Christopher Chope: Harm from Covid vaccinations. Don’t leave victims behind.

12 May

Christopher Chope is a former Minister, and is MP for Christchurch.

The Government accepted that Covid-19 vaccines might cause serious harm to some people when it decided to bring Covid-19 vaccine damage within the ambit of the existing Vaccine Damage Payment Scheme (the “VDPS”).

But ever since, it has been stalling on addressing those who have claimed. Not a single one of over 1,300 claims has yet been decided, not even those in which a coroner’s verdict has determined that the vaccine was the cause of death. It is intolerable that the Government is failing those people who did the right thing, were vaccinated, but then suffered serious harm or bereavement as a result.

I first raised the issue in Parliament last June, when I presented a Private Members’ Bill. This was briefly debated in September, when I called for an independent review of disablement caused by Covid-19 vaccines and better compensation arrangements for those who have suffered. Since then, I have received hundreds of emails, often with harrowing reports from the families and friends of those who tragically died or continue to suffer severe injury or life-changing consequences.

After a barren year, there is now some positive news to report. The Minister for Vaccines and Public Health, Maggie Throup, has confirmed that external assessors will begin assessing claims next week, on May 16. They are contracted to assess 1,800 claims in the first year. It is worth comparing the scale of this with the situation pre-Covid, when only 80 vaccine claims were being made each year.

Let us hope that the plight of vaccine damage victims will no longer be neglected. The Prime Minister said last summer to the wife of a fit 44 year old software engineer that her husband is “not a statistic and must not be ignored”. The man in question, Jamie Scott, spent 124 days in hospital following severe brain injury caused by the vaccine. The Health Department’s failure to act on the Prime Minister’s words is a political embarrassment.

The assumption must be that the policy of non-engagement on this issue was deliberate. Public health officials are keen to avoid scrutiny about the fact that the vaccines are not 100 per cent safe. The Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has received more than 450,000 suspected adverse reaction reports under its Yellow Card scheme, with the first report dating back to 9 December 2020.

he truth about the vaccines not being absolutely safe is therefore out in the open. My argument to the Government is that being in denial about vaccine damage is undermining the very vaccine confidence which the Government has been trying to promote. The consequence of this is apparent from the declining take up of boosters.

At my meeting with the Minister, I asked her whether the Government agreed that some people had died as a direct result of having received Covid-19 vaccines. Much to my surprise, she could not answer that question, and requested more time in which to do so in writing. She promised such a response within 14 days, but told me this week that she will respond to me “shortly”.

This shows that the Government is really agonising over whether or not to admit that, for some, Covid-19 vaccines have had fatal consequences. This is all the more bizarre when the Yellow Card scheme refers to over 2,000 fatalities, the Office for National Statistics has confirmed a series of fatalities, and even the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine product information leaflet confirms fatal outcomes were observed.

Hopefully, the Government will now change its approach, be open and transparent about the facts and provide the necessary financial help to victims. The level and extent of that help is itself a further problematic issue. Currently, the scheme provides a lump sum of £120,000 for every case where the level of disablement is at least 60 per cent. I have raised with the Government the need to increase that sum (which was last revised in 2007) in line with inflation, reflecting increases to similar schemes. Payments under the Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (“IIDB”), for example, have risen by 39 per cent since 2007.

There is also a problem with the arbitrary 60 per cent disablement threshold. The minimum threshold to trigger benefit entitlement under the IIDB is only 14 per cent with the benefit prorated according to the level of disability. Sadly, however, the Government has not yet given any indication of a willingness to revise the VDPS so that it is more sensitive to individual circumstances. While £120,000 will be more than those with less serious injuries require, for young people needing fulltime carers for life, the payments need to be far higher.

Now that we know the Government has no legislative plans on this subject for this Session, I hope that someone who is successful in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills will take up the cause. A new organisation called Vaccine Injured Bereaved UK has recently been formed to campaign for changes to the legislation. I support their call for a bespoke scheme to cover Covid-19 vaccine damage.

This is justified because the Government uniquely has given an indemnity to manufacturers against product liability thereby precluding most civil claims for compensation. Such a bespoke scheme would also be able to address the eligibility criteria, what evidence of causation is necessary, and what specific support the NHS should provide for those who have suffered and continue to do so.

It may be difficult for the Government to deliver a nuanced message about Covid-19 vaccines, especially when the Government put such intense pressure upon people to be vaccinated. Vaccine passports became the order of the day, even briefly becoming a condition of employment. Government messaging was designed to compel those who were vaccine hesitant into compliance.

