Covid: Protect family incomes, Starmer urges ministers

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is to urge the government to “protect family incomes” as it deals with the economic effects of coronavirus.

In his first speech of the year, he will demand that teachers, the armed forces and care workers are left out of the public sector pay freeze.

Sir Keir will also call on ministers not to end the temporary £20-a-week boost to Universal Credit.

The government has promised to act to “protect people’s jobs and incomes”.

With coronavirus restrictions and lockdowns shutting thousands of businesses, the economy was 7.9% smaller in October last year than it had been six months earlier.

And the government’s independent forecaster, the Office for Budgetary Responsibility, predicts that unemployment will rise to 2.6 million by the middle of this year.

In his speech, Sir Keir will say ministers must “protect family incomes and support businesses” from the economic effects of previous restrictions and the current lockdown.

He will add that policies must “make a real difference to millions of people across the country” and “put families at the heart of our recovery”.

Sir Keir will argue that the £20-a-week rise given to Universal Credit claimants last April must continue beyond this April’s cut-off point.

Council tax increases in England of up to 5% this April must not happen, he will say, while calling for the ban on evictions and repossessions to be extended.

The government’s pay freeze for at least 1.3 million public sector workers – which does not apply to NHS frontline staff and those earning below £24,000 a year – must not go ahead, Sir Keir will say.

“I know this isn’t everything that’s needed,” he will add, “and after so much suffering we can’t go back the status quo.

“We cannot return to an economy where over half our care workers earn less than the living wage, where childcare is among the most expensive in Europe, where our social care system is a national disgrace and where over four million children grow up in poverty.”

He will argue that, just as a Labour government “built the welfare state from the rubble” of World War Two, a future one can “secure our economy, protect our NHS and rebuild our country so that Britain is the best country to grow up in and the best country to grow old in”.

The chancellor’s Spending Review in November set out the cost to the UK economy so far of dealing with coronavirus.

Rishi Sunak warned that the “economic emergency” caused by the pandemic had only begun, with lasting damage to growth and jobs.

But he promised to take “extraordinary measures to protect people’s jobs and incomes”.

Covid: Shut courts call to halt prison virus spread

Courts should close to help stop the spread of Covid in jails, the body representing prison staff has said.

It comes as data reveals a large rise in cases in Wales’ prisons.

Mark Fairhurst, from the Prison Officers’ Union (POA), said there had been a “massive outbreak” at HMP Cardiff, where they struggle to find space for new arrivals to isolate.

A Prison Service spokesman said shielding, mass testing and limited regimes were in place at all prisons.

He said these safeguarding measures were limiting transmission, and programmes to test prisoners arriving in court were being rolled out – with no plans to shut courts.

But the POA said a number of factors were having an impact:

“Existing trials should be allowed to finish, but new trials should only be started if they can be facilitated through video link,” Mr Fairhurst said.

“When you first come into jail you isolate for 10 days, but we struggle to find the space to do that because of pressures from the courts.

“If you closed the courts you wouldn’t have to do that.”

He added that excessive numbers of prisoners were unlocked at once in Cardiff – prior to the lockdown announcement in Wales.

“Swansea has kept levels low because they are following the safe operating procedures and only letting small numbers out, and it’s worked.”

Cases in HMP Cardiff rose from 22 in June to 110 in November and, while testing has increased in that time, HMP Swansea’s cases rose from just 12 to 14 in the same period.

The rate of growth in cases in prisons is still well below the wider population.

The call has been met with resistance elsewhere in the sector, as the need to keep the courts open is seen as a priority.

“We’re busier than ever,” said criminal solicitor Melissa Griffiths, from Allington Hughes Law in Wrexham.

“Unless you’re going to have a moratorium on crime, which will never happen, you need the courts to be open.”

She said the dip in crime seen in March last year was short-lived and, while courts have done their best to become Covid-secure, risks were unavoidable.

“Every time you go to court is a risk – you don’t know who you are coming into contact with. But if you don’t have the courts carrying on it is all going to fall apart.

“You need remand courts because there will always be serious crimes committed and those people need to be remanded into custody.”

She added the court closure at the start of the pandemic caused a backlog in cases that is yet to be cleared and priority is given to those in custody before “custody time limits” expire.

