Build back better. Does this phrase run the risk of alienating Conservative voters?

29 Jul

As the Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome, there are two expressions I come across more regularly than the average person. One is “levelling up”, and the other is “build back better”. If anyone reads or hears these expressions – and not just editors of conservative websites – frequently enough, they will begin to wince in a Pavlovian manner upon each utterance of said phrase.

But in recent times it strikes me that the expression “build back better” is not only overused (apologies to our contributors!); it could, in fact, be electorally troublesome for the Conservatives, for it has become synonymous with policies and strategies that Conservative voters are quietly dissatisfied with (another thing I do as Deputy Editor: read the comments section of this site).

What is “building back better” anyway? Log onto Twitter and you’ll see a number of conspiracy theories floating about it, due to the amount of leaders across the world and political persuasions now using the phrase (“a co-ordinated plot!”).

Mostly they are referring to the global economic recovery from the pandemic. However, go to Wikipedia and there are eight different versions of the expression, ranging from a United Nations Program to the slogan of the Joe Biden 2020 presidential campaign, to “Build Back Better World”, an initiative undertaken by G7 countries.

Conservatives’ use of the term “Build Back Better” technically refers to the party’s plan for growth, an incredibly ambitious document, in which the Prime Minister has laid out how he wants to boost the country and its economy. It covers everything from infrastructure to skills to opportunities for growth from EU exit, and Conservatives should be commended for their ambition and effort in developing it.

That being said, my problem with “build back better” is that it increasingly seems to have moved away from a strategy to a meaningless phase, wheeled out whenever someone wants to justify a policy or idea they’ve had.  So long as you’re “building back better, X must be sensible”, goes the logic.

Of course it’s not the first time the Government has used a slogan repeatedly. But at least they’ve been a bit more obvious in the past. I don’t think I need to explain what “Get Brexit done” means to any readers, and even “levelling up” is fairly clear, referring to the imbalances in people’s socioeconomic status across the country, which Conservatives will fix through funding.

When Conservatives say “build back better”, though, I am often left with more questions than I have answers. For one, as a millennial, the main thing I want to be built is houses, which doesn’t appear to be a big feature of the “building back better” plan.

Perhaps this is because a huge amount of “build back better” rhetoric is tied into the Government’s Net Zero ambitions. Whenever one hears about a new green idea, you can put money on the fact that you will be told it’s “building back better”.

Indeed, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) has a whole webpage devoted to “Building back better”, in which it declares that raising “the UK’s climate ambitions for 2035 will put Net Zero within reach and change the UK for the better”. But surely anyone reading the newspaper coverage on how much it will cost to replace their gas boiler will be wondering if that is really “building back better”? Along with the £372 billion pandemic bill, and the anticipated £1.4 trillion Net Zero costs, it sounds more like we will “build back broke”.

The CCC underlines my biggest reservation about the expression “build back better”, which is how opaque it is – like this unaccountable committee. You are simply meant to accept the wisdom of “build back better”, rather than getting a vote on individual policies.

In fact, I would hazard a guess that it’s not just Conservative editors who now wince at the phrase, but Conservative voters, too, for whom “build back better” has come to symbolise all the things they don’t like: huge levels of government spending, policies they didn’t vote for (Net Zero, pandemic policies) and even the scenes of the G7 Summit in which politicians talked about – yes – how nations can “build back better”. Can we Get Some New Slogans Done? We will see.

Universities have a nerve to complain about vaccine passports

28 Jul

Before I get started, let me say this: I don’t think vaccine passports are in any way a good idea. I hate the way they’ve been debated with all the seriousness of a local council deciding when to schedule a Zoom meeting. And even if the Government is just using them as a threat to get young people jabbed, it is not a very nice threat.

Even so, it was rather astonishing to see universities and unions kick off at reports the Government wants students to be double jabbed – as a condition to attend lectures and stay in halls. Vice-chancellors suddenly discovered their libertarian streak and warned that this would be a “terrible infringement on personal freedom.” Never mind the “infringement on personal freedom” that took place last year when students were locked down in their halls

Worse was the response of Jo Grady, General Secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), who said: “Sadly, this looks and smells like a Prime Minister trying to pin the blame on students for not yet taking up a vaccine they haven’t been prioritised to receive.” The only thing that smells, though, is the rank hypocrisy of unions, which have constantly advocated for tough measures – only to whinge when they get their way.

