NHS pay rise: Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth says a 2.1% increase was promised in NHS long-term plan
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) March 7, 2021
Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law and a writer.
Politics is a bit like big game hunting. If you have a beast you want to bring down, as often as not you only get one shot at it before events move on. This is exactly the case with free speech in universities. The Government has commendably committed to legal reforms to ensure that students, student societies and professors have the right (and also the practical ability, which is not quite the same thing) to say what they like within the law. They must now get it right.
The present duty to respect free speech within the law, introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1986 to deal with student mobs preventing (normally Tory) MPs from speaking, sounds good. University administrators can (and do) sanctimoniously trumpet their support for it; so also do bodies like the Equality and Human Rights Commission in its advice to colleges.
But it doesn’t actually work very well. Universities still regularly maintain blanket bans on speech that is sexist, racist, homophobic or whatever. Take a lecturer hauled before management for liking a Tweet, signing a letter or making a statement on social media. It’s often discreetly made clear that if they don’t tone down their comments they won’t be promoted and may be first in the queue for redundancy, and there’s not much they can do.
If a student society is denied a platform or booking (or registration with the SU), the prospect of being told that it can, at vast expense, seek an injunction or a judicial review is hardly very comforting, or very effective at making sure it is actually able to make itself heard. Again, if a class of students is threatened that what they say on Facebook may lead to disciplinary proceedings if it causes outrage to an interest group, they are most likely to hunker down. And so on. Things aren’t right.
The Government plans to do four things. It will extend the duty to respect free speech to cover student unions (which control many facilities available to students) as well as universities. It will make universities’ registration and entitlement to registration conditional on such respect and allow support to be withdrawn if it is not present. It intends to ensure that all academics’ contracts protect their right to engage in free speech within the institution without fear for their employment and promotion prospects; and it will give a legal right to students and academics to sue for damages if their right to free speech is wrongly curtailed.
This is several steps in the right direction. The prospect of liability in damages and loss of government support has a wholesome ability to scare university bigwigs, with their inflated salaries and their view of themselves as captains of industry and the institutions they run as profit centres. And the strengthening of academics’ contractual free speech rights within the institution can only be an advance, especially for younger teachers faced with overbearing administrators (sorry: line managers) threatening disciplinary proceedings.
But these proposals probably don’t go far enough. The Free Speech Union has been concerned with this issue ever since its foundation, and has considerable experience in dealing with such problems on the ground. And while as an organisation it has not stated any formal position on these plans, informal soundings among a number of people connected with it have shown widespread agreement that at least three further things remain to be done.
First, internal free speech is all very good; but we need for a degree of protection for academics’ lawful extramural political speech as well. Except where their pronouncements can be proved directly and substantially to damage a university’s interests over and above its general desire to protect its reputation, institutions should be forbidden to interfere with what they say in a private capacity. If complaints are made to a university by third parties about what one of its academics has said (an increasingly common way of silencing people these days), it should at the very least be under an obligation to stand back and decline to get involved.
Second, any protection for free speech is apt to be undermined by an insidious provision in the Equality Act 2010 (s.26, since you asked), outlawing any conduct seen as violating any other worker’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. It needs to be made clear that in so far as speech is protected as free speech, this provision does not apply. A university must not be allowed to take away with one hand what it has given with the other.
Third, we must not forget students. They need specific protection for their lawful political speech, both within and outside the university. Even where posts on social media cause controversy or prove offensive to other students, they should not be able to be made the subject of disciplinary proceedings under speech codes or other regulations.
One more thing. To cement the protection of free speech and deal with the problem of selective “no-platforming”, in my view there is a need for yet a further provision. Universities and student unions, in so far as they make rooms and other facilities available to student bodies for meetings and talks, must be specifically required not to discriminate on the basis of the views held by such bodies or likely to be expressed at the event, unless they can show that such views are actually unlawful.
In other words, if an institution chooses not to allow political meetings at all on its premises, that is fine: as a private, albeit charitable, organisation that is its prerogative. But if it chooses to permit them, it should not be permitted to be selective in the views it allows to be expressed.
As we said earlier, the Government has a wonderful opportunity to preserve freedom on university campuses. But it’s one that, given the ways of politics, may not present itself again for some time. Gavin Williamson can’t afford another reform that goes off at half-cock. We must do things properly this time.
