Damian Flanagan: Manchester has a central role to play in preserving the UK

11 Feb

Damian Flanagan is Chair of Manchester Conservatives.

While we are all busy trying to make our way – maintaining life and livelihoods as best as we can – through the long ordeal of the Coronavirus pandemic, we might also be grimly aware that our very nation seems to be intractably moving apart.

Calls from the SNP for a second independence referendum – ignoring the understanding that the 2014 poll would be a “once in a generation” event – combine with opinion polls north of the border consistently showing a majority in favour of permanent separation. In Ireland meanwhile the possibility of holding a border poll in Northern Ireland is regularly discussed, inviting opinions ranging from glee at the prospect of long-cherished Irish unity for some, horror at the financial burden for others, and dogged determination to remain part of the UK from Unionists.

As things continue to pull apart, it might appear that our role here in Manchester is simply to act as by-standers to what might yet prove to be the beginning of an end game for the UK, watching London cope as best as it can with these forces of division.

But if you think about things differently, it is Manchester, not London, which stands at the geographical heart of the UK. Indeed, one of the key problems our relatively small nation faces is that, to people in Belfast and Glasgow, London feels distant and out of touch, lost in its own cultural bubble.

Indeed Manchester seems far better equipped than London to sympathise with the economic realities of what is going on in cities far closer to us and often with similar industrial histories and post-industrial problems.

Rather than seeing Manchester as “northern” – a profoundly London-centric view of the world – how about we start seeing Manchester instead as “central”? It is central both in terms of the position we occupy in the country we live in and to the prospects of that nation continuing for another 300 years.

We might ask a bolder question – why exactly does London, tucked away in the south east, have to remain the capital of the nation anyway? True, London has of course the overwhelming economic power and population, but plenty of nations – think Canada, the US, Australia – position their political capitals in places separate from the largest city. A nation’s capital should be placed to reach out to every part of the land. In the UK at the moment, London palpably fails to do that.

Looked at historically, one reason why London emerged as the nation’s capital was profoundly connected to the ruling elite – from the Romans to the Normans to the Tudors – maintaining land interests in continental Europe and needing to stay in close contact with them from a defendable position away from the coast. At the point where Henry VIII finally lost the last vestigial footing in France, the great age of sea trade and worldwide exploration began, making London, positioned on the estuary of the Thames, perfectly placed to be the engine of the nation’s success for another 400 years.

But in today’s new age of “Global Britain”, where we have just decisively cut our ties with the political arrangements of continental Europe and broken free to reach out to the rest of world, why is it necessary for London to remain the centre of UK politics, an arrangement which clearly does not appeal to large numbers of people in the other nations of the UK?

It’s time not for more federalism – the very thing which is driving the UK apart – but for a political reconfiguration that recognises where the centre of the nation we live in actually is. We want a *united* kingdom, with government agencies and institutions operating in Manchester – the second largest conurbation outside London – that help to keep the entire nation together.

Moving to Manchester a reformed upper chamber of Parliament – perhaps elected by proportional representation – would make a healthy start. It would also open the eyes of many of our London-centric legislators as to what the issues facing cities like Manchester, Belfast and Glasgow actually are.

This is our precious nation and we can not just sit on the sidelines while London allows it to drift apart. Manchester, at the heart of the nation, is ready to step up and play its part in its political destiny of holding the UK together.

Laura Evans: Burnham’s Mayoralty in Greater Manchester has meant four wasted years

15 Jan

Laura Evans is the Conservative candidate for Mayor of Greater Manchester. 

The role of Greater Manchester Mayor was created to bring change and new opportunities. But our Mayor isn’t doing his job. He’s too busy playing politics to do his day job. So it’s time we told him that’s not good enough.

Soon residents across Greater Manchester will go to the polls to pick the Mayor they want for the next three years.

Labour think the blue wall was a one off; this is our chance to prove them wrong.

There is so much at stake, but the choice is clear. A Conservative Mayor who can get things done. Or three more years of a Labour Mayor with the wrong priorities.

Andy Burnham is in charge of Greater Manchester Police. The buck stops with him. But under his watch, our police have been left high a dry without the plan or the leadership they need. 80,000 crimes have gone unrecorded in a year. Shocking figures which resulted in the force being put in special measures by the Home Secretary. Under our current Mayor, there are not enough homes in areas with the roads, schools, and services they need. And our public transport isn’t working, especially if you live outside central Manchester.

