The Coronavirus inquiry. I’m an outlier – but I believe that following public opinion was a problem.

15 Mar

Coronavirus has disappeared from the headlines recently. The lifting of restrictions, the horrifying news from Ukraine, and our instinctive desire to quickly forget the dreadful means there is now a collective effort to never mention the dreaded C-word again.

But March 26th will mark the unhappy second anniversary of Britain entering lockdown: the biggest state-mandated change to our lives since the Second World War. With the terms of the Government’s inquiry into its handling of the pandemic announced last week, this is an opportunity to ask the fundamental question: was it all worth it?

The inquiry hopes to do this. The proposed terms of reference suggest that it shall assess all aspects of the government’s response: preparedness, the efficacy of interventions, the management of hospitals and care homes, the provision of essential equipment, and economic support. Under Baroness Hallett, the Chairwoman – a former High Court judge – it is hoped the inquiry will “reflect the importance of understanding the experiences of those most affected by the pandemic” and identify where the government got it wrong.

Like all inquiries, this will be a welcome opportunity for acts of confession and self-justification on the parts of ministers. That at least one Cabinet member has been keeping a diary for the last two years is unsurprising. This is a chance for ministers to show public contrition for any shortcomings, whilst aiming to guarantee that the eventual narrative presents them in the best possible light. Plus, Anthony Seldon and Tim Shipman must work from something.

The direct relationship between the size of an inquiry’s remit and the time it takes to conclude means it will be a while before we see Hallett’s final report. Moreover, inquiries tend largely to confirm lessons we have already learnt, providing only slaps on the wrist for politicians who have long since left office. By 2016, for example, we didn’t really need Lord Chilcot to tell us that invading the Middle East on a spurious pre-text was poor form, and that Tony Blair might have a slight messiah complex.

Nevertheless, we can get on with lesson-learning whilst the Baroness finishes dotting her Is and crossing her Ts. A report in the Lancet last week suggested the UK had a lower death toll than Italy, Portugal, and Spain – with no significant differences from those of France and Germany.

By looking at age-standardised avoidable mortality rates, the UK emerged as having the 29th worst mortality rate in Western Europe – largely, commentary suggested, due to our successful vaccine rollout. With cases currently hitting their highest numbers since early February alongside no drastic spike in hospitalisations, we really do appear to have triumphed over Covid.

140 million jabs and no restrictions is an achievement, even if returning to normality took longer than the “three weeks to flatten the curve” we were first promised. But if the vaccine rollout showed the British state at its best, the pandemic has also shown it at its worst. Billions chucked after a largely useless test-and-trace system, arrogant officials who genuinely believed Britain had a world-leading pandemic preparedness plan, and a health service as creaking as it is beloved: all hampered the fight. That tackling the virus was so expensive reflects the British state’s habitual cluelessness.

But surely that’s ancient history – who quibbles about timescales and costs when the pubs are open again? Nevertheless, there are real questions to ask about the fundamental problems of the government’s pandemic response. As a recovering student who spent his last year at university railing against restrictions, I almost respect those in Number 10 who dabbled in cakes and champers: they stuck two fingers up at rules so obviously grotesque even their very authors deemed them unreasonable. Saying such a thing makes me an outlier – but the trouble of following public opinion has been a problem of these last two years.

Think back to that mad, miserable March. The accepted narrative of events follows a government that began by nonchalantly dismissing the approaching threat being bounced by sensible scientists like Patrick Vallance, Chris Whitty, and Saint Ferguson of Lockdown into following the rest of the civilised world (basically European countries with skiing resorts, and those bits of America that like Hillary) into necessary restrictions. Ferguson famously claimed that locking down a weak earlier would have saved 20,000 lives. The allegation that nasty Tories pursued chimeric ‘herd immunity’ at the expense of innocent lives was potent.

The reality was rather different. Rather than rejecting ‘the science’ for political ends, the government studiously followed scientific advice. The crucial point was that that advice changed. Vallance, Whitty et al was began March claiming they wanted to squash the sombrero, that cancelling mass events and mandating face masks was pointless. They may have initially believed the virus was more like the flu, but, even so, the government hardly ignored them. Ferguson was the outlier in calling for restrictions.

What changed? Remember, officials initially openly scoffed at the concept of lockdown. They believed such an authoritarian measure was unworkable in as freedom-loving country such as Britain. Their minds were changed by a force that has done more to shape the government’s handling of this pandemic than any other: the almost-sadomasochistic partiality for restrictions on the part of the British public.

Professor Ferguson’s infamous model certainly had an impact on ministers, primarily because it showed the NHS being overwhelmed. A new Tory government, driven by Vote Leave’s obsession with polls and the health service, could never be seen to let our national religion buckle. As horrific scenes poured onto our television screens from Lombardy night after night, and as country after country entered a lockdown hitherto thought only possible under the CCP, the public mood changed.

Already by March 26th, travel by tube, rail, or bus was down by more than 80 per cent. Outcry at allowing events like the Cheltenham festival and St Patrick’s Day celebrations helped convince the government that Something Must Be DoneTM. We were bounced into lockdown.

