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Young MPs have warned Matt Hancock to stop pointing the finger over an increase in Covid cases (Credit: PA)

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Younger opposition MPs have warned the government to stop pointing the finger of blame over a spike in Covid-19 cases, as latest figures revealed its test and trace service reached less than half of close contacts.

Pressure is mounting on Matt Hancock to fix a catalogue of failings in the service, which saw people sick with coronavirus symptoms directed to test sites hundreds of miles from their homes. 

Others were unable to access a test at all, despite the health secretary urging anyone with a fever, continuous cough or change to their sense of smell or taste to get tested in a bid to head off a potential second wave of the virus.

On Tuesday, Mr Hancock blamed a significant uptick in cases and increased pressure on the system partly on “socialising by people in their 20s and 30s”, as he imposed tougher restrictions in Bolton, Greater Manchester.

But younger MPs have told PoliticsHome the government has work to do to “regain the trust” of the very people they are trying to reach, with many having lost faith in ministers after a series of U-turns and “bad decisions”.

“The first thing I think we could start with is setting a proper example,” said Labour’s Apsana Begum.

“When young people and everybody in the country look at politicians, they judge us in terms of our integrity.  Since I returned to parliament at the start of this week, I have seen hardly any social distancing, or wearing of masks. 

“And while masks aren’t required within the parliamentary estate, when people are unable to distance adequately you would hope there may be extra precautions taken.

“If even in our own behaviour as politicians we are not setting a proper example, how then can we expect there to be a higher level of compliance across country?”

The 30-year-old, who entered the Commons for the first time after December’s election, said the health secretary’s “don’t kill granny” appeal to young people was misjudged.

“To start with the whole blaming and scapegoating of young people with that comment, I think the tone of it was wrong, especially when so many people have already lost grandparents as a result of this crisis,” she added.

“It’s wrong to single out young people when the bigger picture shows there are problems with compliance overall.  The evidence does not suggest young people are the least compliant – just that they have the highest number of new cases.

“We have seen images of illegal raves and street parties, but this stereotyping and taking one or two examples and generalising is wrong.”

The row comes after the latest official NHS figures reveal the lowest weekly percentage of close contacts were reached and told to self-isolate since test and trace was launched in England.

And analysis of the data shows it is likely tracers actually spoke to less than half of the people who came into contact with those who tested positive between 27 August and 2 September.

The target as set out by the government’s SAGE advisory board is they must hit 80% “for a system to be effective”.

Poplar and Limehouse MP Ms Begum said she wants to see more targeted communications from ministers aimed speficially at young people, modelled on New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who held a special press conference for children during the peak of the pandemic. 

“If there are specific messages for young people, it needs to be targeted in a way to support them to comply,” she added.

“As a younger MP, since entering parliament I can now see how clearly that world is detached from an average young person’s life. The tone, the language used, the customs and traditions mean nothing to many young people. That gap needs to be bridged.”

Her backbench colleague, Pontypridd MP Alex Davies-Jones, said the message also needs to be simplified. 

“It’s not just young adults, it’s adults of all ages who are not following guidelines, but I think that’s because the guidelines have become so confusing,” she told PoliticsHome.

“People are getting their information from different sources and media outlets and are getting lost in the guidance of what you can do where, when and who with.  

“Because it’s become so complex, people think they can do what they like as long as they’re careful and wash their hands.

“And what’s frustrating me now is the government is blaming younger people for spreading it – and the ‘don’t kill your gran’ message really isn’t helping. They’re blaming people for getting too many tests.  They’re blaming everyone except themselves.”

Statistics released on Thursday morning show 9,864 Brits tested positive for Covid-19 last week, with 8,908 cases transferred to NHS Test and Trace.

Of those only 7,367 were reached, and just 6,044 gave their details to contact tracers – 67% of cases.

From those individuals 32,359 close contacts were identified, but only 69.2% of them were reached, down from 91.1% in the scheme’s first week of operation.

If those who were not reached or did not provide details came into contact with roughly the same amount of people as those who did provide details, then that is an overall rate of just 47% of contacts reached.

And even if they came into contact with far fewer people – which could be why they chose not to speak to tracers – then that overall figure would not be higher than 60%, still far lower than SAGE’s target.

The NHS says this is because many more cases are being classified as “non-complex cases” – which are handled online or by call centres – rather than “complex” – which are dealt with by local public health experts.

In non-complex cases only 61.3% of contacts are reached, whereas those deemed complex, either because they are in a health or care setting, a prison, critical national infrastructure or national security setting, it is close to 100%.

