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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Andrew Sparrow

Search for missing Brazilian variant case narrows to 379 homes in south-east England, says Hancock

Matt Hancock  in the Commons
Matt Hancock told MPs officials were working very hard to find the unknown person infected with the Brazil variant of Covid. Photograph: House of Commons/PA

Afternoon summary

  • Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has told MPs that the search for the missing sixth person who has tested positive in the UK with the P1 Brazilian variant of coronavirus has narrowed down and is now focused on 379 households in the south-east of England. (See 1.27pm, 1.37pm and 2.18pm.)
  • Hancock has told MPs that there are “some bumper weeks ahead” for the vaccine rollout programme. In his statement to MPs he said:

Although the day-to-day figures for supply are lumpy, we have some bumper weeks ahead later this month. Given that our vaccination programme began 12 weeks ago today, from now we begin in earnest our programme of second vaccinations, which ramps up over the month of March. I can assure the house that we have factored these second jabs into our supply projections, and we are on track to meet our target of offering a vaccine to all priority groups 1 to 9 by 15 April and to all adults by the end of July.

  • The ONS has said around one person in four in England would test positive for the antibodies that should give them some protection against coronavirus. (See 11.57am).

That’s all from me for today. But our coverage continues on our global coronavirus live blog. It’s here.

Michael Ellis has been promoted from solicitor general to attorney general, covering for Suella Braverman while she is on maternity leave, No 10 has said. And Lucy Frazer, a Home Office minister, will replace Ellis as solicitor general for this period. Braverman is being designated as a “minister on leave” under the Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Act 2021, an act passed last month to allow ministers to take paid maternity leave while remaining in government.


From the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg

Plans for the summer’s music season remain in flux, with Isle of Wight festival moving to a new September date, while metal festival Download and Barcelona’s Primavera Sound have cancelled their June 2021 events, my colleague Ben Beaumont-Thomas reports.

We have a little more detail on what the campaign for the Scottish parliament election, to be held on 6 May, will look like following a Holyrood statement just now: leafleting can begin on 15 March with face-to-face doorstep canvassing from 5 April, provided lockdown restrictions are eased then.

The SNP minister for parliamentary business, Graeme Dey, also warned that the results of the election will not be known overnight, as is the usual case, because pandemic safety measures mean that counting will take place across Friday and Saturday.

Dey also set out virus thresholds whereby the Scottish government could suspend campaigning in council areas if cases go above certain levels.


Northern Ireland's plan for lockdown easing published

In Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill, the deputy first minister, has announced the executive’s plan for easing lockdown restrictions.

As the summary document (pdf) explains, the plan sets out five-phase plans (starting with lockdown, and ending with “preparing for the future”) covering nine separate “pathways” (home, sports, work, education, worship, retail, culture, travel and hospitality). The full version of the plan is here (pdf).

The plan does not give dates for when Northern Ireland will move from one phase to another, and not all “pathways” will move at the same time. But it does say the rules will be reviewed every four weeks, with the first review on 16 March.

This chart shows how the five-phase approach applies to social mixing.

Lockdown easing plan, for social mixing
Lockdown easing plan for social mixing. Photograph: Northern Ireland executive

Unveiling the plan, O’Neill said it was “a careful, cautious and hopeful approach to existing restrictions”.

She said:

Evidence-based necessity, proportionality and sustainability will be key to all decisions, and we will be driven by health, economic and societal impacts and informed by key data sets in those sectors.

She also said the executive was committed to getting education back as quickly as possible. Some pupils are returning to school on Monday next week.

Michelle O’Neill in the Stormont assembly
Michelle O’Neill in the Stormont assembly Photograph: BBC News


UK records 343 more deaths and 6,391 further cases

The latest UK Covid figures have gone up on the government’s dashboard. Here are the key numbers.

  • The UK has recorded 6,391 further cases. A week ago today the equivalent figure was 8,489. Over the last week, the total number of new cases is 29.4% down on the previous seven days.
  • The UK has recorded 343 further deaths. A week ago today the equivalent figure was 548. Over the last week, the total number of deaths is 36% down on the previous seven days.
  • 203,168 people received their first dose of a vaccine yesterday.
Covid dashboard
Covid dashboard. Photograph: Gov.UK


The government has announced that it will spend a total of £1.7bn helping pupils in England catch up on the education they have missed as a result of Covid. But, in evidence to the Commons education committee this morning, Sir Kevan Collins, the education recovery commissioner, told MPs that he did not think this was enough.