And as the weeks drew on, and the public remained overwhelmingly in favour of being paid to sit at home and watch Netflix, removing restrictions became even harder. Not until jabs could be put in arms, providing levels of reassurance acceptable to even the most zealous mask-wearer, could the government finally turn the corner: it had to win against public opinion as much as the virus. We remained stuck under restrictions for so long not only because of the SAGE’s caution, but because the public’s instincts were usually more draconian than the government’s.

We have known since Public Heath England first reported on it in July 2020 that the measures imposed that March may have caused more deaths in the long-term than they saved. From domestic abuse and mental illness, to missed cancer screenings and two years of disrupted learning, the consequences of our national experiment in authoritarianism will still be being counted far beyond the end of even the most leisurely of inquiry timescales.

And as we have all chosen to conveniently forget just how popular the war in Iraq initially was, I suspect that, in years to come, as hospital backlogs and educational problems stack up and mountains of debt must be paid off by continuous tax rises, the British people will similarly choose to forget just how enthusiastic we were for lockdown. March 2020 was the cruellest month – and one day, in the not-too-distant future, none of us will be able to say why.

How likely is a referendum on Net Zero?

29 Oct

Over the last few days, a rather interesting poll by YouGov has been released. It showed that the British public are in favour of a referendum on the Government’s Net Zero proposals by the next general election. Forty two per cent, in total, want a vote on the plan, 30 per cent don’t want one and 28 per cent did not declare any preference. However, when “don’t knows” were excluded from the data, 58 per cent wanted a vote on the matter.

This poll will not please the Government. In the past it could reassure itself that, as Net Zero was included in the Conservative Party manifesto of 2019, it had a clear mandate to move forward with its eco plans. But the data may be the clearest sign yet of growing public discontent. Though Net Zero was, indeed, spelled out in the document, perhaps it seemed like a minor detail among Getting Brexit Done and Levelling up. 

Now, of course, no one can miss it. As time has moved on, the headlines around it have been some of the most dramatic, even in the Covid era. From the talk about having to give up meat, to the suggestion of gas boilers being ripped out of houses around Britain, to the fact that Net Zero is estimated to cost £1 trillion over the next three decades, there’s no getting away from the eco revolution.

Many are already living under very noticeable green policies. In my local area, for instance, the Labour-run council has installed Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), and Ultra Low Emission Zones (ULEZs) have been expanded all across London. When I recently interviewed local tradesmen about these two things, they were unbelievably frustrated. I have no doubt that they care about the environment, but they are losing jobs due to the amount of time it takes to get through LTNs and have spent thousands upgrading their vehicles. No one listens to any of their concerns.

How would they vote, I wonder, were there a referendum on Net Zero? But what would one even look like? It’s worth pointing out that the YouGov poll asked whether people would want a referendum on Net Zero proposals, rather than Net Zero itself, but this could contain a huge number of questions. Case in point: the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the Government’s independent advisory group on reaching Net Zero, has offered over 200 recommendations about how the UK can get there. Where do you start with that list? 

Perhaps eco policies could be grouped into specific areas – from “the home” to “vehicle use”. Or maybe, as time goes on, the public will be asked to make trade offs, such as “Would you rather be a vegan or stop flying for X amount of time?” I half-joke, but it strikes me this is not so far away from the truth. Either way, you can see the complexity of bringing Net Zero to the ballot box.

One thing is for certain, which is that the Government would never put one question to the public – namely “Should the UK achieve Net Zero by 2050?” – as the UK is already legally binded towards the 2050 target through the Climate Change Act, as amended in 2019. The genie is out of the bottle and we have already done so much to become eco friendly. Do not expect to see campaigners in “Vote Net Zero” t-shirts any time soon.

Even if we weren’t legally obliged, though, it’s unlikely the Government would risk public consultation on the matter. The implications of getting the “wrong” answer would be staggering, and it cannot bank on getting the “right” one. It was interesting to note that earlier this year, Swiss voters rejected a proposed new climate law by 52 per cent – compared to 48 per cent – in a referendum. It was a warning to eco-conscious leaders on how the vote could go.

Ultimately, as was the case with the Coronavirus Act, the Government has simply decided that there’s an emergency and that this justifies it pushing through its Net Zero agenda. And so, dreaming of any vote in this becomes a futile exercise.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Government shouldn’t think hard about how to get more public involvement on its decisions. Without doing so, it seems to me that negative attention will turn to the CCC, which risks attracting the same resentment that was once directed at the EU – due to its unelected representatives and impact on policy. Voters can end up feeling “left behind”, too, as was the case in the referendum.

In general, the Government needs to check in with the public more. It has, perhaps, become overly accustomed to not having to do this during the pandemic. But beneath the slogan of “Build Back Better”, I wonder if it can hear the anger among those struggling with ULEZs and similar policies? It must connect with these voters – before it finds the next general election a de facto referendum on Net Zero.

Sarah Ingham: Is it too much to hope MPs can turn up for a debate on our civil liberties? Apparently so.

29 Oct

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

What a difference a day makes …

The greatest tribute to Sir David Amess in the House of Commons last week was MPs’ attention. Not only were the green benches packed, but for once phones remained out of sight. Our elected representatives did the late member for Southend, and indeed the country, the rare courtesy of actually being present and fully engaged, focusing on something other than their mobiles.

