“A global pandemic was in no-one’s manifesto, Mr Speaker.” The Prime Minister’s Commons statement. Full text.

7 Sep

“Mr Speaker, with permission, I will make a statement on the government’s plans for health and social care.

Our National Health Service is the pride of our whole United Kingdom and all the more so, after it has been there for us during the worst pandemic in a century, treating almost half a million patients, administering more than 88 million vaccines and saving countless lives.
But the inevitable consequence of this necessary – and extraordinary – action is that Covid has placed massive pressures on our NHS.

As we stayed at home to protect the NHS, thousands of people did not come forward for the treatment they needed.

Like those who suffer from Covid, these are all people we know.

Your aunt who needs a new hip. Your neighbour who has problems with their heart and needs a pacemaker. Your friends at work who thinks they should get that lump or cough checked out.
So we must now help the NHS to recover, to be able to provide this much needed care to our constituents and the people we love – and we must provide the funding to do so now.

We not only have to pay for the operations and treatments that people decided not to have during the pandemic, we need to pay good wages for the 50,000 nurses who will enable that treatment, and who can help us tackle waiting lists that could otherwise expand to 13 million over the next few years.

We need to now to go beyond the record funding we have already provided – and we need to go further than the 48 hospitals and 50 million more GP appointments that are already in our plan.

So today we are beginning the biggest catch-up programme in NHS history, tackling the Covid backlogs by increasing hospital capacity to 110 per cent, and enabling nine million more appointments, scans and operations.

As a result, while waiting lists will get worse before they get better, the NHS will aim to be treating around 30 per cent more elective patients by 2024/25 than before Covid.

And we will also fix the long-term problems of health and social care of health and social care have been so cruelly have been so cruelly exposed by Covid.

But having spent more than £407 billion or more to support lives and livelihoods throughout the pandemic – from furlough to vaccines – it would be wrong for me to say that we can pay for this recovery without taking the difficult but responsible decisions about how we finance it.

As a permanent additional investment in health and social care – it would be irresponsible to meet the costs from higher borrowing and higher debt.

From next April we will create a new, UK-wide, 1.25 per cent Health and Social Care Levy on earned income, hypothecated in law to health and social care, with dividends rates increasing by the same amount.

This will raise almost £36 billion over the next three years, with money from the levy going directly to health and social care across the whole of our United Kingdom.

This won’t be pay awards for middle management, it will go straight to the front line at a time when we need to get more out of our health and social care system than ever before.

And it will enable radical innovation to improve the speed and quality of care, including better screening equipment to diagnose serious diseases, such as cancer, more quickly, designated surgical facilities so non-urgent patients are no longer competing with A&E, faster GP access to specialists, so you don’t have to wait months to see someone in hospital to find out whether something is wrong, and new digital technology so doctors can monitor patients remotely in their homes.

And we will do all this in a way that is right, and reasonable and fair.

Mr Speaker, some will ask why we don’t increase income tax or capital gains instead.

But income tax isn’t paid by businesses, so the whole burden would fall on individuals, roughly doubling the amount that the basic rate taxpayer could expect to pay.

And the total revenue from capital gains tax amounts to less than £9 billion this year.

Instead, our new levy will share the cost between individuals and businesses, and everyone will contribute according to their means, including those above State Pension Age, so those who earn more those who earn more will pay more.

And because we are also increasing dividends tax rates, we will be asking better-off business owners and investors to make a fair contribution too.

In fact, the highest earning 14 per cent will pay around half the revenues, no-one earning less than £9,568 will pay a penny, and the majority of small businesses will be protected, with 40 per cent of all businesses paying nothing at all.

And while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own systems, we will direct money raised through the levy to their health and social care services.

So in total Scotland – yes – in total Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will benefit from an extra £2.2 billion a year, Mr Speaker, and as this is about 15 per cent more than they will contribute through the levy, it will create a union dividend worth £300 million. Worth £300 million.

But Mr Speaker, we cannot just put more money in.

We need reform and change. We need to build back better from Covid.

When the Covid storm broke last year, there were 30,000 hospital beds in England occupied by people who could have been better cared for elsewhere – and who wanted to be better cared elsewhere.

That is 30,000, Mr Speaker, out of 100,000 hospital beds in our NHS, costing billions every night, and unable to be used by people needing cancer care needing hip operations, making it harder than ever to deal with the growing backlog in our NHS.

Too often, people were in hospital beds because they or their relatives were worried about the cost of care in a residential home.

And that same fear kept many others at home without any care at all.

This anxiety affects millions of people up and down the country, the fear that a condition like dementia, one of nature’s bolts from the blue
could lead to the total liquidation of their assets, their lifetime savings, their home – the loss of everything that they might otherwise pass on to their children, however great or small – while sufferers from other diseases – who have had to be in hospital for the majority of their treatment – have their care paid for in full by the NHS.

Governments have ducked this problem for decades. Parliament even voted to fix it, and yet that 30,000 figure is an indictment of the failure to do so.

And so Mr Speaker there can be no more dither and delay.

We know we can’t rely solely we know we can’t rely solely on private insurance because demand would be too low for insurers to offer an affordable price.

