Today, in Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson repeated once more the questionable charge that the Mayor of London has bankrupted Transport for London.
In a letter from the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, we read that COVID-19 cases are rapidly rising in every corner of the city. He agrees that the evidence suggests that, without further action, tens of thousands of people will lose their lives and the city will face yet more economic damage.
The mayor stresses that it is therefore critical that the Government provides London with the funding it needs to survive as it faces more restrictions.
But though the transport network has been severely hit by COVID-19, the Government is proposing to hike the cost of travel for all Londoners by:
- extending the £15 congestion charge to the North and South Circular,
- increasing fares in London by more than inflation,
- stripping away support for older and younger Londoners and
- seeking to make council tax more expensive for Londoners to pay for public transport.
The mayor adds that these Government proposals are the latest in a series of measures which will damage the city, including a radical increase in the size of the congestion charge zone and an increase in fares by more than the rate of inflation.These measures will hurt businesses and families at a time when many are already facing real hardship. He stresses:
“The only reason that TfL needs Government support is because of the virus”
Londoners are following the rules and reducing the number of journeys they make – Tube usage is down 70% compared to last year and has already fallen by 5% since London moved to Tier 2. Without income from fares, government funding is needed to keep these transport services running.
Our city already contributes nearly £40 billion a year more in taxes than it gets back
The Government’s proposal demands that Londoners pay twice in order to get the emergency funding Transport for London (TfL) desperately needs – while we continue to support the rest of the country. He adds: “London deserves its fair share”.
The press release today recalls that Boris Johnson, as Mayor, and George Osborne, as Chancellor damaged TfL in 2015 by phasing out the Government operating grant for TfL worth hundreds of millions of pounds annually. It adds that, since 2016, Sadiq Khan has succeeded in putting TfL on a stable financial footing and TfL’s cash balances have increased by 13%; they would have been on track to increase by 31% had the pandemic not struck.
A Gloucestershire reader thinks so. He comments that he does not envy Boris Johnson, who is facing an unknown enemy in a different kind of war – an ‘impossible situation’. As there is no common agreement about the way forward, our reader advocates setting party politics ‘on the back burner’ for, say, a six-month period.
In March Katy Balls, the Spectator’s deputy political editor, wrote, “with Brexit wars now a distant memory thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the idea of a government of national unity has re-entered public debate over the government’s handling of the virus outbreak”.
She reported that a number of Tory MPs are now discussing the merits of some kind of cross party government for a short period of time and alleges that they are raising the idea as a way to share the burden (and blame) for a worsening public health crisis.
George Freeman, a former minister in Johnson’s government, was the first to say a “Covid coalition” government may be “unavoidable” and Katy reports that some other Tory MPs privately believe the prime minister will need cross-party governing consensus if emergency measures are to continue for months.
Freeman also said “The scale of this national emergency – the suspension of usual freedoms and democracy, the economic consequences and the likely loss of tens of thousands of lives – demands a suspension of politics as usual”.
An April poll suggested that a majority of Britons are in favour of a government of national unity being formed
In an April YouGov survey, 63% of 1,609 people indicated that they would support representatives from all of the main political parties joining a government of national unity for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. 31% said they would strongly support such a move, whilst only 17% stated that they would be opposed.
Why did these March/April calls fall silent? One suggestion made is that there was ‘pressure from above’.
In April, Matthew Mann concluded that a coalition was unlikely but that if – as is currently happening – the government came under increasing pressure from all sides and Boris Johnson is determined to remain in charge, it would be an option.
Grimly, Mann ends by saying that “(Boris) and his aides would be well-advised to keep it in the back pocket for when they have no other cards to play”.
Bethan Winter, MP for Cynon Valley (right) is advocating a Universal Basic Income (UBI) and urging Labour to adopt that policy.
