Making up for lost time?
At last the government is restarting contact tracing 11 weeks after they abandoned it, not because it was the wrong thing to do, but because the hadn’t geared up to test or recruited the tracers. Are they ready now? Cynics will say the ‘launch’ of tracing today was brought forward from 1 June to divert attention from the Cummings saga. But the truth appears to be worse than that: tracing is at an early stage and won’t be fully up and running until the end of June.
Local authorities were only told they would get money for tracing a week ago. The government seems hesitant about what powers it may need to get people with the virus to isolate and cooperate. Because they missed the boat and climbed to have one of the highest death rates in the world, we are still at a level of infection that makes effective tracing difficult.
There is still no firm news on an App that works and which most people will use without fears of data misuse. And no date by when 24-hour test results can be guaranteed back in 24 hours. The gentle loosening of the lockdown today is welcome but the reason it is so limited compared with other countries is that they have good testing and tracing regimes an we as yet don’t. H&F is busy setting its own system up because they have not received funds, staff or instructions from the government.
Forgive me for being more sceptical than I have in previous bulletins. If you want to know why read the brilliant investigation by the Sunday Times Insight team published at the weekend.
It proves that unforced errors by the government led to the tragedy of excess deaths reaching 64,000 thus far. And that the panicked reaction of discharging 15,000 hospital patients into care homes without requiring testing made them the killing fields of the pandemic. It’s long and it’s harrowing but essential reading.
And then there is Cummings. And Johnson’s lamentable lack of focus and greater concern for his and his mates’ grip on power than his duty to his country. The performances of the past week at press briefings and the Commons Liaison Committee have descended to Trump levels of fantasy and contempt. Culminating tonight in him gagging his scientific and medical advisers – so much for following the science.
Readers will have their own views. My inbox has overflowed, and I do not think there is much new to say. But here is the latest version of the response I sent to the emails I received that fell 100 to one against Cummings and Johnson.
The UK has the second highest number of Covid-19 related deaths per million people of any country in the world. The official total is 37,000 but the number of excess deaths is 64,000.
These are the facts that should be on the front pages and at the front of our minds this week. Instead we have had seven days and counting of Mr Cummings and his fantastical road trips.
Hundreds of constituents have written to me to express their views on Cummings and how his behaviour has been excused by the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. There is substantial, and in important respects accepted, evidence of his breach of key guidelines introduced to control the spread of the virus. This should have been sufficient to remove him from his central position in government. As Keir Starmer said, he would have dismissed him on the evidence he has seen.
But Keir, unsurprisingly keen on due process, also said the proper course for the government to follow was a full and independent investigation into Cummings’ behaviour. If Cummings had been suspended and such an inquiry begun, the issue would have been set aside and the actual crisis put back centre stage. But Johnson refuses to do this.
This week sees a number of important deadlines: imperatively for the long-overdue testing and tracing programme and increasing testing to 200,000 a day. But the whole government is distracted, tying itself in knots over Cummings.
The process has descended into farce with one Cabinet member offering a review of fines for breaking guidelines where childcare was the mitigating explanation, and another jumping up to deny this would happen. Secretaries of State are demeaning themselves and their office by half-heartedly repeating nonsense about Cummings driving 60 miles to test if his eyesight was impaired, interspersed with recreational stops by the roadside.
Senior lawyers have pointed out that Cummings account is drafted like a defence witness statement. Its purpose is to explain the accusations that have been made not give an open account of what happened. In other words, it is retro-engineered to exculpate him, but it fails to do so, either admitting offences or putting forward ludicrous explanations for his conduct.
As Jeremy Hunt commented, there are at least three undisputed breaches of the guidance, which Cummings must have seen even before it was issued to the public: going immediately back to work after visiting someone (his wife) with suspected Covid-19 symptoms, travelling to Durham without a reasonable excuse during lockdown and making the trip to Barnard Castle. To which we can add a fourth, driving his family to hospital in Durham when he was infected with the virus.
Durham police have issued a statement that there was also one breach of the legal regulations: the trip to Barnard Castle, which they would have acted on at the time had they been aware.
But before I fall into the trap of sifting the minutiae, what hundreds of constituents have primarily written to me about is the attitude and disdain Cummings showed by his behaviour and Johnson continues to show by protecting him. Whatever their motivation, their actions are clear: the rules that apply to everyone else do not apply to them.
The reason this is important is that, more than emergency laws or books of guidelines, our country is tackling the virus by means of a social contract, which means fundamentally changing the way we live for a substantial period of time. For some this means inconvenience, for some it means economic hardship and possible financial ruin. For many it means heart-breaking personal separation and loss.
Among the emails I have received are those from constituents who have lost family members without saying goodbye and those separated from elderly relatives or young children since lockdown began.
This is not an equal struggle. It is well-documented that poorer people, frontline workers and minority ethnic communities are suffering more. But we should be able to say everyone is doing their bit. Mr Cummings’ situation may not have been the easiest, but it was far from being the worst, and the support and resources at his disposal are far greater than most families can rely upon. All he had to do was behave appropriately.
However, the reason this story will not go away is not about punishing or vilifying Cummings, it is about what he represents. He is the second most powerful man in government – that is clear if it wasn’t before. The Prime Minister rates him above all others. So, if Cummings does not follow the rules why should anyone else?
