The Conservatives are shrinking the state – to make room for money and privilege

Boris Johnson’s talk of restoring sovereignty is a lie. He is handing democratic power to economic elites, not the people. George Monbiot writes in the Guardian 14th October 2020.

The question that divides left from right should no longer be “how big is the state?”, but “to whom should its powers be devolved?”. In his conference speech last week, Boris Johnson recited the standard Tory mantra: “The state must stand back and let the private sector get on with it.” But what he will never do is stand back and let the people get on with it.


The Conservative promise to shrink the state was always a con. But it has seldom been as big a lie as it is today. Johnson grabs powers back from parliament with both fists, invoking Henry VIII clauses to prevent MPs from voting on crucial legislation, stitching up trade deals without parliamentary scrutiny, shutting down remote participation, so that MPs who are shielding at home can neither speak nor vote, and shutting down parliament altogether, when it suits him.


He seeks to seize powers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: the internal market bill appears to enable Westminster to take back control of devolved policies. He imposes the will of central government on local authorities, refusing to listen to mayors and councils while dropping new coronavirus measures on their cities. He claws back powers from the people, curtailing our ability to shape planning decisions; shutting down legal challenges to government policy; using the Coronavirus Act and the covert human intelligence sources bill to grant the police inordinate power over our lives.


His promises to restore sovereignty are lies. While using the language of liberation, he denies power to both people and parliament. He promised to curtail the state, but under his government, the state is bursting back into our lives, breaking down our doors, expanding its powers while reducing ours.


Instead, he gives power away to a thing he calls “the market”, which is a euphemism for the power of private money. This power is concentrated in a small number of hands. When Johnson talks of standing back and letting the private sector get on with it, he means that democratic power is being surrendered to oligarchs.


Under the Conservatives, the state shrinks only in one direction: to make room for money and privilege. It grants lucrative private contracts to favoured companies without advertisement or competitive tendering. It gifts crucial arms of the NHS to failed consultants and service companies. It replaces competent, professional civil servants with incompetent corporate executives.


We need a state that is strong in some respects. We need a robust economic safety net, excellent public services and powerful public protections. But much of what the state imposes are decisions we could better make ourselves. No Conservative government has shown any interest in devolving genuine power to the people, by enabling, for example, a constitutional convention, participatory budgeting, community development, the democratisation of the planning system or any other meaningful role in decision-making during the five years between elections.


The Labour party’s interest in these questions is scarcely more advanced. The 2019 manifesto talked of “urgent steps to refresh our democracy”. It called for a constitutional convention and the decentralisation of power. But these policies were scarcely more than notional: they lacked sustained support from senior figures and were scarcely heard by voters. During his bid to become Labour leader, Keir Starmer announced that “we need to end the monopoly of power in Westminster”. He called for “a new constitutional settlement: a large-scale devolution of power and resources”. Since then we’ve heard nothing.


When challenged on its policy vacuum, Labour argues that “the next general election is likely to be four years away … There’s plenty of time to do that work.” But you can’t wait until the manifesto is published to announce a meaningful restoration of power to the people, and expect it to be understood and embraced. The argument needs to be built – and Labour local authorities, by developing powerful examples of participatory politics, need to show how Starmer’s promised new settlement could work. Instead there’s a sense that the parliamentary Labour party still sees its best means of enacting change as seizing a highly centralised system, and using this system’s inordinate powers to its own advantage.


For many years, Labour relied on trade unions for its grassroots dynamism and legitimacy. But while the unions should remain an important force, they can no longer be the primary forum for participatory politics. Even at the height of industrialisation, when vast numbers laboured together in factories and mines, movements based in the workplace could only represent part of the population. Today, when solid jobs have been replaced by dispersed and temporary employment, and many people work from home, the focus of our lives has shifted back to our neighbourhoods. It is here that we should build the new centres of resistance and revival.


Starmer has so far shown little interest in reigniting the movements that almost propelled Labour to power in 2017. But even if Labour wins an election, without a strong grassroots mobilisation it will struggle to change our sclerotised political system. Any radical political project requires a political community, and this needs to be built across years, not months.
The popular desire to take back control is genuine. But it has been cynically co-opted by the government, which has instead passed power from elected bodies to economic elites. The principal task of those who challenge oligarchic politics in any nation is to offer genuine control to the people, relinquishing centralised power and rewilding politics. Yes, the state should stand back. It should stand back for the people, not for the money.


• George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/oct/14/conservatives-state-money-privilege-boris-johnson-power?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

What has gone wrong with England’s Covid test-and-trace system?

It was supposed to be ‘world beating’ but experts say it is having only a ‘marginal impact’

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondentPublished: 19:57 Tuesday, 13 October 2020 Follow Robert Booth

When the NHS test-and-trace system was launched in late May, Boris Johnson promised it would help “move the country forward”. We would be able to see our families, go to work and stop the economy crumbling.

In the absence of a vaccine, the prime minister’s “world-beating” system would be worth every penny of the £10bn funding that Rishi Sunak announced in July. The chancellor said it would enable people to carry on normal lives.

Now as pubs are ordered to close, extended families are forced to stop meeting and intensive care beds fill up fast, the government’s Sage scientific advisers have concluded NHS test and trace is not working.

Too few people are getting tested, results are coming back too slowly and not enough people are sticking to the instructions to isolate, they say.

The system “is having a marginal impact on transmission”, as a result, and unless it grows as fast as the epidemic that impact will only wane.

So what’s going wrong?

Over centralised from the start … 

Tasked in spring with rolling out millions of coronavirus tests, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, opted for a centralised system using private firms. The business consultancy, Deloitte, was handed a contract to help run testing through local drive-in and walk-in test sites, with swabs being sent for analysis at a network of national laboratories, many also outsourced. Serco was also handed a deal to run contact tracing, subcontracting work to other firms as well.

