Sweden – an experiment gone terribly wrong?

30 Nov

Ever since Anders Tegnell, Chief Epidemiologist of Sweden’s public health agency, shunned the idea of a national lockdown to fight Covid-19, his country has been the subject of intense debate.

“Should we have done a Sweden?” fast became one of the most controversial questions to ask in the UK (and no doubt other countries). Sweden provoked opinions as divided as those on Brexit. Some felt that it had been dangerously relaxed about Covid-19, whereas others idolised its policy.

You only had to go to an anti-lockdown protest to see how fanatical some had become about Sweden. I observed one in London, where I photographed a young woman with a placard reading “SWEDEN DID IT RIGHT!” I wondered how my picture of her would age. Would she be vindicated as a brave revolutionary? Or proved wrong?

Right now, many would say the latter. Sweden has shown troublesome trends in its fight with Coronavirus. While its death rate (6,681) is low compared to many countries, the statistics are almost certainly going in the wrong direction, with cases and deaths steadily increasing. Shockingly, the European Centre for Disease Prevention says that in December, Sweden will surpass the peak death rates it suffered in April, with between 100 and 140 projected to die of the virus each day.

Furthermore, Sweden doesn’t compare well to its neighbours, which Tegnell once said would end up with lower levels of immunity. Whereas Sweden has seen 630 deaths this month so far, Norway, registered 30 deaths between October 28 and November 25.

Although Norway’s population is around half the size of Sweden’s, the difference is still stark, and in pursuing a more hawkish approach, Sweden doesn’t seem to have gained much economic benefit. Its GDP slumped 8.6 per cent in Q2, which was sharper than that of Denmark, Finland and Norway.

All of this has led many to conclude that Sweden has failed, and that someone is responsible for said failure. Newspapers are quick to point the finger at Tegnell, whom they suggest is being sidelined by the government because of his errors.

It certainly would seem that Stefan Löfven, the Swedish Prime Minister, wants more control over the pandemic. Sweden is unique in that its health agency, as opposed to the government, is in charge of health policies. But who knows for much longer…

In the fourth ever broadcast by a Swedish PM, showing just how urgent matters have become, Löfven warned that the Covid situation would get worse before it got better, and asked Swedes to call off, cancel or postpone non-essential meetings. The government has also banned public gatherings of more than eight people.

But does this make Tegnell and the whole of Sweden’s approach a disaster? It’s easy to say yes, but the reality – like everything in Covid-19 – is more complicated than headlines suggest.

For one, Sweden has never been as radical as made out, and actually had restrictions at the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak. High schools and universities were closed, gatherings of more than 50 people were banned and the health authorities advised those over 70, as well as people who felt ill, to stay home.

Two, there are more favourable comparisons on which to place Sweden – only they do not always get the same media traction:

And three, not all of Sweden’s initial policies are thought of as incorrect by other governments. It kept schools for pupils up to 16 open throughout the crisis, in a decision that has now followed.)

The reality is that Sweden, like many other countries, has simply evolved its strategy in line with new data. In October, for instance, I wrote about the fact Sweden’s regional authorities would soon have their own ability to issue Covid-19 guidance, similar to Germany’s localised system. At a national level, the health authorities became more cautious – warning people to avoid shops, restaurants and public transport. Tegnell was especially vigilant about the elderly, as a large number of Covid-19 fatalities in the first wave of the crisis were care home deaths.

Far from being callous, which Sweden is often presented as, its initial system was always based around trust. It asked citizens to distance from one another, and to be careful, but it did not seek to legislate around their movements. There were also some logistical points Tegnell took into account when deciding Sweden’s policy, such as the fact it has a low number of multi-generational households compared to other nations.

And so, these nuances have to be taken in when assessing Sweden. Now that the vaccine has arrived, it’s tempting to decide what country “did best”, and to believe the “sit tight and wait for a vaccine” policy was correct.

But there remain so many unknowns, from whether the vaccine will work (we still don’t have approval) to the scale of the economic damage, to how every little decision will play out over years and decades. We are missing complex data, too, around population density, hospital capacity and other factors central to assessing a country’s performance. In short, the answer to the question “should we have done a Sweden?” is “who knows.”

Luke Springthorpe and Alan O’Kelly: If you cherish the United Kingdom, join the #LoveOurUnion campaign

30 Nov

Luke Springthorpe is Executive Director, and Alan O’Kelly is Director of Operations, at Conservative Progress.

Despite holding a “once in a generation” (Alex Salmond’s words, not ours), the Scottish National Party are preparing to renew their demands for a second independence referendum.

Ever since the 2014 Scottiish referendum the SNP have run a concerted and aggressive campaign to re-run that referendum. This campaign has been marked by a specific attempt to turn neighbors against each other, setting up a narrative of Scotland versus England.

Alongside this has been an attempt to craft a narrative where Scotland is “different” from the rest of the Union, to such an extent where it cannot be governed by the same institutions. This has been all the more apparent with the emergency response to Covid, where there has at times been an almost farcical attempt to adopt virtually the same measures as England, but with the slightest of changes to the language used or categories for tiers.  The end result hasn’t been a more effective response, but confusion for people who travel between various parts of the UK, not to mention businesses reliant on clear and easy-to-understand legislation.