Now that the truth is gradually emerging, not only about the risks for some from the vaccine, but also about the lack of efficacy, particularly of boosters, the public debate around this issue is becoming more lively. YouTube has suppressed official data and information which I have divulged in Parliament. Recently, the Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Wes Streeting, reportedly called me an “anti-science extremist”. Such insults are fortunately proving to be counterproductive, with ever more demands for the Government to be transparent.

There is now a clear opportunity for the Conservative Party to be on the side of those who have suffered for doing the right thing, even if the Labour Party continues to be in complete denial.

Philip Smith: The hospitality industry should be grateful for the huge support it has had from the taxpayer

7 Apr

Lord Smith of Hindhead is the chief executive of the Association of Conservative Clubs.

As we emerge from the covid pandemic I think we can all agree that this has been the most extraordinary time in most of our lives, and in the life of the nation. There will be many lessons to be learned.

In addition to being a Tory Peer, my ‘day job’ as the chief executive of the Association of Conservative Clubs, the second largest members’ clubs’ organisation in the UK with around 800 clubs trading as Conservative or Constitutional Clubs across the country, I speak not just as a Tory politician, but as someone who is deeply involved in the members’ social club sector, one of the sectors that make up the hospitality industry. Like other businesses that offer food, drinks, and entertainment, we have suffered because of lockdown measures and the difficult trading conditions that resulted from local restrictions as we tried to manage the spread of covid.

I understand that in a crisis, people and businesses look to the government to wrap the arms of the state around them and protect them, as far as is possible, from the worst impacts of a national, and indeed global health crisis. And this Government has done so – to the tune of some £400 billion. I can think of no industry that has benefitted more from the largesse of the taxpayer over the past two years than the UK’s hospitality industry. So, it is with more than a little disappointment that I read the sadly predictable laments of industry commentators and leaders that the Chancellor’s spring statement didn’t leave the 12.5 per cent VAT rate in place.

Of course, everyone fights their corner and wants what is best for their business, sector, or industry. But I urge a little perspective here. I do not of course expect everyone to thank the Government for what they have done, but they could and should at least thank the taxpayer – because the funds that have been devolved upon the hospitality industry are not government money. The Government doesn’t have any money – it is taxpayers’ money. Much of the funding that has been made available is borrowed money and will have to be repaid by future taxpayers.

So, a brief summary of what our industry has received:

  • 100 per cent business rate relief from April 2020; closed business lockdown payments of between £4,000 to £9,000 from April 2021.
  • Local restrictions support grants for closed premises of between £1,334 to £3,000 per month depending on rateable value; and for premises that remained open between £934 and £2,100 per month, again, depending on rateable value.
  • The ‘Eat out to Help out’ scheme.
  • The furlough scheme which enabled hospitality premises to retain staff in return for paying just ten per cent of their wages, tapering up to 20 per cent in September 2021.
  • The ability to reclaim statutory sick pay; VAT reduced – first to five per cent, then raised to 12.5 per cent.
  • Commercial tenants protected from eviction if they couldn’t pay their rent during lockdown or restricted trading.

The support for the hospitality industry has continued throughout the pandemic – including support for businesses impacted by Omicron. On December 21st the Chancellor announced a £1 billion support package for businesses across the UK. For hospitality businesses in England, this meant one-off grants of up to £6,000 per premises, plus more than £100 million discretionary funding made available to local authorities to support other businesses. Oh, and not forgetting – the ongoing 50 per cent reduction in business rates for the next 12 months and the rise in employer NI rates announced in the spring statement.

Many businesses have more cash in the bank than they did at the start of the pandemic and net cash deposits for all hospitality businesses have risen by £7 billion (40 per cent), while small and medium-sized businesses in hospitality have seen their cash deposits rise by £2 billion (79 per cent). Fewer businesses have become insolvent, with insolvencies running 25 per cent lower than pre-pandemic levels, and staff vacancies are 50 per cent above pre-pandemic levels.

I urge our hospitality industry to accept that government cannot provide all the help that is needed to everyone, all the time. An acknowledgement however of what hospitality has received because of government decision-making would go a long way, in my opinion, to ensuring the continuity of that support. Spending decisions are political decisions, and there is little incentive for the Government to splash taxpayers’ largesse upon an industry if all it gets back is criticism that it isn’t enough and is never enough.