As the Independent reports, when asked if the money was sufficient, Collins replied:

I think the whole package isn’t sufficient. I think it’s a good start but this is not the recovery plan.

Collins was appointed education recovery commissioner by the government specifically to come up with plans to ensure pupils catch up on the education they’ve missed.

Scotland has recorded 33 more coronavirus deaths. A week ago today the equivalent figure was 56 deaths.

There are 784 Covid patients in hospital. That is 40 fewer than yesterday, and almost 300 fewer than the figure for a week ago today. The total has not been this low since mid-October last year.

And there have been 542 new cases. A week ago today the equivalent figure was 655. This chart, from the Scottish government’s dashboard, shows how the seven-day average for new cases (the green line) has been falling.

New cases
New cases Photograph: Scottish government

Dominic Cummings may have left the government, but at least one of his legacies lives on; today the government has introduced the advanced research and invention agency (Aria) bill, which will set up an independent agency to pursue high-risk, high-reward scientific research. It is loosely based on the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency. For Cummings, this was reportedly his next big project after Brexit.

The business department’s news release says:

The agency will empower some of the world’s most exceptional scientists and researchers to identify and fund transformational areas of research to turn incredible ideas into new technologies, discoveries, products and services – helping to maintain the UK’s position as a global science superpower.

The design of the agency allows this work to take place at greater speed, with flexibility and minimised bureaucracy.

The government will give it £800m in funding over the course of this parliament. And on the basis that “high-risk research requires patience” (as the press release puts it), the legislation will include a provision setting a 10-year grace period before the agency can be wound up.

And if Cummings is looking for a job, he may be in luck. The press notice says the government will soon start recruiting “a world-class interim chief executive and chair”.


NHS England has recorded 279 further coronavirus hospital deaths. The details are here.

A week ago today the equivalent figure was 372 hospital deaths.

In an interview with the Sun today Boris Johnson backs a joint UK-Irish bid to host the 2030 World Cup. “We are very, very keen to bring football home in 2030,” Johnson told the paper, which says the budget will contain £2.8m to help fund the bid.

Micheál Martin, the Irish taoiseach (PM), says that he spoke to Johnson about this this morning, and that he thinks a joint bid would be a “wonderful opportunity”.


Sturgeon says all Scottish pupils should be back in school full-time after Easter

In the Scottish parliament Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, is giving a statement on Covid.

She says the Scottish government will be be considering whether it can accelerate the exit from lockdown in the light of the latest positive figures.

She says the government will support the resumption of competitive football in Scottish Leagues One and Two, the Scottish Women’s Premier League 1 and for some Highland League teams.

There is increasing evidence that the vaccination programme is cutting deaths, she says.

She says that last week it looked as if the decline in positive cases was slowing. But she says recent data has been “much more encouraging”, and that the decline in positive cases continues.

Turning to education, the main focus of today’s statement, Sturgeon says the next phase of school reopening will start from 15 March. All children in primary 4 to 7 will go back full-time.

She says all secondary school pupils should be back in school full-time after Easter.

But she says all secondary pupils will also be expected to spend some time in school from 15 March before the Easter holiday. She says pupils in years 4 to 6, who are taking national qualifications, will get priority for face-to-face teaching.


Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter, a statistician from the University of Cambridge, told the World at One that the impact of the vaccination rollout on Covid cases was “better than anyone expected”. He said:

The latest death registrations refer to events from a few weeks ago but if we look at what is happening every day as we see on the [government’s coronavirus] dashboard, we can see that deaths in the over-65s - one of the vaccinated age groups - are now halving every week.

We all sort of hoped something like this might happen but, frankly, it is better than anyone expected, I think.

In the Commons Matt Hancock gave further details of how the authorities were able to narrow down the search for the person who tested positive with the P1 Brazilian variant without giving their contact details when they submitted the test. (See 1.27pm and 1.37pm.) He said:

Not having the contact details happens in about 0.1% of tests. In this case, we think that the test was done as part of a home test kit where obviously it is incumbent on the individual to set out those details.

Because home test kits can be both sent to your home, in which case, of course, we have the details of where it was sent, or in response to surges, they can be taken round by the local authority teams and dropped off and, therefore, we need to find out exactly where this one was dropped off.

