David Gauke: Johnson’s Covid policy – and why it’s opening up a rift between him and his traditional Tory supporters

26 Sep

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at last year’s general election.

For an amendment of no legal force that may not even be called, Graham Brady’s proposal that there should approve in advance any Covid-19 restrictions is of real significance.

On the face of it, it is an amendment that is more about process than substance – the extent to which Parliament, rather than just the executive, has a say on future restrictions. But in reality, it also exposes the divide between the position of the Government – and the Prime Minister in particular – and many of his Parliamentary colleagues on how far we should go in attempting to stop the spread of the virus. For the first time in many years, Boris Johnson’s position puts him at odds with the instincts of many on the right of the Conservative Party. What is more, his position appears to put him at odds with his own instincts.

The Coronavirus crisis has been immensely difficult for the Prime Minister. In part, that has been due to his own ill-health that took him out of action at the peak of the virus, and from which he has made a slow and painful recovery (although, from what I hear, he is now physically in good shape).

t has also been a crisis that has exposed his longstanding inability to grasp detail. A Prime Minister was needed to get Whitehall focused on the virus in February, identify and prioritise testing and tracing and spot that the Department for Education was heading for a fall with its approach to exam results. On all these issues, he appears to have been absent.

However, I suspect that the most challenging aspect of recent months for Johnson is that he has felt compelled to do things that alien to his normal approach to life. By restricting the freedoms of his fellow citizens, he is not acting like the great admirer of Mayor of Amity Island, the foe of the doomsters and gloomsters, the critic of pettifogging bureaucrats, the ‘freedom-loving, twinkly-eyed, Rabelaisian character’ for whom Toby Young – and many others – voted.

Why has this happened? His own experience of the virus may be a factor, but one can only conclude that he has been convinced that there is a real risk that, without further action, the virus will spread more widely – including to the vulnerable, and that this will result in very large numbers of deaths. Given the widely-held view that we locked down too late in March, this would not just be a health disaster but a political one as well.

His libertarian critics argue that these measures are panicked and unnecessary. There is anger over the projections of a weekly doubling of cases (a much worse trajectory than France and Spain have followed). Some point to Sweden or Brazil – countries that have been hit hard, but now have falling or stable levels of infection – to argue that herd immunity comes quicker than we previously thought, perhaps because of T cell immunity.

Maybe these critics are right; I certainly hope that they are. There are reputable scientists who are making the case, and we all want to believe those that are telling us that it is all going to be alright. But there are also reputable scientists who are making the opposite case, who are arguing that we should be tightening up further and faster (a view, incidentally, that has a lot of public support).

This is where the job of Prime Minister is a difficult and lonely one. I think we all know where Johnson would stand on this issue if he were still a Daily Telegraph columnist. We can also take a good guess as to his approach if someone else was Prime Minister, and he was an ambitious backbencher with a desire to free the ball from the back of the scrum.

But he is not a columnist nor a backbencher but the person who has t person who has to make the decision. And unlike some decisions that a Prime Minister might make, if he gets it wrong the consequences will be both enormous and very quickly apparent to all.

So when faced with advice that the virus was now spreading strongly and that, without intervention, deaths would soon rise substantially, Johnson acted in much the same way as any recent Prime Minister would have done. Maybe his libertarian instincts softened some of the new restrictions, but essentially he has made a decision to be risk averse; to be conventional.

This is not the first time during the pandemic that he has reached that conclusion. But it has also been obvious that this sits uneasily with him. He does not like restricting people’s liberties (not a bad quality, by and large) and he likes to tell people good news. He has promised we would have this licked by July and then by Christmas. He has urged us back to our offices when it was predictable (indeed, predicted  that he would soon have to reverse that advice. Even on Tuesday, he seemed to consider it a matter of national pride that we, as a great freedom-loving people, have not been following the rules. The old Johnsom instinct is hard to suppress.

The consequence of this internal conflict is inconsistency and muddled messages. His natural supporters – those who value freedom and independence from the State and are most sceptical about the advice of experts – are in revolt. This has manifested itself in signatures for the Brady amendment. There are signatories from across the Conservative Party spectrum, but they notably include big Brexiteer beasts such as David Davis, Iain Duncan Smith, Steve Baker and Bernard Jenkin. These could be dangerous opponents.

Of course, Covid is not the only issue where the Prime Minister is going to have to make a big choice in the next few weeks. Does he make the necessary concessions in order to conclude a Free Trade Agreement with the EU before the end of the transition period? Yesterday, James Forsyth suggested that a deal was close and that the UK might take a more flexible approach to the negotiations, choosing to fight some battles in the future (‘you have to make it through the short term to get to the long term’ says James, using language that will sound very familiar to anyone who served in Cabinet with Michael Gove in 2018-19).

