How do you persuade the unvaccinated to get jabbed? Gently does it.

8 Jan

“There are still almost nine million people eligible who haven’t had their booster”, were the words of Boris Johnson at Tuesday’s press conference. Although the UK has had a tremendous vaccination programme, with 90 per cent of people over the age of 12 having had a single jab, and 80 per cent their second, the Government still wants to drive home, as much as possible, the need for boosters.

It is no wonder the Government is being pushy. The unvaccinated, and those whose with waning immunity from previous doses of the vaccine, particularly older age groups, are at risk of hospitalisation and death from the virus – at a time when Coronavirus has become more transmissible, due to the Omicron variant. They also put a strain on the NHS – with one London doctor recently warning that 80 to 90 per cent of the patients in intensive care were unvaccinated – making it more likely that the Government would have to consider lockdown(s) again.

Analyses show who the Government has in its sights, as it tries to Get Boosters Done. There are, for starters, regional disparities. London is a big “problem area” as far jabs are concerned, where only 39 per cent had had their booster and 69 per cent have had their first dose of the vaccine. This is in stark contrast to the South West of the UK, where the statistics stand at 62 per cent and 86 per cent, respectively.

Then there’s more specific demographic data. An analysis of 20 million NHS records by OpenSAFELY group, run by Oxford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, shows that take up is lower among ethnic minorities.

Polls have also shown previously that young people, and women, were more likely to be hesitant about getting the jab. According to the Office of National Statistics, the most common reasons people are avoiding their booster are: thinking it will not offer extra protection (45 per cent of respondents); “thinking the first and second vaccine will be enough to keep safe” (33 per cent); “being worried about having a bad reaction to the booster vaccine” (29 per cent) and “being worried about long-term effects on health” (17 per cent).

With that in mind, is the Government’s approach to the unjabbed the correct one? While it is not as extreme as France, where Emmanuel Macron has said he wants to ““p*ss off” the unvaccinated, or Austria, which is to have a lockdown for the same group, its strategy is still fairly hardline.

Its most stringent measure is vaccine passports, meaning that people will be prohibited for spaces, such as large events and nightclubs, should they be unable to provide a negative Covid result and not have had two jabs. Already there are signs that these measures will escalate, with boosters becoming a requirement for vaccine passports and travel. Johnson even warned that there could even be a “national debate” on mandatory jabs, in perhaps his least libertarian move ever.

Listening to the Prime Minister on Tuesday, it struck me that the current tactics will not persuade those most reluctant. The fact is that passports appeal to those who are content with a strong state. But one reason others aren’t getting a jab is precisely because they are wary of it, and thus will not respond well to threats to their freedoms.

In general, there have been some very counterproductive efforts to Get Britain Jabbed. The Archbishop of Canterbury, for instance, recently declared that Jesus would have got a jab and, around the same time, Tony Blair said that anyone who is eligible and refused the vaccine is an “idiot”. Rather like how militant Remainers shouted insults at Brexiteers, the result is to alienate those whom one wants to persuade.

It’s worth saying that behind the scenes the Government has taken more of a “soft” approach to encouraging jab uptake. Last year it hired MMC, a specialist agency for diverse communities, to boost take up among minority groups. There have also been gentle campaigns, one involving TV adverts with the message “every vaccination gives us hope”, targeted at over-50s who are hesitant.

But perhaps the Government can go further with these methods. Professor Andrew Pollard, Chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccine and Immunisation, and whom I wrote about yesterday, said that the solution to the unvaccinated lies in “a conversation with community leaders, or trusted person, such as a GP.” Surely the Government’s success in cutting that nine million figure relies on building trust, alleviating fears and connecting with communities.

The Government also needs to make more of a case to young people as to why they should keep getting jabbed when they are low risk on aggregate. If the answer is “civil duty” – so as to cut transmission in the population – maybe it is better to spell this out, as many will think they don’t personally need it. The default at the moment is to treat youngsters as if they have done great wrong if they haven’t had a booster, despite the enormous sacrifices they made at other points in the pandemic. All in all, “gently does it”, might be the best advice to persuading all the unjabbed.

Viva the vaccine passport rebellion

10 Dec

What a week it’s been for the Government. With the furore around whether or not Downing Street had a party – or three – the Electoral Commission’s verdict on Boris Johnson’s wallpaper and the arrival of his and Carrie Johnson’s baby daughter, the media has had no end of things to write about.

Unfortunately for the Government, much more negative attention is on its way, due to a growing Conservative rebellion around Coronavirus vaccine passports, which, on Wednesday, Johnson announced would be implemented in England (in what some have called a “diversionary tactic”). 

Although Conservative MPs have been generally supportive of measures to combat Coronavirus, from the Emergency Powers Bill to curfews, something about the passports has pushed them to their limits.

Tens of Conservatives, including Dehenna Davison, Andrew Bridgen and Johnny Mercer have tweeted their disapproval of vaccine passports (which have been introduced in Scotland and Wales), with William Wragg, a member of the Covid Recovery Group, being so brazen as to call for Sajid Javid to “resign” over the latest measures. Expect a mega rebellion on passports on Tuesday, when they’ll be voted on, with talks of up to 100 MPs rejecting the plans.