And a universal system of free care for all would be needlessly expensive, when those who can afford to contribute to their care should do so.

Instead the state should target its help at protecting people against the catastrophic fear of losing everything to pay for the cost of their care, and that is what this government will do.

We are setting a limit on what people can be asked to pay, and we will be working with the financial services industry to innovate and help people to insure themselves against expenditure up to that limit.

Wherever you live, whatever your age, your income or your condition, from October 2023 no-one starting care will pay more than £86,000 over their lifetime, and no-one with assets of less than £20,000 no-one with assets of less than £20,000 will have to make any contribution from their savings or housing wealth – up from £14,000 today.

Meanwhile anyone with assets between £20,000 and £100,000 will be eligible for some means-tested support.

And this new upper capital limit of £100,000 is more than four times the current limit, helping many more people with modest assets.

And as we fix this long-term long-standing problem in social care, we will also address the fears that many have about how their loved ones will be looked after, by investing in the quality of care, in carers themselves, and by integrating health and care in England so older people and disabled people are cared for better, with dignity, and in the right setting.

And my Rt Hon Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will be bringing forward a White Paper on integration later this year.

Mr Speaker, you can’t fix you can’t fix the Covid backlogs without giving the NHS the money it needs; you can’t fix the NHS without fixing social care; you can’t fix social care without removing the fear of losing everything to pay for social care; and you can’t fix health and social care without long-term reform.

The plan that this Government is setting out today, the plan I am setting out today will fix all of those problems together.
And, of course, no Conservative government, Mr Speaker, ever wants to raise taxes, and I will be honest with the House,
I accept, yes, I accept this breaks a manifesto commitment, which is not something I do lightly.
But a global pandemic was in no-one’s manifesto Mr Speaker.

I think the people in this country understand that in their bones and they can see the enormous debts this Government and the Treasury has taken.

After all the extraordinary actions that have been taken to protect lives and livelihoods over the last eighteen months this is the right, the reasonable and fair approach enabling our amazing NHS to come back strongly from the crisis, tackling the Covid backlogs, funding our nurses, making sure people get the care and treatment they need, in the right place at the right time, and ending a chronic and unfair anxiety for millions of people and their families up and down this country.

And I commend this Statement to the House.

The race for booster jabs

3 Sep

With recess and the summer holidays, it seems that we have reached a relative moment of calm in the battle against the Coronavirus. The vaccine roll out has gone out well, and the Government will be pleased to see cases have dropped in England. It gives more weight to Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid’s hawkishness in lifting restrictions in July, of which the latter said: “there’s no going back”.

However, an announcement by the Health Secretary also shows that ministers have been quietly concerned about one issue: how long vaccine immunity lasts. He tweeted that “people with severely weakened immune systems” will now be offered a third Covid-19 vaccine, following the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). 

In some regards, this announcement is not a major surprise; Javid has previously said that a vaccine booster scheme is likely to take place in September, with the NHS asked to make preparations. 

But it’s also a reminder that we are not out of the woods yet, and gives an indication of the type of challenges the Government will face over the next few months, particularly as it tries to protect the NHS from a “Twindemic” (of flu and Covid).

The reason why booster jabs have become of huge importance is because of what’s happening in Israel. While it was the world leader in getting out jabs – and a huge cause for celebration – it has since seen infections rise rapidly, which has led to hospitalisations going up (the metric that UK ministers are most concerned about, lest the NHS becomes overwhelmed). 

Already there is growing pressure on the Government to get a booster programme sorted. Data from the ZOE COVID study supports the findings in Israel; it showed that “initial protection against infection a month after the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine was 88 per cent, while after five to six months this fell to 74 per cent.” 

For AstraZeneca “there was around 77 per cent protection a month after the second dose, falling to 67 per cent after four to five months.”

And the authors highlight that “We urgently need to make plans for vaccine boosters, and based on vaccine resources, decide if a strategy to vaccinate children is sensible”. 

With Javid confirming initial boosters, the question moves onto who else will get them. The JCVI has still not provided advice here (other than recommending the clinically vulnerable), as it’s no easy task to work out the categories and timings.

But Dr Raghib Ali, Clinical Epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge and an Honorary Consultant in Acute Medicine at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, tells me that: “I’d be surprised if they don’t do boosters and flu vaccines at the same time for all over 50s; that’s my expectation.”

Jeremy Hunt has gone one step further and said that the UK should offer its additional jabs “not just to the clinically vulnerable, but to everyone”. In Israel, all over-30s are being encouraged to get booster doses, and it seems to be having an impact in bringing down cases.

Clearly there will be many debates, regardless of JCVI’s decisions, as to who should be eligible. Tony Blair, for instance, once called for teachers to be bumped up the vaccine queue – so will there be demands they get prioritised for boosters?

And there will also be ethical discussions about whether more developed nations should be having third vaccines – when others are completely uncovered. The World Health Organisation has warned against this. 

So while Javid said “there’s no going back”, we will see the same arguments come up again that featured in the first vaccine roll out – only with “Get the Booster> Save Lives” as the Government’s new mindset.

