The new testing plan that Johnson believes will help him control the virus – and win back the support of Conservative MPs

19 Oct

The pincer movement on the Government from Keir Starmer, calling for a “circuit-breaker”, and Conservative MPs, urging a Sweden-type policy, has been enabled by a political development amidst the Covid-19 crisis.

It’s the same one that has spurred Andy Burnham’s public resistance to Ministers in Manchester, and complaints from Tory backbenchers that their lower-Coronavirus suburban seats are being lumped in with higher-virus urban ones under the new three-tiers plan.

Namely, a loss of confidence in the central element of Boris Johnson’s strategy, and the strategic alternative to lockdowns and loosening: test and trace.

The scheme depends on finding within 48 hours 80 per cent of those who have been in contact with someone who a test has confirmed has Covid-19.  And on those who are so traced then self-isolating for the required period.

ConservativeHome hasn’t yet found anyone with knowledge of the system who believes that this target will be hit, despite the localisation of tracing that the Government has recently agreed to.

However, Downing Street and senior Ministers believe that there is now a way out of the predicament that it currently finds itself in – one that will put Starmer back in his box, quell the calls for a national lockdown, relax the three-tiered restrictions plan and quieten those restive Tory backbenchers: a new testing programme entirely.

It is centred around two kinds of tests – in the jargon, LAMP tests and lateral-flow tests.  The key to the latter is that they cut out the need for tracing, because of the scale at which they can be delivered.

If there are enough tests, after all, and they deliver results fast enough, then an elaborate tracing programme simply isn’t necessary.  Crucially, the lateral-flow tests can deliver a result within 15 minutes or so.  This programme is the Prime Minister’s “moonshot”.

Trials will be rolled out in some of the worst affected regions to universities, with students tested weekly; to care homes, with staff tested fortnightly, and schools, where pupils and staff will be tested in the event of an outbreak.

Meanwhile, the LAMP tests will be concentrated on testing asymptomatic NHS staff in seven urban areas.  These require contact tracing.  So the results will be collected by NHS Test and Trace, and then published as part of the daily case numbers.

Millions of these new tests – the lateral-flow ones are all done by means of swabs and don’t need to be sent off to laboratories – have already been bought.  Similar ones are being used in America.

Government sources claim that present trials with students show that a higher proportion of the latter are prepared to self-isolate if tested directly, and told that they have the virus, than if contacted by a tracer, and told that they might do (which makes sense).

Unusually, the Prime Minister underplayed the chances of an immediate breakthrough last week, saying that “no country in the world is regularly testing millions of people”.

The Government will now need “to take the time to establish how to do this effectively and safely, and to build the logistics and distribution operation necessary for a large scale operation across the country”.  That will involve a shake-up.

It will involve streamlining and if necessary changing the administrative and legal framework that obstructs parts of the NHS from sharing data with government, and the private sector from delivering tests.

The present test and trace scheme will continue (Ministers insist that it is on track to hit a 500,000 daily testing capacity target by the end of this month) and the Department of Health will be responsible for the delivery of the new programme.

Nonetheless, it is Downing Street itself that has been driving the moonshot, working with scientists, laboratories, companies and deliverers: a new operational system, in short.

One Government insider says that, if the new scheme is to work, private sector involvement is crucial.  “We need to get to the point where, say, pubs and football clubs can deliver the lateral-flow tests themselves”.  There is frustration with the gold-plating of laws and regulations that make data sharing more difficult.

How soon could the new tests really start to deliver results?  One MP insider told this site that it might be as soon as “a couple of months”, but all concerned are being cautious.

Ministers with a range of approaches to tackling the virus were supportive of the new plans when quizzed about them.  The question is whether Tory MPs, and in particular the 50 or so who have voted against the Government on scrutiny and the strategy, will be as easily reassured.

They will ask some searching questions.  The moonshot is, after all, trials to date.  What if they don’t work?  Or can’t be rolled out smoothly, because of the legal and bureaucratic obstacles to which insiders refer?