With little over a week to go before schools reopen, Gavin Williamson has been busy trying to persuade all parties concerned that it’s safe to go back.
Yesterday at a Downing Street press conference, he outlined plans for schools in England. One of the Government’s biggest moves is a “pandemic package” of extra funding to help pupils catch up with all the learning they have missed during the course of 2020/21.
The Government will fund £700 million in total for England, with a £302 million Recovery Premium dedicated towards state and primary schools. This is designed to help schools support disadvantaged students in whatever way they think is best – whether that’s additional clubs and activities, or something else.
The other huge development is that A-Level and GCSE results in England this year will be decided by predicted grades (teachers deciding pupils’ exam results, based on a combination of mock exams, coursework and essays). More on that later.
As for safety, face masks will not be compulsory in schools, but “highly recommended”, and Nick Gibb, the education minister, said he hoped the majority of students would volunteer to have Coronavirus testing twice a week. Secondary schools and colleges are also allowed to stagger reopenings on March 8 to get testing in order.
The DfE has gone to huge efforts to try and get schools running again. It is trying to pre-empt every criticism that has been levelled at the Government during the pandemic, from schools not having enough tests to concerns about how far behind pupils are, which will be addressed with mass testing and after-school classes, respectively.
One of the toughest challenges for the Government has been deciding how to mark grades. It cannot win, whichever route it takes. When it used an algorithm over the summer – designed by Ofqual – to decide GCSEs and A Levels, this led to huge outrage about exam results. But predicted grades aren’t perfect either. When the Government switched to them after the Ofqual furore, it led to grade inflation (last year a total of 76 per cent of GCSE results were a grade 4 or above compared to 67.1 per cent in 2019).
Williamson said 2021’s predicted grades will be “fair to every student”, and Gibb promised “the best system possible to ensure there is consistency and fairness in how teachers submit grades for their students.” But you sense that it’ll be another troublesome summer for the Government.
Add to that it is already dealing with increasing calls to bump teachers up the vaccine queue. These will only grow after Germany announced it was doing this (even in spite of its terrible difficulties rolling out the vaccine, which make it no model to follow).
Teachers and nursery staff will be prioritised for the coronavirus vaccine in Germany to help the reopening of schools
— Politics For All (@PoliticsForAlI) February 24, 2021
Although the UK government’s scientific advisers have repeatedly spelled out the rationale for the vaccine order, it has been hard to compete with the likes of Tony Blair (who has also called for teacher prioritisation) and everyone else who has suddenly decided they’re an epidemiologist.
“I would need a very compelling argument not to think it was a good idea to do that.”
— Sophy Ridge on Sunday (@RidgeOnSunday) January 31, 2021
Overall, the Government’s biggest problem has always been communication. Up against a vocal opposition – that’s the teaching unions, not Labour – Williamson has struggled to make the case for keeping schools open (and it is a strong one).
As I wrote in November for ConservativeHome, one way the Government could have moved its plans forward is by using an independent taskforce in the way it did for vaccines (with Kate Bingham in charge). I also wrote that “it would be wrong to assume that the issue of closures has now been settled for good” – at a time when public attitudes to school reopenings actually improved.
Likewise, despite the speedy roll out of the vaccines and a palpable excitement about the Government’s roadmap to easing lockdown, one senses that the problems with school reopenings are far from over.
Today the Government will unveil bold legislation to promote free speech at universities.
It includes proposals for a Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion, who will highlight the importance of free speech and investigate when it’s been infringed in higher education, fines for universities that fail to uphold free speech, and the widening and enhancement of academic freedom protections at English institutions.
This is an important step in protecting free speech at universities – places that have arguably become more famous for censorship than student curiosity in recent years. Take last year when Oxford University cancelled Amber Rudd for an event (as part of a “Trailblazer Series for International Women’s Day). That the former home secretary could be “no platformed” was a wake-up call to say the least.
Furthermore, research suggests that the current climate is having an impact on students’ learning experience. Last year Policy Exchange found in its report, titled Academic Freedom in the UK, that only four in 10 leave-supporting students felt comfortable to discuss their Brexiteer beliefs in class (versus nine out of ten for Remain-voting students), along with other examples of people being “stifled by a politically-homogeneous culture”.