Sarah Ingham: With our closest NATO ally leaving us high and dry, it’s time to re-assess the pieties about Britain’s role in the world

3 Sep

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

“America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home”.

In June 2011, announcing a cut in troop numbers of 10,000 personnel, President Barack Obama anticipated Joe Biden’s speech in Pittsburgh which marked the end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

A decade ago, the 44th President’s enthusiasm for a continuing military presence in Afghanistan was lukewarm at best. Back then, a mere $1 trillion had been spent. Given America’s crumbling infrastructure and rising social problems in the wake of the global financial crash, Obama wanted more homeland bangs for his huge number of bucks.

Another $1 trillion later, on Tuesday the 46th President gave the speech that Obama probably wishes he had made back in 2011. Alluding to the country’s “corruption and malfeasance”, Biden was clear: “We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries. We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it.”

For a man allegedly in his dotage, Sleepy Joe delivered an admirably clear-sighted statement of future American national security policy based on vital national interest. As well as ending the forever war, the President pulled the trigger on 20 years of meddling in the affairs of other sovereign states – also known as nation-building.

If American policy is now also about “ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries”, exactly where does this leave Britain and our Armed Forces? After all, ever since the end of the Cold War, successive governments have sent Britain’s Service personnel overseas on all manner of Operations Other Than War, as our people in khaki with the SA80 A3s like to call them.

The impulse to save lives was used to justify a number of military interventions since the beginning of the 1990s, including policing Iraq’s safe havens and in Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya. The Rwandan genocide – about which the outside world did too little far too late – is a permanent reproach to those who consider state sovereignty paramount.

The successful humanitarian-based military operations in Kosovo and Sierra Leone appeared to vindicate the Blair government’s much-mocked pursuit of an “ethical” foreign policy, together with the Prime Minister’s Doctrine for the International Community.

Set out in Chicago in April 1999, it suggested five guidelines for intervention. They chimed with the Strategic Defence Review of the previous year which had declared that Britain would not stand idly by and watch humanitarian disasters or the aggression of dictators go unchecked. “We want to give a lead; we want to be a force for good.”

Ever since, subsequent Defence Reviews have all been the heirs to the Blairite sentiment that the British military are an instrument for global wellbeing, just as Britain should get stuck in and tackle the world’s problems.

As the Coalition’s 2010 Review stated, “Our country has always had global responsibilities and global ambitions.” Similarly, in 2015, Britain was “strong, influential, global”. In setting out his vision for Britain in 2030 in the recent Integrated Review, Boris Johnson foresaw “a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation with a global perspective”.

The unforeseen American withdrawal pulled the rug out from under not only Afghanistan but also from assumptions about Britain’s defence and security posture that were made in the Integrated Review less than six months ago.

With our closest NATO ally leaving us high and dry, it is now time to re-assess the pieties about Britain’s place and role in the world that, mantra-like, are repeated and have gone unchallenged in all of 21st century Reviews of the country’s defence and security.

The Blairite approach to foreign policy – “which should reflect our values” according to the 1998 Review – should have been shattered in Iraq. A war of questionable legality and zero legitimacy made a nonsense about ethical lodestars.

Equally, Labour’s view of the role of British soldiers in Afghanistan as globe-trotting, nation-building do-gooders – armed Mrs Jellybys – has surely had its day. The Coalition’s disastrous intervention in Libya in 2011 was nothing if not Blair-lite. Thankfully, the same itch to intervene was thwarted when it came to Syria.

For all policymakers’ non-stop talking up of Britain’s continuing interventionist global role, the public might well be sceptical. Over the past decade we have become ever-more culturally heterogenous and less happy with the concept of “white saviours” parachuting themselves into the world’s benighted regions and bossing the locals about.

In 2001, the UK’s Muslim population was 1.6 million; by 2018 it had reached 3.4 million: do these voters back Britain’s instinct for involvement in the problems of, say, the Middle East? Equally, the issue of this country’s colonial past is surely the most toxic on any syllabus – and very much at odds with any present-day neo-colonial nation-building.

Almost 30 years ago, another Foreign Secretary was in hot water. Sceptical about intervention in the civil war in former Yugoslavia, Douglas Hurd dubbed those who demanded action after the media spotlight fell on any particular trouble-spot as members of the “Something Must Be Done Club”. He could have observed that Pen Farthing’s dogs would bark, but before too long the media would move on.

Like its predecessors, the Integrated Review invokes the values of liberal democracy. After almost 18 months of government by ministerial fiat in the name of public health, with Parliament side-lined, the media suborned and Police over-reach, we should perhaps be focusing on renewing those values here at home. The defence of the West begins in Britain.

Shabana Raman: It’s time to close the attainment gap by putting power into parents’ hands

30 Aug

Shabana Raman is Director of Mathematics Improvement for the EKC Group, which is a family of six community-based colleges across East Kent. She is also the Chair of the Board of Trustees for the Invicta National Academy CIC.

Who remembers that YouGov poll of 944 Conservative members, showing that 55 per cent believed that Sajid Javid did not look or sound like a typical Conservative? Well, this resonates with me. I often get asked, “Why the Conservative Party? You are an immigrant in this country and they are anti-immigration!”

