Emma Revell: Young people socialising made Sturgeon “want to cry”. If only she got as upset over their debt burden.

4 Aug

Emma Revell is Head of Communications at the IEA

It’s not often some millennials gathering on a beach on a blazing hot weekend is enough to move someone to tears but that was the case for Nicola Sturgeon this week. The Scottish First Minister told a press conference that the crowds of young people gathered, apparently without physical distancing, made her “want to cry”.

I understand the frustration governments might be feeling at people pushing the boundaries of social distancing recommendations but to be driven to tears? Not at the untold damage being wrought on young people’s careers, not for the unfathomable debt they have been saddled with for the rest of their lives and probably those of their children, not for the unsuitable conditions many have been forced to work in for the last five months – those who were lucky enough to have jobs which can be done from home at least. But the simple act of meeting one’s friends outside is enough for a national leader to condemn a generation.

How can this be allowed to stand? The chance of dying from Coronavirus for 15-24 year olds is 0.5 for every 100,00 people. For 25-44 year olds it is 2.9 for every 100,000. So even accounting for a very generous definition of what Nicola Sturgeon meant by young – stretching it to the second category to include myself at a mere 28 years old – the chances of dying from Coronavirus, assuming you did contract the disease, are vanishingly small. The burden of the measures introduced to combat the disease however will fall squarely on the shoulders of the young.

The UK’s debt as a percentage of GDP exceeded 100 per cent for the first time since 1963 in June and that is only likely to increase with unemployment likely to reach record highs.

Whether or not you consider a pivot to homeworking a joy or a disaster is likely to depend on your age. While upper management in their 50s and beyond have enjoyed the chance to skip the commute and take a leisurely lunchtime walk as a break from their kitted-out home office, young people are much more likely to have struggled to share the kitchen table with multiple housemates in private rented accommodation without the luxury of a decade chair, never mind a home office.

New research from the LSE found that young Londoners living in shared accommodation throughout lockdown had just 9.3sqm of private personal space and that 37 per cent of those were sleeping and working in their bedrooms. Nearly half of those surveyed reporting having no suitable place to work at all.

That is those young people who can work from home in the first place. A total of 22 per cent of workers between 22 and 25 in their first full-time job were in low-paying occupations in the hardest hit sectors: retail and hospitality.

For those lucky enough to hang on to work, long-term home working will severely damage the chances of progression and team cohesion in sectors where so much relies on making connections with colleagues and getting to know the rest of the team.

A Zoom pub quiz on a Thursday night organised by a frazzled HR manager will only get you so far. Reduced job opportunities will limit the chances of progression into higher paid positions even further.

And it is not all about money. What about our social lives, or our love lives? If you are in your late 20s like I am, the tick tock of the biological clock begins to edge ever closer. Lockdown has damaged countless relationships, ending many either through enforced separation or proximity. How long are we expected to put our social lives on hold?

Where are our champions? During the EU referendum both sides of the campaign played up the benefits of their side’s victory for young people. Remainers argued that membership of the EU was essential for safeguarding the rights of young people to live and work across the continent, while Leavers wanted the next generation to grow up in full control of the laws of the land. Where are those campaigners now?

It is, of course, the elderly and those with underlying health conditions who are suffering the worst health outcomes from the pandemic. If rumours from Whitehall are to be believed, over 50s are at risk of losing essential liberties if a second wave of the virus hits Britain and of course maybe in middle age have been balancing the twin burdens of childcare and home-schooling with supporting older relatives who have been told to shield themselves.

No generation has escaped Coronavirus’ effect, but the young are uniquely positioned to bare almost no health risk yet will be living with the impact on careers, bank balances, romances, and mental health for the rest of their lives. It is time for politicians to remember that.

James Frayne: Public support for the Government appears to have dropped – but not when it comes to individual policies

4 Aug

The conventional wisdom on the polling is the Government is fast losing public support on its handling of the Coronavirus crisis – and therefore that the Government is handling the crisis badly in reality.

While it’s true that the polls have moved against the Government from the early days of the crisis when approval ratings were sky high, the story isn’t as simple as the public turning against the Government.

Interestingly, on individual policy announcements, for example the Northern lockdown, public support remains high. The public back the Government on specifics, but not in the round. So what’s happening?

Let’s begin by looking at the polling on general Government popularity measures. The picture is clear: the public has become less sympathetic over time.

  • ConservativeHome’s newly released panel survey showed the PM’s popularity has slipped for the third month in a row.
  • YouGov’s tracker on perceptions of the Government’s handling of the crisis has shown a steady decline since the Spring.
  • Opinium’s tracker shows the same, with their most recent figures showing a net disapproval rating of -15. They also show a relatively narrow lead over Labour in the voting intention tracker.
  • A new study by Ipsos-Mori and KCL revealed an array of metrics showing public concern about the way the pandemic has been handled.