In Wales, too, there is an increased focus on the Union as the crisis has enflamed relations between Westminster and Cardiff Bay, and as advocates of independence square off with a growing anti-devolution movement.

As a result of this nationalist narrative, a recent YouGov poll indicated that 49 per cent were not concerned should Scotland leave the Union – the first time less than half of the population of England and Wales had indicated such a preference.

The nationalists have had the run of the airwaves for too long. Supporters of our United Kingdom, by contrast, are often much less loud about our own beliefs. It is less trendy – not to mention more difficult – to be enthusiastic about the status quo than the radical agenda offered by the separatists, even though the promises of the latter are illusory and it would inflict huge damage on both Scotland and the rest of the country.

It’s time for unionists to push back. Conservative Progress has set up the Love our Union (LoU) campaign, which seeks to highlight the deep political, cultural, and economic ties which bind the home nations together as well as cherished shared institutions such as the Armed Forces.We are building a grassroots campaign that will aim to highlight these benefits and discuss how we can strengthen our Union.

The highlight of the first phase of this campaign takes place today with our first annual #LoveOurUnion day. The Love our Union day will ask everyone who supports the Union to stand up and demonstrate this visibly, loudly and proudly.

Of course, with the times we are currently in, this will be a virtual event. But, all being well, we hope to host future Love Our Unions days with events & rallies across the country.

We are asking everyone to Tweet and to post on Facebook and Instagram with their support to get the #LoveOurUnion hashtag trending. We want to show in no uncertain terms that support for the United Kingdom – together – remains strong. We also want any waverers to understand why it’s worth fighting for and, in time, to join us as passionate advocates for this country and its future.

Over the course of the day, we will be tweeting out support from MPs, MSPs, and MSs in support of the Union. We have reached out to a range of organizations, including many of the Conservative Friends of groups, who will be also showing their support.

This will be our biggest event of this campaign to date, but over the last few months we have run a range of others exploring the future of the Union. The first event was our ‘Four Points’ event, with leaders of the voluntary party across the country and the Chair of the parliamentary Conservative Union Research Group, Robin Millar MP – as well as ConHome’s own Henry Hill!

Second was our ‘Love Our Union: Scotland’ event, with Douglas Ross MP, Leader of the Scottish Conservatives. Third was our ‘Love Our Union: Wales’ event, which saw Paul Davies, the leader of the Tories in the Senedd, as well as Millar and Glyn Davies, the Welsh Conservative chairman, in conversation with guests.

In 2021, we will be moving the campaign up a gear, with more events focusing on the cultural, defence, and other ties that bind us together. We will be doing everything we can to support the Conservative and Unionist party in Scotland and Wales ahead of elections in May. All of this will lead up to our annual conference, which will focus on the future of the Union and bring together hundreds of activists, politicians, and others to discuss how we can further strengthen the United Kingdom.

Both of us are excited about this campaign, and believe that together we can help demonstrate the huge support and emotional connection to the Union amongst the British people.

We would like to thank those who have already supported today by submitting quotes and videos, which we will be releasing during the day. We also look forward to thanking many more who we hope will tweet their own videos and messages during the day! Just don’t forget to use the #LoveOurUnion hashtag, as we will be emailing our 16,000 supporters with some of the highlights.

Alan Mak: The NHS Reserves will be a permanent, positive legacy of this challenging year

30 Nov

Alan Mak is MP for Havant, Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party and Co-Chairman of the Party’s Policy Board.

In 1944, it was a Conservative Health Minister, Henry Willink, who first set out a blueprint for a universal, free, health service. And for over 40 of the 72 years that the NHS has been in existence it has been under the care of Conservative Governments.

Nonetheless, at every general election Labour, like a broken record, falsely portray the Conservatives as enemies of the NHS. Last December, for example, Jeremy Corbyn’s dodgy dossier claimed the NHS was “up for sale” in UK-US trade talks.

Our modern NHS is very different from the Health Service of 1948, not least because it now employs ten times more doctors and four times more nurses, often in much more specialist roles than their counterparts from yesteryear.

But key to ensuring that our NHS continues to deliver on its founding principle – high quality care for all regardless of wealth – is the reform and innovation that has often been driven by Conservative Ministers. From Sir Keith Joseph leading the NHS’ first major re-organisation in 1973 to William Waldegrave’s Patient Charter in 1991 (later the NHS Constitution) setting out hospital waiting time targets and patients’ rights, Conservatives have steadily modernised the Health Service and put patients at its heart.

Our most recent Conservative Health Secretaries have continued that trend, with Jeremy Hunt and Matt Hancock both championing the digitisation of the NHS. They acted to meet the rising expectations of patients used to accessing data and services quickly on their phones and tablets. I’ve been proud to contribute towards that work, including last year successfully bringing forward legislation that resulted in the ban on NHS bodies using outdated fax machines and pagers.

Just as new technology is having a transformative impact on how our NHS operates, so too is the on-going Coronavirus outbreak.

This year has tested the NHS like no other in its long history. Our inspirational doctors, nurses, paramedics, and non-clinical NHS staff can be proud of the contribution they have made in the fight against Coronavirus.

