Local lockdowns are dispiriting – but there are reasons to be hopeful about the battle against Coronavirus

1 Aug

On Thursday evening, Matt Hancock posted a series of Tweets that sent the UK into disarray. He wrote that the Government had “seen an increasing rate of transmission in parts of Northern England” and would subsequently not allow people from different households to meet indoors in Greater Manchester, Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Hyndburn, Pendle and Rossendale, starting from midnight.

Events moved quickly the next day, in which Boris Johnson elaborated on the decision that had been made. At a 10 Downing Street press briefing, he announced that lockdown easing would be postponed in England and that the country would have to “squeeze the brake pedal”, as “the prevalence of the virus in the community, in England, is likely to be rising for the first time since May”.

Even more depressingly, Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, said that “we have probably reached or neared the limits of what we can do in terms of opening up society”.

Alongside the news that England has the highest excess mortality rate in Europe, the spikes being seen across Europe, and the repeated warnings of a second wave, no doubt this has been one of the most disheartening weeks in the Covid-19 crisis so far for many Brits – particularly those living in the affected areas.

Indeed, in these times, it can be hard to feel optimistic about the battle against Coronavirus. But there is a strange paradox to the detection of cases in the North – abrupt though Hancock’s announcement was – and the Government’s swift action.

Far from being a sign of decline, it emphasises the enormous improvements that have been made in the UK’s testing regime. Hence why it is now easy to spot cases.

At the beginning of the crisis, many will remember that the Government was routinely attacked for lack of tests. When the Health Secretary promised to accelerate the testing regime by tens – and then hundreds of thousands – the target seemed preposterous. But big strides were made; 11,722,733 tests have been processed so far, with 206,656 processed today, and testing capacity at 338,585. 

To put this in context, by way of new tests per thousand people, the UK rate is 2.27 (as of July 30. Source: Our World in Data), Belgium is 1.30 (as of July 29), Denmark is 0.79 (July 30), France is 1.38 (July 28), New Zealand is 0.51 (July 30) and Norway is 0.89 (July 27). 

Now that our testing regime is better, there’s no doubt that the UK will have more localised lockdowns. But as the testing, and data, becomes more sophisticated, so will the way that the Government is able to apply its intelligence.

Another reason to feel hopeful is the progress made in developing a Covid-19 vaccine. Last month, a team of scientists at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute and Oxford Vaccine Group trialled one that induced a strong immune response in patients. They have since worked with the UK-based global biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, with the help of a £84 million Government funding scheme, to accelerate its development. The organisation has reported “good data so far” in its large-scale clinical studies.

And that’s not all: the Government has signed up for 60 million doses of a potential Coronavirus vaccine, which is being developed by Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline.

Of course, no one can argue that the Government has been perfect in this crisis – clearly the decision to discharge hospital patients into care homes was wrong, and people will be troubled by the excess mortality rate (although there is some debate as to whether this accurately gives a snapshot of countries’ performances). 

But it can be easy to forget that hospital cases continue to decline (even if cases are going up, it doesn’t mean hospitalisation), as have the number of deaths involving Coronavirus across all English regions. At the same time, treatments and understanding of the virus continues to rise.

And let’s not forget the significant achievements throughout this crisis; the speedy roll out of the Nightingale Hospital; the shielding scheme to protect two million people; the Government’s ability to increase the number of mechanical ventilators in the NHS from 9,000 before the pandemic to 30,000; the emergency arts package, and of course Rish Sunak’s multiple schemes to keep the economy moving.

They were phenomenal logistical achievements that should give us faith about Britain’s ability to deal with what’s next.

The speed at which the nation has improved on testing is only going to bolster its decision-making further – and, indeed, these developments will be seen worldwide as all countries improve in this regard.

In short, it may not feel like it this week, but there are reasons to be hopeful about the future.

The Prime Minister being ‘frustrated, angry and upset’ is no basis for Lords reform

1 Aug

Although eclipsed by the decision to delay the latest round of lockdown easing, last Friday’s Daily Telegraph carried a troubling story about the Prime Minister and the House of Lords.

