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.

Steve Baker: Wanted – a politically and economically viable path to low emissions

23 Feb

Steve Baker is MP for Wycombe, and served as a Minister in the former Department for Exiting the European Union.

No serious person doubts that CO2 is a greenhouse gas or that human emissions of it have contributed to our changing climate. Our legal target of Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050 is water under the bridge, nodded through without a division in parliament despite the scale of the implied changes to all our lives.

I admit I will miss petrol engines, especially in motorcycles, but I have no in-principle objection to Net Zero – other than that there has never been a democratic choice about a policy which means, as our Chief Scientist, Patrick Vallance, wrote in the Guardian, “transformation is required at every level of society”.

My objections are practical questions about how we get there – questions usually evaded by turning back to what we ought to do and why, or by doubling down on misinformation. That can’t go on because socially, economically and politically-unviable policies will not survive contact with the public.

Our current energy crisis is substantially a result of the emissions reduction policies of previous governments, particularly Tony Blair’s. Blair changed course away from the gas and nuclear path established by Conservative governments, which had reduced prices while cleaning up electricity generation and domestic heating. Blair’s renewables drive, which was maintained by all subsequent administrations, has left the UK critically exposed to the regional price of gas, because it is natural gas alone which ultimately guarantees security of supply for the UK electricity network.

It’s rational to have a climate policy, but our climate policies aren’t rational. Our acute crisis is a result of chronic, long-term strategic extremism in energy and climate policy. Policy which has been naïve about geopolitical realities, too inflexible, too dogmatic, too hasty and far too expensive.

Just as with our Covid response, the root of our problems is a failure to conduct robust cost–benefit analysis while focussing too narrowly on a particular problem.

Economists can value the harm done to human welfare by emitting a tonne of carbon dioxide – the Social Cost of Carbon. Estimates vary, but most think it is somewhere between £10 and £40. So if reducing emissions by a tonne costs over £40, we are probably doing more harm to human welfare than the climate change we are trying to prevent.

That is, above £40 per tonne the cure is worse than the disease. Worryingly, nearly all our climate policies are significantly more expensive than the social cost of carbon. Onshore wind costs over £100 per tonne and offshore over £200. Rooftop solar can cost over £1000 per tonne.

In 2009, the then government stopped using Social Cost of Carbon, and switched to what is a called a “Target Consistent” value, which is the price that will have to be paid to meet the target. That is, government stopped considering the overall welfare of the population, focussing instead on meeting the targets.

That change is even more important now we have a Net Zero target. By neglecting the already strained budgets of British households and by loading the public with more and more ambitious targets – for renewables, and heat pumps, for EVs, you name it – ministers have put climate policies on a collision course with socio-political reality.

We are seeing the first signs of public resistance now, and the situation will not improve on our present course. A rational policy for reducing emissions must deal with runaway cost problems, growing concerns about security of electricity supply and pressure on business competitiveness.

The cost to consumers of the renewables drive now stands at around £14 billion a year, around £500 per household. Most of that is subsidies, but the cost of dealing with the intermittency of wind and solar is also rising alarmingly. Despite that vast expenditure, once one sets aside incorrect claims which could amount to misinformation, hopes that renewables would become significantly cheaper have been disappointed. The industry claims their capital and operating costs are falling, but their financial accounts tell a different story. And there is a large queue of renewables operators with rights to extraordinary, index-linked levels of subsidy.

On our current path, there is no scenario in which energy prices return to normal in the next decade. It’s anyone’s guess when this unsustainable position will end but end it must. In the short term, we must cut the multi-billion pound cost of green levies, and admit they have not succeeded and bring these programmes to an end.

We will also need a different medium and longer term approach, reducing emissions but being realistic about what can be engineered at reasonable cost to the British people. We need to think a little less about the targets, and much more about what people can afford.

That leads us to a strategic gas-to-nuclear policy, not all that different from the sound Conservative energy policies inherited by Tony Blair and trashed. Government must allow people to go on using their gas boilers for longer, perhaps mixing in hydrogen, and not force the adoption of heat pumps. The drive to EVs should be relaxed: Government is demanding too much too quickly.

Ministers should restore confidence in North Sea oil and gas exploration to increase domestic supply of these fuels. And it is time to get on with using shale gas. Thanks to outrageous misinformation, the public are concerned about fracking, but the evidence shows it is a technique which can be safely used.