Given the operational and cultural failures of the state to date – the NHS app fiasco during the summer; the recent under-reporting of tests; the use of outdated software; the chaos over airports; the carnage in care homes; the grim death numbers – they are also bound to say: why should it all be different this time?

Johnson will hope that early successes will win them round, and that political life will be breathed back into testing (and tracing, as local authorities and health trusts begin to deliver it on the ground).

As the number of tests scaled up, Starmer’s push would then falter, the three-tier system could be eased, pressure from local councils, not least Conservative ones, would wind down – and the UK really might emerged as the “world-beater” that the Prime Minister has promised so often.

All this would happen, please note, whether a vaccine is delivered successfully or not.  Our sense is that Number 10 is less optimistic than some Government scientific advisers on this point – a subject big enough for another day.

The moonshot may work and it may not.  But even if it does, there is a question about political timing.  If those quick wins don’t come, neither Tory MPs nor local authorities will be reassured, and Johnson will find himself pulled betweeen loosening and lockdowns, with more defeats in Parliament and even less authority.

Either way, Ministers need to change the public conversation, or try to, about the balance of risk – through reports on the healthcare and economic impact on lives and livelihoods of lockdowns, restrictions and Covid-19 itself.

Burnham is trying to face both ways on lockdown restrictions

15 Oct

Andy Burnham, the directly elected Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, is a shrewd politician. Within a few months of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour leader, Burnham concluded that the hard Left were destined to prove themselves right in their long-standing contention that there is “no Parliamentary road to socialism.” Rather than sit on the Oppositiion benches, if he wanted to exercise power it would require a new role. Given that at the General Election last year, his constituency of Leigh was gained by the Conservatives, it’s unlikely Burnham has any regrets.

Given his political experience, Burnham is familiar with producing forms of words designed to reconcile what are irreconcilable positions. He certainly wishes to disguise, if possible, a split in his stance and that of, Sir Keir Starmer, his Party leader.

Yet when it comes to his stance on the lockdown, Burnham’s efforts to maintain contradictory positions surely leave his credibility in shreds. At present, Greater Manchester is at the “Tier 2” level of restrictions. Burnham argues strongly that it would be wrong to increase it to “Tier 3” the level being applied in Liverpool. He has gone so far as to threaten legal action against the Government over such a proposal. The logic being such an imposition would be unnecessary – or even counterproductive. Yet at the same time, Burnham has indicated his support for a new national lockdown – which would be far more draconian than the situation currently being applied in Liverpool.

One of the criticisms of the Government’s approach to local lockdowns is that the areas they cover are too wide. Sir Richard Leese, the Leader of Manchester City Council, was among the signatories to a letter which argued that as “decision making must balance difficult trade-offs. This requires a more nuanced approach than moving straight to a full local lockdown under the ‘tier three’ arrangements. Our response should consider broader local impacts than absolute numbers of infections: impacts on jobs and business; effects on poverty and deprivation; and relative infection rates in different sections of the population (e.g. between students and care homes).” There is a strong case to be made for greater targetting. But would a fullscale national lockdown constitute a “more nuanced approach”?

Thus we have this statement from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority which sought to combine the messages that the restrictions went too far – as well as going not far enough.  It starts off:

“We do not believe we should be put into Tier 3 for two reasons. First, the evidence does not currently support it. The rate of Covid infection in Greater Manchester is much lower, at 357.6 cases per 100,000, compared to Liverpool City Region which is in Tier 3 at 488.0 cases per 100,000. Plus our hospital admission rate is much lower than in LCR as Deputy CMO, Jonathan Van Tam, highlighted in his press conference this week. Liverpool University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust 7-day rolling average Covid patients in beds is at around the 225 mark and in Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust it’s at the 100 mark. Second, the financial package accompanying Tier 3 is nowhere near sufficient to prevent severe hardship, widespread job losses and business failure.”