Eliza Easton: If the arts and culture are a third front in the Ukrainian war, here’s what Ministers should do

31 Mar

Eliza Easton is Head of the Policy Unit, Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC).

The Prime Minister has promised to pull every lever he can to help the people of Ukraine in the war against Russia. State and sector-led sanctions have become a focus for the Government in a war where it feels that it can’t commit boots on the ground.

The headlines have been dominated by state economic sanctions, but cultural sanctions offer significant advantages. While economic sanctions can harm citizens as well as leaders, cultural sanctions may be able to grow the anti-Putin Russian population without putting them into material poverty. In short: they offer an untapped reserve of options to help Britain to achieve its strategic aims.

Cultural sanctions have been spoken about by policymakers – particularly by Nadine Dorries – but they are not enforced by the state. It has fallen to individuals, arts organisations and industry to decide what and who to cancel.

This has bred controversy. How could it not? Glasgow Film Festival spent two weeks addressing the fallout from cancelling two Russian films from directors who have nothing to do with Putin’s regime. The New York Times has reported that one has Ukrainian roots, has denounced the war and has a grandmother hiding from the bombs falling on Kyiv. Eventually, it was revealed both films had received Russian state funding.

On the other side of the coin, we have seen big names questioning the wisdom of banning Russian artists. Julian Lloyd Webber has pointed out how powerful it can be when you let artists play.  He recalls Mstislav Rostropovich playing Dvorak’s Cello Concerto at the BBC Proms with “tears pouring down his cheeks” after the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968. Lloyd Webber argued that this “spoke more than words” and, implicitly, more than sanctions could.

The fact that the Government ’s promised Soft Power Strategy remains unpublished (replaced by a short section in the Integrated Review) has left those cultural organisations keen to follow official advice rudderless.

Instead, we find ourselves in a bizarre reality, whereby often low paid communications assistants are trying to communicate complex diplomatic statements to the world on Twitter.

We need a systematic approach to cultural sanctions, although not one mandated by the Government: perhaps Putin himself could attest to the fact that soft power approaches work better when not forced by the heavy hand of the state.

Instead, when our Government introduces state sanctions against another country, it should trigger a conversation convened by the Government between relevant industry players and arms length bodies – i.e: the arts councils, the British Film Institute, the British Fashion Council – and the British Council. Together, they should agree on a suggested approach for individual creative companies and charities, informed by intelligence from both cultural and diplomatic experts.

There are risks if the Government doesn’t use its convening power to help the sector to pursue such an approach. While the public mood prevents cultural events which might sanitise Putin’s position, the news cycle may move on, and industry sanctions may be at odds with public interest.

Equally, smaller organisations may unknowingly undermine the sanctions upheld by larger organisations, cancel anti-Kremlin artists – or simply go too far and play into Putin’s hands.

We have already seen the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra heavily criticised for the decision to remove Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture from their programme: a move surely made with good intentions, but which dangerously plays into Putin’s narrative of Western ‘russophobia’ – and one that he has moved to exploit.

Such a directive would not (and, in my view, should not) stop artists from performing in Russia or Belarus if they wish to, although once guidelines are in place it becomes a much more political decision for those artists to take.

When Frank Sinatra went against United Nations’ advice and performed in South Africa, the public outcry did aruguably more for the anti-apartheid movement than for those paying him millions of dollars to improve their public image.

Organisations would also still be able to choose to boycott, regardless of official state sanctions – and they might. It was revealed just last week that some of the largest cultural institutions, including the V&A, British Museum, National Gallery and the Tate, did not sign a cultural agreement between the UK Government and Saudi Arabia, aiming to strengthen cultural links between the two nations.

The best example of this approach so far comes in a statement from Arts Council England. This advised publicly funded arts organisations to cancel events which involve Russian or Belarussian state-sponsored and/or state-funded organisations, echoing similar statements from other sector bodies.

But the Arts Council went further in their advice to grantees, recommending, for example, that “organisations do not require Russian/Belarussian artists to issue a statement condemning the war in Ukraine as a condition of contract.”

People on social media had already started to identify and hound individual artists. It is sensible that Arts Council England point out that artists need to be able to make their own choice on whether to speak out based on their particular situation and the risk involved. We need consistent messaging across the entire cultural sector to avoid ostracising those who might condemn the conflict in private, and become important allies in the future.

Alongside directives of this kind, I suggest the Government ensures there is a budget to support those organisations who incur financial losses from cancelling performances, at least in the short term.

