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COVID inquiry: Civil servants ‘wanted’ people to get coronavirus days before lockdown was announced | Politics News

Senior civil servants “wanted” people to get COVID like chickenpox to build herd immunity, according to messages read out during an inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Sir Christopher Wormald remains the most senior civil servant in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) – as he was in early 2020.

Messages he exchanged with Mark Sedwill – then the head of the Civil Service – were shown to the inquiry.

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These were sent on 12 March 2020.

Lord Sedwill said: “I don’t think PM & Co have internalised yet the distinction between minimising mortality and not trying to stop most people getting it.

“Indeed presumably like chickenpox we want people to get it and develop herd immunity before the next wave.

“We just want them not to get it all at once and preferably when it’s warn (sic) and dry etc.”

Sir Christopher responded: “Exactly right. We make the point every meeting, they don’t quite get it.”

A lot of time during the inquiry has been taken up on when the government change from planning to mitigate people getting the virus, to preventing the spread of the virus and locking down.

Messages between Mark Sedwill and Sir Chris Wormald shown to the COVID inquiry
Image:
Messages between Mark Sedwill and Sir Chris Wormald shown to the COVID inquiry

Read more:
Hancock wanted to decide ‘who should live and die’
Johnson blames ‘bed blocking’ on need for first lockdown
Key WhatsApp messages from the COVID inquiry

On 14 March, the then-health secretary, Matt Hancock, wrote in The Daily Telegraph: “We have a plan, based on the expertise of world-leading scientists. Herd immunity is not a part of it. That is a scientific concept, not a goal or a strategy.

“Our goal is to protect life from this virus, our strategy is to protect the most vulnerable and protect the NHS through contain, delay, research and mitigate.”

On 23 March, Boris Johnson enacted lockdown.

Dominic Cummings, who was a political appointee by Mr Johnson, repeatedly criticised the Civil Service while he gave evidence to the inquiry.

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COVID: No 10 in ‘complete chaos’

On the same day as the civil servants were talking, Mr Cummings complained in a WhatsApp message that Lord Sedwill had been “babbling about chickenpox”, adding “god f****** help us”.

Speaking to the inquiry on Tuesday, Mr Cummings said Lord Sedwill told Mr Johnson: “PM, you should go on TV and should explain that this is like the old days with chickenpox and people are going to have chickenpox parties. And the sooner a lot of people get this and get it over with the better sort of thing.”

In a post on social media, Mr Cummings responded to the messages published today.

He said: “The reason the [Lord Sedwill] suggested to the PM on 12/3 to tell the country to hold chickenpox parties – and me/Ben Warner said ‘you must stop saying this’ – is [Sir Christopher], *in charge of ‘the plan’*, was telling him this was the f****** plan!!!

“Holy s*** this is truly atrocious and explains so much.”

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Sir Christopher, who was pushed by inquiry lawyers to explain the messages, said that it was a reference to herd immunity but argued it was “reflecting the state of the scientific advice at that point”.

He said he had been “very, very loose in my reply” and that he had at the time been following the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – Sage – advice.

Almost 45,000 migrants have entered UK since Rwanda deal was announced, analysis shows | Politics News

Nearly 45,000 people have arrived in the UK on small boats since the government signed its “world-first” deal to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, new analysis shows.

A review of government figures by the Press Association shows that since 1 January, almost 5,000 people have crossed the Channel into the UK, including more than 1,000 in the last week alone.

A year ago today, the government – then led by Boris Johnson – announced the deal with the east African nation. But 365 days on, no flights have taken off due to legal challenges lodged against the policy.

In November, it was confirmed the government had spent at least £140m on the programme so far. The first deportation flight was due to take off last June, but was grounded by a legal challenge from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The prime minister promised in January to end migrant Channel crossings when outlining his five priorities for his first year in office.

In an interview with ConservativeHome on Thursday, Rishi Sunak conceded his plan to stop small boats “won’t happen overnight” .

And when asked if he would achieve that by the next general election – widely expected to take place in 2024 – Mr Sunak appeared to dodge the question.

In lieu of the Rwanda plan, the government recently unveiled the Illegal Migration Bill, which is currently making its way through parliament.

The legislation includes a promise to “detain and swiftly remove” migrants and asylum seekers who enter the country illegally via the dangerous Channel crossings, and a pledge to cut the options to challenge or appeal deportation.