Former Lib Dem leadership contender Layla Moran, 37, told PoliticsHome the government was “trying to blame people for its own incompetence, when in fact its own actions have undermined the public’s trust”.

“The ability to rapidly test and trace at scale is essential if we are to bring the pandemic under control and save lives in a second wave,” she added. 

“It is quite frankly unforgivable that eight months into the pandemic, we still do not have a functioning testing and tracing system in place in England.”

Mr Hancock wrongly upbraided shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth for suggesting in the Commons on Tuesday less than 70% of contacts are reached and being asked to self-isolate.

Fact-checking service FullFact since backed the Labour frontbencher up, saying his assessment was correct.

The health secretary also disagreed with Labour MP Sam Tarry when he said NHS Test and Trace was “well off that target” of 80% in a Commons debate last week.

The cabinet minister said the previous week’s data “show that 84.3% of contacts were reached and asked to self-isolate where contact details were provided”. 

But that doesn’t take into account of those people who did not provide the tracers with contact details, and who can still be spreading the disease.

There is also serious regional disparity in how well the system is functioning, with just 42% of contacts in “non-complex” cases reached in Bradford, the lowest proportion for any local authority area in England.

In Peterborough it is just 46% while Blackburn with Darwen is running at 48%, and for Kirklees and Nottingham the figure is 49%.

Despite that Baroness Dido Harding, who set up NHS Test and Trace and is interim executive chair of the National Institute for Health Protection, said the system is working.

“Every week we consistently reach the majority of people testing positive and their contacts,” she said.

“We have now reached almost 360,000 people who may be at risk of unknowingly passing on the virus, helping to curb its spread.”

But Mr Hancock warned the public “should not and must not go and use a test that somebody else who needs it should be using” if they do not have Covid-19 symptoms.

“With this very sharp rise we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks of people coming forward for tests when they are not eligible that is something that we’re having to look at,” the health secretary told the Commons on Thursday.

“The key message to constituents is that these tests are absolutely vital for people who have symptoms and therefore if you don’t have symptoms and haven’t been told by a clinician or by a local authority to get a test then you should not and must not go and use a test that somebody else who needs it should be using.”

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Trump comment on ‘blowing up’ Nile Dam angers Ethiopia

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image copyrightReuters

image captionThe dam will be the biggest hydro-electric project in Africa

Ethiopia’s prime minister has said his country “will not cave in to aggressions of any kind” after President Donald Trump suggested Egypt could destroy a controversial Nile dam.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is at the centre of a long-running dispute involving Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan.

Mr Trump said Egypt would not be able to live with the dam and might “blow up” the construction.

Ethiopia sees the US as siding with Egypt in the dispute.

The US announced in September that it would cut some aid to Ethiopia after it began filling the reservoir behind the dam in July.

Why is the dam disputed?

Egypt relies for the bulk of its water needs on the Nile and is concerned supplies could be cut off and its economy undermined as Ethiopia takes control of the flow of Africa’s longest river.

Once complete, the $4bn (£3bn) structure on the Blue Nile in western Ethiopia will be Africa’s largest hydro-electric project.

The speed with which Ethiopia fills up the dam will govern how severely Egypt is affected – the slower the better as far as Cairo is concerned. That process is expected to take several years.

  • Who owns the River Nile – and why it matters

  • Egypt fumes as Ethiopia celebrates over Nile dam
  • How the Nile’s mega dam will be filled

Sudan, further upstream than Egypt, is also concerned about water shortages.

Ethiopia, which announced the start of construction in 2011, says it needs the dam for its economic development.

Negotiations between the three countries were being chaired by the US, but are now overseen by the African Union.

What did the Ethiopian PM say?

PM Abiy Ahmed did not address Mr Trump’s remarks directly, but there appears to be little doubt what prompted his robust comments.

Ethiopians would finish the dam, he vowed.

“Ethiopia will not cave in to aggression of any kind,” he said. “Ethiopians have never kneeled to obey their enemies, but to respect their friends. We won’t do it today and in the future.”

Threats of any kind over the issue were “misguided, unproductive and clear violations of international law”.

image copyrightReuters
image captionSudan is worried too – the Blue and White Niles meet in Khartoum

Why did Trump get involved?

The president was on the phone to Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu in front of reporters at the White House on Friday.

The occasion was Israel and Sudan’s decision to agree diplomatic relations in a move choreographed by the US.

The subject of the dam came up and Mr Trump and Mr Hamdok expressed hopes for a peaceful resolution to the dispute.

