Neil Shastri-Hurst: Like a phoenix from the ashes of the Covid crisis, now is the time for a new social contract to arise

4 Jan

Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst is a barrister, surgeon, and former British Army Officer.

The year 2020 was the very definition of an annus horribilis. It was a year that will be etched upon our memories for all the wrong reasons. A year most would hope to forget. As we emerge from 2020 and into the dawn of a new year, the end may not be quite in sight; there are unquestionably significant challenges that lie ahead. However, there is real hope that 2021 will be a better year.

Crises, by their very nature, create opportunities. Whilst most would prefer not to go through the crisis in the first place, ignoring such opportunities would be a mistake. Coronavirus has been the mother of all crises. A global pandemic that has presented unimagined challenges to world governments. From the economic impact to the imposition on civil liberties, governments have had to make unprecedented decisions in the face of a rapidly evolving scientific picture.

It is with this backdrop in mind that the need to reimagine the social contract that underpins our nation has become even more pressing.

The conceptual basis of the social contract is an important commitment to societal commonality. It rewards hard work. In return for paying your fair share through the taxation system, there is a tacit expectation that living standards will rise, there will be a pension pot upon retirement, and if all else fails the state will provide a sufficient safety net to support you.

Those are laudable aims. In pressing for the contract to be reimagined I do not seek to undermine those guiding principles. However, that contract was written in a different time. It was written when the number of taxpayers well outstripped the number of retirees. Times have changed. With increased life expectancy, retirement is considerably longer. Combined with inequalities in the share of wealth and public spending, the current social contract is being pushed to capacity.

In addition to the generation divide there is also a skills divide. With increasing automation of certain jobs, obtaining stable employment is, for some, a genuine battle.

It was the millennial generation that was disproportionately hit by the financial crisis that hit the world economy in 2008. It led to high levels of youth unemployment and job insecurity for those fortunate enough to be in work. Growth in wages was muted and did little to assist in paying off increasingly mounting student debts. With a market flooded with graduates, many were ending up in non-graduate roles. Prior to this year there were signs of improvement. The sensible fiscal policy of the Conservative led administrations from 2010 onwards had been rewarded with the signs of growth. There was cause for optimism for sunnier times. And then Coronavirus struck. And, once again it will be the millennials that bear the brunt.

Home ownership is a Conservative dream yet, back in 2018, the Resolution Foundation report found that millennials were 50 per cent less likely to own their own home by the age of 30 compared with the baby boomers born between 1946-1964. Faced with the economic constraints post-Covid that is only likely to get worse. Coupled with the fact that, as of 2017, average pensioner income outstrips those of working families, the threat to the social contract cannot be underestimated.

The welfare system, which operates in the UK, is on a “pay as you go” basis. Workers pay in now to fund benefits for the current crop of retirees, as that generation did for those before them. With individuals living for longer retirees will, inevitably, take out more than they have put in. That is not their fault; it is merely a by-product of improved life expectancy. What results however, is a scenario in which there is a redistribution of wealth towards those that live longest; statistically, this group is not only the longest living, but also the wealthiest in any event. This compounds the issue.

Of course, none of this is to say that there are not those of retired age who are struggling to make ends meet. Nor is it to suggest that the baby boomers have it all easy, enjoying a carefree retirement – far from it. With people living longer and millennials less able to strike out entirely independently, there is a generation above and below that needs their support. Rather than a carefree retirement it is often defined by being a carer to elderly parents and relatives and an alternative bank to their children.

It is with all of these competing factors in mind that we cannot put off revising the social contract any longer. That is not to say it will be easy. Older voters are more naturally Conservative voters; upsetting them goes against the natural instinct of politicians. Likewise manifesto promises have been made and should, in normal circumstances, be honoured. But we are no longer living in normal circumstances.

As we emerge from this crisis, we must use it as an opportunity to think differently on how the social contract works so that it works more fairly for all. The guiding principle must be that no generation should be in a worse position than those that go before them.

So what does this mean in reality?