But it continues:

“If cases continue to rise as predicted, and the Government continues to refuse to provide the substantial economic support that Tier 3 areas will need, then a number of Leaders in Greater Manchester believe a national circuit break, with the required financial support would be a preferable option. This would create the conditions for a re-set of the Test and Trace service into a more locally-controlled operation which, with cases driven down to a lower level, would be more likely to succeed.”

Note the reference to “a number of”. It was a reference the Labour leader missed at Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday. Sir Keir stated:

“I think the Prime Minister is behind the curve again. He probably has not noticed that this morning, the council leaders in Greater Manchester that he just quoted, including the Mayor and the Conservative leader of Bolton Council, said in a press statement that they support a circuit break above tier 3 restrictions—keep up, Prime Minister.”

Cllr David Greenhalgh, the Leader of Bolton Council has made clear that he was misrepresented by the Labour leader. Why has Sir Keir not apologised?

How long would Burnham be willing to back a “circuit breaker” lasting for? The statement doesn’t set a limit. Sir Keir has proposed that “two or three weeks” restrictions would include all “non essential” offices being closed, as well as pubs and restaurants. What if case numbers don’t fall? Would Burnham favour another two or three weeks? What if they fell a certain amount, but SAGE advised that rather than full liberalisation, certain areas – such as Greater Manchester, perhaps – should be on Tier 3? Would Burnham agree?

As Burnham is willing to support a “circuit break” of undefined length, what if he finds that there is a difficulty for The Treasury in stumping up the “required financial support” he so breezily calls for. The statement refers to “a furlough scheme of at least 80 per cent of wages offered to all businesses forced to close or severely affected.” But the idea that funding for a second national lockdown would be as generous – or more generous – than provided for the first one is fantasy.

There is a serious case to be made for more restrictions. There is a serious case to be made against. Burnham’s tortuous efforts to put forward both cases at once are a dire failure of leadership.

Labour council leaders’ resistance to local lockdowns gives Starmer a dilemma

7 Oct

Sweden is governed by the Swedish Social Democratic Party (in coalition with the Green Party). The Swedish Social Democrats are a sister party to the British Labour Party. They are both affiliated to the Party of European Socialists and the Progressive Alliance (as the Socialist International is now called.) Yet I am not aware of a single Labour MP who supports the policy of their Swedish comrades in opposing lockdown restrictions in response to the coronavirus. Boris Johnson has to cope with growing scepticism from his Parliamentary colleagues about his approach. But when it comes to Labour MPs, Sir Keir Starmer does not have the same difficulty maintaining support for restrictions.

However, when it comes to local government, the position is more complicated. There might be some logic in varying the severity of the rules imposed in one area rather than another in proportion to the degree of risk. While that principle is broadly acclaimed, when it comes to applying it in practice, there is great potential for unfair treatment. With a lot of data to measure, it will often be possible to make a case that one local authority has locked down even though another one remains free despite having more cases.  Or that a lockdown might be justified for one or two wards but not a whole city. Then there will be the disputes about process. The Government hasn’t been transparent about figures. Or it hasn’t consulted in advance.

Another grievance is that there is a lack of compensation for businesses being hit by the extra impositions. Furthermore, that the “financial package” should include extra funding for the local authority. In 1948 Nye Bevan, the Health Secretary, declared that he had won over the support of doctors for the establishment of the NHS “by stuffing their mouths with gold.” Councils can miraculously find they are convinced of the justification for a local lockdown if they discover lots more money from The Treasury goes with it. The trouble is that the Chancellor is running out of the stuff.

Then there is the frustration that the centralised arrangements for test and trace have failed. Local authorities can argue that giving them responsibility would be more effective and mitigate the need for new restrictions.

Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, says:

“Without urgent change, the North of England will be thrown into one of the most difficult winters we have ever experienced, with the risk of significant harm to health and our economy. It’s that serious.

“We are heading into the winter months with a Test and Trace system which is still not working and the risk of redundancies rising sharply as the furlough scheme comes to an end. Without extra support for individuals, business and councils, it could be a winter of dangerous discontent.

