Bernard Jenkin: How the power of local teamwork and public support can make test and trace work

9 Nov

Bernard Jenkin MP is Chair of the Liaison Committee, and MP for Harwich and North Essex.

Forget how much the data justified the new lockdown.  The real question is what living with the virus will look and feel like in the months ahead. It is clear that lockdowns are ruinously for the economy, and that another in a few months’ time would lack political legitimacy.

It is also clear that NHS capacity is limited. Much of the opposition to the new national lockdown was because it will only provide temporary respite from the virus, and many MPs see no sign of the strategic thinking that would avoid a third lockdown.

National briefings have become mistrusted for their partial presentation of data. SAGE says NHS England has conducted modelling which shows hospitals will run out of beds in weeks, but why was this model not already published, as it was so central to the Government’s case for the lockdown? The use of leaks, briefings and the partial publication of official data is no substitute for proper data transparency.

The Office for National Statistics estimates that the virus was infecting about 50,000 people per day last week, and it is reasonable to assume that this will lead to unsustainable hospitalisation rates. By far the most affordable and politically sustainable response is to mount an operation to contain the spread of the virus by identifying spreaders via mass testing, and by persuading those testing positive, and their contacts, to self-isolate.

That is why NHS Test and Trace is the vital capability to get us out of the crisis.  But, as a public campaign aimed at changing behaviour, NHS Test and Trace is still a long way from commanding public confidence.

The present level of infection overwhelms any capacity to track and trace. The hope must be that the latest restrictions will suppress the spread of the virus. Last summer, we were down to a few thousand cases per day. A return to that level would leave a manageable number of positive tests and their contacts to follow up. Supported by the arrival of quick turnaround mass testing being trialled in Liverpool, this would deliver a system capable of containing the virus indefinitely, pending improvements in treatments and the arrival of vaccines.

The challenge is to persuade the public (and Conservative MPs) that we are all playing a part in delivering a coherent national plan that will succeed in containing the virus. The failure to achieve this is frustrating, when the Government is broadly trying to do the right things. The key is to persuade the ‘spreaders’ to self-isolate.

Imperial College published a model in August that claimed an effective contact tracing system could bring the R rate down by 24 per cent. It rested on three core assumptions: that 80 per cent of symptomatic cases are tested, that 80 per cent of close contacts are contacted, and all data from testing is processed in 24 hours.

All three of these assumptions are, at present, unachievable But come within reach once the infection rate is brought down: to around 2-5,000 new cases per day. Yesterday, there were 24,000 new positive tests.

In Japan, successful contact tracing has avoided the need for new lockdowns. The country uses a technique called “retrospective” tracing. Regardless of the severity of their illness, 80 per cent of patients who contracted the disease do not infect others, but there are also “super-spreaders” – individuals infecting many others, creating a cluster.

The Japanese tracers are like detectives. They document the chain of transmission to trace clusters of multiple cases to a common source. Their system has been described as “very analogue”, relying on local, person-to-person communication, which engenders more trust than remote contact, relying on national data bases and centralised call centres.

The UK already has its own cluster hunters. We have NHS board health protection teams (HPTs), based in regions and sub-regions. They receive information from local contact tracing staff when a ‘complex setting’ is identified. This might be a care home, a hospital, a homeless shelter or a school. The weekly statistics for NHS Test and Trace show local is by far the most effective: 97.4 per cent of close contacts are reached and asked to self-isolate, compared to 59.5 per cent for the national system.

The Government therefore needs to shift the emphasis of operations from national to local. National databases and call centres neglect two key groups of potential spreaders.

First, there is no way of knowing whether positive cases who are successfully contacted are actually isolating. Local government teams should offer them support via the ‘community hubs’ that were so effective at supporting those shielding in the first lockdown. Your friends and neighbours would have far more influence over compliance.

Second, NHS Test and Trace fails completely to contact some 35-40 per cent of those tested positive. Local councils should be given the job of following up ‘non-responders’.