Well, firstly a re-evaluation of retirement age beyond 65. With increasing life expectancy and improved health in later life, the artificial bar of retirement at 65 no longer makes sense. We must not see older people as less able to contribute; in fact, to the contrary, they have a wealth of experience to impart. Flowing from this is the inconsistency whereby those over the age of 65 are not expected to pay national insurance. There is no good reason for such an exemption and it should be closed off.

The second element for reform is the triple lock. Where once it was the right course of action, that cannot be said any longer. With sluggish wage growth, to maintain the 2.5 per cent provision is no longer defendable. Instead, it should be pegged to life expectancy.

And finally, we must look at social care provision. This is a mighty topic, a full analysis of which will need to wait for another day and another article. But as a starter we should be positively exploring an insurance funded care system. We should also take much closer heed of enhancing the role families play in the provision of care; and this means providing financial recompense to reflect the gratuitous nature of what would otherwise be picked up by the state.

As with everything in life, with time things evolve. The fundamental tenets of the social contract have withstood the test of time but the contract is now creaking under the strain. As the nation emerges, like a phoenix from the ashes of the Covid crisis, now is the time to reshapreshape it for future generations.

2021 and the race to normality. Post-vaccine hospitalisation and transmission data are key to reopening the economy.

2 Jan

With the advent of 2021 (happy new year!) and the Oxford vaccine finally receiving approval, many of us are wondering a simple – but difficult to answer – question: how soon until life gets back to normal?

Boris Johnson has said that Britain will “open up” by Easter. But many people want the Government to move much faster now that it has the tools to do so, and not least because of what’s happening in Israel.

The country has been administering its population with the first dose of the Pfizer/ BioNTech vaccine at the rate of 150,000 people per day, with it on track to have 10 per cent of its citizens covered by the weekend.

While the UK has some of the best figures in this regard, it looks comparatively slow next to those above. Take the stats for England in the week ending December 27, when 243,039 people received vaccinations, with the total number of recipients standing at 786,000 since December 8.

To add to the pressure for Matt Hancock, the Chief Executive of AstraZeneca said the company could supply two million vaccines per week, so all eyes are on the Government to see if it can distribute these – especially as pressure on the NHS continues to grow.

Can the Government do it? Clearly getting millions of vaccines out is no walk in the park, from arranging huge numbers of appointments at short notice with some of the oldest and most vulnerable members of the public, to having to monitor people afterwards for 15 minutes (to check for adverse reactions). But there are areas that the Government can quickly improve upon.

There are, for instance, huge bureaucratic barriers for vaccinator volunteers, who have had to provide 21 pieces of evidence, such as Prevent Radicalisation training, to help out with Coronavirus efforts. With over 25 million people on the priority list for a vaccine, there’s never been a better reason to cut the red tape.

The Government will also be expected to smooth over manufacturing inefficiencies, which have been blamed for a discrepancy in the number of Oxford University and AstraZeneca vaccines expected for the NHS this year (30 million doses) versus the reality (530,000) – a gap that need to be closed quickly to bring down hospital admissions.

To the Government’s credit, it has risen to enormous challenges throughout this pandemic. Ministers were able to ramp up Coronavirus tests from nothing to hundreds of thousands per day, in an achievement that is often overlooked, and there are signs of vital progress on the vaccine front.

British military medics have been put on standby to vaccinate up to 700,000 people per week, and the Government has also switched its inoculation plan. Originally, the idea was to give two doses 21 days apart, but now a two-dose vaccine will be administered as one jab initially – to give as many as possible of the vulnerable some protection (with a second dose administered four to 12 weeks later).

Although some GPs have been unhappy about this idea, the UK’s chief medical officers have defended the strategy, writing in a joint letter: “We have to follow public health principles and act at speed if we are to beat this pandemic, which is running rampant in our communities, and we believe the public will understand and thank us for this decisive action.”

It’s innovation, as much as speed, that the Government needs to speed up its vaccination programme. No idea is off limits, with many people already placing suggestions on Twitter – even that pubs could be used as vaccination hubs – to get the UK moving faster out of lockdown.