Before coronavirus, we might have been able to ignore these problems. We might have been able to muddle on and live with them. But in the middle of a pandemic, we can’t afford for our police to be stretched to breaking point because they’ve not been given the support they need.

So, we need a better plan and that’s what I’ve been working on.

My plan would be for the whole of Greater Manchester, not just the city centre. And it would be ready to go on day one after the election.

I’ve already pushed back against the Mayor’s reckless plan to charge across 493 square miles of Greater Manchester’s roads. That’s every road, in every town, everywhere. Under his plan, van drivers could be charged £10 a day to use the roads. That’s a tax on jobs which will put livelihoods at risk, right when we need people to get back to work and get wages into pockets. I’d scrap it and get to work on supporting businesses, not tying their hands.

I want to see major improvements in transport across the whole region, using our share of the extra £568 million announced by the Government to invest in the north. Ensuring each local council gets to grips with tackling congestion and improving bus routes with more services that run on time.

I would push for investment, unlocking new opportunities from across the world now we have left the EU. That’s what people voted for and I’m ready to work with the Government to unleash our potential. New employers mean more people can secure the quality well-paid jobs and apprenticeships we need.

The Greater Manchester Mayor also needs a plan to take on the criminals and put extra police back in our communities. Taking charge of our local police would be my priority – using resources effectively so we can tackle serious crime and put officers back on the beat in our communities, so they can focus on helping to make our streets safer.

Our police need the tools to do the job, but officers have been forced to use pen and paper to record crimes. That’s not good enough – and it is putting residents in danger. Together with the Government, I’ll make sure every officer has the equipment and resources they need to keep us safe. And I’ll make sure they have extra powers, like stop and search, to bring knife crime down.

I also believe we need tougher action on anti-social behaviour. Every crime needs to be taken seriously, but that hasn’t been happening. So I’ll make sure that our police take a zero-tolerance approach to anti-social behaviour, drug dealing, and theft, with extra CCTV in crime hot spots, on public transport, and around our local parks. And I’ll work with residents to set up neighbourhood watch schemes, with dedicated officers. So we can stop anti-social behaviour ruining lives.

The role of the Mayor is to make Greater Manchester work for every resident – in every city, town and village. But for too long, investment and opportunity has focussed on the centre of Manchester, and ignored the communities where people live and raise a family. As the Conservative Mayor, I would be able to work with the Government to secure the transport investment and new jobs for Wigan, Oldham, Stockport, and everywhere in between. I’m not willing to leave any community behind.

Because it boils down to this: for most people nothing has changed since Andy Burnham became Mayor. And we simply can’t afford three more years of nothing changing, especially as we look to recover from the impacts of the pandemic.

So this is our chance to reject the politics of soundbites and invest in communities, police officers, and work with the Government to get stuff done. Put an end to stunts and posturing and more roll-up-your sleeves action that actually changes lives.

The people of Greater Manchester were loud and clear at the last General Election. I’ve already been working with our MPs, including our new Conservative representatives in Leigh, Heywood & Middleton, Bury and Bolton, to secure the changes we need.

For 30 years I’ve been campaigning to improve Greater Manchester and I don’t intend to stop now. Because we need a strong police force, better transport, and more jobs. Together, at the next election, we can make that happen.

Whatever happened to the Covid marshalls?

6 Jan

It may seem a long time ago now, but in September last year, Boris Johnson introduced the concept of “Covid-secure marshals”, which he said would “boost the enforcement capacity of local authorities” in fighting the pandemic.

Many wondered what these Covid marshals would look like exactly, particularly as the Government had not set out any guidance or funding for them at the time.

The next month it announced £30 million for “district and unitary authorities including metropolitan borough and London borough councils in England to spend on COVID-19 related compliance and enforcement activities”, setting out a suggested scope for what a Covid marshal’s duties might look like.

To see the general purpose of a Covid marshal, one need only look at the website of Southampton City Council, which has introduced these representatives to “patrol the city and district centres” and “engage, explain and encourage businesses and members of the public to adhere to COVID-19 guidelines to help keep everyone safe.”

So what’s happened to the recruitment drive several months on? To get a sense of where it’s at, I phoned a number of councils around the country and asked how many marshals they’d hired, if any at all.

The first interesting finding was that several receptionists did not know what a Covid marshal was, and one even asked me to explain what they were.

A Manchester council and East Midlands council told me they each had four marshals. Ashford Borough Council confirmed it had one Covid marshal and Leeds City Council said it had been recruiting for Covid marshals before Christmas.