The piece suggests that the Prime Minister is ‘totally focused on Covid’. But he will soon have to make a choice. On the one hand, he will be receiving advice from officials that the adverse consequences of No Deal are very significant, especially for a fragile economy. On the other hand, his instincts presumably tell him that this is all over-stated gloomsterism.

The Prime Minister knows that the instinct to take a risk, to chance it, to tell the experts to go to hell, is very strong both within himself and amongst many of his Parliamentary colleagues. He is already defying those instincts on one issue. If he is to take the necessary steps to get a Brexit deal (and I hope he does), he is going to have to defy those instincts on a second issue, too. Given that he is already in danger of losing his hold over his traditional allies, it is not obvious that he will.

Karol Sikora: Millions of people are waiting for cancer services. That’s the second wave we should worry about.

3 Aug

Professor Karol Sikora is CMO of Rutherford Cancer Centres and Former Director of the WHO Cancer Programme.

Let me be clear, I have absolutely no interest in getting involved in politics. Despite being labelled a Government stooge on more than one occasion, one glance at my Twitter account will show that I have made my objections to Government policy clear, perhaps too frequently!

Before March I honestly had no idea how Twitter worked, I thought it was the sound birds made in the morning. The whole reason I signed up was to ensure cancer patients weren’t forgotten about in this Coronavirus whirlwind. To be honest, I failed.

We’ve tried everything; writing articles, doing media, lobbying ministers, online petitions. None of it has worked, there are still millions of people waiting for cancer services. Recent estimates put that number at 3,000,000 people, that is staggering. We’ve heard lots of words from Government, but not nearly enough action. Hopefully the message from this article may reach the right people.

Everyone reading this will have been touched by cancer in some way, we all know how relentless and insidious it is. It doesn’t stop for anything, never mind pandemics but we have given it far too much freedom to run riot over the last few months.

A delay of a few weeks in most cases will make no difference, and many cancer patients have had treatment delayed for appropriate clinical reasons, but lots have been delayed for operational reasons.

Sadly at the start of this pandemic I would always talk in hypotheticals about how many people could die from cancer delays. That is no longer the case; people have already lost their lives because the treatment they needed was not available.

We have far too often seen doomsday predictions thrown around by people who don’t fully understand the consequences. It is people of my age who are most petrified by this climate of fear and who are now unwilling to “trouble” the NHS. We’re the ones who need the help the most!

“Stay Home, Protect the NHS” was a brilliant slogan, but it was far too effective. People having heart attacks would refrain from ringing 999 and the numbers of people diagnosed with cancer this year has fallen off a cliff compared to the average. If anyone from the No 10 Behavioural Insights Team is reading this please understand you are playing long term with forces you don’t understand.

Oncologists have spent decades trying to get people to get persistent symptoms checked, so much of that progress has been undone in the last few months. I have neighbours who won’t even open their windows they’re so scared of catching the virus, if they find an unusual lump are they going to go and get a scan? I think not.

So what can we do? I’m acutely aware it’s all too easy to throw stones from the sidelines while offering no solutions. Isn’t that how politics works?

The approach has to be two-fold. First, we have to get cancer care prepared for the inevitable surge, but we also have to encourage that wave to come. If people won’t get checked at an early stage, sooner or later they will need treatment.

We need “COVID-secure” hubs to treat and diagnosis cancer. Weekly staff testing, temperature checks, ultra-caution within the building. We have to make cancer care as safe as possible to give people the confidence to come forward.

Embracing all available capacity seems obvious. My network, the Rutherford Cancer Centres, has increased our collaboration with the NHS during the pandemic and are willing to go further. There are other independent providers who have the capacity to help, it would be wrong to leave those machines empty whilst millions have cancer services delayed.

There is going to be a surge, we need to know exactly when that is coming to get ourselves prepared. I anticipate around September, so oncologists and our dedicated support staff should be getting ready for a very difficult autumn/winter.

What frustrates me the most is the fact that so many other countries have continued cancer treatment with not nearly as much disruption as us. An oncologist friend of mine has a Brazilian partner, even there they are dealing with cancer admirably in the face of a far worse situation than us.

The prospect of a second wave is one we have to take seriously and I have always said we are right to prepare for the worst, but we are already in this cancer crisis. In my mind, the second wave we have to worry about is the millions of neglected cancer, cardiac and other seriously affected patients who have been ignored.

History will not judge us kindly when the full damage of this disaster is visible. It isn’t too late to avert the worst of it, but we desperately need action, not more rhetoric and even worse dithering.

