The Coronavirus inquiry. I’m an outlier – but I believe that following public opinion was a problem.

15 Mar

Coronavirus has disappeared from the headlines recently. The lifting of restrictions, the horrifying news from Ukraine, and our instinctive desire to quickly forget the dreadful means there is now a collective effort to never mention the dreaded C-word again.

But March 26th will mark the unhappy second anniversary of Britain entering lockdown: the biggest state-mandated change to our lives since the Second World War. With the terms of the Government’s inquiry into its handling of the pandemic announced last week, this is an opportunity to ask the fundamental question: was it all worth it?

The inquiry hopes to do this. The proposed terms of reference suggest that it shall assess all aspects of the government’s response: preparedness, the efficacy of interventions, the management of hospitals and care homes, the provision of essential equipment, and economic support. Under Baroness Hallett, the Chairwoman – a former High Court judge – it is hoped the inquiry will “reflect the importance of understanding the experiences of those most affected by the pandemic” and identify where the government got it wrong.

Like all inquiries, this will be a welcome opportunity for acts of confession and self-justification on the parts of ministers. That at least one Cabinet member has been keeping a diary for the last two years is unsurprising. This is a chance for ministers to show public contrition for any shortcomings, whilst aiming to guarantee that the eventual narrative presents them in the best possible light. Plus, Anthony Seldon and Tim Shipman must work from something.

The direct relationship between the size of an inquiry’s remit and the time it takes to conclude means it will be a while before we see Hallett’s final report. Moreover, inquiries tend largely to confirm lessons we have already learnt, providing only slaps on the wrist for politicians who have long since left office. By 2016, for example, we didn’t really need Lord Chilcot to tell us that invading the Middle East on a spurious pre-text was poor form, and that Tony Blair might have a slight messiah complex.

Nevertheless, we can get on with lesson-learning whilst the Baroness finishes dotting her Is and crossing her Ts. A report in the Lancet last week suggested the UK had a lower death toll than Italy, Portugal, and Spain – with no significant differences from those of France and Germany.

By looking at age-standardised avoidable mortality rates, the UK emerged as having the 29th worst mortality rate in Western Europe – largely, commentary suggested, due to our successful vaccine rollout. With cases currently hitting their highest numbers since early February alongside no drastic spike in hospitalisations, we really do appear to have triumphed over Covid.

140 million jabs and no restrictions is an achievement, even if returning to normality took longer than the “three weeks to flatten the curve” we were first promised. But if the vaccine rollout showed the British state at its best, the pandemic has also shown it at its worst. Billions chucked after a largely useless test-and-trace system, arrogant officials who genuinely believed Britain had a world-leading pandemic preparedness plan, and a health service as creaking as it is beloved: all hampered the fight. That tackling the virus was so expensive reflects the British state’s habitual cluelessness.

But surely that’s ancient history – who quibbles about timescales and costs when the pubs are open again? Nevertheless, there are real questions to ask about the fundamental problems of the government’s pandemic response. As a recovering student who spent his last year at university railing against restrictions, I almost respect those in Number 10 who dabbled in cakes and champers: they stuck two fingers up at rules so obviously grotesque even their very authors deemed them unreasonable. Saying such a thing makes me an outlier – but the trouble of following public opinion has been a problem of these last two years.

Think back to that mad, miserable March. The accepted narrative of events follows a government that began by nonchalantly dismissing the approaching threat being bounced by sensible scientists like Patrick Vallance, Chris Whitty, and Saint Ferguson of Lockdown into following the rest of the civilised world (basically European countries with skiing resorts, and those bits of America that like Hillary) into necessary restrictions. Ferguson famously claimed that locking down a weak earlier would have saved 20,000 lives. The allegation that nasty Tories pursued chimeric ‘herd immunity’ at the expense of innocent lives was potent.

The reality was rather different. Rather than rejecting ‘the science’ for political ends, the government studiously followed scientific advice. The crucial point was that that advice changed. Vallance, Whitty et al was began March claiming they wanted to squash the sombrero, that cancelling mass events and mandating face masks was pointless. They may have initially believed the virus was more like the flu, but, even so, the government hardly ignored them. Ferguson was the outlier in calling for restrictions.

What changed? Remember, officials initially openly scoffed at the concept of lockdown. They believed such an authoritarian measure was unworkable in as freedom-loving country such as Britain. Their minds were changed by a force that has done more to shape the government’s handling of this pandemic than any other: the almost-sadomasochistic partiality for restrictions on the part of the British public.

Professor Ferguson’s infamous model certainly had an impact on ministers, primarily because it showed the NHS being overwhelmed. A new Tory government, driven by Vote Leave’s obsession with polls and the health service, could never be seen to let our national religion buckle. As horrific scenes poured onto our television screens from Lombardy night after night, and as country after country entered a lockdown hitherto thought only possible under the CCP, the public mood changed.

Already by March 26th, travel by tube, rail, or bus was down by more than 80 per cent. Outcry at allowing events like the Cheltenham festival and St Patrick’s Day celebrations helped convince the government that Something Must Be DoneTM. We were bounced into lockdown.

And as the weeks drew on, and the public remained overwhelmingly in favour of being paid to sit at home and watch Netflix, removing restrictions became even harder. Not until jabs could be put in arms, providing levels of reassurance acceptable to even the most zealous mask-wearer, could the government finally turn the corner: it had to win against public opinion as much as the virus. We remained stuck under restrictions for so long not only because of the SAGE’s caution, but because the public’s instincts were usually more draconian than the government’s.

We have known since Public Heath England first reported on it in July 2020 that the measures imposed that March may have caused more deaths in the long-term than they saved. From domestic abuse and mental illness, to missed cancer screenings and two years of disrupted learning, the consequences of our national experiment in authoritarianism will still be being counted far beyond the end of even the most leisurely of inquiry timescales.

And as we have all chosen to conveniently forget just how popular the war in Iraq initially was, I suspect that, in years to come, as hospital backlogs and educational problems stack up and mountains of debt must be paid off by continuous tax rises, the British people will similarly choose to forget just how enthusiastic we were for lockdown. March 2020 was the cruellest month – and one day, in the not-too-distant future, none of us will be able to say why.

