Iain Dale: The way the BBC and Sky News behave, you’d think we are the only country in the world with a second wave

23 Oct

It’s been another difficult week for the Prime Minister, who has come under attack from Labour both for the failure to come to an agreement with Andy Burnham, or to cave in to demands for kids to get free school meals in the next few school holidays.

Sometimes in politics it is right to say so far – but no further. Bottom lines are important in conducting negotiations.

However, in the case of the money offered to Greater Manchester it is a little difficult to understand how the two sides could fall out over a trifling £5 million.

On free school meals, it would cost £157 million to provide them during the autumn half term, Christmas, February half term and Easter holidays to those children already due to receive them.

Given the U-turn that Marcus Rashford forced in the summer, I do wonder whether this has been worth the political and reputational fallout. “Tories rip food from starving children’s mouths” is the narrative that’s already developing, and however ridiculous that is, sometimes it’s just not worth the political fight.

The Government is right to point out that circumstances are different now and schools are open. But it cuts little ice. The Labour Party is promoting the narrative that the Tories are happy to pay £7,000 a day to failing test and trace consultants, and £12 billion to fund the failing test and trace system, yet quibble over a few million to feed hungry children. You can just see the election videos now…

Mark my words, there will now be a further ratcheting of demands, and what I mean by that is that there will now be a campaign to permanently provide free school meals in school holidays, Covid or no Covid. To do that would cost £350 million a year.

A small price to pay to protect our children’s health, the campaigners will say. But it would be yet another way of the state taking over parental responsibilities. Where does the role of the parent end and that of the state begin? This is an argument which is going to gain a lot of traction in the next few years.

Since the state will inevitably take on a much bigger role in promoting an economic revival that it would normally do, it is yet further proof that all politics is cyclical. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, the big state v small state argument was one of the big political debates of the day. Fifty years later, I suspect it will dominate the 2020s.

– – – – – – – – – –

The way the BBC and Sky News behave, you’d think Britain was the only country in the world experiencing a second wave.

It’s happening virtually everywhere to one degree or another. Belgium and France seem to be experiencing the worst of it, with Spain and the Netherlands also having massive problems.

Even in Germany, local restrictions are being introduced all over the country. France’s track and trace system has more or less totally collapsed.

Does our insular looking media ever tell you any of this? You get a bit of coverage in The Times, and that’s about it.

It is absolutely the case that catastrophic errors have been made in this country over the last eight months, and I do not seek to hide from that.

All I am saying is that many other countries have faced similar issues and made the same mistakes. It’s not to defend the wrong decisions that have been made, but we rarely get any nuance or context.

The British people know that those in charge are having to make very difficult decisions day after day, and they have sympathy with that. All they ask if for a bit of honesty when things go wrong, and that politicians hold their hands up.

That’s where the Government’s comms strategy has been failing. People appreciate honesty, not obfuscation. Boris should take more of a lead from how Macron has handled failure and learn from it.

– – – – – – – – – –

I’ve made more progress in reading Tom Bower’s new biography of Boris Johnson. Having expected a complete hatchet job, I’m finding that it’s nothing of the sort.

Yes, there’s a lot about Johnson’s weaknesses, but Bower has done a fine job in writing a book which provides real insight into the Prime Minister’s life and character.

His final two chapters on the Coronavirus crisis are incredibly powerful, and go totally against the conventional wisdom that the politicians have been a shambles, and the scientists and civil service have been on the side of the angels.

He doesn’t just assert that there have been major failings on the part of the latter – he provides the evidence. This book is well worth £20 of anyone’s money.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tomorrow at 5.25pm I’m appearing on Pointless Celebrities with Jacqui Smith as my partner in crime.

Honestly, the woman is taking over the BBC Saturday night schedule, what with her Strictly Come Dancing antics and everything.

Our Pointless episode was recorded back in January. and I was beginning to despair that it would ever be shown. We were up against Michael Fabricant and Martin Bell, Ayesha Hazarika and John Pienaar, and Camilla Tominey and Rachel Johnson.

I’ve never done a game show before, and if I’m honest, I’m not sure I wholly enjoyed the experience. I don’t mind doing things out of my comfort zone, but these sorts of shows present a huge opportunity to make a complete fool of yourself.

I didn’t – at least I don’t think I did – but there’s a tremendous pressure to say something hilariously funny or incisive. I’m not wholly sure I stepped up to the plate. Hopefully everyone will be too distracted by my red suit…

– – – – – – – – – –

“Did the hon. Lady just call me scum?”

Yes, apparently she did. That was the question Chris Clarkson, a Conservative MP, asked Angela Rayner.

The deputy speaker, Dame Eleanor Laing was furious with her and told her off in no uncertain terms – although bizarrely she didn’t make her apologise.

Sky News, however, clipped the episode up without even including Dame Eleanor’s comments and made out that it was a matter of dispute as to whether Rayner had actually said it.  It’s exactly the sort of editing which encourages distrust of the so-called Mainstream Media.

Anyway, I suspect that quote is going to hang in the air for a long time. Several people suggested I should commission a mug with it on for my online shop. So I have. And it’s proved surprisingly popular among male purchasers… Should you wish to join them, buy it here.

Conservative MPs made a strong case against Labour’s free school meal plans in the Commons yesterday

22 Oct

To the surprise of those expecting a u-turn, the Government appears to have toughed out Marcus Rashford’s latest campaign to extend free school meals through the holidays.

