Luke Evans: Snapshot from Leicestershire. We haven’t beaten the Coronavirus. But nor are we letting it beat us.

8 Jul

Dr Luke Evans is a member of the Health Select Committee, and is MP for Bosworth.

I left you last week on something of a ‘columnist’s cliffhanger’.

The County of Leicestershire, and the city of Leicester that lies in its centre, had gone through days of speculation about the possibility of a local lockdown, and subsequent uncertainty about exactly where lines would be drawn. On a personal level, that included working out whether my own constituency of Bosworth would be affected, and if so how, and what that meant.

As it transpired, in the end Bosworth remained free from local lockdown. Even the areas which may loosely be described as the outer suburbs of the city were left untouched.

The focus for my own constituents quickly, and understandably, changed from fear that they could be part of a Coronavirus spike with all the implications which that brings, to concern that, especially as nationally enforced lockdown restrictions were being lifted, what might be the implications of Leicester residents escaping their locked down city to enjoy the pubs and restaurants of Hinckley and Bosworth?

After I left you last week, a great deal of time was spent trying to answer exactly that question.

I held several meetings with our local policing unit commander and two further ones with the County’s Chief Constable.

County MPs, all Conservative, met virtually to discuss strategy; and, as you would expect, I stayed in close contact with council leaders, chief executives and the head of our local resilience forum.

Not least, I spoke with councillors, especially those whose wards lay nearest to the city, and whose concerns were entirely understandably at their most heightened.

There were serious discussions about whether, even at an informal level, the lifting of lockdown restrictions should be postponed. Should I speak with publicans and ask them to stay closed? Should they take a further hit to their livelihoods to ensure that the heightened spread in the city could not be brought out to our rural communities?

As with so many other things there is seldom a binary choice when it comes to protecting health and livelihoods and inevitably, as with crime, there is a significant difference between the fear of what might happen, and what actually does.

It was interesting to see that research published by YouGov last Friday indicated that in this case the fear of what might happen was substantially greater than the likely reality.

In one of those oddly specific polls that the YouGov panel seems so proficient at producing, regular pub goers, regular prior to lockdown that is, were asked how soon they would return to their locals after July 4th.

Just four per cent of regulars said they would venture out on the day itself, and another four per cent in the first week, but not on Saturday.

Of course, that type of research certainly doesn’t mean that city dwellers would definitely stay at home but it does indicate that whatever happens it wasn’t going to be likely that pubs, and the police, would be inundated.

My conversations with the police were clear. They had planned, and part of their planning meant having more officers on duty than they would typically have on New Years Eve – but they weren’t expecting a day of mass rebellion.

I was delighted on Monday morning to be able to share a tweet from the Chief Constable stating that over the weekend in Leicester ‘the was huge compliance with the lockdown rules’, whilst in the county the ‘vast majority of residents were acting responsibly and adhering to guidelines’.

Of course, we always knew there would be incidents, which with a camera to hand and a media willing to share them will always gain penetration.

But we can’t lose sight of the fact that the overwhelming majority of decent people within the city and county are doing all that they can, and all that they have been asked, to beat this virus. I keep coming back to the same point that when the majority stick together we will win this fight.

Last weekend wasn’t the end of the local lockdown and it isn’t the end of the lifting of restrictions. We know that there are going to be outbreaks, people testing positive leading to the need to track and trace and temporarily close pubs. Indeed there have already been such cases.

But those cases aren’t indications that lifting the restrictions are failing but rather signs that this new normality is working.]

We haven’t got to the stage where we can say we have beaten Coronavirus, but by the great majority of us following the rules we can at least say we are not letting it beat us.

Ben Roback: When masks become memes: The partisan political climate has hurt America’s fight against coronavirus

1 Jul

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect a Governor to become a reliable source of memes on social media, but Andrew Cuomo is doing things differently. The Democratic Governor of New York has harnessed his social media following to spread the COVID-19 mitigation message to New Yorkers, (primarily) young and (occasionally tech-savvy) old. There aren’t many politicians who become memes for a good reason. With respect, Cuomo has hardly broken the internet in a manner that threatens the dominance of Dwayne Johnson or Kylie Jenner on Instagram. But he has harnessed the platform to communicate a clear message to his 987,000 followers.

Shareable content is even more powerful at a time when politicians are – with one notable exception – campaigning remotely online. Whilst becoming the source of a meme and the butt of all jokes online had once been the bête noire of the political class, Cuomo is getting good at it.

But the focus here is not so much on digital campaigning, as much as the topic is worthy of words on this site. Instead, it shows how something as simple as wearing a mask during a global pandemic has been politicised in the United States.