Sarah Ingham: The Government’s Covid communications campaign made lab rats of us all

4 Feb

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

“Millions of people took seriously a communications campaign, apparently designed by behavioural psychologists, to bully, to shame and to terrify them into compliance with minute restrictions …”

In the Commons’ debate on the Sue Gray report, Steve Baker’s intervention was one of the few which did not prompt the Prime Minister to remind us that he is currently under investigation by the Metropolitan Police.

The MP for Wycombe took the PM to task over Government messaging in connection with Covid. Not only had people meticulously followed the rules (unlike a certain First Lord of the Treasury and his wife, perhaps?), but their mental health had suffered.

Baker’s question on Monday highlights the growing unease that the messaging was unethical and its results malign. It also called into the question the role of behaviour psychology, the science of what drives our decision-making. It seems the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee will be looking into the use of “nudge” tactics in connection with the Government’s response to the pandemic.

Recent reports on Covid’s collateral damage highlight an increased risk of measles because the take-up of MMR jabs is the lowest in a decade, as well as an £8.7 billion loss thanks to defective and unsuitable PPE. Such missteps in connection with public policy – inadvertent or not – are quantifiable. Assessments about burning through taxpayers’ hard-earned money in a pandemic-induced public-spending spree are far easier than judging the impact of Covid comms and the tactics to ensure the acceptance of public health measures.

It must be remembered that back in early 2020, the Government was flying blind, needing to do something, anything, to protect us from a possible plague. In addition, behavioural science – which informed some of the messaging – is meant to tap into our subconscious minds. But even raising the subject of possible subliminal coercion risks comparisons with incel-prone nutters, breathless with conspiracy theories about how the Pfizer/Moderna/AZ clot shot will turn us all into lizards.

The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), better known as the Nudge Unit, was set up by David Cameron in the early days of the Coalition to improve the workings of government by injecting an understanding of human behaviour into policy. Inside the Nudge Unit (2015) by its director David Halpern chronicles how small changes – such as reminders from HMRC that ‘most people pay their tax on time’ – can produce big results, at almost no financial cost.

Nudging has been used across government departments for the past decade. It has saved the taxpayer millions by, for example, reducing missed medical appointments. As Prof Halpern states, nudges work on an unconscious, automatic level: “Behaviourally-based interventions can operate below the conscious radar of busy citizens.”

According to Gray, “The UK Government put in place far-reaching restrictions on citizens that had direct and material impact on their lives, livelihood and liberties.” The overwhelming majority of us complied with the lockdowns. How far the Government and its agencies coerced us into this compliance, not least by deliberate fearmongering, is now coming onto the conscious radar of Britain’s busy citizens.

SPI-B, the behavioural science sub-group of SAGE, set out Options for Increasing Social Distancing Measures in a paper on March 22 2020. As it stated, “The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.”

In 2020, the Government spent £184 million on Covid-related advertising, including on the message that if we went out, we could spread the virus and ‘People Will Die’. This is bullying, not bribing, taxpayers with their own money. Was the emetic ‘Don’t Kill Your Gran’ inspired by SPI-B’s recommendation that messaging needs to emphasise the duty to protect others?

With its calamitous forecasting record, if it were Paddy Power, SAGE would have gone bust long ago. Among members of SPI-B, three are from BIT, one is a communist and four declined to give their names. So much for transparency. Last month, Simon Ruda, a BIT co-founder, stated that fewer than one per cent of its staff supported Brexit. If behavioural science is meant to correct the biases that lead us into making poor decisions, surely diversity of opinion should be encouraged?

Spun off from the Cabinet Office in 2014, BIT is now a global consultancy with 250 staff. In December, the government announced it will sell its one-third stake to innovation agency Nesta, whose Chief Executive stated in the Financial Times that “tackling Covid has shown what, properly applied, behavioural insights can do.” Mask-wearing, apparently, shows compliance with social norms and is a wider signal for others to take precautions.

Project Fear 2.0 included the daily Terror at Tea-Time press conferences, with their update on the Covid death toll. Even today, the tally is a context-free zone. We are still told nothing about, for example, how many people have recovered from the virus and been discharged from hospital. Why not? We need some positive news, not more doom porn.

Who doesn’t know people who are still reluctant to leave their homes? After almost two years of relentless bombardment about disease and death, caution is understandable. Fearing contamination – especially during the Hands, Face, Space phase of messaging – householders disinfected their deliveries or left them outside their front doors for days.

Given we still have a state broadcaster and the millions shovelled their way, it is unsurprising that much of the media have become outposts of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. In the context of the Government’s Covid response, we heard too few voices of dissent and too much cheer-leading for the dystopia it was creating.

The messaging and manipulation is beginning to look counter-productive. Children have foregone their MMR jabs not least because parents heeded warnings about avoiding GP surgeries and hospitals. On Wednesday, a study by John Hopkins University found that lockdowns had little impact, perhaps reducing the death rate by 0.2 per cent.

Last July, Laura Dodsworth published A State of Fear – How the Government Weaponised Fear During the Covid-19 Pandemic. Endorsed by Lord Sumption, it was dismissed by The Times’ David Aaronovitch as ‘an outrageously dumb book selling conspiracy hooey’. Thankfully, some MPs are finally starting to do their job of holding the Executive to account and we might get to see whose call is correct.

Public policy often tries to change our behaviour. Being encouraged to eat five a day is, however, completely different from being coerced into ceding our freedoms, human rights and liberty. Ethics vanished.

As Prof Halpern noted, “Many experiments are run which depend on the subject not knowing they are part of the experiment.”

We, the lab rats, eh?

The two variables that will predict the extent of the NHS winter crisis. And what we can do about them.

16 Dec

Over the last few weeks, and in the months preceding, there’s been a huge amount of media coverage about the NHS’s “looming winter crisis”. “The NHS staffing crisis is killing people – and this winter it will be even worse”, reads one paper, and you can expect fears to increase as we head towards January, when demand for health services normally peaks.