Following a pandemic which hit arts and culture hard, cancelling that tour may be the final blow for organisations which have been encouraged, by the Government, to be more international. This is the first time cultural sanctions have been recommended by a UK Government this decade, but it is unlikely to be the last. They should see this as a test case.

Advice on cultural sanctions should only be the start of a re-invigorated soft power strategy. As Julian Lloyd Webber hinted, our current approach means we are not taking advantage of the soft power opportunities we have.

While sanctions are a useful tool, opportunities to speak to the Russian public are going to be important too. We know that the numbers listening to BBC World Service in Russia have risen to from three to more than ten million each week. We should go further. Why should the cancelled London Fashion Week in St Petersburg not be an opportunity to profile those designers speaking out against Putin? Why shouldn’t London Film Week be an opportunity to show ‘dissident’ film makers? Which stars could follow in Arnold Schwarznegger’s footsteps and use their platform to make a compelling plea for peace?

If, as Dorries has said, culture is “the third front in the Ukrainian war”, then we need to start seriously – and the sector and the Government need to give it budget, strategy and diplomatic support.

James Kirkup: Sunak’s task next week. To get cash into the hands of those who need it. And launch an energy efficiency mission.

17 Mar

James Kirkup is Director of the Social Market Foundation.

Perhaps it’s because now, as then, I have Covid, but when I ponder Rishi Sunak’s approaching Spring Statement, my thoughts go back to March 2020. Then, Sunak made his bones with the British public with nerveless statements about the support he’d offer for an economy – and a population – teetering on the brink of panic.

Those early days of his chancellorship seem a long time ago now: it’s been a long two years. But there’s a lot to learn from those moments, even if both economics and politics have changed since then.

Then, the dominant issue was a pandemic that would prove to be longer and more serious than most people realised. Today, the same is true of what Westminster calls the “cost of living crisis”.

That phrase is so familiar that a lot of people who use it think that it’s old news – that everyone out there “up and down the country” knows full well how much prices will rise and real incomes will be squeezed.

Well, if they think that, they’re wrong. Rising prices, especially on energy, are still going to come as a nasty shock to a lot of voters. Just because us media and political types know something will happen, don’t assume the wider public does too.

So the first job for next week’s not-a-Budget statement is ruthless honesty about what’s coming – and the limitations of what the state can do, in the short term, about energy prices.

That doesn’t mean doing nothing. The compassionate, responsible response to rising prices should be to concentrate help on those who need it most. That should start with benefits uprating. As things stand, benefits will rise by 3.1 per cent in April, because that’s what CPI inflation was in September. But it’s now at 5.5 per cent and will likely exceed six per cent for the rest of the year.

If Britain really is One Nation, not two, then preventing a deep real-terms cut in the incomes of the poorest should be a priority for Sunak next week.

There’s more to do, of course. Current plans for a £150 council tax rebate for most homes and what amounts to a £200 loan towards energy bills are both over-complex and poorly targetted.

Instead, HMT could simply give £500 to every benefit-claiming household, and £300 to non-benefits households where no-one pays higher rate tax. That wouldn’t cost any more than the current plans: the SMF proposal would cost around £8.4 billion, pretty much the same as existing measures.

Simplicity and speed are key here. What’s needed is a return to the spirit of furlough: just get cash into the hands and accounts of people who need it.

And some people who don’t: the Treasury’s natural objections to the waste involved in universal payments are normally reasonable, but these – still – are not normal times. The strong and natural desire to declare that the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic have passed should not blind us to the fact that Russia’s war on Ukraine is another event of arguably even greater historical significance.

And that offers something of an opportunity, for a politician big enough to seize it. Here’s how Sunak can do so next week.

The immediate and obvious impact of Russian aggression on British lives is via energy. Even though we buy relatively little fossil fuel directly from Russia, we’re still exposed to international prices that are directly and badly susceptible to Russian malfeasance.

Hence the various Government schemes afoot to reduce that exposure: some more wind power, some more extraction from the North Sea, and some wishful thinking about the Saudis and others agreeing to pump more to prices down.

The remarkable thing about all these efforts is ministers almost totally ignoring the best path to reducing British exposure to international energy prices and so easing household energy bills: use less energy.

This is Sunak’s opportunity, though he’ll have to override Treasury orthodoxy and his own inclinations to take it.

By any international standard, Britain’s homes are poorly insulated and badly energy inefficient. This is one of those big, slow and boring national problems that successive governments have nibbled at then pushed aside over several decades.

