The UK has now entered its fifth month of COVID-19 restrictions and although aspects of the summer have been “saved” with the opening of pubs and restaurants, many are concerned how long this can last, particularly as schools are scheduled to return in September. Questions have begun to arise as to how long this period of unlocking can last and as more and more local lockdowns are introduced, many are bracing themselves for what could be a harsh winter.
Beyond COVID-19, new potential planning rules have been announced this week, which has led to even more scrutiny and criticism of the government. Trade talks have also continued, with a potential deal on the horizon with Japan.
Here are some of the key updates you need to know from the past two weeks from Westminster and beyond.
Local lockdowns, national problems
Local lockdowns have begun in earnest with Leicester, Manchester, Lancashire, West Yorkshire and most recently Aberdeen being subjected to more severe restrictions than the rest of the country. Many are now questioning which town may be next to fall under more severe restrictions with Northern towns like Preston anticipating potential restrictions.
Outside of the regional restrictions, gamblers across the nation will have to continue to hold their horses as casino reopening plans were delayed for another two weeks. This came as chief medical officer Chris Witty warned that the country is on the “outer edge of what we can do.” Ice skating rinks and bowling allies are also now having to wait until 15 August to reopen their doors and indoor performances in theatres, music halls and other venues which were hoping to open socially distanced shows will also have to remain shut for longer.
It is hoped that this is simply a blip in the journey towards unlocking Britain and not an indication of a second wave, which may prove to be one disaster too many for the UK’s economy.
Low marks for mask procurement
Although concerns about PPE shortages have diluted since the peak of the crisis, they are still causing a headache for Johnson’s government. This week news broke that the government had bought at least £150m of unusable masks from Ayanda Capital, a family investment firm with no history of PPE procurement or government contracts. Millions of FFP2 masks, which formed part of the deal, were fitted with ear loops instead of head straps, reducing their efficiency and making them unusable for the NHS.
While the stories about poor PPE procurement practices have been rife since the outset of the pandemic, this story attracted particular criticism due to the links between the investment firm and the Department for International Trade (DIT). The deal was brokered by Andrew Mills, an adviser to secretary of state for international trade, Liz Truss and the DIT and Ayanda’s board. Neither the government nor Ayanda have taken responsibility for the error, with the investment firm claiming that the DIT had only ever discussed masks with ear loops. As a counter-argument, the government has emphasised its success of supplying over £2.4 billion items of PPE during the pandemic, also highlighting their strict safety standards. Regardless of who may be at fault, the incident has added to the narrative that the government has greatly mishandled PPE throughout the pandemic.
We do need some education
Schools are set to return this September as the adults agree that the children need some school based education after months of learning at home. Beyond the usual first day of school apprehensions, many are concerned that children returning to the classroom may increase the all-important R-rate.
Current estimates predict that children returning to school could increase the R-rate by 0.2. As the R-rate currently stands between 0.8 - 0.9, this would push the figure above one, increasing the number of cases and potentially the number of deaths from the virus. Consequently, many are asking whether there will need to be trade-offs to keep the virus contained with speculation growing over how much time Brits have left in pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops. However, as we’ve seen from recent local lockdowns there is very little appetite to inhibit much needed recovery in our fragile economy by shutting down these establishments. So far, the government is appearing to favour stopping household interactions instead of consumer facing businesses, as they have done in Manchester, Lancaster and West Yorkshire.
Decisions will be made in the coming weeks on what the new normal will look like going into the autumn, however it is clear the 2020/21 school year is set to be different.
People try to mark us down – talking ‘bout their generation
Scottish exams results were released this week and met with immediate fury as many found out their grades had been moderated down by the Scottish exam board, the SQA. Overall, around a quarter (125,000) grades were lowered. Calls of inequality were made as the most affluent areas only saw a 6.9% drop in the higher pass rate compared to 15.2% in poorer areas. First minister Nicola Sturgeon, has since come out and claimed any “genuine individual injustices” will be rectified through the appeals process, however criticism is still coming in fast as more and more exam takers come to terms with what lower grades mean for them and their plans.
