James Frayne: Public support for the Government appears to have dropped – but not when it comes to individual policies

4 Aug

The conventional wisdom on the polling is the Government is fast losing public support on its handling of the Coronavirus crisis – and therefore that the Government is handling the crisis badly in reality.

While it’s true that the polls have moved against the Government from the early days of the crisis when approval ratings were sky high, the story isn’t as simple as the public turning against the Government.

Interestingly, on individual policy announcements, for example the Northern lockdown, public support remains high. The public back the Government on specifics, but not in the round. So what’s happening?

Let’s begin by looking at the polling on general Government popularity measures. The picture is clear: the public has become less sympathetic over time.

  • ConservativeHome’s newly released panel survey showed the PM’s popularity has slipped for the third month in a row.
  • YouGov’s tracker on perceptions of the Government’s handling of the crisis has shown a steady decline since the Spring.
  • Opinium’s tracker shows the same, with their most recent figures showing a net disapproval rating of -15. They also show a relatively narrow lead over Labour in the voting intention tracker.
  • A new study by Ipsos-Mori and KCL revealed an array of metrics showing public concern about the way the pandemic has been handled.

But now let’s look at the data on individual policies.

  • People appear to very strongly support the Government banning separate households meeting indoors in those parts of the country where the infection rate has risen.
  • People appear to strongly support the Government’s announcement that those with Coronavirus symptoms should now self-quarantine for 10 days rather than seven.
  • The majority of the public appears to be unsympathetic to those British people that went to Spain and got caught out by the demand to self-quarantine on their return – a decision for which the Government received enormous criticism.
  • People also appear to support restaurants having to show calorie counts on their menus – a suggestion the Government was said to be considering as part of No 10’s new focus on obesity. (I actually think this would drop like a stone when faced with a counter argument on burdensome regulations during a pandemic, but that’s another conversation).
  • The polls show the public support the requirement to wear masks in supermarkets and they want the supermarkets themselves to be tougher on compliance, presumably by refusing entry to those without masks or refusing service at the till.
  • The use of face masks has surged dramatically more generally.

What accounts for these stark differences, where the Government is losing support but where the public actually back its main policy announcements? There are a number of reasons why this might be the case.

First, it’s possible the public actually still favour extremely tough measures overall – much tougher than the Government is prepared to take. It’s possible they still favour what amounts to a near full-lockdown and, therefore, the support they give to specific policies is almost given in exasperation – as if to say: “of course they should do this, why haven’t they done so before?”

I think this is very likely the case among older and more affluent people, where the mix of fear and an ability to work from home and maintain their living standards means they take a very safety first approach. It might still be the case for many others.

As I’ve written before, the Government’s reputation has also ultimately been perversely damaged by the huge success of the furlough scheme. The fact that it worked smoothly and held up most people’s earnings meant it acted like morphine; it made people think the pandemic was almost exclusively a health crisis, not an economic one.

It made many think that the lockdown was a perfectly acceptable way to spend several weeks – not something that was crippling the economy. As such, many people believed, and still do, that the lockdown should keep going indefinitely. Were they exposed to job losses and higher taxes, they’d likely change their minds on this quickly.

In summary, it’s possible the Government is being punished for opening up the country too early.

Second, it’s possible that the little minorities of people who oppose Government action on, say, increasing the quarantine, actually all mount up to a majority overall, which brings down Government support.

So, a significant minority in the North of England might be angry about the new lockdown there, while a significant minority of holidaymakers might be angry about the new quarantine demands, and so on. In the end, the angry and annoyed on one issue accumulate to a large number. It’s as if everyone’s annoyed, but for different reasons. There’s also clearly just generally a virus fatigue: “when will it ever end?”

Third, we have to look at the role of Government communications. The Government has been accused of giving out mixed messages in recent weeks – most recently, encouraging people to go to restaurants while also telling people to stay apart and wear masks, or encouraging people to go to restaurants while telling them to eat healthily.

The Government’s view appears to be that they need a degree of ambiguity – yes, to encourage people to return to some form of normality, while always reminding them to take care because the virus hasn’t gone away. I have sympathy with this because the medium-term future is so uncertain and because the Government is balancing outrageously complex and high-stakes issues.