The Department of Education has said it wants to stamp out unlawful “silencing” on campuses; in short, its proposal is designed to ensure every student and academic, from Marxists to Brexiteers to otherwise, has an actual “safe space” to discuss their politics.
We're proposing new legal measures to strengthen free speech and academic freedom at universities in England pic.twitter.com/Ybptd7My27
— Department for Education (@educationgovuk) February 16, 2021
It is not the first time the DfE has tried to protect free speech at universities; in July 2020, Gavin Williamson warned “if universities can’t defend free speech, the Government will”, and brought out a policy that required English universities to tackle censorship in order to receive a Government bailout (to help with the financial challenges brought on by the pandemic).
Will the latest legislation do the trick? It should be said, first of all, how terrible it is that we’ve got to the point where institutions need reminding of the importance of free speech, which is central to learning. It does not bode well that the next generation of civil servants, lawyers, doctors and everyone else spends three years in institutions that have normalised groupthink and fear of Amber Rudd.
But here we are – and the legislation should, in theory, stop the problem getting any more out of hand – giving new protections to academics over their right to free speech. Perhaps the most important thing is to ensure the legislation does not become a form of cancel culture in itself – inhibiting university’s decision-making abilities – and it must be carefully applied.
It’s worth looking at how the free speech legislation fits into a wider context, too, in the Government’s unofficial “war on woke”. Although Boris Johnson has been keen to stick out of the culture wars – when he was recently asked if Joe Biden was woke, he looked like he wanted to run a hundred miles away – Munira Mirza, Director of 10’s Policy Unit, is highly engaged on these issues, and we have started to see some powerful rebuttals in the culture wars.
Boris Johnson answers … is Joe Biden woke? pic.twitter.com/RAOKWusEQO
— Sam Coates Sky (@SamCoatesSky) January 20, 2021
Take Liz Truss, who recently attacked “identity politics”, in her recent “Fight for Fairness” speech, and writing for The Mail on Sunday, warned of people “behind pernicious woke culture (who) see everything in terms of societal power structures”. Kemi Badenoch, too, has been incredibly brave – warning of the dangers of Critical Race Theory and its reductive assumptions about people.
This may seem far away from the university debacle, but it shows that the Government is taking the culture wars seriously – and has tools up its sleeve to combat some of the most illiberal ideas in our society masquerading as social justice. Many voters have been delighted to see a fightback – Badenoch won our speech of the year, and Truss was not so far behind, in a sign of how much this matters to Conservative voters.
Even so, the Government must go even further in defending free speech and the Enlightenment values. A lot of the culture wars cannot be “legislated out of”, but are about stating one’s position over and over again – to make others feel safe to do so also.
Indeed, part of the reason we have seen cancel culture accelerate is because people have become scared to stand up to proposals they do not like. Recently, for instance, a Brighton hospital told its midwives to call “breastfeeding” “chestfeeding”, and I counted one Conservative speak out about it. And so the radical agenda continues, without an opposition. Yes the university legislation will help, but we need more voices too.
Nadhim Zahawi is a rising star who has taken a long time to rise. By making him Minister for Vaccine Deployment, Boris Johnson has at last given him a tremendous opportunity to show what he can do.
Robert Halfon, who chairs the Education Select Committee and knows Zahawi well, says of him: “He’d get you mangoes in the Antarctic and brussels sprouts in the desert.”
A minister told ConHome: “He’s a completely under-rated talent and it’s fantastic that he’s been given his head.”
Lord Archer, for whom Zahawi worked in the 1990s, recently told Radio 4:
“What I discovered very quickly with Nadhim was that he was a born organiser. If you said to him ‘I need six taxis, three aeroplanes and a double-decker bus all in 30 minutes’ time’ he went and did it.”
Zahawi’s warmest friends and admirers testify that he is “a wheeler-dealer” whose manner is reminiscent of Arthur Daley. They add that he is “very, very ambitious”, but “his heart’s in the right place” and “he’s a good person underneath it all”.
In 1996 Zahawi delivered the “Rising Star” speech at the Conservative Party Conference, and in February 1997 The Independent on Sunday included his name when it predicted, with wonderful audacity, who would be in the Conservative Cabinet of 2020.