Natural gas is an excellent and a clean fuel. It can give us time to start a major rebuild of nuclear electricity generation. There are real signs that advanced modular reactors are the answer to the production of high-grade industrial heat, one of the hardest areas to decarbonise without pricing our manufacturers out of the international markets.

In the future, there may even be nuclear fusion, but banking on it would be a huge gamble. We will need to maintain a sophisticated and capable society if we are to overcome that technology’s known difficulties, and that means keeping energy costs low today.

The quickest win for the public and the government would be to encourage the construction of a new generation of gas-fired power stations. These would have much higher efficiencies than the existing fleet, which is mostly rather old, and could reduce wholesale electricity prices by as much as a third.

This gas-to-nuclear policy is a sound, balanced approach to emissions reductions. It doesn’t rule out anything – there can still be voluntary adoption of heat pumps and EVs – but it allows the public much more freedom to decide what works for them and how fast they can afford to decarbonise.

That is rational. That is Conservative. And it would work.

Profile: Kate Bingham, leader of the scientific cavalry who came to the rescue in the pandemic

17 Feb

The scientific cavalry, as Boris Johnson dubbed them, galloped to the rescue at the end of 2020, with Kate Bingham in the vanguard.

In May 2020 the Prime Minister had asked her to lead a taskforce in order to identify, procure and roll out as yet non-existent vaccines in order to combat the pandemic.

From December 2020, the first vaccinations were administered, Britons taking part with pride and joy in a programme developed at such astonishing speed that this country found itself ahead of almost all others.

Even Dominic Cummings could not forbear to cheer. In May 2021, while denouncing the Prime Minister, the Health Secretary and the greater part of Whitehall for limitless incompetence and mendacity, Cummings said of Bingham:

“She built a team of people that actually understood what they were doing, and she had the kind of strength of character not to be pushed around.”

Bingham herself has since said that when asked by Johnson to head the Vaccine Taskforce, “I absolutely fell off the chair.” She told the Prime Minister, “I’m not a vaccines expert.”

She knew about therapeutics, ways of treating diseases rather than averting them, and “started off with a classic imposter syndrome as a woman – my first reaction was that I’m not qualified to do the job.”

Bingham “got told off by my daughter”, recipient in the past of maternal pep talks on the theme of “don’t do yourself down”, and consulted a number of experts in order to satisfy herself that she would in fact be able to do the job well; and then accepted, without pay, a role in which she would find herself working harder than she ever had in her life.

She is by training a biochemist, has 30 years’ experience working for SV Health Investors, a venture capital firm which turns new science into new treatments, and proceeded to put together a taskforce which was capable of commissioning all the different stages of developing a new vaccine simultaneously.

The six most promising out of hundreds of possible vaccines were selected, many millions of doses were ordered before it was known whether these six would work, hundreds of thousands of volunteers were recruited on whom the new vaccines would be tested, and manufacturing capacity in Britain was built.

Throughout the pandemic, the media searched for things the Government was getting wrong: an attitude which helps keep Britain relatively free of corruption.

But was the Vaccine Taskforce getting things wrong? Nobody could at first be sure. Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, and Cummings were confident this was the way to go about things, bypassing the bureaucratic delays which were bound to arise if vaccine procurement were run from within the Department of Health.

Sir Patrick already knew Bingham: in his previous job he had been head of research and development at GlaxoSmithKline, and she was acquainted with everyone of any significance in the pharmaceutical industry, as well as herself sitting on a couple of Government scientific bodies.

He had urged her recruitment to this vital vaccines role because he knew of her high abilities and phenomenal energy. She had been appointed on merit.

Journalists in the Westminster lobby knew nothing about all that. They did, however, know that Bingham was married to Jesse Norman MP, a Treasury minister, Etonian and friend of the Prime Minister.

Bingham herself had been at St Paul’s Girls’ School with the PM’s sister, Rachel Johnson, and at Oxford with both the Johnsons.

She is the daughter of the late Tom Bingham, who served as Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice and Senior Law Lord and was widely regarded as the greatest lawyer of his generation.

So she could accurately be described as a member of the Establishment, which is not, in journalistic terms, a fashionable thing to be.