After all, was it not the UCU which, five days earlier, wrote to Gavin Williamson to demand that all students should be double vaccinated before the start of their term in September? And wasn’t it the UCU that warned that universities should also “provide and mandate” the wearing of face masks, along with the rest of its long list of things the Government should do? If young people prove hesitant about getting the jab, how does the UCU think ministers – trying to meet its inexhaustible demands – should act?

The Government is clearly trying to gather momentum – so that students can be back on campus in September, hence why it has become so stern about the plan. It is even said that Boris Johnson was impressed by the way Emmanuel Macron increased vaccine uptake about the young in France, by threatening a “health pass” for restaurants, bars, trains and planes, and has thus taken inspiration.

Someone more cynical might question whether universities even want to see students in person again. Earlier this month, it was interesting to note Russell Group Universities announce they were moving to a “blended” model of education. This will involve face-to-face teaching and virtual learning for the price of £9,250 a year. One wonders if the Government’s push for vaccines is rather throwing a spanner in the “blended” plan…

Either way, it is extraordinary that universities and unions, which have been some of the most zealous about Covid safety measures, kick off at the Government for caution of all matters, with the UCU calling the situation “appalling”. They make Keir Starmer look decisive in his Covid plans.

The war on cars

26 Jul

Last week, a study came out showing that road injuries have halved in low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) installed in March to September of 2020.

One paper called the research a “significant moment in the debate over the use of LTNs” which have “faced noisy opposition”. Soon after Sadiq Khan Tweeted saying: “The evidence is clear: LTNs dramatically reduce road danger – particularly for pedestrians – making neighbourhoods safer places for everyone.”

The story and the reaction to it were comical and depressing in equal measure. For starters, the study must have some of the most state-the-obvious results of all time. It turns out that if you block cars going down roads, there will be less car injuries. Who knew! But more worryingly, it seems to have been taken as evidence of why we need more LTNs in Britain.

What’s my problem with LTNs, anyway? As ConservativeHome readers may know, I have written about this topic before, and it’s the most boring issue I’m passionate about – simply because I don’t like to see hard-working people hurt by illogical policies (which LTNs are).

The first time I discovered LTNs was in April this year when a delivery driver helped me move back to London. In short, we had to stop and re-route numerous times due to how many LTN signs had been put up blocking roads (more on that here).

The next time I discovered LTNs was when I ordered a taxi – approximately 500 metres away – and it took 20 minutes to arrive. “Where are you?” I said, rather urgently, on the phone to the driver. “Sorry, it’s these LTNs”, he replied. 

We subsequently ended up in traffic – because LTNs block so many roads – where he told me “I hate London at the moment”. Both he and the delivery driver seemed at their wits’ end.

It’s not hard to see why. According to The Daily Telegraph, which has been one of the few papers to cover issues with LTN, tradesmen are hiking prices up by as much as a quarter to negate LTN’s practical effects, often resulting in them being able to attend less jobs.

Khan has reassured us all that LTNs are safe, but he is, essentially, trying to counter a phantom objection. Who has said they aren’t safe? Indeed, my road is nice because it’s an LTN. The other day I watched two people play ping pong in the middle of it, and it all felt very idyllic.

But something about the ping pong bothered me – yes, really – as it seemed to symbolise what’s wrong with LTNs, which increasingly look like an excuse for upper middle-class playgrounds (in my area, at least). Who cares about the delivery driver stuck in traffic…

The result of LTNs is that plumbers, electricians, builders and many other tradesmen and women, often self-employed, struggle to get about in areas to carry out services and drop off things that we all need (unless you think supermarkets can survive on deliveries made by bicycle in the future?).

Worst still, how are the elderly and people with disabilities meant to get around if cars are banned from their road? And what about those subjected to all the emissions on “non-LTN” roads? These questions seem to be ignored in the “debate” on LTNs, which no one remembers having.

Shockingly, LTNs have even generated £14 million in fines over the last 12 months – mainly because people don’t know what they are. It’s no wonder. Councils quietly installed 72 LTNs in March and September in London last year – when we were all mostly at home, oblivious and conveniently unable to protest.

LTNs aren’t just a London thing, incidentally. They are happening all over the country, in places such as Bath and North East Somerset, where the Deputy Council Leader recently told residents that they “are here to stay”. The council set to spend £2.2 million on its programme in the next two years. Speaking about residents’ concerns, a councillor in the area said leaders simply need to “hold [their] nerve“, as though people will simply get used to having roads closed off.

