Hancock’s Half Page

TESTING FIASCO AND THE ASHTON VERDICT.

20 years ago, this week John Ashton was condemning the blockade of the Stanlow oil refinery by people protesting the high price of petrol. The North West Director of Public Health called them terrorists.

Two decades on Ashton has lost none of his passion for a cause. This time it is the government’s handling of Covid 19. “It’s like we’re trying to take on the Luftwaffe without radar”, he says ahead of the publication of his book on the crisis. Its full title is “Blinded by Corona: How the Pandemic Ruined Britain’s Health and Wealth and What to Do About It”.

Ashton is no stranger to controversy. He was present at the Hillsborough Disaster and was an early critic of the emergency services. He has backed assisted dying and a 4-day week. He resigned as North West Director of Public Health in 2006 over the introduction of foundation trusts and more recently as President of the Faculty of Public Health called for a debate on lowering the age of consent to 15.

Until the pandemic broke out, he was gearing himself up for an independent challenge to be Police and Crime Commissioner for the Liverpool City Region.

For now, he has turned his attention to a wholesale critique of the government’s handling of the virus crisis. It is a timely attack because of the massive problems facing business and schools because of the gross inadequacies of the testing programme. Rather than world class, it is third world. The increased pressure for testing as the return to work took place in firms and education was completely predictable. The government have had months when then the virus was less active to plan for this. Now public confidence has evaporated and, as I predicted some weeks ago, the autumn restrictions will be met by bitterness not the national coming together we had in the spring.

Ashton has two targets. The government for “a dysfunctional, over-centralised and poorly led state machine; and Public Health England which until July 1 refused to release all data on the virus and test results to local health directors and councils.

The failure to use the local knowledge of councils in particular, has been a disgrace as has, what Ashton describes as the side-lining of local health directors.

So, what is to be done? Ashton says, even now, the public are willing the Prime Minister to succeed. To do so he needs to ditch the search for colourful headlines and study the detail. The aim must be to eliminate community transmission to end the daily fear of contagion that is holding back the return to work and the use of public transport.

Ashton complains that he is suffering from a near ban on radio and TV following a “lively” joust with Fiona Bruce on the BBC’s Question Time. He is certainly able to command many column inches in the newspapers. One feels lack of publicity will be the least of his worries.

GENERATIONAL WAR BREWING.

THE YOUNG HAVE HAD ENOUGH.

The new crackdown ordered by the government is grim but probably justified. The fear is that many young people have broken the rules during the easing of restrictions and will now infect the older generation as we enter autumn.

But we have a massive social problem here. I have great sympathy for teenagers and young adults who have found restrictions on their ability to meet and enjoy themselves intolerable. It is right to appeal to them to “protect their grannies”, but it is bumping up against their needs. With no end in sight to all this, as I have said before, I see this autumn’s partial lockdown being a lot uglier than the one in the spring.

Our police are going to have the greatest difficulty dealing with the raves and mass gatherings that will take place. In the spring the government and police had the broad support of society faced with, what they thought might be a short-term emergency. Policing this autumn will be carried out against a background of divisive debate about exactly what price we are prepared to pay to control the pandemic.

It is not only youngsters who are restless. The sports, hospitality and entertainment industries are in despair at the prospect that the crackdown will continue into next spring.

There was a general desire to support Boris Johnson, the man who could raise our spirits with a merry quip. That has now gone. Crucially his extravagant claims for the testing regime he was putting in place now lie in ashes. He now has a new plan for testing millions quickly. He must permit us all to greet this idea with a high degree of scepticism.

BRITANNIA WAVES THE RULES.

Perhaps the lyrics that have caused so much controversy in relation to the Last Night of the Proms, could be changed to accommodate the government’s approach to its treaty obligations.

The seeds of the decision to tear up sections of the EU withdrawal agreement lie in the frantic days between Boris Johnson’s election victory in December and us leaving the bloc on Jan 31st.

It was the government that created the time pressure despite the crucial and awkward fact that we have a land border with the EU. They were, and are, rightly determined to protect the integrity of their Single Market from illegal imports and exports, and downright smuggling. Therefore, Johnson had to accept that Northern Ireland has to be treated differently. He evaded awkward questions about what this would actually mean in terms of documentation across the Irish Sea but signed the treaty so he could “get Brexit done”.

Now he wants the EU to accept that British Ministers will control the integrity of the Single Market by breaking an international treaty.

How can we complain about the Chinese breaking the Hong Kong treaty? Our reputation is trashed,  and you can say goodbye to “global Britain” certainly as far as the United States is concerned. Democrats in America have made it clear they will block any trade deal if the Withdrawal Agreement is violated because they fear one of the consequences could be a destabilisation of the Good Friday agreement.

JOE WALKS THE HERITAGE TIGHTROPE.