The Government’s justification for passports has been the quickly-spreading Omicron variant, which has prompted it to unleash its “Plan B” set of restrictions. This includes asking people to work from home when they can from next Monday, as well as making masks compulsory in many indoor settings; two requirements that have received much less, albeit some, criticism compared to passports.

Part of the reason why MPs may have become more concerned about these is the events elsewhere in Europe, which have brought into sharp focus how illiberal restrictions can become. Austria’s decision to make vaccines mandatory has been a wake up call – to say the least. The more cynical will say that some MPs are simply using passports as an opportunity to kick Johnson when he’s down, having disapproved of his policies for a while.

My own view, in regards to the introduction of vaccine passports, is one of mild disbelief that the Government ever contemplated them in the first place, never mind that Johnson said there should be a “national conversation” on mandatory jabs. 

There seem to be far more arguments against passports than those in favour (many of which are based on emotional reasoning – “well I like the idea” – and a desire to conform – “well France has done it”). They are divisive, literally separating society into two; don’t completely stop transmission; no one knows where the cut off point for such passports should be (flu?) and will make life complicated and miserable, with large economic consequences. The Night Time Industries Association has already said passes have caused a 30 and 26 per cent trade drop-off in Scotland and Wales, respectively.

Perhaps the most worrying thing, though, is we simply don’t know the long-term impact. Passports are one giant experiment, which we have discussed with all the seriousness of whether someone should change bank accounts.

In general, vaccine passports seem to symbolise a wider issue with the Government, in the Covid wars, which is that it hasn’t completely decided how to be “Global Britain” yet. Post-Brexit it has the opportunity to show the world a different approach to the pandemic; one that respects civil liberties, and isn’t so far away from Sweden’s more relaxed strategy. Instead, we seem to be “Herd Britain”, constantly keeping an eye on what France and Germany are up to, with a view to emulating them.

Either way, something has changed in the equation. The crucial question next week is how the Government groups the votes on “Plan B”. If MPs can vote on vaccine passports as a lone category, it makes it far easier for the idea to be shot down. On the other hand, if vaccine passports, masks and working from home are placed into a single “Plan B” vote, the Government might find all of its plans in disarray; as Bridgen warned “I will vote against any legislation that sees [passports’] introduction“. That, or it’ll be easier to sell to Labour, which is pro restrictions. Whatever the case, we need a cut off point as to how far measures can go; viva the vaccine passport rebels, I say.

Peter Franklin: I’m pro-mask, pro-vax and pro-lockdown (if necessary). But against compulsory vaccination. Here’s why.

6 Dec

Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.

I’m a Covid hardliner: pro-vax, pro-mask and — if the circumstances demand it — pro-lockdown. I’ve listened to those who think otherwise, but haven’t been convinced by their arguments.

So when a colleague warned me last year that compulsory vaccinations were on the way — plus second-class citizen status for the unvaccinated — I thought he was exaggerating. Things like that might happen in China, but not in the West.

Well, he was right and I was wrong. Last week, Germany followed Austria by singling out the unvaccinated for lockdown. The two-tier society the sceptics warned us about is happening.

But even worse is the prospect of compulsory vaccination. According to Angela Merkel (and her successor, Olaf Scholz) they’ll be coming by February.

I wonder how the German authorities intend to enforce the new policy? As far as I know, there are no plans for physical coercion. Unwilling citizens won’t be literally held down while somebody forces a needle into their veins. However there are other methods of persuasion. The state doesn’t need to use violence if it wants to ruin your life.

There’s the prospect of indefinite lockdown, for instance. Or what if a refusal to get vaccinated becomes grounds for dismissal — and not just in hospitals and care homes?

Direct financial penalties could be another weapon. The Greek government is already introducing fines of a hundred euros of month for older people who fail to get jabbed.

At this point I’d like to stress that getting jabbed is a very good idea. Vaccines work — and the evidence on the efficacy of booster shots is encouraging. And yet the decision must remain that of the individual. A vaccine mandate is not like a mask mandate. In penetrating the body it literally crosses a line — the one between you and the rest of the world.

I’m more relaxed about the frontiers of the state rolling forward than a lot of Conservatives are. But all the way into my bloodstream? Not without my say so.

But just how absolute is the principle of bodily autonomy? Imagine a serious outbreak of, say, Ebola somewhere in Europe. Should the authorities do everything possible to contain the threat — including compulsory isolation and medical treatment? I think that most of us, a few libertarians excepted, would say “yes”.

The uncomfortable fact is that very few of our liberties are entirely beyond question. There are circumstances in which most of them can be reasonably taken away from us by the state. However, that is precisely why governments need to wield such power with the utmost restraint. And therein lies the problem.

In my experience, most politicians are not in fact power-crazed maniacs. However, they are desperate to prove their relevance. One only has to look at Ursula von der Leyen’s intervention on vaccine mandates. At a press conference last week, the President of the European Commission advocated an EU-wide policy: “How we can encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the European Union? This needs discussion. This needs a common approach.”