Criminal solicitor Scott Bowen, from HPJV Solicitors, works out of courts in both Newport and Cardiff, said closing them would have an impact on victims as well as the accused, but removing the threat of recall would have wider implications.

“If people are not complying with their sentence, do you grant them amnesty because it’s a pandemic? If that message got out to repeat offenders it would be anarchy,” he said.

“The probation service has to stick to policy and recall someone for a breach, because it’s a deterrent to everyone.”

Figures obtained via a Freedom of Information request by criminologist Dr Robert Jones showed a 210% rise between June and November, compared with a 436% rise across Wales in the same period.

A third of all cases were at HMP Cardiff, which saw a leap to 110 positive cases by the end of November, from 22 cases in June (400% rise).

Yet cases at HMP Swansea – which, like Cardiff, is an old site taking men on remand from the local courts – rose marginally from 12 to 14.

HMP Berwyn cases rose from 41 to 61 (48%), and at HMP Parc cases increased from seven to 44 (528%).

Figures are provided jointly for Usk and Prescoed, which saw a rise from 19 to 84 cases (342%), though arguably as an open prison the risks of transmission from the community at Prescoed are greater.

Overall, cases went from 101 in June to 313 at the end of November 2020.

Dr Jones also requested data for staff working at Wales’ prisons, with data being provided to the end of October 2020.

It showed a steady rise in cases, with 163 affected by the end of October 2020.

HMP Berwyn had the highest number with 66 (double that of June), HMP Parc had 31 (compared with six in June), HMP Cardiff had 30 (six more than in June), HMP Swansea rose from 10 to 14 and HMP Usk/Prescoed rose from 17 to 22.

Bench arrest video stage-managed by anti-lockdown protesters

A video shared online apparently showing a woman being arrested in breach of lockdown for sitting on a bench was “stage-managed”, police said.

Dorset Police believe the video was planned and recorded by anti-lockdown protesters during a demonstration in Bournemouth on Saturday.

Three people were arrested for not giving their details so officers could issue fines for breaking Covid rules.

The BBC has asked one of the protesters who posted the video to comment.

The force said two of those held were later de-arrested when they confirmed their details in police custody and a third was released when his details were verified – all three were then issued fixed penalty notices.

Officers also issued at least seven other fines and 10 dispersal notices.

Assistant Chief Constable Mark Callaghan, from Dorset Police, said: “We believe this video was planned, stage-managed and recorded by members of the protest group who turned up in multiple areas, several of whom refused to engage or provide their details.

“If people refuse to give their details in such circumstances then it leaves officers with little option, but to arrest until the details are established. Our officers would only arrest as a last resort.

“It was clear that the group was deliberately organising their activities, walking around in twos and then trying to come together in a ‘flash mob’-style approach, as they have done previously. This activity went on for a couple of hours.”

The force’s chief constable James Vaughan earlier said: “I condemn the actions of these selfish individuals who knowingly flouted the lockdown restrictions.”

The force said there were “repeated attempts” to engage with the organisers to stop the planned protest and found a number of the protesters had “travelled considerably” from out of the Dorset area.

Mr Vaughan added: “Our county is gripped with infections and yet these irresponsible individuals have ignored what is being asked of them and have left their homes to protest. Shame on them.”

Sam Crowe, director of public health for Dorset, said its hospital services were “close to being overwhelmed”.

Mr Crowe said: “Infection rates locally have been doubling in less than a week. If this carries on, our hospitals will not be able to cope with caring for those needing life-saving treatment. Stay at home means exactly that.”

Latest figures show Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole has reached 745.2 cases per 100,000 people.

Also on Saturday, 16 people were also arrested during an anti-lockdown protest in south London.

Cladding flat owners told not to talk to press

Flat owners applying to a fund to help pay to remove flammable building cladding will be told not to talk to the press without government approval.

A draft agreement, uncovered by the Sunday Times, says that even where there is “overwhelming public interest” in speaking to journalists, the government must be told first.

The government said the wording was “standard”.

It set up a £1.6bn fund last year to repair the most dangerous buildings.

But it warned that the fund might not cover all the costs of removing the cladding.

Some types of the covering, often added to newer blocks of flats, have been proven to be a fire hazard.

