Young people and reopenings. Let’s celebrate life going back to normal – but remember that normal can be daunting too.

13 Apr

With April 12 having arrived yesterday and the pubs and shops finally opening again in England, albeit in rather arctic conditions, it’s easy to think of life going back to normal.

Personally I was delighted to see my friends after months with a border terrier as a daily companion. Dare I admit my pals and I toasted “cry freedom”, in the words of Matt Hancock, as we had our first drink.

I tend to assume that everyone my own age (32) and younger is on the same page, eager to get going. The pandemic put society on pause, but now it’s back on play.

And yet every now and then one is reminded that everyone’s experience over the last year has been very different. Yes, lots of us were out last night, photographed by the press, no doubt, for looking dangerously cheerful. 

But at the same time there will be some mixed feelings about lockdown, reopenings and so forth among my age group – and indeed every age group. For instance, one newspaper recently polled the British public and found that fifteen per cent of people in my age group liked lockdown, and seven per cent “strongly” liked it. Those younger responded similarly. 

Who are these people? I wondered. It makes you realise that it’s impossible to make assumptions about how young and young(ish – like me) people will respond to reopenings in the current weeks, nor what our new “normal” will look like, as it’s been such a strange/ terrible/ (insert your own description here) year. 

While the Government will want everyone to get out and about – and let’s hope for the best, perhaps there will be a bit of hesitancy moving forward, as well as people wanting to keep elements of the lockdown.

One thing that’s overlooked about young people and reopenings is that they can be just as nervous about getting Coronavirus as older generations. The Government even thinks it needs vaccine passports to encourage young people to get inoculated.

Personally I am at the “relaxed” end of the spectrum in regards to my own risk. However, most of the people I know want their jab as soon as possible. Some young people may not even want to eat out/ shop until they’ve had it. They don’t need nudging for a vaccine at all, as the idea of Covid or having to isolate for weeks (financially risky for those who can’t work from home) is offputting enough.

There are also going to be big financial challenges for reopenings, particularly for those in their early twenties. While Rishi Sunak has done his utmost to protect jobs, data from last year showed that the under-25s experienced the biggest rise in unemployment during lockdown and they were more likely to be furloughed than any other group. Along with the trouble that’s been happening at universities, and increased calls to mental health services, this generation is going to need a lot of Governmental and societal support to get back on its feet.

One of the only good things for young people about lockdown was the working from home revolution, which has given some financial security. Perhaps this explains the fact that some have “liked” lockdown in the aforementioned poll, as it allowed so many to relocate/ put money away that would have otherwise gone on commuting, or other expenses.

The Government should go with working from home trends, instead of trying to engineer people moving back towards the office, as it’s helping to alleviate the problems with the housing market – a lot of which stem from demand being too high in the South East. Young people benefit from this change, as do the towns which they breathe new life into.

Overall this piece isn’t to put a downer on reopenings – and last night was a truly joyful occasion (even if it was almost impossible to find a table). But we need to acknowledge that it will be a mixed snapshot, in regards to how people feel as the economy reopens. It’s easy to think young people can go back to normal straight away, but many of them, despite having the fortune of low risk from the virus, have had a tough year, which will affect how the next months play out. Let’s keep this in mind.

David Gauke: Cameron’s values in government may be out of favour, but they are not wrong

13 Apr

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

The Government’s announcement that it is undertaking an independent enquiry of the Greensill Capital affair is unlikely to bring much cheer to David Cameron. He has endured weeks of bad publicity, and there is little chance that the story is imminently going to ‘move on’.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the former Prime Minister’s actions – and he has acknowledged making mistakes – the furore is all the more painful because his reputation as Prime Minister was already at a low ebb. Critics of his economic policy accuse him of inflicting austerity which, they argue, were unnecessary, stunted growth and damaged public services; he is castigated by Remainers for calling and losing the Brexit referendum and by Leavers for being a Remainer; some on both sides accuse him of deserting his post by resigning the morning after the poll; his electoral successes have been surpassed by Boris Johnson’s thumping majority in 2019. Not unrelated to this, neither the man nor his political values appears to have much influence on the modern Conservative Party.

Defending Cameron’s record in office is deeply unfashionable. So I will do so.

Let us start with the economy. There are few defenders of ‘austerity’ in today’s public debate. Labour still want to argue that the electorate got it wrong in 2010 and 2015, just as they tried to do in 2017 and 2019 (which, incidentally, suggests that this might not be a guaranteed route to success). Johnson, meanwhile, is not temperamentally an austerian and enjoys the opportunity to demonstrate that he is new and different from recent Conservative history.