It really doesn’t. As this pandemic has proven time-and-time again, patterns of infection differ between countries (even neighbouring ones). Therefore they require country-specific responses. To filter these decisions through the EU’s unwieldy power structures and then impose them as a one-size-fits-all policy across the continent is the last thing that Europe needs. Wasn’t the debacle of the EU’s vaccine procurement programme warning enough?

Not for the first time, the British can count themselves lucky that we’re not part of this anymore. But can we be sure that vaccine mandates won’t cross the Channel?

Laurence Fox was among those horrified by Oliver Dowden’s reassurances on the matter. Asked, by Julia Hartley-Brewer to rule out German-style policies for the UK, the Conservative Party Chairman said “It’s not something we want to do or plan to do in the United Kingdom. And the reason why we… won’t hopefully have to do any of that is because of the booster…”

Leaping upon the ambiguities in Dowden’s answer, Hartley-Brewer pressed him to unequivocally rule out and condemn the German approach. You can judge for yourself, but I don’t think he did — though he did his voice his disagreement with compulsory vaccination “in principle”.

Hartley-Brewer wasn’t satisfied with that. She wanted a categorical statement that the government would “never, ever under any circumstances bring in mandatory jabs and never put in a lockdown for those who are unvaccinated.” Indeed, she pronounced herself “stunned that politicians across the board in this country aren’t making that statement.”

I’m not. If we can’t rule out a scenario in which the choice is between locking-down the unvaccinated only and locking-down the whole country, then we can be sure that our leaders will want to keep their options open.

The protests in Europe show why the Government pressed ahead with its ‘big bang’ July reopening

23 Nov

In the last few days, shocking scenes from Europe have been splashed across the newspapers. Huge protests have erupted in the continent after governments ramped up their Coronavirus measures to deal with growing rates of the virus.

In Austria, which has become the first country in Europe to make vaccinations compulsory and has returned to a full national lockdown, tens of thousands protested, with signs reading “no to vaccination” and “enough is enough”.

Elsewhere in Belgium, 35,000 protested against measures such as vaccine passes for restaurants and bars. Demonstrators threw fireworks at the police, who responded with tear gas and water cannons.

Similar incidents have taken place in other destinations, such as the Netherlands, where riot police used horses, dogs and batons to get rid of the crowds, as well as in Croatia and Italy. All in all, it has been an incredibly chaotic week – which should make leaders think hard about their future pandemic strategies.

In the UK, there have been some very deep-seated notions about how to best manage the virus – now tested by events in Europe. One has been the assumption that the more restrictions, the better. The media and critics of the Government have often called for lockdown(s), “Plan B”, and even referred to England’s unlocking in July as the “big bang” reopening, while idolising Germany and others with stricter policies. 

But our European counterparts show there are two major dangers to indefinite restrictions. One relates to people’s immunity. Part of the reason the UK is in a better position, according to experts, is because it timed its “exit wave” – a rebound in infection when people start circulating again – with summer, when it’s easier to deal with.

While this meant the UK had high infection rates during this period, leading to accusations of it being “plague island”, it now has high levels of immunity (also thanks to the vaccine). Many European countries, on the other hand, now have spiralling infection rates, as their exit wave has come in the worst possible moment (cold weather).

The second issue with the “indefinite restriction” argument is that people’s tolerance for strict measures has a limit, as is obvious across Europe, as well as Australia, which has had one of the longest lockdowns – and resultant, widespread protests.

It’s interesting to note that the UK government was derided at the beginning of the Coronavirus crisis for holding off on lockdown, due to fears about how long people could cope with such conditions. We can now see why behavioural scientists were worried; there have been violence and arrests in countries that hang onto their Covid measures, and do not give citizens enough reassurances about when these will end. 

In fact, governments have hinted to their citizens that they can expect more restrictions. Germany, for instance, has imposed new measures on the unvaccinated and vaccine passports have been eagerly embraced in many countries.

In general, there has been a groupthink – not just in Europe, but elsewhere – as to how to manage the virus. Paperwork and strict restrictions are seen as the default, sensible approach.

But hardly any of these restrictions have been brought about through votes, so it is no wonder we are seeing large-scale backlash. As I wrote recently for ConservativeHome, Austria’s decision to make vaccines mandatory should be a big wake up call as to how illiberal and extreme some policies are getting.

In the UK, particularly thanks to the booster programme, is moving forward and leaders are confident we will not experience the current scenes in the rest of Europe. Nadhim Zahawi, who was behind the vaccine rollout, said he hoped we would probably “be the first major economy in the world to demonstrate how you transition this virus from pandemic to endemic using vaccines”. 

For all the criticisms levelled at the Government, we can now see that there is more logic to its decisions than its critics thought; that, along with the vaccine rollout, we have got into a good position in regards to pandemic management. Far from considering measures, such as vaccine passports, because others have done so, we should use our momentum to show what normality can look like.

Europe’s winter coronavirus wave shows the folly of basing bold claims on rapidly-changing data

20 Nov

A side-effect of the sheer volume of news we have to enjoy in the United Kingdom at the moment is that Covid-19 is not dominating the agenda as once it did. This might be unfortunate for the Government.