The team have done a very, very good job of narrowing down to 379 households where this may be. The callout at the weekend has been answered with a number of leads and we’re working hard to make sure that we can find the individual concerned.


Here is my colleague Sarah Boseley’s full story about the research suggesting that the P1 Brazilian variant can evade 25% to 61% of the protection obtained after an original Covid infection. (See 12.29pm.)


In the Commons Sir Edward Leigh (Con) asks Matt Hancock, the health secretary, to be honest with the public and to tell them that it is unwise to book a foreign holiday now.

He also asks the government to rule out “vaccine passports” for use domestically.

On travel, Hancock says that under the current rules anyone returing to the UK is subject to quarantine, and required to get tested at day two and day eight.

On “vaccine passports”, Hancock says the government is reviewing this issue. But he says some people will need certification to show they have been vaccination - or certification to show that for clinical reasons they cannot get vaccinated.

A high court judge has granted permission for a judicial review against the UK government over its refusal to provide a British sign language (BSL) interpreter in daily Covid briefings in England.

Mr Justice Johnson has questioned whether the government is fulfilling its duties under the Equality Act 2010. The decision was announced yesterday and the hearing will take place at the Leeds Combined Court Centre on an as yet unknown date.

Johnson wrote:

This claim raises an important issue – broadly (without seeking to limit the ambit of the claimant’s claim) the government’s compliance with its obligations under the Equality Act 2010 so as to provide health critical information in a form that is accessible by deaf users of BSL.

Chris Fry, a specialist equality lawyer at Fry Law, is leading the legal challenges against the government, on behalf of Katherine Rowley, whose first language is BSL. He said: “This is a government which has, when it has come to urgent decision making processes, not followed the correct protocol and it’s disabled people who have missed out at every particular turn. It’s just not acceptable.”

The news comes after a long and protracted campaign to try and get the government to provide a BSL interpreter at briefings. British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters attend briefings in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

There are 80,000 people in the UK who use BSL as a first language and many in England have been left confused or unaware of lockdown rules since the pandemic started.

Fry said that some deaf people had been fined by police for breaking lockdown rules as a result, while others had faced problems accessing and using the track and trace system, and wider public services.

Northern Ireland ministers agree lockdown easing plan

Stormont ministers have agreed a phased plan for taking Northern Ireland out of lockdown, PA Media reports. PA says:

Ministers approved the final version of the much-anticipated strategy at a meeting on Tuesday afternoon, the PA news agency understands.

They had earlier asked officials to make some minor amendments to the plan before reconvening at 12.30pm to rubber-stamp the document.

The deputy first minister, Michelle O’Neill, will outline the details on the floor of the assembly later on this afternoon on behalf of her and the first minister, Arlene Foster.

It is understood the plan focuses on nine key areas - retail; hospitality; education and young people; work; culture, heritage and entertainment; sports and leisure; travel and tourism; worship and ceremonies; home and community.

Each will emerge from lockdown in stages. It is understood the stages are lockdown; cautious first steps; gradual easing; further easing; and preparing for the future.

Ministers have already made clear the blueprint will be led by data, not dates, with decisions on when to move between stages based on scientific and medical evidence, not the calendar.

Keeping the reproductive rate of the virus below 1 will be a guiding principle.

Northern Ireland’s lockdown and accompanying stay-at-home message is currently in place until April 1.

Ministers had been due to review that policy on 18 March 18 but that date has now been brought forward to 16 March.


The proportion of primary-school pupils in England being taught on-site has risen to more than a quarter, PA Media reports. PA says:

Overall, 18% of state-school pupils were in class on 25 February, up from 16% on the week before half-term, according to figures from the Department for Education.

The rise came after the government announced all pupils in England would be able to return to class from 8 March.

Some 27% of primary-school pupils were on-site last week, compared to 24% on 11 February.

Overall, 6% of secondary-school students were in class last week - a slight rise on 11 February when 5% of pupils attended.

Back in the Commons, Matt Hancock says he does not yet know how many vaccines will be needed in the UK. He says people need two doses, but a third vaccine may be needed in the autumn, he says. He says it is only when he knows what supplies the UK needs that he will be able to consider making stocks available for other countries. But the government is helping other countries get vaccines through the Covax programme, he says.

Sir Kevan Collins, the government’s education recovery commissioner, told the Commons education committee this morning that the government’s catch-up programme for pupils needed to be about “not just tackling the recovery but actually a longer-term piece of reform”.