In every generation, the Establishment faces the question of how to guard against the danger that its sons and daughters will become decadent; will enjoy the privileges without accepting the obligations of their position; will lead lives of selfish and arrogant hedonism, and shun public service.

One traditional way of trying to avoid this was to consign children to boarding schools run on deliberately spartan lines, with cold baths, early morning runs, bad food and barbaric punishments all helping to instil a cheerful disregard for luxury; a sense that life was not about personal comfort, but entailed striving for higher ideals.

This programme has in recent years been pretty much abandoned, but elements of it survived into the 1990s at the Bingham family’s holiday cottage in Wales:

“There was no internal plumbing, no heating, no hot or cold water and no sanitation. Instead of a lavatory, both family and guests made do with the El-San, a chemical loo in a stone privy surrounded by lilacs in the back garden, and for any lesser call of nature the ha-ha, which Tom had dug himself many years before. A Council inspection had concluded that the house was in fact unfit for human habitation on every count. It was still so when Tom was made Master of the Rolls in 1992.”

This is from an account written after his death in 2013 by his son-in-law, Jesse Norman.

Kate, born in 1965, was from her earliest years exceptionally energetic. “She could always bicycle a bit faster than the rest of us,” Rachel Kelly, a childhood friend, recalled during a Radio 4 Profile broadcast last year.

To this day, Bingham engages in vigorous sports including running, riding, mountain biking and bog snorkelling. Rachel Johnson, another friend since school, yesterday told ConHome:

“My children refuse to go on holiday with her. It means carrying your mountain bike up a sheer rock face before cycling down a crevasse. And early-morning music practice from 6.00 a.m.”

Academic life was not neglected. Bingham took a first in biochemistry from Oxford. Terence Kealey, one of her tutors, described her as “startlingly intelligent”, “exuberant”, “full of the joy of living”, and added:

“She was quite extraordinarily frank. If she wanted to react to something you were saying, she just said it.”

This is an unusual characteristic. With many members of the professional classes, one has to guess what they think, because their reactions are hidden, perhaps even from themselves, behind a veil of good manners.

Bingham is in various respects a natural leader. Towards the end of dinner she can get everyone to start singing Guys and Dolls, even if nobody but her feels like doing so; and can so enthuse everyone that even those who have no idea of the words end up enjoying themselves.

Kealey regretted that Bingham did not go on to do pure research. She instead took an MBA at Harvard and set out to turn scientific discoveries into therapeutic drugs, which entails, as she told Nick Robinson, assessing new data “very quickly”, doing “very detailed due diligence”, being “very careful how we spend money”, and refusing to reinforce failure:

“If something’s not going to work we kill it off quickly.”

These were among the skills needed to run the Vaccine Taskforce.

Within a properly functioning Establishment, it is generally known, in any walk of life, who is highly competent and reliable, and who is hopelessly incompetent and unreliable.

It is then pretty obvious who ought to get some important job which really must be done well, and who must at all costs be kept away from such a post.

But unfortunately, it is only obvious to insiders, who are open to the charge that they favour their chums, the people with whom they were at school and university.

Cumbersome selection processes have therefore been devised in order to show that the whole thing is not a stitch-up, and to give candidates from non-traditional backgrounds a fair chance.

Quite often, at the end of these processes, which take up a great deal of time, the people are appointed who were known at the start to be the outstanding candidates.

In the case of the Vaccines Taskforce, there was no time for an appointments process, and Bingham was persuaded to take the job, having satisfied herself that she could in fact do it.

In November, the Sunday Times published a series of stories which suggested that her appointment was a stitch-up, and that she was behaving in various disgraceful ways, including the appointment of some PR advisers at a cost of £670,000.

There was no truth in these allegations of disgraceful conduct, but she could not respond directly: any response had to be approved by No10 and the Business department, and it became evident that there had been briefing against her from within the Government machine.

“I was incredibly cross, I was incredibly frustrated, I was hurt,” she said later. She was doorstepped by camera crews, and Sir Keir Starmer joined in and said the £670,000 “cannot be justified”.

It proved extremely difficult to get across an accurate account of what had happened. Bingham had never approved any expenditure – that was done by ministers and officials – and the so-called PR advisers were in fact promoting the NHS Registry, which by the end of 2020 had recruited 360,000 volunteers who were willing to take part in vaccine and other studies, an immensely valuable short and long-term resource, and one where Britain, thanks to the NHS and our tradition of volunteering, has a decisive advantage.