Boris Johnson’s many critics like to hold up his response to the pandemic as part of the case for the prosecution. And there is no doubt that, vaccines aside, this country made plenty of mistakes.

The problem with trying to base charges on an unfamiliar scenario, however, is that one is extremely vulnerable to expected changes in the evidence. Which is what seems to have happened with the data on infection rates. Last month, the data was the stuff of Opposition memes. But look at it now:

Of course, with this selection of countries – which seem to have been cherry-picked to try and make the point in the original – the UK is still near the top. But the trend line for this month looks better than many of the others. The lines for other EU countries, such as Austria, are scarier still.

This perhaps explains why we are starting to see other nations impose a new round of very draconian public health restrictions. German MPs, for example, have voted to restrict public transport to those who have been vaccinated or tested negative, after seeing its biggest-ever one-day increase in cases. Austria has gone even further, and made vaccines mandatory.

Does this vindicate the Government’s own approach? It’s hard for laypeople to tell, although it certainly seems plausible that by allowing the post-unlocking wave to hit over the summer we might have avoided it coinciding with the annual NHS winter crisis.

But that theory might not survive contact with next month’s data. If there is a lesson here, it is the folly of trying to use a snapshot to make a definitive case for this or that country’s strategy. If one month you argue Germany has the answer to combating Covid-19 and have to pivot to South Korea a few weeks later, perhaps it would be wiser to simply stop pretending to have the answers at all.

It isn’t all bad news. Whilst infection rates are going back up, mortality rates are not tracking them as they did in 2020. The vaccines work, which is probably why countries are getting increasingly forceful about people taking them.

Austria’s illiberal lockdown policy should make leaders think harder about their Covid measures

15 Nov

Over the last couple of days, Austria has announced one of the most dramatic Coronavirus policies yet. Its government has decided to put two million citizens, who haven’t been fully vaccinated against the virus, into their own lockdown.

The new rule applies to everyone over the age of 12 and means they are only allowed to leave home for specific reasons, such as working and buying food. Already the police have carried out routine searches to check for people’s vaccine status and can fine them up to 500 should they not provide proof of one. The lockdown is expected to last 10 days before being reviewed.

Proponents of this policy will argue that Austria has had no choice but to introduce such a measure. It has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe and, at the same time, cases are rapidly rising. Health experts believe it won’t be long until hospitals are full. What else is the government meant to do, they will say, which has already barred unvaccinated citizens from restaurants, hairdressers and cinemas.

But this is an extreme step – which shows a troubling complacency around what powers the state should have, under the justification of Covid. If Austria or another country had announced such a policy in 2019, one imagines there’d have been unanimous bewilderment – and maybe even anger. Nowadays, however, there is a shrugging of shoulders when politicians set new rules; a feeling of “business as usual”.

Dividing the nation in two to counter a health threat is not only draconian, but contradicts the position many leaders took during the pandemic, in which susceptibility to the virus was never used as a determinant of freedoms. The Great Barrington Declaration was famously criticised, among other reasons, for advocating “Focused Protection”; the idea that society should be separated, with the high risk population shielded and the low risk released “to live their lives normally”.

This was seen as unacceptable, though. “We’re all in this together”, goes the logic. But this could similarly be extended to the unvaccinated, many of whom will be low risk and have stayed at home to protect others for long periods of time.

Unfortunately Austria’s lockdown is no anomaly in a world of ever-extreme Covid measures. Latvia, for instance, has banned lawmakers who refuse to have a jab from voting on laws and participating in debates until the middle of next year. They will also have a pay cut. Penalities, as opposed to engagement, are now seen as the primary way to deal with the vaccine hesitant.

Similarly, Queensland, in Australia, plans to bar unvaccinated people from restaurants, pubs and sports events from December 17. After the country had one of the world’s longest lockdowns, only to find – for all the misery it inflicted on its citizens – this had no significant difference as the Delta variant of Coronavirus took hold, you’d think policymakers would think twice about further curtailing people’s freedoms.

Having recently been to Berlin and Paris, which have more Covid measures than the UK, what disappoints me more than individual restrictions is how quickly people accept them. “This is the new normal”, seems to be the attitude. The public have become apathetic, with no expectation that bureaucracy and rules can be reversed.

Austria’s new policy, at least, spells out that we are on a spectrum of Covid policies – ranging from Sweden’s relatively relaxed one to house arrest. I know which end of the spectrum I’d rather be on. 

As I have written before for ConservativeHome, in years to come the UK’s own attitude to Coronavirus – which has been called callous – could age much better than people think. We may, in fact, have struck one of the best balances between the Covid “hawks” and “doves”, as they were once referred to.

Austria’s use of such an over-the-top measure – it’s worth pointing out that 65 per cent of its population is fully vaccinated, so hardly a disaster – should really be called out by the international community.

But when some leaders ask their own citizens to show a vaccine passport for some chips in a restaurant, you can see the difficulties they will have in criticising, let alone noticing, anything more drastic. The UK and Sweden, for all the accusations that they are uncaring, may find they have a better platform on which to stand.