But he also said there was an “urgent” need to help pupils seeking a vocational route after GCSEs this year. He said:

We need to think hard about that group who are always, I think, the group too easily forgotten. Who aren’t going on to university, aren’t going in to A-levels, but are the young people I still think as a system we don’t serve as well as we should, and making sure that their needs are met.

In the Commons Yvette Cooper, the Labour chair of the home affairs committee, asks why the government is not testing new arrivals when they arrive in the UK.

Hancock says these Brazilian cases would have been caught by the hotel quarantine policy now in place.

This is what Matt Hancock told MPs about the search for the person who produced the sixth positive test featuring the P1 Brazilian virus. The people who produced the other five P1 tests have been identified. Hancock said:

We know that five of these six people quarantined at home as they were legally required to do. We’re stepping up our testing and sequencing in South Gloucestershire as a precaution.

We have no information to suggest the variant has spread further.

Unfortunately one of these six cases completed a test but didn’t successfully complete the contact details. Incidents like this are rare and only occur in around 0.1% for tests.

I can update the house on the latest information in identifying this case. We’ve identified the batch of home test kits in question. Our search has narrowed from the whole country down to 379 households in the south-east of England and we are contacting each one.


Search for missing Brazilian variant case now focused on 379 homes in south-east, Hancock says

Hancock says the search for the sixth person who tested positive with the P1 Brazilian variant has narrowed.

It is now focused on 379 households in the south-east of England, he says.

He says all are being contacted.

Matt Hancock's Commons statement to MPs

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, is making a statement to MPs about Covid.

He says today marks 12 weeks since Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive a clinically approved vaccine.

He says the UK is now running the fastest vaccination programme in the world.

He says the halving time for hospital admissions (ie, the amount of time it takes for them to go down by half) is 18 days.

Among the over-80s it is falling every 12 days, he says.

Hancock says two more pieces of research show the impact the vaccination programme is having.

First, he mentions today’s ONS report showing one person in four has some antibody protection. (See 11.57am.)

And, second, he mentions the Public Health England report out ast night showing one dose of vaccine reduces hospitalisations in the over-80s by 80%.


No 10 refuses to deny PM wants to set up charity to help meet costs of Downing Street flat refurbishment

The Downing Street lobby briefing is over. Here are the key points.

  • The prime minister’s spokesman said primary school pupils should not be asked to wear face coverings when schools in England reopen on Monday next week. Redbridge council in London has written to schools saying primary pupils should be wearing masks. Asked if this was right, the spokesman said:

Children in primary schools should not be asked to wear face coverings when they return to school on March 8. Face coverings are only necessary for pupils in year 7 and above. The Department for Education are in contact with the local council on that matter.

  • The spokesman condemned the holiday company Pontins for operating a policy intended to exclude Gypsies and Travellers. As the i reports, Gypsies and Travellers were categorised as “undesirable guests” and staff were told not to let them book. People with certain Irish names were banned on this basis. Asked about the story, the spokesman said:

This is completely unacceptable. No one in the UK should be discriminated against because of their race or ethnicity. It’s right that the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Pontins investigate and address this.

Pontins has now agreed for the EHRC to carry out an investigation.

  • The spokesman refused to deny a Daily Mail story saying that Boris Johnson wants to set up a charity to pay for refurbishments to the Downing Street flat where he lives. In his Mail splash, Simon Walters says Johnson is doing this because Carrie Symonds, his fiancee, oversaw a refurbishment that cost more than £100,000 - well beyond the amount allowed at taxpayers’ expense (around £30,000, according to the Mail). The spokesman said details of the refurbishment would be published in the Cabinet Office’s annual report. Asked why the flat needed to be refurbished at all, given that it had a make-over when the Camerons were living there, the spokesman just said it was refurbished periodically. In his story Walters says Johnson is planning a charity because he is unable to meet the full cost himself. Walters says:

Boris Johnson is secretly trying to set up a charity to help pay for a costly makeover of his official flat by his fiancée, it has been claimed.

The scheme is based on one used by the White House to raise millions of dollars for interior design, antiques and art.

The presidential charity is bankrolled by private donors – and the proposed Downing Street version is expected to be funded largely by wealthy Tory benefactors ...