My area is one of the worst offenders for LTNs, and there are now regular protests against them – although they hardly get any media coverage. In general, there’s quite a lot of snobbery towards anyone who dislikes LTNs, as if they’re not intelligent or caring enough to value their higher, environmental purpose.

There is a greater point to this. First, it’s clear from Khan’s reaction that councils want to roll out more LTNs. Far from being concerned about them, the “party of business” appears to have endorsed the scheme, with the Conservatives allocating £2 billion towards projects that promote “active travel” over the next five years and encouraging London’s transport authority to spend £100 million on walking and cycling schemes.

I predict LTNs will cause real economic pain. When there are so many variables that are already unknown about the national recovery from Covid (empty supermarkets, for instance), turning cities into assault courses is hardly the best idea.

Furthermore, LTNs seem emblematic of an era in which councils, committees and MPs seem to think they can bring any policy in, so long as it’s attached to “environmentalism”, Coronavirus (the initial excuse for LTNs) or now “safety”. It seems to me that LTN protests are just a taster for the backlash leaders will get, so long as they continue to stop consulting people on such radical decisions.

Either way, some parliamentary interest in LTNs cannot come soon enough…

Will Dido Harding have her Kate Bingham moment?

24 Jul

Over the last couple of weeks there has been an enormous uproar over what has been called the “pingdemic”. In short, the number of people who are now told to isolate, having received a notification by the NHS Test and Trace app. Over 600,000 people in England have been asked to self-isolate in the week to July 14.

Clearly the programme is having a very disruptive effect on multiple industries. According to Sky news, 300 workers on the tube have been told to self-isolate – and subsequently TFL has had no choice but to shut two of its main lines. Similar problems are reported on railways, which have reduced their timetables.

Even more worryingly, England is “facing weeks of disruption to bin collection, transport and food supply due to staff self-isolating”. Already there are troublesome photographs of empty supermarket shelves across the newspapers, and this will no doubt lead to panic among the public.

The Government’s answer to all this is to allow more key workers to take part in its daily (lateral flow) testing scheme, so that – regardless of vaccination status – staff at ports, airports and in border control, among others, are exempt from having to self-isolate. They can do this whether they’re notified by the Covid app or a Test and Trace official, and it will mean that thousands of workers are freed up from the scheme.

However, there are clearly upcoming problems for the Government. For one, hotels and restaurants have been left off the list – leading industry representatives to warn that the UK is in for a “summer of closures”. And ministers have also been told that the UK does not have the testing capacity to bring the “pingdemic” to a quick end

The upcoming weeks will be a great test for the Government, as to how quickly it can rehabilitate struggling sectors, without vast swathes of the public simply deciding to delete the app taxpayers spent tens of billions on.

Perhaps part of the reason some are taken off guard by the disruption is low expectations of the app. Innumerable articles were written about NHS Test and Trace missing its target. Indeed, the depressing paradox to our current situation is that it shows the app is working – actually too well. Such is its efficacy, that there were calls for it to be made “less sensitive”.

The “pingdemic” is, in fact, coined by the same media which once bemoaned the app’s failures to track contacts, and shone a spotlight on Dido Harding, head of the programme until April 2021, who was accused of failing the nation.

Watching her treatment the past year, it reminded me of that which Kate Bingham, who headed the vaccine task force, received – demonised for being married to a Conservative MP. She is now regarded as a hero and vindicated. 

Harding’s job arguably invited more criticism, as when Test and Trace doesn’t work, people are unhappy – and now that it does, people are even more unhappy. Furthermore, it is rarely taken into account that she had to build the app in the worst possible moment – a pandemic – perhaps a large part of why there have been spiralling difficulties and expenses (if you’re going to blame anyone for Test and Trace’s delays, blame successive governments for not running pilots).

In the coming weeks, the Government and its advisers may further their exemption list from the “pingdemic” and tweak the app. Experts say it could “incorporate new science about the length of Covid exposure”, for instance.

But ultimately, the complaints about NHS Test and Trace will beg larger questions – about whether this app was really what people wanted in the first place (and plenty did). One whose success can be measured by how annoying it is. Either way, one wonders if Harding will have her Kate Bingham moment of vindication…

The fall in rape prosecutions. What’s behind the statistics?

22 Jul

Out of every Prime Minister’s Questions this year, perhaps the one Boris Johnson most wishes he could “turn back time” on and do again is the session of June 23.

During the course, Keir Starmer pushed the Prime Minister on a matter that – unlike most of the Government’s lockdown policies – he found hard to respond to. “On the prime minister’s watch, rape prosecutions and convictions are at a record low”, Starmer warned.