Sam Hall: Conservative lessons from Houchen and Street about how to respond the Greens

11 May

Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network

The dominant stories from last week’s elections were the Conservatives’ hat-trick of English triumphs in Hartlepool, Tees Valley, and the West Midlands, and the SNP falling short of a majority in Scotland. But amid these headline-grabbing results, a new trend emerged: the quiet rise of the Green Party.

The Greens won 88 new council seats across England, including from Conservatives. Yes, they did well in their traditional strongholds, such as Bristol, Sheffield, and around Liverpool, where their main competitor is Labour.

But they also defeated incumbent Conservative councillors across England in places as diverse as Surrey, Sussex, Derbyshire, Stroud, and Northumberland. They won an additional two seats in the Scottish Parliament and an extra member of the London Assembly, recording their highest ever vote share in both contests.

Despite two brief surges around the 2015 general election and the 2019 local elections, the Greens have for decades struggled to break past five per cent of the national vote. But the signs from Thursday are that they are on the rise, and could become an electoral threat not just to Labour, but to the Conservatives too.

The reasons for the Greens’ recent electoral success are varied. Public concern about the environment is at historically high levels, with media and government focus on the issue growing, and climate change impacts becoming more visible. It’s understandable that, as the environment becomes more salient, more voters turn to the party whose defining mission is to save the planet.

Factionalism on the left is undoubtedly boosting the Greens, too. As Keir Starmer repudiates Corbynism, he is pushing some of the party’s more left-wing supporters towards the Greens, who have long supported some of the more radical ideas of John McDonnell, such as a universal basic income. The Liberal Democrats remain toxic to many on the left for going into coalition with the Conservatives. And in Scotland, the Greens provide a more environmentally-conscious alternative to the SNP.

Greens across Europe have benefited from a similar trend. Just a few months out from federal elections, the Greens are currently the highest polling party in Germany, two points ahead of the CDU. Greens are part of the coalition government in Austria, after securing 14 per cent of the vote in the last year’s elections. There was also a green surge in the 2019 elections for the European Parliament, with the green bloc growing from 50 seats to 74.

However, this phenomenon isn’t simply about splintering on the left. Nor is it the case that the Greens are just taking votes off Labour and allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle. As Thursday’s results show, the rise of the Greens threatens both the main parties.

That said, the threat shouldn’t be overstated at this stage: the Greens only control one council, Brighton and Hove (where they are a minority administration), and they still only have one MP. But a response will be needed nonetheless.

First, here’s what to avoid. Counteracting the Greens doesn’t entail copying their policies, which are a bad combination of the unfeasible (net zero by 2030), the unpopular (a meat tax), and the economically damaging (a four day week). But neither should they Conservatives shouldn’t become hostile to the entire green agenda, which is popular with a majority of voters. Nor should they ignore other policy priorities in favour of an exclusive focus on the environment. As James Frayne has argued convincingly on this site, this approach wouldn’t keep the party’s voter coalition together.

Instead, Conservatives should unite behind the strategy that the Prime Minister articulated in his ten point plan for a green industrial revolution, linking net zero to people’s immediate economic concerns. This prospectus has the best chance of binding together the Conservatives’ diverse supporter base and stalling the rise of the Greens.

This strategy has worked well for Ben Houchen, whose tireless advocacy for Teesside is helping to attract many of the UK’s leading net zero investments to his area, from GE’s new turbine manufacturing factory and BP’s blue hydrogen plant, to one of the first carbon capture projects and a hydrogen transport hub. He has been one of the biggest advocates for the PM’s green industrial revolution, including on this site, and was re-elected by a landslide.

The Government should copy this formula in other parts of the country. It should invest in enabling infrastructure, fund large-scale green demonstration projects, and put in place market frameworks to attract private investment in new clean industries, such as battery manufacturing, floating offshore wind, heat pumps, and green steel production.

But while it can unite Conservatives, this approach to net zero is divisive on the left. The red-greens can’t decide if they support ‘degrowth’ as a route to tackling climate change. They debate whether people’s lifestyles must be drastically curtailed, or whether to focus on clean technology. And they are divided over whether to attach radical cultural policies on race and gender to their environmental agenda.

The other main element of the Conservatives’ response should be to implement ambitious but practical environmental policies that improve people’s communities and their quality of life. Here, the Conservatives’ other great election-winner from Thursday, Andy Street, provides a blueprint.

He has overseen major improvements in public and active transport in the West Midlands, reopening rail stations, extending metro lines, putting in segregated cycle lanes, and freezing bus fares. He is showing how mayors can connect up their region, reduce the cost of living, and improve the local environment at the same time.

National government should enable more pragmatic local environmental leadership like this. Ministers could give councils the powers and funding to create and safeguard a new network of wild green spaces (a ‘wilbelt’) around towns and cities. They could devolve more funding to metro mayors to insulate social and fuel poor homes in their regions. And they could fund transport authorities to replace old diesel buses with electric or hydrogen ones, and to install electric charge points along the strategic road network.