Engendering public support is vital – something which NHS Test and Trace has been unable so far to think through. Cambridge, not Liverpool, was the first mass testing trial, conducted by the University itself. Since the start of term, students from different colleges have sent in swabs every fortnight. Results are pooled with members of their bubble. If a bubble tests positive, then it is locked down until they can get re-tested to identify who is infected.

The key lesson from the Cambridge scheme is the importance of public support. Eighty per cent of students volunteered to take part, and because they are in college all can easily be followed up.

People and families on low incomes who are told to self-isolate are entitled to a payment of £500 from their local authority under the Test and Trace Support Payment scheme, but many are still struggling to claim what they are entitled to. You cannot expect people to self-isolate if there is an unreasonable financial penalty. It would also help if the period of isolation was shortened; the chances of being infectious after seven days without symptoms is very low.

500,000 tests per day is a great achievement, but ministers hailing these achievements answers instils little public confidence. How will these tests be used? Who will be tested? How is the test data analysed and how fast? In consequence, where is the effort to trace and isolate best targeted?

The constant promotion of what seem like silver bullets – Operation Moonshot, the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, the mass testing of the whole population – make for good-looking headlines,  but they risk ending in disappointment, unless they are presented as part of a coherent plan.

The new lockdown is intended to reduce the prevalence of the virus. NHS Test and Trace has breathing space until the virus rate falls to manageable levels to get its act together. There is now an opportunity to get the public back on side.

Nick Gibb: Fair grades for A Levels and GCSEs and congratulations to the students

13 Aug

Nick Gibb is the Minister of State for School Standards.

Today students across the country will be receiving their A level results. These results, while important in themselves, are key to unlocking the next stage in these young people’s lives – be that university, an apprenticeship or the world of work.

But these students are part of the Covid generation – they will be receiving their qualification having not sat an actual exam.

No one wanted to cancel exams this year. I certainly didn’t. We know that they are the fairest and most robust way of assessing students’ knowledge and capabilities.

The impact of Covid-19 meant that we had to do things differently. We have worked with Ofqual to put in place the fairest possible system to enable students to move on to further study or employment as planned.

The grades students are receiving today will be just as valuable as in any other year. They are based on the judgement of their teachers, and have been moderated by exam boards to make sure the same standard is applied for all students, taking into account factors such as the prior attainment of that cohort and of their specific school or college. Overall, grades will be slightly higher than in previous years, by around two percentage points at A level grade A and above.

I recognise that some have called for us to simply revert to teacher-assessed grade, as Scotland has done. But doing away with all moderation would be misguided and create deep inequities. Without moderation, there would be grade inflation of 12 percentage points at A* and A, casting doubt on the validity of these grades in the eyes of employers and universities.

There would also be severe disparities between schools. The teachers and schools that had done their best to follow the rules and guidance in awarding grades would see their students at a disadvantage, compared to those which had been more lenient. This is simply not fair.

The moderation system in England is not the same as the one that was used in Scotland – and where there were legitimate concerns about the differential impact on rich and poor. The algorithm is different, developed after a full public consultation on the principle underpinning it, and we have a robust appeal system that allows schools to appeal if they believe their historic data does not reflect the ability of their current students. Ofqual’s analysis shows that students from all backgrounds – including more disadvantaged and black, ethnic minority and Asian communities – are not disadvantaged by this year’s awarding process.

But while our approach is robust, we acknowledge that it must be fair not just at system level, but for every individual student. There is no perfect replacement for exams and there will be a small minority of students who feel that their calculated grade does not reflect their work or their ability. This may include some of our brightest young people at poor performing schools, who it is imperative we support and protect.

That is why have introduced a triple lock to give students an added safety net. If a student is unhappy with their calculated grade, they will be able to appeal on the basis of a valid mock result or sit an exam in the autumn. We will ensure all outcomes are given the same weighting by universities, employers and colleges.