In truth, no one really knows what’s going to happen. However, the fact remains that their messages and stated priorities can look contradictory – and this in turn can make them look disorganised, which in turn can eat into their reputation for competence.

Fourth, it looks like party politics is returning to the public mind slowly. The gaps between Conservative and Labour voters on questions of competence and general handling reveal huge differences in opinion.

In short, Labour voters think the Government has done a bad job, even if they give support to specific policy ideas, while Conservative voters are cutting the Government slack. If Starmer starts drawing a greater contrast between Conservative and Labour policies – most obviously over economic recovery policies – we should expect these differences to become starker.

Where will the polls go? It’s hard to say. If there’s another serious spike in cases and another health emergency develops, it’s possible that people will again rally behind the Government for doing a difficult job in difficult circumstances.

But I suspect, in reality, now people have become accustomed to the habits and language of the pandemic, and now Labour has a basically competent leader, that the Government’s approval ratings will return to where you’d expect a Government that has been in power for a long time to be – with a divided country and a very large number of disgruntled voters.

Local lockdowns are dispiriting – but there are reasons to be hopeful about the battle against Coronavirus

1 Aug

On Thursday evening, Matt Hancock posted a series of Tweets that sent the UK into disarray. He wrote that the Government had “seen an increasing rate of transmission in parts of Northern England” and would subsequently not allow people from different households to meet indoors in Greater Manchester, Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Hyndburn, Pendle and Rossendale, starting from midnight.

Events moved quickly the next day, in which Boris Johnson elaborated on the decision that had been made. At a 10 Downing Street press briefing, he announced that lockdown easing would be postponed in England and that the country would have to “squeeze the brake pedal”, as “the prevalence of the virus in the community, in England, is likely to be rising for the first time since May”.

Even more depressingly, Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, said that “we have probably reached or neared the limits of what we can do in terms of opening up society”.

Alongside the news that England has the highest excess mortality rate in Europe, the spikes being seen across Europe, and the repeated warnings of a second wave, no doubt this has been one of the most disheartening weeks in the Covid-19 crisis so far for many Brits – particularly those living in the affected areas.

Indeed, in these times, it can be hard to feel optimistic about the battle against Coronavirus. But there is a strange paradox to the detection of cases in the North – abrupt though Hancock’s announcement was – and the Government’s swift action.

Far from being a sign of decline, it emphasises the enormous improvements that have been made in the UK’s testing regime. Hence why it is now easy to spot cases.

At the beginning of the crisis, many will remember that the Government was routinely attacked for lack of tests. When the Health Secretary promised to accelerate the testing regime by tens – and then hundreds of thousands – the target seemed preposterous. But big strides were made; 11,722,733 tests have been processed so far, with 206,656 processed today, and testing capacity at 338,585. 

To put this in context, by way of new tests per thousand people, the UK rate is 2.27 (as of July 30. Source: Our World in Data), Belgium is 1.30 (as of July 29), Denmark is 0.79 (July 30), France is 1.38 (July 28), New Zealand is 0.51 (July 30) and Norway is 0.89 (July 27). 

Now that our testing regime is better, there’s no doubt that the UK will have more localised lockdowns. But as the testing, and data, becomes more sophisticated, so will the way that the Government is able to apply its intelligence.

Another reason to feel hopeful is the progress made in developing a Covid-19 vaccine. Last month, a team of scientists at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute and Oxford Vaccine Group trialled one that induced a strong immune response in patients. They have since worked with the UK-based global biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, with the help of a £84 million Government funding scheme, to accelerate its development. The organisation has reported “good data so far” in its large-scale clinical studies.

And that’s not all: the Government has signed up for 60 million doses of a potential Coronavirus vaccine, which is being developed by Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline.

Of course, no one can argue that the Government has been perfect in this crisis – clearly the decision to discharge hospital patients into care homes was wrong, and people will be troubled by the excess mortality rate (although there is some debate as to whether this accurately gives a snapshot of countries’ performances). 

But it can be easy to forget that hospital cases continue to decline (even if cases are going up, it doesn’t mean hospitalisation), as have the number of deaths involving Coronavirus across all English regions. At the same time, treatments and understanding of the virus continues to rise.