While Johnson apologised for the “trauma” victims and survivors have gone through “because of inadequacies of the criminal justice system”, his pay off line appeared to trivialise the subject.

“We’re getting on with the job – they jabber, we jab. They dither and we deliver. They vacillate and we vaccinate”, he said of Labour – a remark for which he received huge criticism.

It’s no wonder that the topic flummoxed the Prime Minister, due to the gravity of the situation. In the year ending March 2020, police recorded 58,856 cases of rape in England and Wales, yet this led to just 2,102 prosecutions – a decrease from the year before, in which 3,043 prosecutions took place.

So serious are the statistics that Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary, apologised to rape victims, and Dame Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner, said in her 2019/2020 report that “In effect, what we are witnessing is the de-criminalisation of rape.”

How have prosecutions become so low? Although no one factor can be blamed for the record low rates, several broad explanations have been put forward for the decrease in cases reaching court.

The first is that a secret target set by the CPS in 2016 – to ensure convictions in 60 per cent of rape cases – backfired. The suggestion is that it led prosecutors to drop more difficult and/ or “weaker” cases, in order to hit the goal. In 2018, the CPS u-turned on its benchmark, but its effects are still likely to percolate.

The second factor that has been blamed is funding cuts to the CPS – while demand for its services increased. The Institute of Government estimates that funding was reduced by 28 per cent between 2009-10 and 2018-19 (after adjusting for inflation), with the number of staff at the CPS dropping by 2,410 between 2010/11 and 2018/19. 

In 2019, the Government put forward £85 million in extra funding for the CPS. However, this may take a while to have an impact on prosecution rates.

The third factor, which is part of the reason services are so stretched, is the amount of evidence the police and prosecutors now have to deal with. 

Technology, especially, has transformed the justice system, giving legal teams greater evidence to look over. But it means that more resources are needed – at the same time they have been depleting.

Furthermore, it can be worrying for victims to have to hand over their phone/ technological records. As Baird warned in her report, some victims “cannot face the unwarranted and unacceptable intrusion into their privacy.”

She added that: “In some cases, their assailant is completely unknown to them, making it impossible to understand why examining the data on their phone is considered to be a reasonable line of enquiry.”

Since 2020, the CPS and police have stopped using a digital consent form that people alleging rape had been asked to sign, which gave full access to their mobile data. 

Baird’s report highlights other reasons why the system is struggling. One is that there are still unsympathetic attitudes to victims in 2021. 

“[M]any myths about rape still persist, with victims being unfairly blamed due to what they were wearing at the time or whether they were under the influence of alcohol”, Baird wrote. So we need an attitudinal shift too.

Buckland has been deeply apologetic about the lack of convictions – promising to “do a lot better” in the future and blaming budget cuts for the fall in conviction rates.

A recent government review set out measures to improve the system. These include reducing the time victims are without their phones (to have them returned within 24 hours), and to change the way in which cross-examinations take place (videoing them earlier and away from the courtroom).

It also wants the amount of cases going to court to return to “at least 2016 levels”, and there will be scorecards in order to monitor this.

Even so, Baird and other campaigners are concerned the proposals don’t go far enough, and will take too long. In reversing the statistics, the Government has its work cut out.

Long Covid – what we know so far

21 Jul

With the advent of “Freedom Day”, one of the largest concerns medics, journalists and policymakers have had is whether it will increase instances of long Covid.

This describes when symptoms of Covid-19 last for more than 12 weeks after infection, whether they’re severe or mild. Here is a summary of some of the facts we know about long Covid so far, and the research taking place to understand it more.

How many people have long Covid?

The latest data from the Office for National Statistics indicates that around 1.8 million Britons have suffered from long Covid.

What are the symptoms of long Covid?

Dr Ron Daniels, CEO of the UK Sepsis Trust and an ICU doctor, says that “symptoms can broadly be grouped into three areas: cognitive dysfunction, commonly described as brain fog; secondly, physical sequelae, most commonly fatigue; thirdly, psychology sequelae, ranging from the mild up to and including PTSD.”

Surveys indicate that there could be hundreds of symptoms of long Covid, ranging from tiredness, shortness of breath, heart palpitations and changes to taste and smell, to insomnia, hallucinations, hearing and vision changes.

More recently, a 13-year-old girl spoke to the media about her experiences with long Covid, which included struggling to walk due to “COVID toes”, whereby one has discoloured, swollen feet.