The economic debate has also moved on. Governments have been able to borrow vast sums of money in the last year without much of a risk of a sovereign debt crisis. Central banks have played a more active role, debt servicing costs have fallen and international organisations have advocated expansionary fiscal policies. This may all go wrong at some point – there is more reason to worry about inflation than for many years – but it hasn’t gone wrong yet.

None of this means, however, that the concerns of fiscal conservatives back in 2010 should be dismissed. The global financial crisis had resulted in substantially higher spending and permanent damage to tax revenues. The risks of a sovereign debt crisis – with consequences for inflation, debt interest costs and consumer and business confidence – were not imaginary. The IMF and the OECD advocated that countries needed to have credible plans to put the public finances on a sound footing, and many countries did just that. In short, the balance of risks and the expectations of the markets in the years after 2010 were very different to where we are now.

Did fiscal consolidation significantly hamper our economic recovery? It is true that economic growth in 2011 and 2012 was disappointing (although not as bad as it appeared at the time when the ONS early estimates suggested that we had had a double dip recession), but it is worth remembering that the independent Office for Budget Responsibility put this down to the lasting effects of the banking crisis, higher commodity prices and the Eurozone – not fiscal consolidation.

Looked at in the round, over the 2010-2016 period, the UK had the joint highest growth for a G7 economy, level with the US. It was also a period of rapid jobs growth, with the highest employment rate in our history and income inequality falling. Had the Brexit referendum gone the other way, there is every reason to believe that the post-2016 UK economy would have been characterised by high economic growth, rapidly rising living standards and strong public finances, as opposed to us falling to the bottom of the G7 league table.

Were public services were unduly damaged? Difficult decisions had to be made, but many of them were unavoidable given that the spending plans that we inherited were based on an over-optimistic, pre-crash assessment of what was affordable. It was possible to drive greater efficiencies and find ways of getting more for less. The British state has been placed under enormous strain in the last year by Covid but there have been some real successes. Just looking at two areas where I have some familiarity through Ministerial experience, HMRC was able to introduce the furloughing system in a matter of weeks, and the Department for Work and Pensions was able to cope with an extraordinary surge in benefit claimants. Neither would have been possible without reforms undertaken by the Cameron Government.

Having said all that, we relied too heavily on spending cuts over tax rises. It was politically easier at the time to cut spending rather than raise taxes and, as time went on, we got the balance wrong. Some areas of government spending – justice, for example, or social care – were squeezed too hard. But a period of spending restraint was necessary and inevitable and too many of Cameron’s critics fail to acknowledge that.

It was the decision to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU and then lose it that hangs most heavily over Cameron’s reputation. It will, unfortunately, always be for what he is remembered and, for many Remainers, this will never be forgiven. The referendum result created huge uncertainty and will, in my view, inflict lasting damage to the UK. But we should not kid ourselves that had he adopted a different approach our membership of the EU would currently be assured.

The Conservative Party was moving in the direction of being a Vote Leave Party – in part because of the fear of UKIP peeling off Tory votes – and the decision to offer a referendum was motivated both by a desire to win the 2015 general election by winning back UKIP voters but also by a recognition that a post-Cameron Conservative opposition would, in all likelihood, favour Brexit.

The best chance of staying in the EU, Cameron concluded, was to settle the issue early with a decisive Remain victory – the longer the issue was left, the greater the chance we would leave the EU. As it turned out, he was wrong to believe that he could deliver a Remain victory but he may have been right that this was the best chance of defeating Brexit.

As for the criticism that he should not have resigned following the poll, one lesson of the last five years is that the referendum did not tell us what exactly ‘Leave’ meant. I do not believe it is plausible to think that the European Research Group would have allowed the leader of the Remain campaign to define the answer.

More broadly, much of his political approach has stood the test of time. In wanting more women and ethnic minority MPs, caring about climate change and the environment and introducing equal marriage he took positions that were controversial at the time but have aged well.

Yes, Johnson’s majority in 2019 – and continued strength in the polls – exceeds anything achieved by Cameron, but it is not clear that a political strategy based on white voters without post-16 academic qualifications is the right long-term strategy for an electorate that is becoming more diverse and better educated.

Cameron represented fiscal conservativism, social liberalism and internationalism. These values may be out of favour but they are not wrong. It is too early to say to what extent his personal reputation will – in time – recover but the dismissal of the achievements of his Government is undeserved.