Councils have been given vastly different sums of money to spend on their marshals, with the highest funds going to Leeds (£485,826), Manchester (£453,047) and Sheffield (£348,384).

Richmond Council, which has received £75,000 in funding to recruit marshals, said it had hired six, although its leader has said “it isn’t enough to make sure that all our high streets have a marshal at all times.” It’s still better than the City of London, the Isle of Scilly and Rutland, which received £13,000 each.

To see how much is being put towards the new wave of Covid-related jobs I looked at the website of Durham County Council, which is on the hunt for a “Covid-19 Outbreak Control Practitioner” (the salary is £36,922-£40,876 per annum). Duties include “ensuring the implementation of the Local Outbreak Control Plan” and promoting “measures that build longer-term community resilience to prevent future outbreaks.”

Interestingly, when I Googled Covid marshal jobs it seems that something of a new industry has formed, with one construction site on the hunt for someone to fulfil this function. A recruiter has even put up an advert for a “COVID-19 marshal to work at a local authority based in North London”.

When I asked my Facebook friends if they’d seen any Covid marshals, people mentioned spotting them in Soho, Parson’s Green/ Fulham, Horsham, Faversham and Chichester City Centre, so there are clear signs of their presence.

But from my brief look into marshals, it seems to me that nothing particularly astonishing is happening in terms of recruitment drive – which may come as a relief to lockdown sceptics worried about a state takeover. Most councils don’t seem to be hiring anywhere enough to make a sizable impact on the streets, and the fact some of their representatives don’t know what a marshal is says a lot.

It’s worth adding that the Government has not told councils that they have to hire Covid marshals, as the funding is simply ringfenced for “COVID-19 related compliance and enforcement activities”. Even so, the documentation hints heavily that it should go towards marshals, with details around what sorts of activities they could be doing and how they could be trained.

With councils being given £30 million, it will be interesting to see the final breakdown of how it’s been spent.

David Davis: We are on course to be trapped in never-ending shutdowns with no exit route. Here is an alternative strategy.

1 Nov

David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.

The first question that Boris Johnson will face when he addresses the House of Commons tomorrow about his lockdown plans is: “what will you do on December 2 if the R number is greater than one”?

The probability, of course, is that it will still be greater than one on that date – and that the lockdown, whilst it may have mitigated the infection, will not have stopped it. And in that circumstance, the shutdown will continue.

That is what we, and many other countries, should have learned from the last general lockdown. The disease only really stopped with the onset of summer, and has restarted with the onset of winter.

When the Prime Minister announced the first lockdown on March 23, he was hoping for it all to be done in four weeks, and in practice it turned out to be four months. This time he is announcing a lockdown at the beginning of winter, and we may well be locked down for six months, until next summer.

Unfortunately, even the scientists admit that the evidence for the effectiveness of general lockdowns is quite weak. The evidence for the economic damage that they do, however, is so strong that it is obvious.

In truth, there is only one strategy that has worked in the other countries faced with this problem. This was a very early and draconian lockdown that brought the disease under control when it still only affected a small proportion of the population – followed by an extremely focused test, track, and isolate policy. At the moment, no element of this policy is fully operational in the UK.

The complete failure of Public Health England to deliver a functional testing system early in the pandemic crippled Tthe Government’s ability to deliver such an outcome. This is compounded by the worst decision in the whole crisis – on March 12, when we gave up our attempt to test all the suspected cases.

To be fair to Matt Hancock, he has driven the system to deliver a large testing capacity today, but that is too late. It is a little like having ten fire engines outside your house after it had burnt down.

What is needed from the testing system today is immediate availability for everybody with symptoms or exposure, and very rapid response so that action can be taken quickly to suppress the outbreak.

The Government is now talking about a 15 minute test, rather belatedly. Tests that deliver a very accurate result in less than an hour have been available in the United States since March. If there is any doubt at all about delivering the rapid test in the UK, the Government should licence existing foreign technology, and set about creating the capacity to deliver that domestically as soon as possible. The South Koreans achieved more in six weeks at the beginning of the crisis than we have in six months, and we should model our delivery policy on that.

The track and trace system is currently hopeless. It will only ever be useful if it delivers results within a few days of someone testing positive. Otherwise, it is too late to check the infection. It is long past time for the Government to read the riot act to the big companies that are making profits out of failure in this area. If they cannot deliver they should be replaced, ideally by a regional structure, which, as the Germans demonstrated, is much more likely to be effective.

Most important of all, however, is the isolate policy. We currently do not have one. Telling people to stay at home if they are ill simply means that they infect their families, and possibly the supermarket assistant when they do their shopping.