The Greens, by contrast, have a poor record of delivery on the few occasions when they’ve been entrusted with office. Remember their failure in Brighton and Hove to arrange the bin collections, which lead to strikes and images of rubbish piled up on street corners. There is a political opportunity here for Conservative environmentalism that sets ambitious targets, actually delivers them, and does so in a way that benefits the economy and people’s standard of living.

The Greens had a good night on Thursday. But by uniting behind Boris Johnson’s green industrial revolution, and replicating the approach of Ben Houchen and Andy Street, the Conservatives can prevent them rising further and can make the environment a winning, unifying issue for the party.

The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. A run down of the developments across Europe extreme caution takes hold.

15 Mar

Over the past few months, there have been lots of issues across Europe with the vaccine roll out. From the EU’s difficulties in acquiring vaccines, culminating in its attempt to control exports across the Irish border, to Emmanuel Macron casually deriding the AstraZeneca-Oxford jab (AZ) and causing vaccine hesitancy, it’s been problem after problem. Today there was more trouble on the AZ front, with leaders concerned about whether it leads to blood clots. Without further ado, here’s a round up of some of the developments:

  • Germany has made the headlines today for two reasons. For one, Angela Merkel’s centre-right party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), suffered its worst ever results in two regions it once considered strongholds. The drop in support has been attributed to Germany’s problems obtaining vaccines, and will have huge implications for the CDU’s fate in September’s election. To complicate matters, this afternoon it was revealed that Germany has suspended use of the AZ jab, citing fears that it could lead to blood clots.

  • Soon after Germany’s decision, it was reported that France had also suspended the AZ vaccine. Macron already has one of the most dreadful records in regards to vaccination strategy. He claimed the AZ vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” in over 65s – based on no evidence. With reports of intensive care units filling up in Paris and with France having the world’s sixth-highest total of Covid-19 cases, it is extremely troubling that European leaders are planting more doubt about the vaccine. On Twitter, political pundits did not hold back when speculating about the reasons for Merkel and Macron’s decision to suspend the vaccine.

 

  • But Germany and France are not the first to suspend the AZ vaccine. The Netherlands has paused roll out until at least March 29 for the same reasons (worries about blood clots). In the meantime, the country has had some of the most extreme lockdown protests. Over the weekend, the Dutch police used a water cannon and other shocking methods to control protesters (see the video below). So who knows how much worse this will get with the vaccine roll out being so slow. All of this has happened three days before the country’s election, in which Mark Rutte, the Prime Minister, will stand for a fourth term in office. Unlike the CDU, his party is expected to do well – and build even more seats than it did in 2017.

  • One big surprise is that Italy’s Piedmont region has stopped using the AZ vaccine. This is in spite of the terrible time Italy is having, with it recording 27,000 new cases and 380 deaths on Friday, and going into lockdown. Luigi Genesio Icardi, head of regional health services, stood by Piedmont’s decision, suggesting that suspending AZ roll out was “an act of extreme prudence, while we verify whether there is a connection”. After a teacher died from a vaccination shot, authorities have been trying to find the batch responsible to examine it.
  • Lastly, Austria has suspended the use of a batch of AZ vaccines after a 49-year-old nurse died of “severe blood coagulation problems”, and four other European countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Luxembourg) have stopped using vaccines from the same batch. It was sent to 17 European countries and consists of one million jabs.

So all in all, there is still huge scepticism about the AZ vaccine. Are leaders right to stop the AZ roll out? The European Medicines Agency and World Health Organization have both said there’s no evidence of a link between the jab and blood clots, although the EMA is apparently going to advise further tomorrow. In the UK there have been 37 reports of blood clots among 17 million people (and there is no strong biological explanation of why the vaccine would cause a clot). So it all looks slightly strange.

Leaders are using what is known as the “precautionary principle”; a scientific method that means you pause and review something if you’re unsure about it. It’s the ideal thing to do, of course, but the consensus from scientists elsewhere seems to be that leaders need to press ahead given the urgency of the pandemic situation. Suspending AZ can mean that many more lives are lost from the direct impact of the virus. Either way, you get a sense that “extreme prudence” may not have been the right move.

Guy Mansfield: Now we must work with the EU to make Britain more safe and secure

19 Feb

Lord Sandhurst is a member of the Conservative European Forum (CEF) Justice and Home Affairs policy group. He is a past Chairman of the Bar of England and Wales (as Guy Mansfield QC), and current Chair of Research of the Society of Conservative Lawyers.

As Conservatives, it is our duty to ensure that the UK is neither less safe nor less secure outside of the EU. Both parties must think again and strengthen cooperation.

Understandably, political and media attention has been focused on the trade elements of the deal agreed between the UK and the EU on Christmas Eve. Now that we have left the European Union, it is time to review carefully all aspects of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) to ensure it satisfies all of UK’s needs, beyond simply trade, tariffs and quotas.

My paper published by Conservative European Forum’s Justice and Home Affairs policy group – The Trade and Cooperation Agreement: The Justice and Security challenges ahead – examines, in detail, part three of the TCA, which covers UK-EU security cooperation.

