With Delta Variant Covid cases rising rapidly in the country, it comes as no surprise to learn that the much-trumpeted ‘Freedom Day’ (release from all Covid-related restrictions) scheduled for 21 June is likely to be delayed by at least four weeks. The Delta Variant is said to be 64% more infectious than the Kent strain, cases doubling every 4.5 days in some parts of the country, representing 96 per cent of cases across England. There are now 42,323 cases of Delta Variant in the UK, but the rapid rise from around 29K was partly attributed to a new kind of testing, which delivers results within 48 hours instead of 5 -10 days. And what about the new Thailand and Vietnam variants, which scientists are investigating?
Even with a four week delay, some scientists are predicting a heavy Third Wave, but yet again we hear non-stop emphasis on the vaccine, when other measures need much more work, such as contact tracing and support for those isolating. It’s no coincidence that these are the ones the government itself is responsible for, whereas the vaccination programme was always something only the NHS should take credit for.
Boris Johnson and his ministers will hate eating humble pie and rolling back from the 21 June promise, especially since it seems numerous people are behind the curve and not properly realising the circumstances giving rise to the delay. There’s also very powerful pressure from Tory backbenchers and business leaders, seeing further weeks of lost business added to their debt burdens. We know to expect an announcement on Monday and over this weekend a so-called ‘quad’ meeting will take place, between the PM, Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and Matt Hancock, so the decision will arise from the deliberations of these fine minds.
It’s been a hefty week for news and confusion over holidays still reigns, Environment Minister George Eustice appearing to ‘rule out’ foreign holidays and thousands of passengers scrambling to return to the UK from Portugal before its demotion to the amber list. This is likely to have defeated the purpose of a holiday for many, as relaxing and invigorating it isn’t, worrying about flights and chaotic airports with zero Covid safe procedures.
There are almost no words for the cringe worthy statements issued by our Prime Minister on Wednesday as he arrived by plane (yes, when climate change is the key item on the agenda) for pre-G7 meetings in Cornwall. ‘I’ve arrived in Cornwall for this year’s G7’, he tweeted, ‘where I’ll be asking my fellow leaders to rise to the challenge of beating the pandemic and building back better, fairer and greener. It will be a busy and important Summit, and I can’t wait to get started’. This raises projection and lack of awareness to another level, suggesting it’s other leaders who need to ‘rise to the challenge’ when he and his government have presided over one of the worst pandemic management performances in the world and shown no genuine interest in ‘building back better, fairer and greener’. The embarrassment continued in the form of responses to media interviews, eg, ‘The pandemic was, let’s face it, a pretty scratchy period’. You could certainly say so but placing the pandemic in the past and the massive understatement of ‘pretty scratchy’ take some beating.
It seems the first substantial thing the leaders did was to agree a global tax deal, which sounds a great achievement, potentially putting a stop to endless disputes over how much tax tech giants and others should pay in different jurisdictions. But is it watertight and will it work? It beggars belief that, just days later, Chancellor Rishi Sunak was asking for an exemption for the City. ‘Britain will seek to exclude the City of London’s financial services companies from a global tax overhaul targeting the world’s most profitable businesses agreed between G7 finance ministers last weekend. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is concerned that under a version of the plan put forward by the US president – which involves redistributing the profits of the world’s 100 largest businesses – digital businesses such as Google, Amazon and Facebook will be joined by banks that he says already pay a fair share of tax. The impact of Joe Biden’s proposal could prove to be a significant deterrent to banks running many of their operations from London, compounding the impact of Brexit that resulted in a shift of financial trading to Amsterdam’.
But before there’s trumpeting of a ‘historic’ deal, it’s important to realise that the details (and the devil is in the detail) still have to be ‘hammered out’ at a wider G20 forum in Venice in July and this would have to find solutions to attempts to cherry pick from the so-called ‘pillar one’ and ‘pillar two’ measures. (Pillar one would allow countries to tax large company profits based on their sales in that market, and Pillar two would enable a minimum global corporation tax rate to be set).