And let’s not forget the significant achievements throughout this crisis; the speedy roll out of the Nightingale Hospital; the shielding scheme to protect two million people; the Government’s ability to increase the number of mechanical ventilators in the NHS from 9,000 before the pandemic to 30,000; the emergency arts package, and of course Rish Sunak’s multiple schemes to keep the economy moving.

They were phenomenal logistical achievements that should give us faith about Britain’s ability to deal with what’s next.

The speed at which the nation has improved on testing is only going to bolster its decision-making further – and, indeed, these developments will be seen worldwide as all countries improve in this regard.

In short, it may not feel like it this week, but there are reasons to be hopeful about the future.

Garvan Walshe: Italian governments have failed to revive Naples for centuries. What are the lessons for Red Wall seats?

30 Jul

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. 

A mad weekend dash for sun has just taken me to Naples. The city, its old historical centre, continuously inhabited long before the Roman Empire, lived up to its long-standing reputation for liveliness and chaos.

From the tiny alleys on a Roman street plan overlooked by eight or nine storeys, the abbeys built by Angevin kings, decaying masterpieces of baroque architecture, to fishmonger-restaurants with live produce and massive loins of tuna selling for €10 a kilo, and traffic that makes Rome’s resemble a sedate town in Baden-Württenberg, forty-eight hours there subject you to constant sensory bombardment.

The energy offers the thinnest of disguises of poverty we think vanished from Western Europe. The better-preserved old districts look like East Berlin; the worst reminded my companion of her childhood in Communist Albania. Prices, as well as physical conditions, reflect people’s limited purchasing power.

Below the Port’Alba (a city gate named after the Spanish viceroy notorious for his brutal suppression of the Dutch revolt) hang two nets to prevent falling masonry killing pedestrians that pass through it. The second net has been hung to catch the rocks that pierce the first one. It’s a city heavy with the pall of lost greatness, unable to pay to maintain the memory of its glorious past.

This can’t merely be attributed to the destructive effects of organised crime. Palermo, for instance is in far better shape. Rubbish collection, once a disaster, now compares favourably with that of Brussels.

The city betrays evidence of attempts to revive it through physical and cultural infrastructure. A smart new subway station adjoins the main railway terminus, though the square above it resists attempts to gentrify it with a success only matched by Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens.

A whole new commercial neighbourhood, the Centro Direzionale, replaced former warehouses with Canary-Wharf style towers. The National Archeological Museum and the art gallery in the former Bourbon Palace of Capodimonte are superb and show signs of plentiful public investment.

Rather, they show the limitations of public-spending-led regeneration that concentrates on physical capital, and present a warning of how the Government’s attempts to revive the economy in the “red wall” seats could go wrong.

At its height under the Spanish and later the Bourbons, the Neapolitan economy thrived because of its position as a political centre. The aristocracy extracted wealth from the peasants on their estates and used it to commission palaces, paintings, and other luxury goods, and for political patronage.

This stimulated a strong service-based economy that fell into decline following Italian unification. Though, as Italy’s largest port it had docks, it never had much industry.

The financial and legal services that had served the Kingdom of Two Sicilies were displaced by Milan and Rome, leaving a void as big as the decline of industry in Manchester or Sheffield. Post-war Italian governments tried repeatedly, but without success to fill it. They could reallocate resources from the north, but never managed to get a southern economy to grow on its own.

Naples also stands out as being the largest European city never to have had a home-grown governing class. It has been ruled by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Angevins, Aragonese, Spanish and finally Bourbons, before being reluctantly integrated into modern Italy.

The Bourbons stifled the enlightenment while post-unification Italy focused its energies on the interests of the industrialising north. Anyone who has spent time in the North of England will recognise its identification as unruly, authentically peripheral and ungovernable: the ironic rejection of central authority a badge of honour that covers up the fact their city doesn’t exercise it any more.

Here’s the first trap into which infrastructure-based redevelopment falls: it is liable to be seen as charity for which its recipients, already struggling with a chip on their shoulder, are supposed to feel grateful.

In this respect Naples has much in common with the de-industrialised communities that form the “red wall”. They lack infrastructure, of course, but it is control over the means to define their own purpose that matters more. They lack the political institutions to revive themselves, not only the money to pay for it.