But now let’s look at the data on individual policies.

  • People appear to very strongly support the Government banning separate households meeting indoors in those parts of the country where the infection rate has risen.
  • People appear to strongly support the Government’s announcement that those with Coronavirus symptoms should now self-quarantine for 10 days rather than seven.
  • The majority of the public appears to be unsympathetic to those British people that went to Spain and got caught out by the demand to self-quarantine on their return – a decision for which the Government received enormous criticism.
  • People also appear to support restaurants having to show calorie counts on their menus – a suggestion the Government was said to be considering as part of No 10’s new focus on obesity. (I actually think this would drop like a stone when faced with a counter argument on burdensome regulations during a pandemic, but that’s another conversation).
  • The polls show the public support the requirement to wear masks in supermarkets and they want the supermarkets themselves to be tougher on compliance, presumably by refusing entry to those without masks or refusing service at the till.
  • The use of face masks has surged dramatically more generally.

What accounts for these stark differences, where the Government is losing support but where the public actually back its main policy announcements? There are a number of reasons why this might be the case.

First, it’s possible the public actually still favour extremely tough measures overall – much tougher than the Government is prepared to take. It’s possible they still favour what amounts to a near full-lockdown and, therefore, the support they give to specific policies is almost given in exasperation – as if to say: “of course they should do this, why haven’t they done so before?”

I think this is very likely the case among older and more affluent people, where the mix of fear and an ability to work from home and maintain their living standards means they take a very safety first approach. It might still be the case for many others.

As I’ve written before, the Government’s reputation has also ultimately been perversely damaged by the huge success of the furlough scheme. The fact that it worked smoothly and held up most people’s earnings meant it acted like morphine; it made people think the pandemic was almost exclusively a health crisis, not an economic one.

It made many think that the lockdown was a perfectly acceptable way to spend several weeks – not something that was crippling the economy. As such, many people believed, and still do, that the lockdown should keep going indefinitely. Were they exposed to job losses and higher taxes, they’d likely change their minds on this quickly.

In summary, it’s possible the Government is being punished for opening up the country too early.

Second, it’s possible that the little minorities of people who oppose Government action on, say, increasing the quarantine, actually all mount up to a majority overall, which brings down Government support.

So, a significant minority in the North of England might be angry about the new lockdown there, while a significant minority of holidaymakers might be angry about the new quarantine demands, and so on. In the end, the angry and annoyed on one issue accumulate to a large number. It’s as if everyone’s annoyed, but for different reasons. There’s also clearly just generally a virus fatigue: “when will it ever end?”

Third, we have to look at the role of Government communications. The Government has been accused of giving out mixed messages in recent weeks – most recently, encouraging people to go to restaurants while also telling people to stay apart and wear masks, or encouraging people to go to restaurants while telling them to eat healthily.

The Government’s view appears to be that they need a degree of ambiguity – yes, to encourage people to return to some form of normality, while always reminding them to take care because the virus hasn’t gone away. I have sympathy with this because the medium-term future is so uncertain and because the Government is balancing outrageously complex and high-stakes issues.

In truth, no one really knows what’s going to happen. However, the fact remains that their messages and stated priorities can look contradictory – and this in turn can make them look disorganised, which in turn can eat into their reputation for competence.

Fourth, it looks like party politics is returning to the public mind slowly. The gaps between Conservative and Labour voters on questions of competence and general handling reveal huge differences in opinion.

In short, Labour voters think the Government has done a bad job, even if they give support to specific policy ideas, while Conservative voters are cutting the Government slack. If Starmer starts drawing a greater contrast between Conservative and Labour policies – most obviously over economic recovery policies – we should expect these differences to become starker.

Where will the polls go? It’s hard to say. If there’s another serious spike in cases and another health emergency develops, it’s possible that people will again rally behind the Government for doing a difficult job in difficult circumstances.

But I suspect, in reality, now people have become accustomed to the habits and language of the pandemic, and now Labour has a basically competent leader, that the Government’s approval ratings will return to where you’d expect a Government that has been in power for a long time to be – with a divided country and a very large number of disgruntled voters.

Lack of viewpoint diversity at universities threatens us all

4 Aug

Yesterday, research Policy Exchange confirmed what many people have worried about for years: a growing intolerance towards different political opinions at universities. Its report, titled Academic Freedom in the UK, showed the extent to which viewpoint diversity is under threat at these institutions.