We expect the vast majority of students to continue with their calculated grade, which in almost all cases will be a fair reflection of their performance. However, students who would like to use a valid mock result will be able to apply through the appeals process to do so, with individuals notifying their school or college who will provide evidence of their mock results to their exam board.

The exam boards are committed to doing all that they can to ensure all appeals that impact a student’s progression are completed by September 7 – and all others within 42 days. Universities have assured us that they will show all possible flexibility – and we have exempted students who meet their university offer following a successful appeal from student number controls, meaning universities can hold places open for them.

The system we have put in place is the fairest possible in the absence of exams, based on fairly calculated grades, moderated by exam boards to make sure the same standard is applied for all students, whichever school, college or part of the country they come from, combined with clear safety nets for students who feel that the grades do not reflect their achievements.

Congratulations to every young person collecting their grades today. We have acted to make sure everyone has confidence in your results and you can progress to the next stage of your life.

Neil O’Brien: The New Puritans want to tear down our liberal settlement. Here’s who they are, what they think – and why they must be resisted.

29 Jun

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Consider recent news.

JK Rowling criticised the expression “people who menstruate,” leading to accusations of “transphobia”, numerous authors quitting her literary agency, and staff at her publisher refusing to work on her new book.

Various controversies have followed the Black Lives Matter protests. Liverpool University will rename a building named after Gladstone.  UKTV deleted an episode of Fawlty Towers making fun of a racist character. The RFU is reviewing the singing of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”.

These stories illuminate a new division in our politics. It’s not left vs. right, but is uniting conservatives and liberals against something new, which we need to give a name to.

“Woke” is the most common term, and laughing at its excesses is part of the cure. But we also need to take it seriously. Paul Staines calls it “Neo-puritanism”, which captures the absolutist, quasi-religious nature of it – the urge to “police” others behaviour.

Like puritanism, it’s strongest in America, but powerful here.

So what is Neo-puritanism?

First, Neo-puritans want to change the balance between free speech and censoring offensive speech.

The embodiment of liberalism is the slogan: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Neo-puritans feel a duty to “call people out”, often pressing for people to be sacked or shunned.

Don’t debate JK Rowling – “cancel” her. They see debate not as a chance to test and exchange ideas, but as unwelcome, wearying, maybe impossible.

Neo-puritanism has tightened the boundaries of free speech. Like Amber Rudd being “no platformed” by Oxford students. The NUS trying to block Peter Tatchell from speaking. A school dropping plans to name a house after JK Rowling. A DJ sacked (now reinstated) for denying he has “white privilege.” An Oxford professor given security guards after threats from transgender activists. Sheffield University paying students to police “micro-aggressions”. Hundreds of Guardian employees attacking Suzanne Moore’s “transphobia” for writing: “Female is a biological classification.”

Second, Neo-puritans believe in “hard” quotas and targets.

Conservatives and liberals often support increasing numbers of women or ethnic minorities in certain roles. They favour outreach programmes, mentoring, open days, etc.

Neo-puritans want quotas and sex/racially defined scholarships which other groups can’t enter. For example, Reni Eddo-Lodge argues that “when there are no hard targets for programmes of positive discrimination, they will always run the risk of looking like they’re doing something without achieving much at all.”

Examples include Cambridge University’s scholarship scheme (worth £18,000 a year) solely for black British students and Oxford’s  Arlan Hamilton scholarships for Black undergraduates. UCL has scholarships for BME postgraduate students. The Bank of England has scholarships for African Caribbean students.

Third, Neo-puritans (i) think people are defined by their group, (ii) say people have “false consciousness” about our society and (iii) attack the liberal idea that people can be neutral.

A wave of bestselling books by Neo-puritan authors ramp up the importance of group differences Whether we’re talking about “White supremacy”, “White privilege”, or “White Fragility”, it’s not that some people are racist, but society.