But even this is just the start: ‘The changes will then be negotiated between 139 countries in a process overseen by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, with the aim of reaching a final agreement by October’. The initial steps, then, look promising, for example estimates that the UK will gain about £7bn a year in extra tax from the minimum 15% tax rate, far outweighing pillar one downsides, but there’s clearly a long way to go to reach the final stage. Let’s hope UK negotiators involved in this project are more skilled than those ‘negotiating’ with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol row.
Worsening relations between the UK and EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol are at present focusing on the admission to Northern Ireland of sausages and processed meats but it’s an ongoing irritation that some, including various irresponsible media sources, are trying to trivialise the issues as being ‘about sausages’ in the same way as they did the ones about the Downing Street flat (‘cash for curtains’ etc). As we know, much more serious issues are at stake, such as differences between environmental standards, but the main point is that the government, having signed up to this deal in a hurry to ‘get Brexit done’ is now, not surprisingly, reaping what it’s sewn but trying to evade its responsibilities, accusing the EU of intransigence. It cannot be helpful that the main negotiator, ‘Lord’ Frost, seems pigheadedly determined to spin the narrative of an EU implementing the Protocol in such a way that it disadvantages the UK but this is sophistry and the deal is what the government agreed to.
It’s arrogantly taking the EU negotiators for fools for ministers to have believed they could just ‘negotiate’ their way out of it but there’s intransigence on both sides as the EU does want to make an example of the UK ‘pour encourager les autres’, especially as its relations with Switzerland are now worsening. Journalist and commentator Simon Jenkins analyses the situation and options, suggesting that the President Biden’s ‘rebukes’ (although there’s been so sign of them so far at G7) are a much-needed catalyst for Boris Johnson to resolve the impasse. ‘Biden should tell Johnson to stop being an idiot and honour the protocol. Everyone knows there can be no erecting of a border across the fields of Ireland. Johnson knew that when he campaigned for Brexit. He knew it when he decided to leave the single market. If he promised Northern Ireland’s unionists something else, he was lying. He should get busy preparing EU-compatible customs barriers in Belfast, as required by the protocol. Biden might add that Johnson can forget any US/UK trade deal if he refuses, not that any deal agreed by Congress is ever likely to be in Britain’s interest’.
Jenkins suggests a couple of ‘can kicking’ delaying tactics open to both sides, but says ultimately ‘there are only two options…… One is that the protocol becomes permanent and Northern Ireland does indeed become part of an all-Ireland integrated economy. For that there are any number of sound arguments, which Johnson is probably too gutless to grasp. The other is that Britain extends the Northern Ireland deal to the whole of the UK. In effect, it signs itself up to EU regulatory standards across the whole range of goods covered by last year’s ‘no tariff’ deal’.
We’ve seen quite enough can kicking from this government and it’s unlikely the EU will accept yet more delay to a permanent solution so the question is, can the hubris displayed by the government allow it to overcome bruised egos and bear the anger of unionists if they allow Northern Ireland to become part of an all-Ireland integrated economy or the fury of Brexiteers if they sign up the whole of the UK to the EU’s regulatory standards?
Back at Westminster, the row over proposed reductions in foreign aid rose to a crescendo and had Labour’s Hillary Benn banging his table during an exchange on Radio 4’s Any Questions on Friday. An amendment seeking to reverse the cuts and reinstate the 0.7 per cent target was not selected for a debate in the Commons for allegedly being ‘out of scope’, but Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle ‘told the government that it must give MPs a vote on the decision to cut foreign aid to 0.5 per cent and said he could allow a non-binding emergency debate on the issue in the Commons tomorrow’. Of course, a ‘non-binding’ debate immediately hobbles it. It can’t be often that personalities like David Davis and Gordon Brown are on the same side but they certainly are regarding the damage they anticipate being caused by foreign aid reductions, especially given increasing Chinese involvement in Africa. Although the government only narrowly averted the rebellion backed by thirty Conservatives including Theresa May, it is still refusing to give MPs a vote on this £4bn reduction.
A major political event this week was Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s appearance before MPs on the combined Health and Social Care Committee and Science and Technology Committee inquiry on Thursday, in the wake of Dominic Cummings’s recent damaging testimony against him. ‘Hancock’s testimony comes two weeks after Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s former adviser, accused him of serial incompetence that should have led him to be sacked. He also alleged Hancock had in effect misled Downing Street into believing that testing on patients being sent to back to care homes was being carried out when it wasn’t. Hancock denies this, saying that his position was that hospital discharges would be tested only when enough testing became available’.