Researchers examined one of the largest representative samples of UK-based academics in recent years and found that only 54 per cent of them would feel comfortable sitting next to a Leave supporter at lunch, with a third seeking to avoid hiring Leavers in the first place.

Researchers also estimated that between “a third and half of those reviewing a grant bid would mark it lower if it took a right-wing perspective”. In general, grants were found to attract the strongest levels of discrimination.

In summarising their report, the authors wrote that: “Hostile or just uncomfortable attitudes signal to those subject to such discrimination that they should conceal their views and narrow their research questions to conform to prevailing norms”.

In other words, academics are starting to self-censor in order to get by.

Much of this reinforces a recent article for ConservativeHome by Alexander Woolf, who wrote about the difficulties of trying to succeed in academia should one not subscribe to socialist politics. He regretted that people like him were “unwelcome in the vast majority of political science departments in this country.”

The research also reinforces my own feature for The Telegraph last year, in which I spoke to undergraduates about their experiences at universities. “I have lost a couple of really good friendships as soon as they found out I’m Tory”, one 19-year-old told me. Another Conservative said he was “abused and threatened” after protesting university strikes on campus.

The UK – and indeed the US – has reached a deeply troubling state of affairs in regards to ideological insularity on campus. And something has to change.

Fundamentally, it’s a contradiction of universities’ whole raison d’être for them to suppress and demonise diverse viewpoints. How is anyone meant to write or think anything interesting when only one worldview counts? The woke one, as it is called.

It’s not good commercially, either, given the British reliance on international students. Why would anyone want to study here when this problem exists?

The research will be particularly dispiriting to the general public as a measure of how much the culture wars have escalated – and how much worse it could get.

Some have always claimed that this battle is exaggerated, but the fact that an academic would shun a sarnie with another – simply because they want to leave an economic union – is a terrible indictment on society.

And it’s not only that: it’s campuses banning speakers, and even clapping (because it’s not “inclusive”) to replace it with jazz hands, and so forth.

Some of this is in part due to the growth of arts degrees and others which teach youngsters to see the world through the sociological lens – as a series of systems stacked against them, that they must then dismantle.

Yes, the Conservatives got a fantastic majority last year, and many took this as a pushback woke ideology, which was a dominant feature of Corbyn’s Labour (and Starmer’s hasn’t been particularly better, mind you).

But these victories can seem immaterial when its proponents have made great strides in our academic institutions – and elsewhere.

Over lockdown one of the most obvious ways in which woke ideology exerted itself was through the statue-toppling campaign. What began as just protests in response to the horrific murder of George Floyd descended into anarchy.

We’ve also seen JK Rowling shunned in celebrity circles for having conventional views on biological sex.

More and more people will be chastised, as she’s been, if universities continue teaching in the way they do, while shunning anyone who offers alternative perspectives.

Policy Exchange’s report makes some important suggestions. It wants higher education institutions and the Government to do much more to ensure that all lawful speech is protected.

Gavin Williamson, too, has taken some incredibly important steps towards moderating the issue. Knowing how much many of these institutions need a Government bailout thanks to Covid-19, he has told them they must first prove their commitment to free speech. It’s a great incentive.

The more the Government can set out policies to counter the issue, the better; universities are, after all, providing society with the next lawyers, journalists, doctors and generation of professionals. We simply cannot have them siding with one ideology; it’s not healthy for democracy, at the very least.

But combatting the groupthink will take more than legislation. It will also need the Government to be much bolder in putting forward its values.

Yesterday it was noticeable that Johnson’s ratings on the ConHome survey had gone down – which I hypothesised was due to his new-found interventionist tendencies on obesity, and face masks, and the rest.

But some of this may also reflect the silent majority’s wish for the Government to get a bit louder on the culture wars. Ministers should, at least, speak up while they can.

Bella Wallersteiner: A “Work Out to Help Out” scheme could boost the nation’s health and save our struggling gyms

3 Aug

Bella Wallersteiner is Senior Parliamentary Assistant to Greg Smith MP.

The two most memorable images of lockdown are a panic stricken Dominic Raab informing the nation that the Prime Minister had been admitted into intensive care juxtaposed with Joe Wicks exuding his irrepressible optimism while exalting the nation to join his daily workout. Joe Wicks has faded from our screens but the Prime Minister has had a Dasmacene conversion to lose weight and become as “fit as a Butcher’s Dog”.

There is a clear correlation between obesity-related conditions (those who have a BMI over 25) and patients in hospitals who require intensive care and intubation. Never has it been more important for the nation to take responsibility for its own health and thereby protect the NHS before the onset of winter when outdoor exercise regimes become more difficult to manage. The country will not be heading to their local parks on a cold dark autumnal evening in November.