As it happens most people do continue to act in the collective interest. They are better than Cummings. But the police, the NHS, and now the contact tracers all have their lives made more difficult by this arrogant display.
So, Cummings should go – to lance the boil or to allow for a proper inquiry. We should focus on the essential work that now needs to be done. But we should not forget what this episode has said about the priorities, character and fitness for office of the Johnson government.
H&F making the right calls
In the absence of leadership from central government even more onus falls on local government and our local NHS. It is of huge relief that both have stepped up to the plate.
For those who missed Lisa Redfern, the borough’s head of social care, on Channel 4 News this week, watch this link. Modestly she explains how the response from LBHF in securing PPE and closing care homes to untested admissions saved lives.
The council has also had to interpret the edict on schools re-opening. This was another crude attempt by Johnson to show something is happening. We would all like kids back in schools but the circumstances of each school and each family are different. It has to be a gradual process built on trust. This is what I wrote to parents and teachers this week and this is the advice from the council.
LBHF continues to run CAN – the support network for those in need but not covered by the shielding programme. If you need help, call freephone 0800 145 6095. The lines are open 9am to 7pm Monday to Friday and 9am to 2pm at weekends. You can also email them at email@example.com. Find out more at lbhf.gov.uk/can
I visited the H&F Foodbank at Olympia last week. A truly impressive operation, sending hundreds of parcels out to families around the borough every week. The foodbank is affiliated to Trussell Trust so it was good to meet not only Daphine Aikens, the H&F Foodbank founder, but Emma Revie, the Chief Exec of Trussell, who had turned up to do a morning’s packing.
I also made another visit to the Urban Partnership Group’s weekly distribution and delivery of food in White City: not only staples but delicious hot meals for those isolating. A great way for vulnerable people to keep in touch as well as keep fed. UPG operates on Edward Woods and in Hammersmith too.
Bad news on evictions. If the current prohibition ends in a month courts may have to allow them to start up again. H&F Law Centre is major source of housing – and other legal – advice. Staff are raising funds to expand their services in a number of creative ways. Please consider donating.
Imperial Health Charity is collecting donations to help support our local hospitals and the brilliant staff who work in them.
The Friends of Charing Cross Hospital are providing emergency funds to help hospital staff cope with the extreme pressures they are under in helping to fight this virus.
And for advice on everything from benefits and employment to debt and housing contact the CAB or Law Centre
Covid19 patient numbers locally continue to fall. Imperial hospitals are caring for 118 people with the virus, 17 of whom are on ventilators. Recorded Covid deaths in total are 414, while 850 patients have recovered and been discharged. For four days in the last week there were no Covid-related deaths at the three hospitals.
Attention is turning to other hospital services that have been suspended or reduced during the height of the pandemic. It looks as though there will be radical proposals for reorganising the health service in London, with decisions to be taken at a much higher level, services moved between hospitals and remote consultation become common practice for GPs and outpatients clinics.
In part this is a result of the pandemic. The Lansley reforms ten years ago fragmented the NHS and it has been necessary to reinvent central coordination of resources almost overnight to cope with the explosion of Covid cases. But it is also a return to some of the ideas in Shaping a Healthier Future, the discredited programme to close hospitals, A&Es and emergency beds across north-west London.
There is no proposal to lose beds or close hospitals this time – that lesson appears to have been learnt – but I worry about the move away from locally-driven services. Some of the proposals have merit but they need to be properly canvassed not rushed through with little consultation on the back of the Covid crisis. More on this to come.
Remember them? From next Tuesday, if you believe Jacob Rees-Mogg (if doing a lot of work in this sentence) the milk and water virtual parliament will end and it will be back to business as usual.
My view on this is in a submission to the Procedures Committee that advises on these matters. But the headlines are as follows. It is not ideal to run most of Parliament’s business online – mainly because it limits the opportunities for individual MPs to be heard. But actually the essentials are working rather well – some would say better than normal. Select committee meetings are more disciplined. Prime Minister’s Questions is more like an exchange of views than a shouting match.
And given no more than 50 MPs can get in the Chamber under social distancing rules, having 650 of us back will make it more difficult to be heard and place individuals and their families at risk, especially those who are vulnerable.
So why do it? I’ve only heard two reasons. The government needs to get a load of Brexit legislation through in a hurry to pave the way for No Deal and Johnson is struggling so much against Keir Starmer at PMQs that he wants to maximise the disruptive elements among his backbenchers. From Mother of Parliaments to rent-a-mob.
I would like to get back to Westminster too – in particular I miss the chance to get called in urgent questions and statements. But using the hybrid system I can maximise the time I spend on constituency work – not just the hundreds of Cummings emails but a growing number of desperate enquiries from employees, businesses, tenants and claimants – and raise at least some of the issues I need to in Parliament.
For example, last week the Justice Select Committee sat for two half days interrogating the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Lord Chief Justice. I was able to raise the huge backlog of criminal cases, the treatment of remand prisoners, the effect of the virus on prisons, the failure of the early release schemes and even the now topical issue of fines for breaking lockdown. Even before lockdown it was clear the criminal justice system was in crisis. So, one positive was the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice the government promised. I found out from questioning the DPP that this may now be put off.
Parliament can do its job. The question for us is, can government?