Secretly, I like being asked this question. It’s an opportunity for me to reiterate the core values of the party and conservatism which have shaped me as a person. I am a member of the party because I am an immigrant.

Being a Conservative means being responsible, hard-working, self-reliant, empowered, living within my means, respect for all, equality of opportunity for all, forward looking and compassionate. It’s my way of giving back to the country that welcomed me with open arms.

Growing up in a large and rather modest family in Mauritius with limited means, I was taught to aim high from a very young age and that education is the most powerful investment tool. I could dream of a better life but to achieve this, I would have to work hard and study – and sadly, sacrifice the latest Nintendo console for books and private tutors.

Today, I realise how fortunate I was to have had the support and guidance of my parents, and I want every child to have the same opportunities.

Hence why, during the first lockdown, I was disheartened to learn that pupils were learning through worksheets and web-based programmes instead of live, online lessons.

Friends shared their concerns over how little their children were doing during the day and how frustrating it was as a working parent to keep up with the numerous tasks set by schools. They were exasperated because they did not know how to help even if they wanted to.

Luckily, somewhere in West Kent, Anna Firth felt the same! Anna saw her son receiving a structured and robust education from his private school and on the other hand, her friend’s daughter, a grammar school pupil, was learning through worksheets and no teachers’ input. She felt so strongly about this that she decided to set up a free online school for pupils aged 7-15 years across Kent.

When I joined the team last year, there was no money or source of funding, no teachers and of course, no registered students. But we had a vision and under Anna’s leadership, we all rose to the challenge. A year on, as the Chair of the Board of Trustees, I am in awe of what the Invicta National Academy has achieved.

Thanks to generous donations and support from the Harry Oldfield Trust and other grants, such as the 2021 KCC Reconnect programme and an outstanding team of dedicated volunteers, the Invicta National Academy is now in its second year.

Last year, we delivered just under 40,000 pupil lessons over a five-week period to around 3,500 children around the UK. This year, under the leadership of Anna Firth and Caroline Platt, we are on track to deliver 85,000 pupil lessons over the same period to around 6,000 children around the UK – possibly far more, as we know some community groups are broadcasting our lessons to whole classes of children.

Bookings have also far outstripped last year. We now have over 122,000 lessons booked, over 5,500 every single day, compared to around 50,000 at the same time last year with no more than 2,500 booked for any one day.

This makes the academy, the largest online provider of FREE LIVE lessons of the country. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson and Laura Trott, Conservative MP for Sevenoaks, acknowledged our achievements in the House of Commons last Autumn. Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists called the team, “Educational heroes”!

This pandemic has undoubtedly brought to the surface the cracks in our education system. It has also exacerbated educational inequalities between the private and the public sector. The recent GCSE and A-levels results simply reiterated this disparity.

So, we must act fast! We must innovate to support our teaching professionals. It is time to close the attainment gap by putting power into parents’ hands, through a live, government-funded, out-of-school, teaching provision.

A free online academy using Invicta’s model, will not only help close the attainment gap but will also help with the disparity, providing a fair education system, serving pupils from all backgrounds. Invicta National Academy has contributed enormously towards levelling up education over the past two years and we need the support of the government to continue the job.

Our research has shown us that parents like and engage well with online learning because it is more convenient and flexible than traditional school-based learning. It is already well established that children with involved parents or other caregivers earn higher grades and test scores.

We know that parents are keen to support additional, out-of-school, supplementary education. The increasing reliance on expensive private tutors is worrying – a double-edged sword, helping wealthiest pupils succeed and further marginalising those whose parents cannot afford high tutoring fees. Like my parents, many are doing their best, despite financial constraints but there is still a large proportion of parents who cannot afford such exorbitant fees.

Therefore, we must seize this opportunity to invest in and modernise our education system to ensure that every child is treated equally and have the same opportunities. We need our first live, universal, free, interactive provision, accessible to every child, out of school. My professional experience has taught me that pre-recorded lessons are not the way forward. Pupils need engagement and interaction with their teachers and classmates to boost their academic progress and mental health.

As well as closing the existing education gap, a national online academy would be a backup provision in case the pandemic resurges. It would also ensure consistent access to qualified teachers delivering high quality lessons for the growing number of home schoolers, those without a suitable school placement and adults.

Margaret Thatcher said, “The younger generation doesn’t want equality and regimentation, but opportunity to shape their world while showing compassion to those in real need.”

Let’s work together to support parents inculcate in their children a positive attitude towards education and those vital core conservative values – like our parents did for us – so that they can grow up to be compassionate, hardworking and forward-looking adults, who can shape tomorrow’s Great Britain!

Ben Roback: Biden’s Afghan pull-out represents the rash decision making we had expected from Trump

25 Aug

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Who has failed the people of Afghanistan more spectacular, the United States or the G7? Both have made a compelling case of late.

When the G7 nations met in June under Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership, the group issued a customary Communiqué. The urgent priorities were clear and indeed perfectly logical – the Covid recovery, vaccinations, and “building back better”.