Prominent care home managers were adamant during media interviews that they were more or less forced to take in untested patients and rubbished government figures which had suggested infections were due to care home visitors and staff, not discharged patients. ‘The Care Provider Alliance also called on the government to prioritise testing for care residents to stop the spread of the virus, warning on 26 March 2020 that without it ‘there is no way of knowing whether they are going to infect others’. It also emailed Hancock directly saying: ‘All people discharged from hospital to social care settings … MUST be tested before discharge’. Yet despite the pressure from frontline care operators, Hancock didn’t make testing for hospital discharges mandatory until mid-April, after the first wave death toll had peaked weeks later’.
Palliative care doctor and broadcaster Rachel Clarke tweeted a lengthy thread on this. ‘He *did* lie. He *didn’t* protect care homes. And he’s lying again now in claiming otherwise. And – as someone who dedicates their entire professional life to caring for some of society’s most vulnerable members, our terminally ill – I think this absolutely stinks’. Besides the severity of the claims made against Hancock, I was struck by the number of times both he and Cummings used the words ‘ recall’ or ‘recollect’, when these are likely to have been quite selective and hazy but what about official minutes? All such discussions and exchanges with the Prime Minister and colleagues should have been properly documented, meaning claims and counter claims could be checked. And if not, why not?
As if this wasn’t enough, Hancock also has October to look forward to, when he will face a High Court hearing ‘over an allegation from a bereaved relative of a deceased care home resident that the government breached the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act when their policies allowed people to be discharged into care homes without being tested’. Sadly, for such people, such attempts to set the record straight and call them to account seem water off a duck’s back.
The Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer, John Crace, wasted no time in demolishing the Health Secretary’s performance, but to some extent the hearing was hobbled because Cummings had not produced evidence of his accusations and Crace’s theory that the chairmen would give him an easy ride as both have their eyes on returning to the front bench. ‘Matt Hancock – a man with the mixed blessing of a good second-rate mind – has a rather more selective memory. He is brilliant at remembering his own successes and rather less able when it comes to recalling his failures. If indeed there were any, which he is fairly certain there weren’t. Though, when pushed, Hancock might just about concede that things would have been a whole lot worse if he hadn’t been in charge of the nation’s health’.
What’s the point of these hearings if they’re not going to cross-examine properly those summoned? Ah yes, nearly forgot – to give the appearance of accountability. It sounds like Hancock wasn’t properly challenged on statements which were clearly proven otherwise, eg ‘everyone got the treatment they needed’ (including those with learning disabilities having ‘do not resuscitate’ stickers on their foreheads) and ‘there was no national shortage of PPE’ and ‘a protective ring had been thrown around care homes’ (the opposite of what we know from clinicians and care home staff actually happened).
‘Hancock lied: ‘It’s good to be able to set out the truth about what really happened’, hoping he had done enough to survive the next reshuffle. What we had got was the truth as Matt would like it to have been. And we never did get an answer to the question that had hung over the entire proceedings: what on Earth had Door Matt done to Dom to make him loathe him quite so much?’
One bit of good news, though, except it shouldn’t have been proposed in the first place, is that the Department of Health and Social Care seems to have rolled back on the NHS ‘data grab’ plan, allowing opt-outs until September instead of July. ‘The Royal College of General Practitioners warned NHS Digital a week ago that plans to pool medical pseudonymised records on to a database and share them with academic and commercial third parties risked affecting the doctor-patient relationship. NHS Digital needed to explain the plans better to the public, the group said, as well as outlining how people could opt out’. No wonder many patients (if indeed they know about it) are concerned about this – the NHS is presenting the intention as needing data for ‘planning and research purposes’ but the private sector will still be able to gain access to it, ‘with approval from advisory groups’. Although this has been denied, it opens up the field for insurance companies and the like to purchase patients’ data and target them with marketing messages.