In December 2020, the vaccine rollout began, and Bingham began to be acclaimed as one of the heroes who had made it all happen. In the summer of 2021 she was awarded a DBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

In her various public appearances she has taken care to pay tribute to the many other people who played key roles, and who in some cases saw what needed to be done, and started doing it, well before she came on board.

She has also said that with hindsight, she could see “we should have done cross-party briefings”. She has refused to be drawn into any kind of political point-scoring.

Oxford asked her to deliver the 2021 Romanes Lecture, an annual event in the Sheldonian Theatre since Gladstone delivered the inaugural address in 1892, and quite often given by distinguished scientists.

ConHome this week published Bingham’s lecture, which is entitled From wartime to peacetime: Lessons from the Vaccine Taskforce.

Paul Goodman will tomorrow examine some of the themes from that lecture. At the beginning, Bingham has to pause for a moment, overcome by tears, as she says that 19 years earlier her father was honoured to give the Romanes Lecture, and had discussed the vulnerability of personal freedom in times of crisis.

Omicron or no Omicron, high-income nations should have promoted a more equitable distribution of vaccines

29 Nov

After a fairly “relaxed” few months in the Coronavirus wars, many of us were dispirited last week to learn of the emergence of a highly transmissible new variant, Omicron, which was first identified by scientists in South Africa

In a joint press conference on Friday with Patrick Vallance, England’s Chief Scientific Adviser, and Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer, Boris Johnson levelled with the nation about its seriousness – and what measures the UK would take to combat it, from the re-introduction of compulsory mask wearing and a new PCR test requirement for people arriving at airports. Jonathan Van-Tam, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, has today expanded on the threat it poses.

Whether the Government’s steps are enough will be the subject of many questions over the next few weeks. But perhaps the most important is what Omicron symbolises for the international community; specifically around whether the distribution of vaccines has been as equitable as it could have been.

From the early stages of the crisis, prominent experts and the World Health Organization have warned of the importance of equitable vaccine distribution, first for moral reasons, but also because an imbalance could leave a vacuum for new variants to develop, and evade vaccines/ treatment. The emergence of Omicron has only added to that concern – due to the fact that it emerged in a part of the world with low inoculation rates (only 24 per cent of the population in South Africa has been inoculated).

That the variant was discovered in South Africa does not mean it is where it originated (rather, its scientists have some of the best detection tools); indeed, there are cases in Hong Kong, Canada and the UK. But it has nonetheless opened up the debate on whether more even vaccination rates around the globe could have made a difference, and how many new variants will take off elsewhere without better-protected communities. 

There are still shocking statistics on inoculation rates worldwide; only 2.5 per cent of the population in low income countries, for example, have received full protection, with 3.5 billion people across the globe waiting for their first dose of the vaccine. At the same time, 66 per cent of high-income countries have been vaccinated, with many onto their booster jabs and plans to inoculate children.

Could high-income countries do more? It’s worth saying that many have gone to extraordinary efforts to get vaccines out. In July this year, for instance, the UK began donating millions of vaccinations as part of the international Covax scheme, and has pledged to donate 100 million overseas by June 2022. 

As of September, the United States had donated approximately 140 million doses to around 83 countries, making it the highest donor, followed by China, Japan, India, the UK, France, Canada, Spain, Sweden and Poland

But even these staggering figures – Covax’s initial goal is to provide two billion doses of vaccines worldwide in 2021 and 1.8 billion doses to 92 poorer countries by early 2022 – may need to be improved upon. There will also be pressure on countries to be more flexible about vaccine patents; the European Union is being asked to share more information with others.

Furthermore, some countries may need help overcoming logistical challenges to rolling out their vaccines, from having difficulties with storage, to experiencing shortages in health workers who can administer inoculations. It is not a simple case of more jabs, job done; governments have to consider these additional barriers.

Either way, it’s clear that equitable distribution will become much more of a talking point with the new variant; it is a reminder that the world is in it “together” when it comes to beating the virus. This often seems to be forgotten in all the talk about booster jabs – and it’s a shame that it only gets brought up when growing variants hit home. Even before Omicron, developed nations had a duty to do more here.

James Somerville-Meikle: Religious services are essential for many people; the Government must not stop them again.

9 Nov

James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union.