Clearly there are reasons to be worried about what lies ahead, due to multiple pressures on the NHS, which has been put on its level of emergency preparedness due to the Omicron variant. There’s the strain caused by the “twindemic” of flu and Coronavirus, both of which flourish in winter; the fact that millions of non-Covid procedures, including operations, have been scrapped to ensure that GPs and otherwise can focus on urgent needs and vaccinations; and there are staff shortages too. It’s estimated that the NHS has a shortfall of up to 100,000 employees in total, with vacancies for medical practitioners rising 15 per cent in the last year and seven per cent for nurses. 

Are we about to head into one of the worst crises on record? When I ask Dr Raghib Ali, Senior Clinical Research Associate at the University of Cambridge and a consultant at Oxford University Hospitals, where we are on a timeline of events, he replies “If you mean [by a crisis] ‘will the NHS not be able to deliver all services, as was the case in both the first and second waves, then that is likely – in fact, it’s already happening to an extent because some elective services are being cancelled in some places.” He explains that “the NHS is under a lot of pressure now because of non-Covid… we’re much, much busier than we were certainly in the first wave and, to an extent, even the second wave.”

Ali believes that there are a number of variables that will influence what January looks like. One is how big the backlog is of a) the people who avoid coming into hospital around Christmas and b) those currently staying away, in their own “voluntary lockdown”.

The crucial factor, though, is how effective vaccines are against hospitalisations for the Omicron variant. In short, the less effective, the more hospital beds will start to fill up. Ali says that we should have the hospitalisation data in around one to two weeks, which will mean SAGE – and the Government – is far more able to predict what kind of winter the NHS is in for, and whether it should take preventative measures.

Should the worst outcome prove true (that hospitalisations increase rapidly as a result of Omicron), expect Keir Starmer to use this to argue that the Government did “too little, too late”, even though he knows Boris Johnson would have an extremely challenging time trying to get any more restrictions through (judging by Tuesday’s vote). Were the Labour leader to be granted a vote on the measures, which he’d probably vote through, he could still take the view that they were introduced too late or not enough, as a means to knock the PM.

When I ask Liam Fox, also a doctor, about where we are in the “crisis” timeline, he says we have a chronic problem of under capacity. “I think the question we have to ask is why is it that the NHS seems at almost all times of the year now to be in what we used to call a winter crisis, and what does this tell us about the capacity of the system and the way it’s being run?” 

Fox cites two major factors that are destabilising the system. One is that “the NHS runs at a bed occupancy rate that is too high” which “leaves it lacking resilience” if demand changes suddenly (e.g. Covid patients increasing).

The other is medical practitioners’ “lack of ability to discharge patients who don’t need to be in hospitals” partly due to the closures of community hospitals and respite care – particularly in the 90s. He says that “we’ve been obsessed with increasing high-tech medicine, without considering convalescence as a concept”, which is – in turn – leading to imbalances in healthcare.

Similarly, Ali believes that part of dealing with NHS pressures means working out how to physically discharge patients (who have been medically discharged), who don’t have support afterwards. He believes that key to solving this is better funding for social care; and that this would be economically wise, too, as the cost of hospital beds being taken up by medically discharged people is probably more than the cost of paying social care workers more (who can look after them).

The Government has made a start on tackling this area. Hotels have been transformed into temporary care facilities, for one, and workers from Spain and Greece have been flown in to take care of patients. It seems ministers are well aware of some of the main ways to relieve the strain on the NHS, but they will come under pressure to create reforms for the long-term.

In conclusion, it’s impossible to predict whether the NHS was justified to move into its highest level of emergency preparedness, mainly due to the unknowns about the Omicron variant, which – in the best case scenario – could be highly transmissible, but less severe than others. There’s also the booster jab programme, whose success could radically change the situation. But the Government does know what structural remedies can help it avoid, as one paper put it, “the worst winter.”

Robert Halfon: Distracted by Covid, policymakers run the risk of creating a mental health epidemic in schools

1 Dec

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.

For me, the major concern presented by Omicron is not so much about whether we will be sitting down to Christmas dinner this year, but whether the country is moving again towards de facto school closures.

Even with the vaccination of millions of teachers, support staff and pupils over aged 12, hundreds of thousands of children are still being sent home to isolate. According to the Department for Education’s latest figures, as of November 11 2021, 130,000 of all pupils on roll in state-funded schools did not attend school for Covid-19 related reasons.

Dr Jenny Harries, Chief Executive of the UK Health Security Agency, confirmed directly to me that, like other forms of Covid, thankfully, children are less at risk from the new variant. Moreover, children are not significant vectors for transmission.

Readers may recall from my last column that I recently introduced a 10 Minute Rule Bill, backed by the current and former Children’s Commissioners, and by two previous Children’s Ministers, which aims to prevent future school closures.

The Bill would introduce a ‘triple lock’ of protections to safeguard against any future school closures, except in cases of extreme emergency. The Government would have to seek the advice of the Children’s Commissioner on the necessity of closing schools, hold a debate and vote in Parliament to agree the measure, and then seek the further advice of the Children’s Commissioner and a further vote by Parliament every three weeks to place a strict time-limit on any future disruption.

Ministers follow the science and advice from SAGE and the JCVI when it comes to our health, so it is only logical that they must also follow the advice provided by the Children’s Commissioner and those with the best interests of our children at the heart of their mandate.

Statistics published by the Education Policy Institute show that primary aged children were 3.4 and 2.2 months behind in maths and reading. For disadvantaged pupils, this is even great with 4.2 months and 2.7 months of lost learning respectively.

In 2019-20, the number of children being referred for mental health treatment soared by 60 per cent. In the same year, there was a 46 per cent rise in child eating disorder referrals.

The question that policymakers should be asked is: when considering the risks of Covid to children (minimal – thank goodness), do they also consider the perhaps bigger risk of creating a secondary mental health epidemic, and damage to children’s life chances and educational attainment?

There are three measures the DfE should take to combat these rising mental health challenges.

First, every child must receive a mental health assessment. This is important to understand the full scale of the problem.

Second, Ministers should rocket-boost the proposal in the recent Young People’s Mental Health Green Paper to place a designated senior mental health lead in every school by 2025.