Regardless of one’s view on Brexit, we can all agree, especially as Conservatives, that we do not wish to see the UK less safe or less secure as result of our changed relationship with the EU.

The paper raises a number of concerns. The statement released by the Home Office immediately following the agreement was optimistic. In fact, since 31st December 2020, the UK has been at a disadvantage. We have lost tools ‘to tackle serious crime going forwards’ and to ‘bring criminals to justice.’ The new extradition system will be less efficient.

First, the UK no longer has direct, real time access to two important centralised databases – SIS II, which holds records of stolen identity documents and wanted people, and VIS, which stores fingerprints and digital photographs of those applying for a Schengen visa. In 2019, UK police checked SIS II no fewer than 603 million times. These databases have been vital for UK police forces, notably enabling them to check if anyone is wanted or missing across the EU.

Secondly, we have lost our membership of Europol. As a consequence, the UK’s police forces have lost real time access to its databases. In fighting crime, speed is crucial. Crime and criminals are constantly evolving to evade detection. The UK will no longer be a member of Europol’s management board; it will not be able to exert the same influence over its future focus or prioritise areas of threat. As a non-Member State, the UK has lost the right to initiate operations such as Joint Investigation Teams.

Thirdly, the UK has left the European Arrest Warrant (EAW). This will result in slower and more complex extradition processes. Henceforth UK and EU member states can, if they choose, refuse to execute an arrest warrant for a number of reasons:

  • In non-terrorist cases, on political grounds (the ‘political’ exception);
  • On grounds that the requested person is a national of that executing state (the ‘own national’ exception).
  • On the ground that the crime for which the UK seeks extradition is not a crime in the state from which extradition is sought (‘double criminality’). For such countries to agree to extradite, the crime must be an offence in that jurisdiction.

The political exception may well be an improvement. Not every member state is scrupulous in ensuring that decisions to prosecute are free from political interference.

But the reintroduction of the own national exception is bad news. Germany, Austria and Slovenia have already indicated that they will not extradite their own nationals. There are potentially a further 13 Member States which may likewise refuse to surrender their nationals. The UK will, in such instances, have to provide its evidence to such Member State, which (alone) will then decide whether to prosecute. Any trial will be conducted, if at all, in the Member State.

The double criminality requirement will slow down and even stop extraditions to the UK where the issue is raised. That too is bad.

It is not all bad news. The UK will continue to receive Passenger Name Record (PNR) data in advance of all arrivals by air. We shall continue to enjoy access to the Prüm system (which makes accessible to EU Member States and the UK all national databases which store DNA profiles, fingerprints and vehicle registration data) and the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS), which permits access to criminal records of individuals on national databases across the EU. These are not gains; they simply maintain the status quo.

It is important to emphasise that the losses in security cooperation disadvantage the EU too. This is not a one-way street. The UK’s diminished role in Europol will create reciprocal dis-benefits to the EU. The UK’s loss of access to the EU systems means the EU loses access to the UK’s systems.

Our conclusions are intended to be constructive. However, it is plain that we have lost important tools for tackling crime. Looking to the future, the UK and EU member states must address further the security needs of our populations to go about daily lives free from avoidable harm. I urge both sides to continue to work together to strengthen security cooperation. The price of failure is too high, not just for the UK, but for the EU as well. This is not a debate about sovereignty, trade or tariffs. It’s about security. As Conservatives, the security of the UK and its citizens must always come first.

John Jenkins: The UK still has much to learn from our European allies on dealing with Islamism

8 Jan

Sir John Jenkins is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange. He is a former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and co-author of the Government’s Muslim Brotherhood Review of 2015.

So Brexit is done. Well, sort of done anyway. But as some people are keen to point out, a lot still needs sorting out as we rebuild our institutional relationships and capacity outside the EU.

My colleague, Richard Walton, has already written for ConservativeHome about police and security cooperation in the new era. I share his hope that our relationships with European partners in this area will remain robust. As liberal democratic states confronted by similar threats, we have a strong shared interest in ensuring this happens.

And one of the main threats is that from Islamism. Some people like to claim that right-wing extremism (RWE) or white supremacism are analogous. It may indeed be the case that they are on a rising trend, albeit from a low base. And recent scenes from Capitol Hill are undeniably disturbing. But if you look at the data for terrorist attacks within Europe, the claim is seriously misleading.

According to Europol’s latest report, in 2019 ten people were killed and 26 injured as a result of Islamist violence within EU member states (including the UK); one person was injured as a result of right-wing violence (RWV). If you include the 17 EU citizens killed in the April 2019 Islamist attacks in Sri Lanka the figures look even starker. Even if you include plots that were disrupted before coming to fruition, in the same period there were 21 cases of planned Islamist violence, compared to 6 attributable to RWE.

In terms of terrorism arrests, Europol’s data for 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 show that across EU member states, there were 3,057 Islamists arrested on terrorism charges, against 108 right-wing extremists.