But alongside them are the remarkable volunteers from every community. Over 750,000 people have signed up to become NHS Volunteer Responders this year, and they have collectively completed over a million tasks, from delivering prescriptions to making friendly phone calls to shielding patients. In addition, 80,000 people were already volunteering across all acute NHS Trusts in England.

We now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build on the foundations laid by these NHS volunteers by launching the NHS Reserves – a new, permanent reservist system for our Health Service modelled on the proven Armed Forces reserves and police special constables.

Last week, I introduced the NHS Reserve Staff Bill in Parliament to create the NHS Reserves, backed by the Health Secretary. The NHS Reserves would provide a formal structure – and a uniform – for some of the volunteers already working within the Health Service. It would also provide a route for retired NHS staff and recent leavers to continue contributing, and welcome new volunteers with relevant clinical and non-clinical skills that the NHS might need during periods of high demand. These would include public health emergencies, seasonal increases in demand, large public events and protests, industrial action, and critical incidents such as terrorist attacks or major accidents.

My Bill has secured wide-ranging support from across our Parliamentary Party. Backers included Sir Graham Brady, Sir Iain Duncan-Smith, Damian Green and Hunt, now chairman of the Health Select Committee, as well as 2019 intake ‘Blue Wall’ MPs including Dehenna Davison, Simon Fell, Stuart Anderson, and Brendan Clarke-Smith. All have all become NHS Reserves Champions for their constituencies. Lord Ashcroft is also a supporter and an early proponent of a reservist system for the NHS.

More MPs are becoming NHS Reserves Champions, and working with our councillors, activists, and members to promote the NHS Reserves at a local level.

I know from my role as Party Vice Chairman how active our members have been in helping with the community response to coronavirus. In many cases this has involved leading local groups delivering food or medical supplies, caring for vulnerable neighbours, or volunteering with the NHS. I hope our Party members can help spread the word and encourage friends, family and colleagues to apply when the NHS Reserves system is up and running properly.

As a Conservative family, we should be proud of our Party’s stewardship of the NHS. I hope the creation of the NHS Reserves will show that once again it is us Conservatives that are leading the way when it comes to thinking about how our Health Service adapts, innovates, and thrives in response to new challenges. Whilst the Covid-19 outbreak has brought so many negatives, the new NHS Reserves can serve as permanent and positive legacy that we can all support with pride.

Howard Flight: Sunak’s Keynesian interventions are working. Here’s what the Treasury should consider next.

30 Nov

Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

Western Governments continued “Keynesian” deficit spending in the 1950s/60s and 70s, long after western economies had recovered from the 1930s depression when they needed the economic stimulants. As a result, the unnecessary public spending caused inflation and damaged Keynes’ reputation.

We are, however, now back to a depression economy which needs the sort of deficit public spending Keynes advocated and implemented in the 1920s and 1930s depression. To give him credit, the Chancellor was quick to move to provide Keynesian stimulus to keep businesses and employees “alive”, as the pandemic hit.

The biggest area of deficit spending has been in the retail and related sectors: here are the largest number of jobs/employees and some 55 per cent of the economy.

I would hope the Treasury has researched which areas of expenditure have the largest spending multiplier effects. Logically, these should be the first areas in which to increase public spending.

In a different context, infrastructure spending is the second area in which to boost public spending. Such infrastructure spending has a good economic multiplier and also represents an investment for the future.

With an economic explosion of the size we have experienced this can also help provide the stimulus for major longer-term changes in capital and consumption spending.

Arguably the NHS could do with major changes of the management. There also needs to be a thorough review of our energy policies. Is it the right thing to do to for the future to accelerate the supply of offshore wind and solar power and to move to a majority of electric and hydrogen cars; or would such a major shift be risky in terms of being able to assure the supply of the new sources of needed energy?

We also need to investigate what changes in our economy are going to remain, versus where, in due course, we will broadly revert to previous patterns of behaviour. It does, however, look very probable that much more work will be done from home, reducing travel costs and travel times. This must have implications for the volume of road, rail and hotel facilities needed, which will likely reduce.

It should also mean pricewise that good quality/suburban residential properties will outperform city centres, pricewise; although it remains to be seen how much residential housing demand and prices will actually weaken in central London. Where people live will also affect where more or fewer schools are needed; the implication is less in city centres and more in country/suburban areas. Thorough and intelligent research is needed to expose such changes in behaviour consumption and habits, which are likely to stick, and the contrary.

We do not want to find ourselves building more schools where there is not an increase in pupil demand or increasing electricity power supplies where power demand is reducing.

I think it would be useful to draw up a “picture/inventory” forecasting how economies will look in the future versus how they were before the pandemic hit. As time passes the previous estimates of how economies will change can be compared with what happens.

Largely owing to the Chancellor’s timely Keynesian interventions the economy, and in particular, the state of individual’s economic affairs, have held up remarkably well. It will, however, only be time to turn down and then turn off the Keynesian spending taps when there is the evidence of major economic recovery actually occurring.

On the positive side there is the scope to implement changes to our economy and economic behaviour which support an increase in future economic growth rates.

A friend of mine produced an analysis a few years ago which showed that most of our economic output in terms of value depended on the work of some 18 per cent only of the population. Investigation of this sort of information need to be undertaken in earnest. The significant majority of the nation is under contributing to the economy’s performance. This needs to be addressed in earnest.