To ban religious services once could be seen as unfortunate. To ban them twice in a year looks like carelessness.

Unlike Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, this is sadly not a comedy.

The Government has once again prohibited religious services in England as part of its second national lockdown. While places of worship can still open for private prayer, religious services are banned until December 2.

Something that seemed unthinkable at the beginning of the year has now happened twice. We must not allow it to happen again.

While closing places of worship in the first lockdown was extremely painful, it was understood that we faced an unknown virus and the priority was to protect the NHS and save lives. We now know significantly more about this virus and how to control it.

If you’ve been into any church since the summer, you will have probably encountered an army of masked cleaners with disinfectant spray, one-way systems, and people collecting contact details for NHS Test and Trace. The efforts of thousands of volunteers across the country have made churches, and other places of worship, examples of how to make public buildings Covid-secure.

This has given faith leaders confidence to speak out against the ban. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, spoke of the “deep anguish” felt by Catholics at seeing churches closed for services. A feeling shared by many other people of faith.

The decision was also criticised by many MPs and peers during the limited time for debate on the regulations in Parliament. Edward Leigh MP, the Catholic Union President, described “outlawing religious services” as a “disproportionate response to the pandemic”.

Outlawing religious services – taking away a basic pillar of religious freedom – is a grave intrusion into our fundamental human rights. It should never become an acceptable response to the challenges we face, particularly not for a Conservative government.

Talk of “outlawing” religious services is no exaggeration. The Government is not simply asking Christians to stop attending church, or suggesting to Jewish people that they should stay away from synagogues, or encouraging Hindus and Sikhs to give up Diwali celebrations. It is forcing them to do this by using the law.

Of course, it’s not just faith groups who are affected by these restrictions. Daily life has become harder for almost every person in England and had consequences for people across the United Kingdom. Millions are worried about their jobs or businesses. There are a growing number of people in need as a result of this pandemic, and faith groups are often on the frontline in providing help.

People of faith are not asking for special treatment, but for religious services to be treated like other services deemed essential for health and wellbeing. It’s an important test of whether we understand the importance of faith to people’s lives and whether we’re prepared to reflect that in policy.

The new restrictions are significantly different to the full lockdown earlier in the year, in many ways for the better. More institutions are considered to be providing essential services, including schools and universities. A greater number of shops have been given essential status, including garden centres. And there will be far more essential journeys, with people encouraged to go to work if they cannot work from home.

The decision to label more aspects of life as “essential” under the new restrictions may help to avoid the social and economic trauma of a full lockdown. But it has also led to the Government straying into difficult territory by determining what is and isn’t essential in our lives – something which is generally best left to people to decide.

Excluding religious services from this list sends a message to faith groups that collective worship is deemed unnecessary.

This was not helped by the Prime Minister failing to mention places of worship in his speech on October 31. People were left to check on the Government’s website to see how the new restrictions would impact their churches, synagogues, and mosques. For the millions of people for whom prayer and worship is the rhythm of their lives, this omission will have been noted.

It shows that once again the “religious literacy” of those making decisions needs to be improved. A good start would be giving more clout to the Faith Taskforce, which was set up by Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, to advise on reopening places of worship after the last lockdown.

The ban on religious services is particularly frustrating given the lack of evidence for the decision. Are people really more at risk of catching the virus in a socially distanced church service than they are in a garden centre or lecture theatre? Or for that matter is a church used for praying more of a public health risk than a church used for worship?

When pushed for evidence on the spread of the virus in places of worship, Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, told the Commons Science and Technology Committee: “I don’t think we have good data to answer that with any degree of certainty.”

Had any evidence existed, the response from faith leaders would have been very different. People of faith have shown they are just as prepared as anyone to make sacrifices in the national interest. Closing places of worship was accepted earlier this year, while energy was focused on maintaining the services they run – such as food banks and bereavement support groups. Given the lack of evidence for the current ban, faith leaders have every right to complain.

Controlling the second wave of the virus was perhaps always going to be harder than the first. If there’s one thing worse than not having evidence, it’s being faced with a huge body of evidence and needing to make tough decisions.

Increasingly it seems that policy priorities are shaping the Government’s response to the pandemic, just as much as science and evidence. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it means we need to get our priorities right. Policies that allow people to go to a garden centre on a Sunday morning, but not church, suggests that a rethink is required.