The newspaper tipped Chris Grayling, who served in the Cabinet from 2012-19, and John Bercow, Commons Speaker from 2009-19, and got two other names exactly right: Robert Buckland, a Cabinet minister since 2019, and Boris Johnson, of whom it reported,
“Not shy in clashing with party lines, Boris would ‘renegotiate EU membership so Britain stands to Europe as Canada, not Texas, stands to the USA’.”
Zahawi is as yet no more than a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. Why the slow rate of progress under Johnson, whom he has known for 20 years?
The answer lies in the leadership contest of 2019. Figures such as Rishi Sunak, Robert Jenrick, Oliver Dowden, Grant Shapps and Gavin Williamson who came out for Johnson are in the Cabinet.
In the 2016 contest, Zahawi had backed Johnson, telling readers of The Daily Telegraph:
“You only need to spend a few minutes in the company of Boris and a voter to understand his natural abilities, and the chance he presents to help restore the image of politicians with a cynical public. He can unite our country. Boris is not just a personality who people like, but a real leader…
“I’m absolutely certain he’s the right choice and the leader we need to guide us into a new relationship with our allies. He can be the prime minister who finishes the job, and creates this better Britain.”
Yet in the 2019 contest, Zahawi backed Dominic Raab, attacked Johnson as “a controversial face from the past”, warned friends that under Johnson’s leadership “it could go really wrong”, and told readers of ConHome:
“In Dominic Raab we someone with the skill as well as the conviction to navigate the rocky road ahead. Someone who has the experience of negotiating with Brussels but also the courage to walk away without a deal…
“He’s the right choice, the trusted choice and the serious choice.”
In the second round of voting, Raab came sixth, backed by only 30 MPs, and was eliminated, having been beaten, in ascending order, by Rory Stewart, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt and Johnson, who already had 126 votes.
Zahawi was observed to look “ashen-faced”. He had committed what one close observer calls “a horrible error of judgment”, and was perhaps fortunate to cling on in government as Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Business and Industry, having under Theresa May served since January 2018 as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families.
One way in which he recovered from this setback was by readily agreeing, at various low points in Johnson’s prime ministership, to requests from Downing Street to go on television and radio in order, in the words of one of Zahawi’s friends, “to defend the indefensible”.
The stickier the wicket, the calmer Zahawi sounded. He has the “willingness to go out in all weathers” which in an earlier age was attributed to Charles James Fox.
And he has known adversity. He was born in June 1967 in Baghdad to Kurdish parents, his father a businessman, his mother a dentist.
In the 1970s, Saddam Hussein tightened his grip on Iraq and began his persecution of the Kurds, which was to culminate in genocide. When Zahawi was nine, his parents fled with him to Britain, where they arrived with £50.
They found their feet and settled near Crowborough, in Sussex. Zahawi became a keen horseman, competed as a showjumper, and was sent to King’s College Wimbledon, an independent school.
When he was 18, his father invested in an American company which had invented a machine called Air Knife, which could supposedly use air to dig up roads:
“In mad entrepreneur fashion my father rang my mum and said, ‘This is going to be a huge success.’ He remortgaged our home, put everything into this thing. Of course you know how this story ends, the company went bankrupt and the bank took our home and everything except one thing: we had a Vauxhall Opel Senator car that was in my mother’s name so they couldn’t take it.”
The family was destitute:
“I had to make a choice whether I went to university or become a cab driver to put food on the table. We had nothing, and had to go on housing benefit and income support. For about a month my dad wouldn’t leave the bedroom because he was so distraught. When you have that level of breakdown, of failure, it really is like a vortex, and our biggest challenge was to get him out of the room and get him to have a shave, go out, and find work.”
All was not lost:
“My mother was a dentist. We had a half-decent education. We were able to sit down and work our way through this disaster…
“Many of my left-leaning friends will say you can’t tackle education until you tackle the challenge of poverty. I see it the other way round, you don’t tackle inequality and poverty unless you tackle education.”
Zahawi read chemical engineering at University College London, and began a career in business, marketing tee-shirts and Teletubbies merchandise, at first without much success.