Yesterday Labour held an Opposition Day debate on the subject, which was defeated by 322 votes to 261. Only five Conservatives (Caroline Ansell, Rob Halfon, Jason McCartney, Anne Marie Morris, and Holly Mumby-Croft) voted with the Opposition.

The result has outraged Twitter, with the usual, dastardly portrayals of Tory motivations getting bandied about. But to get a better idea of what motivated last night’s vote, we’ve been through Hansard and had a look at the arguments advanced on the day. These seem to fall into a few broad categories.

First comes the not unreasonable (if somewhat partisan) point that the policy being advanced by Labour is not one they chose to pursue during the 13 years they were in power. Brendan Clarke-Smith (Bassetlaw) asked: “why did colleagues on the Opposition Benches never implement any of them under the Labour Government?” Tom Randall (Gedling), further noted that “the proposal in the motion was rejected by the Labour Government when it was made in 2007.”

(Randall also called the Opposition out for improperly invoking the blessed name of Marcus Rashford: “But according to his tweet of 18 October, Mr Rashford is calling for school meal provision in all holidays. Is it that the Opposition motion does not agree with Mr Rashford but is attempting to catch his coat tails or do the Opposition secretly agree with him but are too coy to say it at the moment?”)

Several other MPs had reservations about the model being proposed. Miriam Cates (Penistone and Stocksbridge) set out the problem thus:

“The motion calls on the Government to extend free school meal provision throughout the school holidays until Easter next year. Although on the Order Paper this is a debate about free school meals, even if the motion passes, the result will not be more free school meals. To risk stating the obvious, during the holidays schools are closed, and they do not provide physical meals—free or otherwise—to any child. Let us be clear: what is really being called for here is an extension to the voucher scheme that would start in half-term next week by giving supermarket vouchers to parents of children who are eligible. That is not the same as providing a daily nutritious meal to a child in a school environment to help them get the most out of their education. It is important to recognise the difference between free school meals and what they are for, and supermarket vouchers.”

Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North), himself a former teacher, spelled out some of the consequences of this distinction:

” This is not a one-off extension—this is about free school meals being permanently provided outside of school time. First, who is going to fund that—the school or the state? Do schools provide the meals on-site, or do they have to deliver food parcels? If so, do they have to renegotiate their contracts? Have the unions supported that? Is there understanding of the voucher system, and are they being used in an appropriate and responsible manner? I have had supermarkets, parents and schools contact me directly to say that they have grave concerns about the way in which those vouchers have been used.”

And Danny Kruger explained that Labour were trying to force schools to shoulder a responsibility which was outside their remit:

“As we have heard from the shadow Secretary of State, there is a possibility of the proposal becoming permanent. That is not an appropriate use of schools. Now that schools are open again, it is not appropriate to make them welfare providers. That is a role for the welfare system.”

Beyond these technical questions, several MPs also challenged the underlying premise that the State should be further encroaching on the proper responsibilities of parents.

Clarke-Smith said: “When did it suddenly become controversial to suggest that the primary responsibility for a child’s welfare should lie with their parents, or to suggest that people do not always spend vouchers in the way they are intended?”, whilst Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) added:

“I listened very carefully to what the shadow Secretary of State said, and at one point she said—I hope I do not get this wrong—that it is the Government’s job to make sure children do not go hungry. I differ there, and I think lots of my constituents differ there too, because they would be appalled by the prospect of the Government interfering in their daily lives to make sure their children did not go hungry.”

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Clevelys), a former minister, put it slightly differently but touched on a similar theme: “I am not sure that it returns that sense of agency and autonomy that I seek. Politics is not something that we do to people; it is something that we do with people.”

Naturally many on the left – and indeed, some in the Party – will disagree with some or all of these arguments. But the cartoon-villain image of well-off, southern Tories dismissing concerns of which they have no personal experience does not survive contact with the actual debate. The Conservative caricature has fallen some way behind the state of the current Conservative Party.

Anthony Browne: Are we really going to pass a law that would devastate many of the world’s poorest people?

11 Oct

Anthony Browne MP is MP for South Cambridgeshire, and is Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Environment.

Would you support a law that could ban imports of tea, coffee and bananas into the UK, devastating many of the world’s poorest economies – and people? Or that effectively bans food imports from developed nations which have a trade deal with us – but allows them from those that don’t?

No, I didn’t think so.

But that would be the impact of last week’s House of Lords well-intentioned but ill thought-out amendment to the Agriculture Bill, coming to the Commons tomorrow, which insists that agricultural imports under any trade deal would have to be produced to the UK’s environmental protection, animal welfare, food safety and plant health standards.

Making sure we don’t allow trade deals to undermine our environmental and animal welfare standards is an issue I passionately support, to the extent I made it the thrust of my maiden speech. I have been environment correspondent of two national newspapers, and am chair of the APPG on the Environment.

I have a rural constituency, and like most MPs, my inbox is flooded with demands – many prompted by Jamie Oliver’s campaigners – that I support this amendment. The Conservative Manifesto is also committed to ensuring trade deals don’t undermine our animal welfare, food safety and environmental standards. I know that the overwhelming majority of my colleagues support this aim.

The amendment sounds entirely reasonable, but its consequences could be utterly unreasonable. It is based on very solid principles which we can all support – but simply legislating for good principles rarely makes for good law.

Even its supporters should accept from the outset that this law is not a preservation of our current standards on imports, but a dramatic raising of them. It creates a potentially vast set of new conditions, which do not exist under any existing EU or UK agreement.