Crispin Blunt and Sue Pascoe: It’s time to correct the stoking of alarm and spreading of misinformation about trans people

16 Jul

Crispin Blunt is Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global LGBT and Rights, and is MP for Reigate. Sue Pascoe is Acting Area Chairman of the Conservative Women’s Organisation in North and East Yorkshire.

As the UK strives for a new global place in the world, it’s important that we place equal weight on our personal freedoms, the prosperity of our communities, and equality and equity of opportunity for our people as we level up our country.

We must not leave any section of our society behind because of misunderstandings, prejudice or fear.  It is the first duty of government to foster an environment where this exists for everyone. We hope as a Party, a Government and members of society that we can each hold out a helping hand to all those who still struggle, who still face the difficulties of daily life, who still cannot be their authentic selves.

Our freedom and our basic humanity are two of the key components of what defines us as individuals. When we cannot be our authentic selves, our freedom and our humanity is taken away from us.

During recent months, we had begun to despair with some sections of the media and its relentless stoking of alarm and spreading of misinformation about trans people. There appear to have been orchestrated campaigns to try and roll back the hard-won rights of not only trans adults but of vulnerable trans young people as well.

We would like to bust some myths.

  • Women and trans people have the same need to live in safety from abuse, sexualharassment and physical violence. Trans women and trans young people are not aninherent threat to women. Sadly, there are a small number of abusive people in thisworld of all genders and measures and efforts should focus on stopping their actions.
  • We are out of step with other countries around the world in adopting rights fortransgender people – from such countries as Pakistan, Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia to many of the states in the US to countries closer to home like Portugal, Belgium and Ireland. United Nations Free and Equal recommends that a range of measures are introduced by states to support transgender people, from legally recognising the gender identity of trans people in official documents through a simple administrative process in line with their lived identity to gender-affirming healthcare services free from stigma and discrimination.
  • The World Health Organisation made clear in 2019 that being transgender is not amental illness, and should not be treated as such.
  • Considerable scientific evidence has emerged demonstrating a durable biological element underlying gender identity.
  • Language respecting the sex in which trans women and trans men live has beencommon decency in Britain since the 1970s, and has been clearly upheld in UK law since 2004.It is never necessary to humiliate or degrade trans people in order to discuss sex and gender or to address health needs or social inequalities.
  • The Equality Act brought in the concept that gender reassignment was a ‘personal process’ rather than a ‘medical one’. Trans people have been accessing single-sex service and facilities in line with their lived identity for many decades,  and with proportionate protection from discrimination since 2010. Misinformation is driving current fear to try and change this. It will remain permitted under the Equality Act to exclude trans women from single sex facilities, such as a woman’s refuge, on a case by case basis, but it would be anathema to British values to attempt to blanket-ban trans people from toilets and shop changing cubicles.
  • Trans people already access services matching their gender under the law, except inrestricted individual circumstances, with all the protections that have been campaigned for to balance rights. This is why we say so much of the campaigning ismisinformed.
  • All that’s been asked for now for GRA reform is a minor change in administrative arrangements for birth certificates that only impacts the holder of the certificate onmarriage, death, getting a job or a mortgage. Can you remember when you last used your birth certificate or even where it is? GRA reform has never had anything to do with toilets or changing room cubicles.
  • Currently, less than 0.03 per cent of under 18s in the UK are referred to gender identity development services, of which only a tiny number may eventually go on to receive puberty-delaying medication for two or three years while under 16.
  • Changes to curtail trans young people’s healthcare could have serious unintended detrimental consequences on wider children’s health services. We have clinical safeguards such as the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) to ensure best evidence-based protocols. ​We must be guided by evidence and clinical experts and not lobby groups to make policy decisions.
  • Only 5,000 trans people currently have a GRC, fewer than 100,000 have changed their driving licence or passport. The numbers remain small and any proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act would only apply to people living permanently in theirgender with all their other ID such as passports or driving licences already changed.

We really wonder if the good people of our great nation realise they are being manipulated through fear and false information to roll-back the basic dignity, privacy and safety of trans people who are just trying to live ordinary lives.

Yes, the bodies and life experiences of trans people will never be identical to those of people who are not trans. But that is not good reason to segregate and demonise them. It is also the same with trans young people. Parents of young people who are struggling with their gender simply want their children to have unconditional love and support – to explore their identity and time to enjoy their childhood with assistance from trusted multi-disciplinary professionals in the field free from political interference. That is the right and humane way forward.

In recent weeks, voices have spoken up from global businesses in the City, global media and entertainment businesses, members from across the Commons and the upper chamber; voices from across all sections of society, from within the LGBT community and its close allies, from faith leaders and parents of trans children but, most of all, from trans people with a simple message.