With A-level and GCSEs results day looming south of the border, many are questioning whether these exam boards will use the same model and if so what it will mean for candidates. The government has already pre-emptively announced that schools will be able to appeal against their students’ exam results, however they will only be able to take this step if they can show that the grades are lower than expected, due to the previous cohorts not being representative of the class of 2020.
New planning plans
This week, the government announced its new plans for planning. The regulations will restrict the power of local councils to oppose new developments in an attempt to increase the number of new homes across England. The government launched a consultation on the new proposals which categorise land as either “growth”, “renewal” or “protection”. Land marked as growth will be automatically given permission for new developments, and local people will not be able to reject the developments. Developments designated as “renewal” will receive permission in principle while land labelled as “protected” will not.
The plans also include proposals to exempt small sites from payments towards key council infrastructure such as schools and affordable housing which they are currently obliged to make under Section 106. Secretary of state for housing, communities and local government Robert Jenrick is once again under fire for this decision following the revelation earlier in the year that he granted planning permission for a £1 billion property scheme weeks before the developer, Richard Desmond, donated £12,000 to the Conservative party without requiring Desmond to pay £45m towards the local council’s community infrastructure levy.
While the proposed changes are likely to appeal to developers, they prompted significant criticism from housing charities, planning officers and architects who warned of a new generation of fast and substandard housing.
Land of the rising trade deal
Brexit has rarely been at the top of the news agenda since the onset of the pandemic, however negotiations and deals are still happening in London and across the world. This week, news came out that Japan and the UK will attempt to form a post-Brexit free trade agreement. This can been seen as a positive step forward after many months of negative stories such as the USA and EU warning that trade agreements by 31 December were looking more unlikely.
A trade deal with the third biggest economy in the world may appear to be a win for the Brexiteer government, however on closer inspection the deal is only expected to add 0.07% to the UK economy and is largely expected to replicate the existing EU-Tokyo accord. Japan has also insisted that the deal with London will be less ambitious than a deal with the EU as the UK is a significantly smaller market.
Potential sticking points include tariffs of Japanese car exports and British concerns over financial services and data regulation. However, any good trade deal news is welcomed as Brexit looms and the possibility of the UK having to operate under World Trade Organisation rules grows.
Furlough winds down
August marks the first month where employers will have to contribute to the furlough scheme as the government contributions begin to wind down, adding to the growing concerns about unemployment and a possible “winter of discontent.” The Bank of England is warning that unemployment may double to 2.5 million as one million people are set to lose their job this year. This no doubt has impacted the Labour summer campaign for “jobs, jobs, jobs.” The opposition party have presented a five-point plan for jobs including calls for the furlough scheme to be “fixed” to support the worst hit industries and a proposal for a £1.7 billion “fightback fund” to save the nation’s high streets.
Growing unemployment and perceived government failures of dealing with COVID-19 may help the opposition party bounce back, however it is still polling an average of six points below the Conservatives. Moreover, the Labour party is still dealing with its own internal struggles illustrated by Jeremy Corbyn’s legal fund which now stands at over £300,000.
It was announced on Friday morning that Palmerston the cat, Foreign and Commonwealth Office chief mouser, is stepping down from his duties and retiring to the countryside where he has spent lockdown. Rumours are yet to arise as to which top cat is tipped to take on the role.
COVID-19 restrictions and unlocking decisions are going to continue coming in thick and fast in the weeks ahead and holiday makers can also anticipate more quarantines being imposed for travellers returning from hard hit corona hot spots, but also potentially some being lifted as we saw with Malaysia this week. Unlockings may continue, as a key way to boost parts of the economy, however it is also possible that we may see more closures and local lockdowns as the country races to get ready for the first day of school.
Trade talks will continue near and far with the next round of UK-EU negotiations scheduled for 17 August. However, there are little expectations from the EU side that any substantial agreements will be reached before autumn. Across the pond, many will be looking at the Biden campaign to see who the 77 year old presidential candidate picks as his running mate, who as Biden himself warned could be a “heart beat” away from the presidency depending on the result of the November election.
It's safe to say 2020 has been an eventful year so far, and the remaining months look set to continue this trend.