Pressure rises on Ministers to publish assessments of the impact of lockdowns, restrictions – and Covid itself

20 Oct

Last week, ConservativeHome called for the Government to broaden and deepen the national conversation about Covid-19 – or at least try to as best it can.

It is essential to see the disease in the round by understanding the consequences of lockdowns, restrictions and the virus itself on both lives and livelihoods.

For livelihoods, read what’s usually called the economy, a dry term, but is actually a human story of lost jobs, lower living standards, higher poverty, damaged schooling and vulnerable sectors, including hospitality and retail.

For lives, read healthcare outcomes other than Covid-related ones.  In other words, cancelled operations and fewer treatments, as well as (for example) worse heart disease, cancer, mental health and domestic abuse outcomes.

This is why we urged the Goverment to publish –

  • A regular Treasury report that calculates the economic cost of the lockdown.
  • A rolling Department of Health assessment of the human cost of the shutdown.
  • The creation of an economic counterweight to SAGE.

We also suggested that some think-tanks have the capacity to issue comprehensive reports.

This site originally urged this course during the spring, and is far from alone in having done so.  On which point, congratulations to the Daily Mail, which today publishes a four-page investigation into health outcomes. It finds –

  • 25,000 more people died at home during pandemic, since they didn’t go to hospital as it continued.
  • There is set to be a 20 per cent rise in cancer patient deaths because of treatment backlogs.
  • Organ transplant operations fell by two thirds while waiting list deaths doubled. More than 50,000 operations for children were cancelled.

It’s worth pointing out that some of these outcomes will have been a consequence of Covid-19 itself rather than restrictions – for example, people not going to A & E departments in order to reduce the risk of catching the virus.

The line Matt Hancock took yesterday in the Commons is that suppressing the virus is integral to better health outcomes, because the more NHS resources the virus demands the fewer there will be for other conditions.

But a question that obviously follows is whether or not the Government’s strategy, which is dependent at present on big lockdowns, is the best means of protecting the NHS.

It’s worth noting that a Department of Health analysis has said that “in the long-term, the health impacts of the two month lockdown and lockdown-induced recession are greater than those of the direct Covid-19 deaths”.

The Mail is not alone in trying to get its readers to look at the Coronavirus in a more full context.  Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph reported that the ‘Protect the NHS’ message led to 90 per cent drop in hospital admissions.

The Times last Friday urged the Government to be “more transparent about the economic and health costs – the same day that we took much the same view.

And a wide range of Conservative MPs are increasingly calling for the kind of action we have outlined.  Theresa May has called for more formal economic advice.  Steve Baker, writing on this site yesterday, urged Ministers to publish “serious analysis of the costs of the options they face”.

Downing Street will be reluctant to take this course, and thus indicate that the Government might change its strategy, while it is doubling down on the present one.

In political terms, that’s what our report yesterday about new LAMP and lateral flow tests signified.  Number Ten believes that these can deliver where track and trace has not (though it is not abandoning the latter).

So it is trying to persuade Tory backbenchers not to abandon the testing strategy, and transfer their support either to lockdowns and a permanent suppression plan, or to loosening and a more voluntarist approach.

We shall see whether this push pays off – and if this planned massive scaling-up of new tests works.  ConservativeHome’s understanding is that the Treasury hasn’t ruled out a big report on economic costs.

However, Government sources pointed out that much of the required data is already available (i.e: unemployment figures), and that it would be hard to disentangle the effects of restrictions from those of the virus more widely.

We also detect a concern about the consequences of publishing bad economic news: on the one hand, the Treasury has an interest in alerting voters to the scale of the economic challenge, but none in alarming them.

Iain Dale: We all want our city and town centres to return to normal. But that isn’t possible at present – so we must get used to it.

25 Sep

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

A sign of a Prime Minister in trouble is when journalists start writing articles about possible successors, and who might be the runners and riders in a leadership contest.

Given that Boris Johnson has only been the Conservative leader for just over a year, it comes as something of a surprise that he’s already being written off by some of his colleagues and commentators.

Some allege that it’s clear that he’s suffering from so-called “Long Covid”, and knows in his heart of hearts that he’s not performing on all six cylinders. Others reckon that if he gets a free trade agreement with the EU and the post- Coronavirus economy returns to something like normality, he might decide his work is done and he’ll be off to enjoy the fruits of a post Prime Ministerial career.

The truth is that no one knows. I find both these scenarios entirely plausible, if not wholly likely. It is very rare for a Prime Minister to give up office voluntarily, even when they might not be in the best of health. Tony Blair did – sort of, although a Gordon Brown shaped gun had been put to his temple. Harold Wilson did, but he knew his mental capacity was on the decline.