Less than 24 hours later it was back to business as usual. An almost deserted chamber and empty benches. But, hey, who cares? Up for discussion – but not for a vote – was only the tiny matter of the renewal of the Coronavirus Act.

For those Conservative MPs who have been smugly congratulating themselves at swerving such tedium … Well done! You have been bested by Dawn Butler. Yes, the Dawn Butler who, back in July, was ordered to leave the Chamber for calling the Prime Minister a liar.

Arguing for the Act to be repealed and replaced, the MP for Brent Central branded it disproportionate, draconian and a danger to our rights and our liberties. ‘We are the Mother of all Parliaments and we should always have the opportunity to scrutinise Government legislation: it is what we are elected to do … The Government should not be the sole decider of legislation; we live in a democracy, not an autocracy.’

Does it matter that Butler’s intervention might owe something to the pressure group Liberty or that it prompts questions about internal Labour Party politics? The Corbyn ally’s speech was hardly on-message with leader Starmer. After all, in relation to the Prime Minister, his posture throughout the Covid crisis has roughly been that recommended to Our Man in Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, in connection with the Bush-era White House.

Last week Butler became the latest in a centuries-long line of MPs, battling for the power of Parliament over the Executive and the rights of the individual over the state. Not only did she remind us that 292 people have been wrongly charged under the Act, but between March 2020 and June 2021 the police processed more than 117,000 fines for breaches of it – against which there is no appeal. Last year, MPs were given no say when the maximum fine was raised from £960 to £10,000.

Trespassing onto terrain held by the Covid Recovery Group, the Corbynista would not necessarily be most people’s first pick as an heir to Simon de Montfort (c.1208-1265) the pioneer of representative government, or to John Pym (1584-1643), the opponent of arbitrary power, back when liberty was a cause worth fighting a civil war for.

Butler showed up. She was only one of three Labour backbenchers to do so – as Andrew Murrison MP pointed out. But apart from the usual CRG suspects, few of his fellow Conservatives bothered. Perhaps they reasoned that, with the expiry of those sections of the Act which were most offensive to civil libertarians, there was no need to trouble themselves with fulfilling a crucial part of their job description; i.e. holding the Government to account.

Had those absent MPs actually been toiling away at the Commons’ coalface last Tuesday afternoon, they would have heard David Davis argue that proper scrutiny results in improved decision-making by Ministers. In the context of the virus, he suggested that mistakes had cost thousands of lives. In addition, this week the Public Accounts Committee reported that ‘eye-watering’ sums of money – as much as £37 billion – had been wasted on NHS Track and Trace. Other than MPs, to whom are Britain’s sub-optimal bureaucrats answerable? Certainly not to the taxpayer.

Above all, the MPs on the missing list last week sent a message that only little people and Lord Sumption are troubled by the curtailment of their liberties because of the abject failure of the NHS, a branch of the state. Just as 18th century Prussia was said to be not a country with an Army but an Army with a country, 21st century Britain has become subservient to the toxic leviathan that is its health service.

Lockdowns, past and possibly/probably future, were introduced under provisions of the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984, which could usher in vaccine passports. Steve Baker observed that the Secretary of State for Health ‘only has to walk into his office and sign a piece of paper and we will all be locked down again’. More tiers, bubbles and state intrusion into picnics, shopping baskets and funerals anyone?

‘Give me liberty or give me death!’ was the rallying cry attributed to Patrick Henry in a speech to the Second Virginia Convention in 1775. Delegates included George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. In drawing up the Declaration of Independence they would be influenced John Locke, who at the time of England’s Glorious Revolution a century earlier, had argued that the proper function of government is to defend life, liberty and property.

Liberty is the golden thread running through 750 years of Parliament’s history. If they were to put down their mobile phones when they deign to be in the Commons’ chamber, MPs might spend less time worrying about being called hurty names by losers on social media and more time drawing inspiration from their predecessors, who over the centuries, have battled for our freedom.

Above all, some Conservative voters should be asking why Butler and not their MP is a standard bearer for liberty.

Bella Wallersteiner: The silent majority now wants a return to pre-pandemic normality

14 Oct

Bella Wallersteiner works as Senior Parliamentary Assistant for a Conservative MP.

The contentious Coronavirus Act, a 348-page document, was rushed through Parliament on a three-day emergency timetable before the March 2020 lockdown on the understanding that the Act would be reviewed and scrutinised once the emergency had passed.

Eighteen months later and we are still living under the authoritarian strictures of the Coronavirus Act 2020 (‘the Act’) with its erosion of basic freedoms which previous generations sacrificed so much to achieve.

When outlining the final step of the lockdown roadmap the Prime Minister asked: “if not now, then when?”. The same can be asked of the Coronavirus Act.

It is reminiscent of the Defence of the Realm Act of 1914. This was used to censor the press, introduce rationing, ban kite flying and building bonfires, brought in British Summer Time, watered down beer, and imposed pub licensing laws – rules which were only relaxed in November 2005.

When Parliament returns after the Conference recess there will be a vote to extend the Act. Some Conservative backbenchers are concerned that the emergency Covid laws could remain on the statute books for another two years after the Government announced a six-month extension. The Act must be extended every six months by a vote in Parliament to remain in force.