It is all too facile for me as a relatively fit and healthy 25 year old to preach the benefits and merits of exercise to those who do not have easy access to open spaces and gyms. While it is amazing how much can be achieved by a simple work out in your average living room, better still is to leave your home, join your local gym and create a new daily work out routine.

Gyms are often maligned as intimidating spaces whose denizens spend their time toning their perfectly sculpted bodies in front of mirrors to reach the beach-ready, Love Island physique. The reality is very different as they have worked hard to become welcoming and inclusive spaces which encourage people of every shape and size in a national effort to increase fitness and reduce weight.

On March 21, UK’s 7,000 gyms and leisure centres were closed for the duration of the lockdown and only reopened on July 25 as part of the Government’s third stage of the national recovery from Covid-19 restrictions. Will the one in seven of the population who used to have gym memberships continue to inject £5 billion on keeping fit?

If my experience of attending gyms in the fortnight since gyms reopened is anything to go by the public has yet to be convinced. Monthly direct debits to gyms are not being renewed and while I have enjoyed the luxury of an empty gym this is not sustainable. We will see a swathe of gyms and fitness centres closing; a permanent loss to local communities with thousands of jobs disappearing and more empty spaces in our towns and cities.

The Prime Minister wants to level up Britain’s left behind areas, he should also be urging us to get on our spin bikes and thereby providing a leg up to this struggling industry.

At a time when the Government has launched its Eat Out to Help Out Scheme, with a £10 voucher for every meal out, there should be a similar financial inducement to encourage people to renew long-lapsed gym memberships and to support their local gym and fitness centres. A 25 per cent Government-backed discount on monthly gym memberships would incentivise people to join their local gyms and shed surplus weight gained during lockdown.

Comprehensive Government guidelines have ensured that gyms, pools and leisure centres have reopened safely. Measures include timed bookings to limit the number of people using a facility at any one time so that social distancing can be maintained, enhanced cleaning regimes which ensure that all equipment satisfies Covid-19 hygiene protocols and one-way systems reducing unnecessary contact between gym users.

The challenge now is for people to overcome their understandable reluctance to step back into enclosed spaces which have been caricatured as feted petri dishes for the spread of the Coronavirus. If we are to beat the pandemic the nation needs to be match-ready for the much anticipated second wave which could come sooner than expected.

Our survey. Johnson’s approval ratings for managing the crisis slip further for the third month running.

3 Aug


The results of our July survey indicate that approval ratings for the Prime Minister have fallen yet again – with just under 60 per cent of respondents (out of 1,169) saying that Boris Johnson has dealt with Covid-19 well, and 56.80 per cent saying that the Government as a whole has dealt with Covid-19 well.

To put this in context, in March of this year, 92 per cent of ConservativeHome panel members said that they believed Johnson and the Government had dealt with Covid-19 well. Johnson’s rating then slipped to 84 per cent in April (82 per cent for the Government) and fell even further in June to 72 per cent (71 per cent for the Government).

When quizzed in July about the Prime Minister’s performance, over 30 per cent of our respondents said he had dealt with Coronavirus badly (21 per cent of respondents selected this in June), and 9.58 per cent didn’t know.

Rishi Sunak, too, has suffered a fall in ratings – though this has been much less drastic than the figures for the Prime Minister.

When ConservativeHome panelists were asked in March if they supported the Chancellor’s economic plans in response to the virus, 92 per cent said yes – that figure now stands at just over 80.98 per cent, with 13.71 per cent saying that they do not support his economic plans, and 5.31 per cent answering “don’t know”.

In regards to Johnson, what could the reasons be for this fall? Retaining popularity in a pandemic is, of course, not easy for any leader. But some of this is surely due to his recent policies on obesity. As I wrote a week ago for our site, the new measures – which include banning adverts for high fat, salt or sugar products on TV and online before 9pm, calorie labelling in restaurants, cafes and takeaways, as well as ending the promotion of “buy one get one free meals” – risked pleasing no one.

Those who are pro-intervention say the moves do not go far enough, and on the other side of the spectrum, many Conservatives will be feeling concerned about the state intervening in their dietary choices, not least because they previously believed Johnson was a “libertarian” on things like sin taxes.

This concern about state intervention is not limited to obesity, though. Indeed, as I wrote in the aforementioned article, “Coronavirus, in general, has challenged what people expected from the Conservatives; there have been huge levels of spending and, with the public now forced to wear face masks in shops, many voters will need assurances of a return to a small state.”