“I remain ready to work with the Government to build public support for its approach to local lockdowns, but that requires meaningful consultation and proper support for the areas affected. That is not happening at the moment.

“We have now reached a point where there is a real risk of the Government losing the public in the North because of the perceived unfairness of its local lockdown policies. We can’t let that happen. There is still time to put in place better measures to protect communities across the North this winter but time is running out.”

Joe Anderson, the Labour Mayor of Liverpool, is even more critical, declaring that the restrictions are “not working and the increasing infection rate going up” and adding:

“It’s about common sense, it’s about getting the balance right and about what we can do, what we should do and how local lockdowns work, working with local leaders to get it right. There’s a lack of consistency, a lack of clarity, but most of all a lack of communication and collaboration.”

The leaders of Leeds, Manchester, and Newcastle city councils have joined Anderson in writing to the Health Secretary to oppose further restrictions. That letter argues for “local decision making to agree additional lockdowns before they happen”. But it gives a pretty big clue that winning such agreement would be unlikely:

“We want to be clear however that we do not support further economic lockdowns…This requires a more nuanced approach than moving straight to a full local lockdown under the ‘tier three’ arrangements. Our response should consider broader local impacts than absolute numbers of infections: impacts on jobs and business; effects on poverty and deprivation; and relative infection rates in different sections of the population (e.g. between students and care homes).”

Back in July we had opposition expressed by Sir Peter Soulsby, the Labour Mayor of Leicester, to the “political” decision to lock down the whole City and to “penalise its economy” rather than to “focus on the ten per cent where the virus is “.

It’s not just Labour politicians. Andy Preston, the independent Mayor of Middlesbrough, says:

“To me, it is obvious that anyone should be allowed to visit a relative or a friend in their garden, and have a cup of coffee while remaining well distanced. And, of course, we should be able to meet them for a chat in a well-run, socially distanced coffee shop. Yet these new rules – which essentially ban different households from meeting – will prohibit all those safe, human activities that are small but so essential for wellbeing.To add to the insanity, it isn’t even clear how the regulations will be enforced. Like so many growing towns, Middlesbrough spills out of its boundaries – and the neighbouring borough of Redcar and Cleveland is not included in the restrictions. It’ll be two rules for one town, and sometimes two rules within one street.”

So will Sir Keir back these local leaders or continue to back all restrictions the Government imposes? Last week he voted to support the full set of measures, but asked the Government to “reflect” on whether closing the pubs at 10pm was counterproductive. Rather a weak compromise to vote in favour of something but to declare it to be a mistake. At Prime Minister’s Questions this afternoon Sir Keir highlighted inconsistencies and asked about the ineffectiveness of local lockdowns. We were left unclear whether Sir Keir felt the answer was to lift the lockdowns or make them more severe.

But the dilemma is clear to see. Politicians like to talk about “following the science” regarding coronavirus – as if the evidence was clear, the impact of measures easy to accurately predict, and that scientists are all agreed. Of course, that is nonsense. But following the polling is more straightforward. There is strong support for restrictions – the objection being the Government hasn’t gone for enough. Even if Sir Keir just asks for specific relaxations, the public may get the message that he wants the Government’s measures to be softened – when there is strong demand for them to be harder.

I don’t expect Sir Keir will significantly shift on this issue – unless and until the polling does.

Grant Shapps: Why I’m in Manchester today to help kick-start better, greener and more modern transport for the North

23 Jul

Grant Shapps is Transport Secretary, and is MP for Welwyn Hatfield.

Forgive a Conservative Cabinet Minister for citing a Labour Prime Minister in approving terms, but one of my favourite quotations on railways comes from the opposite side of the House. Not a real Prime Minister, to be accurate, but a fictional one. Harry Perkins, the Sheffield steelworker’s son who takes on the Establishment and loses in A Very British Coup.

Asked by a reporter if he intends to abolish first class rail travel now that he is in power, at the head of a radical Left-wing government, our Harry replies: ‘No, I’m going to abolish second class rail travel. I think we’re all first class. Don’t you?’