And of course, not everybody who is infected obeys even those rules, and the probability is that even more will flout them after a year of Covid fatigue. So self-isolation at home will be even less effective this winter than last.

Every successful strategy to date has properly isolated the infected, and often their closest contacts as well. In Wuhan, the Chinese government created a number of Nightingale-style hospitals, and used them to immediately isolate those who tested positive, and those closest contacts thought most likely to be infected. It worked, as did similar approaches in other East Asian countries.

We need more Nightingales, and we need to use them as the anterooms to the major hospitals, not as the (empty, unused) overspills. In a Nightingale, patients can be monitored properly, and receive treatment rapidly as they need it.

We should do the same with the private hospitals that we have sequestered. We should also have an explicit strategy to separate the conventional patients from the Covid patients – ideally in different hospitals. We should remember that this is an exercise in saving lives, not in hospital capacity management. Losing track of that aim leads to more excess deaths, rather than fewer. I fear that the slogan “Save our NHS” conflates and confuses those aims. It is said that a number of NHS managers were uneasy for exactly that reason.

During the first round of this crisis, there were four categories of unnecessary excess deaths.

First, there were those who were told to stay at home, unless they were very seriously ill. Many of those turned up in hospital too late to save

Second, there were those, mostly the elderly, that were triaged out of intensive care. The NHS denies this, but the numbers show that many elderly died untreated.

Third, tthere were those who were dispatched to care homes before they had recovered, leading to new rounds of infection amongst the most vulnerable.

Fouth, there were those who were displaced from hospital, leading to excess deaths both now and in the future from untreated non-Covid diseases, most obviously cancer. Much of this was avoidable with more focused management and a little bit of foresight.

Finally, when we do get the virus under control, we should rethink our “local” strategy. The successful countries interpret this at a really micro level, in some cases locking down one street or even one block of flats. It is possible to enforce lockdowns at that micro level.

When you lock down the Greater Manchester region, it is near certain that of its millions of residents, thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people will break the rules. Such a strategy maximises economic harm and minimises lives saved. So when we return to local lockdowns, we should make them very local indeed.

Everybody wants to save lives, and ideally at minimum economic cost. A never-ending lockdown, without an explicit infection reduction strategy, and with it a lockdown exit strategy, offers little more than a winter of misery. The Australian and New Zealand governments initially tried a strategy like our current one, and very rapidly decided that the East Asian disease eradication model was a much better option. We should do the same – or this will be a very long winter indeed.

Iain Dale: Stop this utter selfishness and pathetic whinging about not having a normal Christmas to look forward to

30 Oct

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

Again, it feels like the calm before the Covid storm, doesn’t it?

As more and more swathes of the country go into Tier Three lockdown, it’s clear that, by this time next week, most of the north and parts of the Midlands will have joined Merseyside, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire in that tier. It’s only a matter of time before London does too, I suspect.

This week, even Germany has gone back into a partial lockdown.  Spain has declared a state of emergency.  France has announced a further draconian lockdown – and Coronavirus in Belgium is seemingly out of control.

At some point in the next two or three weeks, the Government will be forced to take a very difficult decision. No one wants a second national lockdown, but I’m afraid it is looking all but inevitable.

We could of course, take a different pah, ignore the scientific consensus and let the virus take its course – or let it rip, might be a more accurate way of putting it. I cannot see any responsible Government taking that course of action.

In the end, we are going to have to learn to live with this virus. But until our test and trace system is worthy of the name, or a vaccine becomes available, it’s very difficult to see any degree of normality returning to our lives in the next six months – or maybe for longer.

– – – – – – – – – –

After the political debacle about the provision of free school meals, and yet again being comprehensively outplayed by a young Premier League footballer, the next challenge for the Government is how to counter the pathetic accusations about the government ‘cancelling’ Christmas.

Those who make the accusation claim to be those who don’t have a Scooby Doo about what Christmas is all about. It’s not some quasi-materialistic present giving binge; it is a religious festival that celebrates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

There is nothing the Government can do or will do that could cancelsthat celebration. Yes, it may mean that family gatherings are more limited in number. Yes, it may mean that we don’t do as much present-buying as we have done in the past. Yes, it will be different.

But for God’s sake, if people don’t understand the seriousness of the situation the country may be in by Christmas, then there is nothing anyone can say or do which will shake people out of their utter selfishness and pathetic whinging.

I can say that. The Government can’t. But somehow, they will need to take on the view that somehow we should all be given a free pass on Christmas Day to let the virus rip.