There’s also the fact that the Government is reportedly considering asking over 50s to stay home and shield. Perhaps it is the case that people want the Government to be more hawkish at this point in the crisis – and that is what will improve the ratings.

Not least because they will soon have to tackle school reopenings – a battle over which the unions arguably won previously, and businesses are also struggling to get things off the ground. One cafe owner recently told me that he couldn’t get enough supplies, as delivery companies had still furloughed many staff.

“We need the Government to be stricter”, were his words. While not a Conservative panel member, perhaps it is this view – that Johnson needs to be tougher on getting the economy back to normal, instead of monitoring snacks – is not so far away from our respondents’ sentiments.

Richard Holden: Across the “Blue Wall”, there’s little sign Starmer’s approach to the crisis has cut through

3 Aug

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Green, Billy Row, County Durham. Nothing brings you back down to reality like properly being out and about in the towns and villages of North West Durham. People don’t hesitate to politely let you know their opinions, which I conveyed – again politely – to Amanda Milling, the Party Chairman.

Since lockdown eased, Amanda has sensibly been out and about across the “Blue Wall” and popped by to formally open my new office, before meeting some local members and constituents in Consett. It was only in 2010 that the Conservatives gained her seat of Cannock Chase. Part of the original “Red” to “Blue Wall” swing seats from 2010. it’s now held with 68.3 per cent of the vote for the Conservatives and a majority of almost 20,000. Something to aspire to and we are nothing if not the part of aspiration.

Lockdown has changed a few things and there is, understandably, concern about the future due to Coronavirus. While the caravan parks are full and people are holidaying in the towns and villages of Weardale, the reverse is true for my local businesses and companies that rely on international travel. From travel agents, through airlines, to aircraft manufacturers, all have been hit hard. How the next few months are managed is really going to set the course for the next few years.

But to date, the management of the economic impact of the crisis is seen as sound. A testament to that is that one first name has joined that very short list of “household name” politicians alongside “Boris” locally and that is “Rishi” – very much seen as someone who has worked hand-in-glove with the Prime Minister and done all he can to help steady the ship, in a credible way, at a very difficult time.

One of the things that really doesn’t appear to have changed though the antipathy of local people towards the London (and on a local level City of Durham) centric Labour machine. It’s quite clear that Keir Starmer, too, certainly hasn’t really cut through in any positive meaningful way here.

This hasn’t been aided by the missteps of the Labour-run County Council who, at the heart of the pandemic in late March, voted to put a new 3,000 sq ft roof terrace on top of their proposed new monstrous carbuncle of a County Hall on a floodplain in the centre of Durham city.

At a national level, Labour’s lawyerly approach to the crisis hasn’t helped it either. If your job is on the line – as quite a few are in my community – Starmer’s “Goldilocks Politics” of “too much/too little, too fast/too slow” with lashings of hindsight-driven drivel isn’t winning you over.

No-one wants to know that, like any good barrister, you can argue the counter argument. They want to know you get the economic reality of what’s going on and are instructing your local councillors where they’re in place to do something about it.

From those snatched chats over coffee or a pint in the pubs of North West Durham, it’s clear to me that without showing a desire to really challenge the basic economic arguments of the far-Left, Labour have still further to fall. This is Starmer’s real challenge: he’s dumped Corbyn, but can he – does he even want to – dump Corbynomics?

Within three months of taking office following the death of John Smith, Blair had told the Labour Party Conference he was going to change Clause 4 and within a matter of months at a special conference in April 1995 he did just that.

Aside from managing to knife his opponent for the job and boot her out of the Shadow Cabinet, Starmer’s first four months in office have been barely a tremor on the political Richter scale.

If I were Starmer at this moment I’d be recognising that I have one shot at this and boldly lay down the policy tracks in order to concentrate on next year’s elections in Scotland, Wales, London, The Midlands and the English counties.

From the attempted coup in 2017 and brutality of the internal wars currently taking place, it’s clear that Labour is up for knifing its leaders if they look like an electoral liability.

Starmer needs to show that Labour can win big in its remaining heartlands of London and Wales and show that he’s there, challenging the SNP in Scotland and winning over county councils across England – creating a real base for the future.

For us Conservatives the challenge is different. We can’t control what Starmer will or won’t do – any more than we can really predict or determine when we’ll finally be rid of the damned Coronavirus.

It’s about proving that we not only culturally understand the “Blue Wall”, but grasp their economic needs and aspirations too. The massive support that taxpayers have provided via the Government has not gone unnoticed by the man and woman in The Green at Billy Row and has cut through to constituents.

For the future it’s a mixture of delivering on policies both big – like the commitments on levelling-up – but also smaller policies, like ensuring that community services are maintained and lives, where possible, made a little easier, and cheaper.