The What Works Centre for Wellbeing has identified that good mental health and wellbeing at age 14-15 has a significant and positive association with educational attainment at age 18. Furthermore, research published by the DfE shows that pupils with better emotional wellbeing at age seven were more than one term ahead of pupils with poorer emotional wellbeing.

Third, we know that social media is like a wrecking ball for young people’s mental health.

According to NHS Digital, 16.7 per cent of children aged 11-16 said the numbers of ‘likes’, ‘comments’, or ‘shares’ they received had a significant impact on their mood. The Royal Society for Public Health found that one in six young people will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their life and that four of the five most used social media platforms make their feelings of anxiety worse.

Perhaps most tellingly of all, a USA Congressional hearing on social media showed that Facebook knew about the harmful mental health effects that Instagram was having on young girls.

The Treasury should introduce a mental health levy for social media giants. Ofcom published a report earlier this year which stated the revenue for social media companies is £4.8 billion. Introducing a two per cent levy could create a funding pot of around £100 million. This could then be distributed to schools to provide mental health support and digital skills training for young people to build the resilience and online safety skills they need.

Teaching and implementing resilience tools and techniques as a means of preventing worsening mental health are fundamental.

I recently visited Newham Collegiate Sixth Form and met with students. The Headteacher described the preventative work they do in the school to help equip students with the mental health tools they need to cope with the hurdles the world puts in their path.

For example, a coach is employed to work with students to develop techniques to conquer their anxieties and school assemblies are utilised to teach the tools needed to help manage highly pressured environments. In private study periods, the desks are set up to resemble an exam hall to help pupils become familiar with the setting so when it comes to a real exam, it does not trigger a reaction causing the student to underperform.

As the Head said to me: “Whilst recognising the seriousness of mental health diagnoses when they occur, we mustn’t allow the narrative of ‘mental health’ to become the crutch that every little challenge is defined under”.

Prevention and resilience are the key weapons that should be amassed to build this arsenal of tools and techniques which can be replicated across the country to conquer poor mental health in our children.

Above all, ensuring that schools are not a revolving door of openings and closures for children is the best way to support young people’s mental health and improve their educational attainment and life chances.

Robert Halfon: How my new Bill can protect millions of pupils and students from the disaster of future school shutdowns

3 Nov

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.

Between the start of the pandemic and July 2021, British children were out of the classrooms for almost half of the available school days, wielding a hammer blow to their education and wellbeing.

Educators and school staff made a herculean effort throughout the pandemic to react to evolving circumstances, but as we all know, the classroom is the best place for our children to learn and develop to reach their full potential.

This is why today, I am introducing a new 10 Minute Rule Bill to protect millions of pupils and students from the disaster of future school shutdowns.

The Bill has the backing of Children’s Commissioners past and present, as well as two former Children’s Ministers – Edward Timpson MP and Tim Loughton MP. Dame Rachel de Souza commented, “we must do everything we can to keep children in school and this Bill provides the opportunity to do just that.” Anne Longfield noted, “Never again must schools have to compete with pubs, theme parks and Primark to open…We should be in no doubt that keeping children in educational settings is a priority so I support this Bill.”

I also appreciate the strong support of UsforThem parents group for this Bill alongside all their campaigning to keep schools fully open for all our children over the pandemic.

My Bill seeks to define schools and education settings as “essential infrastructure” alongside other premises such as power stations, hospitals and food retailers which are fundamental to the smooth running of the country, and to our daily lives.

The Bill will also introduce a ‘triple lock’ of protections to safeguard against any future school closures, except in cases of extreme emergency.

The triple lock would require the Government to seek the advice of the Children’s Commissioner on the necessity of closing schools, hold a debate and vote in Parliament to agree the measure, and then seek the further advice of the Children’s Commissioner and a further vote by Parliament every three weeks to place a strict time-limit on any future disruption.

We rightly follow the science and advice from SAGE and the JCVI when it comes to our health, so it is only logical that we must also follow the advice provided by the Children’s Commissioner and those with the best interests of our children at the heart of their mandate.

But let me be clear. I am not a lockdown sceptic – I am a school-down sceptic.

School closures have contributed to a widening attainment gap, a worsening mental health crisis, not to mention numerous safeguarding hazards and diminished life chances.

Even before the pandemic, disadvantaged pupils were already 18 months of learning behind their better-off peers by the time they took their GCSEs. But school closures have turned the attainment gap into a chasm.

Research published by the Education Policy Institute has shown that by March 2021, the average learning loss for primary school pupils in maths and reading were 3.4 and 2.2 months respectively. For disadvantaged pupils, this was even greater, with 4.2 months lost in maths and 2.7 months lost in reading.

Moreover, it is estimated that school closures will cost our young people between £78 and £154 billion in lost earnings over the course of their lifetimes. And these figures represent an optimistic outlook. If we allow ourselves to consider a more pessimistic view, lost earnings could be as much as £463 billion.

Report after report speaks to these harms, but they were not an unfortunate inevitability of an international public health emergency. Our children have missed more than double the amount of school than children in other countries.

Children in Belgium missed just four per cent of their school days. In Sweden, education settings remained physically open to under 16-year-olds throughout the pandemic. In fact, British children have missed more school than any other country in Europe except Italy.

The facts speak for themselves and testify to what we know instinctively as parents and human beings.

A tablet is no substitute for in-person schooling. A laptop cannot replace the enriching and skills-building environment that a school community provides. A screen cannot replace the social interaction and friendships that are the essential building blocks of childhood.

Schools represent the North Star for children’s prospects and life chances. They provide structure, they provide a safe space to support children’s positive mental health and they provide a vital sanctuary for vulnerable children. What could be considered more “essential” than this.

It would be inconceivable to close power stations, hospitals and food retailers during a time of crisis. And rightly so – they are the lifelines to our communities. It is time we treated our schools with the same reverence – both in word, and more importantly, in deed.

We must learn from our experiences over the course of the pandemic to make sure that we prioritise children’s education moving forwards. We owe it to our young people to safeguard the educational futures that Covid-19 put on hold. Anything less would be a dereliction of duty.