How is it identified?

Currently there is no official test for long Covid and it is a “diagnosis of exclusion”. This means that doctors try to rule out other possible causes for the symptoms, such as diabetes, thyroid function or iron deficiency.

Speaking about this process, Dr Raghib Ali, a Clinical Epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge and an Honorary Consultant in Acute Medicine at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, tells me that exact diagnosis “is very difficult because there’s no control group to compare (long Covid) to”. He adds that an ONS survey helps clinicians to identify the condition, which “asks what people’s symptoms are now and then asks whether they attribute it to having had Covid in the past, and some do.”

In the future, researchers are hoping they can develop a blood test for the condition within six to 18 months. Imperial College London has found a pattern of unusual antibodies in the blood of a small number of people with long Covid, which could help scientists to identify more cases.

Are its symptoms similar to anything else?

Daniels tells me that some of the symptoms of long Covid overlap with other conditions, due to the serious treatment that many patients have undergone:

“Long Covid is neither surprising nor necessarily unique”, he says. “We’ve known for over a decade that survivors of any critical illness – in other words, those people severely ill enough to require hospital and intensive care admission, have symptoms which are similar to those of long Covid persisting for a year or longer. One Scandinavian study among working age adults admitted to intensive care with sepsis, for example, showed that only 57 per cent were back within 12 months.

“Even for those with relatively minor symptoms, fatigue and breathlessness can persist for many weeks afterwards. The general trajectory, though, is one of improvement.”

He adds that:

“What might be different in long-Covid is an increased likelihood of pulmonary fibrosis and myocarditis, but we do see both conditions occurring following critical illness with sepsis.”

What causes long Covid?

There are a number of hypotheses around what causes long Covid. One is that the virus encourages people’s immune systems to overreact, meaning they attack not only the virus but their own tissues.

Research from Cambridge University indicates that there’s some truth to this idea; it showed that there’s an immunity molecule present in sufferers of long Covid – suggesting that the symptoms are a result of the immune system “not shutting off properly”.

Another theory is that parts of the virus remain within the body, becoming dormant and then reactivated (this happens in herpes, for example). 

Over time, we can expect more of these theories to be tested as researchers look into the condition.

Who’s most at risk from long Covid?

Research seems to suggest that it becomes more likely with age, and that women are more likely to say they’ve said it (3.9 per cent) versus men (3.9 per cent).

It’s worth noting that in more vaccinated countries, it will be harder to get accurate data on who is most susceptible to long Covid (a good thing, incidentally), due to the jab’s protective effects.

How huge will its impact be on the NHS?

Ali tells me that: “the numbers are very large… So that is a huge burden, particularly on primary care (the GP). Most of these people won’t come to the hospital sector, because they’re not sick enough to need hospital treatment, but for primary care it’s a significant burden.”

And Daniels has a similar view: “Irrespective of the terminology and discussions around whether or not long Covid is unique is the long-term human and fiscal impact. If 43 per cent of working age adults are unable to return to work within 12 months following their illness, then the potential impact upon productivity and the economy is huge.

“If these people often go on to require re-hospitalisation, then clearly the burden on the NHS will be significant.

“We know from studies from UCLH and University Hospitals Leicester around a third of people with a previous admission with Covid-19 end up readmitted within about five months. 

“This, together with the fact that the symptoms of long Covid are likely to persist for six to eighteen months in around one quarter of patients, suggests that the short-term burden on the NHS will be significant. It’s unclear at this stage the impact long-term on the NHS as it’s too premature to say with precision how long these sequelae will last.”

Already, ONS statistics suggest that almost four in 10 said this had negatively affected their ability to exercise and three in 10 said it had negatively affected their work.

Current research

The National Institute for Health Research, a government agency which funds research into health and care, has recently allocated £19.6 million to 15 new projects in UK universities.

Researchers will look at organs affected by long Covid, such as the brain, lungs and muscles – as well as determining what treatments work best on long Covid, from drugs to rehabilitation and recovery work. One of the projects involves over 4,500 people.

Current treatments

In England, 89 specialist long Covid assessment centres have been set up, with similar clinics expected to open in Northern Ireland.

In Scotland and Wales, patients are referred to different services by their GPs, depending on what symptoms they have.

So far, it’s reported that around half of people with long Covid had an improvement in their symptoms after having a vaccine.