No, not his proposals to move them to York – although these remain the height of folly – but the claim that he is considering an overhaul of how new peers are appointed after getting several of his nominations knocked back at the last minute.

From the start, this Government has expressed a keen interest in constitutional issues, although following the shelving of their mooted Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission it isn’t clear what shape that interest will take. But this story highlights the dangers of an uncoordinated, unsystematic approach. This is how the Telegraph describes it:

“Boris Johnson is understood to be furious after he was blocked from giving peerages to some of the Conservative Party’s financial backers, and is threatening to reform the House of Lords in retaliation.

“The Prime Minister is said to be “very frustrated, angry and upset” after a Lords watchdog refused to sign off peerages for some of his business supporters this summer.”

Surely Downing Street can see the danger here. There may well be grounds for reforming the way we appoint peers, or other aspects of the Upper House. There may also be a case for bolstering the ranks of the Conservative benches, although this is less pressing with a large Commons majority and in any event only hastens the day when someone will have to confront the unsustainable pattern of parties having to bid up the number of peers after every change of government.

But such changes will never attain widespread legitimacy if it looks as if they have been imposed purely to aid Boris Johnson in appointing Tory donors to the red benches (although these are still better than some of his successful choices).

If the Government really is going to mount a serious push on the constitutional front – and it is past time that it did – then ministers must take pains to ensure that their proposals cannot be fairly painted as straightforward partisan game-playing. When listing the reasons for altering the arrangements in Parliament, the courts, or elsewhere, ‘the Prime Minister is upset’ should not even feature.

Lords 2) Hammond, Stuart, Davidson, Hoey. Johnson, Fox… but no Bercow. The new peerages.

1 Aug

Dissolution Peerages

Conservative:

  • Sir Henry Bellingham
  • Kenneth Clarke
  • Ruth Davidson
  • Philip Hammond
  • Nick Herbert
  • Jo Johnson
  • Mark Lancaster
  • Sir Patrick McLoughlin
  • Aamer Sarfraz
  • Ed Vaizey

Labour:

  • Kathryn Clark
  • Brinley Davies

Democratic Unionist:

  • Nigel Dodds

Non-affiliated:

  • Frank Field
  • Kate Hoey
  • Ian Austen
  • Gisela Stuart
  • John Woodcock

Political Peerages

Conservative:

  • Lorraine Fullbrook
  • Ed Udny-Lister
  • Daniel Moylan
  • Andrew Sharpe
  • Michael Spencer
  • Veronica Wadley
  • James Wharton
  • Dame Helena Morrissey
  • Neil Mendoza

Labour:

  • Susan Hayman
  • Prem Sikka
  • Anthony Woodley

Non-affiliated:

  • Claire Fox
  • Charles Moore

David Gauke: Without a proper state aid regime, the UK is unlikely to make a deal with Brussels

1 Aug

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

Within the next three months, Boris Johnson is going to have to make the decision that will define his premiership and determine the future of British politics – especially the Conservative Party – for a generation. And the subject matter of this momentous decision? The previously obscure issue of the regulatory regime constraining the ability of the Government to provide taxpayer support for private sector companies. In other words, state aid.

Before turning to the issue in hand, let me set out a little context. My last two columns (here and here) have made the case that there is an electoral logic that points towards the Conservative Party moving in a leftwards direction economically but in a rightwards direction when it comes to social issues or, to put it more precisely, issues of national identity. Politics appears to be realigning as the biggest dividing line ceases to be about economic class or ideology but in relation to cultural issues.

The consequences of such a dividing line – and the Conservative Party unambiguously placing itself on one side or the other – is an uncomfortable one for those Conservatives with a desire for intellectual consistency.

At least since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the Conservative orthodoxy has been in favour of sound money and free trade. That is not to say that the State had been banished from making any kind of intervention in the economy – no recent government could accurately be described as laissez faire – but that any such intervention would be made carefully, recognising that the market was, by and large, a rather good way of allocating resources.

As for cultural issues, the Conservative Party has been a broad church consisting of social conservatives and social liberals, tub-thumping patriots and committed internationalists. Generally, we rubbed along alright.