A party leader only serves at the pleasure of the Parliamentary Conservative Party. Yes, there are rumblings of discontent but, again, this is nothing unusual. Margaret Thatcher experienced such tremors throughout her leadership, but it took the cowards 15 years to get rid of her.

I find it difficult to foresee that things would get so bad within the next twelve months that Tory MPs would get rid of the man who brought them an 80 seat majority only 10 months ago. But in politics, the unexpected often happens.

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On Matt Forde’s Political Party podcast this week, I recounted a tale from my schooldays which left him open- mouthed with horror.

Back in 1978, when I was 15  my school held an end of term fancy dress disco in the cavernous school hall at Saffron Walden County High. I decided to go as a gamekeeper, given I had all the gear.

I arrived at the do dressed up in proper ‘Seth Armstrong’ gear (if you aren’t an Emmerdale fan, you won’t get that reference), replete with flat cap and wellington boots.

But more to the point, I was also carrying a double barrel twelve-bore shotgun (my father’s) and a cartridge belt full of live cartridges. No one batted an eyelid. If I did that now, the Police would be called and I’d probably get a mention in the Daily Mail, and get an ASBO. Innocent times.

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I am starting a new series of 55 podcasts on each of our 55 Prime Minsters to accompany the book I am editing on the subject which comes out in November.

Yesterday, one of the contributors pulled out of recording the podcast, because his three meetings in London that were summarily cancelled and transferred to Zoom calls – so he didn’t want to come in just for one.

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon had continued to urge people to work from home if they could, whereas in England we had all be encouraged to return to work outside it if we could from July onwards. In hindsight, that was wrong.

Of course, we all want to get our city and town centres back to normal, but policy cannot be guided by an understandable desire to keep sandwich shops in business. We are not yet ‘Pret a Manger’.

The thought that this could all go on for another six months is not one any of us relishes, yet I think it was quite right of the Prime Minister to say that.

In March, he was criticised for what some described as false optimism, when he intimated that everything would be back to normal by Christmas. Now he’s being criticised for being a doomster…Sometimes, as a politician, you just can’t win.

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There’s a new authorised biography of Diane Abbott out this week. In the index it says I get a mention on page 52. The only Dale mentioned on that page is Diane’s maternal grandmother, Dinah Dale. I wonder if we are by any chance related? Now there’s one for Who do you think you are?  It’s entirely possible we could be related, you know – I can’t count either.

John Bald: Ofqual needs a Chairman and Chief Regulator who know about education. If these can’t be found, we must start again.

20 Aug

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

Ofqual’s A level grades could not stand. The standard for a judicial review – that no reasonable person, acting reasonably, could have reached the decision in question (Associated Provincial Picture Houses v Wednesbury Corporation, 1948) was met with ease.

Failing a person without even looking at their work can never be reasonable. It is equally clear that Ofsted’s Saturday night U-turn was the result of its Board, which not met since last September, deciding  that it was not going to go down with the Chief Regulator and Chairman. Ofqual should have spent the money it wasted on Public First on some decent legal advice. A first-year law student could have told them.

Last week’s dog’s dinner has been followed by a dog’s breakfast. As universities struggle with the flood of candidates deemed successful, while the smaller number who feel let down by their schools are left with no redress, schools and sixth forms are hit with a huge increase in top GCSE grades.

In fairness to Gavin Wilkinson, his instruction to Ofqual when the exams were cancelled in March, was “that these students should be issued with calculated results based on their exam centres’ judgements of their ability in the relevant subjects, supplemented by a range of other evidence.”Ofqual was legally required to do this, but instead overruled these calculations via a statistical rigmarole that took no notice of them, except where they had five or fewer candidates in a subject.

The Chief Regulator and Chairman decided to do it their way,  and so hit the rocks. To that extent, the Government is justified in saying that the mess is Ofqual’s fault, and its expression of confidence in the Chief Regulator would shame a football club chairman.  The DfE’s own failure lay in not following its instructions through to ensure that they were carried out.   The Daily Mail’s front page cartoon of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State as Laurel and Hardy sums it all up.

So, what now? First, we need to get rid of the idea that these grades are results. They are not, and cannot be relied on. Geoff Barton, of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that schools had given borderline candidates the benefit of the doubt, but this is not quite the case.

A university source from the North of England told me that many had given the most optimistic estimate of what might have been achieved with full teaching and revision, but that some had simply entered mock results, even if these had been lower than teachers’ estimates. No appeal was available, and university places had been lost as a result.