Newslinks for Monday 30th November 2020

30 Nov

Coronavirus 1) Extra cash for pubs and restaurants as Prime Minister tries to fend off Tory rebellion

“Pubs and restaurants hit by new coronavirus restrictions will be given extra cash to help get them through Christmas, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to announce as he tries to see off a growing Tory rebellion. The Prime Minister has decided the potential closure of tens of thousands of premises is an unacceptable price to pay for a new system that places 99 per cent of England under the toughest Tier 2 or 3 restrictions from Wednesday. A Government source said: “There are already grants of £2,000 and £3,000 for businesses in Tiers 2 and 3, but we recognise that we need to do more.” – Daily Telegraph

  • “MPs must not be kept in the dark and these restrictions must only last for four weeks. There must be another vote in early January”, says Nus Ghani – The Sun
  • Shops can stay open for longer in run-up to Christmas to help the high street, says Jenrick – Daily Telegraph
  • Hope for northern England as Covid rates halve – The Times
  • Covid cases cut by a third during lockdown, figures reveal – Daily Telegraph
>Today:
>Yesterday:

Coronavirus 2) Ellwood – The tiered system is crushing constituencies like mine. We must do better

“The country has stepped up to the plate yet again. After a month-long lockdown we have checked the spread of this terrible pandemic and alleviated the pressure on our hospitals. But the Prime Minister is absolutely right to call for continued vigilance. A vaccine is our only real route back to normality and prosperity, but we are not out of the woods yet. Last week the OBR – and the Chancellor – based their projections on the fact that an effective vaccine is unlikely to be widely available until the latter half of 2021. We cannot possibly endure restrictions as tough of these for that long. These restrictions have extraordinary costs and we cannot keep expecting people to live under them. Covid is a horrible disease to many and it is vital that we control its spread effectively.” – Daily Telegraph

Coronavirus 3) Test and Trace working on ‘immunity passports’

“The NHS Test and Trace app could be used as a record of people’s vaccination status under plans being considered by the government. Baroness Harding of Winscombe, head of the test-and-trace programme, made the announcement as airline companies revealed they were investigating a digital “Covid passport”, which could mean vaccination becoming a condition of travel. Lady Harding told NHS bosses at an event organised by the Health Service Journal that at the same time at-home lateral flow tests were being rolled out, her staff and the vaccine staff were looking at how to combine test results and vaccine status into the app.” – The Times

  • Care home residents can go to families for Christmas – The Times
  • Avoid closing year groups after one Covid case, English schools urged – The Times
  • NHS to enlist “sensible” celebrities to take Coronavirus vaccine – The Guardian

Coronavirus 4) Johnson to announce £20m fund for the medicine manufacturing sector

“More medicines are set to be made in the UK to ensure the country is better prepared for future pandemics, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a £20 million fund for the sector.Mr Johnson is set to launch a new capital investment scheme during a visit to North Wales on Monday which he said would “equip us to fight future health crises”.The Government hopes the funding will incentivise investment in medicine manufacturing, improve domestic supply chains and create thousands of jobs in the sector.Mr Johnson said: “This new £20 million fund will significantly increase the capacity and resilience of our medicines and diagnostics manufacturing supply chains and equip us to fight future health crises.“Throughout the pandemic we have seen a coming together of British scientific industry and innovation and this new fund will enhance the UK’s manufacturing capabilities even further.”This multi-year fund will have an initial pot of £20 million, which will be available from next year.” – Daily Telegraph

  • The UK is expected to become the first country to approve a vaccine developed jointly by Pfizer and BioNTech – FT

Brexit 1) Raab – ‘deal there to be done’, but fishing remains major sticking point

“The Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has claimed there is a “Brexit deal to be done” this week, but warned fishing rights remained an “outstanding major bone of contention” in trade talks. Mr Raab suggested it could be the “last week or so” of substantive negotiations as he urged Brussels to give ground on fishing rights by accepting Britain’s right to control its own waters as a “point of principle.” After weekend claims Britain may be just seven days away from leaving the EU without a trade deal, Mr Raab struck a more positive tone, claiming:  “I do think we’re in a reasonable position – there’s a deal to be done.”” – Daily Telegraph

  • EU offers Britain back 15-18 per cent of the quota European boats take from UK waters now – The Times
Analysis:
  • Could Brexit signal the end of the road for second-home owners in Europe? – Daily Telegraph

Brexit 2)  Ministers to outline plans for revolutionary farming policy

“Wildlife will thrive, air and water will be cleaner and livestock will be treated more humanely under the biggest change in farming policy for half a century, the government will promise today. A seven-year plan to phase out paying subsidies to farmers based on how much land they own has been laid out as part of a post-Brexit overhaul of agriculture in England. Instead, farmers will receive money for improving productivity and the environment. The present system of “direct payments” per hectare under the EU’s common agricultural policy will start to be reduced next year. By 2024 farmers will have lost at least half these payments and by 2028 the government aims to have ended them completely.” – The Times