The middle priorities of the lengthy to do list were at times perplexing. Cyber space and outer space, a “values-driven digital ecosystem for the common good that enhances prosperity in a way that is sustainable, inclusive, transparent and human-centric”, and open societies.

Eventually, at point 57, the G7 remembered Afghanistan:

“We call on all Afghan parties to reduce violence and agree on steps that enable the successful implementation of a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire and to engage fully with the peace process. In Afghanistan, a sustainable, inclusive political settlement is the only way to achieve a just and durable peace that benefits all Afghans. We are determined to maintain our support for the Afghan government to address the country’s urgent security and humanitarian needs, and to help the people of Afghanistan, including women, young people and minority groups, as they seek to preserve hard-won rights and freedoms.”

With the benefit of political hindsight, was the Communiqué a clear sign that, just 10 weeks ago, the international community had such a miserly grasp of what was about to unfold despite the known deadline imposed by the United States?

Or being critical and almost certainly more honest, did it prove that the G7 countries were too caught up with their own agendas and so forgot about a weak, propped up government that was inevitably going to fall the moment the US initiated its withdrawal?

The chaotic scenes that have followed are a demonstrable failure of diplomacy and military intervention. In the first instance, it is the Afghan people and those who served in uniform and alongside them who will suffer the most.

The case for the White House: Putting an end to the ‘forever war’

There is no equivocation or discussion whatsoever about President Biden’s motivation for withdrawal. He wants to pull out American boots on the ground in advance of the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.

He does not want to become the fourth president to phone the grieving parent of a soldier lost in Kabul, Kunduz or Kandahar. In that respect, he aims to “succeed where others have failed” given President Bush started the Afghan war and it dogged the Obama and Trump administrations subsequently.

The human and financial costs illustrate the domestic rationale. Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates that since 9/11, 7,057 US service members have been killed in war operations, whilst 30,1777 US service members have committed suicide.

The cost of caring for post-9/11 American war veterans will reach between $2.2 and $2.5 trillion by 2050. The only way to stop that tide of misery, the White House argues, is to get out of Afghanistan. But at what cost to Afghans and the United States’ reputation abroad?

The White House might also argue that, whilst the eyes of the world are on the Middle East, the Vice President is in the Far East. Kamala Harris completed a three-day trip to Singapore where she fired warning shots about Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

Did anyone notice? The international community remains entirely focused on the more pressing problems in Afghanistan. At home, Parliament was recalled from its summer recess to discuss saving lives, not the Spratley Islands.

The case against the White House: Biden out-Trumps Trump and hangs the world out to dry

Could we have expected such a gargantuan gaffe from President Biden? After all, this was supposed to be the president who returned America to a state of relative normalcy after four years of Trumpian volatility in the pursuit of “America First”. On the world stage, Biden’s message to historic allies has been clear: “America is back”. Is it?

Biden cannot reasonably claim a lack of foreign policy experience. 36 years in the Senate having been elected before his 30th birthday. 12 years as Ranking Member or Chairman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Eight years as Vice President, in which his White House bio now even boasts that “Biden played a pivotal role in shaping U.S. foreign policy and describes how he was point person for US diplomacy throughout the Western Hemisphere and led the effort to bring 150,000 troops home from Iraq.

The Afghan pull-out represents the kind of rash decision making devoid of any consultation with military allies that we had perhaps expected from President Trump. But for all of Trump’s bluster and wildly unpredictable rhetoric, he did not deliver the hammer blow to US foreign policy that many had expected.

It had started to look like death by a thousand paper cuts, but the capacity to do further incremental damage was limited by being a one-term president.

It is Biden, not Trump, who has shocked US allies. “Sleepy Joe” has sleep-walked the United States into its biggest foreign policy debacle for a generation.

From “mission accomplished” to “mission impossible”

Where does this leave Joe Biden and his administration’s relationship with the very same allies it sought to reassure after the Trump presidency? Johnson and Emanuel Macron led the call for President Biden to extend his self-imposed deadline of August 31 for the complete and total withdrawal of US forces.

At present, that has fallen on deaf ears trained solely on a domestic audience. News outlets report the president will not extend the deadline, agreeing with the Pentagon’s assessment. An imminent detailed report by Anthony Blinken, the Secretary of State. could yet reshape the decision.

The president has acknowledged that a completed withdrawal by the end of the month will be dependent upon the Taliban’s continued cooperation. The very same terror force the US entered Afghanistan to drive out is now needed to get Americans out of the country.

The administration has hinted at some flexibility. But each time Biden has spoken at the presidential podium since the fall of Kabul, he has doubled down on the decision with even greater tenacity. To alter course now would be political humiliation. From “mission accomplished” to “mission impossible”.

Perhaps the most striking remark the president has made since the Taliban takeover was when he said: “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building”. Really? Twenty years training and serving alongside the Afghan military. Two decades propping up a western-style government.

It begs the question: on what basis will the US intervene abroad now, if not to nationbuild? Just under 30,000 US troops remain stationed in South Korea, as the threat of war on the Korean peninsula looms perpetually.