– – – – – – – – – –

Arzoo Raja is 13 years old. She lived in Italy with her Christian parents. She too was brought up as a Christian. On October 13, she was abducted from outside her house. A few days, later the Italian Police said they had received marriage papers, which stated she was 18.

Her new “husband” was 44 year old Ali Azhar, who also stated Arzoo had converted to Islam, and her new name was Arzoo Faatima.

Her parents provided her birth certificate to the Italian and Pakistani authorities to prove that she was 13. This cut no ice with the Sindh High Court in Karachi, which ruled that she had converted of her own volition, and that she had entered into the marriage of her own free will. The court even criticised the Pakistani police for “harassing” Arzoo after her abduction.

In effect, the court has validated both forced marriage and rape. There have been protests on the streets of Lahore and Karachi.

Countries like the UK cannot stand by, and trot out the well-worn narrative that we can’t interfere with the judiciary of a sovereign nation.

No, but we can turn off the aid tap. We can call in the Pakistani High Commissioner for an interview without coffee. We and other countries have both the power and influence to stop this.

Imran Khan, the Pakistani Prime Minister, has a daughter called Tyrian. He should think how he would have felt if his daughter had been abducted like this when she was 13.

Just for reporting this news on Twitter I have been accused of being islamophobic and “not understanding” the culture. Utter tosh. If we are meant to keep quiet about child abduction and forced marriage, we have come to a pretty pass. I, for one, will continue to speak out, no matter what the backlash.

– – – – – – – – – –

On Thursday morning we all woke up to yet another terror attack in France, with two people being beheaded and another murdered in the name of “the religion of peace”.

Apparently, it is politically incorrect to point out that while the barbarous acts were taking place, the perpetrators were joyfully shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’.

Muslims quite rightly point out that these acts are ‘not in my name’, but the uncomfortable fact is that this is not the view of the terrorists.

In his autobiography, David Cameron says he regrets maintaining that these kind of terror attacks were nothing to do with Islam. He argues that adherents of mainstream Islam have tried to disassociate themselves from the attacks without ever really understanding what has driven the terrorists to assert that they do their dastardly deeds in the name of their religion. He is right.

James Frayne: Expect people to prepare for minor civil disobedience at Christmas

27 Oct

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

How much do the public care about Christmas? Will they be prepared to endure a minimal so-called “Digital Christmas” in the name of keeping the R-rate down?

Of course, everything depends about the perceived state of the country in mid-December. But let’s try to think about where we’re heading, where we might be at that point, and then about what the public might accept.

Let’s deal with the obvious first: those things that might make the public more willing to accept a Digital Christmas.

  • Concerns for the NHS will rise during the winter. Just as people know the NHS always struggles in the winter, so they’ll also know significant numbers of Coronavirus cases would be a terrible additional burden. While there appears to have been a large increase in hospital admissions during these early days of a second spike, it isn’t clear that hospitals are much more burdened than they otherwise would be (I suspect for complex reasons). Nonetheless, people will be alert to any change; and, clearly, if there is a serious surge in admissions and visible shortages of beds and care, with large numbers of deaths, people will think very differently about things, Christmas or not.
  • Optimism about a 2021 vaccine will be visible. I’m unclear at this point what the prospects of an effective vaccine will do to public opinion in the Christmas period. At one level, it might encourage people to play it safe for one last time before better times in the new year. (“If we can all make one last sacrifice…”) But it could also make people think their behaviour doesn’t matter so much, because help is on the way. I think they’ll certainly take a devil may care attitude if it appears that, contrary to the hype, a vaccine looks like it’s still many, many months away and if coverage is likely to be minimal. Politicians have wisely played down the idea of a game-changing vaccine for this reason
  • Public opinion is currently changing rapidly; people are becoming less willing to accept the rules as they are. At the moment, only a significant minority want looser rules and guidelines, the majority want things as they are; but the direction of travel is clear. A surge in serious cases and / or deaths would change things and make people more cautious, but a general uptick along the lines we’ve seen recently, or an uptick that mirrors seasonal admissions, would likely see demands for looser restrictions grow.

Let’s now look at those things that might make the public more hostile to a Digital Christmas.