Does the Climate Change Committee have too much power?

7 Jul

Last month, it was reported that “Ministers ‘should urge public to eat less meat’’. Such is the view of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) – which has advised people to consume less dairy and meat in order to help the UK meet its environmental targets.

For many Brits, the very existence of the CCC will come as a surprise – never mind that it is now offering guidance on what to eat. But the public is likely to become much more aware of it, and its recommendations, because of the Government’s desire to meet its Net Zero targets (set by the CCC), and the publicity about their costs

The CCC has also had some high profile critics, such as Nigel Lawson. In a letter to Parliament in 2019, he claimed that the CCC’s recommendations were not accurate and reliable and, furthermore, that “it is essential that Parliament has time to scrutinise new laws that are likely to result in astronomical costs.” Did he have a point?

First of all, it’s worth explaining the CCC – and its history. The body was established under the Climate Change Act 2008, which legally binds the Government to reducing UK carbon dioxide emission “by at least 80 per cent by 2050, compared to 1990 levels”.

It stipulates that the Government must create a committee in order to achieve this – hence the CCC. The CCC website says it’s an “independent, statutory body” that aims to “report to Parliament on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for and adapting to the impacts of climate change.”

As of 2017, Lord Deben has been Chair of the CCC. He was previously the Conservative MP for Suffolk Coastal and now holds a series of roles, such as Chairman for Sancroft International (a sustainability consultancy) and Valpak (a leading provider of environmental compliance).

Other Committee members include a behavioural scientist, Director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate and an environmental economist. One member has recently had to step down because of a potential conflict of interest (more here).

While the CCC has kept quite a low profile, it has provoked mixed reactions – with some sharing Lawson’s cynicism about its role. Ben Pile is the author of the Climate Resistance blog and sceptical about the costs of Net Zero.

He tells me that in the era the CCC was created, “there was a tendency towards technocracies (such as Tony Blair’s decision to grant the Bank of England independence) and to push important decisions to those.” He calls this “the post-democratic model of politics”.

Pile adds that parliament, unsure of how to reach its own environmental targets, “essentially gave all of its power in this domain to the CCC”. The problem with this, however, is that “when there are debates about climate change and targets, no one votes against anything.” He adds that “they might as well not have a debate”, even when discussing trillions of pounds, and pushing an agenda that the “public just aren’t interested in.”

Andrew Montford is Deputy Director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, an all-party and non-party think tank, “which, while open-minded on the contested science of global warming, is deeply concerned about the costs and other implications of many of the policies currently being advocated.”

I ask Montford if the CCC has become too powerful, but he says it’s more about influence. “Their word is in the UK taken as gospel, and if they say we need to move faster, then the Government tends to just say, well we need to do something,” he says. “They are in a position where they can bully governments into moving faster than perhaps governments would like.”

He agrees that there is “very little democratic oversight of what they do” and “they have pushed very hard on renewables… and there are other views”. Furthermore, Montford says “The committee’s got to be much more balanced… The whole thing is built around the idea that the general public’s interests revolve around the climate in 2050, and actually people have more immediate concerns, and those angles aren’t really addressed.”

Sam Hall, Director of the Conservative Environment Network, on the other hand, is more positive about the CCC. For starters, he says that David Cameron was an initial supporter of the Climate Change Act, which led to its inception, and that “as Conservatives, we should feel some ownership over this framework”.

He adds that “the fact that it’s expert, independent-advised” should mean “that targets can be less politicised” and that the Government doesn’t have to follow the CCC. “The Committee on Climate Change is there to provide that expert independent advice to inform policy-making, but ultimately it doesn’t make those decisions, so it wouldn’t have a veto on any changes to our climate targets.”

It strikes me that the closest thing to the CCC it is the Electoral Commission, but Hall points out that the EC has stronger powers (“to fine and take people to court”). The Office for Budget Responsibility might be a closer comparison. Montford thinks it is more like SAGE. (“politicians find it very hard to stand up to scientists… because then you’re anti-scientist, aren’t you.”)

Has the CCC become too powerful in politics? Although not exactly akin to the EC, you could conclude that, like it, it is part of the quangocracy legacy of the 2000s.

Its website certainly seems impressive and objective, as do its reports. However the biggest issue going forward may be one of public awareness. Frankly, I’m not sure many people are alert to the inner operations of the CCC, nor how big the bill for its recommendations are going to be.

It seems to me that such big decisions need – at the very least – more public votes, and attempts to keep the country’s environmental transformation committee-led, however sophisticated the committee is, will come back to bite.

Emily Carver: Many scoffed at the idea it would be hard to regain our freedoms. Yet the Government shows no sign of handing them back.

16 Jun

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs

There are people in this country who would be quite happy to continue with the current restrictions on our lives – social distancing, mask wearing and the closure of sectors of our economy – in perpetuity.

For anyone in doubt, a recent media interview revealed this quite plainly to be the case. Dr Richard Taylor, former independent MP, now Co-Leader of the National Health Action Party, said that his preference was for the lockdown to “continue indefinitely”. By his own admission, the reason he is so relaxed about the societal and economic damage this would reap is because he is “extremely selfish” and quite happy with his own “self-contained life”. Suffice to say, I was gobsmacked.

You might say, well he’s clearly a public health zealot and that at least he was honest. But he’s certainly not alone in this view. It’s not a conspiracy that leading advisers to our government have become so tunnel-visioned in their approach to public health that their aim now appears to be to eliminate all risk – at least from this one threat – at any cost.

Professor Susan Michie, a member of the Communist Party of Britain and SAGE scientist who openly endorses a “zero Covid” strategy, revealed on Channel 5 News that she believes social distancing, including mask wearing, should continue not only into the long-term but forever.

It is terrifying and depressing in equal measure to think that such extreme views may be reflected in the Government’s current strategy. Now, as we face an indefinite delay to the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown, it appears as if all cost-benefit analyses on restrictions have been thrown out in favour of a strategy to avoid Covid deaths at all costs, without even a pretence of parliamentary scrutiny.