But there is no nation building to be done in Seoul; will those troops be brough home next? Over 35,000 US troops are stationed in Germany; Chancellor Merkel needs no help maintaining her own democracy.

The Biden administration has rolled the international dice to take a domestic political gamble

The President, Defence Secretary, Secretary of State and National Security Adviser all clearly believe that most Americans do not care about the fate of Afghanistan or its people. According to YouGov America, at any one time only 0.5 per cent of Americans have ever though that the war in Afghanistan is a top issue facing the country.

They care more about a seemingly endless war in which too much American blood has been spilled. That is understandable with a domestic hat on, but deeply depressing when thinking globally.

Maybe Biden will be proven right. But at what expense? The fall of a nation into the hands of terrorists. It would be the most pyrrhic of all political victories.

Ryan Bourne: Why The Great Barrington Declaration’s time is coming soon

25 Aug

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Aside from death and disease, one spirit-crushing aspect of this pandemic has been the regularity of false lights at the end of the proverbial tunnel. The Delta variant is just the latest in a series of fresh hurdles we’ve faced in returning to “normality.”

News that vaccines, though apparently still highly effective against death and hospitalisation, may now be far less so against symptomatic infection from the variant adds another layer of uncertainty about what’s coming next.

UK Covid-19 cases have been around 30 times higher at times this August than this time last year. That’s not surprising given a transmissible variant and more “normal” behaviour now.

But it raises questions: what if vaccine efficacy against severe disease wanes over the coming months, with prevalence still high? Will widespread booster jabs or Delta-adjusted shots be needed? What happens when schools re-open in September?

Given there have been more twists in this saga already than a Chubby Checker dance class, I’m not going to predict how it will play out. But recent months have at least shown the contours of how we might ultimately “learn to live with Covid-19.” And re-reading The Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) recently, I was struck that although it had aged badly against events following its publication, it might provide wisdom in regards future policy.

The essential policy recommendation of the GBD, remember, was for normality for the non-vulnerable, but more “focused protection” for those at the highest death risk from Covid-19.

Published on October 4 2020, just as the more transmissible Alpha, English, or B.1.1.7 variant was taking off, its timing could hardly have been worse. Vaccines were just around the corner. Lives saved via “suppressing” the virus then were much higher in number and more certain than any lockdown efforts before.

Outside of care homes, where failures to protect the frail were shocking, “focused protection” of the type that the GBD envisaged wasn’t particularly viable anyway. There were 12.5 million people over 65 alone in 2020—almost 19 per cent of the whole population—and many more with other conditions.

Any government protective efforts to isolate these individuals would have been difficult to scale, and so unlikely to reduce risks much beyond precautions the vulnerable were taking.

Indeed, net risks to them would surely have increased: everyone else living normal lives would have increased the virus’s prevalence, and so people’s exposure to it, including in hospitals where many of the most vulnerable people find themselves.

So, while the GBD was right in highlighting the dreadful costs of the most draconian lockdowns and the inadequacies of nursing home protections, it underestimated suppression’s benefits and the difficulties of focused protection. If we’d followed its recommendations for winter, we’d have seen more disease and death than we experienced as the vaccination program was rolled out.

And yet…when the context changes, we should change our minds. Now, with high efficacy vaccines available to all adults, the GBD begins looking a much more sensible roadmap for policymakers.

For starters, it’s now clear that Zero Covid is a pipedream. Even if the virus could have been eliminated in isolated countries such as New Zealand, extinguishing it globally is impossible, necessitating closed borders indefinitely. Attempting to suppress it entirely now would be futile. The only thing guaranteed from strenuous efforts at elimination would be severe GDP downturns and lost living time again.

No, it’s now reasonably clear instead that the “end” here, as the GBD predicted, will be an endemic virus with localised herd immunity from vaccines and infection recoveries. Some theorise, in fact, that while our vaccines are very effective in protecting the inner body, they are much less so in protecting the nasal passage, meaning we could see symptomatic cases for lots of vaccinated people over time.

Everyone will see immunity top-ups through exposures or booster shots. The fact that many vaccinated people can be infected and transmit the virus severely undermines the case for narrow government-mandated “vaccine passports.”

The value of the vaccines then is that they appear to reduce the relative risks of severe disease or death to levels associated with colds or flu. We do not ordinarily invoke population-wide restrictions for such risks. So while people and businesses should of course be free to take further precautions if they wish, given their or their customers’ and workers’ wants and needs, a world of universal vaccine availability should not be one contemplating society-wide restrictions.

True, not everyone has been vaccinated yet (including children). And there are those who seemingly cannot be protected, perhaps because of compromised immune systems. Governments should allow parents, ultimately, to decide whether their children obtain the vaccines.

But for adults offered them who say “no thanks,” we face a question: what burdens, in the form of coercive mandates, should everyone bear to realise health benefits accruing overwhelmingly to those unwilling to protect themselves? The default answer should surely be “none.” In economics speak, the unvaccinated are now the “least cost avoiders” of the harm of the virus.

The still vulnerable–including the 500,000+ people (in England) who are immunocompromised or immunosuppressed—have a better claim to be protected. But the fact that the vaccine slashes risks broadly makes genuine “focused protection” of them now more viable.