People seldom realise when their freedoms are being eroded until these freedoms have gone. This extension of state power is unprecedented outside wartime conditions and it is remarkable that there has not been a wider public debate about the loss of basic rights outside the noisy echo chamber of social media platforms such as Twitter. It is unfortunate that those of us who are deeply worried about the implications of the Act are being caricatured as bug-eyed zealots, and are thrown together with conspiracy theorists and the flat earth society.

The Act gave council-employed “Covid marshals” the right to use “reasonable force” to make people self-isolate (the equivalent of giving parking wardens the right to stop, search and arrest motorists for minor traffic offences). Citizens were fined for not observing NHS test-and-trace edicts or for refusing to stay at home after testing positive. Curtain-twitchers were encouraged to denounce their neighbours for taking more than one daily walk, and where I live a group of people waiting outside the post office were accused by the police of an illegal gathering.  People were threatened with fines which started at £4,000 for not obeying self-isolation rules.

The Act by itself was not sufficient to curtail freedom of movement, and the Government had to disinter the Public Health Act of 1984 to justify lockdowns. The 1984 Act permits a regulatory regime ‘for the purpose of preventing, protecting against, controlling or providing a public-health response to the incidence or spread of infection or contamination’. This Act was created for a very different era when television advertisements featured tombstones warning the LGBT community that they were in grave danger of HIV/AIDS transmission.

Lockdown-sceptic Conservative MPs, led by Steve Baker and Mark Harper, have rightly been calling for a new “Public Health Act” to allow greater examination over health measures.

We are in a completely different position from where we were in March 2020. Our vaccine rollout has been a huge success. We have seen a significant and sustained fall in people suffering from serious disease and death from Covid.  This week Dr Jenny Harries, Chief Executive of the UK Health Security Agency, conceded Covid may no longer be the most ‘significant’ threat to health and Dame Professor Sarah Gilbert, who pioneered the Oxford vaccine, has poured cold water over fears of a vaccine evading variant stating there “aren’t very many places for the virus to go”.

Instead of reporting the number of people who have died with Covid, the BBC should be telling us about the number of patients who are not being seen by GPs or given treatment for other acute illnesses as the NHS continues to hide behind the pandemic.

In September, Government scientists warned England’s daily hospital admissions could reach 2,000 to 7,000 this month if restrictions weren’t tightened. At the time of writing, there are just over 7,000 Covid patients in hospital in the whole of the UK. Public health restrictions in England are now much more contested than in March 2020 when there was almost universal consensus that lockdown and other measures were necessary.

Senior clinicians are not aligned with the fear agenda of the doomsayers on SAGE, illustrated by the lack of agreement of the efficacy of vaccines for 12-5-years-olds. Time after time SAGE’s epidemiological modelling of the pandemic has turned out to be as accurate as the prognostications and crystal ball gazing of Mystic Meg.

This change in circumstances has been acknowledged by Government, which has pledged to remove some provisions of the Coronavirus Act such as the power to temporarily close schools and other educational institutions, prohibit gatherings or events, and restrict access to premises.

The other temporary powers in the Act should expire in March 2022, and Government has stated that it will review them in the Spring. We must continue to put pressure on the Government to ensure that the residual powers accrued to the state by the Act are removed so that all our freedoms and liberties are fully restored.

Renewing the Coronavirus Act now would suggest that the Government has lost confidence in its vaccination programme and that citizens could be subjected to an indefinite cycle of restrictions and lockdowns which challenge many of our most cherished beliefs about the limits of government power. The Government relied on the consent and compliance of the general public to introduce some of the most swingeing controls in peace time and it is by no means certain that the people will accept a narrative of continuous emergency.

The silent majority now wants a return to pre-pandemic normality and will not be fooled by increasingly desperate attempts by the Government to persuade us that restricting freedom is necessary.

 

Emily Carver: Why ministers were wrong to overrule official advice on vaccinating school pupils

15 Sep

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Decision-making throughout the pandemic has been inconsistent, confused and often illogical. We’ve had a patchwork of ever-changing regulations, from ‘scotch egg gate’ and unevidenced alcohol bans, to the confused and unworkable traffic light system, school closures and work from home mandates.

This erratic approach may have been understandable at the start of the pandemic; 18 months on, it’s intolerable.

The Government’s latest announcement of a Covid winter plan will see the continuation of sweeping public health powers, including mass asymptomatic testing, contact tracing, and the possibility of mandatory vaccine passports – which were only days ago rejected publicly by the Health Secretary. At the same time, the threat of lockdown measures remains, with the Public Health Act, under which restrictions were legally enforced, still firmly on the statute book.

This week’s news that the Government has chosen to go ahead with the roll-out of vaccinations to children aged between 12 and 15, against the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), is troubling for many reasons.

The JCVI released a statement only days ago that explained that while the benefits from vaccination are “marginally greater than the potential known harms”, there is “considerable uncertainty” regarding the magnitude of these potential harms – and therefore the Government should not go ahead with a mass roll-out of vaccinations for children in this age group.

The argument has been made many times that inoculating teenagers will prevent transmission in schools – to the benefit of both the schoolchildren themselves, staff, and the wider community. The JCVI, however, noted that there remains the impact of vaccination on peer-to-peer transmission as well as transmission in the wider (highly vaccinated) population is far from sure; any impact on transmission would be, if anything, relatively small.