He also entered Conservative politics, serving from 1994-2004 as a councillor in Wandsworth, and in 1997 contesting the hopeless seat of Erith and Thamesmead.
In 1991 he had met Jeffrey Archer, who was raising money for the Kurds. In 1998, when Lord Archer (as he became in 1992 on John Major’s recommendation) was preparing to run for Mayor of London, he took on Zahawi and Stephan Shakespeare to help run his campaign.
The following year, Archer was accused of perjury, and had to withdraw from the mayoral race. He was later convicted and sent to prison.
Zahawi and Shakespeare wondered what to do instead. In 2000 they set up YouGov. The polling side of the new firm proved itself by predicting with extraordinary accuracy the result of the 2001 general election, and Will Young’s victory in Pop Idol in 2002.
In the selection in 2004 for the safe seat of Surrey Heath, Zahawi was beaten by Gove, as were many other aspirant Conservative MPs, including Nick Hurd, Steve Hilton, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Laura Sandys.
In 2009 the expenses scandal precipitated the retirement of a number of MPs, and in 2010 Zahawi was selected for the safe seat of Stratford-on-Avon.
He has said how pleased he was, as an ethnic minority candidate, to be selected for such an overwhelmingly white seat. He pointed out to the selectors that if they closed their eyes, he sounded as British as they did.
But his friend Sajid Javid recalled, in the recent Radio 4 Profile of Zahawi, that racism was not entirely absent:
“I remember him saying to me he was handing out leaflets on the street somewhere and someone had screwed it up in front of him and said that if you were on fire I wouldn’t waste my piss on you.”
YouGov had been floated on the stock exchange in 2005 and Zahawi was by now a wealthy man. He admires his former constituent, William Shakespeare, and he has acquired a riding stables outside Stratford.
He soon showed his gift for attracting attention, notably when his tie started playing a tune as he spoke in the Commons.
Along with Matt Hancock, who has since become Health Secretary, he wrote a book, Masters of Nothing: How the Crash Will Happen Again Unless We Understand Human Nature.
And in 2012 he became a leading figure in the successful revolt against the Coalition Government’s plans to reform the House of Lords. He was made a member of the Policy Unit, but received no ministerial preferment while David Cameron was Prime Minister.
Nor did Theresa May feel any urgent need to send for Zahawi. He is an ebullient figure, and in parts of the parliamentary party may well have inspired a degree of envious distrust, by being so rich compared to most MPs, and so outspoken a supporter of the Kurdish cause, a region where by now he had oil interests.
Exotic origins, ebullient self-confidence and love of seemingly lost causes are more congenial to Johnson, who in 2015 visited Kurdistan with Zahawi, and was photographed by Andrew Parsons squinting down the barrel of an AK-47 assault rifle.
“For the first time in my life last night I felt discriminated against, it’s demeaning, it’s sad… I don’t think we should look away when President Trump makes a mistake.”
As minister since November for vaccine deployment, Zahawi has been able to issue a series of wonderfully encouraging progress reports, and is well placed to combat the reluctance of some members of ethnic minorities to take the vaccine.
What will happen to him next is anyone’s guess. He said that when his family fell on hard times, education made the difference. Were there to be a vacancy in that department, he would be an obvious candidate.
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.
After this week’s turbulence, with primary schools closing after one day back, a Teacher Tapp poll showing confidence in the government as low as one per cent, and the Prime Minister hoping for “a good wind in our sails” on vaccination, Gavin Williamson’s parliamentary performance yesterday was surprisingly confident and effective. GCSE and A levels would be replaced by teachers’ assessments, but this time carried out according to agreed criteria and properly moderated. Private candidates, who suffered grievously last year, would be protected by special arrangments. SAT tests for primary schools would be cancelled, and direct online teaching, wrecked in most schools by union action last year, would be maintained by Ofsted. Provision of laptops, and low-cost access to data, were being ramped up speedily, this time following proper tendering procedures, and children with no access to tech would be able to attend school. Questions were wide-ranging and challenging, but Labour’s Kate Green spent most of her speech welcoming what he had said.