With one voice, asking for trans inclusion and equality, trans people say: we are just like you, human beings who just wish to go about our lives free from hate and persecution. Be kind, let us love and be loved. Let us be our authentic selves. We are not an ideology to be fought over by others.

The bottom line is most people in the UK do not want to reduce trans people’s inclusion in services or undermine their identities. Polling consistently shows the majority of women support trans women’s inclusion in services and reform of the GRA (see the British Social Attitudes Survey and recent YouGov polling).

Ipsos MORI reported this month that 70 per cent of Britons believe that transgender people face discrimination, with a quarter (26 per cent) saying they face a great deal. We have ended up entangling ourselves in unnecessary scaremongering against trans people at a time when most people want us focused on tackling Covid-19, rebuilding our economy and bringing our society together.

Equality and inclusivity for all is an essential bedrock of our free society. We wish to work towards a society where we treat each other with respect, dignity, compassion, tolerance and understanding. We wish to see policy measures which bring social cohesion, and focus on our common welfare, as we work together to emerge from these troubling times.

Alexander Stafford: Renewables – not just providers of green energy, but enablers of levelling up

15 Jul

Alexander Stafford is MP for Rother Valley.

In every conversation around the clean recovery there is, rightfully, a tendency of NGOs and commentators to look at how we can take the steps needed to achieve our net zero ambition. Job-rich initiatives such as energy efficiency and EV charging development are particularly alluring. The development of green hydrogen is promoted as strongly for its regional growth benefits as much as its importance for decarbonising heat.

The potential role of renewables in the green recovery is celebrated, but often overlooked. But it is these that are already driving jobs in the North of England and would help with this Government’s “levelling-up agenda”, as well as being the most publicly popular.

The Government has an ambitious target of 40GW of offshore wind by 2030, which will bring over £50 billion of investment into the UK over the next decade. The industry is already transforming ports across the country such as Grimsby, Great Yarmouth and Tyneside, employing thousands in high-wage high-value jobs and supporting our levelling up ambitions.

What’s more, as the cheapest large-scale new power source, the offshore wind that the UK will be building in the coming years, and indeed the onshore wind and solar, will be helping the British economy stay competitive.

Our competitive market framework of Contract of Difference auctions has ensured consumers get the lowest cost renewables, whilst supporting the development of a world-leading supply chain. New companies like Tekmar in Sedgefield have emerged as world-leaders in cables. Traditional oil and gas companies such as James Fisher, headquartered in Barrow-in-Furness, have found new contracts servicing offshore wind farms. However, we could be doing much more to support the development of the UK’s supply chain.

The Prime Minister is looking for infrastructure investment which will unlock future regional growth. The next generation of offshore wind turbines will be almost as tall as the Shard, so it is essential that we re-develop our ports so that they’re able to handle these incredible machines and their component parts.

Similarly, our manifesto rightly saw the opportunity of floating offshore wind, and the Government is looking at the CfD reform needed to develop it. We are well placed to become world leaders, with an established wind industry supply chain, expertise, and great wind resources. There’s the potential to power millions of homes by developing floating offshore wind in the Celtic Sea and deep in the North Sea, but we need to invest in ports like Milford Haven and Nigg to do so – vitally, to maximise the development of the UK supply chain in the process.

We know proactive industrial strategy works in renewables. It was a mixture of market opportunity and Government support that unlocked £310 milliom of private investment in the Siemens Gamesa blade factory in Hull, which now employs over a thousand people, 96 per cent of whom live within a 30 mile radius of the factory.

We need to reignite bilateral conversations with major supply chain companies, and set up a policy environment that better supports the vast number of UK SMEs. Test facilities like the ORE Catapult in Blyth are fantastic in allowing UK innovators to trial new products on wind turbines but, once they’re proven, we will need to ensure the grants, tax relief or financial de-risking schemes are in place which help these innovators to scale-up their businesses.

Increasing our research and development funding to the levels of competitor countries like Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Japan will ultimately ensure UK’s companies are at the forefront of innovation and remain competitive in the global market.

When the global market in offshore wind is set to increase to at least £30 billion a year by 2030, we should be increasing our export ambitions and the support that government gives companies in entering these global markets.

Just as Denmark has an ecosystem of multiple agencies working to boost renewable exports, we too should work across Government. We’re rightly levering our role as COP President and world leadership in offshore wind to encourage countries such as Brazil, Mexico and India to take advantage of their vast wind and seabed resources too. We do so for the future of the world’s climate. But we should also acknowledge that, in doing so, we’re developing markets for our supply chain companies, and departments should act accordingly.

Finally, and most importantly,  the Government shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of also ensuring that people are re-skilled so they can take advantage of the jobs we create through the nurture of our renewables sector. We need to manage the transition.