Mr Johnson first expressed concern at the rising cost early last year. He is said to have commented there was ‘no way’ he could pay for it after being informed by the Cabinet Office that the maximum taxpayer contribution was ‘around £30,000’.


The former prime minister David Cameron has been vaccinated. He is 54, which means either his local vaccination team is well ahead of schedule as it tears through the list, or else he qualifies on health or caring responsibility grounds. Yesterday Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said the over-60s are now being formally invited to get vaccinated in England.


Brazil variant can evade 25% to 61% of protection got after original Covid infection, research suggests

The coronavirus variant originally found in Manaus in Brazil and now detected in six cases in the UK was able to evade 25% to 61% of the protection people in the Amazonian city had after a first bout of Covid, researchers say.

An international team of scientists is calling for more genetic sequencing of emerging variants around the world, warning that only with knowledge of how Sars-CoV-2 is mutating can the pandemic be brought under control.

The variant, called P1, is causing concern in the UK because it not only has potential to evade immune protection from previous illness or vaccines, but is more transmissible than the original coronavirus. The study in Manaus, which has not yet been published in peer-reviewed form, found it was about 1.4 to 2.2 times more transmissible than the original virus.

The scientists said at a briefing that six cases, promptly detected in the UK, did not presage major spread of the variant. However, it was vital to identify variants emerging throughout the world in countries that have little or no genomic sequencing capacity at the moment.

One person in four in England has some antibody protection against Covid, ONS survey suggests

According to an Office for National Statistics survey, an estimated one person in four in England would have tested positive for antibodies against Covid in the four weeks up to 11 February. Having antibodies provides protection against the virus (although not necessarily 100% protection.)

Testing positive for antibodies means someone has either had the virus in the past or been vaccinated (although not everyone who has been infected in the past tests positive - because antibody levels decline over time).

The equivalent figure for Wales was one person in six. In Northern Ireland it was also one person in six. And in Scotland it was one person in eight.

As you would expected, because of the vaccination programme, over-80s had the highest proportion of people testing positive for antibodies.

Here are the figures by age group.

% testing positive for Covid antibodies
% testing positive for Covid antibodies. Photograph: ONS

And here are the regional figures for England.

% testing positive for Covid antibodies, by region
% testing positive for Covid antibodies, by region. Photograph: ONS


James Wolffe QC, Scotland’s lord advocate, is giving evidence to the Scottish parliamentary committee investigating the Scottish government’s handling of the Alex Salmond harassment complaints this morning.

Wolffe is a member of the Scottish government and head of the Crown Office, the body for prosecuting crime in Scotland (ie, the Scottish equivalent of the Crown Prosecution Service).

As he started giving evidence, Wolffe rejected claims that the Crown Office’s decision to prosecute Salmond was politically motivated. Wolffe said:

Any suggestion, from any quarter, that the Crown’s decision-making has at any time been influenced by irrelevant considerations or improper motivations would be wholly without foundation. Insinuation and assertions to the contrary are baseless.

Salmond, the former first minister, was charged with attempted rape and other sexual assault charges, but was acquitted of all charges after a trial last March.

There is a live feed of the committee hearing here.

James Wolffe QC
James Wolffe QC. Photograph: Scottish parliament


Deaths involving Covid-19 among people aged 80 and over have fallen more steeply in recent weeks than those among younger age groups, the latest ONS figures show.

As PA Media reports, Covid-19 deaths registered in England and Wales dropped by 56% for people 80 and over from the week ending 29 January to the week ending 19 February, compared with falls of 50% for those aged 70 to 79 and 40% for people under 70.

This provides further evidence that the vaccination programme, which has prioritised the oldest groups in the population first, has reduced deaths.

Joggers should wear a face covering when running past others, a leading scientist said this morning. Prof Trish Greenhalgh, professor in primary care health sciences at the University of Oxford, told Good Morning Britain:

There is no doubt the virus is in the air, there is no doubt that you can catch it if you inhale, and that someone else has exhaled.

The exercising jogger - the puffing and panting jogger - you can feel their breath come and you can sometimes actually feel yourself inhale it, so there’s no doubt that there is a danger there.

Forty per cent of Covid cases happen by catching it from people who have no symptoms. So you’re jogging along, you think you’re fine, and then the next day you develop symptoms of Covid, but you’ve actually breathed that Covid onto someone perhaps you know, an old lady walking a dog or something like that ...