We interrupt our usual morning editorial to make a public service announcement

8 Apr

We break from our usual Fleet Street-length morning ToryDiary to make a public service announcement.

Nineteen people have died in the UK after receiving the AstraZeneca anti-Covid vaccine, although it isn’t clear what the cause of death was in all these cases.

Fourteen of these 19 cases had a specific type of blood clot that prevents blood from draining from the brain.

According to the Medical Health and Regulatory Agency, this is equivalent to around four people in a million getting such a clot – so, if one scales down, one in 250,000.

The British Medical Journal’s risk explainer says that you’re just as likely to die in your home, if you take the vaccine for the first time, as a consequence of it being struck by a crashing airplane.

As for taking it a second time, there have been no reports of the type of blood clots in question after those who’d had a first dose of the vaccine received another.

The next few weeks will be a test of a) the responsibility of media reporting and b) the common sense of the British public.

(Hat-tip: Politico’s London Playbook.)

Ben Roback: Biden can continue to expand the state – now that Republicans are too distracted by the culture wars

7 Apr

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

Joe Biden is free to grow the size of the state because no one is there to oppose him

Still within the first 100 days of his presidency, Joe Biden continues to call on the power of the federal government to dig America out of a Covid-shaped hole.

The size of the state is set to grow even further as Biden shapes the future of his presidency. He wants to use a major infrastructure package to fire up the economic recovery, and being able to pass it without any Republican support in the Senate means that the GOP has effectively abandoned the playing field in order to focus instead on culture wars.

Senior Republicans like Sen. Mitch McConnell appear much more focussed on telling big corporates to stay out of politics. Biden is free to grow the size of the state because there is no one left to oppose him.

An FDR-size presidency?

Recovering from a major “moment” like a pandemic or war presents governments with a rare chance to go big in policy terms. Voters are desperate for intervention and change.

History points to Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson as worthy examples. Both men inherited a huge political and economic crises, and both have tried to solve them with big money and big government. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was based on the principle that the power of the federal government was needed to get the country out of the depression.

Fast forward to 2021, Biden’s “American Jobs Plan” is a $2.3 trillion infrastructure package with investments directed towards roads, schools, broadband and clean energy. Like Roosevelt’s political philosophy and vision, it is based on the idea that when Americans fall down through no fault of their own, the state can help them get back on their feet.

That economic agenda received a significant boost when the Senate Parliamentarian ruled that Democrats could enact another resolution package this year. Put simply, this means that additional bills can be passed this year without any Republican support.

With the Senate split 50-50 and Vice President Kamala Harris making the tie-breaking vote, legislation would have been doomed to failure had it required the 60 votes typically needed. Republicans instead have the green light to oppose the president’s agenda without any consequence whatsoever.

That gifts Biden something of a free hand in a significant deployment of the power of the state. He campaigned citing infrastructure as something that all sides in Washington could agree on. A chance to put a bipartisan presidency into action.

For a country that is home to Wall Street on one coast and Silicon Valley on the other, far too many American roads, bridges and airports in between are crumbling. America gets a C- in its 2021 infrastructure report.

Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve Chair, wants an increase in corporation tax (21 per cent to 28 per cent) to help pick up the tab. The legislation will only pass if Biden can keep his party united, and once again the main opposition will come internally within the Democratic caucus in the Senate.

Republicans want a more focussed and cheaper plan that focuses on roads and bridges, but the consequence of the Senate Parliamentarian’s ruling means that the real opposition will come from Democrats in competitive states like Sen. Joe Manchin who want less big Government, not more.

Neither fish nor fowl, but it will taste awfully good

After the financial crisis and at the outset of the Obama presidency, the White House sought similarly to expand the role of the state. Republicans opposed the 2009 rescue package on the grounds that it was a significant government overreach that swelled the national debt to irresponsible levels.

The White House slowly limped along, enacting a slimmed down stimulus package amid fears of inflation and the political risk of growing the debt too much. Two years later, they were punished by heavy defeats in the midterm elections.

Biden, a first-hand witness to those decisions in 2008-09, wants to act quickly and boldly while his party has unified control of Congress, knowing full well that could change next year.

In an electoral system peppered with elections as frequently as in the United States, good politics often trumps good policy. Biden, with one eye on the first set of midterms in which the governing party is historically punished, understands that he and his party will be judged on their handling of the pandemic and the immediate steps to recovery. In that context, he is seeking to use the full force of the state to deliver for voters who care more about results than how they were achieved.