After the 2017 Grenfell fire, the government pledged that safe alternatives to dangerous cladding would be provided on all buildings in England taller than 18m.

It set up the £1.6bn fund to help foot the costs.

The agreement, between the building owner or leaseholder and the government, says: “The Applicant shall not make any communication to the press or any journalist or broadcaster regarding the Project or the Agreement (or the performance of it by any Party) without the prior written approval of Homes England and [the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government ]” and its press offices.

It says an exception can be made “where such disclosure is in the overwhelming public interest (in which case disclosure will not be made without first allowing Homes England and MHCLG to make representations on such proposed disclosure).”

The UK Cladding Action Group tweeted that it was “clearly a matter of public interest” that these issues were aired in public.

“No department should be hiding behind non-disclosure agreements to stop scrutiny of their actions,” the group said.

‘Institutional failure’

Another campaign group, Manchester Cladiators, said the existence of the “gagging clause” was “shocking but not necessarily that surprising”.

Spokesperson Rebecca Fairclough said residents would feel “intimidated” by it, adding: “We ask the government to remove this unfair clause immediately and focus on the priority of solving this institutional failure, which still exists and is only growing over three and a half years after the Grenfell tragedy.”

The government insists that the wording in the agreement, under the heading “Marketing material”, is there to ensure applicants come to the government first.

“The terms set out are standard in commercial agreements and are not specific to this fund – to suggest otherwise is misleading and inaccurate,” the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said in a statement.

“We want a constructive working relationship with building owners who apply to the fund and applicants are asked to work with the department on public communications relating to the project.”

Covid in Scotland: ICU numbers rise amid tighter lockdown warnings

The number of patients in intensive care with Covid has risen sharply, amid warnings that tougher lockdown measures may be needed.

Latest Scottish government figures show 1,877 new cases of Covid were reported in the last 24 hours

The number of people in intensive care has risen from 109 to 123, the highest daily jump since October.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney said a tightening of restrictions could not be ruled out.

A total of 1,598 people are currently in hospital with recently-confirmed Covid, up from Saturday’s figure of 1,596 patients which was the highest number since the outbreak began.

The daily test positivity rate was10%, up from 8.7% on Saturday, when 1,865 positive cases were recorded.

The deputy first minister said the country was facing “a very alarming situation” with the virus.

Speaking on Politics Scotland, Mr Swinney said coronavirus does not show much sign of “abating” and he would not rule out tougher lockdown measures.

He said: “We’re seeing case numbers which are hovering around 2,000 per day… so we’ve got an accelerating situation on our hands and we have to constantly review whether more restrictions are required.”

Infection expert Prof Linda Bauld, of Edinburgh University, said: “The numbers are not reducing at the rate which we want them to, so [it is] still a very fragile situation.

“The measures we have now I hope are working but it’s not clear whether they are tough enough.

“I think the key change the government could make is in the sectors which are still open, particularly workplaces but also things like takeaways and click and collect.”

Professional sport, along with manufacturing and construction work have been allowed to continue in this lockdown, whereas they were not in the first wave in March.

The deputy first minister said the meeting of the cabinet which agreed the latest lockdown saw ministers wondering if they had gone far enough to stop the spread.

Mr Swinney added: “I don’t think I’m revealing a state secret when I say that the debate within cabinet was not whether we were going too far but whether we were going far enough.”

A total of three deaths were recorded in the past 24 hours but these figures are lower at weekends because register offices are generally closed.

Bench arrest video stage-managed by anti-lockdown protestors

A video shared online apparently showing a woman being arrested in breach of Covid rules for sitting on a bench was “stage-managed”, police said.

Dorset Police believe the video was planned and recorded by anti-lockdown protestors during a demonstration in Bournemouth on Saturday.

Three people were arrested for failing to give their details and given fixed penalty notices.

The BBC has asked one of the protestors who posted the video to comment.

The force said two of those held were later de-arrested when they confirmed their details in police custody and a third was released when his details were verified – all three were issued fines.

Officers also issued at least seven other fixed penalty notices and 10 dispersal notices.

Assistant Chief Constable Mark Callaghan said: “We believe this video was planned, stage-managed and recorded by members of the protest group who turned up in multiple areas, several of whom refused to engage or provide their details.

