” said a senior Cabinet source by way of explanation for the dramatic – opponents claimed chaotic – turn of events that followed.

Downing Street insisted on Friday night that the Prime Minister and his team had acted on the data, seemingly showing a 63 per cent rise in infections in just two weeks, with a decisiveness critical to keeping on top of Covid-19.

Within 36 hours of receiving the ONS data, swathes of the north of England had been thrown into a new, partial lockdown and Mr Johnson was forced, as he put it in a televised address on Friday, to “squeeze the brake pedal” across the rest of the nation.

But even MPs within the Conservative Party’s own ranks, as well as much of the rest of the country, were left wondering what had just happened.

The writing had been on the wall earlier in the week with warnings from the Prime Minister that continental Europe was seeing “signs of a second wave”.

Anybody aware that Britain is two weeks behind countries such as Spain and France could have done the maths.

But at 9.16pm on Thursday, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, tweeted the first in a series of Whitehall bombshells, culminating, 15 hours later, in Mr Johnson’s “brakes on” press conference.

“We’re constantly looking at the latest data on the spread of coronavirus, and unfortunately we’ve seen an increasing rate of transmission in parts of Northern England,” Mr Hancock posted in advance of an order that would come into effect only two hours and 44 minutes later.

From midnight, households in Greater Manchester, Bradford, Blackburn with Darwen and six other local authority areas were banned from mixing indoors, or even in the garden.

About four million people were affected, with all this coming on the eve of the biggest Muslim festival of the year, Eid al-Adha – equivalent to cancelling Christmas just as children were putting out their stockings and taking themselves off to bed on Christmas Eve.

Public health officials had examined the data at their own meeting inside the Department of Health on Wednesday – called “silver command” – and it was escalated the next day at a “gold command” meeting, chaired by Mr Hancock and attended by Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical adviser, and Baroness Harding, in charge of the coronavirus test and trace system.

‘The urgency of it was clear’

Immediately after “gold command” ended (at about 6pm on Thursday, according to sources), Mr Johnson convened his own Covid Operations committee – known as “Covid O” – to consider the options.

The Prime Minister chaired the meeting in the Cabinet room, with his Health Secretary alongside him, joined by Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, and Prof Whitty. Other members of “Covid O” joined by Zoom, including Cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Rishi Sunak and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser.

The group was in agreement. A partial northern lockdown (see graphic below) was needed urgently – Eid was to begin the next day and was likely to see thousands of households mingling in joyous celebration – and a further easing of restrictions on August 1 countermanded. England would be going backwards.

On Friday, Mr Hancock was clear that the restrictions on the north had nothing to do with Eid.

In an interview with the Today programme on Friday, he replied when asked if the festival was a factor: “No – my heart goes out to the Muslim communities in these areas because I know how important the Eid celebrations are.”

However, two separate sources have said Eid was discussed at “gold command” on Thursday, but it was agreed that no ministers would mention it in public, fearful of stirring a far-right Islamophobic backlash as well as causing distress in the Muslim community.

A Government source said: “Ministers are very, very alive to the sensitivities of this, given the significance of Eid to the Muslim community. There was just no choice – the urgency of it was clear.”

The source said there was an urgent need to keep households apart, adding: “The point about the data is that what it is showing is household transmission – it’s not about the level it is at now but about where this could lead.”

Mr Hancock raised concern privately that over-emphasising the importance of Eid as a factor could inflame racial tensions.

Another senior Government source said: “There was a massive amount of work being done round Eid, so we were already alive to that. But we were also aware of the downside of doing it the night before Eid, because of the impact that it has.”

Infection rates (see graphic below), the source said, were also high among people of Indian, Polish and Eastern European backgrounds.

“The data from test and trace was clear – the spikes were showing a lack of social distancing within households, and between nearby households,” said a source.

Ministers had already been informed that locking down areas at Eid could stoke tensions. Sage papers released on Friday show that a report from SPI-B Policing and Security sub-Group had warned that local lockdowns would be “potentially problematic” during the festival.

Tory MPs ‘were furious’

Time was running out. At just after 6pm on Thursday, northern MPs were sent an email, posted out by Viriginia Crosbie, an MP and aide to the health minister Helen Whately, advising them there would be a conference call with the minister and with Baroness Harding at 6.30pm.

Some MPs, not knowing who Virginia Crosbie was, either ignored it or hadn’t spotted it as they prepared for a sunny weekend ahead.

Mr Hancock texted at 6.29pm, a minute before the Zoom conference, urging them to tune in. At 6.30pm, the minister talked the MPs through the northern lockdown. Many of them, including a number of Tories holding marginal former “Red Wall” Labour seats, went apoplectic.

“They were furious. They were calling it an outrage. One of them was all over the place, screaming his head off,” said a Labour MP who witnessed the row unfold. “These are Tories who think Boris Johnson can do no wrong, and you could see the scales falling from their eyes.

“Once they got past their anger, they began asking fairly simple questions – and the minister’s answers were completely confused. I got the impression the decision had only just been made.”

Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 committee and the MP for Altrincham and Sale West, said: “These new restrictions have been introduced over a large area, even though there are massive variations in infection rates. It is unfortunate that these restrictions were introduced so quickly and without consultation.”

Another senior Tory, with an affected northern seat, said: “I just think there remains a default position of extreme caution which jars with the reality that we may have to live with Covid for a very long time and we have to get on with life.”

Local officials and police caught cold

Local authority leaders discovered the new measures at about 7pm. Alyson Barnes, the Labour leader of Rossendale Borough Council, said it was hard to take being dragged into a lockdown when the area had recorded just four positive test results in a week.