But Mr Trump also said “it’s a very dangerous situation because Egypt is not going to be able to live that way”.

He continued: “And I said it and I say it loud and clear – they’ll blow up that dam. And they have to do something.”

image copyrightReuters
image captionThe dam came up in a phone call with Sudan’s prime minister

What is the state of the negotiations?

Mr Abiy maintains that the negotiations have made more progress since the African Union began mediation.

But there are fears that Ethiopia’s decision to start filling the reservoir could overshadow hopes of resolving key areas, such what happens during a drought and how to resolve future disputes.

Related Topics

  • Nile

  • Sudan
  • Donald Trump
  • Egypt
  • Ethiopia

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Boris Johnson used to be the Teflon man of British politics, brushing off scandals, gaffes and mistakes. Not any more

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Now Johnson’s plans appear ruined. He’d wanted to use his personal enthusiasm for Brexit to instil a fresh sense of optimism that the UK’s future was brighter outside the European Union. Free from the Brussels bureaucracy, Johnson’s government vowed to address the UK’s socio-economic imbalance that in some sense led to Brexit by “leveling up” deprived areas. He would also seek to strengthen the bond between the four nations of the UK, which had been stretched to near-breaking point amid the bitterness following the 2016 referendum. In short, the man who led the campaign that caused so much division was on a charm offensive to heal the country.

However, 10 months on, his government is short on resources and losing good will. Johnson’s opponents point to numerous errors made early in the pandemic over testing and confusing messaging over lockdowns, the highest death count in Europe and worst recession of any major economy as evidence of his failures. Worse, members of his own party fear that his lack of attention to detail and instinct for combative politics is causing a shift in the PM’s public perception: From affable optimist to incompetent bully who is hopelessly out of his depth. And they worry what long-term damage this might do both to Johnson’s personal mission and the brand of the Conservative party writ large.

One former Conservative cabinet minister and colleague of Johnson, who declined to be named, agreed with this analysis. “To deal with a crisis like this, you need public confidence and you need different bits of the state working together as effectively as possible,” the politician said. “Instead, they have managed to enrage the leadership in Scotland and Wales while picking largely pointless fights with mayors of major cities where Conservatives historically don’t do well. It’s a very strange way of going about uniting the country.”

Over the past week, Johnson has been in a protracted and public spat with the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham. Johnson wanted the city to enter the UK’s highest tier of Covid restrictions. Burnham didn’t want this to happen without more financial support from the central government. The whole thing ended in a complete mess, as Johnson’s government didn’t make clear after talks collapsed that the money deemed insufficient by Burnham was still on the table. This led to a televised press conference in which Burnham supposedly found out live on air that the government had withdrawn their offer of £60 million ($78 million) for the city, instead only offering £22 million.

The government claims the whole thing was a set up by Burnham and in fact the minister responsible had talked with him before the press conference.

A government minister told CNN that there is “zero evidence that the PM picked a fight with Burnham,” adding that a central government “naturally has to balance economic and public health issues while local politicians have a much narrower focus,” implying Burnham was playing politics with Johnson.

However, worryingly for Johnson, his personal approval ratings and trust in his government have plummeted sufficiently since the crisis that the truth doesn’t entirely matter.

“When you look at Boris’s personal brand you see dramatic drop-offs in people who think he is likeable and trustworthy since the start of the pandemic. He now lags behind Keir Starmer (leader of the opposition Labour party) on almost all of those metrics,” says Chris Curtis, Political Research Manager at pollster YouGov.

This dip in trust is particularly toxic for Johnson when you combine it with the reputation Conservatives have in parts of the country that historically vote Labour and Johnson was able to pick up seats in last December’s election — the so-called Red Wall.

This reputation was not helped when Johnson found himself in round two of a fight with popular Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford over providing meals for the poorest children during the Christmas holidays this year. On Wednesday night, Johnson directed his party to vote against the proposal.

“People will remember in six or 12 months that the government didn’t seem to care if children went hungry over Christmas during an economic crisis. It costs relatively little to fund compared to other government spending this year,” says Lauren McEvatt, former special adviser to a previous Conservative administration. “It feeds into a narrative which still exists that Conservatives ultimately don’t care as much about poor people.”

What’s perplexed many observers over the Rashford affair is that Johnson had to U-turn earlier this year on exactly the same matter for summer holidays. “This government is like that GIF where Sideshow Bob keeps stepping on the same rakes and whacking himself in the face,” says Rob Ford, professor of politics at the University of Manchester.