Often that’s through ensuring fairness where the market fails or is skewed. From getting housing built on brown field sites that have been squabbled over for decades, to the cash machine on the green at Billy Row.

It might take some ingenuity at times, but we’ll need to keep highlighting to people that we’re on their side in their community economically, as well as culturally, to keep the trajectory away from Labour and to the Conservatives on course as we build the Blue Wall.

Karol Sikora: Millions of people are waiting for cancer services. That’s the second wave we should worry about.

3 Aug

Professor Karol Sikora is CMO of Rutherford Cancer Centres and Former Director of the WHO Cancer Programme.

Let me be clear, I have absolutely no interest in getting involved in politics. Despite being labelled a Government stooge on more than one occasion, one glance at my Twitter account will show that I have made my objections to Government policy clear, perhaps too frequently!

Before March I honestly had no idea how Twitter worked, I thought it was the sound birds made in the morning. The whole reason I signed up was to ensure cancer patients weren’t forgotten about in this Coronavirus whirlwind. To be honest, I failed.

We’ve tried everything; writing articles, doing media, lobbying ministers, online petitions. None of it has worked, there are still millions of people waiting for cancer services. Recent estimates put that number at 3,000,000 people, that is staggering. We’ve heard lots of words from Government, but not nearly enough action. Hopefully the message from this article may reach the right people.

Everyone reading this will have been touched by cancer in some way, we all know how relentless and insidious it is. It doesn’t stop for anything, never mind pandemics but we have given it far too much freedom to run riot over the last few months.

A delay of a few weeks in most cases will make no difference, and many cancer patients have had treatment delayed for appropriate clinical reasons, but lots have been delayed for operational reasons.

Sadly at the start of this pandemic I would always talk in hypotheticals about how many people could die from cancer delays. That is no longer the case; people have already lost their lives because the treatment they needed was not available.

We have far too often seen doomsday predictions thrown around by people who don’t fully understand the consequences. It is people of my age who are most petrified by this climate of fear and who are now unwilling to “trouble” the NHS. We’re the ones who need the help the most!

“Stay Home, Protect the NHS” was a brilliant slogan, but it was far too effective. People having heart attacks would refrain from ringing 999 and the numbers of people diagnosed with cancer this year has fallen off a cliff compared to the average. If anyone from the No 10 Behavioural Insights Team is reading this please understand you are playing long term with forces you don’t understand.

Oncologists have spent decades trying to get people to get persistent symptoms checked, so much of that progress has been undone in the last few months. I have neighbours who won’t even open their windows they’re so scared of catching the virus, if they find an unusual lump are they going to go and get a scan? I think not.

So what can we do? I’m acutely aware it’s all too easy to throw stones from the sidelines while offering no solutions. Isn’t that how politics works?

The approach has to be two-fold. First, we have to get cancer care prepared for the inevitable surge, but we also have to encourage that wave to come. If people won’t get checked at an early stage, sooner or later they will need treatment.

We need “COVID-secure” hubs to treat and diagnosis cancer. Weekly staff testing, temperature checks, ultra-caution within the building. We have to make cancer care as safe as possible to give people the confidence to come forward.

Embracing all available capacity seems obvious. My network, the Rutherford Cancer Centres, has increased our collaboration with the NHS during the pandemic and are willing to go further. There are other independent providers who have the capacity to help, it would be wrong to leave those machines empty whilst millions have cancer services delayed.

There is going to be a surge, we need to know exactly when that is coming to get ourselves prepared. I anticipate around September, so oncologists and our dedicated support staff should be getting ready for a very difficult autumn/winter.

What frustrates me the most is the fact that so many other countries have continued cancer treatment with not nearly as much disruption as us. An oncologist friend of mine has a Brazilian partner, even there they are dealing with cancer admirably in the face of a far worse situation than us.

The prospect of a second wave is one we have to take seriously and I have always said we are right to prepare for the worst, but we are already in this cancer crisis. In my mind, the second wave we have to worry about is the millions of neglected cancer, cardiac and other seriously affected patients who have been ignored.

History will not judge us kindly when the full damage of this disaster is visible. It isn’t too late to avert the worst of it, but we desperately need action, not more rhetoric and even worse dithering.

Chris Newton: In imposing new Coronavirus restrictions, the Government isn’t doing anything it said it wouldn’t do

1 Aug

Dr Chris Newton is a historian and a former defence policy adviser in the Conservative Research Department.

Boris Johnson announced on Thursday evening that the Government will impose new Coronavirus restrictions in parts of Greater Manchester, East Lancashire, and West Yorkshire a few hours before it was enforced at midnight.