More worrying for the culture of this country, is that it’s not just public health enthusiasts and risk averse bureaucrats who seem to adhere to this way of thinking. A YouGov snap poll yesterday found that 71 per cent of English people support the delay, with 41 per cent saying they “strongly” support it. According to the survey, only 24 per cent of those living in England oppose the delay, with 14 per cent saying they “strongly” oppose the decision.

Even if we allow for a large margin of error, it’s clear that most people in this country remain on board with the Government’s lockdown experiment – even 15 months after we were told “three weeks to flatten the curve”. But is this that surprising considering the UK government and Public Health England spent nearly £300 million last year on ad campaigns to frighten the public into submission?

We continue to hear the same old refrain from parts of the establishment media. What’s another two to four weeks of delay? Surely, if we’re cautious now, we can avoid another full lockdown? And the dreaded “save one life” fallacy: restrictions are worth it if they save one life, right?

It’s interesting how this consensus is dominated by those little impacted by the restrictions still in place. Could it be that those in secure public sector jobs, those still working from the comfort of their homes or on furlough, or those who don’t particularly enjoy a trip to a night club haven’t really noticed a difference in their quality of life and are therefore quite happy to take the moral high ground now?

Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve thought it wise to resist engaging in intergenerational warfare over Covid, not least because it has been the elderly who have fallen victim to this disease.

However, with the upper age groups and the most vulnerable near fully vaccinated, it is unjustifiable for restrictions to remain on the young, the vast majority of whom have given up their freedoms despite being at little risk of harm. Ironically, it may be that the elderly take back their freedoms first, with certain activities closed to the not yet doubled-jabbed.

But with 81 per cent of over 65s saying they either “strongly support” or “somewhat support” the delay, Boris Johnson is under little to pressure to change tack. It’s highly likely he’ll continue to outsource responsibility for our pandemic policy to his narrow clique of scientific advisers.

And it’s not just because young people are selfish that they are more likely to oppose the continuation of these measures. If you look at the latest labour market figures, it is those under 25 who saw the largest fall in pay-rolled employment in May, despite overall unemployment remaining better than expected.

It is true that older people have also been badly impacted by redundancies and job losses, and young people may, on the whole, be able to bounce back faster. However, many young people have found themselves trapped in a state of adolescent dependency far longer than is healthy since the start of the pandemic, unable to find the kind of jobs in hospitality, events and the arts where they would have previously found employment. This hiatus could even lead to a permanent loss of income over the course of a career, as several economists have predicted. No furlough scheme or income support can replace real-life work experience.

This long-term damage is mere collateral in the Government’s stubbornly cautious approach to unlocking. We were told by Matt Hancock that restrictions would end once the most vulnerable had been vaccinated. This week, the Prime Minister said that the four-week delay was to give the NHS extra time to jab two thirds of the adult population.

Many have scoffed at the idea that it will be a fight to regain our freedoms. But if even vaccinating the most vulnerable won’t allow us to get back to life as normal, it’s hard to see the Government and SAGE loosening their grip any time soon.

David Davis: The Covid public inquiry should open in October, be held in two stages – and prepare for the unexpected

26 Mar

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

While the dedicated staff of our NHS and public services have managed superbly under extreme pressure, it is clear that mistakes have been made during the Coronavirus crisis.

No, let me rephrase that piece of Blairite prose. We have made mistakes. The whole British ruling class. Government, advisers (scientific and otherwise), Whitehall, the lot. And not just this Government, the previous one, and the ones before that.

So it is essential that lessons are learnt. Not just by this Government, but by future governments as well.

So we must establish a public inquiry on the handling of the pandemic.

Needless to say, the architects of our strategy throughout the crisis are nervous about the implications for them, and unsurprisingly they are saying “Yes, but not yet.” Not before the next election, or not before they retire, or move on to their next job.

Unfortunately, that will not do. The principal aim of the public inquiry is not recrimination about the past, it is preparation for the future. Pandemics come out of an apparently clear blue sky, or seem to. They are a peculiar class of threat, one whose eventual arrival is certain, but whose timing is entirely unpredictable.

The sloppy thinkers in Whitehall tend to imagine that if it is going to happen in the next 20 years, the most likely time is in about ten, so we have time to prepare for the next one. They are wrong. There is an approximately equal chance of a new pandemic in every year. There are “wet-market” style interfaces between wildlife and urban populations in Asia, Africa, and South America, and as the urban populations expand there are new opportunities for zoonotic pathogens jumping species all the time.

As public health services expand, depending too much on antibiotics, the risk of new drug resistant bacteria continues. It is probably only a limited time before we have a really virulent strain of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, for example. We do not know whether the next threat will be bacterial, viral or fungal. We do not know whether it will be transmitted by air, by touch, or in our food. All we know is that there will be another pandemic at some entirely unspecified time in the future.

So we need to get a move on with the inquiry, and start as soon as possible. Of course the inquiry must be thorough, and must thoroughly review what went right and what went wrong in the Government’s handling of the pandemic. The public will expect it, and the Opposition will demand it. But the most important thing is that we learn the lessons and develop the template for the next crisis as soon as possible.

What is different from other inquiries is that there is a vast amount of data to design this rapid template for pandemic management, and most of it comes from abroad. Although we have had a spectacular success with our vaccination programme, and a lesser but important success with the RECOVERY programme (that delivered dexamethasone as a valuable therapy), the majority of the most successful strategies were in other countries, most obviously in East Asia.

There is a vast amount of data to evaluate all the national strategies and operational arrangements. There are reasonably accurate data on mortality, infection, recovery and excess other deaths on a daily basis for virtually every country in the world. Similarly there are accurate economic impact assessments available. Along with the genetic mutation data this allows us to track very accurately how the disease travelled, grew, was suppressed and was treated, and assess the effectiveness of dozens of different preventive and therapeutic approaches.

This argues for a two-stage inquiry. The first stage, which could start in October, should report on what the best template is within one year, giving us the best possible chance of dealing with another pandemic whenever it appears. The second stage can (and will) take years, and should review what we did right and what we did wrong.