“If people refuse to give their details in such circumstances then it leaves officers with little option, but to arrest until the details are established. Our officers would only arrest as a last resort.

“It was clear that the group was deliberately organising their activities, walking around in twos and then trying to come together in a ‘flash mob’-style approach, as they have done previously. This activity went on for a couple of hours.”

The force’s chief constable James Vaughan earlier said: “I condemn the actions of these selfish individuals who knowingly flouted the lockdown restrictions.”

The force said there were “repeated attempts” to engage with the organisers to stop the planned protest and found a number of the protestors had “travelled considerably” from out of the Dorset area.

Mr Vaughan added: “Our county is gripped with infections and yet these irresponsible individuals have ignored what is being asked of them and have left their homes to protest. Shame on them.”

Sam Crowe, director of public health for Dorset, said its hospital services were “close to being overwhelmed”.

Mr Crowe said: “Infection rates locally have been doubling in less than a week. If this carries on, our hospitals will not be able to cope with caring for those needing life-saving treatment. Stay at home means exactly that.”

Latest figures show Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole has reached 745.2 cases per 100,000 people.

Also on Saturday, 16 people were also arrested during an anti-lockdown protest in south London.

NHS Covid-19 jab letters confusing over 80s

People waiting to receive the Covid-19 vaccine say they are confused by NHS letters inviting them to travel to centres miles away from their homes.

The first 130,000 letters have been sent to people aged 80 or older who live between a 30 to 45-minute drive from one of seven new regional centres.

But patients, many of whom are shielding, questioned why they had to travel so far in a pandemic.

Local jabs are available to people if they wait, the NHS said.

The seven centres include Ashton Gate in Bristol, Epsom racecourse in Surrey, London’s Nightingale hospital, Newcastle’s Centre for Life, the Manchester Tennis and Football Centre, Robertson House in Stevenage and Birmingham’s Millennium Point.

Two Labour MPs tweeted about their concerns about the letters being delayed in getting out to people due to coronavirus affecting Royal Mail staff.

Mary McGarry from Leamington Spa in Warwickshire told BBC News that her letter points to an NHS online booking page which suggests she would have to take her husband, who has cancer and a lung disease, 20 miles to Birmingham.

“We’re very reluctant to go into Birmingham city centre,” she said.

“If we can’t get somebody to take us, we’d have to go on the train but we’re shielding because my husband’s got poor health…. we want to know why we’ve got to travel that far?”

Kay Hayward, from Whitwick in Leicestershire, said she went online to book an appointment for her 85-year-old husband Kenneth and was offered five different places including Widnes in Cheshire and Stevenage in Hertfordshire.

“I thought they must be joking… we talked about it and we thought it was actually safer to stay here and for him not not have it.

“But we were worried if we turned this down, we’d be off the list.. the letter doesn’t say anything about having the vaccines anywhere else locally.”

Councillor Shaun Davies, the Labour leader at Telford and Wrekin Council in Shropshire, said he had been contacted by dozens of people who have found the letters misleading, thinking this is their only chance to get the vaccine.

He said he had spoken to Trafford Council and was aware of people in Shropshire being sent to Manchester and residents there being directed to Birmingham to get their jabs.

“For many people they have been told consistently to wait for the NHS to contact you in order to get a vaccine and that’s what they’ve had for the first time as a piece of communication.

“This is really, really concerning for people in their 80s or 90s because of the importance of getting the vaccine.”

The letters are not “going to the heart” of the public health message which is staying home and staying local, he said.

Dr Sarah Raistrick, from Coventry and Rugby Clinical Commission group (CCG), said people did not have to travel to the centres but admitted the letter did not make that clear.

“You can wait and be contacted by your local GP service and have it locally if you’d prefer.

“If you sit tight, you will be contacted and I’m hopeful that if you’re 80 or over, by the end of this month you will have had your vaccination whether that is locally or whether you have chosen to travel,” she said.

Work will be done with the NHS locally and nationally to make that message clearer, she added.

The seven centres were chosen to give a geographical spread covering as many people as possible and are capable of delivering thousands of jabs per week, NHS England has said.

BBC News has contacted NHS England for a response.

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