It would be extremely unlikely that trading partners would agree to all requirements; in some cases, it might not even be possible for them to do so. The EU is instinctively protectionist, but even it does not require that all imports have to precisely meet our environmental and animal welfare standards. Do campaigners think EU standards are unacceptably low?

We import bananas from many countries including the Dominican Republic, Belize and Cameroon. We import coffee from Indonesia, Ghana and Vietnam and black tea from Kenya. We do all this under existing (EU) rules.

But this amendment would require all these countries to have processes in place to show that they meet thousands of pages of UK domestic environmental and animal welfare legislation. The cost would be prohibitive and also unnecessary: I can tell you for free that they do not meet the carbon emission targets of the Climate Change Act that are now UK law. If we pass this amendment, pretty much all food imports would be banned from pretty much all developing countries if we signed a trade deal with them.

Developed nations can better afford to provide the evidence that they meet UK standards, but many of them are seriously inappropriate. Our geography and climate mean that we need strict legal controls on nitrate concentration in soils, which are inappropriate for other countries. We have laws (to protect nesting birds) on what time of year farmers are allowed to cut hedges, which would be completely wrong-headed to impose on producers with different eco-systems.

Campaigners would take cases to court to decide what imports are allowed. We were the first major economy in the world to legislate for Net Zero by 2050. Do we ban all agricultural imports from countries without those legal targets? There is a contradiction between us wanting to be world-leading on environmental standards, and then insisting we will only trade with those who have the same standards.

There is also the bizarre unintended consequence that the amendment only applies to trade where there is a free trade agreement. So we could import coffee from Vietnam if we have don’t have a trade agreement, but if we do have a trade agreement we would have to ban coffee imports. Our trade deals would become anti-trade deals.

Like the EU, we should be pragmatic. The detail is so complex, we can’t tie the hands of our trade negotiators with blunt legislation, but rather we should examine in detail whether we support what they are proposing.

That is why the government has agreed with campaigners to set up an independent Trade and Agriculture Commission to advise on how best the UK can seize new export opportunities, while ensuring animal welfare and environmental standards in food production are not undermined. I think there are strong arguments to make this commission permanent to scrutinise future trade deals. If you don’t trust the assurances of ministers, Parliament already has the power to reject any trade deal that it does not like.

Debate on this issue often ends up focused on the US’s chlorinated chicken. But there is already a UK law banning any product other than potable water from being used to decontaminate meat. Whatever is agreed in any trade deal, chlorinated chicken could only be sold in the UK if Parliament passes legislation allowing it. As Sir Humphrey would say: that would be very brave.

The overwhelming weight of political opinion is against us lowering our standards. We need to keep the same high standards on food and agriculture imports as we had in the EU. And that is exactly what the Government is doing.

Anthony Browne: Are we really going to pass a law that would devastate many of the world’s poorest people?

11 Oct

Anthony Browne MP is MP for South Cambridgeshire, and is Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Environment.

Would you support a law that could ban imports of tea, coffee and bananas into the UK, devastating many of the world’s poorest economies – and people? Or that effectively bans food imports from developed nations which have a trade deal with us – but allows them from those that don’t?

No, I didn’t think so.

But that would be the impact of last week’s House of Lords well-intentioned but ill thought-out amendment to the Agriculture Bill, coming to the Commons tomorrow, which insists that agricultural imports under any trade deal would have to be produced to the UK’s environmental protection, animal welfare, food safety and plant health standards.

Making sure we don’t allow trade deals to undermine our environmental and animal welfare standards is an issue I passionately support, to the extent I made it the thrust of my maiden speech. I have been environment correspondent of two national newspapers, and am chair of the APPG on the Environment.

I have a rural constituency, and like most MPs, my inbox is flooded with demands – many prompted by Jamie Oliver’s campaigners – that I support this amendment. The Conservative Manifesto is also committed to ensuring trade deals don’t undermine our animal welfare, food safety and environmental standards. I know that the overwhelming majority of my colleagues support this aim.

The amendment sounds entirely reasonable, but its consequences could be utterly unreasonable. It is based on very solid principles which we can all support – but simply legislating for good principles rarely makes for good law.

Even its supporters should accept from the outset that this law is not a preservation of our current standards on imports, but a dramatic raising of them. It creates a potentially vast set of new conditions, which do not exist under any existing EU or UK agreement.

It would be extremely unlikely that trading partners would agree to all requirements; in some cases, it might not even be possible for them to do so. The EU is instinctively protectionist, but even it does not require that all imports have to precisely meet our environmental and animal welfare standards. Do campaigners think EU standards are unacceptably low?

We import bananas from many countries including the Dominican Republic, Belize and Cameroon. We import coffee from Indonesia, Ghana and Vietnam and black tea from Kenya. We do all this under existing (EU) rules.

But this amendment would require all these countries to have processes in place to show that they meet thousands of pages of UK domestic environmental and animal welfare legislation. The cost would be prohibitive and also unnecessary: I can tell you for free that they do not meet the carbon emission targets of the Climate Change Act that are now UK law. If we pass this amendment, pretty much all food imports would be banned from pretty much all developing countries if we signed a trade deal with them.

Developed nations can better afford to provide the evidence that they meet UK standards, but many of them are seriously inappropriate. Our geography and climate mean that we need strict legal controls on nitrate concentration in soils, which are inappropriate for other countries. We have laws (to protect nesting birds) on what time of year farmers are allowed to cut hedges, which would be completely wrong-headed to impose on producers with different eco-systems.

Campaigners would take cases to court to decide what imports are allowed. We were the first major economy in the world to legislate for Net Zero by 2050. Do we ban all agricultural imports from countries without those legal targets? There is a contradiction between us wanting to be world-leading on environmental standards, and then insisting we will only trade with those who have the same standards.