In 1933, Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority into law. Controversial at the time, Roosevelt said: “I’ll tell them it’s neither fish nor fowl, but whatever it is it will taste awfully good to the people of the Tennessee Valley.”

Biden campaigned with promises to control the pandemic and end decades of hyper-partisan gridlock in Washington. If he can deliver the former and turbocharge the economic recovery, will Americans really care about how he did it? Or that he abandoned the latter?

Once a dominant force in the Republican Party, the freedom caucus, and conservatives whose raison d’être was small government, are now a fading force. Instead, the GOP is abandoning domestic politics writ large in order to fight culture wars in the press and on Capitol Hill.

It is much more Donald Trump than Paul Ryan. In that respect, Biden’s calculation that he can grow the size of the state could be a shrewd one – if nothing because there are no Republicans left to oppose him.

Chris Thomas: The Government needs a plan to substantiate its ambitious rhetoric on health reforms

7 Apr

Chris Thomas is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Over the last forty years, there has been a remarkable consistency in health reforms under both Conservative and Labour governments. In different ways, each has reflected a common core triplet: drive quality through competition; maintain financial sustainability through efficiency; and ensure popularity by focusing policy and funding on the NHS.

More recently, Boris Johnson’s government has indicated a willingness to break from this path. February’s health white paper – Integration and Innovation – gestures towards three, potentially seismic changes. First, a shift from competition to collaboration; second, a shift from NHS-centrism to a more holistic vision of health; third, a shift from short-term efficiency to long-term innovation.

Each is a welcome aspiration. But, at the moment, the white paper only constitutes a statement of ambition. It will take far more than some proposed top-down legislation to reflect these ambitions in practice and to deliver lasting change. And indiscriminately throwing money at the NHS won’t help either.

The Government has recognised that business as usual won’t be good enough on health following the pandemic. Achieving pledges like “build back better” will rely on delivering a more collaborative, holistic and long-term approach to health. And that means putting forward a plan to fully substantiate the rhetoric.

From competition to collaboration

Strikingly, the Government’s proposals contain a fundamental ideological shift. Instead of a system fragmented into provider units and forced to compete with each other, it envisions larger integrated providers working together and collaborating to improve the nation’s overall health.

It is the right decision. Competition and the internal market fragmented the health system and made our Covid-19 response noticeably more challenging. But after years of fragmentation, it will take far more than a single, centralised decree to create lasting collaboration.

Bottom-up integration has flourished during the pandemic. When I ask professionals and local health leaders, they almost always put this down to the centre removing artificial barriers – be they financial, regulatory or bureaucratic. Out of Covid-19 necessity, health leaders have been given more freedom, and with that freedom they’ve moved to collaboration by default.

The challenge for the Government is to maintain that new way of working and to replicate the conditions for integrated, local “system working” after the pandemic.

System working means redefining the role of the centre – from commander to enabler. That necessitates a stronger focus on culture change and working with the regulators to align incentives to boost health service integration and population health. It would also mean cultivating a common sense of purpose and mission.

And creating more networks and forums for cross-sector collaboration. Some of these, like the cancer network, were disbanded during the last decade, but forums to meet and discuss are vital for increasing integrated working.

From NHS-centrism, to the primacy of place

A second key shift indicated by the white paper is the Government’s recognition of the “primacy of place”. Again, this is the correct course – recognising that the places we grow-up, live and work define our health throughout our lives.

It also challenges the widespread assumption that health is synonymous with only the NHS. Reflecting this fact in practice will depend on the cultivation of thriving local partnerships – between the NHS, social care, public health, community services and the voluntary sector. In turn, that means addressing just how bad things have got for many non-NHS health service providers.

The social care system is a case in point. While it struggled during the pandemic, the truth is it needed fundamental reform long before 2020. The political consensus is growing behind free personal social care, free at the point of need and funded through general taxation. The Government should act fast to enact this and end the decades of prevarication.

Similarly, public health is in need of a reboot. Despite covering preventative local services such as stop smoking initiatives, sexual health services and healthy living schemes designed to prevent underlying health conditions, the public health grant has been cut by almost £1 billion since 2014. Those cuts have fallen disproportionately on lower income parts of the country and on the North of England. We need a funded, functional public health system to make the primacy of place a reality.