But to receive money is also to give up power: to the ministries in Whitehall and Rome that control the funds, and want, on behalf of the taxpayers to which they are accountable, to ensure the money is well spent (the principle applies even more strongly to the EU’s Covid rescue package, in that the taxpayers and spenders are accountable to entirely different publics).

The second is that it mistakes the results of economic regeneration for its causes. Successful attempts at revival, like Dresden’s or Manchester’s for example, involved making the places attractive for ambitious and creative people to move to.

Now, as Richard Florida and Daniel Finkelstein have observed, that the age of capital-intensive mass manufacturing is over, people don’t move to jobs, but jobs move to where the people are. This means that expanded to include schools, childcare, decent housing, good entertainment and other things that make it easier to have a good life in a town or city, matter more than glitzy new stations. Get these things right and private capital will follow.

This is not to say that depressed areas cannot benefit from financial help, but that if public spending-based revival is to work, it has to be done in a way that enhances the power of the communities into which it is invested, rather than turning them into recipients of the end result of central government cheques paid to large infrastructure companies. If not we’ll end up with a load of melancholy mini-Napleses, but without Neapolitan food, sunshine, or views of Vesuvius.

The Government’s speedy response to Spain reflects what happened in the initial stages of the Coronavirus outbreak

28 Jul

Over the weekend there was enormous uproar about the Government’s decision to apply a 14-day quarantine rule to tourists returning from Spain. It did this at extremely short notice, throwing into disarray the holiday plans of approximately 1.8 million people, many of whom also had the added complication of worrying about their workplace rights.

The decision to impose the rule was instigated by Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, who warned that rising cases in Spain were “statistically significant”, having risen by 6,355 since Friday. Thus the Government felt compelled to act quickly.

On Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Dominic Raab defended the move, saying that a “real time response” was right, and anything else would “muddy the waters”.

This has, of course, not gone down well in Spain, whose tourism industry is highly contingent upon an influx of Brits. Pedro Sánchez, its prime minister, criticised the restrictions, saying that “64.5 per cent of the new cases registered are in two territories” and that in most of the country the prevalence of Covid-10 was “very much inferior to the numbers registered in the United Kingdom”.

Indeed, it is mainly Catalonia in the north-east and nearby Aragón that have seen spikes in infections. Either way, the rate of the infection for the country now stands at 35.1 cases per 100,000, compared to the UK which stands at 14.7 (according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control), hence the newfound concern.

It’s not only the Spanish prime minister who is unhappy about the news, but the travel industry too, which will struggle immensely as a result of the uncertainty it creates.

It has already been reported that large numbers of trips to France, Italy and Greece have since been cancelled, a trend which is likely to grow after Boris Johnson warned today of a second wave across Europe.

The decision could inadvertently exacerbate social inequalities, which the Coronavirus crisis has already highlighted, as those in low-paid, on-site jobs, will be unable to self-isolate versus, say, bankers working from home.

The Government has said that they will be offered universal credit to those whose income is impacted, but the practical implications of being off work for two weeks is not always something the state can mitigate. Furthermore, it could be said that the Government’s move contradicts its own desire to get people back to work on August 1, given all the risks involved.

Although the guidelines will put a dent in many holiday plans, there is some good news at least. According to The Telegraph, ministers are trying to cut the quarantine time for those coming back from Spain to ten days. This move will presumably be extended to other destinations – all the more important as countries such as France and Germany have also seen rises in Coronavirus cases.

Ministers want to reduce the quarantine time by testing arrivals from high-risk countries eight days after they land (Coronavirus takes five to seven days to incubate). If they test negative they will be allowed to come out of self-isolation two days later. This plan should cut almost a working week off the self-isolation period, and as scientists’ understanding and ability to test Coronavirus, hopefully these testing plans can go even further.

One thing that is also worth pondering is whether the risk of quarantine rules were inevitable, too, given that countries are now much more effective at testing. Fears about a second wave may be exacerbated by the fact that governments can better detect the virus now.

Though there is anger at the Government, Raab was right to say that advanced notice of the Spanish quarantine would have caused confusion in the travel industry (though it has happened as a result of the decision too).