There is also the bizarre unintended consequence that the amendment only applies to trade where there is a free trade agreement. So we could import coffee from Vietnam if we have don’t have a trade agreement, but if we do have a trade agreement we would have to ban coffee imports. Our trade deals would become anti-trade deals.

Like the EU, we should be pragmatic. The detail is so complex, we can’t tie the hands of our trade negotiators with blunt legislation, but rather we should examine in detail whether we support what they are proposing.

That is why the government has agreed with campaigners to set up an independent Trade and Agriculture Commission to advise on how best the UK can seize new export opportunities, while ensuring animal welfare and environmental standards in food production are not undermined. I think there are strong arguments to make this commission permanent to scrutinise future trade deals. If you don’t trust the assurances of ministers, Parliament already has the power to reject any trade deal that it does not like.

Debate on this issue often ends up focused on the US’s chlorinated chicken. But there is already a UK law banning any product other than potable water from being used to decontaminate meat. Whatever is agreed in any trade deal, chlorinated chicken could only be sold in the UK if Parliament passes legislation allowing it. As Sir Humphrey would say: that would be very brave.

The overwhelming weight of political opinion is against us lowering our standards. We need to keep the same high standards on food and agriculture imports as we had in the EU. And that is exactly what the Government is doing.

Hugh Osmond: Why care homes, schools and workplaces – and not Eat Out to Help Out – have boosted the resurgence of the virus

7 Oct

Hugh Osmond is an entrepreneur.

It is an indictment of the state of statistical rigour and numeracy in politics that a recent article by Ryan Bourne on this site about the wisdom of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme is gaining traction in some circles, without critical examination.

The thesis of the article is largely based upon one single chart produced in a recent Public Health England surveillance report, reproduced below, which shows events and activities reported by people testing positive, in the 2-7 days prior to symptom onset.

As we can see, a lot of people report that they had eaten out in the previous two to seven days, from which Bourne concludes that restaurants are a likely source of infection.

While a superficially attractive explanation, my O-level maths teacher would certainly have ejected me from the class for making this deduction without supporting evidence. So, before jumping to conclusions, here are a few important questions:

1. Given we know that approximately 50p out of every £1 spent on food in the UK is now spent eating out, is it surprising that 12,734 people out of 45,087 remembered going to a restaurant in the previous two to seven days? Does this fact therefore convey any information at all about where infection occurred?

2. Would this chart look any different for all the people who didn’t test positive that week? Or indeed from a cross section of the population of similar age and social profile to those who were tested?

3. Does this chart just represent a list of what you would expect a group of 45,000 people to remember doing in a week?

Without troubling the statisticians, I think we can answer a likely no to both parts of (1) and (2) and a very likely yes to (3). Which it makes it pretty much game over without further analysis.

But the article then goes on to make an even more egregious assertion. Faced with a chart showing that very few named contacts occurred in restaurants, it asserts: “But this is misleading. People don’t know strangers in restaurants to give them as named contacts.”

I confess I read this twice wondering if it was a joke. After all, we all know that restaurants are entirely full of people sitting on their own or randomly at tables with people they don’t know the names of. No, we don’t – I have been in the restaurant industry for more than 35 years, and can safely say I am confident that most people who visit restaurants sit at tables with people whose names they know – certainly by the end of the meal if not at the start. In fact, I would hazard that it is no more likely that you sit in a restaurant with people whose names you don’t know than you live in a house with unknown guests.

I am prepared to accept that, in a busy nightclub or stand up drinking pub, people get very close to strangers in poorly ventilated settings. But, in a sit-down restaurant with well-spaced tables and Covid-secure measures in place, I find the idea of mass infection by strangers from the table next door, facing the opposite direction, pretty hard to swallow.

The article gets worse as it next turns to the chart below:

Allegedly, this shows that incidents in restaurants grew significantly as a result of Eat Out to Help Out in weeks 32-35. (restaurants are the tiny purple bar). But if restaurants are a big source of infections, surely the big event would have been when they all reopened on July 4th? Or was the virus waiting to take advantage of Sunak’s special offer? After all EOHO added only maybe 10-20 per cent to sales, so one would expect to see the big surge after the grand industry reopening of pubs and restaurants on July 4th, followed by a small further blip up from week 32.

So, if restaurants are the problem, why can we barely even see the purple bar on the chart in the weeks following the grand reopening on 4th July?

No, all this actually shows is that, until restaurants reopened on July 4th, there were unsurprisingly no incidents in restaurants at all, and that, since reopening, a tiny percentage (three per cent – one in 30 – in the week shown) of incidents have been reported there.

“Significance” is entirely absent, as can be seen by comparing fluctuations in restaurant incidents with fluctuations in “other”. And why the fall in incidents in week 34, bang in the middle of EOHO, when you would expect to see the biggest effect? And why would these rise the week after EOHO ended and fall back in the following two weeks? In other words, total nonsense.

By contrast, as expected, what the chart actually shows (and all it shows in terms of significance) is that infections increased massively in care homes, educational settings and the workplace. Reprinted from the same report below of Acute Respiratory Incidents:

  • 772 new ARI incidents have been reported in week 38 (Figure 19).
  • 195 incidents were from care homes where 134 had at least one linked case that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2
  • 36 incidents were from hospitals where 31 had at least one linked case that tested posi- tive for SARS-CoV-2 and 1 tested positive for rhinovirus
  • 341 incidents were from educational settings where 222 had at least one linked case that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2
  • Six incidents were from prisons where 4 had at least one linked case that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.
  • 124 incidents were from workplace settings where 102 had at least one linked case that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.
  • 22 incidents were from food outlet/restaurant settings where 17 had at least one linked case that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.
  • 48 incidents were from the other settings category where 22 had at least one linked case that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.