In order to ease restrictions, the Government is working towards two goals. First, it needs to rapidly cut down hospitalisations, so that the NHS is no longer overwhelmed, which will mean it’s far safer to lift measures.

The second is to achieve population immunity, meaning “the virus has nowhere left to run.” Scientists have predicted that we could need anything from 60 to 80 per cent of the population vaccinated to achieve this, although it ultimately depends on what the next few months tell us about transmission. The ideal scenario is that the vaccine not only protects vulnerable members of society, but quickly stops the spread of the virus. This could have a dramatic impact on when restrictions go.

In the mean time, it makes sense for the Government to hold Easter up as the date for reopening the economy, not least because it will be warmer then – with less scope for people mixing indoors (where the virus spreads more easily). The Government no doubt feels more confident, based on last year’s seasonal patterns, that it will be easier to open then, vaccine or not – and plans to phase out the furlough scheme in April. Until then, ministers will have one of the busiest new years on record trying to make “Operation Get Back to Normal” a reality.

Robert Sutton: The protection of civil liberties must be placed at the heart of a reformed Public Health Act

1 Jan

Dr Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer.

Since the passage of the Coronavirus Act 2020, we have seen an unprecedented restriction of civil liberties in this country. The powers assumed by the government have allowed ministerial decree to circumvent parliamentary scrutiny and to regulate the minutiae of our everyday lives to a degree unimaginable just one year ago.

Yet the basis of these powers drawn from the Act is dubious. Notable legal scholars, particularly Jonathan Sumption, the former Supreme Court Justice, have argued that the legislation is unsuitable for the executive powers which have been carried out in its name. Parliamentarians are similarly frustrated by the way the Act has been used to evade parliamentary scrutiny while some of the most consequential restrictions are rolled out on ministerial whim. Steve Baker, in his duties as Deputy Chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, has repeatedly called for reform in this area.

Certainly, any legislation which is being used for such a constitutional distortion must be entirely unambiguous in its scope. The Act draws its authority in part from the Public Health Act 1984 (PHA). The PHA provides powers to restrict the movement of individuals known to have a communicable disease and to control spaces which are known to be contributing to contagion. Yet the current Covid-19 restrictions are far broader in their application that just to those individuals who are known to be infected, and this is where the Act treads into murky waters.

While the PHA is clear in putting forward what restrictions might be applied to individuals and premises known to be contagious (and these restrictions are entirely sensible), it is far less clear what the scope of its powers are with regards to individuals who are not infected with a communicable disease – the vast majority of citizens. The legal precedent on such issues is that, where there is ambiguous or general wording, such vagueness must not be used to curtail constitutional freedoms. Else, we would be able to take justify drastic actions using whatever legislation is unclear in its scope. But the Government seems uninterested in such precedent.

The primary piece of legislation which gives government powers to curtail civil liberties is the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (CCA). The CCA is a remarkable piece of legislation which allows a government to wield extraordinary powers in an emergency. As such, its use is strictly bound by ongoing Parliamentary scrutiny of those powers. It is clear that these powers are lent to the government by Parliament, and for a limited period at a time. They can also be withdrawn by Parliament as it sees fit. The fear that an emergency might be exploited to evade the House of Commons by a power-hungry executive was precisely what the drafters had in mind when including such safeguards.

The necessity for Parliamentary scrutiny intrinsic to the CCA is why MPs have argued that the executive should be using it as the basis for coronavirus restrictions instead of the PHA, or that the PHA itself should be reformed to make clear the limits of its powers. Yet Boris Johnson has made clear that he has no intention of using the CCA as the legal basis of lockdown powers, so we return to the PHA to define that scope.

The current PHA certainly was not developed with the current situation in mind. So, as it stands, we find ourselves trapped in a middle ground, in which the legislation being used as the basis for lockdown is unsuitable for that purpose and incapable of giving such provisions as to ensure ongoing Parliamentary scrutiny. This gives the rather uncomfortable impression that the Government intentionally chose a legal basis which it could use knowing that it would be subject to a lower standard of Parliamentary scrutiny than that which would be required under the CCA.