She reports that a cross-Party Parliamentary and Local Government Working Group on UBI, has recently been established. It includes cross-party MPs, local authority councillors, metro-mayors, peers and LGA officers and stresses the need to test alternatives to the current system such as basic income pilots
A public poll by YouGov in 2020 found that, having seen the effects of the coronavirus pandemic 51% of the public in the United Kingdom support a universal basic income, with 24% unsupportive. A public petition on the UK government website that ran for 6 months from 16 March 2020 to 16 September 2020, calling for universal basic income, raised over 114,000 signatures. Bethan wrties:
The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the extent of poverty and inequality in our society. It has also exposed the inadequacies of our welfare system to act as a safety net for people, from the insufficient level and restrictiveness of Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) to the five-week waiting time for Universal Credit (UC).
As we emerge from lockdown we are facing a very damaging recession, as well as ongoing economic insecurity and a climate emergency. We must grasp this moment and do everything we can to achieve a fairer and more resilient society and economy.
A vital part of this will be to replace our dysfunctional benefits system with one that provides financial security for everyone who needs it. Universal Basic Income (UBI) – an unconditional and regular cash payment to everybody regardless of their income or situation – is gaining significant traction as a solution to many of these issues.
Though recognising that UBI has cost implications, Bethan points out that some of these can be addressed by measures including:
- raising additional tax revenues as the economy grows from the effect of the stimulus,
- ”People’s Quantitative Easing” with the Bank of England putting money into the economy to help pay for it (as they did in 2008),
- government borrowing and paying some of the debt back afterwards through progressive taxation
- and closing some of the 1,156 tax reliefs in the UK, many of which disproportionately benefit the wealthiest households.
Simple video about UBI here
Economist Harry Shutt* has demonstrated that a much higher rate income tax would be needed to guarantee everyone an adequate basic income and that such rates have been applied in the past and were consistent with better economic performance than at present. He adds that such high rates are currently the norm in Scandinavian countries, where income inequality (and the social ills that go with it) are much less than in the Anglo-Saxon countries – see Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level).
Bert Schouwenburg – International Officer at the trade union GMB – lists five advantages of UBI:
- It would end the poverty trap caused by means testing, ensuring that everyone who opts to take paid work will be better off and makes part-time employment a more affordable option.
- It would act as a safety net for those considering self-employment or indeed for those already in the often bogus self-employment of the platform economy who want to leave.
- It would signal an end to the demeaning and punitive system of assessing entitlement to benefits and the hideous (now privatised) bureaucracy that goes with it.
- It would recognise the unpaid work of millions of family carers who are disproportionately women and, if needed, allow them to leave abusive relationships where they are dependent on a male partner’s income.
- And parents could opt to bring up their own children rather than being forced out to work only to hand over what they earn to a child minder or nursery.
Bethan Winter points out that UBI is gaining increasing support among politicians including within the Labour Party. Keir Starmer’s cautiously welcomed a consideration of UBI when interviewed on the Andrew Marr show.
Wales’ First Minister, Mark Drakeford, has said that he has been interested in the idea of a basic income for forty years, and “we’re up for playing our part in such an experiment”. And Sophie Howe, the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales (above) has made a commitment to UBI, which she regards as a very real solution to helping people out of poverty.
*Harry Shutt began by focussing on the problems of the developing world and how the living standards of the overwhelming majority of the world’s people could be raised to bring them closer to those of the industrialised world. After working for a British trade union for a period he became a freelance consultant, working mainly for international development agencies such as the World Bank, UNDP, European Commission etc.
Culture Unstained reveals three energy giants’ attempts to influence COP26 & challenges BP’s net zero future claim
See the Bloomberg interview here.
BP held a three-day virtual investor event in September to unveil its plans to shift away from oil and gas. Its CEO, Bernard Looney (above), said
“. . . the energy mix is changing – oil and gas are going to be increasingly challenged – and other forms of energy are going to see incredible growth. That is a likely outcome in each of the scenarios informing our strategy – and is reinforced by the pandemic.
“And therein lies huge opportunity for our company. Rewiring and replumbing the global energy system for a net zero future is going to require trillions of dollars of investment. For a company like bp – with our reach, our relationships and our capabilities – reimagining energy is an opportunity to create value – strengthen our resilience – and help the world get to net zero”.