Over the next few weeks, difficult decisions will need to be made once again about the way out of lockdown. Above all, this will be a test of what we value. The Government should listen to our country’s faith leaders who have called for places of worship to reopen fully in light of their essential nature.

Banning religious services must not become part of the “new normal.”

Robert Halfon: This time round, let’s keep the schools open – and not risk an epidemic of education poverty

4 Nov

Now is the time to back Boris Johnson

However reluctantly, we need to back Boris on the lockdown.

Regular readers of my column will know that I have been no shrinking violet when it comes to recommending changes to Government policy. But on Covid, I think we have no option but to support the Prime Minister.

When the Chief Medical Officer (CMO), the Chief Scientific Adviser, Public Health England and independent modelling all suggest a huge rise in deaths and an overwhelmed NHS on the current national trajectory, what Government wouldn’t listen to that advice?

As we learned from the comfort of our sofas on Saturday evening, we could see, without action, up to twice as many deaths over the winter as we saw in the first wave – exceeding as many as 4,000 deaths per day.

In September, critics hounded Sir Patrick Vallance for saying that there could be 200 deaths a day from Covid by mid-November. In fact, we reached that figure much sooner, in late October, rising to 326 by 31 October.

Even if some predictions seem wildly high, would the leader of our country really be willing to risk it? Death cannot be reversed.

For those who question the statistics, read my colleague Neil O’Brien’s article on this site and his numerous tweets, explaining the data behind the decisions that are being made.

Of course, there are differing views about the science from the professionals involved – there always will be. But, at the end of the day, if you ignore advice from the top medical and science advisers appointed by the State to look after our health, what is the point in having such appointments in the first place?

Moreover, it is not as if Britain is unique in all this. Belgium, Italy, France and Germany faced a similar fate and have imposed tougher restrictions and lockdowns. Are the Government’s medical advisers in these countries, who are also dealing with a second wave, all wrong?

I just don’t think as a country we can afford to take the view that this is just the sniffles, as the Brazillian President has suggested. As for the comparisons with flu, we have an annual vaccine and significant herd immunity.

Don’t get me wrong, I would have preferred to keep the traffic light tier system as a compromise. I still think we should return to this system in a months’ time. There is real demand for the Government to publish much more data behind its decisions to close certain venues, alongside the impact of lockdown on the economy, livelihoods, poverty, mental and physical health. Apparent anomalies like not allowing pubs to serve takeaway drinks need to be answered.

In press conferences, the Government should do more to emphasise understanding of the devastation these decisions are causing small business owners, their employees and their families, and then set out (in good time) policies to mitigate against these consequences. The Prime Minister’s statement in the Commons on Monday, announcing additional support for businesses and the self-employed through November, was enormously welcome.

However, given that I am not a scientist nor an epidemiologist, if the CMO says that the situation is rapidly becoming much worse, and urgent action is needed, who am I to argue? I certainly don’t think I am an idiot for listening to what they have to say.

So we need to back Johnson at this time. The Government is walking a tightrope between destitution and death. Opposition to what the Prime Minister is doing in a national emergency sows confusion in the eyes of the public. It gives succour to political enemies – who can shout the loudest, without having to take life or death decisions.

Keep the schools open

Of course, more than ever, schools need to be safe for teachers, support staff, children and parents. It is absolutely right that teachers and support staff who are at risk – those who are vulnerable, or need to self-isolate – should be able to stay at home.

However, thank goodness the Chief Medical Officer and others have said that, even with the new restrictions, it is safe to keep schools open and vital for children, pupils and students.

Pointing to the “extensive evidence”, the Chief and Deputy Medical Officers across the UK reached the consensus that “there is an exceptionally small risk of children of primary or secondary school age dying from Covid-19” – with the fatality rate being lower than seasonal flu. In their joint statement, they noted schools are also “not a common route of transmission”. Data from the ONS also suggests teachers are not at increased risk of dying from Covid-19 compared to the general working-age population.

During the last lockdown, around 2.3 million children did no home learning (or less than one hour per day), according to the UCL Institute of Education.

The Education Endowment Foundation estimated that the disadvantage attainment gap could widen by as much as 75 per cent due to school closures.

And just last week, a study reported in Schools Week found that Year Seven pupils are 22 months behind expectations in their writing ability. Disadvantaged students have inevitably suffered the greatest.

