HS2 costs rise again weeks after work begins

The costs associated with building HS2, the high speed railway linking northern and southern England, have risen again.

The news comes less than two months after construction officially began.

Ministers have admitted an extra £800m is needed due to more asbestos being discovered and the complexities of bringing the railway into a new hub station at London Euston.

Earlier this year the government gave HS2 a revised budget of £98bn after previous costings became unrealistic.

The Department for Transport said it was “relentlessly focused on controlling costs” and still expects HS2 Ltd to complete the first stretch of the railway within its target cost of £40bn.

The latest admission over cost pressures came in the government’s first six-monthly update on HS2 to parliament, since the government gave ‘notice to proceed’ with construction in April.

In the past HS2 Ltd, the public company charged with delivering the project, and the Department for Transport have been accused of misleading MPs about the true cost of the project.

A letter written in May 2016, by the then Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, showed that ministers knew the scheme was over budget. However, at the time, it was not made public.

Former HS2 directors alleged that the project’s ballooning budget was “covered-up”, something HS2 Ltd denied.

The current government has admitted that more transparency over the progress of the project, which has been deeply divisive, is necessary.

In his first six-monthly review of HS2, the Transport Minister, Andrew Stephenson, claimed the government now had “a stronger grip on delivery to time and budget”.

Major construction projects such as HS2 are fraught with risk and uncertainty, and the government has set aside £5.3bn of funding to cover any unknown costs which arise on Phase 1.

However, ministers admit the latest £0.8bn overspend does not include the impact of the pandemic, which is likely to have driven costs up further.

The first stretch of the railway, between London and Birmingham, is not expected to be completed until 2029 at the earliest.

Phase 2, which will create a ‘Y-shape’ linking Birmingham to Manchester and to Leeds might not be finished until 2040.

The project has also faced scrutiny over its impact on natural environments along the route.

Environmental protestors have tried to prevent HS2 Ltd from cutting down trees along the route in ancient woodlands in Warwickshire.

The government says HS2 Ltd will set up a new Environmental Sustainability Committee which will publish its first report on the environmental impact of the project next year.

Trade talks: Why chicken, cheese, and cod are a tricky menu

Coronavirus permitting, there’ll be fireworks and parties to mark the arrival of 2021.

But as the clock strikes midnight, it’ll also mark the end of the Brexit transition period. Trading relationships that have been in place for years will go up in smoke.

Civil servants are racing against the clock to replace these relationships with something even more dazzling and befitting of modern “Global Britain”.

This week trade negotiators will pursue simultaneous talks with three key UK partners – the United States, Japan and European Union (EU). If they fail, businesses and households could pay a high – and very unwelcome – price.

It’s been called “cherry-picking” by Brussels. But the UK government would see its negotiations there as trying to replace its existing relationship with the EU with one that suits its needs better, while trying to avoid the imposition of tariffs where there are currently none.

With the US, it’s designing an arrangement from scratch. And in the case of Japan, it’s simply replicating a deal that that country already has with the EU – with a few added extras, such as agreements on digital trade.

Trade deals aim to increase the choice of what’s available from other countries – and lower prices. But that has to be balanced by protecting the needs of businesses at home. And this is the tricky bit.

While the UK has managed to largely replicate the EU’s deal with Japan, the issue of cheese, such as Stilton, has caused a stink.

Britain wants better access for its cheese farmers; Japan isn’t keen. Is this really worth the strife, given that Japan only buys about £2m worth of British cheese? Well, it’s not about the current picture, but the potential for growth.

Ditto the US and its chickens. America has made no secret of the fact that it wants its farmers to have a bigger presence on British plates. That’s currently up for discussion, and may cause ructions.

But what isn’t being negotiated is a lowering of standards to American levels – such as the conditions in which chicken can be raised, the reason they’re rinsed in chlorine. That responsibility falls to the UK Food Standards Agency.

And hard to swallow in Brussels has been the UK’s demand for the right to catch more fish in surrounding waters. Fishing makes up less than 0.2% of the UK economy – but, again, it’s about the potential gains.

And it’s about keeping voters happy: trade deals are as political as they are economic. So even talks over small-fry matters mean trade deals take years to hammer out.

Ambitions that a deal with Japan, Britain’s first major trophy in the Brexit era, could be sewn up by the end of July were dashed. And that’s with a partner that accounts for just 2% of British exports. We’re edging closer to the finish line, but it doesn’t bode well for talks elsewhere.

Meanwhile, hopes for a deal with the US, which buys almost a fifth of British exports, ahead of the November election have faded. Officials are now quietly pinning their hopes on an agreement by next spring.