These groups should be identified and allowed periodic antibody tests, as well as being prioritised for booster shots. Governments should provide them with a decent supply of N-95 masks, ensure they have access to regular at-home testing for guests, and consider monoclonal treatments. All these measures would be far less costly to society than stay-at-home orders, forced business closures, or reintroduced mask mandates for all.

Now you might say, “it’s easy to favour focused protection now!” Boris Johnson doesn’t want to row back to lockdowns; even Neil Ferguson and SAGE member John Edmunds think suppression won’t be necessary. But people will call for everything again if cases rise again significantly in Autumn.

Having lived through the past 18 months, it will be difficult for politicians and much of the public to make the psychological shift to treating Covid-19 diagnoses as an ordinary part of life, rather than a contribution to a national crisis.

But it seems clear we will need to make that shift. For though there might be other twists to come, Covid-19 appears likely to become endemic, with most of us exposed to it, and our vaccine technologies make this disease far less serious than it was before.

Rather than refighting the lockdown wars of 2020, these new circumstances require clear new public health principles. Whatever you thought of the GBD approach last year, the case for it now is far stronger.

Mark Francois: Why, following the crisis in Afghanistan, Johnson must avoid a Love Actually moment with Biden

25 Aug

Mark Francois is the MP for Rayleigh and Wickford, a former Armed Forces Minister and a Member of the House of Commons Defence Committee.

There is an old saying that hindsight makes geniuses of all of us. However, the events of the last fortnight in Afghanistan have certainly demonstrated a lack of foresight, especially in the Biden White House.

When Parliament was recalled to discuss what went gone wrong, I was one of those who was highly critical of the Biden Administration for withdrawing so hastily, which has led to a strategic defeat for NATO, for the first time in its 72-year history.

Whole libraries have been written about the so-called “special relationship” between the United Kingdom and the United States. The term itself was first coined by Winston Churchill, whose very close relationship with US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was fundamental to the allied victory in World War Two.

Similarly, the very strong partnership between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan was undoubtedly essential to winning the Cold War. Although it is often overlooked, a young Senator Joe Biden even supported the UK’s position during the Falklands Crisis in 1982.

Nevertheless, 39 years on, Biden’s address to the American people on August 16 2021 was inherently isolationist. It put US domestic political interests way above foreign policy considerations and America’s relations with its allies, including us.

So, what should we do now? Does our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, need to create a “Love Actually moment” of his own and start making Johnsonian wisecracks about Americans invoking the 25th Amendment? Probably not. But some are now asking can we credibly create a European defence, sufficient to deter a revanchist Russia, without the active involvement of the United States?

NATO now has 30 member nations, a third of which now meet the recommended alliance minimum of spending at least two per cent of their GDP on Defence. According to NATO’s own latest figures, (which helpfully compare apples with apples), Greece is now the highest spender in proportional terms, at an estimated 3.82 per cent in 2021, compared to 3.52 per cent for the United States.

The UK is now fourth at 2.29 per cent; with all three Baltic States a bit over 2.0 per cent. France sits almost exactly on 2.0 per cent, with Italy on 1.41 per cent and Spain, at barely one per cent at all. Still, in most cases this actually represents an increase, since Russia invaded Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014.

France, which maintains Armed Forces broadly comparable to Britain’s, including its own strategic nuclear deterrent, has increased its defence spending over the last seven years, has bilateral Defence ties with the UK under the auspices of the Lancaster House Agreement and is involved in a number of Anglo-French equipment programmes.

However, the calls by President Macron of France for the creation of a “European Army” have not been met by a sizeable increase in the French Defence budget to help facilitate such a concept which, for a number of NATO nations, including the U.K. is politically unrealistic anyway. Still, the French do maintain professional and operationally credible armed forces, which exercise regularly with our own.

But the great drag anchor in terms of any increased European defence capability is Germany. Although Germany recently signed a low-key bilateral defence declaration with the UK (described by one colleague of mine as, “a poor man’s Lancaster House”) even now the German defence budget has been only creeping upwards, to 1.53 per cent of GDP this year and is not due to achieve the two per cent target for several years yet – much to the repeated annoyance of former President Trump.

Moreover, the German Armed Forces are now a shadow of their former, highly operationally focused, Cold War selves. Much of Germany’s military equipment is in poor repair, with depressingly low levels of operational availability in everything from submarines to fighter aircraft. They are also a risky industrial partner, because of increasingly hostile attitudes to defence exports within the Bundestag.

Similarly, Germany’s close relationship with Russia, for instance in advocating the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, may suit Germany’s peacetime energy needs but does not help bolster NATO security, especially among its Eastern European members.

Much now hinges on the forthcoming German Federal Elections, with the era of the Merkel ascendency coming to an end and the race for her successor seemingly wide open.

Whether the largest party emerging from the elections is the CDP/CSU or the SPD, any subsequent coalition Government which meaningfully involves either Der Linke or the Greens is unlikely to be keen on the sort of very significant increase in German defence spending – and hardening of the line on Russia – that would likely be required to give a meaningful edge to a European Defence identity. Pious declarations are all very well but, as Stalin brutally put it: “How many divisions has the Pope?”