But critics have described the plans as “unworkable”, questioned whether they adhere to international human rights laws and raised concerns about how children will be treated.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Our migration and economic development partnership will see people who come to the UK through dangerous and illegal routes relocated to Rwanda, where they will be given the opportunity to settle and rebuilt their lives.

“Rwanda is a safe and secure country and they stand ready to welcome and support refugees – provisions are in place for accommodation, education and employment, with an estimated capacity to relocate several thousands of people.

“We have a strong relationship with Rwanda and both sides are equally committed to delivering the policy and seeing people relocated as soon as possible.”

New scaled back energy support measures for businesses announced as old scheme to expire | Business News

Businesses are set to secure £5.5bn in scaled back government support to help them with their energy bills from the start of April, after the current scheme ends.

The new Energy Bill Discount Scheme will reduce rather than cap energy costs for businesses and will last until the end of March next year.

The latest measure replaces the Energy Bill Relief Scheme which fixed wholesale energy costs and came with an estimated £18bn price tag over the six-month lifetime of the policy, according to Office of Budget Responsibility estimates.

Despite lasting half the time period as the old scheme, the Energy Bill Discount Scheme will cost £12.5bn less.

Under the new scheme, gas and electricity prices will be reduced per unit of power.

Bills will automatically be deducted by up to £6.97 per megawatt hour (MWh) for gas bills and up to £19.61 per MWh for electricity bills.

Businesses can only benefit from the scheme when electricity and gas bills are high. Only when prices reach £107 per MWh for gas and £302 per MWh for electricity or higher will companies receive discounts.

A higher electricity and gas price threshold and discount amount will be given to energy intensive businesses, such as steelmakers and manufacturers. Qualifying businesses will receive discounts of £40.0/MWh for gas and £89.1/MWh for electricity as the Treasury said these businesses are less able to pass on higher costs to customers due to international competition.

High energy using businesses will receive discounts under the scheme when gas costs £99 per MWh and electricity costs £185 per MWh.

All non-domestic bill payers, including charities and public sector bodies, are to benefit from the scheme as well.

A cap of £5.5bn has been set on the latest scheme in an effort to limit taxpayer’s exposure to spiralling costs.

Speaking to Sky News, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt defended reducing supports.

When asked if he was happy to see jobs lost and some businesses shut because he’s trying to save a bit of money, Mr Hunt said: “No government can continue to subsidise indefinitely higher energy prices. But what we can do, which matters to all those businesses, is to bring down inflation.

“That means we have to be responsible with public finances. But at the same time, today we’re announcing £5.5bn – that’s nearly a penny on income tax for every taxpayer in the country – to help businesses through this difficult period.”

Some business groups have reacted angrily to the announcement. The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) called the government “out of touch”.

“Many small firms will not be able to survive on the pennies provided through the new version of the scheme,” said FSB national chair Martin McTague.

Another day of rail strikes announced for October | UK News

Some 40,000 rail workers will walk out on Saturday 8 October for what will be the third day of rail strikes next month.

The Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) said that the strike will affect its members at Network Rail and 15 train operators.

Those operators are Chiltern Railways, Cross Country Trains, Greater Anglia, LNER, East Midlands Railway, c2c, Great Western Railway, Hull Trains Northern Trains, South Eastern, South Western Railway, Transpennine Express, Avanti West Coast, West Midlands Trains and GTR (including the Gatwick Express).

The RMT’s general secretary Mick Lynch said he had been encouraged by a recent meeting between the union and new Transport Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan.

But he added: “However, as no new offer has been tabled, our members have no choice but to continue this strike action.

“We will continue to negotiate in good faith, but the employers and government need to understand our industrial campaign will continue for as long as it takes.”

Mick Lynch says his union's members know what they are doing
Image:
RMT boss Mick Lynch

The news comes just days after train drivers at 12 operators vowed to walk out on Saturday 1 October and Wednesday 5 October.

Those strikes by Aslef union members could affect both the London Marathon and the Tory party conference.

Operators involved are Avanti West Coast, Chiltern Railways, CrossCountry, Greater Anglia, Great Western Railway, Hull Trains, LNER, London Overground, Northern Trains, Southeastern, TransPennine Express and West Midlands Trains.

Rail is just one sector affected by industrial action – others striking include Royal Mail workers, dock workers, barristers, and BT employees.

