This Week in Whitehall

For the fifth edition of This Week in Whitehall, we look back on the ongoings in Government from the 4th week of lockdown.

What happened last weekend weekend

On Saturday, Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government made his first appearance at Downing Street. 

Jenrick announced £1.6 billion of new funding to support councils. Mr Jenrick split this into £850 million for social care grants, which will be handed to councils this month. He said “we are also helping councils with inevitable cash flow challenges by deferring £2.6 billion in business rate payments to the central government, and paying them £850 million in social care grants upfront this month.”

As the good weather continues, Jenrick said he has “made it clear” to councils that parks must remain open for the wellbeing of the nation. He continued saying lockdown measures were harder for those without gardens or open spaces. 

The lack of PPE in the country has been troubling since the start of the outbreak. When asked why the government hasn’t had a plan B regarding PPE, Jenrick said: “We have got to do more to get the PPE to those on the front line. There is a massive global demand for the equipment but we are doing everything we can to get the equipment we need.” He goes on to announce that there will be 84 tonnes of PPE including 400,000 gowns delivered at the weekend. 

On Sunday Gavin Williamson, The Secretary of State for Education led his first downing street press conference. He started by announcing that he can’t give a date for when schools are to reopen. Williamson then announces a further £1.6 million has been given to Childline and NSPCC to help children and adults who are seeking advice. This is to make sure young people do not have to leave care during this difficult time. 

Williamson declared a new online virtual classroom will be launched today with over 180 hours of video lessons each week, led by 40 teachers. Attempting to fill the gap in education at this time, and supporting parents who are working full time and trying to also educate their children. 

Monday evening rolled around again and The Chancellor Rishi Sunak was to run the Downing Street press conference. Since the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme opened Monday morning, Sunak announced 67,000 claims from employers had been made in the first 30 minutes.

Sunak goes on to advertise the launch of The Future Fund. The fund, worth £500m allows “high growth companies across the UK to access investment they need during a crisis.” The First Fund launches in May and provides UK based early-stage companies with convertible loans between £1250,000 and £5m. Sunak then says Business Secretary Alok Sharma has worked closely with Innovate UK to provide £750m for grants for highly-innovative firms, in every sector and region. 

PPE is still a grave concern, and although Sunak states the government is working around the clock to get the right PPE which is echoed by Professor Yvonne Doyle. But with damning reports being released every day that the government is telling NHS staff to reuse PPE or using different types of kit that aren’t as protective, the government has failed our national health service.

Other ongoings 

Boris Johnson has told senior colleagues his “big concern” is a second coronavirus peak and plans to modify lockdown rules rather than lifting measures wholesale. Those inside the government favouring a slower easing of measures believe they are backed by public opinion, pointing to a series of opinion polls showing huge support for the lockdown. 

Covid Policy update:

CJRS – 20 April witnessed the launch of the CJRS portal. The flagship scheme to deliver liquidity to employees through employers garnered more than 140,000 applications on day one. Initial estimates put Treasury spending on Monday at more than £1bn to more than 1m people. 

It is expected that more than 8m workers ultimately could be placed on furlough, as businesses make use of the heralded scheme. 

Whilst applications are in – a commendable effort by the government to get the portal up and running – there is still much nervousness concerning the timing of the payments. Jim Harra, CEO of HMRC, has reiterated the six day processing time of payments. With many companies due to pay wages between April 26 and April 30, many companies could find themselves without necessary cash to pay workers. 

We hope the 6 day processing time is a nod to due process with the real motive to be speed over accuracy. The trade off should become evident as we move closer to the pay run period. 

CBILS –

With the Furlough scheme now launched, attention moves to the delivery for CBILS. An ask for the Treasury to be more generous and lift the state guarantee to 100 per cent has been quashed by Rishi Sunak. He said teething problems regarding the acceptance rates have been circumvented with 12,000 businesses now having been provided with loans with approval rates floating at 85%. 

The start-up bailout that was described last Friday is seen as a core part of the SME government provision. We have briefly described above but a more in-depth analysis will be here tomorrow.

Later on in the week

On Tuesday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, ran the Downing Street press conference.

It was revealed on Tuesday that only 0.6% of the UK has been tested for coronavirus since the outbreak began, the equivalent of 597 people in every 100,000. On average just under 13,6000 new people were tested daily in the seven days to April 21. In the previous seven days, to April 14, the daily average was just under 12,800.

We also found out on Tuesday that Boris Johnson has spoken to US President Donald Trump – which raised many questions as to why he wasn’t present at the Prime Ministers Questions this Wednesday.

The government still fails to provide enough PPE for frontline workers. Questioned on Tuesday, Hancock said a PPE delivery is an operation of ‘unprecedented scale and complexity.’ Continuing with ‘as of yesterday we have had 8,331 offers of PPE equipment and we are investigating each and every one of those many leads.’ Hancock faced a lot of criticism over the government’s lack of engagement with UK firms offering PPE. Now, 6 weeks into lockdown  Hancock claims he is now working with 159 potential UK manufacturers. 

On Tuesday we also found out that two leading vaccine developments are taking place at Oxford and Imperial. The vaccine from the Oxford project will be trialled on people from this Thursday.

Wednesdays Downing Street press conference was led by Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab. Raab repeats the line that the government will only set out plans for an exit strategy ‘the minute we can responsibly’, but stressed we are not at that stage yet. Chris Witty joined Raab at Downing Street and when asked about a vaccine, Witty says the chances of a vaccine in the next calendar year are ‘incredibly small.’ With press doing the rounds that the patients were being turned away from London’s Nightingale Hospital due to the lack of nurses, Witty said the minimal use of the Nightingale is a ‘sign of success’. Not really answering the question on the lack of nurses. 

Testing and tracing

Britain is finally moving towards a South-Korea style solution as 15,000 contract tracers will now be recruited to get a grip on the outbreak. However, contact tracing only works if you have the capacity to test each and every possible victim, which is why the target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month is so important. Last night, Professor John Newton told ITV’s Peston Show that ‘we will certainly have the capacity, and then we will make access as easy as possible for everybody who needs a test to come and get it. And if there are enough people who need testing, then we will hit out a target – we’re very confident of that.’ However, as Starmer rightly pointed out to Matt Hancock in his first PMQs – having the capacity to test 100,000 a day and actually testing 100,000 a day, as promised, is very very different. Rewinding to a few weeks ago, we were being told by the government’s expert advisers that Korean-Style mass testing was not appropriate for Britain.

The debate over face masks in public may be nearing the end as the governments’ top scientific advisers concluded that people should cover their faces in crowded environments to help slow the spread of the virus. It was reported that SAGE has now issued its guidance to ministers who will consider whether to change their official advice to the public in the days ahead. 

All information is correct as of Thursday evening.