Hmmm. 22 reported incidents in all food outlets and restaurants across the entire UK, out of 772 incidents in total; compared to 195 in care homes, 341 in schools and 124 in the work place. I mean, it’s obvious restaurants are a major source of infections according to the Government’s own report isn’t it? No. Actually, it shows that yet again, the major source of infections, and where they are by far the most dangerous, is in care homes.

In mathematical terms I could tell you that the statistical support for Bourne’s article’s hypothesis is zero. But that would be wrong: in fact, the statistical evidence points very strongly in entirely different directions.

Surprisingly to all of us in hospitality, there was absolutely no sign whatsoever of a rise in community infections following the reopening of pubs and restaurants on July the 4th; in fact, community infection rates continued to fall. I cannot explain this, but that’s what the data suggests. By contrast, the sudden jump in Week 37 is worst in care homes, then in educational settings and at work. Evidentially, this points the finger away from restaurants and instead at these other locations.

In other words, the data included with the article prove almost precisely the opposite to what was being suggested.

Finally (and it is not really necessary) I would mention actual transmission studies (as compared to theoretical contact tracing), most of which were conducted outside the UK, and which I don’t pretend are completely authoritative.

These indicate that secondary attack rates sitting a metre apart in a restaurant are around two to three per cent, compared to seven to 15 per cent (still low) in a household and potentially 60 per cent plus in a care home, hospital, ship or prison.

Although I do not have hard evidence for my next statement, I would suggest that, with social distancing and other Covid measures in place, this 1/50 chance of passing an infection on in a restaurant is now very much lower, further supporting all the other data suggesting that restaurants are not a common setting for infections.

In summary, the evidence and data all point the other way.

Hugh Osmond: Why care homes, schools and workplaces – and not Eat Out to Help Out – have boosted the resurgence of the virus

7 Oct

Hugh Osmond is an entrepreneur.

It is an indictment of the state of statistical rigour and numeracy in politics that a recent article by Ryan Bourne on this site about the wisdom of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme is gaining traction in some circles, without critical examination.

The thesis of the article is largely based upon one single chart produced in a recent Public Health England surveillance report, reproduced below, which shows events and activities reported by people testing positive, in the 2-7 days prior to symptom onset.

As we can see, a lot of people report that they had eaten out in the previous two to seven days, from which Bourne concludes that restaurants are a likely source of infection.

While a superficially attractive explanation, my O-level maths teacher would certainly have ejected me from the class for making this deduction without supporting evidence. So, before jumping to conclusions, here are a few important questions:

1. Given we know that approximately 50p out of every £1 spent on food in the UK is now spent eating out, is it surprising that 12,734 people out of 45,087 remembered going to a restaurant in the previous two to seven days? Does this fact therefore convey any information at all about where infection occurred?

2. Would this chart look any different for all the people who didn’t test positive that week? Or indeed from a cross section of the population of similar age and social profile to those who were tested?

3. Does this chart just represent a list of what you would expect a group of 45,000 people to remember doing in a week?

Without troubling the statisticians, I think we can answer a likely no to both parts of (1) and (2) and a very likely yes to (3). Which it makes it pretty much game over without further analysis.

But the article then goes on to make an even more egregious assertion. Faced with a chart showing that very few named contacts occurred in restaurants, it asserts: “But this is misleading. People don’t know strangers in restaurants to give them as named contacts.”

I confess I read this twice wondering if it was a joke. After all, we all know that restaurants are entirely full of people sitting on their own or randomly at tables with people they don’t know the names of. No, we don’t – I have been in the restaurant industry for more than 35 years, and can safely say I am confident that most people who visit restaurants sit at tables with people whose names they know – certainly by the end of the meal if not at the start. In fact, I would hazard that it is no more likely that you sit in a restaurant with people whose names you don’t know than you live in a house with unknown guests.

I am prepared to accept that, in a busy nightclub or stand up drinking pub, people get very close to strangers in poorly ventilated settings. But, in a sit-down restaurant with well-spaced tables and Covid-secure measures in place, I find the idea of mass infection by strangers from the table next door, facing the opposite direction, pretty hard to swallow.

The article gets worse as it next turns to the chart below:

Allegedly, this shows that incidents in restaurants grew significantly as a result of Eat Out to Help Out in weeks 32-35. (restaurants are the tiny purple bar). But if restaurants are a big source of infections, surely the big event would have been when they all reopened on July 4th? Or was the virus waiting to take advantage of Sunak’s special offer? After all EOHO added only maybe 10-20 per cent to sales, so one would expect to see the big surge after the grand industry reopening of pubs and restaurants on July 4th, followed by a small further blip up from week 32.

So, if restaurants are the problem, why can we barely even see the purple bar on the chart in the weeks following the grand reopening on 4th July?

No, all this actually shows is that, until restaurants reopened on July 4th, there were unsurprisingly no incidents in restaurants at all, and that, since reopening, a tiny percentage (three per cent – one in 30 – in the week shown) of incidents have been reported there.

“Significance” is entirely absent, as can be seen by comparing fluctuations in restaurant incidents with fluctuations in “other”. And why the fall in incidents in week 34, bang in the middle of EOHO, when you would expect to see the biggest effect? And why would these rise the week after EOHO ended and fall back in the following two weeks? In other words, total nonsense.