There are many reasons for this. Voucher schemes are hard to design and easy to exploit: the people most likely to use them would probably have made home improvements anyway. There are always sexier, more immediate things to promise, which are more likely to pay off in time for the next election. No one wants to be the politician telling people to clear their lofts out and fill their wall cavities. Lagging is boring.

More recently, the Treasury has been resisting energy efficiency drives on the grounds that UK industry can’t deliver: not enough workers, not enough material, inadequate supply chains to provide it.

None of these problems is imaginary. But none is insurmountable, to someone with adequate ambition and understanding of how markets work.

The ultimate reason British energy efficiency schemes have failed over decades is a lack of consistency. No policy has stood for long enough to provide confidence and certainty, either to households or industry. The evidence from successful efficiency policies worldwide — New Zealand, Japan, the Netherlands, to name a few – shows that what’s needed above all is the long-term certainty that only strong government policy can offer.

And that’s what Sunak should offer next week: nothing less than a national mission to make Britain’s homes more energy efficient. That mission will take a decade and more, and should be put above party politics: the Chancellor should make a Big Tent offer to Labour to sign up to his aims.

Importantly, this can all be done without so much as mentioning the words Net Zero. The Chancellor’s public ambivalence on climate issues is regrettable, but might not hurt at all here. The best way to get the public to buy in to the national energy efficiency mission isn’t to talk about carbon foregone but pounds saved. The difference between Energy Efficiency Certificate Bands C and D is around £100 per year. And that’s a recurrent saving: who wouldn’t fancy £1000 more in their pocket over the next decade?

This doesn’t all have to be state provision, incidentally. Some banks and building societies are gagging to lend to households to fund home efficiency measures. The Chancellor should use his bully pulpit to egg them on, and prod the rest to do more.

This advice isn’t original or novel, because the energy efficiency issue is a longstanding one that hasn’t really changed. What has changed are the times.

Britain may not be a direct combatant in Russia’s war, but we face wartime economic impacts. That requires a response of similar scale, a great national effort to defend our homes and incomes from unnecessary over-exposure to international energy markets. If he wants to be

the leader of this decade, Rishi Sunak should use his statement next week to launch that unabashedly patriotic drive for energy efficiency, declaring loudly and proudly that it’s time to Lag for Victory.

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.

John Redwood: My critique of the Chancellor’s Mais Lecture, and what the Government should do next

7 Mar

Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.

Amidst all the harrowing reports from Ukraine and the deaths and destruction wrought there by Russia, the Chancellor has sought to chart a course for the economy for the next couple of years.

In his Mais lecture he echoed his predecessor, Philip Hammond, in seeking a productivity breakthrough. He also reaffirmed the Maastricht rules approach to economic management, wanting tax rises to get the deficit down first. The Treasury should note that its role model the EU has abandoned these rules for the time being, and is pursuing monetary and fiscal expansion.

The lecture was wrong to deny that lower tax rates can bring in more revenues. The Republic of Ireland has been a shining example of this, boosting its per capita GDP far higher than ours or the lower level of the  EU by attracting huge investments through a 12.5 per cent Corporation Tax rate.

Their business taxes offer a higher percentage of total tax take than our higher rates. The Chancellor ignores the findings of Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Lawson who he praises. They produced a surge in revenues from higher paid people by major cuts in income tax rates.

The Government should take the cost of living crisis more seriously. In accordance with the Mais lecture, it needs to create the conditions for private sector investment in creating more better-paid jobs and in producing more of the goods and services we need at home.

Levelling up needs to be private sector led, and offer people the chance to set up and run their own businesses, be trained for better paid employment, and find ladders of opportunity in the areas attracting the projects and businesses.

The Government should not take the fast growth rate of 2021 for granted. It was a one-off based on removing Covid restrictions and on an unprecedented injection of money by the Treasury and the Bank of England. In the end, they overdid it in scale and duration, triggering a nasty inflation. The new investment has to take place against a less supportive public sector background.

The rise of prices well above wages will cut growth, as people spend more of their money on such basics as food and energy. That will leave them with less to spend on leisure and pleasure – on items that are nice to have. The huge rise in energy bills alongside tax rises including National Insurance will sap spending power further. The economy will slow. The lecture did not tell us how the extra private sector investment will be attracted in these conditions, particularly with the planned rises in Corporation Tax to come.

These troubles will be compounded by the Government’s import promotion policies, which are most pronounced in the Business and Agriculture departments. Business is busy allowing the rundown of big energy using manufacture like steel, ceramics, aluminium, and glass in the name of Net Zero.