As for the EU, the continued impasse where there was once an aim of a deal by October has seen the chances of a no (trade) deal rise sharply.

If there is no agreement by the end of the year, those countries’ imports will face the same charges and rules as those from any other nation with which the UK doesn’t have a deal. They’ll have the new UK Global Tariff imposed on them.

Crucially, that would mean that over half of good imports, by value, from the EU would face extra charges, compared with none at present.

The biggest rises would be in the price of cars, and foods such as lamb and beef, where tariffs are being retained to protect British producers. The British Retail Consortium has warned of price hikes on staples from olive oil to cucumbers.

Under a previous no-deal plan, the Office for Budget Responsibility reckoned the total cost of tariffs could mount into the billions – and that’s with fewer tariffs than now envisaged.

Those costs would be borne by businesses and households, squeezing budgets and the ability to create jobs, when the economy least needs it. And that’s before taking into account the cost of planning for businesses and potential for delays at the border.

MP accused of rape will not attend Commons

A Conservative MP accused of rape has agreed not to attend the House of Commons “for the foreseeable future”, the Speaker’s Office has said.

This follows the announcement that the MP is no longer on police bail but remains under investigation.

Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle and Government Chief Whip Mark Spencer met to discuss the situation on Monday.

The offences are alleged to have occurred at addresses in London between July 2019 and January this year.

On 31 July, the Metropolitan Police Service received allegations relating to four separate incidents involving sexual offences and assault, and a man in his fifties was arrested the next day.

His party faced calls to suspend the MP, but Mr Spencer said it was for the police to investigate.

The MP agreed with Sir Lindsay and Mr Spencer at the time not to attend Parliament while his bail continued.

On Monday, the Met announced the MP had now been released under investigation, meaning he is no longer on bail but the inquiry is continuing.

Following the meeting between Sir Lindsay and Mr Spencer, a spokeswoman for the Speaker’s Office said: “Mr Speaker has received assurances from the government chief whip that the Member continues to voluntarily agree not to attend the House of Commons for the foreseeable future.

“The Speaker, the House of Commons Commission and the House service continue to take the safety of staff and the parliamentary community as a whole very seriously.”

The Met’s advice states that officers should complete investigations “during the first period of detention” – usually up to three months – “wherever possible”.

But it “will often be necessary to release suspects without bail, whilst the investigation continues”, it adds.

The need “to protect victims and witnesses, and ensure public safety” must always be a “key consideration”, the advice also says.

Over the summer the Conservative Party said the MP, a former minister, would instead work from home after his colleagues returned to Westminster following the recess.

Covid Sage documents: The scientific evidence and what No 10 then did

Documents have revealed the UK government did not follow the advice given to it by scientists as coronavirus cases began to surge.

The Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) is a committee attended by scientists across a range of fields. While its members may not individually agree, their role is to look at the evidence, work out what it is suggesting, and present an agreed view to the government. It’s then for the politicians to decide what rules to make.

The papers, which date from 21 September, were published on Monday night. They set out in black and white what scientists thought should happen on a number of important topics,

What scientists recommended: They did not go as far as recommending a full lockdown on the scale of the one in the spring. This was also an outcome Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been extremely keen to avoid.

Their evidence said: The information on a full lockdown, including closing non-essential businesses and banning contact between households, was clear: it would have had a big impact on coronavirus cases and deaths. But it would also have had a large knock-on impact – hurting people in other ways, such as their ability to work and socialise.

What happened: The government opted for a three-tier system in England, with household mixing indoors banned only in the areas of highest concern. Businesses will broadly remain open.

What they recommended: Sage said government should consider a short lockdown of two or three weeks, immediately, to bring down the number of cases.

Their evidence said: There were solid grounds to suggest this would have had “similar levels of effectiveness” to that of the national spring lockdown, in turning the tide of the pandemic. But its shorter period would have limited the overall effects – there would almost certainly have been fewer deaths but the line on the graph would look less dramatic. You would also have had to wait until after the restrictions had been lifted to see any benefit, since it takes time for the infections that would have been prevented to translate to lower hospital admissions and deaths.

What happened: This idea was rejected by No 10 in favour of an option that keeps businesses open and household contact going for most of the country, but with the threat that such privileges could be taken away if cases rise. Now Labour leader Keir Starmer has called on the government to think again.

What they recommended: The scientists recommended people be advised to work from home if they could.

Their evidence said: This would have been likely to make a significant dent in transmission as about a third of people’s total contacts are made at work. But this will vary drastically by industry – and how much it would have dented the current transmission depends on how many people currently at work could have done their job from home.

What happened: Those who can are once again being advised to work from home, in a reversal of the government’s drive over summer to encourage more people back to the workplace .