This article highlights the importance of effective communication, which has been seriously lacking by this government throughout the pandemic. Yes, this is the NHS but the NHS is very much directed by the government. ‘This must be a central effort, rather than just being left to individual GPs, to ensure a consistent message…and given the current ‘confusion and lack of transparency’, the scheme would be paused ahead of both a public information campaign and a consultation’.
Speaking of water off a duck’s back, the Guardian’s John Crace clearly illustrates the Prime Minister’s skill in this, managing at Prime Minister’s Questions to deflect legitimate criticisms with a shrug and cursory dismissal. If the Speaker was up to his job he would not have allowed the PM to get away with this, especially when this forum is specifically intended to allow MPs to put questions to him. ‘Riding his wave, the PM swats away questions, and the protests of lefties such as Theresa May…..’ on such key matters as the education recovery embarrassment, suggesting the tutoring programme was the best in the world, and refusing to see the problem with pursuing a policy of reduced foreign aid during a pandemic and ahead of the G7 summit.
‘As so often, the exchanges between Starmer and Johnson ended in impasse. Though the Labour leader clearly had the better of the argument, Boris’s refusal to answer the questions rendered the whole thing pointless. You could sense Keir’s frustration. Ennui even. There was a time when he believed that his forensic style of questioning could get under Johnson’s skin and expose weaknesses in the government, but the prime minister has realised he doesn’t have to engage with the substance because there is no parliamentary mechanism to force him. Rather he can indulge his passion for stories by inventing his own parallel narrative’. Even more telling is his awkwardness on being congratulated on his recent wedding, just staring down at the floor in embarrassment and ignoring it, observed Crace.
A real turn up for the books this week was lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner Jolyon Maugham, of the Good Law Project, finally being invited onto Radio 4’s Today programme, in the wake of the successful court case proving that Michael Gove had broken the law. To host focus groups on pandemic messaging the contract was handed to the Cummings recommended Public First and it was awarded without question or scrutiny, it seems. The high court agreed with the Good Law Project that this was unlawful. ‘It rejected Gove’s arguments that no one else could do the job. The truth, it found, was that no one had even considered giving the contract to anyone else. It appeared to a reasonable observer – that being the legal test – as though Public First’s relationships with Cummings and Gove had won the contract for it. Gove had indeed broken the law’.
Maugham cites how many other ‘vast’ contracts were placed in a ‘VIP lane’, how those close to ministers ‘cleaned up’, especially friends of Matt Hancock, and asks, since they see this as ‘institutionalised cronyism’, what happens now? He reckons such highlighting of the struggle between civil servants and ministers should lead to better decisions but also resignations. Fat chance of that as there seems very little shame in public life these days. A listener tweeted: ‘Worth noting: Government spent more money on lawyers defending its unlawful award of a contract to Public First than the actual value of the contract. Its own costs were over half a million for a one day judicial review. Extraordinary stuff’.
But for now all eyes (political eyes at least) are now on the G7 Summit in Cornwall, and, oh dear, Boris Johnson is in a spot, wanting simultaneously to demonstrate ‘the special relationship’ with the US but not give ground on the Northern Ireland Protocol row, which Joe Biden has been very firm about. Both positions are mutually exclusive, but nevertheless the Bidens (and later the royals at the Eden Project dinner) were subjected to a charm offensive, with footage of the wives walking along the golden sands (magically emptied of tourists, of course), with little Wilfred in tow. One of the interesting clips was of the royals appearing to turn their backs on the Johnsons, which reminded me of Princess Anne’s determination not to move forward and shake the POTUS hand during the Trump UK visit. The Today programme told us how much Johnson is enjoying hosting the G7, prompting a listener to tweet: ‘Of course Boris Johnson is enjoying hosting G7 – this surface grandstanding is just what he’s good at but what we need from our Prime Minister is commitment to the detailed hard work and consistent policymaking that makes the public feel they’re in safe hands’.