  • Exasperation with the rules/guidelines will likely be much higher. We’ve known for some time people are struggling to understand the various rules and guidelines which are complex and change regularly.  (Unforgivably, Government Ministers themselves have struggled to remember what they are). But exasperation will turn to anger as we approach Christmas if the prospect of a Digital Christmas looks real. At this point, people won’t be irritated because the rules are complex; rather, they’ll be angry the rules seem inconsistent, bordering on stupid, as we’ve seen in Wales. They’ll ask, why, for example, people can still visit pubs, but can’t enjoy a single day with their closest relatives – some of whom might be on their own. There will be endless comparisons: why can we do this but not this?
  • Minor rule-breaking will increase. There are signs that this is on the rise, and that more people are becoming comfortable with risk. Forget the illegal raves and other illicit gatherings: I’m referring to regular minor rule-breaking – people not isolating for 14 days when they’ve come into contact with those that have tested positive; more people foregoing masks in supermarkets; people visiting others’ houses when they shouldn’t; and so on. This is surely likely to increase significantly in the coming weeks; more people seem to be thinking they’ll probably be OK if they break the rules in a minimal way (a massive change from the spring). The Government is alive to this; it’s been suggested the 14-day quarantine figure might be reduced. But the seal has been broken; rule breaking, however minor, is going to become common and by Christmas will likely be the norm.
  • Fears for the economy – and the high street in particular – will rise. Concerns for the economy is going to keep going up as Government support slowly tapers off and unemployment and business bankruptcies tick up. Because it’s so visible, the high street plays a disproportionately important role in the public mind; it’s a signifier for the health of the economy more generally. Given the health of the high street will be on people’s minds into Christmas – as it always is – public concern for the economy will be heightened.
  • Knowledge about the cause of infections will be higher. Partly because we simply know more about the Coronavirus and its effects – which the media is now passing on in more detail and more regularly – the public are going to increasingly question Government and scientific advice. They’re going to become more discerning judges of public policy. In the face-off between Greater Manchester and the Government, and in the criticisms of Government policy levelled by the hospitality industry, we are seeing more people ask questions about the causes of infections and the nature of their rise. In such a climate, people are more likely to question the basis for Government decisions on Christmas.

What does all this mean?

It’s hard to say at this point. As I’ve written a few times recently on this site, my strong sense at this point is that public opinion is moving against harsh measures because of a perception that –

(a) we always go back to square one whenever we loosen measures, so what’s the point?

and

(b) because concerns about the economy are finally starting to catch up with the reality of the grave economic situation.

My sense is that, for the reasons stated above, unless there’s a really very serious surge in deaths, and unless hospitals are demonstrably seriously more burdened than they would otherwise be (and not simply under the usual seasonal strain), then people will be extremely angry about the prospect of a Digital Christmas.

In turn, I would expect people to prepare for widespread minor civil disobedience; by that I don’t mean people having 20 people around for Christmas, but that many, many people will plan to invite guests from outside their bubble, and prepare to breach the rule of six for a few hours.

I’ve seen it said that people would accept a minimal Christmas if it appeared to be part of a consistent, national policy of restrictions.

I disagree with this view one hundred per cent; the point is, outside of a total national lockdown of the sort we saw in the Spring, it will never look like rules are being applied consistently and with good judgement. If people are already claiming that it’s ridiculous you can, say, go on a political demonstration but you can’t visit your elderly relatives, think how angry they’ll be around Christmas. (Incidentally, if any politicians did appear to breach their own rules in this period, it really would hit the fan).

You occasionally see people sneering about the public obsession with Christmas: it’s only one day; we’re not really a religious country; it’s not relevant to other faiths and those with none; and so on.

Of course Christmas isn’t primarily a religious festival for most; but it’s a day when people take time out to meet family members they might not otherwise see; and when many people try to include those that otherwise live lonely lives in something joyful.

The English aren’t naturally “big family” people: we have tight nuclear families, not the extended families you see in parts of Europe and Asia. Christmas is the exception. The Government should do everything possible to make sure people can enjoy something that feels vaguely festive. Or, yes, they’ll pay a price. Just watch Labour do everything they can to have their Christmas Cake and eat it on this issue.

Graham Brady: The Government must account properly for the full cost of lockdowns, restrictions – and Covid-19 itself

27 Oct

Sir Graham Brady is Chairman of the 1922 Committee and is MP for Altrincham and Sale West.

From the start, combating the Covid-19 pandemic has required the Government to take some extraordinary measures. In March, the Prime Minister took the unprecedented step of imposing a full lockdown, backed by the full power of the Treasury, as Rishi Sunak pledged to do “whatever it takes” to support the economy.

That lockdown was supposed to be a one-off, an emergency intervention to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed during the acute stage of the crisis.