What they recommended: The advisory group said government should consider immediately putting a stop to contact between households, unless they were part of a support bubble.

Their evidence said: Being in an enclosed space, breathing the same air and touching the same surfaces, makes mixing indoors a high risk activity. Much of this risk is shared with people you live with, where cutting contact is not really possible. But spreading the virus to other households is what allows the epidemic to be sustained – though scientists say restrictions on different mixing would have been less effective in areas with lots of intergenerational households, where young and old mix within the same bubble.

What happened: Mixing with other households indoors has been banned for people living in areas on “high” or “very high” alert. Outdoor mixing is allowed in groups of no more than six.

What they recommended: Sage said government should consider the immediate closure of closure of all bars, restaurants, cafes, indoor gyms, and “personal services”, for example hairdressers.

The evidence said: The risk in bars, restaurants and cafes was “likely to be higher than many other indoor settings” as people sit close together for long periods without wearing face coverings, and potentially talk loudly, risking spraying more virus into the air. Alcohol also affects people’s behaviour. The scientists pointed to multiple outbreaks linked to bars – but also indicated the evidence suggested curfews were likely to have only a “marginal impact”.

What happened: The government largely rejected the advice. Most of England can continue going to pubs and restaurants, although since cases began to spike, a 22:00 curfew has been ordered. In “very high” alert areas, pubs and bars must close unless they are operating like a restaurant and only serving alcohol as part of a sit-down meal.

What they recommended: Sage recommended all university and college teaching should be carried out online “unless absolutely essential”, but schools should continue in person. It’s possible a “circuit-breaker” could be timed to coincide with school holidays.

The evidence said: Closing schools, particularly secondary schools, might have had a moderate impact on transmission but would come with a high level of harm for children’s education and their own and their parents’ wellbeing. For adult students, the impact on transmission was considered to be higher and the harm to health and social equality lower.

What happened: Schools and universities remain open – although many universities are beginning to move teaching online anyway due to outbreaks.

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Whats in Boris Johnsons climate in tray?

A huge breakthrough in climate policy was signalled this week when China announced it will reduce its emissions to net zero by 2060.

It’s a potentially game-changing leap, following in the footsteps of the UK’s existing 2050 net zero target.

But promises are easy, actions are more challenging – and the UK has been steadily slipping from its climate targets.

It’s consistently promised tougher policies for the future, but for a few years, Britain’s long-term climate strategy has lain buried in fog.

We know the net zero carbon destination point, but we can’t yet see how the government intends to get there.

At last, in a contribution to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on Thursday, the prime minister did briefly illuminate several paths towards carbon Nirvana.

But they’re only tantalising pointers to the direction of travel, when a full, clear properly funded roadmap is urgently needed.

In previous years, climate policy was typically held up in different government departments.

But environmentalists say key policies are now stuck in a Downing Street logjam awaiting sign-off from the prime minister himself.

It prompts John Sauven from Greenpeace to plead: “Some of the ideas the government is proposing are really impressive – but the prime minister needs to resolve disputes within government on environmental policies. Now is the time for him to lead.”

No 10 insists that deadlines for decisions on climate and the environment will be met in key policy areas like those in the long list below:

The National Infrastructure Strategy will lay out plans for government to spend £100bn on big projects.

Past spending might have been dominated by new roads, but the government has gone quiet over its £27bn roads programme.

New roads will increase emissions, and the Covid experience suggests some of the roads cash might be more wisely invested in broadband instead.

Radical ideas are under discussion for redesigning city centres, and for providing new electricity networks that’ll be needed to power electric vehicles (EVs).

Emissions from transport remain high, but Mr Johnson is pinning his hopes on EVs. He told UNGA he’d spring forward the phase-out date for diesel and petrol cars.

It’s thought 2030 will be the new date, with plug-in hybrids allowed until 2035 – although that’s still in the fog.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps accepts that overall car use must also fall because even battery-powered cars contribute to pollution. But that will need some behaviour change, which is against the PM’s instincts.

On aviation, the Citizens’ Assembly UK said people would support a tax on frequent fliers.

That would be truly radical, but Mr Shapps and Mr Johnson hope clean technology will allow travellers to escape guilt-free to the sunshine.

There are planning issues in transport, too. How does the government stop housebuilders building in places where people need their car to get a pint of milk?

Heat is a Cinderella problem – more than a third of UK carbon emissions are created by heat production.

Ministers are being pressed to announce a date when gas home boilers will be phased out.

Industries want incentives for low-carbon heat, and Mr Johnson’s UN remarks suggest he has been persuaded by the well-funded lobby trumpeting the role of hydrogen in heating and some transport, although that looks expensive.