As I have argued in detail in a recent paper on Islamism for Policy Exchange, organised Islamism is a 100-year old sacralised social movement with global reach and an ideology that is designed to mobilise a range of ethno-confessional grievances in the pursuit of sometimes violent but always socially revolutionary change. The Cameron government took the threat seriously, because the Prime Minister himself understood the dangers. There are encouraging signs that the current Government is also beginning to understand them.

But we need constantly to guard against the risk of institutional complacency and inertia. In the last seven months of 2020, the UK experienced four Islamist attacks (including – as we now know – Reading). These won’t be stopped by piecemeal policy, police or local authority engagement with problematic Islamist actors who want the entire PREVENT programme scrapped, or the sort of inertia that seems to have contributed to the catastrophic security failure at the Manchester Arena in 2017.

Instead we might try to learn from what is now happening elsewhere in Europe, in particular from France and Austria, where the horrific Islamist attacks in the second half of 2020 have given new urgency to EU efforts led by Emannuel Macron and Sebastian Kurz to address not just the epiphenomena but the roots of the Islamist threat we collectively face.

I and others have consistently argued that this threat is not simply one of violence. It is ideological, representing a powerfully sustained challenge to the very basis of the modern, liberal democratic state. And – as I and a colleague have just discussed in another new paper for Policy Exchange – both Austria and France (and to a certain extent Germany) offer important examples of how democratic states can try to address it.

There are good reasons for this. In Austria, for example, an activist Islamist presence dates back several decades, starting with Arab exiles and Turkish-based organisations and individuals, often with worrying links to jihadi networks in the Balkans, Chechnya, and the Middle East. The Austrian authorities have built a capacity to monitor both violent and non-violent forms of Islamism.

But there are gaps, and the current Chancellor has made the effort to fill them a key part of his policy platform – reinforced in the wake of the 2 November 2020 terrorist attack in Vienna. This has placed a premium on tackling Islamism as an ideology.

His government has announced new measures specifically targeting this ideology. These include a move to make adherence to political Islam a criminal offence; the closure of Islamic religious and cultural associations; the introduction of an imam registry; the tightening of existing legislation governing the establishment and conduct of NGOs – including, but not limited to, external funding; increased sentencing tariffs for the use of prohibited symbols; and improved coordination and data exchange between law enforcement agencies and the bodies overseeing associations and self-governing religious bodies such as the IGGÖ (the Islamische Glaubensgemeinschaft in Österreich – the Islamic faith organisation officially recognised by the government).

In all this, Kurz has sought to underline the primacy of Austrian law. As in Germany, where the 1948 Grundgesetz (Basic Law) identifies a series of fundamental rights which define a self-consciously liberal democratic order, Austria’s federal constitution and the Basic State Law already contain provisions regulating the separate spheres of state and religion.

Other laws define certain political and ethical boundaries in more detail: notably, the 1947 Verbotsgesetz (Prohibition Act) and the 1912 Islamgesetz (Law on Islam), revised in 2015. The former criminalises the promotion or dissemination of National Socialist activity and ideology and also various forms of antisemitism. The latter provides a legal basis for the governance of Muslim affairs by certain self-regulating bodies, which in practice means the IGGÖ. It stipulates a range of rights but also obligations, most notably acceptance of the precedence of national over Islamic law; and a positive approach towards society and state.

In France, Macron has taken a similar line, bolstered by public outrage at the gruesome murder of Samuel Paty and the assault on Christian worshippers in Nice in October. As in Austria, pressure for a more coherent and comprehensive approach has been building for some time. If you look back at the French concern about ‘Londonistan’ in the 1990s, the disturbing 2004 report on Islamisation in French schools by Jean-Pierre Obin, the then Inspector-General of Education, or the report by the French Senate last summer on Islamist radicalisation more generally, you can see a trend.

Like Kurz, Macron – for all the ill-informed criticism from some US and British journalists and the usual self-serving apologetics of Islamists and their sympathisers – has hit on something important. Both of them identify the supremacy of secular national law, with its roots in 2000 years of European history, as a fundamental principle. In addition they are seeking agreement for practical and coordinated law enforcement measures across the EU – in particular for more effective control of the Schengen borders, better data exchange, restrictions on returning foreign fighters, and the diminution of terrorist content on social media.

And all this is reflected in an increasingly rich public debate not just in the populist press, but across the Franco-German linguistic space: on Deutsche Welle or the ÖRF and in the philosopher-haunted pages of Le Monde, Le Figaro, Die Welt, Die neue Zürcher Zeitung or Die Frankfurter Allgemeine.

No one is claiming that the Austrian, the French or indeed the German way of addressing threats to the legitimacy of the liberal democratic order is perfect. Many critics have in particular questioned the sense or practicality of outlawing Islamism. But each country offers an important case study of ways in which the liberal state can start to build public support to counter those who deny the fundamental principles on which it has been built, all first recognising that it cannot simply be neutral in the face of that challenge.

That’s an impulse we seem sometimes to have lost in this country over the last decade. Now that we’re outside the EU it might be easier to recognise what unites us – and act on it. As a newly sovereign state, we should not be embarrassed to admit that we can and should continue to seek lessons for our own public policy from European partners. After all, we may still have something to learn.