Simply put, place-based health and care means extending political engagement, resource and reform far beyond the NHS and brick and mortar hospitals, ensuring every community has the local health services needed to lead healthy dignified lives.

From efficiency to innovation

The white paper’s reforms are designed, ultimately, to support innovation. By making all health leaders jointly responsible for the total health of the population, the Government hopes to uncork the power of health innovation. New treatments, medicines and best practice can significantly boost health outcomes and the economy.

Covid-19 demonstrated what’s possible when it comes to the spread of innovation. The shift to digital in general practice for instance has been an aspiration for years, but finally happened at pace during the pandemic. However, if the Government want its reforms to make fast innovation the norm, it will once again need more that legislative changes and top-down diktat.

Much more importantly, it will need to change the fact the NHS is currently run to the top of its capacity – all through the year. In healthcare, austerity suppressed supply, even as health demand rose. This has left the healthcare providers with little headspace, time and bandwidth.

More bluntly, healthcare professionals just do not have the time they need to adopt, adapt and champion innovation. Change will rely on a bold strategy for ending burn-out, driving recruitment and improving retention rates. Evidence indicates an effective, immediate strategy would combine a pay rise, more leave, a right to flexible working, stronger professional development and more extensive action on institutional racism in health.

Innovation is only possible in a system at the top of its game. That is the reason austerity represented short-termism. It is time to invest in health capacity and professionals, to boost productivity and deliver globally leading outcomes.

Meeting an uncertain future

When it comes to health, we face an uncertain future. Analysis by IPPR and the CF health analytics company shows that due to the pandemic we can expect an additional 4,500 extra deaths from cancer this year; 12,000 extra heart attacks and strokes in the next five years; and two million more mental health referrals. On top of that, there is a continuing risk of future health shocks. Pandemics are becoming more likely and resistance to anti-microbials is growing.

A vision for health and care based on a collaborative health system, healthier places and rapid adoption of innovation could help meet those challenges. If the Government gets it right, it could launch a new health consensus and define the agenda for decades. But that will only happen if it combines welcome aspiration with sustained, funded and evidenced health policy.

Andy Street: My plan to get the West Midlands back on track and unleash our potential

6 Apr

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

In just over a month’s time, the people of the West Midlands go to the polls facing a critical choice.

Over the last four years, the West Midlands began to reclaim its rightful place as an economically successful region, after decades of stagnation and relative decline. Then Covid struck. Now there is much to do to ensure we don’t throw away those years of progress.

The choice facing voters on May 6 is simple: do we accelerate the progress of the last four years, or do we go back to the old failing approach which let down our region for decades?

Today I launch my plan setting out how I intend to get the West Midlands back on track and unleash our potential. I want to use this column to outline its key aims, which are both ambitious and practical.

The strides made by this region since I was elected Mayor on May 4 2017 are borne out by the facts. More than 97,000 new jobs were created in the region overall in the three years before the pandemic, the most of any region outside London. The level of transport investment this year was seven times higher than the year before I became Mayor.

A record-breaking 48,098 homes were built here from 2017-2020, nearly double the 25,000 target set in 2017. Rough sleeping is down 65 per cent since 2017, with 377 homeless people helped through our Housing First scheme. Over £3 billion of new funding was brought in from Government, with no Mayoral precept added to council tax bills.

On top of that, we won backing for Coventry City of Culture, Birmingham Commonwealth Games 2022, the West Midlands 5G testbed, and High Speed 2 to bring investment and jobs.

However, the West Midlands has been hit hard by Coronavirus – and we must act quickly to get back on track. Sectors like retail, hospitality and manufacturing have seen thousands of workers laid off or furloughed.

That’s why my first priority will be to create more than 100,000 new good quality local jobs and training opportunities for local people.

That means securing an electric battery Gigafactory for our region, bringing 4,000 new jobs and protecting thousands more in the automotive industry and supply chain. It means winning every possible contract for local businesses from major regional projects like HS2, the Commonwealth Games and Coventry City of Culture.

I want our region to become the national leader in construction, engineering, life sciences, technology, 5G and other growing industries. And we have already seen announcements to move hundreds of well-paid civil service jobs out of London and into the West Midlands, starting in Wolverhampton and Birmingham – creating local jobs opportunities and boosting the economy.

I have plans to double transport spending. My vision is to build new metro stops across the region, as well as reopening five rail stations in the next three years, while making progress on eighteen other new stations.

Transport will play a key part in my green ambitions too: with plans for a major programme of cycle routes, while the full roll-out of our version of Boris Bikes has already begun.