The nuclear giant EDF is suggesting that nukes might be harnessed to generate heat, but there’s scepticism about this.

The government is also under pressure to stop buildings being demolished where possible, because new building materials create a lot of carbon emissions.

Mr Johnson told UNGA the UK could become the “Saudi Arabia of wind”.

Offshore wind no longer needs subsidy but progress is being delayed by a host of other factors, including their impact on birds, or fishing. It does need help.

To the dismay of some green campaigners, Mr Johnson also committed himself to nuclear power – although it’s not clear if that means the behemoth Sizewell C, or multiples of mini-nukes called SMRs.

Perhaps we’ll have both. But neither will happen unless the PM agrees government-backed funding.

The PM also declared himself for “evangelist” to the carbon capture technology that catches CO2 emissions from industry, albeit at a heavy cost. He said he’d previously been sceptical. How will this be funded?

Under international climate rules, each nation is obliged to produce its own decarbonisation plan. Mr Johnson is urging nations to join the UK in doing that on 12 December, the fifth anniversary of the successful Paris climate conference. But what will Britain’s revised target be?

In the past, the Treasury has often blocked climate policies, but since the net zero law was passed, observers say it’s been generally supportive. It needs to lay out how much the many commitments will cost.

Campaigners say it should go further, with a “green” reform of tax policy – especially on gas.

The UK lies bottom of Europe’s warm homes league table.

The chancellor has earmarked £3bn for energy efficiency – £2bn of it for households. It’s a huge job-creating measure, and the fund was due to be spent by the end of March.

But the insulation industry, which shrank when ministers previously withdrew funding, can’t now absorb all that cash. So the scheme is likely to be extended. Experts demand a 10-year funding plan.

The PM told UNGA a “green industrial revolution” would create hundreds of thousands of jobs, and quipped the UK “would never be lagging on lagging” (insulation).

While the PM was hailing the UK’s green leadership, he’s been accused of hypocrisy at home because he’s refused to ban the burning of peat moorland and the sale of peat for gardens.

Peat is the biggest store of carbon in the UK, but policies to protect it have been delayed after protests from country landowners.

Nearly two years ago the government published its outline Environment Bill, hailing it a flagship of legislation. But the PM has left this flagship becalmed in the Commons without a breath of Parliamentary time for nearly 200 days.

The Bill will set targets for improving air, water, waste and wildlife. It will also create an Office of Environmental Protection to replace the European courts.

But until it’s passed, that office doesn’t exist, so, on Brexit day, British citizens will lose their ability to appeal if their government breaks environmental laws.

Ruth Chambers from the pressure group Greener UK has lost patience. “Nature is in freefall,” she says. “The government’s promises look hollow.”

The Bill sets out the framework for UK farm policy after Brexit. The Lords are insisting it bans imports of chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef into the UK.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) president, Minette Batters, said allowing these imports would be “morally bankrupt”.

The government has repeatedly said it doesn’t want to import those goods – but insists it can’t have its hands tied in trade negotiations.

Farming is a major source of carbon emissions, and the government has been wrestling with policies that will cut CO2 from the land whilst also supporting farm businesses and restoring wildlife.

This is an issue of dizzying complexity – especially for farmers facing the shock of leaving the EU.

Ministers will be under pressure to risk riling their own supporters to eat less red meat to protect the planet – as well as their own health.

This long list – by no means comprehensive – demonstrates how seriously many departments are addressing what used to be considered a peripheral problem – the environment. It also reveals how difficult it will be to enact policies.

Chris Stark from the Climate Change Committee told me: “We’re in an unprecedented time.

“We look to the PM for some leadership… it’s desperately needed. But this feels like a very important and exciting period.”

Mr Stark is optimistic about the political outcome of next year’s Glasgow climate conference.

But he admits a caveat: we’ve got climate disruption with just one degree of warming so far, and the way things are looking we’e still heading towards a highly dangerous three degrees.

Follow Roger on Twitter @rharrabin

What is the row over UK internal markets all about?

The Scottish and UK governments are heading into another constitutional standoff over post-Brexit powers and the “internal market” with new legislation passing through Westminster. What is the latest row all about?

The new UK Internal Market Bill has immediately run into controversy over its impact on talks with the EU and on international treaties, given it could re-write parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

The legislation has passed its first hurdle in the Commons, despite criticism from a number of high-profile Tory MPs about the power it gives to UK ministers to bypass international law, and is now being considered by the Lords.

However the core function of the bill is also contentious for what it might mean for the future of devolution.

