This Week in Whitehall

For the sixth instalment of this week in Whitehall, Boris Johnson returns to work, the way to daily deaths are reported is finally updated to include everyone, and government confirms we are past the peak. 

Every week the figure seem astonishingly hard to report on but this week the death toll in the UK surpassed 26,000, our thoughts are with the many thousands of people affected by this disease. 

Last weekend 

On Saturday 25th April, Professor Stephen Powis began the day by speaking on BBC Breakfast. On the subject of testing, he said there was the capacity for 50,000 coronavirus tests for key workers. On Saturday the government had just five days to meet the target of 100,000 tests a day. Worth noting that even though the government says it’s at capacity to test 50,000, the actual number of tests only reached 20,058 tests on Saturday. Saturday also saw the website for Coronavirus tests for key workers crash in less than 15 minutes. Home testing kits were listed as “unavailable” 15 minutes after it opened. Crucially these tests are only available if you currently have symptoms, showing there is still no sign of an antibody test. 

Home Secretary, Priti Patel ran the Downing Street press conference on Saturday afternoon. Her opening statement received a lot of irritation as she announced the meaningless statistics that “car crime, burglary and shoplifting are all lower than the same time last year.” Patel was joined by Professor Stephen Powis who said that hospitals are showing a “trend towards a decline” and that there is a “sustained reduction” in people being treated in hospital for Covid-19. 

Powis was questioned on Saturday about the concerns raised about Dominic Cummings, the PM’s chief advisor attending SAGE meetings, Powis explained that the “scientists make the scientific contributions.” On this, Dr Chris Taylor, Director of Research and Policy in the Department of Science, UCL, has called for SAGE to publish it’s membership, minutes, the papers and questions. As “the government’s guidelines on science advisory committees calls for openness and transparency.” He continues stating there is ‘nothing wrong with a political adviser attending the meetings to listen and answer the occasional questions […] but reports that Cummings has been actively participating in discussions about the formation of advice are concerning.”

Sunday’s Downing Street press conference was led by George Eustice, the Environment Secretary. Eustice said that schools will have to adhere to social distancing measures should they reopen during the pandemic. Eustice then moves on to the June Harvest, he declares that although the international food chain is continuing to work well he expects there to be a need to recruit staff to harvest crops at the start of the summer. The Environment Secretary stated, “We estimate that only about a third of migrant labour that would normally come to the UK is here and was probably here before lockdown”. When talking about a solution Eustice said the government is working with the industry to identify an approach that will encourage those millions of furloughed workers in the UK to take on a second job and help with the harvest. 



Friday brought news that Rishi Sunak – after sustained pressure from Conservative MPs and BoE – was considering a 100 percent guarantee on loans of up to £25,000 for what would be described as “micro-SMEs”. 

Credit assessment challenges have plagued CBILS thus far and for firms at the smaller end of the revenue spectrum lenders are still finding reasons not to accept with default rates assumed to be high. We expect to hear more news on this scheme over the coming days. 

CBILS in its current guise has seen an increase in delivery. New data released on Friday states that over 16,600 firms have received financing against 36,000 who have applied. The current value of loans is more than £3bn.  Whilst delivery is increasing conflicts exist regarding the aspirations. For many firms there is no clarity on the capability to repay any level of external financing and whether the cost to the taxpayer in the long term has necessary economic benefits. 

Monday and Tuesday 

Monday saw Boris Johnson returning to Downing Street today after nearly three weeks off sick with Covid-19. The Prime Minister chaired the daily Covid-19 meeting with senior ministers. Although not making an appearance at Monday night’s press conference he is expected to do so later on in the week. Johnson also appeared before Downing Street Monday morning with a statement to the nation. His statement was both a signal that he is taking charge and trying to deal with the many challenges the government still face, five weeks into lockdown. 

On Monday evening Matt Hancock arrived at Downing Street for the government press conference. Hancock announced that families of NHS staff who die from coronavirus will get payments worth £60,000 and he says the government is looking at what can be done to help the families of other frontline workers. 

Professor Chris Witty joined Hancock on Monday and when questioned on the antibody tests which will ultimately be the key for asymptomatic people being able to see their family and friends again. Witty said the government has an antibody test that can give a “ranging shot” as to the proportion of people who have been exposed to coronavirus. But he says they do not have absolute confidence, whether an individual has had it. 

Tuesday night’s Downing Street press conference was also led by Health Secretary Matt Hancock. He started off by announcing a testing expansion to all care home residents and staff regardless of whether they have Covid-19 symptoms, all those aged 65 and over and anyone who has to leave their home to travel to work with symptoms and their households. Hancock also announced that an existing drug was entering an early clinical trial phase to treat coronavirus, stating “ currently, six different treatments have been entered into national clinical trials and the first is ready to enter the next stage, a new early-phase clinical trial platform that we’re launching today.”