Huawei: UK bans new 5G network equipment from September

“Telecoms providers must stop installing Huawei equipment in the UK’s 5G networks from next September, the government has said. The digital secretary, Oliver Dowden, set out a roadmap to remove high-risk vendors ahead of the telecommunications (security) bill coming before parliament. The legislation would create national security powers capable of imposing controls on when – if at all – a telecoms firm could use material supplied by companies such as Huawei. In the summer, the government announced that the Chinese firm was to be banned from the most sensitive core parts of UK networks. It also said it plans to rip out all Huawei equipment from 5G networks by 2027 – decisions that would be enshrined in law by the new bill.” – The Guardian

News in brief:

Ending rough sleeping is for all twelve months – not just for Christmas

30 Nov

ConservativeHome recently ran a series on this site with the Centre for Social Justice.  It consisted of an article a day about one of “five giants”: modern equivalents of Beveridge’s Want, Squalor, Idleness, Ignorance and Disease.

These were: worklessness, educational underachievement, mental health, homelessness, and serious personal debt (plus, for the Saturday article, domestic abuse).

None of these giants is easy to slay, but the Government is committed to ending one of them – or, to be more precise, an aspect of one of them: rough sleeping.

The Conservative Manifesto declares that “we will…end the blight of rough sleeping by the end of the next Parliament by expanding successful pilots and programmes such as the Rough Sleeping Initiative and Housing First, and working to bring together local services to meet the health and housing needs of people sleeping on the streets”.

The Government has come very close to doing so already – but in circumstances so peculiar and temporary as to cast light on how the pledge might be fulfilled during the rest of this Parliament.

These were, of course, those of the original Coronavirus lockdown, during which Ministers applied an “Everyone In” strategy to get rough sleepers off the streets and lessen the risk of them catching Covid-19.

In his article for us as part of the series, Brooks Newmark reported that this required finding accommodation for 30,000 rough sleepers and sofa surfers within the space of a few weeks.

The task might have been impossible in normal times (at least without requisitioning property), but in that exceptional one there were the spaces to hand: in hotels and hostels closed for business under the shutdown rules.

But Brooks’ figures from London suggested that the number of rough sleepers across England is now heading back to pre-original lockdown levels.

Overall, Government statistics show that these climbed from 1,768 sleeping rough on a single night in 2010 to a peak of 4,751 in 2017, declining to 4,266 last autumn.

For reference, “people sleeping rough are defined as those sleeping or about to bed down in open air locations and other places including tents and make-shift shelters”.

So those figures do not include people in hostels or shelters, sofa surfers, squatter or traveller campsites, or “those in recreational or organised protest”.

Part of the reason for the drop during the last two years will have been one of Theresa May’s first initiatives as Prime Minister – a £40 million programme to tackle homelessness.

Another aspect will have been Bob Blackman’s Homelessness Reduction Act, which placed new duties on local authorities in England to prevent and relieve homelessness.

The May and Boris Johnson governments followed all this up with a Rough Sleeping Strategy in August 2018 and a delivery plan in December 2018, with £100 million in funding committed for two years.

The twin pillars of the Government’s plan are the Next Steps Accommodation and Housing First programmes.  The first is concentrated on property; the second on people.

Next Steps Accommodation Programme has £91.5 million set aside for temporary accommodation and £150 million for 3,300 homes.

Housing First is being trialled in Liverpool, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, and the All Party Parliamentary Group is undertaking an independent review.

At its core is the provision of a stable home and personalised support “to homeless people with multiple and complex needs”.

As the House of Commons Library notes, “a disproportionate number of rough sleepers have experienced institutional life, such as being in local authority care, prison or the armed forces”.

A London analysis by CHAIN found that 50 per cent of those assessed were in need of support for their mental health, 42 per cent for alcohol dependency, and 41 per cent for drug dependency.

The Centre for Social Justice recommended in a 2017 report, Housing First, that the Housing First programme be scaled up to £110 million a year over the course of a Parliament.

The Conservative Manifesto pledge looks deliverable, but that price tag poses the first of several questions about whether it actually will be.

£110 million a year is the best part of half a billion pounds over the course of a Parliament.  Where will that money come from, as the deficit soars towards an estimated 19 per cent of GDP this year?

The CSJ’s answer is that such a total shows you only what the taxpayer puts in rather what he also gets back, in the savings that follow once a homeless person is off the street, off hard drugs, in a home – and working.

So it is that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimated in the Centre for Social Justice’s Report that there was a saving to the Government of £2.40 for every £1.00 spent as part of Housing First.

However, the saving inevitably follows the spending, and the Treasury always wants not to spend now at a time of retrenchment (and usually at other times too).

Mind you, the Chancellor was not exactly in penny-pinching mode in his recent Spending Review statement, announcing that Government spending will rise at its fastest rate for 15 years.

So if the dash for growth on which he appears to be set succeeds, he might well be able to meet that CSJ total.  If it doesn’t, he certainly won’t.

But there are other problems in achieving that target of abolishing rough sleeping, concentrated roughly in the areas of work, housing itself and elibigibility.

On work, Harry Phibbs has quoted the Government’s homelessness adviser, Jeremy Swain, as follows: “what we need to be doing, as well as getting people into housing, is to get people into work. And that is what they are wanting”.

The economic background against which to do so could scarcely be more challenging, with mass unemployment back for the first time in the best part of 30 years.