Parts of this row might seem somewhat familiar, because it’s actually been going on more or less ever since the Brexit vote in June 2016.

The question of how powers currently exercised from Brussels are divided up after the transition period ends on 31 December has been already seen the two governments clash at the Supreme Court.

At its most basic level, this is a row about who gets what.

The Scottish government says a Westminster “power grab” is under way, because anything which is not specifically reserved should automatically come to Holyrood.

But the UK government says what is happening represents “the biggest transfer of powers in the history of devolution”.

You can argue the toss about who is right, but that is perhaps something of a sideshow to the more fundamental conflict – how these powers are used, and what it could mean for the future of regulations and standards in the UK.

Right now, the UK is part of the European single market, with jointly agreed regulations and standards right across the continent.

Post-Brexit, the UK government wants to continue to have a joint market across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – the “internal market”.

But instead of the rules and regulations around things like food and air quality and animal welfare being set in Brussels, now they have to be set closer to home – and there is a row over who should have the final say.

Many powers are set to be directly controlled by the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations, in fields including food labelling, energy efficiency and support for farmers.

However, the UK government has said the devolved administrations will still have to accept goods and services from all other parts of the UK – even if they have set different standards locally.

This means there would be a level playing field for companies across the “internal market” – so Welsh farmers could sell their lamb in Belfast, Scottish whisky distilleries could buy barley from English farmers, and so on. UK ministers warn that not having this kind of system could cause “serious problems”.

The six Scottish Tory MPs voted for the bill in the Commons on the basis that it is “essential to protect jobs in Scotland that rely on UK trade, and ensure the unrestricted movement of goods across this country”.

The devolved governments are happy to have common frameworks of such rules – and work is continuing to try and agree them – but say the legislation tabled effectively undermines this by giving Westminster a veto.

Because all four nations will have to accept goods at the standards set in any one country, there are fears local quality controls could be dragged down to a lowest common denominator – the Welsh government foresee a “race to the bottom”.

The oft-cited example is that if the UK government did a trade deal with the US which allowed the importation of chlorine-washed chicken to England, the proposed rulebook means it would have to be allowed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland too. UK ministers insist they would not do such a deal, and want to maintain high standards.

Furthermore, under the current proposals any disputes would be settled by a new Office for the Internal Market. This might be envisioned as an independent third party forum, but the devolved administrations see it as being another example of decisions being taken out of their hands.

We have actually seen this row play out once already, and things could easily go the same way again.

Last time around, the Scottish Parliament refused to give devolved consent to Westminster’s EU Withdrawal Act, and passed their own legislation through Holyrood – only to see it struck down by the Supreme Court.

History is already repeating itself. MSPs have once again rejected the idea of giving consent to the UK legislation, and the UK government has again indicated it will likely push ahead regardless.

Later in October Holyrood will debate a bill which would have Scotland “keep pace” with EU rules and regulations. Ministers say they are more than ready to go to court over it.

Questions of legality have of course already been raised, given the UK government has rather starkly admitted that its plans would break international law.

The row over the bill’s impact on the withdrawal agreement could potentially be solved, either via amendments later in the Lords or an accord with the EU – talks over both could reach a head in the coming days.

However the row with the devolved administrations is a more fundamental one, and the chances of it being settled amicably appear slim.

To start with, the governments in Edinburgh and London come from fundamentally different places on the question of Brexit.

From a wider political perspective, polling guru Professor Sir John Curtice has identified angst about Brexit among Scottish Remain voters as being central to the recent trend of rising support for Scottish independence.

The two big constitutional issues have become tightly interwoven, and next year’s Holyrood election will provide a perfect stage for these rows to play out very publicly.

Nicola Sturgeon has already drawn the link between the three, saying the SNP will be campaigning to demand a new independence referendum as “the only way to protect the Scottish parliament from being undermined and its powers eroded”.

The Conservatives meanwhile will undoubtedly be campaigning in May to keep the UK – and its internal market – intact.

The UK may be exiting the transition period on 31 December, but the rows over Brexit and powers look set to rumble on for some time to come.

Brexit: What is the Northern Ireland protocol and why is it needed?

Following Brexit, Northern Ireland’s 310-mile border with the Republic of Ireland is the only land border between the UK and the European Union (EU).

Under an arrangement known as the Northern Ireland protocol, goods will not need to be checked along the Irish border when the new UK-EU relationship begins, on 1 January. So how does it work?

The border is a sensitive issue because of the history of Northern Ireland and the agreements made to bring peace, which included the removal of visible signs of the border.

The fear is if any infrastructure were to be installed, such as cameras or border posts, it could become a target and lead to political instability.