By contrast, as expected, what the chart actually shows (and all it shows in terms of significance) is that infections increased massively in care homes, educational settings and the workplace. Reprinted from the same report below of Acute Respiratory Incidents:

  • 772 new ARI incidents have been reported in week 38 (Figure 19).
  • 195 incidents were from care homes where 134 had at least one linked case that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2
  • 36 incidents were from hospitals where 31 had at least one linked case that tested posi- tive for SARS-CoV-2 and 1 tested positive for rhinovirus
  • 341 incidents were from educational settings where 222 had at least one linked case that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2
  • Six incidents were from prisons where 4 had at least one linked case that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.
  • 124 incidents were from workplace settings where 102 had at least one linked case that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.
  • 22 incidents were from food outlet/restaurant settings where 17 had at least one linked case that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.
  • 48 incidents were from the other settings category where 22 had at least one linked case that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.

Hmmm. 22 reported incidents in all food outlets and restaurants across the entire UK, out of 772 incidents in total; compared to 195 in care homes, 341 in schools and 124 in the work place. I mean, it’s obvious restaurants are a major source of infections according to the Government’s own report isn’t it? No. Actually, it shows that yet again, the major source of infections, and where they are by far the most dangerous, is in care homes.

In mathematical terms I could tell you that the statistical support for Bourne’s article’s hypothesis is zero. But that would be wrong: in fact, the statistical evidence points very strongly in entirely different directions.

Surprisingly to all of us in hospitality, there was absolutely no sign whatsoever of a rise in community infections following the reopening of pubs and restaurants on July the 4th; in fact, community infection rates continued to fall. I cannot explain this, but that’s what the data suggests. By contrast, the sudden jump in Week 37 is worst in care homes, then in educational settings and at work. Evidentially, this points the finger away from restaurants and instead at these other locations.

In other words, the data included with the article prove almost precisely the opposite to what was being suggested.

Finally (and it is not really necessary) I would mention actual transmission studies (as compared to theoretical contact tracing), most of which were conducted outside the UK, and which I don’t pretend are completely authoritative.

These indicate that secondary attack rates sitting a metre apart in a restaurant are around two to three per cent, compared to seven to 15 per cent (still low) in a household and potentially 60 per cent plus in a care home, hospital, ship or prison.

Although I do not have hard evidence for my next statement, I would suggest that, with social distancing and other Covid measures in place, this 1/50 chance of passing an infection on in a restaurant is now very much lower, further supporting all the other data suggesting that restaurants are not a common setting for infections.

In summary, the evidence and data all point the other way.

Robert Halfon: Delivering social justice means feeding children properly. We’re not doing so – and we must.

7 Oct

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Combating child food hunger should be as much a priority for this Government as its work on improving education standards. After all, we know the two are interlinked. Unsurprisingly, the evidence shows that hungry children not only do not learn at school, but have damaged life chances later on.

In 2018, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimated that around 2.2 million people in the UK have limited access to food, due to a lack of money or other resources. Magic Breakfast, the charity implementing the Government’s National Breakfast Programme, has calculated that approximately 1.8 million children are living in food insecure households.

The economic impacts of Covid-19 have only exacerbated the problem of child hunger. According to the Children’s Commissioner, 88,000 children were living in households where jobs had been lost in April this year. Many parents, who have worked hard their entire lives, found themselves unemployed and, for the first time, struggling to provide the next meal for their children.

The Food Foundation’s September 2020 report showed that the Government’s furlough scheme undoubtedly protected many families from going hungry. But their May polling data also suggested a 250 per cent increase of households experiencing food insecurity since lockdown measures came into force.

School closures have placed further additional financial pressures on parents. Where childcare arrangements were too costly, or didn’t fit around work commitments, many parents reduced hours or even left jobs to care for their children at home. Families also had to provide home learning resources, and cover increased electricity and food bills.

Marcus Rashford has been a powerful voice in the debate on child hunger, calling for a long-term, cross-party strategy from the Government.  His impassioned letters to MPs resulted in the Government’s extension of free school meals over the holidays and at the start of September he endorsed the National Food Strategy’s recommendations. He emotively described his own mother’s struggle to put food on the table. Working full-time, earning minimum wage, their family still “relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals and the kind actions of neighbours and [football] coaches.”

Some Conservatives question the role of the state in addressing child hunger, or argue that the Government’s welfare system already acts as a safety net for those falling on hard times. But, as Lord Krebs’ report revealed, when the Government’s own calculations of welfare payments do not cost in the provision of a healthy diet, in line with its recommended Eatwell Guide, we are not even giving families on Universal Credit a fair chance.

Second, child food insecurity has a big impact on a child’s education. Kelloggs’ report, A Lost Education, found that if a child arrives at school hungry, teachers believe they lose one hour of learning time a day. Add to that the impact of the lockdown on education inequalities – early analysis by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in June estimated that the attainment gap could widen by as much as 75 per cent due to school closures – and these children are at great risk of being further left behind.

However, a control trial has shown showed that pupils in schools supported by breakfast clubs made an additional twp months’ academic progress over the course of a year.

Third, the economy pays a high price, too. In terms of education alone, Kelloggs have calculated that “the grip of hunger could potentially cost the English economy at least £5.2 million a year through teachers losing teaching hours to cope with the needs of hungry children”.