While such inquiries are normally run by judges, the first stage of the inquiry might be better led by a leading scientist, possibly a past President of the Royal Society or some similarly recognised intellect. What it should not be is chaired by anybody who was an adviser to the Government in the crisis.

So this week the Health Secretary – Matt Hancock – announced that his Department will be setting out plans for a new UK Health Security Agency. The Agency will plan for, prevent and respond to external health threats, such as pandemics.

This is a welcome development to better protect the UK, our population, and communities from future external health hazards.

However, the Government has chosen Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, to head up the Agency. I am not at all sure that this is wise. This is not a reflection on Harries, who may be brilliant. However the Prime Minister himself accepts that there were a number of missteps in the crisis.

These missteps taken by the Government were often based on questionable advice provided by the very same medical advisers who are now being handed the job of looking at what went wrong.

These public inquiries must be led in an unfettered way by an independent actor who is not consciously or unconsciously committed to the strategies that have failed in the past.

In due course the inquiry will review the errors that have plagued some of our Covid strategy. Before the current Government gets too nervous it should realise that many of the errors are rooted in the past, long before the current Prime Minister came to power, and often before the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government government took over in 2010.

So the advisory arrangements – SAGE et al – date back to the Blair years. They were first activated for the H1N1 swine flu outbreak in 2009. They frankly do not work very well. The idea of dumping all scientific advice into one committee is a bit bizarre, the sort of thing that liberal arts dominated Whitehall might do. It can often become dominated by a single strong character with a speciality that is beyond many of the members, as happened with Neil Ferguson and his poorly constructed and opaque mathematical model at the beginning of the crisis.

Similarly the Whitehall structures that are supposed to cope with crises are pretty poor too. The best demonstrator of this was the Operation Cygnus pandemic preparation exercise that was run a few years ago. This so-called command post-exercise was positively harmful, because it persuaded Whitehall that it was ready for a pandemic when all it rehearsed were the coping mechanisms – how many body bags you need, and should you have a mass mortuary in Hyde Park – rather than what you would actually do to minimise deaths. This is a generic problem, not just applicable to pandemics. Their “worst case” Brexit preparation was pretty poor too.

Some of the deep-rooted problems come a little later. The Public Health England structures were largely a product of the Lansley reforms, and they too were visibly not fit for purpose. It was their poor leadership that meant that we failed to hit the target of 10,000 test a day before the end of March, while Germany comfortably hit 15,000 a day in mid March. That incompetence denied the Government the strategies that worked so well for Germany in the first wave.

Then of course there were many decisions made on the fly during 2020. Obviously many of these were wrong, notwithstanding Matt Hancock’s cheerfully optimistic gloss earlier this week. But the public, and frankly anybody with any sense, knows that any government was making decisions based as much on guesswork as on hard data, and the public are very tolerant of that.

The primary area where an inquiry’s criticism is likely to fall is poor strategic management in, for example, the upper levels of NHS management. While their staff were doing a brilliant job, I am not too sure that the decisions on, for example, the deployment of the Nightingales and the private sector hospitals were entirely sensible.

These are the sort of things that will be unpicked over a few years by the second stage of the inquiry. The data will be complex and sometimes hard to establish, so it will take a significant time to resolve. Since it may be commenting on the decisions of individuals it is right that it takes its time. But that is all the more reason to start soon.

So my message to Boris Johnson is do not fear this inquiry: grasp this nettle soon, get the actionable insights quickly, reform and prepare accordingly, and then allow the commission to take its time doing a detailed inquiry over several years. History will judge you well for doing the right thing on this.

Test and Trace has been messy and expensive. But let’s not write it off yet.

11 Mar

NHS Test and Trace, the Government’s system to test and then locate people with Coronavirus, is – as usual – not having a good week. It started when Meg Hillier, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said the programme had failed to make a “measurable difference” in stopping Coronavirus transmission. Furthermore, she warned that “British taxpayers cannot be treated by the Government like an ATM machine”, in reference to the programme’s huge costs.

Soon after, Nick Macpherson, permanent secretary at the Treasury until 2016, Tweeted that Test and Trace “wins the prize for the most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time. The extraordinary thing is that nobody in the government seems surprised or shocked. No matter: the BoE will just print more money.”

Then there were the newspaper write-ups, none of which were particularly flattering. “Test and trace has been a costly failure”, read one headline, and others followed in the same vein, detailing the staggering costs of Test and Trace – £22 billion and counting, with some consultants paid more than £6,000 per day to work on it.

The truth is, of course, that there have been a lot of issues with Test and Trace since it began in May 2020. From when the NHS’s Test and Trace app did not work, to technical glitch that meant almost 16,000 Covid-19 cases were lost in England, it’s been problem after problem, and no doubt there will be more to come. Yes, the cost is enormous and the UK might regret the whole thing one day.

Even so, it seems to me that some of the criticisms levelled at this project have become hysterical and unfair. Test and Trace, in fact, has been turned into the villain of the Coronavirus crisis – along with Dido Harding, who manages the programme – in a way that’s making it harder to decipher its actual efficacy. The criticisms may even exacerbate some of the issues contact tracers have had (more on this later).

Some of the most dramatic claims about Test and Trace have come from Labour, whose MPs have been particularly preoccupied with Serco, one contractor for the programme. Jeremy Corbyn said that parliament had used £37 billion to pay Serco for a “failed Track & Trace system”, and Rachel Reeves complained about the “Government’s outsourced, Serco-led Test and Trace system.”

Full Fact, the UK’s independent fact checking organisation, has set out the reasons why Corbyn and Reeves’ claims are “misleading”, as Test and Trace uses many public and private contractors, and it is actually testing that “accounts for the vast majority of the programme’s costs”. Full Fact also points out that £37 billion is the budget for Test and Trace, not how much has been spent. But one suspects the demonisation will continue…

In all of this, hardly anyone has praised the Government’s ability to upscale testing. Early on in the crisis, the media called for ministers to get “more tests” at every opportunity, and this was the World Health Organization’s advice too. The Government rose to the challenge, and has managed to conduct 1.5 million tests a day (!) this week with over 98 million Coronavirus tests having now taken place, an amazing achievement. Who would know, though?