The Northern Ireland protocol, negotiated by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson last October, is part of the withdrawal agreement (which some called the “divorce deal”) that saw the UK leave the EU on 31 January 2020.

Under the protocol, Northern Ireland will continue to enforce the EU’s customs rules and follow its rules on product standards (known as the single market on goods).

And this will make checks on goods travelling from Northern Ireland (a non-EU country) into the Republic of Ireland (an EU country) unnecessary.

The protocol is due to come into force on 1 January 2021 – the first day of the new EU-UK relationship.

Until then, the UK remains in a transition period with the EU, meaning its trading relationship stays the same as before.

While Northern Ireland will continue to follow these EU rules, the rest of the UK will stop doing so after 31 December.

And that means, in order to comply with EU requirements, some checks will be needed on certain goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) – creating a regulatory and customs border in the Irish Sea.

These checks are needed to ensure:

The extent of checks at Northern Ireland’s ports is still to be agreed – but some unionist politicians are strongly opposed to this, fearing it damages the UK union.

Depending on the outcome of UK-EU trade talks, it’s possible tariffs (taxes on imports) may be charged on goods “at risk” of moving from Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland (which remains in the EU).

But if a tariff was paid and the goods stayed in Northern Ireland, the money would be refunded.

A joint committee – made up of UK and EU government officials – will determine which goods are at risk of onward movement to the EU.

The UK and EU are currently negotiating a trade deal that aims to eliminate tariffs on each other’s goods and keep checks to a minimum.

However, the Northern Ireland protocol will still be necessary regardless of whether a trade deal is agreed or not – because EU law requires some product-standard checks, even if tariffs are eliminated.

The UK is legally obliged to ensure the goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain are checked, according to Jess Sargeant, at the Institute for Government think tank.

“If it looks like the UK is not applying EU law to the EU’s satisfaction, it could impose a fine on the UK or take it to the European Court of Justice”, she says.

And if companies are not ready to meet the new paperwork requirements, it could lead to delays at ferry ports and trade disruption.

The Northern Ireland protocol replaces the previous plan, known as the Irish backstop, negotiated by former UK Prime Minister Theresa May.

If it had been needed, the backstop would have kept the whole of the UK in a close trading relationship with the EU – eliminating the need for checks along the Irish border.

However, that solution was rejected by many Conservative MPs who feared the UK could become trapped in the arrangement for years.

This would have prevented the UK from negotiating its own trade deals with other countries.

Tax rises of more than £40bn a year all but inevitable

Taxes rises of more than £40bn a year are ‘all but inevitable’ to protect UK government debt from spinning out of control, a think tank has warned.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies said borrowing this year will hit levels not seen in peacetime due to the pandemic.

It said the state had pumped an extra £200bn into the economy to support jobs, businesses and incomes this year.

This was necessary but would mean big tax hikes into the middle of the next decade, the IFS said.

To pay for the services it provides, the UK government borrows from pension funds, insurance companies and investors around the world, then tries to balance its books through taxes.

But in an update originally meant to accompany the chancellor’s now scrapped Autumn Budget, the IFS said this would become harder as the crisis rolled on.

It said the economy was forecast to be 5% smaller in 2024-25 than was projected back in March, which would leave the country with a £100bn hit to its finances from lower tax revenues.

At the same time, it said “higher borrowing will be with us for some time to come”.

The government will not, as the chancellor promised just a week ago, “always balance the books” and the Conservative manifesto commitment on lower debt is impossible, says the Institute for Fiscal Studies in its annual audit of the public finances.

Annual government borrowing this year will reach levels only previously reached during world wars, while the national debt will be bigger than the economy, reaching 110% of GDP by 2025.

However, the IFS warns that now is not the time for tax rises or spending cuts. The economy will continue to need support because of one of the worst pandemic hits to growth in the world, alongside the prospect of new post-Brexit trade barriers with the EU.

For now, extra borrowing is helped by extraordinarily low rates of interest paid by the government. But the IFS outlines a scenario where even significant tax rises, worth £40bn a year from the middle of this decade, will fail to get the size of the national debt below 100% of GDP.

Repaying the Covid support spending is, the institute suggests, going to be a delayed and then very gradual programme of tax-and-spend restraint that could last a generation.

Paul Johnson, director of the IFS, said the government had no choice but to ramp up spending in the short term, and there was little it could do “fully to protect the economy into the medium run”.

“We are heading for a significantly smaller economy than expected pre-Covid and probably higher spending too.

“Without action, debt – already at its highest level in more than half a century – would carry on rising. Tax rises, and big ones, look all but inevitable, though likely not until the middle years of this decade.”