However, despite this recommendation, ministers, determined to push ahead with the roll-out deferred to Chris Whitty. Perhaps other factors, besides medical reasons, might tip the balance?

Chief Medical Officers swiftly recommended the jabs, not on strictly medical grounds, but as an “important and useful tool” in reducing school disruption in the coming months and thus minimising the harms to children’s mental health. To put it bluntly, the Government is overruling the JCVI scientific advice and concerns to vaccinate 12 to 15-year-olds on the grounds of preventing the disruption of school closures – which was always and remains a political decision.

The messaging is clear: have the vaccine, or risk not being able to go to school. Sounds suspiciously like coercion to me.

In any case, it’s certainly not clear cut that jabbing children will avoid loss of school time. `The JCVI flagged that delivery of a Covid-19 vaccine programme for children and young people is likely to be disruptive to education and that some children may have to miss schooling due to adverse reactions to the vaccination.

According to calculations by Professor David Paton of Nottingham University Business School, based on the Government’s own figures, the decision to authorise vaccinating this cohort was based on modelling that the programme will avoid the loss of only 15 minutes of schooling per pupil over a six-month period. That’s assuming no vaccinated children have been previously infected, that no time would be lost administering the vaccination, and that no school time would be lost from pupils suffering side effects from the vaccine.

More pressing is why this is the first time other factors, including the impact of lost education and the mental well-being of children, are being considered by the Government in their decision-making? Why were the deleterious effects on children’s mental health not taken into account when schools were locked down for weeks and months on end? The decision to close schools, like this decision to roll-out the vaccine to children, is a political one – surely it warranted a similar assessment of the various, and largely predictable, impacts on children’s wellbeing?

The case has been made by some that the Government is simply making the jab available. Why shouldn’t parents and children be given the choice? The state surely shouldn’t stand in their way.

However, the idea that the Government is just making it available is naïve – we know state action won’t be limited to letting young people and parents know the jab is there if they want it. Schools will be used as vaccination sites and the threat of further school closures and lockdowns will act as indirect coercion, possibly causing distress and placing undue pressure on children to get jabbed. And while many parents will be understandably concerned that this vaccination is still technically on trial and only approved on an emergency basis, children will have the final say; the Government has itself conceded this.

Remember when Matt Hancock said that restrictions would end once the most vulnerable had been vaccinated? Now, several months on, it looks like freedom will be conditional on the continued inoculation of the population, including children – a reality that is not only ethically reprehensible but firmly at odds with the values of individual liberty and personal autonomy.

It may be that for those of a libertarian disposition, where you come down on this argument hinges on how benevolent you believe government to be. Sadly, nothing during this pandemic has given me hope that the Government won’t continue to use coercion to control our response to this, now endemic, virus.

“We have prepared a Plan B”. The Health Secretary’s Commons statement – full text

14 Sep

“Mr Speaker, before I make my statement today, I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in offering our condolences to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my noble Friend Baron Johnson of Marylebone on the loss of their mother who sadly passed away yesterday. Our thoughts are with them and their whole family at this most difficult of times.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the pandemic and our autumn and winter plan to manage the risk of covid-19.

Over the past few months, we have been making progress down the road to recovery, carefully and cautiously moving closer to normal life. As we do this, we have been working hard to strengthen our defences against this deadly virus. We have been continuing the roll-out of our vaccination programme, with 81% of people over the age of 16 having had the protection of both doses. We have expanded our testing capacity yet further, opening a new mega-lab in Leamington Spa, and we have continued supporting research into long covid, taking our total investment to £50 million.

Thanks to that determined effort, we have made some major steps forward. The link between cases, hospitalisations and death has weakened significantly since the start of the pandemic and deaths from covid-19 have been mercifully low compared with previous waves. None the less, we must be vigilant as autumn and winter are favourable conditions for covid-19 and other seasonal viruses. Children have returned to school. More and more people are returning to work. The changing weather means that there will be more people spending time indoors, and there is likely to be a lot of non-covid demand on the NHS, including flu and norovirus.

Today, keeping our commitment to this House, I would like to provide an update on our review of preparedness for autumn and winter. The plan shows how we will give this nation the best possible chance of living with covid without the need for stringent social and economic restrictions.

There are five pillars to this plan. The first is further strengthening our pharmaceutical defences such as vaccines. The latest statistics from the Office for National Statistics show that almost 99% of covid-19 deaths in the first half of this year were people who had not received both doses of a covid-19 vaccine. This shows the importance of our vaccination programme, and, by extending the programme further, we can protect even more people. Almost 6 million people over the age of 16 remain unvaccinated in the UK, and the more people there are who are unvaccinated the larger the holes in our collective defences. We will renew our efforts to maximise uptake among those who are eligible but who have not yet, for whatever reason, taken up the offer.

Next, we have been planning our booster doses, too. As with many other vaccines, there is evidence that the protection offered by covid-19 vaccines reduces over time, particularly for older people who are at greater risk. Booster doses are an important way of keeping the virus under control for the long term.