Barton’s view is more realistic than the corruption that took over GCSE school-based assessments, but the conflict of interest can’t be disguised.  When a school gives a pupil an A, it gives itself one too, and I’ve seen unjustified top grades lead to pupils struggling and failing in the next stage of education.

Ofqual itself is an odd fish. Devised by Labour in 2009 to counter well-founded suspicions of dumbing down and grade inflation, it is, like Ofsted, notionally independent, but must “have regard “ to government policy when publicly directed to do so.

This leaves the Chief Regulator very wide discretion, exemplified by Sally Collier’s statement, after lowering A level grade boundaries in 2017, that “I want the message to be that students have done fantastically well. All our kids are brilliant”.  If all are brilliant, all must have prizes.  In the end, Oqual’s Board meeting on Saturday simply obliged her to base judgements on Williamson’s instruction, rather than ignoring it. What the Board could not do was meet his instruction to take account of additional evidence, hence opening the floodgates.

The statute requires Ofqual to perform its functions “efficiently and effectively”. It has failed to do so, but it is unfair to judge an educational body on its handling of a pandemic. More important are its failure to ensure fair and equitable grading – leading to able pupils taking physics and languages receiving lower grades than in other subjects – and a structure that allows its chief regulator to base major decisions on personal views. Improving supervision by the Board, and appointing a Chairman and Chief Regulator who know about education may both help. Failing that, we need to start again.

Feel for the students and pupils who must cope with this chaos as best they can

20 Aug

It is a week and a day since our newslinks led with a Daily Mail story which we headlined “Government “rips up exam system to give pupils ‘triple lock’ on grades”.  That’s a day after Nicola Sturgeon’s apology for the debacle in Scotland.  Gavin Williamson was dashing to find an escape route for England.  We all know what happened during the next six days.

At least two bad news stories will compete today, as GCSE results are issued later this morning.  They pull in opposite directions.

One is bad for the system and good for pupils – in the very short term, at least.  There will be high grade inflation. About a third of papers will apparently get top grades, rather than the usual fifth.

But even in the short-term, there will be consequences: namely, a Russell Group University-style rush of pupils into the better sixth forms, which will have knock-on effects further down the chain.  There is talk of aptitude tests to weed out some pupils who have made a sixth form only because of the inflation.

The other is bad for system and bad for pupils.  Some are about to find they’ve received lower grades than in their last set of predicted papers at school.

Why?  Because teachers in schools will have feared that if they were too permissive with the “centre assessed grades” that they sent to the examiners, their pupils would be marked down in consequence.  So they will have tried to game the system by sending lower CAGs than those last predicated grades.

That those CAGs might become the final measure of their pupils’ performance would never have occured to them.  Furthermore, 500,000 BTEC students now won’t get their results on time.

Pearson, the exam board, first said that it would not be recalibrating the results…before saying that it will recalibrate them.  Which means that they can’t be issued this morning.  Williamson is under further fire for overlooking these students, the very type that the Government wants to “level up”.

This is unfair, but it is now open season on the Education Secretary, as it will continue to be until he resigns, is moved – or is sacked.

The Times opens up a new front this morning by reporting that Williamson was warned by a former Director-General of his department about the algorithm’s failings.  A contrast is drawn between this briefing and the Education Secretary’s claim that he only became aware of the full scale of the problem last weekend.

In Williamson’s defence, it must be said that an advance warning of a problem, from no matter how distinguished a figure, isn’t quite the same as experiencing the problem itself.

But few will feel like being fair to the Education Secretary – to whom the fatal lobby cliches “embattled” and “beleaguered” will soon be applied, if they haven’t been already.  He must now grapple with no fewer than four sets of policy and polical problems.

First, with the consequences of today’s results for sixth forms and further education colleges.  Second, with those of his decision on A-levels for universities and other higher education institutions.

Third, with seeking to follow through the Government’s manifesto commitments on the Augar Review in these chaotic circumstances.  Finally, he must try to lead the re-opening of schools in less than a fortnight.  We could write for a third day running that Williamson should be moved, but we rest our case.

Some say that the exams fiasco won’t affect the Conservative poll ratings.  For evidence, they may point to today’s YouGov poll, which sees the Tory vote holding up, despite the Party’s lead being cut to two per cent.

The rise in Labour’s standing comes largely at the Liberal Democrats’ expense, while the Conservatives have a 24 point lead among the over-65s, who are not touched directly by the exam turbulence.