The Government could encourage and incentivise employers to take on homeless people, but that would risk protests from other people, many on low incomes, who are also seeking jobs.

The same consideration applies to housing, where one of the five proposals from the voluntary sector is enabling rapid access to both secure private and social rent tenancies.

Which would mean guidance to social housing providers stating that they should prioritise people facing homelessness.  Pushing one group further up a queue means pulling another lower down.

And there will always be a queue – since the supply of housing is necessarily limited. Then there is welfare eligibility. The voluntary sector wants a temporary suspension of both the no recourse to public funds conditions for 12 months, and a suspension of the habitual residence test.

This reflects the fact that, according to the Government’s figures, 26 per cent of rough sleepers last year were non-UK nationals, with a further ten per cent being of unknown national origin.

Advent began yesterday, December 1 falls tomorrow, and the pre-Christmas season always sees a run of newspaper features, like this one, about rough sleeping.

But the Government is unlikely to fulfill its manifesto pledge unless voters maintain that level of interest all year round.  Because it can be done, but only by prioritising that promise.  And Ministers would need public backing to do that.

Neil O’Brien: Tomorrow’s Covid vote. We must stick to the plan – and stick together.

30 Nov

Neil O’Brien is co-Chair of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board, and is MP for Harborough.

I can’t believe they’ve gone. One, a local businessman. Not much older than me. Full of plans, things to do, a business to build. The other, a party supporter. Retired, but larger than life, and full of fun. Coronavirus got them both before their time. There were tens of thousands like them this year.

Tomorrow night, we face a choice about how we handle the final months of this pandemic. We still have a lot of winter and spring to get through until mass vaccination, the time when the NHS comes under most strain. And we must avoid a third set of national restrictions.

If we start from rules strong enough to keep driving down transmission of the virus, we can relax later. In contrast, going in the other direction will test the patience of voters.

Nor do we want to grind along with infection rates stable but not falling. We want infections coming down decisively, so we can loosen up. With the vaccine so close, people dying unnecessarily in the final months of the pandemic would be tragic.

And though polls show strong support for the measures we’ve taken, it would be much better to head towards the finishing line with good news about infections and restrictions falling.

Every MP wants to make sure restrictions in their area are as limited as possible. As infections fall, we’ll have regular reviews. But overall, we have to stick together, and stick to the plan. With Labour and the SNP not voting against, the new Government’s new regulations will pass. But we should remember the electorate brutally punishes divided parties.

Of course, there are a lot of legitimate debates about policy. Some ask whether restrictions do more harm than good. It’s a reasonable question, but I think sometimes the arguments are put back to front.

For example, during the second wave here in Leicestershire, the numbers hospitalised shot up, rising above the level we saw in the spring peak.

But after the national restrictions came in, the infection rate turned round, and started falling. Hospitalisation rates turned round too. That meant that while non-urgent procedures were postponed, the measures we took came just in time to allow life-and-death services like cancer treatment to keep running throughout.

If we’d waited or done nothing, those services would have been forced to shut. Restrictions saved not just coronavirus deaths, but other patients too.

It’s wrong to assume current restrictions are having the same effects as the emergency measures in spring. And some claims are wrong: it’s said suicides have shot up, but the best data suggests that’s not true.

People ask what the economic cost is of restrictive measures. The difficulty here is knowing what the counterfactual should be. For example, if we’d let the virus rip in spring, pretty much all MPs acknowledge that the NHS would have been overwhelmed.

With TV news showing people dying in hospital car parks across the land, how many people would still have been heading down to the pub? Or out to work? Any estimate is guesswork.

We can see that countries like Sweden which went for looser policies had a bigger hit to their economy than their neighbours, as well as much worse health outcomes. So it isn’t obvious that there has been a trade off between the economy and controlling the virus.

Sweden has had ten times the death rate of their Scandinavian neighbours, with a dramatic second wave and 397 Covid deaths in the past nine days. “Sweden’s strategy has proven to be a dramatic failure,” says Lena Einhorn, a Swedish virologist. The country’s Prime Minister recently made a rare televised address, and has been forced to introduced a “rule of eight” on gatherings plus locally tiered restrictions.

And Sweden is far less densely populated than the UK, with more people living alone than any other country, two massive advantages. So what has proved merely disastrous in Sweden, was arguably never even really an option for us. So what’s the counterfactual?

Some arguments are over. Media pundits pushed the idea that we had hit “herd immunity”, and that rising cases were just “false positives”.  They’re still peddling these ideas, but we can now see how badly they got it wrong.

In June Toby Young wrote: “there will be no second spike – not now, and not in the autumn”. He claimed 91 per cent of cases were “false positives”: claims repeated by some MPs. In reality, according to the Office for National Statistics, true number is microscopic.

Alistair Haimes, a Covid-sceptic, wrote in August that “it’s over”; and in September that there was “no second wave.”

Leading Covid-sceptic Michael Yeadon wrote that thanks to “prior imminuty”: “the pandemic is effectively over.”

Sunetra Gupta, a lead author of the “Great Barrington Declaration”, promised in May that “the epidemic has largely come and is on its way out in this country” … “due to the build-up of immunity”.