The stakes for their success were high. An Imperial College study found if test and trace worked quickly and effectively, the R number could potentially be reduced by up to 26%.

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Local directors of public health knew this from experience of tackling sexually transmitted diseases and food poisoning outbreaks, but their role was limited, leaving many exasperated that they were being cut out.Advertisement

As the system got up and running over the summer, ONS surveys of the virus prevalence suggested NHS test and trace might only be picking up a quarter of actual cases.

In July, one of the system’s senior civil servants, Alex Cooper, admitted privately the system was only identifying 37% of the people “we really should be finding”. The clamour from mayors and local public health officials for a bigger role grew.

Finally this week the government admitted cities and regions should be given help to do more.

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“We’ve always known that there was a need for a local element of test and trace, as a centralised system does not have local expertise and is not able to cut through the harder-to-reach communities,” Andy Street, the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, told the Guardian this week.

The strain on a the centralised system has been clear. Sarah-Jane Marsh, director of testing at NHS test and trace tweeted last month: “The testing team work on this 18 hours a day, 7 days a week. We recognise the country is depending on us.” She is about to stand down after less than six months in the post.null

Laboratory bottlenecks

Website warnings that no tests were available exposed the testing crisis to the British public on an almost daily basis this summer, especially in September when schools went back.

Dido Harding, the system’s head, said last month the number of people wanting tests was three to four times the number available. National “lighthouse” laboratories in Milton Keynes, Cheshire, Glasgow and Cambridge, had hit capacity.

More than a quarter of people attending 500 local testing centres after being in contact with someone who had tested positive, were simply turned away because they did not have symptoms.

The scale of the task was shown when Harding told MPs around half of the available tests were being used by NHS patients, social care and NHS staff.

Such was the strain that tens of thousands of tests had to be sent for processing abroad.

And the need for testing will only increase.

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Johnson has promised daily testing capacity of 500,000 by the end of this month. On Tuesday it stood at 309,000 .

Already a long way off from the target, the system will come under greater pressure over the coming weeks. On Tuesday, the government finally said visitors to care homes could be tested regularly to try and end the isolation caused by their visits to loved ones being banned. There are 400,000 care home residents.

Slow results

New laboratories in Newcastle, Bracknell, Newport and Charnwood should open within weeks and they can’t come soon enough. As far back as May, Sage experts said the speed of results had a significant impact on the reproduction rate of the virus. Turnaround times should be 24 hours or less and it was “essential” this capability was reached by the autumn/winter flu season.

Johnson pledged in on 3 June to “get all [non-postal] tests turned around in 24 hours by the end of June”.

But for the last week of September, the percentage of test results returned within 24 hours in the community testing was no greater than a third. Nearly nine out of 10 Covid-19 tests taken under the system used by care homes in England were returned after 48 hours in September. Kathy Roberts, chair of the Care Providers Alliance, told MPs on Tuesday she doesn’t have confidence in the government’s test-and-trace strategy.

“The percentage of returns is still too low,” she said. “It has improved for people on discharge but not for the workforce.”

Last month Greg Clarke MP, chairman of the Commons science and technology committee, asked Harding if the failure of the testing system was “driving the increase in the pandemic”.

“I strongly refute that the system is failing,” she replied.

Tech problems

The data blunder that caused nearly 16,000 coronavirus cases to go unreported in England last month when they disappeared from an spreadsheet, was not an isolated IT problem. The government’s first attempt to build an app to track infections was abandoned in June after months in development.

A new approach is costing an estimated £36m in development and running costs in the first year. The app allows users to check into venues and receive alerts if they have been close to someone infected, as long as the infected person tells their app. But it has yet to find its feet.

For a while people tested in NHS and PHE settings could not input their results, meaning thousands were being missed. A function which is supposed to alert people when they have been in a place where there has been an outbreak has only been used only a handful of times, despite more than 16 million people downloading the app.

Some employers have also been asking workers to turn the app off. 

Contact tracing

Figures suggest contact tracers working through the national system have been less successful than local council officials. The percentage of people reached and asked to provide details of recent close contacts hit its lowest level since June at the end of September, with performance worsening steadily over the month. It means about 25% of contacts are not reached at all.

There have been embarrassing reports about contact tracers making no calls for days on end, some catching up on Netflix while being paid to do nothing.

By contrast local public health officials, some setting up their own call centres and redeploying environmental health officers and sexual health experts with local knowledge and properly trained in the job, reckon they are tracing close to 100% of contacts.

The difference mattered particularly in north-west England, where the virus took hold this summer and south Asian-heritage communities proved harder to reach. Ministers finally agreed to share real-time data with local authorities in August but only after several councils threatened to break ranks and set up their own locally-run system.

Local health officials complained the centralised system failed to join the dots on linked infections. For example, it might spot 40 cases in one postcode – but wouldn’t quickly grasp that the cluster was linked to a specific workplace, event, or pub.

“Local residents recognise and can relate to their local council, which is not always possible with a national system,” said Ian Hudspeth, chair of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board. “Council staff can go to people’s homes to make sure they are aware of what they need to do.”

People struggle to self-isolate

Sage estimates that at least 80% of a case’s contacts need to isolate for the system to work.

Last month, however, it found rates of full self-isolation were below 20% and particularly low among the youngest and the poorest people.

A study stretching from March to August, found only 18% of 1,939 people with symptoms stayed at home and people facing greater hardship were less adherent.

Ability to self-isolate was three times lower in those with incomes less than £20,000 or savings less than £100, according to a third study.

Additional reporting: Josh Halliday

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/13/what-has-gone-wrong-with-englands-covid-test-and-trace-system?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other