On the buses, we’ll build on the success of the four-year bus fare freeze, and roll out more hydrogen and electric buses including making Coventry’s fleet all-electric.

On housing, I will build thousands of new homes where they are wanted. That means continuing to drive our successful “brownfield first” approach, with over £400 million of funding to reclaim derelict sites, protecting our Green Belt and green spaces.

Affordable homes are a key component of the plan: I will seek an ambitious Affordable Housing Deal to bring new cash to the region and pioneer our own “Help to Own” scheme to make home owning possible for more people. We will also continue our progress on reducing the numbers of rough sleepers.

On the environment, I will launch a huge programme to retrofit people’s homes with energy efficiency measures to reduce fuel bills and carbon emissions, while investing in nature, from replanting trees to creating a new National Trail for walkers around the Green Belt of the West Midlands. I will work with Government to fund for more initiatives like the Black Country zero carbon hub, to help industry move to green technology.

I will use a business-like approach to tackle the challenges facing the high street. Our town centres have already won over £100 million of Government funding, benefitting places like Brierley Hill, Rowley Regis, Smethwick, West Bromwich, Walsall and Wolverhampton.

City centres like Coventry, town centres like Dudley and village centres like Kingshurst will all benefit from our own major regional investment plan.

I’m backing bids to regenerate iconic local sites like the historic swimming baths in Erdington, the Royalty Cinema in Harborne and Saddlers Quay in Walsall to become community and enterprise hubs, and where distinct areas such as Solihull and Sutton Coldfield have developed their own town centre masterplans, I will use the power of the Mayor’s office to help make their visions become reality.

The heart of my approach as Mayor has been to ensure that every community benefits from the region’s success – localised “levelling up”. That means maximising the benefits of Coventry City of Culture in 2021, the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in 2022 and High Speed 2, with jobs for local people and investment across the region.

It means supporting those who need extra help, for example “designing out” homelessness by addressing its causes. A new Equalities Taskforce will ensure the West Midlands is a great place to live, work and grow up for all our communities. I will work with the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner to make our communities safer and get crime down, particularly on the transport network, while providing opportunities for young people so they don’t get drawn into crime.

These are just some of the ambitious plans I am putting to the people of the West Midlands today, as we face a turning point in our region’s story. On May 6, voters in the West Midlands face a choice that will define the future direction of our region.

My message is simple: I have a credible delivery plan to make all of this happen, and a proven track record over the last four years, beating our targets and other city-regions on investment, skills and housing.

My commitment is to secure £10 billion of new investment into the region, from both the Government and private investors, with a clear approach to the Mayor’s role as a regional champion. That means working with Government to make things happen, rather than criticising and grabbing headlines, and then being ignored.

When I was elected the West Midlands’ first mayor, nobody knew what could be achieved by devolution. I am proud of the progress we made in the first four years, but I’m also acutely aware that, as we rebuild after Covid, there is so much more to be done.

This is the region where I grew up. Its values shaped me as a person – that’s why four years ago I decided to stand to be Mayor. Before the pandemic hit, the renewal of the West Midlands was tangible. Today I unveil my plan for the next three years, and I urge the people of the West Midlands to choose me – to get on with the job, get this region back on track and unleash our potential.

John Bald: How many pupils start secondary school unable to read properly? The truth is we don’t know.

6 Apr

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.

The Government’s estimate of an additional 30,000 pupils arriving in secondary school with weak reading skills is worrying, but it is a guess. The national reading test for 11-year-olds (NS6) was abolished by a committee rigged by HMI to obstruct Mrs Thatcher. We had no test at all until the early 1990s. Now we have a new one each year, with grade boundaries moved up or down to suit the convenience, first of Labour governments, now of Ofqual. The scores tell us next to nothing – and secondary schools are right not to trust them.

I trust nothing I can’t check, especially Labour strategies. Their National Literacy Strategy failed because it substituted the “Searchlights” guessing game theory for phonics. As soon as they were elected, Blair’s Labour rushed out a programme of summer schools, to which I was recruited at a late stage as a consultant. Almost all failed because they were staffed by whichever teachers happened to be available rather than those who knew how to teach reading. Labour then decided that all spare resources in schools were to be devoted to teaching reading, with much the same result. An art teacher I observed had as much idea of teaching reading as I have about teaching art, and the exercise was a waste of everyone’s time.

