This week in Whitehall

This week marks the fifth week of the Wagestream team working from home and the third week of the country in lockdown (w/c 13.04.20).

This week has brought lots of challenges and serious questioning for the government following Sunday’s announcement that the death toll devastatingly passed 10,000 on Monday, soaring to over 11,000 on Easter Monday. So it comes with no surprise that the lockdown will continue for at least another three weeks. With Raab stating on Thursday that we have come too far to give up now. There is light at the end of the tunnel, he stated. But if we rushed now, we would risk all the progress that has already been made. And that could lead to a second outbreak and a second lockdown. 

Misrepresentation of the number of deaths

The big focus from the media this week and the question everybody should be asking started on Monday when Dominic Raab, Secretary of State and Foreign Affairs, was questioned on the difference of data provided by the Department of Health and Office for National Statistics data. The government has been criticised for not providing COVID-19 related deaths that happen at home or care homes as well as hospitals in the daily death toll, which potentially means we are underreporting on deaths. This continues into Tuesday when Yvonne Doyle, medical director of NHS England, was also pressed on including care home deaths in the daily death toll as currently this is calculated by ONS separately. Doyle says she would like to have the best possible data on a daily basis. Sunak says we get the hospital data quicker because there are only 200 NHS Trusts but there are tens of thousands of social care sectors. 

Testing, testing, testing

Speaking on ITV’s Monday evenings weekly Coronavirus Q&A show, Chief Scientific Advisor Patrick Vallance suggested his colleagues at Public Health England failed to increase testing as quickly as was needed to control the spread of the virus. “At the beginning, Public Health England got off to a good start in terms of testing. I then think it’s not scaled as fast as it needs to scale – and that’s being done now.”

This comes as parallels are made between the UK’s reaction to Covid-19 with South Korea. South Korea sought to contain Covid-19 with a “test, trace and isolate” programme. Which involved testing thousands of people every day and placing all the sick and those that came into contact with them into strict quarantine. Six weeks later their outcome is much different contrasted with our “herd immunity” plan. Our NHS has not yet been overwhelmed, however, 11,000 people are dead, with hundreds more dying every day. In South Korea, a country with a similar-sized population and a similar capital city, fewer than 250 people have died.

Professor Helen Ward, of Imperial College London’s department of infectious disease epidemiology, tweeted on Monday “It’s very sad that so many people have died, and so many more are desperately ill because politicians refused to listen to advice. We said lockdown earlier, we said test, trace, isolate. But they decided they knew better. There will be a reckoning, and it will not be forgiving.” Time will tell.

By the time Thursday rolled around, scary reports of the lack of testing were still being released. Testing is still rightly getting a lot of noise in the media, mainly around why the UK can’t do much better than 15,000 to 20,000 tests a day. A claim backed up by a piece in The Guardian, from Gianmarco Raddi, a swab tester in Milton Keynes. Raddi writes, “Our shifts were meant to be excruciating 12-hour marathons. In reality, they are rather more laid-back morning jobs. Millions of pounds of equipment borrowed from universities and companies rest silently in the evening hours when the noise of our collective toil should be deafening”.

The blame game regarding testing is ongoing. An article in The Times shows Whitehall officials blaming health service delays in putting NHS staff forward for testing, while doctors blame the failure to make the testing convenient. The President of Institute of Biomedical Science, Allan Wilson, insists in The Telegraph that there are still not enough supplies to meet the 100,000 a day target for testing, which the government now has less than two weeks to achieve.

Economic downturn 

Tuesday also brought the Office for Budget Responsibility Report, which said the economic impact of lockdown will be significant but it will also be temporary, confirming that taking action to save lives now is also the right thing to do for the economy.  The OBR analysis supports this as it envisages that “real GDP falls in 35% in the second quarter, but bounces back quickly after that.”

The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak was also pressed on the downfalls of Universal credit, asked if it is really an adequate safety net in these current times and whether the chancellor is open to universal basic income. Sunak states he does not think universal basic income is the right response. He thinks universal credit is working well, even though the DWP is under pressure, but given the circumstances, it is processing claims effectively. A quick scan of #universalcredit on Twitter, however, seems to suggest otherwise. 

The care sector

Health Secretary Matt Hanock ran the Downing Street press conference on Wednesday. The government still faces intense criticism for it’s handling of PPE. Especially the handling of PPE in care homes alongside the lack of testing or policy to support them.  But Hancock said the government has taken the “right action from the start”. He also denied accusations that the government prioritized the lives of younger people at the expense of those in care homes.

Adding to insult, Hancock announced the launch of a “single brand badge” for care workers. “This badge will be a badge of honour in a very real sense, allowing social care staff proudly and publicly to identify themselves” Hancock states.

In what might have been an attempt at a goodwill gesture backfired almost immediately after it was announced last night. With many questioning what a badge is going to do to save lives and stop dying due to the lack of PPE and testing. Hancock also forgot to mention that the so-called new CARE badge was already launched back in March 2019. 

Friday morning produced more damming data for the government’s support for care homes. ITV revealed a damming survey of care home staff, which reports that 42% of the 2,800 respondents reported a suspected outbreak of Covid-19 in their workplace, with 44% saying they knew at least one colleague with the disease. This comes after journalists questioned Raab and Chris Witty last night on whether or not he thought the measures in place for care homes have been inadequate. Of which neither really gave a congruent answer. 

Coronavirus job rentention scheme

The treasury has extended the eligibility date of CJRS, increasing the number of employees who can access but with the caveat that delays will increase regarding disbursement. 

The eligibility date has been extended to March 19 from February 28, however, reports that the portal will be live April 20 – as reported yesterday – are now wide of the mark. The expected launch date being the end of the month, and once fraud and payment processing time have been considered this could see reimbursements pushed to early May. This will likely have severe consequences for businesses in tight cash positions. 

Coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme 

Still scheduled to be launched on April 20 is CLBILS (Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme). CLBILS shares many similarities to its sibling CBILS; the scheme is delivered by commercial lenders where the government guarantees 80% on individual loans for businesses. It differs in the following ways: 

  • For businesses with an annual turnover of over £45m
  • A lender can provide:
    • Up to £25 million to businesses with turnover from £45 million up to £250 million
    • Up to £50 million to businesses for those with a turnover of over £250 million
  • Unlike CBILS the government will not cover the interest and any lender-levied fees in the first 12 months of any CLBILS facility. 

Coming down the track, bailouts for owner-directors and startups.

Owner Directors –

Prefix: “The Treasury has yet to comment but has been unsympathetic so far. It views a bailout as technically difficult and believes many use dividends to reduce their tax bill.”

That being said there is continued support from Paul Scully, the small business minister,  and Mel Stride, Conservative chair of the House of Commons Treasury select committee. There is little clarity on how a policy of this nature would work and what features it would have. Initial assessment would be that it should share similarities with SEISS.

Startups – 

Mere speculation but there are rumours circulating that today will see the announcement of a £1bn rescue package for UK startups. This follows on from debates in the UK tech community regarding how this should look. More to come on Monday.

Join us next week for another installation of what happened in Whitehall.