Yet to try to circumvent Parliament in the exercise of executive power is extremely myopic. Whether the Government currently realises it or not, it is within their best interests to ensure that further restrictions are brought before Parliament. Parliament is not some constitutional inconvenience. It is the basis for our liberal democracy, the means by which legislation is given its moral authority and an exceptionally useful political tool to measure public perceptions of government plans.

By directly reforming the PHA to explicitly limit its scope, and to allow legislation carried in its name to face full scrutiny by Parliament, the Government would certainly face a short-term inconvenience of restricting the executive powers it has used lavishly thus far. But there would be an overwhelming long-term gain in ensuring that those measures passed have the direct consent of MPs and the indirect consent of their constituents. This would without doubt make for better and more resilient legislation and ensure that any further restrictions are more surely footed in both law and public opinion.

Anthony Browne: Post-Brexit Britain. Now we’ve taken back control, here’s what we can do with our new powers.

31 Dec

Anthony Browne is MP for South Cambridgeshire and a former Europe Editor of the Times.

When I worked for Boris Johnson during his first term as Mayor of London, I led on devolving powers to City Hall, and went through it with Oliver Letwin, David Cameron’s policy honcho. One idea was to devolve VAT to London, copying regional sales taxes in North America. “We can’t. It is against EU rules. Not sure why,” said Letwin.

With our agreement with the EU, arguably the biggest change is not individual policy areas, but the sense of empowerment. Throughout government, naysayers and those suffering excessive status-quo bias have been able to stop any initiative saying: “you can’t. It is against EU rules.”

Sometimes – like the abolition of the tampon tax and banning live animal exports – it was a correct interpretation of EU law. But often it was just a general prohibition. It would end the matter, because no one really understood the EU rules, they were too difficult to challenge, and basically impossible to change. It bred throughout the UK government machinery an intellectual dependency on the EU that led to a pervasive “can’t do” attitude.

But from January 1, no longer will anyone be able to say: “you can’t – EU rules”. We have jumped from the passenger seat to the pilot seat. Can’t do becomes can do. So – what should we do?

Eighteen months ago, at the depth of our Brexit political paralysis, ConservativeHome asked me to write a series of 10 articles highlighting potential “Policy Gains from Brexit” – things we might want to do and would be able to do once we had left the EU. So how are we doing?

On most of the issues, we are making great headway. Across much of government, the new empowerment has led to a renaissance of democracy and policy making. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs used to be a body for transposing EU rules, with a bureaucracy that had gone native.

But under Michael Gove, Liz Truss and George Eustice, civil servants have transformed from passive recipients to enlightened creators, giving the department a buzz of excitement.

The Agriculture Bill – the first time we have had an agricultural policy for over 40 years – scraps the dysfunctional Common Agricultural Policy, and replaces it with environmental subsidies (it was a pleasure to do my maiden speech on it).

The Environment Bill (which I sat on the Bill Committee of) doesn’t just replace EU environmental law, but enhances it and tailors it for the UK, much to the delight of green groups.

The Fisheries Bill gives us our own, more sustainable, fisheries policy (subject to quotas agreed with the EU).

The Government is consulting on banning the export of live animals for slaughter, which the impotent Labour government was unable to do when it wanted to.

We now have a Department for International Trade, with our own trade negotiators, giving us a trade policy for the first time in forty years, and pumping out our own trade agreements. Agriculture and environment groups have been enthusiastically debating how we protect standards in our trade policy, something nobody discussed before because we had no power to deliver it.

The Treasury is reviewing the whole framework of financial services regulation, with the aim of setting out an ambitious financial services strategy. Previous strategies for financial services (which I played my part in, as chief executive of the British Bankers’ Association) were rather optimistic exercises – the UK government didn’t have the power to do very much. Almost all our financial services regulation we have inherited from the EU, but we need to ensure it is proportionate, and supports innovation and competition, as well as international competitiveness and high standards.