Wearing a mask ought not to be controversial, especially when the guidance is now unequivocal. The World Health Organisation acknowledges that ‘Non-medical, fabric masks are being used by many people in public areas, but there has been limited evidence on their effectiveness and WHO does not recommend their widespread use among the public for control of COVID-19.’ However, in instances where social distancing is not possible, ‘WHO advises governments to encourage the general public to use non-medical fabric masks.’

In the United States, the advice from government has changed over time, which has created room for confusion. The anti-maskers are well aware of this. The government’s leading infectious disease authority, Dr Anthony Fauci, initially opposed mask-wearing by the American public for fear of draining supplies needed for health care workers, but later reversed course. Since then, he has criticised those reluctant to wear a mask and urged them to “get past” political objections. Research has since squashed any further wiggle room for doubt. A University of Washington health institute study suggests that if 95 per cent of Americans wore masks now, 33,0000 fewer people would die by October 1.

This ought not to have prompted political debate

The mask has become a symbol of political attitudes to the binary ‘health vs recovery’ debate that now looms large over the United States. The president has gone to great lengths to avoid being seen wearing a mask in public, famously refusing to do so when touring a Ford plant in Michigan – despite official state and local requirements to do so. Surrounded by executives wearing masks, President Trump told reporters: “I had one on before. I wore one in the back area. I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.” It is unclear why being seen in a mask by the press would represent a form of defeat for the president, short of an infringement on his civil liberties. Some GOP governors are following the president’s lead. Of 20 states that have implemented broad mask-wearing requirements, just four have Republican governors.

The response to the pandemic has descended into political point-scoring – not a shocking statement to make in an election year after all. In refusing to wear a mask, the president wants to become the physical embodiment of the national recovery he hopes will return him to office for four more years. It has become abundantly clear that, even in the simplest form of responding to COVID-19 like wearing a mask, there would be no unity forged between Democrats and Republicans.

The president could be convinced that there is still time to lead

The Republican leadership and membership appear to be bending on the question of masks. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says there should be no stigma associated with covering one’s face and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy says doing so is essential to fully reopening the economy. Even Fox News host Sean Hannity, one of the president’s most vocal and influential supporters, has said he will wear one. Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy, another media friend of the president, went a step further and said:

“I think that if the president wore one [a mask], it would just set a good example. He’d be a good role model. I don’t see any downside to the president wearing a mask in public.”

There is no sign that a change in course from the president would be frowned upon by voters. A new Fox News poll showed 68 per cent of Republicans have a favourable view of mask-wearers, and 61 per cent of those who strongly approve of President Trump’s job performance. Incidentally, perhaps more alarmingly, by a 36-point margin, voters say presidential candidates holding large political events and rallies is a bad idea.

The evidence therefore suggests that there is still time for the president to show leadership on this issue, but the window of opportunity is narrowing. What is more, a volte-face would be jumped on by the president’s opponents as the sign of a spectacular U-turn. What is, in fact, a victory for common sense would be seized upon by the Biden campaign and the likes of Governor Cuomo as a great victory for the Democrats looking ahead to the November election. Policy changes are so often sensationalised as admissions of defeat, whereas often it is simply a victory for common sense – see Downing Street’s concession on the Marcus Rashford campaign for free school meals, for example.

Those hoping for a change of tack from the president are likely to be disappointed. To wear a mask would be to admit that the United States is still in the eye of the COVID-19 storm, enduring the first wave before worrying about the second, at a time when the president wants to focus on the economic rebound. States that previously opened up to a flood of economic activity at bars, restaurants and salons are now facing a tsunami of new cases. For as long as daily cases rise – and Dr Fauci warned yesterday they could creep up to 100,000 per day in short order – the president will look disjointed and out of touch in focussing on the economic recovery. Can a nation’s economy begin to heal while its citizens are still dying?

Covering one’s face should be a simple way of limiting the spread of the disease, above political debate, discourse, or disagreement. The fact that something as obvious as wearing a mask has become a symbol of the political divide that now surrounds COVID-19 embodies the hyper-partisan climate that continues to threaten America’s chances of getting on top of COVID-19. The crossover of politics into pop culture, coupled with the fact that the president appears to consider wearing a mask the antithesis to the economic recovery, makes it hard to foresee a change in approach. That is going to make it harder, not easier, for the United States to get on top of a health pandemic that once again is spiralling out of control.

Robert Halfon: Johnson delivers for the workers but Starmer could win back their votes

1 Jul

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.

Blue-Collar Boris

I think readers of ConservativeHome will know my columns well enough by now that when I want the Conservative Government to be better, I am not afraid to say it. But it is also important to dance a jig or two, when they get it right.

Yesterday’s speech by the Prime Minister was a blue-collar speech in tooth and claw. When he said that he would focus on the people’s priorities, he really meant it.