The trouble is that we then import the products from abroad, meaning that more C02 is created in their production and transport to us. The Business Department is busy reducing our oil and gas output so that we need to import more energy. Again, this adds to our CO2 production worldwide.The Environment Department is developing big subsidy incentives to remove land from food production and to encourage older farmers to give up. That will make us more dependent on imported food.

So why does the Government not like products made or grown at home? Why doesn’t it want more home output to boost jobs, incomes and lifestyles? Any sensible programme of levelling up should be cutting taxes and making it easier for local businesses and farms to set up and grow.

This year, revenues have come in much higher than the Budget forecast, thanks to higher growth – and way higher than the £12 billion that the Government says it needs for a tax rise. The Treasury did not put up rates of tax, so revenue grew. During the next financial year, higher tax rates and frozen starting levels will hit taxpayers hard. Revenue is likely to underperform as growth stutters.

An energy shortage is a big part of the problem. The government should ease the shortages of gas, oil and electricity. They should invite in the oil and gas producers in the U.K. and help them increase production straight away from current fields. They should offer licences for new production from all those new and extended fields that have already been discovered. That’s more jobs, better paid jobs, and plenty of extra tax revenue. It is also less CO2 generated globally, as our own gas produces under half the CO2 of imported LNG gas. We will have much more productive industry if we have cheap or competitive energy.

The Government should work with the electricity industry to keep the lights on. We  will need more capacity than is planned to cover the electric revolution. We need more power for when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. We should abandon the current policy of putting in more and more interconnectors to allow us to import more from an energy short continent.  They should produce schemes to promote more home-grown food.

Lord Ashcroft: My new book on the NHS – and what voters think about their favourite institution

7 Mar

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

My new book, published tomorrow, could be my most controversial yet.

No, not that one. I mean Life Support: The State of the NHS in an Age of Pandemics. In it, my co-author Isabel Oakeshott and I ask hard questions about how good the National Health Service really is, and what needs to change if it is to offer the consistently high quality of care that patients and taxpayers deserve.

An objective study of a public institution ought not to be controversial, but any attempt to offer an unvarnished view of the NHS today will inevitably be seen in some quarters as an attack. Life Support is no such thing, of course. (After all, I spent a year campaigning, successfully as it turned out, for a rare collective award of the George Cross for the NHS and its staff).

Nor is it an argument for doing away with the principle that services should be free at the point of delivery, which would be politically impractical even if I thought it a good idea, which I don’t. Rather, it is a rigorous study of the NHS as it really is today – the good, the bad and the ugly – based on detailed on-the-ground research and hundreds of interviews with health professionals and others.

The political danger of being seen to criticise the NHS is one reason why any bold and positive change is so hard – and why extra funding, promised on a lavish scale by this Conservative Government out of the proceeds of its hefty new taxes, so rarely goes hand in hand with the kind of reforms that would help deliver real value.

Another closely linked reason for this is fear of public opinion. But I believe the voters’ relationship with their health service is more nuanced than is sometimes understood. In the course of my work on Life Support I conducted two major polling exercises – one just before Covid struck in early 2020, and the other towards the end of 2021 after restrictions had eased.

The results, available at LordAshcroftPolls.com, show how little people’s big-picture views of the NHS change, even over an 18-month period with a global pandemic in between. They also help explain how the public feels about its favourite institution, and why politicians have been so reluctant to address the problems that beset it.

Though it is practically an article of faith among the British public that the NHS is in a sorry state, this is not always based on personal experience. In both my surveys, people gave a more positive rating for their own most recent encounter with the NHS than they did when asked how good or bad they thought NHS services were in the country as a whole. Indeed, those who had had very frequent contact with the NHS gave a higher mark than those who had not used its services in the previous six months.

Its response to Covid was widely and spontaneously praised. Overall, I found people were slightly more likely to think the UK in general had handled the pandemic worse than other countries than to think it had handled it better.

But asked how the NHS had done, people were four times as likely to say it had performed better than other countries’ health systems than the opposite. Most felt the NHS, with staff working around the clock and risking their own health to care for the suffering, had acquitted itself admirably. They were more inclined to think the pandemic had shown how good the NHS is and why it is the right system for Britain than to believe it had highlighted the need for serious reform.

Even so, most believe the NHS is in a worse state than it was before the crisis began. Few thought the backlog caused by Covid – acknowledged as the most serious problem now facing the service – would quickly clear. The prevailing view was that the pandemic had magnified existing problems and that things were unlikely to improve any time soon.