So, that’s all right then. Or is it? A good afternoon in parliament, as Lord Haig would surely testify, does not always make an impact outside it, and the long-term damage of several major problems remains. University students are being charged large sums in rent and tuition fees for services that are not provided and accommodation that they are not allowed to use, an injustice that they will remember at the next election, and which the government has yet to tackle. Claudia Webbe, a former aide to Ken Livingstone and currently suspended from the Labour whip over an assault allegation, delivered a furious rant on the subject, and the eternal student in me was inclined to agree with much of it.
So did several MPs, and Williamson’s repeated reference to a £20 million hardship fund agreed before Christmas was his weakest answer of the afternoon. His continuous reference to testing in schools, when asked about vaccination for teachers, was not much better, though he hinted at “pushing at boundaries”, particularly in special schools, and noting the impending arrival of Matt Hancock, next up for questions. There is clearly a battle going on between the DfE and Department of Health over this issue, and one the DfE needs to win if schools are to reopen safely.
This had been the biggest source of embarrassment for the government in the early part of the week. The Prime Minister on Sunday, and the Secretary of State for Health on Monday, said that schools were safe and that teachers were not at greater risk than other people. On Tuesday morning the NAS-UWT union posted figures from Leeds, Birmingham, and Greenwich, showing that the rate of infection among teachers was up to four times the local average. Given the recent friction between two of these authorities and the DfE, it is almost unbelievable that the figures were not known to the government. If Ministers knew about them when they made those statements, they were knowingly making untrue statements with intent to deceive. The Prime Minister’s statement on Monday evening that schools could be vectors of infection acknowledged something that had been sickeningly obvious to headteachers for weeks, if not months.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, Michael Gove’s choice as chief inspector, said on Tuesday that Gavin Williamson had “got a lot wrong up to now”, and echoed the complaints of headteachers about lack of communication and consultation. He was particularly concerned at the impact on poor pupils from lack of access to technology and facilities for remote learning and suggested some kind of hubs be set up to facilitate this, though it is hard to see how this could be done without running the same risk of infection that they would meet in school. Sue Vermes, Head of Rosehill Primary School, Oxford, had initially received 17 laptops, for pupils who had a social worker, for her 218 pupils, of whom 135 were receiving free school meals. She was still 100 short of what was needed. Asked if she felt she had had good support from the DfE, she said there had been “a lack of understanding”, but that recent guidance had shown some improvement, and that her school “interacted with what the DfE say”.
Asked whether Gavin Williamson should resign, Sir Michael said he should take final accountability for what had gone on, but that Ministers “don’t tend to resign for the mistakes that they make now in the way that they did before”. He noted that we had had five Education Secretaries in the past nine years, including Michael Gove’s long tenure, and that the Prime Minister needed to make sure that the Department was led well, “by people who were prepared to stay there and work with headteachers and other leaders in education to make sure that it remains one of the most successful departments in government.” The same could be said of the Department of Health and Social Care.
“This year we’re going to put our trust in teachers rather than algorithms”
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson says “a form of teacher assessed grades” will be used in England as GCSE, AS and A levels exams are cancelled
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) January 6, 2021
In a tight competition, A Level results were deemed U-turn of the year by our panel with 28.11 per cent of the vote. Many will remember the outcry in August after the Department of Education used an algorithm by Ofqual to predict grades, leading to huge disappointment among students. Gavin Williamson and the Ofqual soon apologised and decided that all A Level and GCSE results in England would be from then on be calculated by teacher assessments.
In at 25.87 per cent, our panelists felt that the Government’s position on free school meals was another big U-turn, followed by Sadiq Khan’s decision for London to have a lockdown and curfews, only to then fight for these to be avoided, and Keir Starmer in last place with his Brexit flip flopping. Either way, there was no stand out winner in this category, unlike some of our others.
Bill Bowkett is a MA Newspaper Journalism student at City, University of London. He is a former editor of the University of Kent’s student newspaper InQuire and has worked as a researcher in Parliament for Sir Oliver Heald MP.
New year’s resolutions are always a fitting tradition. The Romans birthed this trend with the worship of Janus – the two-faced God of beginning and end. Back then, citizens gifted presents to their enemies. In return, Janus would forgive those who confessed their sins.
And lo, two millenniums later, the sun rises in 2021 and a chance to start anew. When news of a vaccine was announced back in November, an ending to this Covid-19 impasse looked imminent. But as the last few weeks have proven, hopes of a ‘social reset’ have been quashed.