The Treasury has scrapped the hated tax on tampons, which EU rules had prevented George Osborne from doing. The popular duty free from EU countries is coming back after a 20 year absence – with the ferries from Holyhead to Dublin offering it from Friday. The Government is launching freeports to boost trade and regeneration of more deprived parts of the UK. The Home Office has scrapped the much-hated freedom of movement, and replaced it with a global immigration policy making sure we can get the talent that our economy needs.

But now that we have this empowerment, what else could we do now we have left the EU? Here are some other possibilities:

  • Reform public procurement (under the OJEU rules), to make it fit for purpose and give small businesses more opportunities.
  • Promote competition among retail banks by reforming EU inherited capital rules.
  • Remove VAT on housing insulation and other environmental products, and reform the biofuels regime.
  • Transform our waste and recycling regime, so it is not an exercise in hitting EU targets.
  • Reform the EU’s second company directive to reduce pointless red tape for public companies.
  • Reform the General Data Protection Regulation to protect privacy while reducing burdens on small charities and businesses.
  • Reform Solvency II so our insurance companies can compete globally.
  • Promote collaboration programmes with the Commonwealth, rather than just the EU.

It has been obscured by the dramas around Brexit and Covid, but the policy arena is the most exciting it has been for a generation. Say goodbye to can’t do. Say hello to the new “can do” Britain.

Harriet Baldwin: Cutting foreign aid is a blatant breach of our manifesto pledge – and I will not vote for it

31 Dec

Harriett Baldwin MP was a joint Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development Minister of State.

When politicians break manifesto pledges they pay an electoral price. Think George HW Bush and “read my lips: no new taxes” followed by tax hikes and a single term as president. Think Nick Clegg and “no tuition fees” followed by tripled tuition fees and the loss of 85 per cent of Liberal Democrat parliamentary seats. But break a manifesto pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of your national income on helping the world’s extreme poor and those who suffer can’t answer back at the ballot box. It will even be seen as a good thing by many readers of these pages.

That’s why it’s so important for those of us who have had the privilege of seeing the good that UK Aid does to speak up on behalf of those who will lose out from the decision in the Spending Review to cut the aid budget to 0.5 per cent.

First and foremost, it’s not a good idea to break any manifesto pledge, but to break only one and to pick on the most vulnerable people in the world is deeply shameful.

Anyone who has seen the nutrition being given to babies in Ethiopia or Somalia appreciates that aid for nutrition saves babies’ lives. Fewer babies will survive without UK Aid.

Anyone who has witnessed the invention and then the cold chain deployment of an Ebola vaccine to the furthest reaches of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo knows that this deployment, funded by UK Aid has helped not only to control Ebola but to protect us here at home and help us develop the skills we need today for deploying the Covid-19 vaccine. Vaccines save lives, including our own.

Anyone who has seen the enthusiasm with which girls in Sierra Leone study their lessons knows that the best chance poor countries have to move beyond aid is through universal access to quality education. Fewer children will finish school if we give less in aid.

The aid budget has already shrunk naturally due to the link to national income, with cuts of £2.9 billion this year. Not only that but other Western countries which link their aid to their economic progress will be cutting as well.

Our economy, our health and our wellbeing have suffered terribly this year and we certainly need to recover both our health and our finances. But the shock to the most vulnerable countries is much worse. Famine, which has not been seen on our planet since 2011 is now stalking 10 countries according to the Nobel prize-winning World Food Programme. How will we feel about cutting aid if we see the kind of shocking scenes of starvation that started Live Aid in the 1980s?

With the UK hosting the 26th Climate Conference of the Parties in Glasgow in November we will rightly want to contribute even more to help the poorest countries adapt to climate change. Cyclones like Idai which hit Mozambique in 2019 will continue to ravage poor countries with increasing frequency.

At the peak of the pandemic, almost one billion children were missing school and when the UK co- hosts the replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education this year with Kenya we will rightly want to be a leading donor.

Oxford University has developed a cheap vaccine. If approved, we should increase our vaccine commitment to the GAVI vaccine alliance to make sure that this vaccine reaches every poor country, proudly marked with the Union Jack UK Aid logo. In short, the lower aid budget will be spent fast.