Through research, engagement and campaigning it aims to end the fossil fuel sponsorship of culture
Chris Garrard, its co-director has written to the Financial Times, refuting its suggestion that BP’s “net zero” ambition is broadly in line with reaching Paris climate goals of limiting global warming to 1.5C.
He points out that, while BP will not undertake exploration in new regions beyond 2030, it will persist with new exploration around existing finds despite proven fossil fuel reserves already being enough to take the world well beyond 1.5C, insisting:
“Fossil fuel production must be all but phased out by 2050 to meet emissions reduction targets, but BP still plans to be extracting fossil fuels by that date, relying on unproven technologies to address the emissions that would be produced”.
Garrard adds that BP’s net zero ambition must be eyed with scepticism, because its headline figure of a 40% cut in production excludes about a third of its production, which comes from its stake in Russian oil firm Rosneft. The actual proposed cut is therefore below 30%
In addition, BP is applying a much weaker target to the hydrocarbons it sells (8.6m barrels of oil equivalent a day in 2018, dwarfing the 2.7m it produced).
In their latest post, earlier this month, Culture Unstained reports in detail, supported by snapshots of documents. that emails and meeting notes, released to them following Freedom of Information requests, reveal attempts by BP, Shell and Equinor to sponsor COP26 climate summit, influence its agenda behind the scenes and ‘partner’ closely with the UK government around the summit.
Chris Garrard agrees that a shift in BP’s outlook is encouraging, but stresses that until the company’s strategy fully reflects what a 1.5C target demands, it continues to be more closely aligned with climate breakdown than the Paris goals.
Covid-19, bulletin 36: vested interests should not block the path to addressing Covid-19 as a syndemic
‘A tangle of interacting epidemics’: the admirable editor of the Lancet
“As the world approaches 1 million deaths from COVID-19, we must confront the fact that we are taking a far too narrow approach to managing this outbreak of a new coronavirus”: Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet
COVID-19 is not a pandemic. It is a syndemic. The syndemic nature of the threat we face means that a more nuanced approach is needed if we are to protect the health of our communities.
A syndemic, or synergistic epidemic, refers to the idea that the virus does not act in isolation – it has accomplices, such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, that compound the damage.
Each accomplice is already a standalone epidemic: obesity is a risk factor for developing diabetes and heart disease, but pair any, or all, of them with Covid-19, and a patient is plunged into syndemic territory, where joint enterprise magnifies clinical danger.
In an interview, Richard Horton said: “Focusing on the virus alone is a mistake”
The deadly impact of the pandemic “is not caused by the virus acting alone but interacting with chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity, heart disease and high blood pressure — all against a background of inequality and poverty. We can’t fully control the infection without addressing those factors.”
Attention must be paid to keeping health systems afloat for other conditions
His basic prescription is to tackle those familiar epidemics: cut obesity, improve the treatment of diabetes, heart disease and cancer, among other illnesses.
Covid-19 death rates in the UK’s most deprived areas are more than double those in the least, according to the NHS and Public Health England. Possible reasons include cramped housing, which makes isolating and quarantine difficult; higher exposure in public-facing occupations, such as in health and social care, delivery and retail; reliance on public transport; and, of course, pre-existing poor health.
Compare that with the experience of more affluent workers, sitting out the pandemic at laptops in comfortable homes or switching to private cars for the commute.
Richard Horton writes “Nothing less than national revival is needed. Approaching COVID-19 as a syndemic will invite a larger vision, one encompassing education, employment, housing, food, and environment. Viewing COVID-19 only as a pandemic excludes such a broader but necessary prospectus.
“The most important consequence of seeing COVID-19 as a syndemic is to underline its social origins. The vulnerability of older citizens; Black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities; and key workers who are commonly poorly paid with fewer welfare protections points to a truth so far barely acknowledged—namely, that no matter how effective a treatment or protective a vaccine, the pursuit of a purely biomedical solution to COVID-19 will fail. Unless governments devise policies and programmes to reverse profound disparities, our societies will never be truly COVID-19 secure.