In August, Karol Sikora, another Great Barrington leader, said “The gloom and doomsters are predicting another wave of it. Where’s that going to come from? I just don’t believe it.”

With over 2,800 now dying a week with the virus, we can see these rosy theories were catastrophically wrong. Other myths pushed by the media include the idea that flu has “disappeared”, or that Coronavirus is just displacing it. That’s simply not true.

Others say the victims are “dying with” the virus, not “dying of” the virus. But the Office for National Statistics looked at the data, based on doctors’ assessments, and found: “of 50,335 deaths between 1 March and 30 June… 46,736 had Covid-19 assigned as the underlying cause of death.” That’s 93 per cent.

The argument I most dislike is that the victims of the virus were all old or would have died anyway. It’s true older people are more at risk. True that many people who died had other conditions. But a study by academics at the University of Glasgow suggested people typically had over a decade to live based on their age and prior conditions.

A decade is worth a lot. For my parents, the last decade involved the wedding of one son; the birth of two grandchildren; two others becoming young men; adventures exploring Europe and hiking with my sister; learning French and how to drive a canal boat; amazing summer flowers in their little garden; charity work, friends – and being here for everyone who loves them; like my daughter (four).

An angry man emailed the other day to say I was obsessed with “saving granny”. Well, I want to live in a culture where we value older people, not belittle their worth or regard them as an inconvenience. A culture that would kick the old and ill into touch on grounds of efficiency would be a profoundly ill culture.

We’re close to the end of this thing now. Let’s not fall near the finish line. No-one wanted to have to bring in these tiered restrictions. But they are more tailored than countries like France, where all restaurants everywhere are shut till next year, and all bars are shut with no date to reopen.

Yes, we must keep supporting those for whom this year has meant hardship. But there’s been more than seventy thousand excess deaths linked to the coronavirus here since mid-March. If you read out all those people’s names one after another, it would take you more than four months.

We have to see the bigger picture. We have to finish the job, and beat this killer virus.

Anand Menon and Matt Bevington: Will Johnson really be able to level up?

30 Nov

Professor Anand Menon is Director of UK in a Changing Europe, and Matt Bevington is Public Policy Analyst, UK in a Changing Europe.

The best laid plans of mice and men. Less than a year after his decisive election victory, already thrown off course by the pandemic, the Prime Minister has had to hit the reset button. His Chief Adviser is out of the door, and Red Wall Conservative MPs are worried that the government’s flagship domestic agenda – levelling up – might be on the way out too.

When he announced his candidacy for the leadership of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson declared”: “if we are to unite our country and unite our society, then we must fight now, for those who feel left behind.” Subsequently, levelling up has become a central rhetorical theme of his Government. But can it deliver concrete results by the time of the next election? And if not, will there be a political price to pay for unmet expectations?

Levelling up is a compelling phrase, but its meaning is at best fuzzy. In his first speech as Prime Minister, Johnson referred to levelling up wages, productivity, investment and opportunity. He also pledged to answer “the plea of the forgotten people and the left behind towns”. But can all this really be addressed in a single Parliament, let alone one knocked off course by Covid-19?

number of studies make the point that the UK is among the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies reckons that levelling up is a job that will take years or even decades.

Moreover, any plans to reroute substantial amounts of Government money have been thrown up in the air by the Coronavirus. The Spending Review was delayed, and the sheer scale of public debt will act as a break on any government largesse. Meanwhile, new infrastructure projects, which would take years to complete anyway, have yet to be announced.

Then there is a new problem created by Covid: unemployment. This too will affect regional inequalities. According to the IFSLondoners are the most likely to be able to do their jobs from home and therefore face least disruption. The Government doesn’t just need to address unemployment, but try to mitigate its uneven geographical impacts.

And let’s not forget the challenge that, pre-Covid, was the most vexing to the British economy: productivity. Differences in productivity across the UK are at the heart of geographical disparities. It is a complex and difficult question for which there needs to be a Government-wide strategy. Any lasting effort to level up the country has to major on it.

Finally, there is the ongoing impact of austerity. Many of the places identified in the government’s Towns Fund were those worst affected by austerity. Places like Oldham and Rochdale – already some of the most deprived local authorities in the country – saw government spending cuts of 30-40 per cent between 2010 and 2017.

So the task is herculean from the start. And we haven’t yet mentioned the elephant in the room: Brexit. With or without a deal, the economic impact of leaving the European Union will be substantial, and forecasts suggest it will be greatest in precisely those parts of the country most in need of ‘levelling up’.

Thiemo Fetzer, for instance, has found that the costs of Brexit are likely to be more concentrated in local authority areas that have relatively low educational attainment – in other words, that it will exacerbate existing inequalities.

Despite all this, levelling-up as a political project may not necessarily be doomed to failure. For one thing, we should not underestimate the importance of political attention. A Government that appears committed to addressing regional inequality sends a powerful message.

As Deborah Mattinson has found from her work in the Red Wall seats, many voters felt they had been both left behind and taken for granted under successive Labour governments. It may be that the simple fact of having a government that talks about prioritising their concerns makes a difference.

That said, the Government has hardly made a positive start. Its handling of the pandemic has led to accusations that it is one rule for the South and another for the North. Large parts of the north of England were asked to lockdown when Covid raged in the south in the spring, but not vice versa in the autumn.