Both before and after the virus struck, waiting times for appointments and treatment were considered top of the list – though some had recently begun to feel that covid was sometimes now being used as an excuse rather than a genuine explanation for delays.

Next in the catalogue of perceived problems for NHS patients were standards varying widely between different hospitals and areas of the country, patients being denied drugs or treatment that could help them, and poor communication. The list of gripes was echoed and expanded in my focus groups, with anecdotes to illustrate each shortcoming.

Yet people are remarkably forgiving of their bad experiences, because of the pressure they can see the service is operating under – not least a chronic shortage of staff. These in turn are widely assumed to be a consequence of continual underfunding. Despite the torrent of cash unleashed during the pandemic and the projected £12 billion a year from the new Health & Social Care Levy, I found more people thinking NHS spending over the last five years had fallen than that it had risen (though by a smaller margin after the crisis than before).

It was clear from focus group discussions that people simply do not know what to make of NHS funding, even when hard figures are attached. The issue belongs squarely in the realm of political claim and counterclaim. The feeling is that even if the NHS’s budget is rising – a doubtful enough supposition for some – demands on its resources is rising even faster.

Arguably, all the problems people readily describe – demand constantly outstripping supply, insufficient staff to keep up, missed but uncancelled appointments, overburdened GPs, long waits, administrative bungles – stem from the characteristic that British people most value about the NHS: that it is available to everyone and free at the point of use.

For voters, this founding principle remains inviolable. In both my polls, clear majorities agreed with the statement “It is more important to keep the principle of an NHS funded by taxation and free at the point of use even if a different system could mean improvements in treatment and better survival rates for serious conditions”. Only just over one in five agreed with the opposing contention that “It is more important to have the best possible treatment and improved survival rates, even if that means the NHS is no longer funded by taxation and free at the point of use.”

Despite its well-known failings, people will often still say that the NHS is the best health service in the world. But people who say this don’t mean they are convinced the NHS offers the best treatment and produces the best outcomes (which would be a hard proposition to defend on any objective analysis). They just mean that they would rather have the NHS than any other system they can think of. People accept that a free and universal system involves some compromises in terms of quality, but they are compromises they are prepared to make.

The reason may lie in what behavioural economists call prospect theory. When faced with choices that might lead to potential gains, people will tend to be risk-averse, preferring the certainty of keeping what they already have – in this case, what one of our focus group participants rather brilliantly called the “psychic assurance” that the NHS will be there for them whatever their circumstances.

This also explains why ideas for reform are always met with suspicion. For example, many people’s unease about more private firms delivering NHS services is not down to ideological horror at the profit motive, so much as the fear that this will somehow inevitably lead to patients one day having to pay. Government-imposed targets might bring down waiting times, but what if they just encourage corner-cutting and box ticking? Encouraging hospitals to innovate might lead to improvements, but what if it just makes services patchier? More choice for patients might drive up standards, but what if I choose the wrong place and lose out?

When you ask the public about the NHS, these are some of the things you will hear. Together with an understanding of the part the institution plays in the national psyche, they help explain why the NHS perennially tops the charts of voters’ worries. As the NHS emerges from the pandemic with record waiting lists, those worries are as great as ever. But the fact that people accept the inevitable compromises of a free and universal health system does not mean the compromises they are now having to make are acceptable. For the right change to be identified, we need to define where we are. That is what this book seeks to do.

Life Support: The State of the NHS in an Age of Pandemics by Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott is available to order from Biteback Publishing.

Lewis Preston: There is no market argument for domestic fracking

24 Feb

Lewis Preston is Chief of Staff to Elliot Colburn MP. He was a senior researcher for Lee Rowley, now BEIS minister, who established the APPG on Fracking.

Last summer, in a discreet corner of North Derbyshire, residents of Marsh Lane and the nearby historic mining town of Eckington quietly celebrated what they thought was the final victory in the battle to stop fracking in their community.

On 16 August, planning permission for exploratory drilling for shale gas in Marsh Lane finally lapsed without a single spade in the ground, two years after permission was granted, and almost half a decade since the plans were first mooted.

After a combination of fracking-induced earthquakes in Little Plumpton, Lancashire, and an unrelenting campaign from Parliamentarians, campaign groups and members of the public, a moratorium was imposed on hydraulic fracturing in England by the Government in 2019.