In addition, on Friday, the Prime Minister announced that he is postponing the reopening of “high-risk settings” (including casinos, skating rinks, and bowling alleys) in England, originally planned for August 1, for a fortnight.

Keir Starmer and Labour, while agreeing with the restrictions in the north, criticised how the announcement was made, which they claimed was on Twitter and at short notice, and called on the Government for “urgent clarity and explanation”.

The criticisms about the short notice the Government gave for the North of England have some merit, although the Government has published clarifications and answers on its website.

Moreover, Labour’s condemnation should be tempered by the fact that swift action in response to spikes was what it had been demanding.

Another criticism, especially on social media and one raised during the Prime Minister’s press conference on Friday, is that these announcements represent the failure of Johnson’s plan for easing lockdown. They show that the Prime Minister has been too optimistic, that easing lockdown has been premature, and that he should not have announced his timetable so far in advance.

This argument is, however, less convincing. The recent measures should not surprise anyone who follows the Government’s statements, for local lockdowns and timetable postponements were built into its strategy.

On July 17, Johnson set out his plan for further relaxations, including the re-openings on July 25 and those originally set for August 1. During this statement, he warned:

“Now I must stress, the timetable I am about to set out is conditional. It is contingent on every one of us staying alert and acting responsibly. It relies on our continued success in controlling the virus. And we will not proceed if doing so risks a second peak that would overwhelm the NHS”.

Johnson also acknowledged that: “I know some will say this plan is too optimistic, that the risks are too great”. Nonetheless, he accepted that his plans would have to change if there was a significant rise in the infection rate:

“And of course, if they are right in saying that, and we cannot exclude that they are, let me reassure them, and reassure you: that we will not hesitate at any stage to put on the brakes”.

He reiterated that “from May 11 onwards, this plan has been conditional, and it remains conditional”. Johnson also set out the Government’s guidance for containing future outbreaks. These included giving new powers to local authorities, as well as establishing powers for central government intervention.

Therefore, at no point did the Prime Minister say the timetable was guaranteed, and the Government has not announced anything it said it wouldn’t do.

Johnson has “put on the brakes” as he indicated.

As Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, stated on Friday: “we all know that what we have to try and do is to get to the absolute edge of what we can do in terms of opening up society and the economy without getting to the point where the virus starts to take off again”.

No-one knows where that “absolute edge” is until it has been reached. Faced with a dramatically shrinking economy and rising unemployment, the Government tested what was possible until it reached that edge. In order to balance opening up the economy as well as keeping infections as low possible, its approach has been incremental, flexible, and fluid.

Its strategy was always going to be modified by unexpected developments, what military theorists call “friction”.

This is a crisis that no post-war government has faced. Coming out of lockdown puts us into unknown territory, and no doubt the Government has made mistakes purely because it is dealing with a new, uncertain situation.

It is right that it is held to account over its decisions and communications during this crisis in time.

However, analysis and criticism should not only take the enormous challenge into account, but also be based on what the Government has actually stated.

Those expecting that the easing of lockdown would follow a simple, linear path are being unrealistic and are not portraying the Government’s plan accurately.

Local lockdowns are dispiriting – but there are reasons to be hopeful about the battle against Coronavirus

1 Aug

On Thursday evening, Matt Hancock posted a series of Tweets that sent the UK into disarray. He wrote that the Government had “seen an increasing rate of transmission in parts of Northern England” and would subsequently not allow people from different households to meet indoors in Greater Manchester, Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Hyndburn, Pendle and Rossendale, starting from midnight.

Events moved quickly the next day, in which Boris Johnson elaborated on the decision that had been made. At a 10 Downing Street press briefing, he announced that lockdown easing would be postponed in England and that the country would have to “squeeze the brake pedal”, as “the prevalence of the virus in the community, in England, is likely to be rising for the first time since May”.

Even more depressingly, Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, said that “we have probably reached or neared the limits of what we can do in terms of opening up society”.

Alongside the news that England has the highest excess mortality rate in Europe, the spikes being seen across Europe, and the repeated warnings of a second wave, no doubt this has been one of the most disheartening weeks in the Covid-19 crisis so far for many Brits – particularly those living in the affected areas.

Indeed, in these times, it can be hard to feel optimistic about the battle against Coronavirus. But there is a strange paradox to the detection of cases in the North – abrupt though Hancock’s announcement was – and the Government’s swift action.

Far from being a sign of decline, it emphasises the enormous improvements that have been made in the UK’s testing regime. Hence why it is now easy to spot cases.