All of which only goes to reopen the question of government competence. “From the start, this government set out to hyper-centralize everything from a small team in Downing Street in order to have a tight grip on the Johnson project,” says a senior Conservative lawmaker. “That means a small group of people are making decisions in areas they might not be experts. That’s hard enough at the best of times, but during a crisis which affects the whole country and is constantly changing, it’s virtually impossible.”

The lawmaker goes on to explain that he thinks they “rely too much on focus groups” in order to appeal to public opinion. “The trouble is, focus groups don’t have much foresight. Something might be very popular one day but six months down the line look like a massive mistake. Normal practice in government is to find the right policy and sell it to the public, not the other way around.”

Numerous current and former Downing Street insiders told CNN that while it was true this government did run a lot of focus groups and deemed them to be very important, opinion was divided on their precise influence over policy making. Some said that decisions were made on the basis of focus groups; some said they helped shape how the government would sell policy to the public; some claimed it had led to major policy U-turns, including over Rashford’s summer campaign. A government official denied this claim.

Whatever the truth, it is hard to deny that Johnson’s credibility has taken a significant hit this year. Many point to a scandal surrounding his most senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, as the worst moment of the year. Cummings, having displayed symptoms for Covid, decided to drive hundreds of miles from his home in London when government advice clearly stated that he should self-isolate. Cummings claimed that he did so to provide childcare for his young son.

“They could have killed that story in 48 hours if they said he was desperately worried about his baby and now realizes it was wrong,” says the former cabinet minister. Instead, Cummings gave a bizarre press conference where he defended not only his initial trip, but a further outing in his car which he claimed to merely be testing his eyesight. “The refusal to show any kind of contrition led to a big change of mood. That episode symbolizes what has been wrong about the approach,” the former minister adds.

Whether that’s fair or not, it’s certainly possible to argue the case that the Cummings scandal had three key ingredients: Cock-up; lack of apology; aggressive response. It is also possible to superimpose this playbook onto both the responses to Burnham and Rashford. In the case of the latter, Johnson was not helped by members of his own party implying that some poor parents are feckless and not interested in feeding their children and that children have always gone hungry anyway.
Marcus Rashford clashes with lawmakers as UK parliament votes against free school meals proposal

All of this leaves Johnson vulnerable to those who want to paint him as a mean-spirited bully running a shambolic government. “Fairly or unfairly, it does play to the stereotype of Conservatives as not interested in the poor and not interested in the north. This, unfortunately, does really damage his agenda for leveling up, cementing the red wall and defending the union,” says the former minister.

It’s worth pointing out that as things stand, Johnson’s party is still ahead in the polls. A government minister puts this down to the fact that despite all the headlines, Johnson’s real actions present an alternative narrative that voters understand. “If you move away from Covid, all the big announcements we have made are focused on investments in skills, and we didn’t go for austerity 2.0 despite massive pressure. All of these things suggest that leveling up is still the PM’s top priority,” the minister said.

However, despite those polls, Johnson only won his majority last December and that lead has been slipping. And as the crisis continues, many of his previous supporters are increasingly skeptical that Boris Johnson was ever really the man to unite a country divided by political chaos for which he was largely responsible.

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Pelosi and Mnuchin brush past stimulus deadline amid hopes for a deal

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Pelosi later told reporters that she hoped to get something done by the end of the week: “That’s the plan. That’s what I would hope.”

But the California Democrat’s biggest obstacle may be across the Capitol — with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) privately urging the White House not to settle with Pelosi before the election.

Most Republicans and many Democrats still say it is unlikely a relief package can be shepherded through Congress in the coming weeks — because of both resistance in the GOP-controlled Senate as well as lingering differences between Pelosi and Mnuchin.

“You never know what’s going to happen around here at the last minute, but it’s getting to be toward the last minute and the clock keeps ticking away,” Senate Appropriations Chair Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters Tuesday. “I’m not optimistic about doing anything.”

But Pelosi had sounded hopeful ahead of her call with Mnuchin, and she seemed to downplay the “48-hour” deadline she announced over the weekend Pelosi said that timeline was needed to finalize a bill before the election but that she and Mnuchin could keep negotiating even if an agreement didn’t materialize by the end of the day Tuesday.

“We’re on a path,” Pelosi told Bloomberg TV before the most recent negotiating session. “As the secretary and I say to each other, ‘If we didn’t believe we could get this done, why would we even be talking?’”

“We could still continue the negotiation. It might not be finished by Election Day,” Pelosi added.