Part of the Government’s fast response to what was happening in Spain reflects what happened at the beginning of the UK’s Coronavirus outbreak. A study by researchers at Oxford and Edinburgh University has found that most cases in the UK could be traced back to Spain (34 per cent), France (29 per cent) and Italy (14 per cent), as opposed to China.

So it could be said that there is a “once bitten twice shy” element to the newly imposed quarantine. And had the Government not done anything, it would no doubt be accused of callousness by the usual armchair epidemiologists.

As for what happens next in travel? Like much of the Coronavirus crisis, it’s anyone’s guess.

Face mask policies abroad. How do they compare to the UK’s rules?

15 Jul

After weeks of pressure and indecision, yesterday the Government announced that face coverings will be mandatory in shops and supermarkets from July 24, with a fine of up to £100 for anyone who doesn’t comply.

As often in the Coronavirus crisis, the UK has been accused of being an outlier in its approach to controlling the virus. Without further ado, ConservativeHome takes a look at how its face mask policy compares to other countries’.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

Throughout the pandemic, the devolved administrations have had different strategies in managing Covid-19, with face coverings being one area of disagreement. In Scotland, people have had to wear them in shops since July 10, with fines if they do not follow the rules.

In Wales and Northern Ireland, on the other hand, shoppers are not required to wear face masks, but it is understood that this situation is under review.

France

The country requires anyone over the age of 11 years to wear face masks, with travellers who fail to comply charged up to €135 (£121). Many supermarkets and shops now ask customers to wear them, but they will be made compulsory in all enclosed public spaces from August 1 – with the aforementioned fine applicable to anyone who violates the rules.

Germany

Face coverings in the country have been mandated on public transport and in shops since April 27, with Berlin and Schleswig-Holstein the last regions to enforce compulsory masks on April 29. In the German state of Thuringia, masks are required in the workplace. Very young children are exempt from the rules, but the age at which they are mandated to wear a mask differs by state.

Italy

People have been required to wear masks in specific enclosed spaces, such as restaurants, shops and public transport, since May 4. In restaurants, they must be worn when people enter the venue and any time they leave their table. Several regional authorities, such as Lombardy and Piedmont, have made masks compulsory in all public spaces.

Greece

Everyone has to wear masks on public transport and they are compulsory in hospitals and other medical facilities, as well as in lifts. Greece also made them compulsory in shops, but the measures have since been relaxed, although shop staff are still required to wear them.

Spain

Face masks are mandatory for anyone over the age of six if they’re not able to keep the required social distance of 1.5 metres. Some regional authorities have implemented tougher rules in regards to face coverings, so that they are required in public regardless of social distancing measures.

Catalonia

After a surge of new Coronavirus cases in Spain’s autonomous region, face masks are mandatory in public for anyone aged over five. People who are caught without one, even if they engage in social distancing, can be charged €100 (£90).

Turkey

Face masks are compulsory in crowded places, such as markets, hairdressers and barber shops, as well as public transport. Bodrum, Marmaris and Istanbul, some of Turkey’s most popular tourist destinations, have made masks compulsory at all times outside of the home, such as on beaches, in parks and in restaurants.

East Asia

For many countries in Asia, such as mainland China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, there is a strong culture of mask wearing, partly as a result of previous health crises.

China has forced its citizens to wear masks in all public spaces since the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak last year, and anyone who doesn’t comply can be fined, banned from subways shops, offices and banks, or even arrested.

In Singapore, it’s compulsory to wear face masks outside or be fined around £170.

And in Taiwan masks are seen as a form of social etiquette – used to protect others while out and about. Its government has been one of the most proactive at obtaining masks during the Covid-19 crisis, partly due to lessons from the Sars outbreak.

India

India, which has almost 880,000 cases of Coronavirus, and over 23,000 fatalities, has recently made face masks compulsory to wear out and about in most big cities. The police now hand out fines of 500-rupee (£5.29) for violations.

Russia

Due to the country’s nine time zones, there are different rules on face masks for different destinations. Moscow has mandatory guidelines on wearing masks and gloves in its public spaces, although people are only recommended to wear these on the streets. Police also enforce mask wearing in shops and public transport.