These Conservative traditions were abandoned in 2019, resulting in the Prime Minister’s electoral triumph in December when he won previously safe Labour seats. He did so by promising an economic policy that involved more spending and greater government intervention. He also promised to deliver Brexit at whatever cost. It was an uncompromisingly Leave prospectus that appealed to patriotic/English nationalist working class voters.

This brings us to the UK/EU negotiations over a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. Contrary to promises of an oven-ready deal, discussions have not yet made a lot of progress. There are two sticking points. The first is fish. This is a matter of economic irrelevance (our fishing industry contributes less to GDP than Harrods) but of disproportionate political importance. As one can make a similar point about the EU, it would be an extraordinary failure for this matter to prevent a wider deal being reached.

The more substantive issue relates to the level playing field provisions. These are the EU’s requirements that the UK will not engage in “unfair competition” by undercutting the EU’s social and environmental legislation, nor provide anti-competitive subsidies.

The UK Government’s response to these demands has been to argue that this is an outrageous attempt to fetter the actions of a newly-independent nation. Given that (1) free trade agreements inevitably involve accepting some restrictions on a country’s ability to determine its own rules and (2) the UK accepted the principle of level playing field provisions in October’s Political Declaration, the EU is less than impressed by the argument.

The particular focus of the dispute has been state aid. At one level, this is surprising. The UK has traditionally eschewed state aid spending, seeing it as market-distorting and a wasteful use of taxpayers’ money. We spend less of it than the French and Germans and, as EU members, consistently argued against its use.

Nor has it traditionally been a touchstone issue for Eurosceptics. From my days in the ERG, I recall plenty of conversations about how the EU imposed regulatory burdens on businesses, prevented trade deals with rising economies like China and resulted in too much power in the hands of the unelected (oh, happy innocent days). Restrictions on bailing out private sector companies were not so much of problem for us Thatcherites.

This issue could have easily been de-escalated if we had put in place our own, independent and robust state aid regime, perhaps enforced by the Competition and Markets Authority. Such a regime is probably necessary (albeit not sufficient) in order to reach a compromise with the EU on this topic.

Instead, we have refused to set out our own domestic regime and there is much talk of how we can use our new freedoms as ex-members of the EU to support our own companies, like the rather odd acquisition earlier this month of a £400 million shareholding in a failed satellite company.

According to the Financial Times, Dominic Cummings is digging in against anything other than a “minimal, light-touch” state aid regime, believing that once you have left the EU “you should just do whatever you want”.

This brings me back to the nature of the Conservative victory last year and, in particular, the new supporters. If the Government’s focus is appealing to nationalists who favour an interventionist state, it would want the ability to back national champions or other businesses in favoured locations.

And if you are temperamentally inclined to think that any constraint on your ability to “do whatever you want” (whether by the EU, Parliament or the legal system) is an affront to democracy, then you will be all the more the likely to resist a robust and independent regime.

There are, however, consequences. First, it is very hard to see how the EU will agree to a deal if the UK does not have a proper state aid regime. I wrote in February how there may be a political case for not getting a deal (any deal will be very thin in any event, some parts of the economy will suffer as a consequence of leaving the Single Market, better to collapse the talks and blame the EU for the consequences) and that argument still applies.

But, as a consequence of the handling of Covid-19, the Government is more vulnerable to the charge of incompetence. In addition, a no deal Brexit would be a gift to the SNP, thus weakening the Union yet further.

Second, even putting aside the EU dimension, there are very good arguments for having in place a robust state aid regime. The Treasury will be arguing the case. Both as a finance ministry (ensuring that taxpayers’ money is spent wisely) and as an economics ministry (wanting resources to be allocated productively in order to maximise economic growth), it institutionally hates state aid. Presumably, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, well-regarded by his officials, will have similar views and will be making the case forcefully. At least, he should be.

It will be for the Prime Minister to decide. Go for the purist view of Brexit (“you do whatever you want”), embrace the new political alignment and splash the cash in order to play to the Red Wall voters. Or keep open the possibility of a deal, look after the interests of taxpayers and maintain some kind of consistency with economic orthodoxy. Whichever way he goes, it will be a hugely consequential and revealing decision.