Medics have also been encouraging sufferers of long Covid to manage symptoms and gradually increase their activity, but there will also be a formal clinical trial into drug treatments. One study is trying to see whether aspirin and anti-histamines can help, for example.

Either way the £19.6 million funding should give researchers a big push for diagnostics and management tools.

A big question for libertarians: what would they do about obesity?

17 Jul

In the last few days, there’s been a lot of discussion about the latest instalment of the The National Food Strategy. Commissioned in 2019 by the Government, and put together by Henry Dimbleby, the co-founder of Leon, it contains radical proposals as to how to tackle the nation’s obesity rates.

Some of its most controversial suggestions are that we need salt and sugar taxes, that the NHS should prescribe vegetables and everyone should eat less meat. Hardly anyone likes the last idea, but libertarians have been vexed by the whole strategy – viewing it as the latest example of the nanny state gone mad.

Having combed through Dimbleby’s report (the second of a two-part strategy – intended to shape legislation in England, but also recommended for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), it seems to me that much of the criticism has been unfair.

For starters, the document is 289 pages in length, so it’s a little ungenerous to write it off in one day. The reactions reminded me of when members of the Left immediately dismissed the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report, which is 258 pages, on the basis of a few passages.

Some of the stereotypes about Dimbleby, too – that he’s a rich bloke, like Jamie Oliver, telling us plebs what to do – don’t add up, especially in the context of the report. Far from being bossy, large parts of it are about nature and ecosystems. And where it makes recommendations about food, it acknowledges the challenges for those on low incomes, whom it advises the Government to support more.

On a more serious note, the report has not come about because rich blokes have run out of hobbies. It’s an attempt to tackle a complex but devastating issue: the UK’s rising obesity rates. It points out that one in three people over 45 in England are now deemed clinically obese. You have to wonder sometimes if we have desensitised to these facts and our situation, despite all the warning signs (as the report points out, “[o]ur obesity problem has been a major factor in the UK’s tragically high death rate” from Covid-19).

There are many other things you could say about this report, but for the sake of one article, I have one question: what is the libertarian answer to obesity rates? Because at the moment it appears to be “do nothing” or sneer at the baddies who want to take away our Kellogg’s Cornflakes. Dimbleby and Oliver may not have the perfect answers, but what is our solution exactly?

I count myself as fairly libertarian, incidentally, but obesity is an area that challenges this philosophy. That’s because scientists have increasingly found that weight has a heritable component, meaning people have differing levels of willpower with diets. As the report spells out: “not all appetites are the same… in an environment where calories are easy to come by, some of us need to work much harder than others to maintain a healthy weight. You have to swim against the powerful current of your appetite.”

This corroborates with findings from Robert Plomin, one of the world’s leading experts in behavioural genetics, and author of the book Blueprint: How DNA makes us who we are. He points out that: “Twin studies estimate heritability of weight as 80 per cent, even though all the genetic data together estimate heritability as 70 per cent.”

In short, people are on different starting points when it comes to how easily they can control their weight (and I say that as someone who has to swim hard against the current), hence why telling someone to use willpower doesn’t always work.

Genes are uncharted territory for libertarians because all of our arguments centre around personal responsibility, free will and individual choice. Of course, these are all important things and many of us reject how much lockdown has taken them away. But there’s a big difference between politicians telling people to wear masks, and how people cope in an environment that encourages overeating, which our society does, especially should they have a predisposition to gain weight. We have to make those distinctions.

Even if we ignore research on genes – some people will say that my argument is fatalistic, wrong and that choice is paramount – it’s here and has already been embedded into public policy. Since 2019, the NHS has sold people genetic tests to spot risk for cancers and dementia. People underestimate how easily these tests can be extended into completely new areas (a test to estimate your risk for obesity), which could then be used to justify preventative measures.

While Dimbleby mentions genes creating differences in eating habits, it’s interesting that the report doesn’t delve much into medicine’s role in addressing obesity rates. Yes, the NHS could prescribe vegetables. But we have also seen drugs developed to help prevent obesity, and even a contraption that stops people’s mouths opening properly.

While I find the latter a rather horrible prospect, I think drugs and other medical solutions (gastric bands, for instance) will become more common and less controversial in years to come – the more we test the “willpower argument”, sugar tax, and move very little on obesity rates.

Ultimately, I don’t think The National Food Plan will make any substantial difference, as – shock, horror – it’s not radical enough. It’s also overly romantic in places, suggesting that school cooking lessons are part of the answer (as someone who did Home Economics for two years, I can’t remember any of the recipes. Boys messing around, however…).