He has explained that this crisis has broadly separated us into the exposed poor and the shielded rich, ending “Professor Merrill Singer, medical anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who coined the word syndemic in the 1990s, warns that there will be a familiar obstacle blocking the path to equality: ‘a vested interest in the benefits of the status quo for the wealthy minority’ “.
Judith Evans reports in the Financial Times that Downing Street is concerned about the potential for struggling farms to be pushed into bankruptcy, according to one person briefed on the situation.
Research from Defra showed that subsidies make up 61 per cent of profit for the average English farm, while almost one-fifth of farms would be unable to meet production costs without subsidy payments, once depreciation is taken into account. Based on 85,000 farms that claim EU-style payments in England, this amounts to 16,150 farms unable to make ends meet.
A spokesperson for Defra said: “As we phase out direct payments ahead of the full rollout [of the new scheme] in 2024, we will offer financial assistance to help farmers prepare, and invest in ways to improve their productivity and manage the environment sustainably.”
Farmers view with foreboding the administrative burden of multiple new systems which have often led to delays to pay-outs such as those which dogged the Countryside Stewardship scheme.
There have been several critical references of late to the work of the British civil service*, though one correspondent wrote firmly, “It’s the civil service that keeps the country running!”
An excoriating article by the London correspondent of The Atlantic points out: “Britain has the worst overall COVID-19 death toll in Europe, with more than 46,000 dead according to official figures, while also suffering the Continent’s second-worst “excess death” tally per capita, more than double that in France and eight times higher than Germany’s”. Specifically:
- It did not protect its oldest and most vulnerable, who died in nursing homes in appalling numbers.
- It allowed the disease to spread throughout the country rather than isolating it in one area.
- It failed to close its borders in good time,
- abandoned contact tracing too early,
- set targets that were missed,
- designed government programs that didn’t work,
- and somehow contrived to let the three most senior figures overseeing its pandemic response, including the prime minister, catch the very virus they were fighting.
“Now it faces the worst recession of any developed country, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and is once again taking a gamble by easing its lockdown at a relatively early stage”. The author Tom McTague (right), a London-based staff writer at The Atlantic, continues:
“Yet this was not simply an issue of political leadership, inept or otherwise. Even if the prime minister did make serious mistakes, the country’s issues run far deeper.
“The British government as a whole made poorer decisions, based on poorer advice, founded on poorer evidence, supplied by poorer testing”.
The inevitable consequence was that it achieved poorer results than almost any of its peers. It failed in its preparation, its diagnosis, and its treatment”.
McTague points out that it is not just in the ‘big calls’ that Johnson, his scientific advisers and the system were found wanting, but in day-to-day governance as well: the ability to get children back to school, open restaurants, protect the economy, and roll out a working contact-tracing system. He adds:
“As prime minister, Johnson must accept that Britain’s failures are his as well. Still, the difficult truth is that the country’s failures clearly go beyond Johnson. They were collective, multilayered, and deadly. The most difficult question about all this is also the simplest: Why?”
To try to answer that question, McTague spoke with leading politicians, three scientific experts. half a dozen influential officials working in Downing Street and the NHS; and specialists associated with the government’s response, including professors of epidemiology, mathematics, history, and psychology but only Ian Boyd, a professor of biology and member of SAGE (left), was willing to speak on record.
A picture of a country with systemic weaknesses, a poorly governed and fragile country, emerged from these conversations. Britain believed it was stronger than it was and is now paying the price for failures (listed in McTague’s 15 page article) that have built up for years
He examined the government’s handling of the Covid epidemic in detail, comparing it with the response of Asian countries and the performance of other European governments, concluding that the system was hardwired for a crisis that did not come, and could not adapt quickly enough to the one that did:
“Institutional weaknesses of state capacity and advice were not corrected by political judgment, and political weaknesses were not corrected by institutional strength”
After a review of the condition of the NHS (“an engine of bewildering complexity, whose lines of responsibility, control, and accountability are unintelligible to voters and even to most politicians”) and a reference to the Nightingale Hospitals he continued:
“In effect, Britain was rigorously building capacity to help the NHS cope, but releasing potentially infected elderly, and vulnerable, patients in the process. By late June, more than 19,000 people had died in care homes from COVID-19. Separate excess-death data suggest that the figure may be considerably higher. According to a report by the International Long-Term Care Policy Network, a London-based research body, Britain has recorded more deaths from COVID-19 as a percentage of its nursing-home population than any other country in Europe, apart from Spain”.