I’ve got a mask here and you can pull it up and pull it down and that takes two seconds to do.

So wear it when you’re going along, jogging on the high street. Take it off when you get to the parks, what I did this morning. It’s not difficult.

In the week ending Friday 19 February excess deaths in England and Wales - ie, deaths above the five-year average for this time of year - were running at 18.8%, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics. The week before excess deaths were running at 28.8%.

And in the week ending 19 February 29.5% of all deaths in England and Wales involved coronavirus (in that it was mentioned on the death certificate). That amounted to 4,079 of the 13,809 deaths registered. The previous week Covid deaths accounted for 37.1% of all deaths.

Excess death figures for England and Wales
Excess death figures for England and Wales. Photograph: ONS


Prof Devi Sridhar, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, told ITV’s Good Morning Britain she hoped that, when the pandemic was over, there was full recognition of quite how transformative the work on Covid vaccines has been. She explained:

I think vaccines are a real cause for optimism and the effectiveness data and reducing hospitalisations and deaths, and now even stopping transmission, are better than any of us could have imagined.

When the polio vaccine was discovered there were parades in the street - people celebrated the scientific discovery.

And I hope at some point in the future - when we have vaccinated everyone and we are back to some normality - we can really appreciate this.

This is world changing in terms of having these vaccines as a way out of this pandemic.

Prof Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, which developed the vaccine now being manufactured by AstraZeneca, told the Today programme this morning that the findings published yesterday into the impact of the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines on older people were “stunning”. He explained;

First of all, because these data come from the hardest group to protect - those who are the frailest, the oldest adults in our population - and we’re seeing an 80% reduction in hospitalisation in that group, which is stunning.

Second ... both of the vaccines performed exactly the same, there was no daylight between them.

We’ve had all this difficulty with communication, particularly around Europe, with uncertainty about the evidence, whereas in the UK we’ve been rolling out both vaccines in the confidence that they would both give high levels of protection.

And that’s absolutely what we’ve seen now in this real-world evidence - that whether you’ve had a Pfizer vaccine or the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, you have very high levels of protection.

Asked about the refusal of some European regulators to approve the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine for older people, Pollard said this was “disappointing in some senses”. But he went on:

It’s important to remember that the way in which scientific committees in different countries make their decisions is quite different. There’s rules that these committees follow in making their decision-making.

Here in the UK, the decision-making takes a lot more into account in terms of the biology and an understanding of the science of vaccines, and that allows innovative approaches to immunisation even when the data around them may be more limited.

But at no time has there been any concern about safety of any of the vaccines. They all look extremely good on safety, and all of the data has always suggested that we would have good protection in all age groups.

In interviews at the weekend Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, refused to confirm explicitly that he would extend the furlough scheme in tomorrow’s budget, but he dropped fairly obvious hints. For example, he told Sky’s Sophy Ridge that, while he was “not going to comment on specific policies”, he was also committed to “whatever it took” to protect people, families and businesses.

There was an even more blatant steer in the video he released yesterday.

For anyone yet to get the message, Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, made it clear in an interview this morning. Asked if furlough would be extended in the budget, he said:

I think the chancellor has already indicated that we will be extending furlough. I think that has been part of a public announcement. I think there will be other measures that we will see tomorrow.


Hague tells Tories taxes must go up - and state going to be bigger 'for foreseeable future'

Over the last week a debate has opened up in Westminster over tax policy that has generated some unusual realignments. The Treasury has let it be known that Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, will announce a gradual increase in corporation tax in tomorrow’s budget - effectively endorsing one of the key tax policies in Jeremy Corbyn’s 2019 election manifesto. Some Tory MPs appear queasy about the idea, leftwing Labour MPs are in favour, but Sir Keir Starmer has declared that Labour is not in favour of putting up tax for businesses “now”. He is now in the same trench as David Cameron, the former Conservative PM, who last week told CNN that tax rises should wait until the economy opens up.

Today William Hague, another former Tory leader, has joined the debate. Hague used to be seen as on the right of the party, but in his Telegraph column he says that he now agrees with Ken Clarke in wanting to see taxes go up. Hague says:

It has been left to the former chancellor, Ken Clarke, to defend what remains of fiscal conservatism. He said at the weekend: “This is the taxpayers’ debt we are piling up now. If we don’t actually get it under control, signal how we’re going to get back to fiscal common sense before inflation comes back and interest rates go up, we will face a financial crisis once the burden of paying interest rates begins.”