New tiering measures meant Christmas was cancelled for families across England. Those that were hoping to spend some time with nanny and pappy last week had their plans shattered because of rising cases, particularly across the south-east. Not to mention a new mutant strain.
This year has dealt multiple blows, but these authoritarian restrictions leave a bitter aftertaste like a par-boiled Brussel sprout. Each of us who have sacrificed our freedoms in the name of public health – and were promised family festivities and an imminent return to normality – have been betrayed.
Serious questions continue to be raised about No 10’s handling of the crisis. But it seems that voters have had enough and have made their intentions clear: they want to take back control.
A recent survey by community network Locality showed that out of 2,000 adults polled, half lack faith in central government to make the right decision for their local community. Moreover, 56 per cent said that they wanted more local decision-making powers.
For all their efforts, this overbearing administration has failed to deliver on multiple fronts. Contract tracing has left thousands of infected individuals missing from the national database. Testing targets are repeatedly being missed at a cost of billions to the taxpayer. And with thousands of shops, pubs, and restaurants forced to close at this, the most wonderful – and profitable – time of the year, the economic forecast looks grim.
Funny that. The Conservatives usually pride themselves on being the party of localism. Yet, they certainly have enjoyed the powers given to them in the Coronavirus Act.
Just a fortnight ago, Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, threatened Greenwich and Islington councils with legal action if they failed to keep schools open (even though keeping children in class, with days left until the end of term, was illogical).
Why the government is acting in this manner is anyone’s guess. They wish to be in command, yes. But this is not a job they can face alone. With anxieties of a third national shutdown on the horizon, we need new grounds for optimism.
Where should change come from? The answer is centred on those who are normally responsible for wellie bin collections and allotments. Because in 2020, local government has stepped up big time.
Take Leicester, the first city to go into local lockdown back in June. Authorities chose to ditch the NHS Test and Trace App. They used their own methods that applied local insight, calling residents over the phone and knocking on doors. Shortly after results started to show, and cases dropped in the short space of time the initiative was running.
The same goes for the West Midlands where Andy Street, the region’s metro mayor, said piloted tracing identified between 98 and 100 per cent of cases. Remarkable.
And in Sunderland, the council and local Mack’ems are looking towards the future, with the two working on a draft neighbourhood plan that aims to combat health inequalities.
The pandemic has changed the way citizens think about where they live. It has anchored us closer to what happens on our front door – whether that be civil associations working to deliver essential goods, or local authorities setting up support networks to care for our most vulnerable. Localised planning has made a positive difference (certainly a breath of fresh air to the ruckus coming out of Westminster).
With all that being said, if there is one New Year’s resolution the Prime Minister should make that will help the country in the long run, it is sharing the balance of power in England — and a comprehensive devolution framework that meets the needs of those closest to our doorstep.
Rishi Sunak’s “Shared Prosperity” funding announced in this month’s spending review – allocated to local authorities to help stimulate growth – should be spent by independently-minded legislators, not those in London. No conditions, ifs, buts, or maybes. As the Northern Powerhouse think tank director, Henri Murison, said, the government should not “top slice” funds and “pocket it in Whitehall for their own programmes”.
And like in the summer, authorities in England should have lockdown abilities returned so as to have the same power-status as the rest of the home nations. A hyper-localised approach means decisive action with local residents and businesses in mind. That also means control over mobile testing in places like care homes where the Health Secretary Matt Hancock recently announced £149 million of additional funding.
All aspects of life are going to bear the brunt these next few years, if not decades. The Tory’s manifesto pledge to ‘level up’ left-behind Blighty will invariably be set back amid Britain suffering the worst recession in history, as well as having the worst regional inequality in the developed world. Frankly, these are tasks beyond the executive’s capacity.
Radical thinking is needed to disperse fiscal and political responsibility away from high office, whilst also retaining accountability to those who govern. Therefore, a bottom-up approach holds the keys to our destiny – a meaningful partnership based on forward-thinking – because this epidemic impasse cannot last any longer.
Each new year brings the opportunity to resolve, and 2021 is no exception. If the frontbench continues as they are doing right now, we will continue to get the same. It is time to change our current trajectory. Time to give power back to the people.