The largely rural council is wedged between hotspots in Greater Manchester and Blackburn, but she believes the timing was significant. “I think Eid was the propellant,” she said. “I cannot think it is anything else than Eid. They [ministers] are telling us all to stay at home, but they wouldn’t have done it at Christmas.”

Analysis by The Telegraph shows that more than 2.7 million people in northern England woke up to fresh lockdown restrictions despite living in neighbourhoods which have had fewer than four confirmed cases in the last 14 days.

In Rossendale, the overall infection rate is just 4.2 new cases per 100,000 people over the most recent week of data.

Police were also caught cold by Mr Hancock’s announcement. Just two hours before they were due to go on shift, police officers in West Yorkshire were finding out from social media that they would have to apply strict, if not entirely clear, new restrictions.

Brian Booth, the chairman of the West Yorkshire Police Federation, said: “This came totally out of the blue, and we were left with just two hours to work out how how we were going to apply the new rules.

“We are talking about areas and communities where there are already tensions around policing, and our officers do not want to get things wrong and end up making things worse.”

At the “Covid O” meeting in the Cabinet Office that followed “gold command”, the Prime Minister decided to impose the northern lockdown that night but save the decision to scrap plans to relax measures further until the press conference the next day.

Officials then “worked through the night and Friday morning” to prepare the nationwide measures, which included ditching an easing on wedding rules to allow up to 30 guests.

The Cabinet was then told of the measures by the Prime Minister in a Zoom call on Friday morning, followed by a briefing with the devolved administrations and another with opposition leaders. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, announced, in response, a ban on Scottish residents visiting England’s north.

There was still confusion, though. One senior MP was called by Mr Hancock and seemingly assured that weddings with 30 guests were still on the table, only for Mr Johnson to cull that three hours later.

At the televised Downing Street press conference, while the Prime Minister was telling the nation it was time to put on the brakes, Prof Whitty, standing alongside him, was seemingly hitting reverse.

“We have probably reached or neared the limits of what we can do in terms of opening up society,” he said, adding that it was now wrong to  think “we can open up everything  and keep the virus under control”.

On some readings of the data though, the correct course of action is, less clear.

The ONS estimated that 35,700 people in England were infected with Covid-19 between July 20 and July 26, or one in 1,500 people. The week before, statisticians had calculated around 27,700 were infected, or about one in 2,000.

However, the ONS data has been jumping around wildly since surveillance testing began, ironically because cases in the community are so low. On June 25, cases were worse than they are now – at one in 1,100 – and a fortnight later had swung to one in 3,900.

The new calculation is based on just 59 people testing positive out of 116,026 swab tests (0.05 per cent). The previous week, just 45 people tested positive out of 114,674 (0.39 per cent). It means the tipping point for a northern lockdown may have rested on just 14 extra positive tests.

The ONS also admitted it was unable to spot any concrete regional differences. In fact, its data showed the north-west as having one of the lowest incidences of Covid-19, while suggesting cases were rising in the East Midlands and London.

Dr Daniel Lawson, a lecturer in statistical science in the School of Mathematics at the University of Bristol, said politicians were being forced to grapple with huge uncertainty and were fearful of acting too late.

“The ONS survey data provides some evidence of an increase. But there is a difficulty in measurement,” said Dr Lawson. But he had every sympathy for ministers, warning: “Acting too late can make lockdowns longer and increase mortality.”

Boris Johnson is taking no chances.

New daily COVID cases remain stable in the UK 

COVID in the population remains stable across the UK

According to the latest COVID Symptom Study app figures, there are currently 2,110 daily new cases of COVID in the UK on average over the two weeks up to 25 July 2020 (excluding care homes) [*]. The latest figures were based on the data from 13,063 swab tests done between 12 July to 25 July. A full regional breakdown can be found here.

The latest figures suggest that the number of daily new cases in the UK population is currently stable, as the number has remained around the 2,000 mark for the past few weeks. The data also highlights that the surge in numbers that was seen in the North of England has now stopped.

The latest prevalence figures estimate that 29,174 people currently have symptomatic COVID in the UK. The prevalence data over the last few weeks also suggests that the amount of symptomatic COVID in the UK population has remained stable. The numbers are still higher in the North of England but the numbers have not increased since last week.

The COVID Symptom Study app’s prevalence estimate is still within the confidence bounds of the most recent and smaller ONS Infection survey two weeks ago with an estimated 27,700 people (95% credible interval: 18,500 to 39,900) in England during the one week period from the 13-19 July 2020.

This week, the COVID Symptom Study’s Watch List identifies an updated top 10 Upper Tier Local Authority (UTLA) regions to watch. These are the regions that have the highest estimates of symptomatic COVID in the past week. A number of regions remain in the top 10 again this week, including Blackburn with Darwen, Kirklees, Rotherham and Blackpool. The Welsh regions like Wrexham and Neath Port Talbot have dropped out of the top 10 and have been replaced with more northern regions including, Wigan and Wakefield.

Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London, comments: 

“The numbers are holding steady for now. From last week, we have seen the Welsh regions doing much better and dropping out of the top ten. But now we are seeing the Watch List entirely made up of regions in the North of England. However, it’s not all doom and gloom for the North of England as we have seen the surge in numbers stop, so the data suggest that things are improving.

Interestingly, when we take a look back over the long term plotting of the number of daily new cases we haven’t seen a real decrease since early June. It’s unclear what led to the leveling off but we will continue to keep a close eye on the data to make sure we do detect any potential up tick in numbers in the coming weeks.”