Perhaps more damaging was the tussle with Andy Burnham. The Government refused an additional £5 million for businesses in his patch, and then made the scheme instantly more generous when London moved into Level Two. And when the whole country locked down, the cherries aligned and the Treasury one-armed bandit spewed out cash.

Be this as it may, there are signs that this might change. The Blue Collar Conservatives and Northern Research Group have given a new public face to the levelling up agenda. And the Conservatives have announced plans to open a second, northern headquarters, in Leeds. The aim, as with their continuing talk of the Northern Powerhouse, is to send a clear signal that the they are there to stay.

Moreover our research with low-income voters in some of these areas revealed that many are not expecting miracles. They simply want better local services. The issues they identify are often pretty basic: reliable bin collections, well-maintained green spaces, and litter-free town centres.

Reversing some of the hollowing out of local government due to austerity would go a long way to addressing these issues, and might well be much more effective (and far less expensive) than large infrastructure projects.

In order to genuinely address the problems besetting those areas in desperate need of a new economic settlement, the government urgently needs to put more flesh on the bones of its levelling up agenda. And for levelling up to be really effective, successive governments must commit to achieving it. But to win the political battle, it may be enough – just – for Johnson to show that he has listened and started to act.

David Leaf: In Bexley, we will keep on delivering top rated services – while Labour resorts to scaremongering

30 Nov

Cllr David Leaf is the Cabinet Member for Resources on Bexley Council.

You can tell it’s nearly Christmas, as its always at this time of the year that Bexley’s Labour councillors and their supporters, claim everything is a disaster and that the Council is about to go into bankruptcy.

They’ve actually now been making this claim every year since 2013. Then, they stated that if we were re-elected, the council would either go bankrupt or Council Tax would rise by 40 per cent – none of which happened.

Seven years since they first made that claim, we continue to be rated as an efficient effective Council which delivers value for money for our residents, and our budget plans for 2021/22 are almost completed, four months before they need to be, and our budget will be in balance. Our services continue to be among the best-rated services in local government, and the fruits of investments, such as investing in new street cleaning machinery (which Labour voted against doing), see services improving or being modernised.

Our manifesto pledges from 2018 have all been delivered, and satisfaction from the residents we serve with council services remains high. Roads are being repaired, children’s social care services are helping those in need, vulnerable adults continue to receive care, we remain number one for recycling as we have been for the last 15 years. We’ve also secured funding to build two new schools for children with special needs.

And we’re also delivering new facilities for residents – a new BMX bike park in Barnehurst, a new park, playground, and wildlife area in Sidcup and a new library is being built in Thamesmead. We also lobbied for and now have two Covid testing centres, are working with colleagues on Dartford to reduce infection rates, and are working hard to create centres for vaccinations.

By contrast, in the last month alone, Labour-run Croydon has actually gone bankrupt with a £50 million plus budget gap, Labour-run Transport for London has gone bankrupt for the second time and had to be bailed out by the Conservative Government for the second time. We see Labour-run Lewisham with a £24 million budget gap, Ealing with a £28 million budget gap, Brent with a £29 million one, and Greenwich with a £60 million budget gap over next four years.

No wonder Bexley’s Labour councillors and their supporters want to distract from that shambolic record by real life Labour administrations by trotting out these usual fictions about Bexley, alongside criticising every budget proposal while never actually putting forward any ideas or solutions of their own – the same pattern as usual of course.

What’s shocking this year is that Labour councillors who should know better are frightening the life out of council staff by making all sorts of claims about how they will all lose their jobs; our staff work really hard and to see Labour councillors almost salivating at potential job losses is sickening. Staff I speak to have been really upset by these statements, when what is needed is a calm approach.

Yes, there will be changes to the way the Council is run, or how services are provided.

This is a difficult time for local government, the impact of Covid has been felt across the sector, and across all services. Here in Bexley, much of our income from fees and charges vanished overnight – eg parking income which helps fund highways maintenance and school road safety projects disappeared overnight. There are some Labour supporters who think generating income for services like school road safety projects through parking income is wrong, but of course, as said above, they oppose generating income to help save lives without actually coming up with how to fund it instead.

Like all councils, we have had huge costs appear out of the blue – for example, from scratch we set up a food delivery network, getting hot food to vulnerable residents during the lockdown, making sure those on their own and in need of help got the support they needed. Some 3,000 meals were being delivered, and we had a team of people collecting medicines and prescriptions for those unable to leave their homes. It has cost the council millions of pounds overnight, money that is gradually being recouped from Central Government.

The test of any Council is how they find a way through sudden and unexpected events like this.

One approach is to go into panic mode, hide away and hope everything will be fine (a la Croydon) or lead from the front, make decisions quickly and calmly, work hard all the time to ensure services continue to be delivered, even if in different ways for a while. That is what we were elected to do, and what we have always done.

Yes, there are some difficult choices to make, but as Bexley residents have shown over four elections by electing us with decisive mandates, they trust us to lead the Borough, make difficult decisions when they need to be made, and ensure that we are planning for the long term while making sure services continue to be delivered. The consequences of not doing that can be seen in Croydon, Brent, Lewisham, Greenwich, and at Transport for London.