Sir Kevan Collins’ idea of tackling the reading deficit with an army of volunteers will meet the same fate. The Warnock Committee’s decision to replace specialist literacy teachers with special needs co-ordinators deprived secondary schools of a resource that is now badly needed. Most individual reading teaching is now undertaken by assistants, and if Sir Kevan’s army is recruited, there will be no one to train it. All of us who can bring skills to bear on the problem need to do our bit, but this is not a solution to a problem affecting the whole of the school system.

Nicky Morgan, as Education Secretary, was ridiculed by our opponents for her goal of making 11-year-olds “secondary ready”, but the pandemic and this hasty government reaction show that she was right. Pupils who can’t read and write properly can’t do their school work, and this leads to misbehaviour, dropout, and exclusion. If we can agree that literacy – alongside social reconstruction – should be the focus of everyone’s efforts, we cannot waste time and money repeating Labour mistakes.

Fortunately, we can learn from a small number of schools that have bucked the trend. In 2005 I had the honour to lead the inspection of Gateway Primary School, Marylebone, now Gateway Primary Academy. Over ninety per cent of its pupils had English as an additional language. Starting with systematic phonics teaching using Jolly Phonics, with assistants teaching small groups, as in Ruth Miskin’s Kobi Nazrul, they built reading systematically into everything they did throughout the school, so that pupils became used to reading non-fiction in science, history, and art lessons, as well as in English. All pupils, except those who arrived in their final year, met national standards in English and maths, and two-thirds exceeded them. The school won the Evening Standard School of the Year award, using this report as evidence. Its techniques should be studied and adopted.

For secondary schools I make no apology for returning to Michaela, and particularly to the work of Deputy Head, Katie Ashford, who is also the special needs co-ordinator. Grouping pupils according to thelr learning needs and abilities allows teachers to focus closely on the wide range of literacy skills pupils start with. Many are not “secondary ready” in Year 7, and yet the Year 8 work I saw from middle sets on my visit was already at around Grade 6 at GCSE. HMI described the progress thus:

“Pupils develop a love of books and reading. They talk about their favourite authors and the books they enjoy most. Support tailored to pupils’ needs ensures that pupils who struggle with reading, writing and mathematics when they join the school catch up quickly.”

and thus:

“Pupils make exceedingly strong progress across Years 7 to 9 and across subject areas, including English, mathematics, science, humanities, French, art and music. As a result of outstanding teaching, work in pupils’ books shows that, over time, all groups of pupils make consistently accelerated progress from their starting points.”

This report was written two years before Michaela’s stunning GCSE results. It shows that a sustained focus on literacy in every subject, at levels matched to pupils’ needs, can tackle the literacy deficit that is at the heart of educational underachievement and close the gap for disadvantaged pupils. The school pays close attention to spoken language and social development too, but not as a means of avoiding tackling weak literacy skills. Not for nothing did I argue earlier this year that headmistress, Katharine Birbalsingh, is the most important person in British education.

Footnote: Alex Quigley, currently national content manager at the Education Endowment Foundation, has written two books. Closing the Reading Gap – and Closing the Vocabulary Gap – that offer invaluable practical advice for secondary schools looking to tackle literacy problems and develop pupils’ skills and understanding in all subjects. I recommend them alongside Michaela’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, and The Power of Culture.

Cem Kemahli: Vaccination would be even more of a success were it not for problems with data

5 Apr

Cllr Cem Kemahli is the Lead Member for Adult Social Care and Public Health on Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council.

The UK vaccination drive has been a success. Over 30 million doses of vaccines which didn’t exist a year ago have now been administered. It is only through, sadly, seeing other nations struggling that we can understand the sheer logistical human endeavour which has gone into getting this right in the UK.

The vaccines provide a way to protect our most vulnerable and therefore help protect our economy and the livelihoods of our residents.  But they have also highlighted an issue in the way that the Office for National Statistics, the NHS and local GPs manage data and patient records.

As a local authority we have been caught between a data rock and a media hard place.

London, in general, sits below much of the rest of the country. This is a fact frequently reported by the national and local press, often highlighting particular boroughs without a firm understanding of the cause of the statistics.

We receive criticism in the papers for a rollout that we are merely supporting. “Low vaccine uptake in Kensington” reads better than “Low vaccine uptake in the West London Clinical Commissioning Group, encompassing Kensington and Chelsea as well as GPs in Westminster”.