The timing could not be worse. We have always proudly stated to our friends around the world that we are the only G20 country to spend the NATO target of two per cent on defence and the UN target of 0.7 per cent on overseas development assistance. We will begin our post EU future by dropping our soft power budget just as China’s economy recovers and they can increase their soft power projection. This will prove exceptionally short-sighted geopolitics.

For moral, diplomatic, humanitarian, educational and even for entirely selfish reasons about the kind of world I want to pass on to the next generation, I will certainly not be voting to break this manifesto pledge.

Bill Bowkett: The pandemic has shown the value of localism. But the Government seems to be ignoring this lesson.

31 Dec

Bill Bowkett is a MA Newspaper Journalism student at City, University of London. He is a former editor of the University of Kent’s student newspaper InQuire and has worked as a researcher in Parliament for Sir Oliver Heald MP.

New year’s resolutions are always a fitting tradition. The Romans birthed this trend with the worship of Janus – the two-faced God of beginning and end. Back then, citizens gifted presents to their enemies. In return, Janus would forgive those who confessed their sins.

And lo, two millenniums later, the sun rises in 2021 and a chance to start anew. When news of a vaccine was announced back in November, an ending to this Covid-19 impasse looked imminent. But as the last few weeks have proven, hopes of a ‘social reset’ have been quashed.

New tiering measures meant Christmas was cancelled for families across England. Those that were hoping to spend some time with nanny and pappy last week had their plans shattered because of rising cases, particularly across the south-east. Not to mention a new mutant strain.

This year has dealt multiple blows, but these authoritarian restrictions leave a bitter aftertaste like a par-boiled Brussel sprout. Each of us who have sacrificed our freedoms in the name of public health – and were promised family festivities and an imminent return to normality – have been betrayed.

Serious questions continue to be raised about No 10’s handling of the crisis. But it seems that voters have had enough and have made their intentions clear: they want to take back control.

A recent survey by community network Locality showed that out of 2,000 adults polled, half lack faith in central government to make the right decision for their local community. Moreover, 56 per cent said that they wanted more local decision-making powers.

For all their efforts, this overbearing administration has failed to deliver on multiple fronts. Contract tracing has left thousands of infected individuals missing from the national database. Testing targets are repeatedly being missed at a cost of billions to the taxpayer. And with thousands of shops, pubs, and restaurants forced to close at this, the most wonderful – and profitable – time of the year, the economic forecast looks grim.

Funny that. The Conservatives usually pride themselves on being the party of localism. Yet, they certainly have enjoyed the powers given to them in the Coronavirus Act.

Just a fortnight ago, Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, threatened Greenwich and Islington councils with legal action if they failed to keep schools open (even though keeping children in class, with days left until the end of term, was illogical).

Why the government is acting in this manner is anyone’s guess. They wish to be in command, yes. But this is not a job they can face alone. With anxieties of a third national shutdown on the horizon, we need new grounds for optimism.

Where should change come from? The answer is centred on those who are normally responsible for wellie bin collections and allotments. Because in 2020, local government has stepped up big time.

Take Leicester, the first city to go into local lockdown back in June. Authorities chose to ditch the NHS Test and Trace App. They used their own methods that applied local insight, calling residents over the phone and knocking on doors. Shortly after results started to show, and cases dropped in the short space of time the initiative was running.

The same goes for the West Midlands where Andy Street, the region’s metro mayor, said piloted tracing identified between 98 and 100 per cent of cases. Remarkable.

And in Sunderland, the council and local Mack’ems are looking towards the future, with the two working on a draft neighbourhood plan that aims to combat health inequalities.

The pandemic has changed the way citizens think about where they live. It has anchored us closer to what happens on our front door – whether that be civil associations working to deliver essential goods, or local authorities setting up support networks to care for our most vulnerable. Localised planning has made a positive difference (certainly a breath of fresh air to the ruckus coming out of Westminster).

With all that being said, if there is one New Year’s resolution the Prime Minister should make that will help the country in the long run, it is sharing the balance of power in England — and a comprehensive devolution framework that meets the needs of those closest to our doorstep.