While one article describes the ‘razzmatazz’ in Carbis Bay, the mayor was certainly right to say ‘the G7 is having an impact on just about everybody’. While it will be good business for many (G7 branded pasty, anyone?) there’s also serious disruption, protest groups making their presence felt and it does seem extraordinary that local fishermen received no communication in advance about how their movements would be limited during the Summit. But there’s serious work to be done at this meeting, with commentators saying it’s make or break for addressing climate change. ‘The message in Cornwall is clear – leaders must act now or go down in history as the ones who threw away last-ditch chance’. And we can rely on our Prime Minister to make the first questionable gesture by arriving there by private jet. ‘Lord Stern, the climate economist, said: ‘This is a crucial moment in history. Either we recover [from the pandemic] in a strong and sustainable way, or we do not. We are at a real fork in the road. This decade is decisive’. He pointed out the mixed nature of progress over the last ten years, benefits accruing from developments in renewable energy and electric vehicles but overall progress on reducing emissions being too slow.
‘Scientists have made it clear that greenhouse gas emissions must be halved by 2030 if the world is to stay within 1.5C of global heating – the threshold beyond which extreme weather will take hold, small islands and low-lying areas will face inundation, and swathes of the world will face water stress and heatwaves’. Whatever gets discussed and decided here, it’s clear a lot more work needs to take place ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November.
Beyond the glad-handing and bonhomie, though, it’s clear Johnson’s aim for the G7 to be about showcasing ‘global Britain’, the event has been seriously overshadowed by European anger over the Brexit row. ‘The reason for much of the EU’s irritation was a feeling that the UK under Johnson simply could not be trusted. Throughout recent weeks, and on Saturday, the prime minister made it clear he would be prepared to unilaterally delay the full implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol – part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement – in order to prevent a ban on some foodstuffs, including sausages, crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain…. Their annoyance is unlikely to have been lifted by the presence at all the meetings of Lord Frost, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, who was wearing union jack socks… Foreign policy experts and former British diplomats said that while the summit may have its successes on advancing initiatives on climate change and vaccinations for developing countries, it had also shown the UK to be distrusted and therefore unable to be a true global leader’. Again, our Prime Minister’s cakeism and cherry picking has been on full display, expecting the UK to be seen as a global leader when it clearly can’t be trusted.
It seems that no sooner than we’ve registered the outcomes of the previous one, we get yet another honours list. We hear that a quarter of those on the Queen’s Birthday Honours list have been recognised for their activities during the pandemic and it’s gratifying to see the inclusion of people like Professor Sarah Gilbert, Saïd professor of vaccinology at the Jenner Institute, who becomes a dame. But I almost dread going through this list for fear of seeing yet more crony peerages when we actually need to decrease the number of peers, not increase them.
‘….there are likely to be eyebrows raised over other honours, including the knighthood for banker António Horta-Osório, whose time in charge of Lloyds Banking Group was marred by controversy amid criticism of its treatment of people whose businesses were ruined in the HBOS Reading fraud scandal….. There was also a knighthood for William Adderley, who donated half a million pounds to the Conservative party under Boris Johnson through a firm he was a director of during the 2019 UK general election’.
These are examples it would be good to see more of. ‘Debbie Williams, of Brexpats – Hear Our Voice, received an MBE for services to UK nationals in the EU. She founded the pan-European citizens’ rights campaigning and support group in June 2016.British Empire Medals go to, among others, siblings John Brownhill and Amanda Guest, co-founders of Food4Heroes, which delivered food from local chefs to NHS frontline staff. A BEM also goes to Rhys Mallows, 25, who repurposed his gin distillery to produce hand sanitiser’.
Finally, as temperatures reach the high twenties in the UK, salads will have been increasingly on the menu but perhaps without that ingredient which was a favourite of 1960s cuisine – what can I be talking about? Salad cream, of course, often to be found back then alongside the couple of limp leaves of lettuce, soggy tomato and dessicated cucumber. But great news for those who love it, as its manufacture is reportedly coming back to Britain as part of a £140m investment in Kraft Heinz’s existing plant at Wigan. Kraft Heinz had shifted production to Europe in 1999 but has now decided to bring it back to Wigan, alongside its mayonnaise and tomato ketchup. The Week tells us that this is a milestone for the company, its ‘biggest expansion of a manufacturing site outside the US in more than 20 years’, but wouldn’t you just know that ministers have hijacked this development, presenting it as ‘a post-Brexit vote of confidence’? There are no words…….