It was a strategy intended to buy time. Time to dramatically increase Health Service capacity via the Nightingale hospitals, and time to develop the sort of track-and-trace infrastructure that would allow ministers to take a better targeted approach in future.

Yet as winter approaches – and with it the usual flu season and additional demands on the NHS – attempts to introduce restrictions on a regional basis have provoked a furious backlash from local government leaders. Now both they and the Opposition are calling for a second national lockdown – the so-called ‘circuit breaker’.

We should not get too distracted by the new name. It is extremely unlikely that new restrictions, if imposed, would only last for two or three weeks. It takes longer than that for the benefits of lockdown in controlling coronavirus to appear in the data. Are ministers likely to lift lockdown before it is seen to be working? Or the Opposition to support doing so? I think not, especially given that a two or three-week plan will take us deep into winter.

To properly debate the case for a second lockdown, we have to be honest about the fact that it will in all likelihood entail months of restrictions. And if a vaccine hasn’t arrived by the Spring – or if we haven’t got the necessary infrastructure to mass-manufacture and distribute a novel vaccine to the nation by then – this cycle will very likely extend into 2021 or even beyond.

But we also need to properly recognise the extraordinary toll that these measures are taking on the country. We were fortunate that during the initial lockdown the Chancellor was able to break out his ‘big bazooka’ on behalf of workers and businesses, but should never lose sight of the fact that intervention on that scale cannot be sustained indefinitely. Without it, the impact of lockdown on the economy will be severe.

This is one reason why ministers should not draw too much comfort from polls showing strong public support for lockdown. If the electorate is forced to bear the brunt of restrictions without that Treasury shield, the backlash will be swift. If you doubt it, just ask MPs or local government leaders from my own region, Greater Manchester.

Yet the cost of lockdown extends far beyond the public accounts. Suicide rates are up. People are missing out on life-saving operations and essential care. Millions are struggling with their mental health as restrictions cut them off from friends, family, and other support networks. Domestic violence is on the rise as women are trapped at home with violent partners.

All the while young people, who are amongst those least at risk from Covid-19, are paying a huge price. School has been disrupted, formative moments and milestones missed, and now many are confined to their dormitories at university. Does anyone honestly think that this is sustainable for a year, or more? The ‘lockdown raves’ we saw this summer will be just the start.

Journalists and campaigners have done good work highlighting these issues. But they are not being properly accounted for by policymakers. We have plenty of official statistics about the direct impact of Covid-19 (even if they are sometimes badly wrong). But precious few on the costs of fighting it.

It makes sense for the scientific advisers, whose task is advising the Government on combating coronavirus, to focus exclusively on it. But ministers do not have that luxury. They have a duty to take into account the best interests of the nation as a whole.

But they can’t do that without adequate data. So as we brace for what might be a long-haul fight against the pandemic, the Government must start accounting properly for the real costs of Covid-19. The Department of Health should compile and publish the statistics for excess deaths arising from reduced access to care. The Treasury should do the same for shuttered businesses and lost jobs.

Recent reports suggest that the Chancellor is prepared to take such action. It is very much to be hoped that he will, and that the Department of Heath will do likewise.

Having these figures to hand will not only help the Cabinet make key decisions, but may also lead to a more realistic understanding on the part of the public about what the real costs of the current strategy are.

The Government is rightly committed to trying to save as many people as possible. But a strategy which fixates on Covid patients, at the expense of letting other people fall between the cracks, does not do this.

David Gauke: With a position so exposed, how did Burnham get away with it?

24 Oct

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

Who would have believed that we would see a mainstream, liberal MP turned city mayor taking a bold political risk, build an unlikely coalition of support and win a public relations battle by articulating the resentment of those who feel victims of an out of touch London establishment?

Boris Johnson has had a difficult couple of weeks, but I hope he has enjoyed the irony of being on the wrong side of Andy Burnham’s somewhat populist revolt.

The extended row with the Mayor of Greater Manchester has put the Government on the back foot, looking mean-spirited and out of touch, whilst Burnham has come across as a heroic ‘King of the North’ – personable, passionate and articulate, he has successfully presented himself as a doughty defender of hard-pressed Mancunians.

He has had a political triumph – although the coherence of his position does not withstand a great deal of scrutiny. As Paul Goodman has pointed out, Burnham’s language, attacking an approach that ‘might not work’, was designed to appeal to those who thought that the new restrictions did not go far enough, as well as the likes of Sir Graham Brady, who want to adopt a very different strategy.