Each union is battling to secure wage rises that will help its members combat the worst of the squeeze from the cost of living crisis.

The rate of inflation stands at 9.9% but is expected to return to double figures over the next few months as winter sets in, despite government aid for household and business energy bills.

Liz Truss cancels BBC interview with a week to go until Boris Johnson’s successor is announced | Politics News

Liz Truss has cancelled a scheduled interview on the BBC with just a week to go before the next Conservative Party leader is announced.

A BBC spokesperson said: “Liz Truss has cancelled her BBC One interview with Nick Robinson which was due to air this Tuesday evening (30 August) at 7pm.

“Ms Truss’s team say she can no longer spare the time to appear on Our Next Prime Minister.

“The other candidate for the Conservative leadership, Rishi Sunak, was interviewed by Nick on 10 August.

“We regret that it has not been possible to do an in depth interview with both candidates despite having reached agreement to do so.”

Mr Sunak’s team suggested that Ms Truss is avoiding “proper scrutiny” as she “doesn’t have a plan” to help people manage their soaring energy bills.

A source from the former chancellor’s campaign said: “Its important that candidates face proper scrutiny so that members and the public know what they are offering.

“Avoiding that scrutiny suggests either Truss doesn’t have a plan at all or the plan she has falls far short of the challenges we face this winter.”

Labour shadow minister Conor McGinn added: “People will rightly conclude that she doesn’t want to answer questions about her plans for the country because she simply hasn’t got any serious answers to the big challenges facing our country.”

Mr Robinson said he was “disappointed and frustrated” that his interview with Ms Truss had been cancelled.

The winner of the leadership race – and next prime minister – will be announced on 5 September.

The contest was triggered after Boris Johnson was forced to resign following a number of scandals.

Foreign Secretary Ms Truss has been widely tipped as the frontrunner for much of the race.

The final Tory leadership hustings will take place this Wednesday in London.

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What’s the state of the Tory leadership race?

The victor will face growing pressure to announce further support to get households and businesses through the cost of living crisis as soon as they get the keys to Number 10.

It follows Friday’s announcement from Ofgem that the energy price cap would rise by 80% come October, leading to the average household paying £3,549 a year for their gas and electricity.

Mr Johnson has insisted it is up to his successor to decide what action to take.

A government spokesperson said the Civil Service is “making the appropriate preparations in order to ensure that any additional support or commitments on cost of living can be delivered as quickly as possible when the new prime minister is in place”.

Earlier on Monday, former Conservative cabinet minister Rory Stewart said Mr Johnson could try to force his way back into office.

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Johnson ‘profoundly unsuited’ to be PM

Mr Stewart – who stood against the PM for the Tory leadership in 2019 – told the BBC Mr Johnson was a “terrible prime minister”.

He likened the PM to former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi and ex-US president Donald Trump who are both plotting comebacks.

Mr Stewart also accused the outgoing prime minister of having “an extraordinary ego” and said Mr Johnson “doesn’t see the reality, which is he was a terrible prime minister and that he lost his job because of deep flaws of character”.

“I fear we are going to end up with a second [Silvio] Berlusconi or a second [Donald] Trump trying to rock back in again,” he continued.

Meanwhile, polling has suggested Conservative voters would choose Mr Johnson to stay on over either candidate if they had the chance.

A-level and GCSE results could be impacted as 72-hour exam board staff strike announced | UK News

The delivery of thousands of GCSE and A-level results could be impacted as workers at exam board AQA prepare for a 72-hour strike.

The walkout was announced by Unison over pay.

Members will walk out for three days from Friday 29 July to Sunday 31 July – with warnings that industrial action could escalate unless talks are reopened.

This year, GCSE students will get their results on Thursday 25 August, while A-Level results will be released on Thursday 18 August.

While results can be mailed to students or available on email, most students collect their results in person.

Many of the staff involved in the strike say they are struggling to make ends meet following successive below-inflation pay awards, Unison said.

Staff were given an increase of 0.6% last year, with 3% offered this year, which Unison said is a real-terms pay cut.

Unison official Lizanne Devonport said the workers have been left with “no other option” but to strike.

GCSE and A-level examiners have been asked to be more generous this year, with advanced information released to help students with assessments.

The decision to publish details of topics that appeared was taken to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on education.