For communities like mine in Harlow, and no doubt those in and around the blue wall, there will be a sigh of relief that there is no return to austerity, that the NHS is King, that schools and colleges will be better funded and housing and infrastructure will be built across our land.

Above all, we now have an extraordinary and exciting offering to our young people – an opportunity guarantee, comprising a choice between an apprenticeship or a work placement. This is a real policy that could make a difference to winning back younger voters as well.

The reason why this Boris Johnson speech was so important was not just the significant policy content, but because it set the direction of travel for the Conservative administration. After a few rocky weeks seemingly being bogged down in the Coronavirus mire, the Prime Minister is back on the front foot, setting out a Tory Workers’ agenda, that millions of lower income workers not only relate to, but can also get behind.

They have been reminded of why they voted for us again. Of course, saying that we are going to ‘build, build, build’ is easier than the building itself, but now the course/trajectory/path has been set, it is up to the rest of the Government to start constructing our New Jerusalem.

Starmer unstuffed

Patrick O’Flynn was one of the early media forefathers (and proponents) of blue-collar conservatism, way back in the days when Notting Hill was regarded as the preferred venue of the Tory éminence grise – a little unlike Dudley, where Johnson was yesterday. So, he is someone worth reading up on or listening to.

However, his recent article for The Spectator entitled, ‘Starmer is stuffed, filled me with absolute horror, because his line of argument, if accepted, would instill a large dollop of complacency in every Conservative.

In O’Flynn’s view, Starmer’s history and background, his inability to develop blue-collar policy, the cultural wars and the Tories’ reputation for economic competency, means everything will be alright on the night.

If we, as Conservatives, believe the above to be true, that way disaster lies; not only will we lose our majority at worst, or have a hung parliament at best, but our historic red wall gains in the North will crumble away.

Let me set out a few reasons why:

First, Keir Starmer is radically de-Corbynising the Labour Party – almost by stealth and under the cover of coronavirus. Almost all the way through the Shadow frontbench, from PPS’ to the Shadow Cabinet, moderates are being promoted. If you look at the calibre of Labour MPs – like Shadow Business Minister, Lucy Powell, or Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas Symonds – you know that the Labour leader is being serious when he wants to present an alternative Government. Meanwhile, the NEC and Labour General Secretary are passing into the hands of social democrats, rather than the far left.

Second, whilst Starmer may not have had his Clause IV with the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey, it is certainly a Clause 0.4. In one fell swoop, Starmer has shown the British public that he will not tolerate the anti-semitism that has so infected his party over the past few years – and given a pretty sure signal that he wants to enter the doors of 10 Downing Street.

The idea that the public will care about Starmer’s past record as Director of Public Prosecutions is as fanciful as voters being negatively influenced by Johnson going to Eton, or his early and controversial newspaper columns.

Third, never underestimate the power of Labour. Their message of helping the underdog and the poor is enduring, still popular and extremely potent. They are not going to sit back and let the Tories rule for eternity. The psephological evidence shows that public opinion is leaning closer and closer towards Starmer for Prime Minister.

The latest Opinium poll shows that Starmer is preferred to lead the country by 37 per cent of voters, compared with 35 per cent who back Johnson. While the Conservatives remain four points ahead of their opposition on 43 per cent to Labour’s 39 per cent, the gap has closed from over 20 per cent in February and early March, when Jeremy Corbyn was leader. Scaling the Tory wall is far from insurmountable.

Fourth, on policy: Just because Starmer is a ‘metropolitan’ does not mean that his policies will be ‘metropolitan’, too. His Policy Chief is Claire Ainsley, who wrote an important book, The New Working Class: How to Win Hearts, Minds and Votes.

If her views, alongside those of a more communitarian nature as proposed by thoughtful Labour thinkers like John Cruddas, MP for Dagenham (with whom Johnson’s former Political Secretary, my colleague Danny Kruger, is collaborating on big society policy development), or Maurice Glasman, then they could actually have an exciting message to the public, winning minds as well as hearts.

If Tories are busy painting flags on planes, or building Royal Yachts, or shooting ourselves in the foot as we are wont to do on a regular basis – whether it be on free school meals or the NHS surcharge – and Labour are focusing on the cost of living, skills and genuinely affordable housing, I think it is pretty clear voters are going to be looking at the Labour offering, once again.

Having said that, if we come up with more of the blue-collar narrative, I set out in the first part of this article, alongside significant tax cuts for the lower paid, then perhaps O’Flynn could be on to something.

I just wish he wouldn’t say it, nor any other right-thinking individual. Conservatives have to take the next few years as if we have a majority of one, and remember that the political left want the Tories gone, and will stop at nothing to kick them out of Downing Street.