Even though he has made the valid point that lockdowns cause mental health problems, it does not seem likely that Burnham is a lockdown sceptic himself.

In May, he expressed the view that lockdown restrictions were being relaxed too quickly, appropriate for the position in London but not for Manchester.

More recently, he has expressed support for Keir Starmer’s call for a tighter, national lockdown. It is safe to assume that he believes the mainstream and, to my mind, rather commonsensical view that if you reduce the number of social interactions people have, there will be less chance for the virus to spread.

If that is the case, and given his criticism that the Tier Two restrictions which have been in place in Manchester since August have not stopped the spread of the virus, it is remarkable that he spent ten days resisting the imposition of tougher and more effective restrictions in Greater Manchester, where infection rates were high and, in eight out of ten boroughs, rising.

No doubt his supporters will make the argument that he was not opposing tougher restrictions – just tougher restrictions on the cheap.

But again, one can question whether his position was coherent. It is true to say that the level of support in Tier Three – the focus of his complaints – is not as generous as was available under the original lockdown.

But the real issue for many businesses was not the support available under Tier Two for those businesses forced to close, but the absence of support for businesses in Tier Two, where restrictions meant that hospitality businesses could stay open, but with little prospect of many customers. This was the real problem with Government support, until the Chancellor’s announcement on Thursday.

So a not unfair description of Burnham’s position was that Tier Two was ineffective in preventing the spread of the virus and involved inadequate support for businesses, but that he was determined to keep Greater Manchester within it.

There is also some confusion about his view on whether lockdown restrictions should be determined on a local or national basis.

He has argued that decisions should be made by those close to the ground but, back in the spring, he was opposed to London exiting lockdown before Manchester, because people there would object to seeing Londoners in pubs when they were still banned from going for a pint – suggesting that he favours national uniformity.

Given that he was also opposed to the national exit from lockdown because it did not reflect conditions in Manchester, he presumably favours a national policy based on conditions in Manchester – which is all very well but somewhat hard to justify to the rest of the country.

That he was able to turn such a position into a political triumph is a testament to clumsy handling on the part of the Government (appearing to withdraw the £60 million that had been offered) as well as Burnham’s political skills. He has tapped into northern distrust of the south, articulating the view that the interests of Manchester are treated as a lower priority to those of London.

In doing this, he is taking a leaf from the SNP in Scotland. The politics of national and regional resentment and grievance, the argument that ‘the system’ is designed to support the prosperous South East at the expense of the rest, is one that finds a ready audience in many parts of the UK.

‘If it wasn’t for a distant government in Westminster, taking our resources, we would be doing alright’ is the message of Scottish Nationalists, as well as regional mayors.

In purely fiscal terms this is, of course, nonsense. Contrary to the received wisdom of many parts of the UK, resources are massively redistributed from London and the Greater South East to the rest of the United Kingdom. In the last year for which numbers are available, 2019, London, the South East and the East of England had fiscal surpluses of £39 billion, £22 billion and £4 billion respectively which only partially offset fiscal deficits in the rest of the UK, including a deficit of £20 billion in the North West and £15 billion in Scotland.

This is not an argument that the Government is likely to be making any time soon. After all, the Conservative majority at the last election was heavily dependent upon the narrative that the Government was going to ‘level up’ the country, correcting the perceived London-centric nature of our economy and politics.

Tapping into anger at metropolitan elites proved very helpful to Boris Johnson in both the EU referendum and the 2019 general election; this week, that anger was turned against him as he was made to look like a representative of the establishment, not the insurgency.

The idea of localised restrictions has not been discredited, however painful local negotiations have been. This is the logical approach to a virus where the level of infection varies enormously. But the Government has been slow to recognise that localised restrictions will result in resentment if the level of support is seen as parsimonious. And arguments about fiscal discipline will not persuade those new, Red Wall Conservative voters who delivered the Prime Minister his majority.

The bitterness of the row between the Government and the Greater Manchester Mayor, as well as the continued surge in support for the SNP, has been dispiriting.

At best, it reveals that, as we enter a long winter with rising case numbers and deaths and restrictions on our everyday lives, we are becoming more fractious and distrustful of the Government. At worst, it reveals that the whole cohesion of the United Kingdom is starting to disintegrate – not just amongst the nations of the UK but between the regions of England.

If the approach that Burnham has taken is seen to be the exemplar of how regional politicians should operate, and if the Government cannot nullify those regional grievances, our politics will become yet more bitter and divisive. Ultimately, pitting one region against another would make us ungovernable.