However, another view is that the Government’s reputation on competence, already damaged by parts of its handling of the Coronavirus, will slide further by the time of next year’s local elections.  We hope not have to lead our newslinks with another episode of the results-and-schools-and-universities story in a week and a day’s time, but wouldn’t bet on it.  Feel for the students and pupils who have to cope with it all as best they can.

Tris Dyson: Challenge prizes can incentivise British breakthroughs and new British industries

15 Jul

Tris Dyson is the Executive Director of Nesta Challenges. This is a sponsored post by Nesta Challenges.

“In the next 100 years, the most successful societies will be the most innovative societies”, so said the Prime Minister in his recent ‘Build, Build, Build’ speech. For those of us who work in the field of innovation and R&D, there was a lot to be cheerful about; the Government is making the largest commitment to science and technology investment for generations.

The UK is a global leader in innovation. We get many things right, but there are of course weaknesses in our system. While the billions more ear-marked for R&D will enhance our position and bolster our strengths in the sector, unless we become bolder in the funding choices we make, we will also amplify those things we currently get wrong. More money does not necessarily mean better results.

In his speech, the Prime Minister recommitted the Government to “creating a new science funding agency to back high risk, high reward projects”, preluding the creation of the much-anticipated agency modelled on ARPA – the US Advanced Research Project Agency. The Government’s R&D roadmap, published the following day, has kicked off a conversation about different and diversified funding approaches that will be needed for success, including challenge prizes and competitions.

Traditional approaches to R&D funding favour giving grants to well-established incumbents to deliver “safe” solutions against a pre-agreed process rather than being tied to finding ambitious solutions to problems we face. Too often “risk” is conflated with “recklessness”, less-impactful solutions that can be delivered to a pre-agreed budget by a well-known company win out over high-impact ideas that have a greater chance of failure.

Challenge prizes have a unique ability to unlock innovation and solve large problems. They reward solutions only after they are proven to work, de-risking investment in unknown entities and allowing new ideas, companies and innovators to break through.

A challenge prize is a simple idea – incentivise innovators to develop solutions with the promise of financial reward. Challenge prizes turn the R&D grant model on its head. Where grants offer a subsidy to the team that seems best placed to solve a problem in advance, challenge prizes offer a reward to whoever first or most effectively solves that problem.

This tweak – moving from an up-front subsidy to an incentive that pays out later based on success – makes a profound difference. Because challenge prizes do not rely on deciding up-front which proposal is best, judgement is reserved until there are real results, so they are far more open.

Open to different innovators: plucky upstarts who have the skills but not the track record or connected privilege. Open to different ideas: unusual approaches, new technologies or unconventional methods. Open to change: giving innovators space to rethink and restart, because all that matters is the end result.

From the industrial revolution through to the early 20th century, Britain was a leader in challenge prizes, from the original Longitude Prize to help seafarers navigate the oceans, to the Daily Mail’s aviation prizes. Then, post-war, their popularity diminished. In the last two decades however, they are experiencing a renaissance.

In the US, the $10m Ansari X Prize rewarded the first private company to build a reusable manned spacecraft. It generated an estimated $100m of investment from the 26 teams pursuing the prize in the nascent private spaceflight industry, catalysing a sector estimated to be worth $30bn by 2026. DARPA’s multimillion-dollar autonomous vehicle challenges have produced the technologies and companies that have made America the world leader in self-driving cars.

In the UK, Nesta Challenges’ £8m Longitude Prize launched to mark the 300th anniversary of its maritime predecessor, focused on developing rapid tests to ensure the preservation of antibiotics in the battle against antimicrobial resistance.

Teams of innovators are developing diagnostics that will revolutionise the treatment of bacterial infections in pursuit of the prize with many tantalisingly close to market. In the aftermath of the 2008 Financial Crisis, the £5m Open Up Challenge promoted much-needed competition in the small business banking sector. The 12 finalists are now recognised as some of the most important and disruptive fintechs in the UK.

Though it garnered little attention, perhaps the most important thing said in the speech is, “we won’t get everything right, we certainly won’t get everything right first time”. Particularly in a political context, to change course, even if it achieves a better outcome, often appears far worse than sticking to the original plan.

“U-turn” is hurled as an insult; plan B is paraded as a sign of abject failure. And yet, any successful innovator will tell you that failure, pivoting and changing course is an essential part of the development of every successful idea.

If we are to become the global innovation powerhouse of the 21st Century, we will need to rethink our cultural attitude to failure and iteration. Challenge prizes allow us to do this, focusing the pay-off and reward on the outcome, not the means.

Rather than playing it safe, new institutions and mechanisms should be smart about risk and reward. That does not mean being reckless, but it should mean giving innovators licence to try more radical, less orthodox approaches, or to pivot and change direction. Courage from Government can generate courage in innovators.