He is right. It pains me to say, after spending much of my life arguing for lower taxes, that we have reached the point where at least some business and personal taxes have to go up. To maintain the opposite viewpoint, you have to believe in one or all of the following three arguments: that we need a smaller state, and it is spending that should be cut as soon as possible after the crisis; that higher tax rates generally produce less revenue anyway; or that we can go on borrowing at very low interests for so long that all tax increases can safely be postponed. All three of these arguments are now dangerous illusions.

In some respects this division is bogus. As Anneliese Dodds, the shadow chancellor, explains in a Guardian article today, the party is only opposed to “immediate” tax rises. (Dodds does not clarify what “immediate” means, but this implies that Labour would oppose a corporation tax increase taking effect from April 2021, would be happy with one starting from would April 2022, and is undecided on anything inbetween.) What is perhaps more interesting is that Hague says that “for the foreseeable future” the state will have to be bigger. He says:

Most of us Conservatives have spent decades arguing for a smaller state. In the seventies, and for a long time afterwards, we were right. But in the 2020s this argument is already lost. Austerity was jettisoned at the last general election. After the pandemic, the British state is certain to be bigger, spending billions more every year on healthcare, vaccinations, stockpiles of equipment and much-needed support for apprenticeships and opportunities for the young people and others who have lost out most heavily in the crisis. For the foreseeable future, the state is going to be bigger.

Instinctively many Tories don’t agree; in 2015, as a newly-elected MP, Sunak said in normal circumstances public spending should not exceed 37% of GDP. (Currently it’s over 56%.) But, as Hague says, circumstances have changed.

William Hague.
William Hague. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA


Vaccines likely to work even better on younger people, says Public Health England

Good morning. Following the publication of new data about the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines on older people, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said last night that he hoped people would study the data “around the world”. He seemed to be thinking of Europe, where regulators in some countries have not approved the use of the AstraZeneca jab for older people. And in France at least they have taken Hancock’s advice. As my colleague Jon Henley reports on our global coronavirus live blog, the French government has now eased some restrictions on giving it to people over the age of 65.

This morning Public Health England came out with a further reason to welcome the findings. The data published yesterday only covered the impact of the vaccines on people above the age of 70. In an interview on the Today programme this morning, Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at PHE, was asked if the vaccines would be as effective on a younger cohort. She replied:

Yes. If anything, we’d expect it to be to be stronger, a stronger protection from the vaccine.

The only difference obviously is that lower down in the age ranges people’s chances of being hospitalised and dying are much lower, because obviously this is a disease that has caused most of its morbidity in older people. So, we wouldn’t be able maybe to see the effect as markedly as we’ve been able to in this group that were vaccinated first.

Here is the agenda for the day.

9.30am: The ONS publishes its latest weekly death figures for England and Wales, as well as its latest figures on antibody levels in England.

9.30am: Healthcare organisations and thinktanks give evidence to the Commons health committee about the health reform white paper.

10am: Sir Kevan Collins, the education recovery commissioner, gives evidence to the Commons education committee.

10am: James Wolffe QC, Scotland’s lord advocate, gives evidence to the Scottish parliament’s committee investigating the Scottish government’s handling of the Alex Salmond harassment complaints.

12pm: Downing Street is due to hold its daily lobby briefing.

After 1pm: Matt Hancock, the health secretary, makes a statement to MPs about Covid.

2pm: Gordon Lyons, agriculture minister in the Northern Ireland executive, takes questions from MLAs about his decision to halt the construction of border post checkpoints.

After 2pm: Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, makes a statement to MSPs about Covid.

At some point today the Northern Ireland executive is also due to publish its lockdown exit plan.

Politics Live is now doubling up as the UK coronavirus live blog and, given the way the Covid crisis eclipses everything, this will continue for the foreseeable future. But we will be covering non-Covid political stories too, and when they seem more important or more interesting, they will take precedence.

Here is our global coronavirus live blog.

I try to monitor the comments below the line (BTL) but it is impossible to read them all. If you have a direct question, do include “Andrew” in it somewhere and I’m more likely to find it. I do try to answer questions, and if they are of general interest, I will post the question and reply above the line (ATL), although I can’t promise to do this for everyone.

If you want to attract my attention quickly, it is probably better to use Twitter. I’m on @AndrewSparrow.


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