Other ongoings

The Scottish Government has recommended people cover their faces in indoor public places such as shops and on public transport topic submitted by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. 

Public Health vs Privacy is becoming a debate across the globe. The UK government is looking at the development of a contact tracing app delivered by NHSX. Questions are arising regarding whether the UK would be best placed to go with an Apple/Google service over a NHSX delivered one. Whilst Apple/Google have put in place strict privacy restrictions regarding what is shared back to support allocation of resources for public health, NHSX promotes a solution based on public health capability. Initial research conducted by Ipsos Mori suggests two thirds of UK individuals would be happy with their data to be shared with the Government.

Rishi delivers the ‘bounce-back’ scheme. The proposal provides up to £50,000 to the UK smallest businesses with the Government underwriting 100% of the loans. The delivery method will follow the CBILS approach but with no credit risk worries, we do not expect to see such a slow roll-out. 

Wednesday and Thursday 

Dominic Raab ran the Downing Street press conference on Wednesday where he was joined by Professor Jonathan Van Tam, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, and Professor Yvonne Doyle, Medical Director at Public Health England. Wednesday began the new method of reporting daily deaths, which now finally include deaths in all settings, wherever the individual has tested positive for Coronavirus, rather than just those in hospitals.

6 weeks into lockdown and the countries PPE stocks are still struggling to cope with the pandemic. Raab said we are continuing to source PPE from abroad setting ourselves out as the international buyer of choice. In the last 10 days, Raab confirms the UK has secured over 5 million masks from China and three flights with gowns from Turkey. However little information was given on the distribution of this much-needed PPE, with the government has historically struggled with. 

Raab finished off the conference by announcing that the UK will provide GAVI, the international vaccine alliance with the equivalent of £330 million each year over the next 5 years. To help develop a vaccine both to protect the British people, but to also help immunise millions of the poorest and most vulnerable people around the world. 

Thursday night saw the return of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Downing Street to chair his first press conference in over 3 weeks. 

Johnson began by saying the UK avoided an ‘uncontrollable and catastrophic’ epidemic that could have caused 500,000 deaths. Before confirming the UK is now past the peak and that he will publish a comprehensive plan next week for how we can restart the economy, how we can get our children back to school, and how we can get people into work. The plan, Johnson says, will cover the five ket tests first mentioned by Dominic Raab a few weeks ago. First, we must be able to protect the NHS and its ability to cope. Second, there must be a fall in deaths. Third, the infection rate must be falling. Fourth we must deal with the challenges of testing and PPE, and fifth we must ensure there is no second peak that could overwhelm the NHS. 

The PM reiterated that nothing we do can raise the lift of R, the reproduction number, above 1. A video was played that explained how if R is more than 1 the virus will spread quickly. If it’s less than 1, the rate of infection. In the peak of March, R was around 3. The video seemed like evidence that the lockdown measures would not be relaxed next week. 

Plans afoot. Boris Johnson has vowed to deliver a clear plan for the economy over the coming months with the focus being on easing the lockdown will drive this. Necessary features for a de-escalation of the lockdown will be based on two core features: (i) tracing/tracking, and (ii) testing. Conversations are ongoing regarding the best technology to deliver the former, with a continuation of debates previously mentioned; trading off between public health and privacy. The UK seems to be at odds with the EU of how best to approach this question with NHSX and the tech duopoly of Apple and Google going against one another. Questions of testing are less focussed on strategy but on the capability to hit levels required to deliver an understanding of the environment and therefore circumvent “second peak” questions. 

Current testing aspirations of 100,000 fall behind European numbers with France quoting an aim of 700,000, we will wait to see whether aspiration and reality converge at any point. 

It is felt that once we have an understanding of the approach to these two requirements, questions of which sectors will be opened and how will begin to be answered. 

It is likely that the recovery strategy of the government will drive existing state-sponsored support packages, with CJRS most likely to be used beyond June for those in sectors that are being directly hindered by government directives; we assume the hospitality sector will fall within this group. 

This poses questions on how best to implement necessary protections within the workplace for firms who in the long term will not be supported by government funding. Risks around not having a clear “new normal” social distancing policy are already being felt, with trade unions and their lawyers preemptively taking up legal action against employers for negligence if no clear risk assessment has been conducted. 

Don’t forget to tune in next week for another instalment of this week in Whitehall.

Note: All information was correct as of midday Thursday.