This morning, we published the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation on a booster programme. It recommended that people who were vaccinated in phase 1—priority groups 1 to 9—should be offered a booster vaccine; that this vaccine should be offered no earlier than six months after the completion of the primary vaccine course; and that, as far as possible, the booster programme should be deployed in the same order as phase 1. I can confirm that I have accepted the JCVI’s advice and that the NHS is preparing to offer booster doses from next week. The NHS will contact people at the right time and nobody needs to come forward at this point. This booster programme will protect the most vulnerable through the winter months and strengthen our wall of defence even further.

As well as that, we will be extending the offer of a covid-19 vaccine to even more people, as the Minister for covid-19 vaccine deployment announced yesterday in the House—thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing him to make that statement yesterday. All young people aged 16 to 17 in England have already been offered a dose of a covid-19 vaccine to give them the protection as they return to school. Yesterday, the UK’s chief medical officers unanimously recommended making a universal offer of a first dose of a vaccine to people between the ages of 12 and 15. The Government have accepted that recommendation, too, and will move with urgency to put this into action. We are also seeing great advances in the use of antivirals and therapeutics. Several covid-19 treatments are already available through the NHS and our antivirals taskforce is leading the search for breakthroughs in antivirals, which have so much more potential to offer.

Secondly, testing, tracing and self-isolation have been another vital defence. Over the autumn and winter, PCR testing for those with covid-19 symptoms and contacts of confirmed cases will continue to be available free of charge. Regular asymptomatic testing, which currently identifies about a quarter of all reported cases, will also continue in the coming months, with a focus on those who are not fully vaccinated: perhaps those in education or other higher-risk settings. Contact tracing will continue through the NHS Test and Trace system. We do not want people to face hardship as they carry out their duty to self-isolate, so we will keep offering practical and financial support for those who are eligible and need assistance who are still required to self-isolate. We will review the regulations and support by the end of March 2022.

The third pillar is that we are supporting the NHS and social care. Last week, I announced a £5.4 billion injection for the NHS to support the covid-19 response over the next six months, including £1 billion extra to tackle the elective backlog caused by covid-19. We have also launched a consultation on protecting vulnerable patients by making covid-19 and flu vaccinations a condition of deployment for frontline healthcare staff and wider social care workers in England. We are already making this a condition of employment in Care Quality Commission-registered adult care homes. Although we are keeping an open mind and will not be making a final decision until we fully consider the results of the consultation, it is highly likely that frontline NHS staff and those working in wider social care settings will also have to be vaccinated to protect those around them, and that this will be an important step in protecting those at greatest risk.

Fourthly, we will keep encouraging people to take steps to keep seasonal illnesses, including flu and covid-19, at bay. The best step we can all take is to get vaccinations for covid-19 and flu if we are eligible, so along with our covid-19 vaccination programme the next few months will see the largest flu vaccination campaign that the country has ever seen. Our plan also sets out a number of changes that we can all make to our daily routines, such as: meeting outdoors where possible; trying to let in fresh air if we need to be indoors; and wearing a face mask in crowded and enclosed spaces where we come into contact with people who we do not normally meet.

Our fifth pillar is how we will look beyond our shores and pursue an international approach. Last week, I attended the G20 Health Ministers’ Meeting, where I met counterparts from across the world and talked about the part that we will be playing to lead the global effort to accelerate access to vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. As we do this, we will maintain our strong defences at the border, allowing us to identify and respond to variants of concern. It is these defences, and the progress of vaccination campaigns both here and abroad, that have allowed us to manage the risks and to start carefully reopening international travel once again. We have already relaxed the rules for fully vaccinated travellers and I asked the Competition and Markets Authority to review the issue of exploitative behaviour in the private testing market. The review reported last week and I am looking into what further action we can take. On top of those measures, we will be publishing a new framework for international travel. My right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary will be announcing more details ahead of the formal review point on 1 October.

Thanks to the defences that we have built, we have been able to remove many of the regulations that have governed our daily lives—rules that were unprecedented yet necessary. Our plan shows how we will be removing more of these powers while maintaining those that are essential for our response. This includes expiring more of the powers in the Coronavirus Act 2020, such as the powers directing the temporary closure of educational institutions. The remaining provisions will be those that are critical to the Government’s response to the pandemic—for example, ensuring that the NHS is properly resourced, and supporting statutory sick pay for those who are self-isolating.

The plan before the House today is our plan A—a comprehensive plan to steer this country through the autumn and winter. But we have seen how quickly this virus can adapt and change, so we have prepared a plan B of contingency measures, which we can call upon only if they are needed and supported by the data, to prevent unsustainable pressure on the NHS. These measures would be: communicating clearly and urgently to the public the need for caution; legally mandating face coverings in certain settings; and, while we are not going ahead with mandatory vaccine-only covid status certification now, holding that power in reserve. As well as those three steps, we would consider a further measure of asking people to work from home if they can for a limited time if that is supported by the data. Any responsible Government must prepare for all eventualities. Although these measures are not an outcome that anyone wants, it is one that we need to be ready for just in case.

Ever since we published our road map to recovery seven months ago, we have been carefully but cautiously getting this nation closer to normal life. Now we have come so far and achieved so much, we must stay vigilant as we approach this critical chapter, so that we can protect the progress that we have all made together. I commend this statement to the House.”