The common media reasoning for lower take-up has been the ethnicity differences apparent on any London street – each bringing their own cultural quirks and often intrinsic hesitations of state-provided healthcare.  This issue is even more acute, given the propensity for Covid to impact these communities most virulently.

A fairer though somewhat less quantifiable or journalistically appealing reason is one of data management.

Our vaccination uptake is measured against out-of-date but best guess ONS population figures, as it is for every borough in London. The census will hopefully address these figures, although we in Central London have hesitations –  because our Capital is a transient city, our borough especially so, and this fact feeds through into the ONS data.

So, whilst our overall population might remain the same, the actual people accounting for these figures, and thus their NHS numbers, change frequently.

Lockdowns have provided some solace for GPs, in that everyone, bar a few exceptions, are where they say they are, and available at short notice to receive their jab.  That is, if they are in the country.

We know anecdotally that our borough has somewhat emptied out over the last year. We usually have 1.2 parking permits issued for every available space, and parking is always hard to come by.  But during the pandemic we have been able to accommodate over 4,000 key workers who wished to drive into the borough. These cars have had to go somewhere – and they have simply taken the spaces of those who have left.

The negative side of a transient population for GPs is that they have lists of patients that are constantly falling out of date. Usually, this is no problem: the data is cleansed often, and records updated as people move around or fall off their lists. GP practices work hard to manage their patient numbers and offer excellent services to our residents. But they can only work with those who engage with them, and update their information.

We are, along with our neighbouring borough of Westminster City Council, also home to an exceptionally high number of international residents, dual and indeed triple nationals who may not necessarily be eligible for NHS treatment.

In ordinary times, this is not a cause for concern: they are able to return home, go privately for treatment or use international insurance. But now we have a single point of access for vaccines this is bringing to light the inherent consequences of travel bans and access to healthcare.  Many of our residents simply aren’t eligible for the vaccine through the NHS.

This trifecta of residents out of town, residents not entitled to vaccination and residents who no longer reside here, but who remain on GPs’ lists, has caused the overall figures we see today. Whilst I have not seen the minutiae for other boroughs, I suspect this is true for most inner London authorities.

As a local authority, our role is not to carry out the vaccination drive, but it is to assist the NHS and local GPs in engaging with our harder to reach communities; the digitally excluded, non-English speaking and those not familiar with accessing healthcare have been our main target.

We have put on successful community pop-ups in faith settings, and reached out through digital and physical signage, as well as offering advice in a variety of languages to offer support to those willing, eligible, but not knowing how a vaccine can be obtained.

Thankfully, we see little anti-vax sentiment: far more pervasive is vaccine hesitancy. A wait and see approach which we can help to overcome with evidence-based sessions and information from trusted sources.

We have also been working with GPs by helping them to call their patients and take admin out of their hands, so that they can focus on vaccine delivery. Through this work, we have found profound issues with the NHS database. Deceased residents, residents already vaccinated, and residents who have left the borough years ago are all still showing as eligible for a vaccine. Each one pulls down the overall uptake – through either being a numerator which should be counted or as a denominator which should be excluded.

When you appreciate the inability to vaccinate the deceased, you start to understand the underlying problems with a vaccination drive that aims to reach 100 per cent of the adult population, but uses somewhat faulty databases on which to base success.

And a success it remains: we have reached well over 75 per cent of our residents over 70 years old, but when you factor in the dead, ineligible, abroad or already vaccinated we are more likely reaching 85 per cent. Much more in line with national figures. We have thankfully not had a single confirmed case in anyone over the age of 75 since the 11th March – a testament to a successful vaccination drive.

We have worked constructively with the NHS and local GPs so far, but the underlying issue remains one of data sharing. We have council tax lists of residents in the borough; we know where people live. GPs know who is registered with them, and the NHS knows who holds an NHS number. These three systems rarely need to work alongside one another but with contact tracing, self-isolation and now vaccination, knowing where a resident with an NHS number is residing is all the more important.

Our local council has stood up a team in our “hub” to ring residents, and we have had great success in reaching those that have been missed.  We are imploring the NHS to give us more people to ring, we have the resource funded by government to make these calls, but we need to feed the system with the information, and make sure we find everyone willing and able to be vaccinated.

The borough knows the figures are wrong. The GPs know they are wrong. And the NHS knows they are wrong. But without someone to clean the information or update the systems, we will struggle to lift ourselves off the comparative bottom.

I fear the overall national success will mean not enough focus is brought back on ours and other residents who are being missed due to data issues putting themselves and their families at risk.