Rishi Sunak’s “Shared Prosperity” funding announced in this month’s spending review – allocated to local authorities to help stimulate growth – should be spent by independently-minded legislators, not those in London. No conditions, ifs, buts, or maybes. As the Northern Powerhouse think tank director, Henri Murison, said, the government should not “top slice” funds and “pocket it in Whitehall for their own programmes”.

And like in the summer, authorities in England should have lockdown abilities returned so as to have the same power-status as the rest of the home nations. A hyper-localised approach means decisive action with local residents and businesses in mind. That also means control over mobile testing in places like care homes where the Health Secretary Matt Hancock recently announced £149 million of additional funding.

All aspects of life are going to bear the brunt these next few years, if not decades. The Tory’s manifesto pledge to ‘level up’ left-behind Blighty will invariably be set back amid Britain suffering the worst recession in history, as well as having the worst regional inequality in the developed world. Frankly, these are tasks beyond the executive’s capacity.

Radical thinking is needed to disperse fiscal and political responsibility away from high office, whilst also retaining accountability to those who govern. Therefore, a bottom-up approach holds the keys to our destiny – a meaningful partnership based on forward-thinking – because this epidemic impasse cannot last any longer.

Each new year brings the opportunity to resolve, and 2021 is no exception. If the frontbench continues as they are doing right now, we will continue to get the same. It is time to change our current trajectory. Time to give power back to the people.

Best and worst Government moment: the Brexit trade deal and Cummings’ road trip to Barnard Castle, respectively

30 Dec

With a resounding 50.34 per cent of the vote, the Brexit Trade Deal wins our panelists’ choice for “best Government moment” in our end of year survey. After a long year of negotiations, and what looked like the UK edging towards No Deal at many points, David Frost and his team, as well as Boris Johnson, have delivered on arguably the hardest one of the Conservatives’ election pledges.

The second most popular Government moment was “Obtaining 350 million doses of the vaccine”. It’s easy to forget now, but the Government’s decision to order this amount was a massive gamble at the time, as there hasn’t been a successful vaccine for SARS and MERS, which come from the same Coronavirus family, and even 50 per cent efficacy was thought of a difficult target. With the news of Oxford’s jab, along with Pfizer’s, it’s another end of year success story.

When asked to rate the “worst Government moment”, Dominic Cummings’ road trip to Barnard Castle comes in top with 39.33 per cent of the vote. Clearly his explanation for the journey in Downing Street’s rose garden did not wow our panelists, nor were they impressed about the Government moving the country into Tiers Three and Four over Christmas, thereby cancelling many people’s plans. Perhaps with trade deal and vaccine news, however, these will soon be distant memories of an annus horribilis.

Our survey: advent of the new strain and the vaccine sees a swing towards maintaining lockdown

29 Dec

Last month, Conservative members still reported significant unease about the Government’s approach to combating Covid-19.

Whilst there was a swing away from support for the ‘Swedish model’ as an alternative (in favour of a more effective test-and-trace system), there was still a majority for easing restrictions “faster and more widely”.

Opinion this month is much more evenly split. Support for a quicker exit from lockdown has fallen from 56 per cent to 37 per cent, whilst that for the opposing view – “more slowly and less widely” – rose from 11 per cent to 24 per cent. There was also a small increase in those who thought that Ministers have got it just right, from 31 per cent to 35 per cent.

It’s a similar story on the broader question of coronavirus strategy. Support for maintaining the restrictions “as at present” has risen from 18 per cent to 34 per cent, despite those measures getting significantly harsher with the advent of ‘Tier 4’. It therefore edges ahead of test-and-trace, the former favourite, which slips from 42 per cent to 33 per cent.

And the ‘voluntary social distancing’ option, which led as recently as October, falls from 38 per cent to just 29 per cent.

There are two obvious possible explanations for this shift in approach. The first is that members are much more worried about the new, more virulent strain of Covid-19 than they were about the original one. The second is that with the vaccination programme already underway, the case for knuckling down seems much stronger than it did when the prospect was potentially years of restrictions.