But the report gets it right about environmental triggers and how these correspond with genes. And it has, at least, drawn attention to the urgent situation we are in. A situation to which the libertarian response cannot continue to be – as it seems currently – “let them eat cake”.

Heads they win, tails win lose. Ministers are now under double pressure – from both pro and anti-lockdown campaigners.

8 Jul

As is often the case in British politics, the country is deeply divided – this time around whether the Government should remove England’s Coronavirus restrictions on July 19. For some, this is the right call; they want normality back, and may even feel that the delay to “Freedom Day”, as it is called, was a mistake. Others fear that losing restrictions will lead to a spike in cases.

They are under no illusions that this is likely to happen. Sajid Javid, the new Health Secretary, has told parliament: “It’s important that we’re straight with the British people: cases of COVID-19 are rising and they will continue to rise significantly. We can reasonably expect that by the 19th of July, the number of daily cases will be far higher than today”. The number expected is 100,000 per day by August.

Professor Neil Ferguson, who has played a large part in the Government’s Coronavirus modelling, has estimated that the figure could be higher than that – with around 200,000 daily cases, leading to 200 deaths per day. The last January peak saw the UK register almost 70,000 cases and 1,325 deaths in a day, so it is no wonder that people have concerns about July 19.

The media has decided to frame the date as the “Big Bang reopening” – and others have made dire forecasts about what lies ahead, with over 100 scientists saying that the Government’s strategy – to tolerate high levels of Covid infection – is “unethical and illogical”. Keir Starmer has warned that we’re in for a “summer of chaos” and that “lifting all protections at once is reckless”.

But the Government also has the voice of business to contend with. It was interesting to note that SAGE reportedly wanted to keep face masks, but ministers decided to ditch them after analyses suggested compulsory masks could lead to the events and hospitality industries losing more than £4 billion in lost revenues

Other concerns have been raised, too; some companies are struggling with self-isolation rules, which mean people have to stay in for 10 days if they’ve come into contact with someone who has Covid. This rule will be phased out on August 16, when those who are double jabbed or under 18 won’t have to self-isolate, but it’s currently causing huge disruption for shops, bars and other businesses.

Overall the Government is trying very hard to balance the concerns of those on both sides of the lockdown debate, which are noisily battling for ministers to change course. Boris Johnson was right in his Monday press conference to talk about the balance of risks, as there will never be a perfect time to reopen, nor way to please everyone.

What’s been helpful at this time is Javid’s appointment as Health Secretary, as he is refreshingly frank about the reality of reopening. He has said that no date for lifting restrictions would come with “zero risk” and “we have to learn to live with” Covid-19. The next few weeks are going to be testing for the Government as anti- and pro-lockdown groups call to have their demands met. But more of this firm and realistic approach will help reopenings go ahead.

Does the Climate Change Committee have too much power?

7 Jul

Last month, it was reported that “Ministers ‘should urge public to eat less meat’’. Such is the view of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) – which has advised people to consume less dairy and meat in order to help the UK meet its environmental targets.

For many Brits, the very existence of the CCC will come as a surprise – never mind that it is now offering guidance on what to eat. But the public is likely to become much more aware of it, and its recommendations, because of the Government’s desire to meet its Net Zero targets (set by the CCC), and the publicity about their costs

The CCC has also had some high profile critics, such as Nigel Lawson. In a letter to Parliament in 2019, he claimed that the CCC’s recommendations were not accurate and reliable and, furthermore, that “it is essential that Parliament has time to scrutinise new laws that are likely to result in astronomical costs.” Did he have a point?

First of all, it’s worth explaining the CCC – and its history. The body was established under the Climate Change Act 2008, which legally binds the Government to reducing UK carbon dioxide emission “by at least 80 per cent by 2050, compared to 1990 levels”.

It stipulates that the Government must create a committee in order to achieve this – hence the CCC. The CCC website says it’s an “independent, statutory body” that aims to “report to Parliament on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for and adapting to the impacts of climate change.”

As of 2017, Lord Deben has been Chair of the CCC. He was previously the Conservative MP for Suffolk Coastal and now holds a series of roles, such as Chairman for Sancroft International (a sustainability consultancy) and Valpak (a leading provider of environmental compliance).

Other Committee members include a behavioural scientist, Director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate and an environmental economist. One member has recently had to step down because of a potential conflict of interest (more here).