Pelosi said she and Mnuchin have made significant progress in some key areas, including on provisions outlining a national coronavirus testing and tracing plan — a key element for Democrats that appeared to be derailed over the weekend when the two sides couldn’t agree on legislative text. Pelosi described the GOP stance as “a change from over the weekend.”

Pelosi’s spokesman said Tuesday that committee chairs have been tasked with resolving differences “about funding levels and language” before the two negotiators speak again on Wednesday. The chairs had already been tapped to reach out to the top Republicans on their panels to begin hammering out some of the finer details of a broader deal.

But key hurdles remain, including disputes over one of Democrats’ top priorities — funding for state and local governments — and liability protections for businesses and schools that Republicans have long demanded. There are also smaller outstanding disagreements on language related to vaccines, health care worker protections and the child tax credit.

“The two bookends of our differences right now… one is state and local and the other is liability,” Pelosi said on Bloomberg TV.

Pelosi and Mnuchin are more broadly aligned on the need to revive expanded unemployment benefits, send aid to small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program and deliver stimulus checks to individuals, though there is still some disagreement on the assistance levels for those initiatives.

Much of Capitol Hill remains skeptical that Pelosi and Mnuchin can reach an agreement on anything that will make it to President Donald Trump’s desk, especially without the support of McConnell and other key Republicans.

McConnell has largely steered clear of the stimulus talks and is focused on confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court before the election. Most GOP senators are also opposed to spending anything close to the $2 trillion being discussed by Pelosi and Mnuchin; they’re instead backing a narrower, approximately $500 billion proposal that is set to get a vote Wednesday. The Senate also held a procedural vote on Tuesday to put pressure on Democrats over a lapse in Paycheck Protection Program funding, though most Democrats dismissed it as a political stunt.

On Tuesday McConnell appeared to publicly soften his stance on whether to allow any Pelosi-Mnuchin deal to come to the Senate floor for a vote.

In a statement over the weekend, McConnell only agreed to “consider” a Pelosi-Mnuchin agreement. But on Tuesday, the Kentucky Republican said he would allow the Senate to vote on it, provided that Trump had agreed to sign it first.

“What I’m telling you is that if such a deal were to clear the House, obviously with the presidential signature promised, we would put it on the floor of the Senate and let the Senate consider it,” McConnell told reporters following a Republican policy lunch.

McConnell, however, didn’t say when any such measure would come up for a vote, and it’s increasingly unlikely that such an agreement could see action before Election Day.

And privately, McConnell told Republican members at lunch Tuesday that he had warned the White House against reaching a large stimulus deal before the election; doing so could divide the GOP conference and delay Barrett’s confirmation, according to two people familiar with his remarks. McConnell’s private remarks were first reported by the Washington Post.

There isn’t unanimity among Democrats either — several of whom are uneasy with the negotiations over liability provisions. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) told Pelosi on a private caucus call Monday that she didn’t see how any Democrat could vote for a deal with the current liability provisions.

Mnuchin, meanwhile, has argued that Senate Republicans would get behind an accord if Trump himself backed the deal. But that prospect is still uncertain in a GOP-controlled Senate on edge ahead of an election where the majority is up for grabs.

Trump, too, said on “Fox and Friends” on Tuesday that McConnell “will be on board if something comes.”

Trump then went on to call for a stimulus package that’s even pricier than the $2.2 trillion Democrats want — though the GOP has shown zero interest in spending more than Democrats after months of talks.

“I want to do it even bigger than the Democrats. And not every Republican agrees with me, but they will,” Trump claimed, adding that Pelosi does not want to reach a deal, despite weeks of lengthy talks with Mnuchin.

“Here’s the problem, she doesn’t want to do anything until after the election because she thinks that helps her,” Trump said. “I actually think it helps us, because everyone knows that she’s the one that’s breaking up the deal. Now, they are talking. Let’s see what happens.”

Pelosi, meanwhile, has continued to insist publicly and privately that a massive economic rescue package could be done before the election, with her caucus eager to see money go out the door as quickly as possible. The bill would have to be written by the end of this week and move through Congress next week, Pelosi said Tuesday.

In a private call with Democrats on Monday afternoon, Pelosi said she’s determined to reach a deal and push it through the House in part to help clear the decks ahead of a potential Joe Biden presidency.

But that effort seemed futile at best on Tuesday, as multiple Democrats reported an icy reception from House Republicans. And a bipartisan phone call between House Appropriations Committee staffers on Monday yielded little progress.

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