Bim Afolami: The big question facing Johnson. What does fiscal conservatism mean in an age of the big state?

12 Jul

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

Over the next few months, the Prime Minister and his Government will set out the key policy choices in two key areas – the spending review and planning reform. The political choices made here will tell us a great deal about the Prime Minister’s brand of conservatism, and therefore where the Party is heading.

The Spending Review that takes place this autumn will set out departmental spending for 2022/2023. The easiest option for the Prime Minister, especially bearing in mind our new political coalition (which includes many more voters of lower and middle income than under previous governments), is to plough as much cash into public services as possible to build back better after Covid.

The NHS faces a huge challenge over this winter not just with Coronavirus, but also with treatment backlogs piling up. There are challenges with education catch-up funding, as well as local government shortfalls. Any government seen to be failing on those fronts would face a major problem come election time.

However, the medium term fiscal challenge is daunting. The UK saw the fourth largest increase in government borrowing (as a percentage of GDP) among 35 advanced economies in 2020 (after Canada, Norway and Singapore). Even if our economic bounce back is stronger than originally thought (and there is evidence for this), there are real risks to the Government’s fiscal plans from the fact that the increased government spending, due to Covid, means that some departments will have less money to spend for the rest of the parliament.

Compared to the spending plans pre-pandemic, in autumn 2020 spending totals in government departments were cut by £14.5 billion a year. At the same time, overall public spending is still forecast to be higher as a share of GDP in the medium term than it was pre- pandemic.

The fundamental choice is this: is the Prime Minister going to be a Conservative who wants to continue with a high level of public spending, accepting higher borrowing and higher taxes; or will he seek to pare back the state, introduce more private sector funding where possible, and take on those who seem to want higher spending for everything at every turn?

Although the second course is one that many traditional fiscal conservatives (and the Treasury) would favour, let us not underestimate the sustained political effort that would be required to make that argument at this stage.

Not increasing government spending, or indeed at times cutting it, is not popular. During my four years in Parliament, I have seen numerous instances of Conservative governments trying to hold the line on spending and suffering real political damage (i.e: concern over school funding in 2017/18).

Yet seeking to keep higher levels of spending and borrowing not only increases the risk of inflation (which is creeping up anyway due to global macroeconomic factors), but it also cuts to the heart of why so many people vote Conservative – an understanding that we are careful stewards of the public finances and will maintain good economic conditions.

Throw in the wider commitment to increase spending in order to “level up” the North, and many traditional Conservatives will start to take flight. My view is that the only way to help square this circle is to rediscover our concern for the importance of public service reform – to work on improving the public sector so that it can produce better outcomes without huge increases in spending. Without the ability to achieve better outcomes in public services, at a time when the state is a bigger part of people’s lives than since the 1960s, we will suffer badly at the next election.

Planning reform looks no easier. Even leaving aside the Parliamentary reality that many southern MPs are yet to be persuaded of the merits of reform, the decisions made will have a huge impact on the perception of who this Conservative Party is for. Who are our people?

In many areas of the Home Counties, where the increases in housebuilding will be the most politically salient, many traditional Conservatives regard significant housebuilding nearby as an attack on their sense of place and home. Even a cursory look at the results in the last local elections and the Chesham and Amersham by-election makes it clear that housing has the power to be electorally explosive.

Ultimately, there will need to be some more house-building in the South East (there already is!) and across the country. There may be a short term political price to pay for doing so in certain areas – that is the nature of being in government and having to take tough decisions.

But how do we limit the political damage and get the houses we need? We must ensure that development happens in the right way: protecting and enhancing our environment, sympathetically extending communities or creating new ones, and with local support. Neighbourhood Plans are a good feature of our current planning system which enable residents to set out what developments in their area should look like. We must ensure that these form a key part of the new process so that residents have more control over their local environments.

Modern conservatism will always treasure our past and champion the future. We have no future as a party – or indeed, as a property-owning democracy – if younger people cannot get on the housing ladder. But even if we achieve a large increase in the number of new homes, the evidence shows that it won’t put more than a small dent into affordability. As George Osborne’s former economic adviser Rupert Harrison said last week: “a decade of effort might knock two or three per cent off prices at best, just a few months of price growth at current rates. The reality is that high house prices — and indeed high prices for all assets — are a global phenomenon, and for almost 40 years there have been much more powerful forces at work: a huge fall in the interest rates set in financial markets”.

To improve home ownership amongst the young, we need to do more than just build more houses. We also need to change the mortgage market to allow for longer term (over 20 or 25 years) fixed rate mortgages which help solve the affordability problem for young people without much of a deposit. If we can do this and genuinely show younger people we are governing to help them get on in life, this will be recognised by them and (hopefully) by their parents and grandparents. If we allow the broken system to continue as it currently stands, we many retain the support of the few but be increasingly resented by the many.

These choices are not just normal mid-term difficulties. How the Prime Minister approaches them will determine the shape of how the modern Conservative Party is perceived. What does fiscal conservatism mean in an age of the big state? How will we push all levers to ensure that younger generations will be able to afford a decent home of their own whilst retaining our existing support?

McVey, Walker and Wragg. The most rebellious Conservative MPs in our survey of major votes.