The UK’s national debt – how much it owes investors and lenders – rose above £2 trillion for the first time in August.

The think tank said it expects debt will be just over 110% of national income by 2024-25. This would be up from 80% before the pandemic and 35% in the years leading up to the 2007-08 financial crisis.

The IFS said the UK had benefited from historically low interest rates during the crisis, which made it cheaper to borrow.

But it warned any increase in rates could, if not accompanied by stronger growth, be “hugely problematic for the public finances”.

The forecast comes as the UK economy remains under stress. In an accompanying analysis, Citibank said every major economy bar China shrank in the first half of this year, mostly by historically large margins.

Spain and the UK did the worst, with output drops of roughly 20%, more than double the hit in the US or Germany.

The bank warned that even if another round of major lockdowns can be avoided, most economies will not return to pre-pandemic levels of output until 2021 or 2022.

And even when the pandemic is over, there will be lingering effects on consumer demand due to increased caution, shifts in behaviour and rising unemployment.

Citibank forecasts the unemployment rate in the UK is likely to increase to about 8% to 8.5% – or 2.7 to 2.9 million people out of work – in the first half of 2021.

That could see unemployment at its highest level since the early 1990s.

Covid: Health secretary defends three-tier strategy

Measures to tackle a rise in Covid cases were “guided by science”, the health secretary has said, amid criticism expert advice was ignored.

Documents have revealed government scientific advisers called for a short lockdown, or “circuit-breaker”, in England, three weeks ago.

Matt Hancock defended the government’s new three-tier system, saying it aimed to “protect lives and livelihoods”.

Another 143 people have died in the UK after testing positive for coronavirus.

This compares with 50 deaths announced on Monday and was the highest daily total since 164 deaths on 10 June.

The data also shows another 17,234 people have tested positive for Covid, compared with 13,792 cases the day before.

Dr Yvonne Doyle, Public Health England’s medical director, called the rising number of deaths “hugely concerning”.

“We have seen cases increasing, especially in older age groups, which is leading to more hospital admissions. This is a stark reminder for us to follow the guidelines,” she said.

The Liverpool region will enter a “very high” Covid alert level from Wednesday, the highest of the new three-tier system for coronavirus restrictions in England.

Every area will be classified as being on medium, high or very high alert under the system. It is not clear what the specific criteria is for each alert level.

Most parts of England are the lowest tier, but Essex has asked to be moved to “high” level restrictions.

Meanwhile, London could be put in a stricter lockdown within days, Mayor Sadiq Khan has warned.

Shielding is not being reintroduced in England yet, but people who were on the list will receive a letter with updated advice to avoid getting Covid.

The latest Office for National Statistics figures showed there were 343 deaths involving coronavirus registered in the week to 2 October – a figure that has been doubling every fortnight over the last month.

As MPs began a debate in the Commons on the three-tier system on Tuesday, Mr Hancock said the virus posed “a formidable threat” until a vaccine could be found.

The government would not rule out further restrictions in the hospitality, leisure, entertainment and personal care sectors, the health secretary said.

He said the government makes “decisions that are guided by the science, taking into account all of the different considerations”, adding “protecting our economy and protecting our health are not alternatives”, but that action was required to “protect lives and livelihoods”.

Documents detailing advice from scientists on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) were released on Monday night.

Their views and evidence feed into the government’s decision making.

Labour called the documents alarming. Shadow health spokesman Jonathan Ashworth said a “clear plan” was now needed.

He told the Commons: “After the prime minister spoke, we see yet again he is being advised to take action and has so far refused. But it’s the same virus, the same delays, the same country and the same government making the same mistakes again.”

At a press conference on Monday evening, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the alert system for England could succeed in driving cases down if it was implemented “very effectively”, and he rejected the “extreme route” of a full nationwide lockdown “right now”.

But at the same briefing, England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, voiced concerns over the impact of the new rules, saying he was not confident the “base measures” in the highest tier “would be enough to get on top of” the virus.

“That is why there’s a lot of flexibility for local authorities […] to do significantly more,” he said.

Released shortly after Monday’s press conference, minutes from the Sage meeting said the advisers had called for the immediate introduction of a short national lockdown three weeks ago.

They also showed the scientists suggested:

Of all the measures proposed by the advisory group, just one – advising those who can work from home to do so – was implemented by the government at the time.

In the document from 21 September, Sage warned that “not acting now to reduce cases will result in a very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences”.

It also said a two to three week “circuit-breaker” – a short period of tightened restrictions – could “put the epidemic back by approximately 28 days or more”, if it was “as strict and well-adhered to as the restrictions in late May”.