Following the fuel crisis in September, global gas supply shortages, energy price hikes and a cost of living squeeze, it was inevitable that the dead debate on fracking would be resurrected. It was reported recently that Jacob Rees-Mogg was urging colleagues to re-explore fracking, and multiple commentators are starting to throw the suggestion around again.

It’s not difficult to imagine the sense of dread that residents of Marsh Lane, Eckington or Little Plumpton feel as the biggest threat to their communities is unearthed and discussed again in Parliament and the press, so soon after the debate had been buried in the first place.

Two years since the moratorium, and despite the energy concerns we are currently experiencing, there still remains no convincing market or practical arguments for fracking in the UK.

Firstly, there is no reliable assessment or understanding of how much shale gas is in the UK or how much of it could be extracted. Nor has there been any assessment of the cost and impact of extracting it.

A recent study by Cardiff Business School estimated that the UK would need to drill between 4,000 – 30,000 fracking wells to replace all gas imports. This is heavily dependent on the geology, however; the only fracking operations to take place in the UK were unviable because of the seismic activity they generated, and one of the last exploratory shale operations to take place in the UK (in Barnby Moor near Worksop) failed to locate substantial amounts of shale gas.

The sheer level of infrastructure and activity for each fracking site would also have huge cumulative impacts. This isn’t a quick drill and drop operation. We are talking about thousands of vehicle movements, removal of street furniture, a 60 metre drill, acres of land, the erection of buildings and huge lighting fixtures, as well as the installation of pipelines (the extent of which has not been estimated) and a decommissioning operation (the cost of which, a recent House of Commons Committee report suggested, could fall into the lap of taxpayers), as well as much, much more.

All of this for just for one fracking site. Multiply this by the 30,000 potentially needed and it paints an unrealistic picture of monstrous state intervention and cumulative impacts. It’s easy to call for fracking now to solve the energy price hikes, but it’s just not realistic.

Second, the fracking argument fails to take into account the current short-term nature of the gas supply concerns and culmination of numerous global influences. Demand for gas has been steadily decreasing in the UK as we strive to reduce our carbon emissions and find renewable energy solutions (the capacity of which has more than quadrupled since 2010).

Conversely, global gas supply was steadily increasing, up until the Covid-19 pandemic, and is likely to climb again in the future. The most recent gas supply forecasts by the UK Government also assume that no domestic shale is needed to satisfy demand.

UK gas is traded on a European market, so it’s highly unlikely that domestically fracked shale would have any impact on energy prices, unlike the US where there have been some consumer positives.

Threats of Russian interference are also heavily exaggerated. Less than five per cent of the UK’s gas supply is imported from Russia, with the vast majority coming from domestic North Sea reserves, Norwegian pipelines and shipped from elsewhere in the world, including Qatar.

As for the viability of fracking for the industry, there isn’t evidence to suggest that it can work. Fracking has been a disaster for shareholders in the US, and their geology is far more favourable for fracking than on the British Isles and the Bowland Shale.

In the UK, the most recent shale drilling sites missed their targets and wasted millions. Research commissioned by Friends of the Earth found that, due to the unpredictable nature of the UK’s geology, it could very well take ten attempts of fracking at each site for commercial levels of gas to be extracted. Fracking in the UK is just not a viable business model.

Even without the 2019 moratorium on fracking, it’s unlikely we would be any closer to a domestic shale gas industry in the UK today. The current energy supply and price issues are concerning, but they are part of a global energy crisis, worsened by poor weather, Covid-19, spot market dependency and a fall in coal supply. Fracking in the UK has no realistic place in the current debate.

As for the long term, fracking is certainly not a free market silver bullet for achieving energy self-sufficiency. We aren’t simply sitting on an invisible shale gas store that we can turn the taps on at a moment’s notice. For domestic shale to have the slightest impact on UK energy, it would require a level of state intervention unseen for decades with unparalleled cumulative impacts.

Politically speaking, fracking would also be a disaster for the Conservatives.  Almost half of the 200 constituencies potentially targeted for fracking are held by Conservative MPs – including many in the “red wall”. Now is perhaps not the right time for the Prime Minister to rub his colleagues up the wrong way on this issue.

Foreign and domestic governments have a lot of work to do in securing global energy supplies for the future. However, the residents of Marsh Lane, Eckington, Barnby Moor, Little Plumpton and other potential fracking sites shouldn’t let this keep them awake at night just yet. Fundamentally, there is no need for fracking in the UK and the unavoidable practicalities involved should keep it buried for the foreseeable future. The Government would be unwise to resurrect fracking any time soon.