Scientific research has shown that it is safe to keep the schools open and that closing them would exacerbate issues relating to children’s mental health and wellbeing, safeguarding and academic attainment.

Throughout this pandemic, the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, has been a powerful advocate for keeping children in school – not only for their education, but mental health and safeguarding. In advance of the lockdown announcement she tweeted, “We’ve always said that schools should be the last to shut and first to open. It would be a disaster for children’s well-being and education if they were to close”. I doubt that the Children’s Commissioner would make such a statement if she thought there was significant risk to those in schools.

Even the Labour Leader, Keir Starmer, told Andrew Marr on Sunday that schools should remain open as we go into a second national lockdown, recognising that, “the harm caused to children by not being in school is huge”.

The Head of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton, issued a response to the Prime Minister’s statement, saying: “It is right that keeping schools open should be the priority in the new national lockdown… Children only get one chance at education, and we have to do everything possible to provide continuity of learning.”

As Serge Cefai, Headteacher of the Sacred Heart Catholic School in Camberwell, told BBC Radio 4’s World at One on Monday: “Good schools and good teachers will always prioritise the needs of the children. And, of course, it’s a balancing act, but we need to understand that the harm in keeping children at home is huge… The idea that sending children home will stop the transmission is absolute nonsense”.

Daniel Moynihan, CEO of the Harris Federation – London’s biggest academy chain of 50 schools – said: “Young people have already lost a large chunk of their education and disadvantaged children have been damaged most. Aside from the loss of education, there is rising evidence of mental health and child protection issues under lockdown. The closure of schools would inflict more, probably irreparable, damage to those who can afford it least”.

So many heads, teachers and support staff are working day and night to keep our schools open. I’ve seen the extraordinary work they do in my own constituency of Harlow.

Other European countries imposing lockdowns have also decided to keep schools and colleges open. In Germany, for example, a conference of Ministers in October stressed that children’s right to an education is best served in the classroom, arguing: “This must take highest priority in making all decisions about restrictive measures that need to be taken”.

The Prime Minister has said that the Government is ramping up testing. Capacity is now at close to 520,000 tests per day. Schools have access to the Department for Education and Public Health England for sound advice and guidance.

To put it mildly, it is disappointing that the National Education Union would rather risk an epidemic of education poverty, rather than doing everything possible to keep our children learning.

Neil O’Brien: The virus and the lockdown. Let’s keep calm and carry on – for there’s reason to believe that a vaccine is coming soon.

2 Nov

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Sarah Thomas is a lunatic. And amazing. About a year ago, she became the first person to swim the Channel four times in a row without stopping. It took 54 hours.

Between booking her slot, and getting in the water, she survived cancer. Setting off, she was immediately stung in the face by a jellyfish. On her fourth crossing, strong tides pushed her off course, turning 83 miles of swimming into 134, forcing her to sprint-swim to break free from the current.

She’s inspiring. And swimming the channel isn’t a bad metaphor for our fight against coronavirus. Metaphorically, we’re somewhere in the middle, when you can’t see Britain, but can’t quite see France either.

The national restrictions announced by the Prime Minister on Saturday underlined that we will still be slogging through this for a while yet. Polls suggest the public strongly back his decision: given the alarming data, it is definitely the right one.

Yet everyone’s tired of the restrictions and not seeing loved ones and friends, and the good things we look forward to once this is over remain a way off.

As we go through this marathon ordeal, what can we learn from Sarah Thomas?

First, most top athletes are taught to visualise success.

Regarding Coronavirus, the finishing line is becoming more visible, with progress on vaccines looking good. The New York Times runs a Vaccine Checker which lets you follow progress.

Eleven different vaccines are in final-stage “Phase 3” clinical trials, with half a dozen or so now seeing limited use outside trials.