So, where does all this leave us? First, it means that we should look to strengthen defence ties with our European allies – but with a clear-eyed realism about the limits of what this is likely to achieve. For the foreseeable future, the idea that NATO’s European partners could credibly deter Russia entirely on their own is completely fanciful; they just aren’t prepared to pay for it – and even the most junior analyst in Moscow knows it.

That means that we need to try and repair the damage caused to NATO by the disastrous events of the past fortnight. In that context, the Anglo-American link is absolutely crucial. Historically, whoever has been in the White House or Downing Street, Anglo-American links at the diplomatic, military and intelligence (Five Eyes) have remained strong, and we now need to bolster them again. As one example, the previous US Ambassador, Woody Johnson, was a high-profile and popular Anglophile and we need to see someone equally charismatic appointed without delay.

Hard left opponents in Britain have sometimes railed about the “Anglo-American deep State”; well, if such a thing exists, now is surely the time to use all of these contacts to best advantage to bolster Western security.

To those in the American security establishment who have become obsessed with China, we need to remind them that Russia possesses thousands of nuclear weapons too, has invaded neighbouring countries on the European landmass within the last decade.

Russian spokesmen have even boasted about new nuclear torpedoes, which could cause an irradiated tsunami against cities on the eastern seaboard of the United States (and NATO believes these weapons actually exist). Finally, Taiwan, while an important Western ally, is not a member of NATO – but Estonia most certainly is.

The Atlantic Charter, which led, in turn, to the creation of the United Nations, was originally an Anglo-American construct. The American Eagle and the British Lion have stood side by side in defence of the free world for many decades now and we cannot allow any one individual, no matter how senior, to get in the way of that.

Early vaccination was expected to lead to earlier re-opening than our European neighbours. By and large, that didn’t happen.

20 Aug

With all the difficulties the Government has had managing the Coronavirus crisis, there was one saving grace for ministers: the vaccine roll out. Due to the might and brains behind the vaccine taskforce, the UK stormed ahead with inoculations.

This soon led to a bounce in the polls for Boris Johnson – and, furthermore, it became evidence that leaving the European Union had been a good idea, due to the sluggishness of the European Medicines Agency in rolling out vaccines.

That being said, two questions ConservativeHome has posed over the last few months is whether the vaccine rollout has given the UK an “advantage”, both economically and in terms of lives being saved.

Tied into the former is the question of whether the rollout allowed the UK to reopen faster than EU countries – to which the answer appears to be “not really”. For the sake of one article, let’s take a look at how the UK compares to France and Germany.

The first thing to say on this topic is that it’s hard to compare countries like-for-like, as has always been the case in the Coronavirus crisis. There are huge differences in the ways they have locked down and opened up, ranging from whether they kept schools open for longer than the UK, to the use of curfews, which France has been fairly keen on – but nonetheless, here are some comparisons.

Let’s take schools as the first measure of opening up differences. Schools in England reopened on March 8. In Germany, the majority of schools were reported to have reopened around February 23 – and in France they reopened on April 26 after a three-week closure (to control the country’s Coronavirus rates). In short, the UK didn’t exactly race ahead.

Next up, non-essential shops. In England and Wales they reopened on April 12, with Scotland and Northern Ireland following on April 26 and 30, respectively. In Germany, shops reopened around March 8. For France, it was slightly later – May 19. Again, there are no stark differences.

In some cases, France appeared more bullish than the UK in getting life back to normal. While the UK delayed its “big bang” reopening from June 21 to July 19, France ended its nationwide curfew 10 days ahead of schedule – on June 20. Restaurants, cafes and bars were then allowed to serve customers indoors, albeit at 50 per cent capacity and up to six people per table.

Perhaps one of the most striking differences is nightclub reopenings across countries. While the UK waited until July 19, French nightclubs reopened on July 9 (video below) and Germany’s reopened on the weekend of July 18

France has had some fiddly rules around nightclubs. When they reopened, for example, they were only allowed to open at 75 per cent of their normal capacity – but it’s still further ahead than the UK, where nightclubs were closed.

Furthermore, France allowed concerts to resume on June 30, and as far back as June 25, Germany had reopened its restaurants, bars, beer gardens, museums, hotels and concert halls. It was around that time that the UK government delayed the final easing of lockdown – in what was called a “hammer blow” to entertainment.

Elsewhere in Europe, as of June 25, Greece reopened its bars, restaurants, museums and archeological sites – and started welcoming tourists; Spain’s bars, shops, restaurants and museums are open – with its nightclubs reopening in parts of the country with low infection rates; and Belgium had allowed cultural performances, shows and sports competitions to go ahead.

So, while this is not an exact science, you don’t get a sense that the UK reopened much faster than its European counterparts. It goes without saying that all reopenings – and inoculations – should be celebrated. But if there is no noticeable effect to having a quick vaccine programme, it rather undermines the “Brexit advantage” argument – or at least the Government using it effectively. Did Ministers capitalise on having one of the best unlocking toolkits? Only time will tell…