The Mayor of Liverpool is determined to hold on to the city’s World Heritage status. This week he launched his revised North Shore project which aims to regenerate the Bramley Moore Docks and Ten Streets area in the north of the city.

In the presence of World Heritage representatives, he claimed the scheme would meet their concerns whilst recognising the need for regeneration of what is largely a derelict area.

Downtown’s Managing Director, Frank McKenna, has made clear his fears that World Heritage status is a handicap to Liverpool’s attempts to project itself as a city open to development.

We will see how this plays out.

NO PARTY CONFERENCES, BUT PLENTY ELSE.

For the first time since 1974, there will be no party conferences this autumn. The last time it happened Harold Wilson called the second General Election that year and MPs were campaigning in their seats not at the seaside.

It will be a blow to the Liverpool economy not to have Labour back, and Keir Starmer will be denied a first conference adulation as party leader.

But even if the conference halls in Liverpool and Birmingham have been silenced by Covid 19, there should be plenty of political action at Westminster, although the government will still be spared potential hostility from a chamber jammed full of MPs disgruntled at the handling of the pandemic.

Backbenchers are not the only ones grumbling. The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, is very uneasy about government plans to hold daily news conferences instead of one of the traditional behind closed doors lobby briefings for journalists. The Chorley MP fears more government announcements are going to be made to the press and not the Commons.

I was a member of the Lobby for some years and the system of off the record briefings did sometimes gave journalists a valuable insight into ministers thinking. The live press conference runs the danger of more grandstanding by the likes of ITV’s Robert Peston and a replication of Prime Minister’s Question Time from the government side.

The final legislation to implement Brexit shouldn’t present the government with much trouble. Although some unrest is developing on the Tory benches about the handling of the virus, they are all united on “Get Brexit Done”.

There is quite a busy legislative programme, bills tackling domestic abuse and online harm but there is no sign of ministers putting into law a new framework for social care.

This is shameful considering the way the virus showed up major weaknesses in the way we care for our elderly. With a big majority and a General Election at least three years away; now is the time for the government to tackle this difficult problem.

Another thorny issue that needs tackling well before the run up to the election is when MPs are going to vacate the Palace of Westminster for its major refurbishment

Then we come to the question of whether there will be a major budget statement this autumn. There has been a lot of speculation that the Chancellor is going after capital gains tax increases and scaling back pension reliefs to partly pay for the huge bill run up during the furlough period. However, uncertainty over the course of Covid 19 and how employers are going to react as government help is withdrawn, may mean the Chancellor waits for the spring for a big budget.

WE should still get an important financial announcement though as the Comprehensive Spending Review is due. That sets out the government’s main spending plans for the rest of the parliament.

We can hope that select committees will hold ministers to account for their handling of the crisis, especially the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson

SCHOOL RETURN CRUCIAL TO GETTING CITIES GOING.

QUIET CITIES.

City centres in the North remain eerily quiet, Altrincham is buzzing despite a recent infection spike, whilst Manchester is far from its busy self.

Many factors are contributing to this but as Downtown has being saying for a while, it must end. With the summer holidays over and schools, hopefully in full swing, workers need to have the confidence to return to offices in large numbers.

If that doesn’t happen, there is a real danger of our city centres being permanently scarred, so that when the return does come, the sandwich bars, restaurants, pubs, and theatres will be gone.

Our city centres won’t be the same again whatever office workers do, but they can make the transition for the mid-century if they are supported. There will be less retail, but the shops can be turned into housing to meet the increased demand for city centre living.

Councils seem to have taken the gamble of tilting the balance once and for all against cars coming into city centres. The pop-up cycle lanes on many of the main roads into Manchester and Liverpool are already causing traffic congestion. The position will be unsustainable when things return to normal. Motorists will finally be forced out of their cars and on to bikes and public transport. Cities will be greener and more pleasant to live in, but there will be a price to pay.

WHY ARE PEOPLE STAYING AWAY?

There are several reasons. Furloughing, fear that the workplace has not been made safe, reluctance to resume the hassle of commuting and crucially childcare responsibilities with the schools largely closed.

The reopening of the education system is going to be crucial. Will the increased use of public transport by kids, their inevitable mixing together and the return of teachers, lead to a general escalation of infection and death as the virus is transmitted to the vulnerable once again? If that is the case, we are in for a grim winter indeed.

However if this does not happen, then the vast majority of people should conclude that the risks of going back to the office or factory are far less than will be caused by continuing to damage the economy with the stresses of unemployment and mental health.

By mid-October, if the schools return has been uneventful, then we should expect companies to speed up decisions over home and office working. Whilst there are savings to be made in remote operations, there will surely be a need for employees to physically meet a couple of days a week. Loyalty and purpose cannot be achieved in a world of permanent “zooms”.

We are going to have to live with a low number of deaths and infections from Covid 19 for the foreseeable future, meanwhile our workplaces, theatres and sports grounds should be put on a path to normal operation.