In the long-term, there is enormous cost-benefit to improving education outcomes. Around a quarter of working-aged adults (approximately 9 million people) have low basic numeracy and literacy skills. Studies at Loughborough University indicated that £3.5 billion is lost in tax receipts from people earning less as a result of leaving school with low skills ,and child hunger costs the economy £29 billion a yearyear.

At a total price-tag well exceeding £1 billion a year, the three National Food Strategy policies endorsed by Rashford and his Task Force of prominent retailers and manufacturers are a tough sell to a Treasury spending unprecedented amounts to salvage our economy from the wreckage of the pandemic. But there is already money that could be put to better use.

First, consolidation is key. Over the years, the Government has applied sticking plasters to the crisis of food insecurity, resulting in a spaghetti junction of schemes spanning nearly every department. Putting welfare benefits to the side, we have Free School Meals, Universal Infant Free School Meals, the School Milk Subsidy Scheme, the Nursery Milk Scheme, the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme, Breakfast Club funding, Healthy Start Vouchers and, during Covid-19, the Hardship Fund and the Holiday Activities and Food Programme. No wonder the Children’s Commissioner called for a “clear, joined-up plan to reduce food poverty”, during our Education Committee session on Tuesday.

It is hardly surprising, then, that many of these schemes are operating with cost-spiralling inefficiencies. The Healthy Start scheme, for example, suffers from extremely poor uptake. This is, in part, because of its archaic bureaucracy. Eligible pregnant women and parents of under-fours must complete and submit a paper application form (which has been particularly hard in lockdown for those who can’t get to a library to print out the forms).

Low participation in the scheme has created a significant underspend (2018/19 saw £28.6 million unused). Surely we can do much more to market the scheme, accelerate its promised digitisation and introduce automatic enrolment (with an opt-out), to ensure that support reaches those in need.

As an initial, basic step, we need proper data collection. The Health Department’s answer to my written question seeking the total expenditure on Healthy Start vouchers in England revealed that information is only held for 2018/19, raising concerns about the Health Department’s grasp of the situation.

Second, the Sugar Tax is forecast to generate a healthy £340 million revenue in 2020/21 – £1 billion over four years. Ringfencing this funding offers a perfect opportunity to extend Free School Meals over the school holidays, estimated at between £281 million and £670 million/year.

If we, as a state, acknowledge that certain children need food during term-time with the provision of Free School Meals, what changes over the summer holidays? In fact, we know that the financial pressures on parents only increase during this time.

As the Taxpayers’ Alliance has shown, the levy on everyday sugary food and drinks disproportionately impacts those from disadvantaged families, as low-income households tend to drink more sugary drinks and the tax takes a greater share of their income. Using this revenue for Free School Meals or for a long-term Holiday Activities and Food programme has appeal in redistributing money back to those families hit hardest by the levy.

Third, the sceptics amongst us will point out that the conglomerates on Rashford’s Task Force are getting a great deal of good PR, without putting their money where their mouth is. The Evening Standard estimated that supermarkets throw away around £230 million worth of food each year. There is a real opportunity here for the supermarkets, wholesalers and manufacturers, to take on a much bigger role in combating child hunger.

As Conservatives, we need to address this social injustice. This is not about an expansion of the welfare state, but simply ensuring all our children are properly fed. As the pandemic has shown, if we don’t have a safety net at the bottom of our ladder of opportunity, what is the point?

Curfews will accelerate the decline of the nightlife industry

18 Sep

Over the last week or so, as cases of Coronavirus have begun to rise, a horrible word keeps coming up in the news and elsewhere. That is: “curfew(s)”.

Already this term has become a reality for Bolton, and today in parts of Lancashire and Merseyside, where pubs, bars and restaurants are only allowed to open for takeaways until further notice – and must shut altogether between 10pm and 5am.

Newspapers have teased the nation with the prospect of even more closures. Indeed, Wednesday’s Evening Standard headline was “London curfew alert to prevent a new wave”, as this is apparently under consideration to “short-circuit” the virus. 

Worse still, the public seems fine with it. One YouGov poll indicated that 69 per cent of Brits would support a 9pm (which no one has even suggested as a time!) curfew on pubs and bars.

While one sympathises with the Government – which has to make enormously difficult decisions and whose first priority is to protect people from Coronavirus – the latest curfew measures will only convince some businesses of how little Britain values its nightlife industry, which will suffer even more under the new rules.

Although there were some positive developments during Covid-19 – al fresco dining being a fantastic one – nightlife has been under strain for many years, with businesses increasingly stifled by regulatory measures (such as the Late Night Levy and Public Space Protection Orders, which I have written about before for ConservativeHome).

There’s also overzealous councils. In London, one Soho bar owner recently told me he cannot open his roof terrace – a fantastic space that would attract lots of business – because of one resident who complains about the noise (who knows why they live in Soho). “Councils always side with residents”, he told me.

(Furthermore, he suggested that some residents actively want to drive nightclubs out, as it brings up the price of their properties. But that’s a story for another day).

Big names in the sector have already made urgent statements about the threat they face due to Covid-19 measures. Sister Bliss, a musician from the band Faithless, recently warned that UK nightclubs had been “left to rot in a corner”, and 1,500 artists signed an open letter calling for more support.

While a £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund has been unveiled by the Government, there has been uncertainty about where the money will go. But given the way clubs have been ignored over the years, I would be surprised if they saw much of it. It’s just not an industry that sparks much of a concerned response from policymakers, which is a shame – as it has massive economic potential.