There were always reasons to be optimistic about a vaccine: when the whole world wants something really badly, it’s likely to get produced. Producing a vaccine for coronavirus isn’t like inventing the atom bomb or putting a man on the moon, which required oodles of new technologies. A Covid-19 vaccine is a sideways-step from existing technologies. Several categories of vaccines look like they will be ready to roll in the coming months:

  • The Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine is basically a weakened version of a common cold type virus, modified to carry a protein which Covid-19 also shows, so that your body can learn to seek and destroy it without exposure to the real thing. Trials found it produces a good immune response including among older people, and doesn’t have side effects. The UK, US and EU have signed for hundreds of millions of doses.
  • Other vaccines based on a similar approach in final stage tests include China’s CanSino vaccine, Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute and Johnson & Johnson in the US.
  • Another promising approach is based on the use of messenger RNA: a blueprint for making proteins. The Pfizer / Biontech vaccine works like this and may well be the first to go into non-trial use in the US. There was some speculation last week that we could start using it here in the UK before Christmas, which seems a bit soon, but it isn’t far off. Another similar vaccine from the Gamaleya Research Institute is also final stage trials.
  • Finally, there’s a bunch of traditional vaccines based on inactivated versions of Covid-19 (like the Hepatitis B vaccine, which has been around since the 1960s). China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac both offer vaccines like this – the Sinovac one is already being used outside clinical trials and you can buy it in some cities for $60. The Indian Council of Medical Research is also in final stage trials of an equivalent.

So the shore’s not so far away.

The other lesson from Sarah Thomas is about listening to the right people. She says she nearly quit halfway, but her team egged her on.

Contrast that with the British commentariat, large parts of which are dishing out terrible advice. If they’d been in Sarah Thomas’s support boat they’d have been telling her to give up, harping on about how cold it was. They’ve been hopeless throughout.

First, they dismissed the problem. Richard Littlejohn wrote in the Daily Mail on March 2nd/

“My default position on all these health scares is weary scepticism. We’ve been here before. Sars, Mers, Ebola, Bird Flu, Swine Flu… All passed in Britain, at least without the catastrophic death toll the so-called ‘experts’ confidently predicted”.

Wrong.

Then they declared the problem over. In the Daily Telegraph, Allison Pearson wrote in May that that, by June: “a scientist friend assures me the coronavirus will have petered out.” Sunetra Gupta, one of the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, (and who the media fawns over), predicted in May that “the epidemic has largely come and is on its way out in this country”, which she said was “due to the build-up of immunity”.

Wrong.

The commentariat want to shout down wiser voices. In September, Sir Patrick Vallance faced a torrent of abuse for saying that there might be 200 deaths a day from Covid-19 by mid November. “Project fear,” thundered one Telegraph columnist. Piers Morgan blasted the Government’s “scaremongering.”

Wrong.

In fact we hit that grim milestone sooner, in late October, and hit 326 by the last day of October. We need to start listening to the right coaches – not hopeless people who get it wrong time and again, but face zero accountability.

Finally, top athletes learn from the best. In terms of Coronavirus, the best performers are Japan, Korea and New Zealand. France has had 19,800 cases per million people. The UK 14,800. Japan has had just 795, and Korea just 512 and New Zealand 325.

New Zealand is rural, but Japan and Korea are heavily urban. How did they do it?

Partly it’s about near-universal mask use. As the Lancet notes: “In Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea, the habit of mask wearing by people with respiratory conditions was already widespread before the pandemic”. Part of it is that all these countries also have tough virus border controls.

There are other factors. Japan locked down Tokyo at a very early stage. South Korea’s super-duper test and trace system uses records of credit card transactions, mobile phone and global positioning system data, to fill in gaps in what coronavirus patients can remember in interviews.

The most important lesson from Asia is that success breeds success. A low rate of cases makes it easier for test and trace staff to isolate and shut down chains of infection, and contain local outbreaks. Too many cases and such approaches are overwhelmed.

To use an analogy, it took us a long time to work out how to conquer inflation. The key discovery was that the only way to have stable inflation is to have very low inflation.

The same’s true of coronavirus. Either you are beating coronavirus, or it is beating you. It doesn’t want to go in a straight line or rise gently, but to streak exponentially upward. Korea, Japan and New Zealand have got it pinned to the floor, so can get on with their lives. Instead of surrendering, as let-it-rippers in the commentariat advocate, they’ve decided to win.

Unlike Sarah Thomas we don’t have to swim for 54 hours. But we’re all enduring hardships. To get to the other side of this we need to keep thinking straight. It’s easy to be seduced by the idea that there’s some easy way out. There isn’t.

When she was far out to sea, her team called to her: “Just keep swimming.” At first, I thought that sounded really dumb. But when you are out in the middle of the Channel, it’s not such bad advice.