For Neo-puritans, not only are people defined by their race, but race is defined by behaviour in an almost mystical way. The founder of “decolonise the curriculum,” Pran Patel, said: “Priti Patel is the perfect example of whiteness inhabiting a different coloured vessel”.

Dr Priyamvada Gopal, a Cambridge academic, tweeted: “White lives don’t matter. As white lives” and “Abolish whiteness.” This isn’t just divisive and unhelpful. The concept of “whiteness” – that there are certain ways of behaving that are “white” – is intrinsically racist.

This explains why Neo-puritans think it’s OK to attack Conservative MPs from ethnic minorities as “coconuts” or “bounty bars” Robin DiAngelo argues there is deep false consciousness in our society: “Our racial socializatition sets us up to repeat racist behaviour regardless of our intentions.”

Neo-puritans see the “colour-blind” ideals of liberals as part of this false consciousness.

Reni Eddo-Lodge argues: “Colour-blindness is used to silence talk about structural racism while we continue to fool ourselves with the lie of meritocracy.”

A headteacher in Sheffield agrees, writing to parents: “Our society is built upon white supremacy… the world’s systems and structures are built on this bias, and this therefore creates White Privilege.”

Finally, Neo-puritans have a particular take on history, with the emphasis on criticism.

The self-styled “leader” of the BLM protests says Churchill’s statue is offensive and should be taken down.  A university lecturer argues: “Churchill must fall”, because he was an “imperialist racist,” “hated” by the working class. Maya Goodfellow argues: “The way Churchill is remembered in the UK has always been tied up with ideas of white superiority.”

Nor is it just Churchill.

Take the student union leader who vowed to paint over a First World War memorial: “Mark my words – we’re taking down the mural of white men in the uni Senate room, even if I have to paint over it myself.”

Or the Oxford lecturer who hopes Oxford researchers don’t invent a coronavirus vaccine first because: “it will be used as it has been in the past, to fulfil its political, patriotic function as proof of British excellence.”

So what’s the problem with Neo-puritanism?

First, I worry hard quotas lead to resentment; undermine those who succeed (am I only here because of my race or gender?); and lead to unfair, arbitrary decisions: can a scholarship for black students be awarded to a mixed-race person?

Second, there’s an abuse of language here. Apartheid South Africa and the Confederacy were states with an ideology of “White Supremacy”. Britain isn’t.

Third, relentless emphasis on group membership plus tighter boundaries on speech will lead to a society not at ease with itself. Instead of the colour-blind world liberals hope for, we’ll end up in a world walking on eggshells, where more and more we’ll see each other primarily as members of groups.

Fourth, I worry about the counter-productive effects of this conversation. If the “core function” of the police is racism, why should anyone non-white join up?

A 13 year old boy recently pleaded guilty to kicking a police officer on the head as he lay on the ground because of protests he’d seen on TV. Ideas have consequences.

If you claim our society is built on “white supremacy”, this will be heard by some people with fragile mental health. I know of a case of a young person who feels oppressed by all around her, seeing offers of friendship and help from white people as disguised attempts to hurt her.

Compared to a world in which you tell kids – ‘you’re all just the same, you just have different coloured skin’ it makes it more difficult to have natural relationships, and friendships without hangups.

Overemphasis of group differences is disempowering. Katharine Birbalsingh, head of one of the country’s top performing state schools says it: “undermines much of the work we do at school in trying to empower our children to take personal responsibility and grab life by the horns.”

Finally, healthy countries need a balance of self-criticism and self-confidence. Self-loathing is unattractive, but might also have bad practical consequences. People are often called on to do things for the greater good of the nation, from paying tax to fighting for their country.  If Britain is basically shameful, why bother?

Neo-puritans sometimes highlight important problems. But though there is more to do, the big picture is one of progress. Sexism is down, racist attitudes are declining and ethnic minorities are steadily getting better off. Neo-puritanism won’t accelerate that, but instead risk a whole set of new divisions.