Perkins may have had the wrong Idea about many things, but he was right on this. For years now, the successful South East, and particularly London, has sucked in rail investment. The argument in Whitehall goes something like this. London is the cash cow; the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Spend on infrastructure there, and in the prosperous hinterland supplying its commuters, and you will get bang for your taxpayers’ buck. The “business case” is overwhelming. Why risk spending in the North or other supposedly far-flung places, when you can be sure of a good return on your investment by shipping white-collar workers into the City?

This is one of those circular arguments that ensures nothing changes. Reinforce economic strength and punish relative weakness, and you get what I call the transport deficit, resulting in a lopsided rail network that impedes the spread of prosperity.

While commuters into London enjoy new trains, their counterparts in Manchester and elsewhere have in many cases put up with old or second-hand rolling stock. And the routes these trains run on are more likely to be narrower, more congested and more prone to delay.

For far too long, the North, cradle of the Industrial Revolution, has had to put up with rail infrastructure bequeathed from that time. Take the Trans-Pennine route from Manchester to Leeds. This corridor through rolling moorland is completely inadequate as a link between two great cities and the other cities – Liverpool, York and Newcastle – that connect through it. Much of it is two-track, meaning that fast trains must jumble up with local stopping services, slowing everything down. It is badly in need of electrification to speed services and make them greener.

I’ll let a regular user of this line describe her experience of this route, using it to reach Manchester from her home in Marsden before she gave up in frustration.

‘Standing room only at peak times is a given. Home time is worst – trains regularly cancelled, so it means platforms are crammed with two or three trainloads of stressed-out people, and when the train eventually arrives it is every man and woman for themselves. People just surging forward knowing that if you don’t you will be left on the platform. Then the poor conductor comes round to throw people off who’d otherwise be hanging out of the doors.

There are fights – not surprisingly. People just want to get home after a hard day. Most people are amazingly restrained, though, given the appalling service and the huge sums of money they pay to use it. A sort of “What do you expect? It’s the North”. A hellish commute, which is why I started to drive in.’

Many people in the North took a chance on the Conservatives at the last election. They put aside old loyalties, not only because of Brexit, but because they saw a glimmer of opportunity – a Prime Minister prepared to tear up the rulebook of North-South politics. Go on,they said, prove us right.

Which is why I’m in Manchester today, surveying the view from Piccadilly Station with Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Manchester. Politically, we are the odd couple – hardly natural allies.

But we share a desire to rectify this transport deficit, and get things moving. This is practical politics, getting together to solve problems that do not discriminate when it comes to party affiliation. But this emphasis on delivery will work for Conservative MPs across the North, too. Particularly those who helped to demolish the Red Wall ,and who now occupy marginals in which expectations are high.

There will be more of this with the Northern Transport Acceleration Council, which I formally announce today. This will bring together ministers from the Department for Transport – junior ministers or me – and mayors and council leaders, Tory and Labour, to thrash out ways to cut through red tape and build new transport infrastructure quickly, in the life of this parliament. NTAC is about doing.

We are “doing” already. Today, this Government committed some £600 million to kickstart the upgrading of the Trans-Pennine Route and begin the process of ending commuter misery. Four tracks will replace two on key stretches initially, easing congestion. And there are plans for full electrification, digital signalling and more four-tracking in future.

We know projects like this must proceed, despite the blow delivered by Covid-19 to the economy. Growth is the key to our recovery, and that means infrastructure: green infrastructure that future-proofs our transport system as we face the challenge of climate change.

Burnham was generous in his praise for these initial steps, describing them as a gear change. The best aspect of this Government is it willingness to experiment, not only with solutions to problems that affect us all but in relationships with others who may not fully share our beliefs.

Pragmatism must be our ideology. Conservatives are best when they tackle problems in a rational, practical way. It’s what people expect of us.

At the last election, former Labour voters in the North and elsewhere lent us their votes in a gigantic experiment. After decades of barely-managed decline they are hungry for success. They only desire the tools to get on with the job. We must supply them and set the North free.