22 Jun

Last week, ConservativeHome published a list of the 49 Conservative MPs who voted against the Coronavirus Regulations. As we said at the time, it was the biggest Covid rebellion since December 2, and a reminder that even if a Government has a huge majority, it can easily be rocked about by unprecedented events (a pandemic).

From 2020 and 2021, we have been keeping track of rebellions. It’s worth adding that rebellions can take various forms – Chris Green resigning as a ministerial aide, for instance – and that there have been many minor ones, so there may be one MP who is technically the most rebellious on less prominent issues. However, for the purpose of one article we’ve focused on major voting events. So who exactly has pushed back the most?

First of all, here is a list of the rebellions we tracked – with a nickname and link to recap on what each was about:

And without further ado, we can reveal that Esther McVey, Charles Walker and William Wragg are joint first in our “most rebellious MP” league table – with nine rebellions to their names. Here’s how they rebelled.

Esther McVey:

  1. Huawei
  2. Coronavirus Act 1
  3. Rule of Six
  4. Curfew
  5. Lockdown
  6. Tiers
  7. Third lockdown
  8. Coronavirus Act 2
  9. Coronavirus regulations

Charles Walker:

  1. Coronavirus Act 1
  2. Rule of Six
  3. Curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Tiers
  6. Third lockdown
  7. Genocide Amendment
  8. Coronavirus Act 2
  9. Coronavirus regulations

William Wragg:

  1. Huawei
  2. Coronavirus Act 1
  3. Rule of Six
  4. Curfew
  5. Lockdown
  6. Tiers
  7. Genocide Amendment
  8. Coronavirus Act 2
  9. Coronavirus Regulations

MPs who have rebelled on eight occasions:

Graham Brady:

  1. Huawei
  2. Rule of Six
  3. Curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Tiers
  6. Third lockdown
  7. Coronavirus Act 2
  8. Coronavirus regulations

Philip Davies:

  1. Coronavirus Act 1
  2. Rule of Six
  3. Curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Tiers
  6. Third lockdown
  7. Coronavirus Act 2
  8. Coronavirus regulations

Richard Drax:

  1. Huawei
  2. Rule of Six
  3. Curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Tiers
  6. Third lockdown
  7. Coronavirus Act 2
  8. Coronavirus regulations

Andrew Rosindell:

  1. Huawei
  2. Curfew
  3. Lockdown
  4. Tiers
  5. Third lockdown
  6. Genocide Amendment
  7. Coronavirus Act 2
  8. Coronavirus regulations

Desmond Swayne:

  1. Coronavirus Act 1
  2. Rule of Six
  3. Curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Tiers
  6. Third lockdown
  7. Coronavirus Act 2
  8. Coronavirus regulations

MPs who have rebelled on seven occasions:

Philip Hollobone:

  1. Huawei
  2. Coronavirus Act 1
  3. Rule of Six
  4. Tiers
  5. Genocide Amendment
  6. Coronavirus Act 2
  7. Coronavirus Regulations

Tim Loughton:

  1. Huawei
  2. Curfew
  3. Lockdown
  4. Tiers
  5. Genocide Amendment
  6. Coronavirus Act 2
  7. Coronavirus regulations

Anne Marie Morris:

  1. Huawei
  2. Curfew
  3. Lockdown
  4. Tiers
  5. Third lockdown
  6. Coronavirus Act 2
  7. Coronavirus regulations

Henry Smith:

  1. Huawei
  2. Rule of Six
  3. Curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Tiers
  6. Coronavirus Act 2
  7. Coronavirus regulations

Robert Syms:

  1. Huawei
  2. Rule of Six
  3. 10pm curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Third lockdown
  6. Coronavirus Act 2
  7. Coronavirus regulations

MPs who have rebelled on six occasions:

Peter Bone:

  1. Coronavirus Act 1
  2. Rule of Six
  3. Curfew
  4. Lockdown
  5. Coronavirus Act 2
  6. Coronavirus regulations

Christopher Chope:

  1. Huawei
  2. Curfew
  3. Lockdown
  4. Tiers
  5. Coronavirus Act 1
  6. Coronavirus regulations

David Davis:

  1. Huawei
  2. Curfew
  3. Tiers
  4. Genocide Amendment
  5. Coronavirus Act 2
  6. Coronavirus regulations

Stephen McPartland:

  1. Huawei
  2. Lockdown
  3. Tiers
  4. Third lockdown
  5. Coronavirus Act 2
  6. Coronavirus regulations

John Redwood:

  1. Huawei
  2. Curfew
  3. Lockdown
  4. Tiers
  5. Coronavirus Act 2
  6. Coronavirus regulations

David Warburton:

  1. Huawei
  2. Tiers
  3. Third lockdown
  4. Genocide Amendment
  5. Coronavirus Act 2
  6. Coronavirus regulations
Some more notes:
  • We have stopped with MPs who have rebelled a maximum of six times during this period (out of 10 in total).
  • It’s interesting to note that some “familiar faces” when one thinks of a Tory rebel aren’t included in our league – Mark Harper, for instance, who leads the Covid Recovery Group.
  • Lastly, there are some new faces to our rebellion list: Siobhan Baillie, Karen Bradley and Miriam Cates were some of the MPs to recently vote against Coronavirus regulations.