Professor Boyd (left) summarises: “The reality is, there has been a major systemic failure . . . We need a complete revamp of our government structure because it’s not fit for purpose anymore . . . its problems run far deeper than whichever crop of politicians is in charge.
“The really important question is whether the state, in its current form, is structurally capable of delivering on the big-picture items that are coming, whether pandemics or climate change or anything else.”#
*Wikipedia says that the civil service is a sector of government composed mainly of career bureaucrats hired on professional merit rather than appointed or elected, whose institutional tenure typically survives transitions of political leadership. A civil servant is employed by a government department or agency and answers to the government, not a political party. Workers in QUANGOs may also be classed as civil servants for the purpose of statistics and possibly for their terms and conditions.
The UK’s coalition government announced the ‘bonfire of the quangos’ in 2011
Hundreds of publicly funded government agencies were to disappear, improving accountability and reducing costs. The Hansard Society reported in 2017, however, that in the five years since the Public Bodies Act came into effect, ‘the proposed bonfire of the quangos has failed to ignite’.
In fact, according to a National Audit Office report from March 2014, 285 public bodies were abolished, apparently saving over £2.6bn, but 184 new organisations were created at the same time, 66 of whom are companies in which the government owns some or all of the shares.
A ‘shake-up of top jobs’ across the civil service, overseen by Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove was reported in June
Recent departures include those of Sir Mark Sedwill, cabinet secretary, head of the civil service and national security adviser, Sir Philip Rutnam, a former permanent secretary at the Home Office and Sir Simon McDonald, the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office.
These arm’s-length bodies become closed little worlds, invested with great power, hard to hold to account, fiercely unwilling to take blame
“Clandestine migrants from France are able to enter the country without fear of deportation, but tourists making the same journey are subjected to two weeks of house arrest. Play by the rules, fill out the forms correctly and give your real name, and the system will pursue you. Break into the country illicitly and you’ll eventually be given leave to remain. Is this deliberate policy? Of course not. Every Home Secretary, Labour and Conservative, has sought to toughen our border controls . . .
“Our exams are run by Ofqual. (“Keep the politicians out of the picture!”) Our healthcare system is removed from political oversight. (“Hands off our NHS!”) Our epidemic preparedness is left to Public Health England. (“Listen to the experts!”)”
Charles Moore cites NHS England as being ‘the most glaring example of responsibility swerved’: “It employs 1.2 million people, making it the largest public-sector employer in Europe. Its chief executive, Sir Simon Stevens, is accountable for more than £120 billion of annual spending. Yet he has been almost invisible to the public since Covid-19 hit the fan. We have little idea whether he did right or wrong. We have to listen to the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, instead”
Hannan continues: “How, then, did we react when these public bodies got it wrong”?
- Did we pursue Ofqual, with its armies of directors, strategists and press officers, over the failure of its exam algorithms?
- Did we complain about the NHS’s calamitous decision to send unscreened patients into care homes in readiness for a tidal wave that never came?
- Did we demand to know why, as late as March, PHE was still mainly fretting about unhealthy meals?
Of course not. With a neat mental sidestep, we suddenly called these agencies “the government” and directed our rage at the politicians.
Hannan ends: “Tthe pandemic has highlighted the need to overhaul the government machine; it is now an urgent national priority.
“Almost every minister who has struggled through the past six months now grasps what has gone wrong. self-appointed and self-sustaining, quangos pursue their own priorities even when they flatly contradict the Cabinet’s stated objectives, but that then proves useless when called on to discharge its designated functions.
He proposes that, where possible, the functions of quangos should pass, not to MPs, but to local authorities. Let county and metropolitan authorities raise the bulk of their own revenue. Let them reassume primary responsibility for the relief of poverty. Let them – or perhaps the elected police commissioners – set local sentencing guidelines. Give residents a direct say through local referendums.