The Government has huge ambitions for UK science and innovation. The financial commitment and the promise of investing in new approaches must be matched by policies that truly unleash the full potential of Britain’s innovators and opens R&D funding to as broad an audience as possible.

The lesson of the astonishing speed of innovation in the last few months, shows that with the right focus, the right goals, and the right incentives, we are a nation of innovators ready and able to move quickly to face the great challenges ahead.

Download The Great Innovation Challenge: How challenge prizes can kick-start the British economy from Nesta Challenges.

Iain Dale: The Jenrick row. What would the Daily Mail have against the former owner of the Daily Express?

26 Jun

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

One of the grubbier aspects of Robert Jenrick’s woes at the moment is the position of the Daily Mail.

Yesterday, it printed four pages of bile against the Communities Secretary, with articles headlined as follows: “He sweated under the glare like a saveloy in a chip shop” – “Riddle of his £830k home makeover planners refused” – “This haughty and reckless Minister is now a drag on the Tories”.

And it’s been like that for days. It’s quite clear that it has little to do with the rights and wrongs of the case. It’s all bound up with the fact that their arch enemy and rival, Richard Desmond, is the one who stands to gain from the housing development on the Isle of Dogs.

He is, of course, the owner of the Daily Express until 2018. Now, given that the Express is hardly the paper it used to be, and the Mail’s circulation is now many times that of the Express, you might think the Mail would ignore it, in the way that Waitrose wouldn’t worry about the competition from the local independent Minimart. But newspaper owners have long memories and carry grudges longer than elephants do.

The original accusation of “cash for favours” has quietly been dropped. I wrote in this column last week that no politician is likely to be bought for £12,000, especially when the money wasn’t even a donation in the conventional sense – it bought tickets at a fundraising dinner.

The trouble is that there has been a drip of information ever since, culminating in Robert Jenrick publishing 129 pages worth of emails, texts and letters between him and Desmond, or his department and Desmond.

And on Wednesday, The Times published what it thought was a massive new angle whereby Conservative councillors in Westminster were alleged to have overturned a planning decision on Jenrick’s Westminster home in 2014. He only became an MP in June 2014, so it’s not clear what the accusation is here.

Downing Street are standing by their man, just as they did with Dominic Cummings. The letter from the Cabinet Secretary to Steve Reed seeks to close the matter down, but the fact that it was sent only hours after Jenrick released all the different communications with Desmond probably didn’t help, and it certainly hasn’t ‘drawn a line’ under it all.

Jenrick expended a lot of political capital with his parliamentary colleagues over this three home lockdown situation back in April. He’s expended a lot more over the last few weeks. He must hope that Number Ten remains staunch and that there is nothing else for the Mail to latch on to. But the warning to other ministers is clear. And, frankly, it should always have been clear to Jenrick. When it comes to Desmond, sup with a very long spoon.

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The fourth anniversary of the Brexit referendum passed this week with comparatively little comment.

On the actually Brexitversary on Monday night, I made the mistake of doing a phone-in on it. I started off by saying that I didn’t want to refight the referendum, but I might as well have saved my breath.

Remainer after Remainer phoned in, all seemingly having been to the same debating school, where they had been taught not to engage in a debate and instead just barge their way through without any recognition that there might just possibly be another viewpoint. It was like going back in a time machine.

By the end of the hour I had almost lost the will to live. In real life, my experience is that most moderate Remainers have long ago come to terms with the fact that we have left, and it’s up to the whole country to make the best of it.

I’m far more optimistic than that. It’s not a case of tolerating the new post-Brexit world, it should be a matter of embracing it. And after Coronavirus is over (assuming it ever is), I think there will be new spirit of entrepreneurialism in this country, which will able us to do great things, both domestically and internationally.

I can’t prove it, and there always will be those who attribute any bad bit of economic bad news to Brexit, but I am genuinely excited about the future.

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The end is in sight. The Government has advised those of us in vulnerable groups that we can emerge from isolation from the beginning of August.

This means I can leave the comfy confines of my bedroom and resume broadcasting from a proper studio at last. It will have been 137 days since I last did that.

I’ve rather enjoyed broadcasting from home and recording lots of podcasts on Zoom, taking part in video conferences on Teams or BlueJeans, but I am relishing some degree of normality returning.

The one thing I am certainly not looking forward to is wearing a facemask from the moment I step on to the train at Tonbridge each day. But I guess I’ll get used to it. Because it will be part of what we now have to refer to as the ‘new normal’.