The Government has also made vital progress in tracing the contacts of those who have been infected with Coronavirus. Figures for the week of February 18 – 24, showed that 129,243 people were identified as coming into close contact with another who had tested positive, and that when communication details were available, NHS Test and Trace managed to reach 96.3 per cent of close contacts.

These are very encouraging figures, but one of the problems with Test and Trace is to do with compliance. Research by SAGE in September showed that only 15 to 30 per cent of people self-isolated after being told to by contact tracers. The Government then offered £500 to support people who are on low incomes and would struggle if made to stay home, but Harding said in February that between 40 and 20 per cent of people contacted are still not fully self-isolating.

There are all sorts of reasons that people do not want to comply, and this isn’t a problem just limited to the UK incidentally. But I imagine this is not helped by the media’s determination to deem Test and Trace terrible. Anyone reading these headlines day in and day out might think “hmm, sounds bad. Might not bother then.”

The less interesting story is that Test and Trace has been slowly improving and that it’s expensive, but important, as it can also be used for future pandemics. The reason why it has had so many problems is that it’s been doing a “test drive” in the middle of a pandemic. The Government’s biggest fault is not creating this type of infrastructure in advance. South Korea’s contact tracing system was built following the MERS outbreak in 2015, and ready to go when Coronavirus turned up. Our leaders had the warnings.

Ultimately, some of the criticism directed at Test and Trace reminds me of that which was directed at Kate Bingham when she was Head of the UK’s vaccine taskforce. We have to be careful about coming to conclusions and demonising Harding in the same way. We have no idea what the programme could eventually look like.

It also has to be said that the whole reason we are doing Test and Trace in the first place is because of the UK’s lockdown approach. Test and Trace was our escape route before the vaccines came along. It’s easy to write it off, but some of the criticisms seem to be coming from the same people who wanted to lockdown, and demonised anyone (mainly lockdown sceptics) who warned about the costs. Indeed, when Hillier warned “British taxpayers cannot be treated by the Government like an ATM machine”, I thought to myself: well, welcome to 2020-now. This is the route we’ve chosen, so let’s not give up yet.

Parliament should vote monthly from March on ending the lockdown

23 Feb

Perhaps the most significant moment during Boris Johnson’s statement on the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown came when he was questioned by Paul Bristow.

The Peterborough MP asked the Prime Minister about the five week gap between each of the plan’s five stages.  In sum, his question was: if the date on which each stage is due to begin can be put back, why can’t it also be brought forward?  Why a rigid five week delay?

Johnson’s answer was that the five week gap is “crucial…For instance, we will need four weeks to see whether the opening of schools has caused an uncontrollable surge in the pandemic, and then a week to give advice and so on”.

This five week delay, which gives the plan its inflexible character, is in the Prime Minister’s view “dictated by the science” – and suggests that we were wrong yesterday to suggest that it might be relaxed if better progress than expected is made early.

Strange but true: lockdown sceptics (such as the 13 Conservative backbench MPs, including Bristow, who yesterday urged a faster restiction lift) have today been joined by none other than the high priest of shutdowns – Neil Ferguson of Imperial College.

“Hopefully what we’ll see when each step happens is a very limited resurgence of infections. In which case, there’s a chance we can accelerate the schedule,” he said on Times Radio.  Number Ten insists that this won’t happen.

The sum of the Government’s view will be informed by figures that won’t be in the 60-page roadmap document: its estimate of death numbers, cases and hospitalisations if restrictions are lifted earlier (and therefore of the threat to the NHS’s operability).

The Prime Minister, his top quad of Ministers and SAGE will be worried about how high vaccination failure rates, the number of those unvaccinated and potential new variants could push those figures.

That anxiety was the sum of his answer to the Chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, Mark Harper, who pointed out that groups one to nine in the Government’s scheme will have been vaccinated by the end of April.

These are everyone over 50 and those aged 16 to 64 with a health condition that makes them vulnerable to Covid.  “Those groups account for 99 per cent of deaths and around 80 per cent of hospitalisations,” Harper said.

“So for what reason, once they have been vaccinated and protected from Covid by the end of April at the latest, is there any need for restrictions to continue?”  Johnson reverted to his point that vaccination doesn’t necessarily equal protection.

You might argue that the vaccines need a bit of time to kick in, and that Harper’s date is say a fortnight premature.  Or you may believe that the Prime Minister is right.  Or that all restrictions should end now bar voluntary social distancing, masks and handwashing.

Or you may have a quarrel with details of the proposals.  For example, the restriction on outdoor sports activity until March 29 seems Cromwellian.

Or you may think that some are already honoured more in the breach than the observance – such as the restriction on meeting outdoors with more than one person.

Above all, you may go back to Bristow’s point, and ask why restrictions can’t be lifted more quickly than explained if hospital numbers fall faster than expected.

We lean towards thinking that the roadmap journey looks on the slow side, but acknowledge that the calculations are not easy, and may change: essentially, they boil down to lives v livelihoods, and lives v lives, as they always have: cancer deaths, say, versus Covid deaths.

That’s assuming in this last case, of course, that the NHS is operating as normal, more or less.  But the most pressing question isn’t who’s right or wrong.  It’s who should take the decision – and how often.

Johnson confirmed to Graham Brady yesterday that there will be a vote on the renewal of emergency powers before Easter, which falls this year on April 4.

The Commons should also vote on these at least twice thereafter: at the end of April – which would give the House a chance to test Harper’s view – and the end of May.

Our best guess is that the Commons wouldn’t vote at any point to speed up the Government’s plan, since more Conservative MPs would vote with Ministers than against them, and opposition MPs would abstain at the very least.

But this is beside the main point – which is that the Executive should propose, the Legislature dispose, and that in this case there should be regular opportunities to test the will of the house as the facts emerge.

In that way, life would be breathed into the Prime Minister’s slogan of “data, not dates”.  At the moment, we are being offered data – and dates maybe later than those given, but not earlier.

On one point, however, all can surely agree.  It is wonderful to see so large a proportion of our vulnerable people being vaccinated so fast, due to good Ministerial decisions, scientific prowess and effective management.