While the CCC has kept quite a low profile, it has provoked mixed reactions – with some sharing Lawson’s cynicism about its role. Ben Pile is the author of the Climate Resistance blog and sceptical about the costs of Net Zero.

He tells me that in the era the CCC was created, “there was a tendency towards technocracies (such as Tony Blair’s decision to grant the Bank of England independence) and to push important decisions to those.” He calls this “the post-democratic model of politics”.

Pile adds that parliament, unsure of how to reach its own environmental targets, “essentially gave all of its power in this domain to the CCC”. The problem with this, however, is that “when there are debates about climate change and targets, no one votes against anything.” He adds that “they might as well not have a debate”, even when discussing trillions of pounds, and pushing an agenda that the “public just aren’t interested in.”

Andrew Montford is Deputy Director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, an all-party and non-party think tank, “which, while open-minded on the contested science of global warming, is deeply concerned about the costs and other implications of many of the policies currently being advocated.”

I ask Montford if the CCC has become too powerful, but he says it’s more about influence. “Their word is in the UK taken as gospel, and if they say we need to move faster, then the Government tends to just say, well we need to do something,” he says. “They are in a position where they can bully governments into moving faster than perhaps governments would like.”

He agrees that there is “very little democratic oversight of what they do” and “they have pushed very hard on renewables… and there are other views”. Furthermore, Montford says “The committee’s got to be much more balanced… The whole thing is built around the idea that the general public’s interests revolve around the climate in 2050, and actually people have more immediate concerns, and those angles aren’t really addressed.”

Sam Hall, Director of the Conservative Environment Network, on the other hand, is more positive about the CCC. For starters, he says that David Cameron was an initial supporter of the Climate Change Act, which led to its inception, and that “as Conservatives, we should feel some ownership over this framework”.

He adds that “the fact that it’s expert, independent-advised” should mean “that targets can be less politicised” and that the Government doesn’t have to follow the CCC. “The Committee on Climate Change is there to provide that expert independent advice to inform policy-making, but ultimately it doesn’t make those decisions, so it wouldn’t have a veto on any changes to our climate targets.”

It strikes me that the closest thing to the CCC it is the Electoral Commission, but Hall points out that the EC has stronger powers (“to fine and take people to court”). The Office for Budget Responsibility might be a closer comparison. Montford thinks it is more like SAGE. (“politicians find it very hard to stand up to scientists… because then you’re anti-scientist, aren’t you.”)

Has the CCC become too powerful in politics? Although not exactly akin to the EC, you could conclude that, like it, it is part of the quangocracy legacy of the 2000s.

Its website certainly seems impressive and objective, as do its reports. However the biggest issue going forward may be one of public awareness. Frankly, I’m not sure many people are alert to the inner operations of the CCC, nor how big the bill for its recommendations are going to be.

It seems to me that such big decisions need – at the very least – more public votes, and attempts to keep the country’s environmental transformation committee-led, however sophisticated the committee is, will come back to bite.

To the Point. How mass vaccination has cut self-isolation.

30 Jun
  • Back to normal. Sajid Javid, the new Health Secretary, has said he wants to return to normal “as soon as possible”. Already there have been some questions about what this “normal” could look like. Will it be a normal that means people no longer need to self-isolate?
  • The current normal. How are rules around self-isolation currently affecting the British public? The Opinions and Lifestyle Survey, conducted by the Office for National Statistics, gives an impression of the current level of disruption self-isolation is causing. It tracked the percentage of adults who’ve self-isolated in Great Britain in the last seven days from March (in accordance with when self-isolation became a thing) to June 2021, alongside other measures of how people’s lifestyle had been impacted by Covid-19.
  • Schools. While there has been quite significant concern about the policy of sending children home to self-isolate, it’s interesting to note the rapid decline in adults having to do this. The last figure, taken on June 16 to June 20 shows four per cent have had to isolate in the last seven days.
  • An encouraging sign. The graph makes sense in the context of the vaccine roll out – which began at the end of last year – and in terms of Covid-19’s winter peak (the number of people self-isolating rises slightly between December and January). Although it’s also worth saying that the graph could reflect compliance levels – with people less inclined to self-isolate this far on in the crisis. Whether the trend we are seeing continues in the next few weeks will be largely due to Javid – and his plans for how we “live” with the virus, as well as the final vaccine push.
  • A Singapore model? Perhaps the UK will end up like Singapore, which has prepared a road map for living with Covid-19. It will, in future, be treated similarly to the flu, and close contacts of cases will no longer have to isolate. We will have to see…