At the beginning of the crisis, many will remember that the Government was routinely attacked for lack of tests. When the Health Secretary promised to accelerate the testing regime by tens – and then hundreds of thousands – the target seemed preposterous. But big strides were made; 11,722,733 tests have been processed so far, with 206,656 processed today, and testing capacity at 338,585. 

To put this in context, by way of new tests per thousand people, the UK rate is 2.27 (as of July 30. Source: Our World in Data), Belgium is 1.30 (as of July 29), Denmark is 0.79 (July 30), France is 1.38 (July 28), New Zealand is 0.51 (July 30) and Norway is 0.89 (July 27). 

Now that our testing regime is better, there’s no doubt that the UK will have more localised lockdowns. But as the testing, and data, becomes more sophisticated, so will the way that the Government is able to apply its intelligence.

Another reason to feel hopeful is the progress made in developing a Covid-19 vaccine. Last month, a team of scientists at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute and Oxford Vaccine Group trialled one that induced a strong immune response in patients. They have since worked with the UK-based global biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, with the help of a £84 million Government funding scheme, to accelerate its development. The organisation has reported “good data so far” in its large-scale clinical studies.

And that’s not all: the Government has signed up for 60 million doses of a potential Coronavirus vaccine, which is being developed by Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline.

Of course, no one can argue that the Government has been perfect in this crisis – clearly the decision to discharge hospital patients into care homes was wrong, and people will be troubled by the excess mortality rate (although there is some debate as to whether this accurately gives a snapshot of countries’ performances). 

But it can be easy to forget that hospital cases continue to decline (even if cases are going up, it doesn’t mean hospitalisation), as have the number of deaths involving Coronavirus across all English regions. At the same time, treatments and understanding of the virus continues to rise.

And let’s not forget the significant achievements throughout this crisis; the speedy roll out of the Nightingale Hospital; the shielding scheme to protect two million people; the Government’s ability to increase the number of mechanical ventilators in the NHS from 9,000 before the pandemic to 30,000; the emergency arts package, and of course Rish Sunak’s multiple schemes to keep the economy moving.

They were phenomenal logistical achievements that should give us faith about Britain’s ability to deal with what’s next.

The speed at which the nation has improved on testing is only going to bolster its decision-making further – and, indeed, these developments will be seen worldwide as all countries improve in this regard.

In short, it may not feel like it this week, but there are reasons to be hopeful about the future.

There is more than a hint of moral coercion in the way ministers have addressed us in the name of the NHS

30 Jul

Nothing is more tiresome than to find ourselves subjected by those in authority to a coercive morality. When politicians or officials suppose that because they possess, or imagine they possess, a superior understanding of the right thing to do, they are entitled to order us around, they create enormous resentment.

This is what people mean when they condemn “the nanny state”. We bridle at the implication that we are infants, unable to make decisions for ourselves, obliged to respect the higher wisdom of the grown ups.

We expect to be regarded as free men and women, whose consent cannot be taken for granted, but must be won by addressing us as equals and respecting our opinions.

All of which makes communicating any message to do with public health tricky. If handed down from on high, it is likely to be counter-productive.

But if delivered in a tactful, watered down way, in order to avoid putting people’s backs up, it can seem too feeble and evasive to be worth saying.

Then people start to call for “the smack of firm government”: something they would almost certainly find objectionable if actually administered.

The Government recognised, at the start of the pandemic, that it had to show it was listening to the best scientific and medical advice. For ministers to start telling us what to do purely on their own authority would have been intolerable.

But there was still more than a hint of moral coercion in the way ministers wrapped themselves in the NHS. However much one may revere the memory of Sir Henry Willink, the Conservative Minister of Health whose photograph appears at the head of this article, and who in 1944 announced the setting up of the NHS, and however grateful one may feel for the efforts of those who now work for the service, one does not wish to feel compelled by the Government to issue a blanket seal of approval.

Freely given praise is one thing, forced applause quite another. We do not want to be told whom to cheer, or how often and loudly to do so.

The wider public understands this. The infuriated moralists who infest social media, denouncing with puritanical self-righteousness whatever heretical deviations they can find from their own narrowly defined yet often rapidly evolving version of the truth, tend not to understand it.

Oddly enough, a good nanny understands the need to give children, and those children’s parents, a certain freedom of initiative. Mary Poppins got Mr Banks, that purblind banker and father, to change his ideas.

Politicians and officials seldom have the confidence to do this. They suppose they should pretend to an almost totalitarian infallibility.

Fewer and fewer areas of life seem to be spared this approach. Ministers even pretend to know what to do about obesity.

If they contented themselves with the less ambitious role of encouraging the rest of us to show what we can do, the results would be better.