It even has ramifications, believe it or not, for Brexit. What hope does the country have of being “Global Britain” if it’s boring for young people to go out in? They will head to other parts of Europe, such as Barcelona and Berlin, where the party is getting started at the same time British pubs are closing. That’s why it’s so extraordinary to have curfews – as there already seem to be de facto ones in place.

Of course, recent rises in cases are troubling, and the Government no doubt sees targeting nightlife as the main way to stop Covid-19 spreading, particularly through young people. But I fear this will push the sector over the edge, with huge job losses and business closures coming soon, not least because of the uncertainty created by reopening and closing the economy repeatedly. These new rules should make us seriously question – what will there eventually be to return to?

Andrew Bowie: Evidence today that Ministers won’t negotiate trade deals that expose British farmers to unfair competition

29 Jul

Andrew Bowie is MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine.

As someone who believes in the levelling-up agenda and vision of a Global Britain, I am excited by our re-emergence as an independent trading nation. For the first time in more than 40 years, we are able to devise our own trade policy and export the best of Britain abroad in ways we haven’t always been able to.

As MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, home of the best beef, lamb and malting barley, I cannot wait to see more of our brilliant food and drink sold abroad. But as we develop our own agricultural trade policy once again, it is absolutely vital that the voice of the industry and the public are heard, and that their interests are advanced and protected.

Alongside many colleagues, that is why I welcome the government’s decision to set up the Trade and Agriculture Commission – which launches formally at an event in Whitehall today. Now is the right moment to step up engagement not just with the farming industry, but also with consumer, animal welfare and environmental groups across the UK.

The Commission includes representation from all these groups, and will be engaging more broadly with stakeholders like the RSPCA, British Veterinary Association, National Sheep Association, Food Standards Agency, and Tesco – all of whom are at today’s launch event.

The Commission will work with these and other organisations across the UK to ensure that the UK agriculture sector remains among the most competitive and innovative in the world. Its work will inform the fundamental principles of the UK’s agricultural trade policy, and provide expert advice to government on areas like increasing export opportunities, and on how Britain can remain a world-leader in animal welfare and environmental standards.

To her credit, Liz Truss has been clear that this government will stand up for British farming as part of any trade deal, and will never sign an agreement that means British farmers face unfair competition. I, for one, am reassured by that, and see this Commission as further evidence that the government is serious about taking expert advice and pursuing trade policy that benefits farmers and consumers.

We should be optimistic out there for some of the fantastic opportunities available to out UK farmers and producers. The US, for example, is the world’s second biggest lamb market – if we take a three per cent market share, it could boost lamb exports by £18 million a year. One in five agri-food and drink companies sell abroad, so there is a real opportunity to increase that number and sell more of our brilliant produce overseas.

We also have the opportunity to lead the global debate around agriculture trade policy and drive higher standards across the world. Our environmental and animal welfare standards are among the highest in the world. Leaving the EU actually gives us the freedom to engage the WTO on this issue and build an international coalition that pushes up standards beyond Britain. This is part of the work of the Commission.

Its establishment is a welcome step at a critical time for UK farmers and food producers, and will help ensure British farming and consumer interests are at the heart of UK trade policy.

Andrew Bowie: Evidence today that Ministers won’t negotiate trade deals that expose British farmers to unfair competition

29 Jul

Andrew Bowie is MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine.

As someone who believes in the levelling-up agenda and vision of a Global Britain, I am excited by our re-emergence as an independent trading nation. For the first time in more than 40 years, we are able to devise our own trade policy and export the best of Britain abroad in ways we haven’t always been able to.

As MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, home of the best beef, lamb and malting barley, I cannot wait to see more of our brilliant food and drink sold abroad. But as we develop our own agricultural trade policy once again, it is absolutely vital that the voice of the industry and the public are heard, and that their interests are advanced and protected.

Alongside many colleagues, that is why I welcome the government’s decision to set up the Trade and Agriculture Commission – which launches formally at an event in Whitehall today. Now is the right moment to step up engagement not just with the farming industry, but also with consumer, animal welfare and environmental groups across the UK.

The Commission includes representation from all these groups, and will be engaging more broadly with stakeholders like the RSPCA, British Veterinary Association, National Sheep Association, Food Standards Agency, and Tesco – all of whom are at today’s launch event.

The Commission will work with these and other organisations across the UK to ensure that the UK agriculture sector remains among the most competitive and innovative in the world. Its work will inform the fundamental principles of the UK’s agricultural trade policy, and provide expert advice to government on areas like increasing export opportunities, and on how Britain can remain a world-leader in animal welfare and environmental standards.

To her credit, Liz Truss has been clear that this government will stand up for British farming as part of any trade deal, and will never sign an agreement that means British farmers face unfair competition. I, for one, am reassured by that, and see this Commission as further evidence that the government is serious about taking expert advice and pursuing trade policy that benefits farmers and consumers.

We should be optimistic out there for some of the fantastic opportunities available to out UK farmers and producers. The US, for example, is the world’s second biggest lamb market – if we take a three per cent market share, it could boost lamb exports by £18 million a year. One in five agri-food and drink companies sell abroad, so there is a real opportunity to increase that number and sell more of our brilliant produce overseas.

We also have the opportunity to lead the global debate around agriculture trade policy and drive higher standards across the world. Our environmental and animal welfare standards are among the highest in the world. Leaving the EU actually gives us the freedom to engage the WTO on this issue and build an international coalition that pushes up standards beyond Britain. This is part of the work of the Commission.

Its establishment is a welcome step at a critical time for UK farmers and food producers, and will help ensure British farming and consumer interests are at the heart of UK trade policy.