“Multiple circuit-breaks might be necessary to maintain low levels of incidence,” it added.

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said the government had introduced measures such as the rule of six at the time, and stressed the Sage papers had contributed to the measures the PM announced on Monday.

He said they had taken “balanced judgements” that weighed up the effect on the economy and “all the other unintended consequences” of measures, such as the impact on mental health and delayed surgeries.

On the new three-tiered system, he said: “We are now able to have a very clear and consistent framework across the whole country, so people will be able to understand approximately what the rate of infections is in their own area and what the rules are accordingly.”

Cases are increasing across the whole of the country and the number of people in hospital is now higher than before the full lockdown in March. We are at a critical stage in the epidemic.

It is at this moment the gulf between the official scientific advice and the decisions made by government has been laid bare.

It is the case that “advisers advise and ministers decide”. When considering new measures to stop Covid, government must also take into account the harms they cause to our health and the economy.

But there is some concern the government is doing too little, too late.

And that we can either choose the terms for controlling the virus now, or wait and the virus will force our hand as it did with lockdown in March.

Read more from James.

The government has also defended its latest compensation package for people forced to stop work as a result of new coronavirus restrictions.

Under the programme, those who qualify will get two-thirds of their wages paid for by the state.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Steve Barclay told the House of Commons that it was a “generous” scheme.

Under the three-tiered system, most areas in England are in the medium alert level – meaning current restrictions continue, including the 10pm hospitality curfew and the rule of six.

Areas already under additional local restrictions are automatically in the high alert level – meaning bans on household mixing indoors are extended to include hospitality venues.

The city of Nottingham, which has the highest rate in the country, will start in this category alongside the rest of Nottinghamshire, East and West Cheshire and a small area of High Peak, as well as Greater Manchester, parts of South Yorkshire, and north-east England. Around 4.4 million people will be in high alert areas.

The Liverpool City Region – home to 1.5 million people – becomes the first area to enter the very high alert level, which – at a minimum – sees pubs and bars close if they do not serve “substantial meals”, almost all household contacts banned and advice against travel. The rule of six will continue to apply in outdoor public spaces such as parks.

Areas in the highest tier are able to impose further restrictions, and in the Liverpool City Region this will mean the closure of betting shops, gyms, leisure centres and casinos.

The government has issued details of the full restrictions for each alert level.

Meanwhile, the Scottish government is drawing up its own three-tier framework of restrictions to be implemented later this month.

In Wales, a second national lockdown is being considered and First Minister Mark Drakeford has threatened a travel ban on people from English Covid hotspots if the prime minister does not impose his own.

Ministers in Northern Ireland’s devolved government are meeting later to decide on further coronavirus restrictions.

A further 13,972 confirmed coronavirus cases were reported across the UK on Monday, with 50 more deaths within 28 days of a positive test recorded.

Covid: Will Margaret Ferrier remain an MP after breaking rules?

There is continued pressure on the Rutherglen MP Margaret Ferrier to stand down from Parliament.

Ms Ferrier has been suspended by her party and she has faced criticism across the political spectrum, with the Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross saying she should be expelled.

And her now former party, the SNP, are insisting she has to quit parliament for breaking coronavirus restrictions.

The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford told the Telegraph she should do the “honourable thing”.

Nicola Sturgeon repeated her call for Ms Ferrier to quit – and in an unfortunate slip of the tongue referred to her as “Margaret Covid”.

However the former SNP MP George Kerevan has offered a limited defence.

Although he said her actions were wrong, he wrote: “I feel deeply for Margaret and find much of the virtue signalling and rush to consign her to political outer darkness both hypocritical and blatantly self-serving. Margaret Ferrier, in my experience, always put the job before her personal convenience.”

I’ve spoken to several people who know Ms Ferrier and there doesn’t seem to be a definite answer.

The BBC has tried to contact Ms Ferrier and her office repeatedly without success.

Several people we have contacted in the party have not spoken to her since last week.

Ms Ferrier has said nothing publicly since she issued a statement on Thursday revealing she had travelled from Scotland to London after showing symptoms, then back again after getting a positive test result.

It seems she may still be deciding what to do – or keeping it to herself.

It’s worth remembering Ms Ferrier has coronavirus – and we don’t know for sure how ill she is.

Many of her former SNP colleagues and her political opponents are discussing how they could force her out if she refuses to stand down.

Senior figures in the SNP have suggested she is likely to face a recall procedure – which could see her forced out of office.

There are three ways that process begins:

Police are currently investigating the case and it has been referred to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to investigate.

However, both of those processes could be lengthy. The stated penalty for breaking self-isolation rules in England is a fine – although under the MP’s Code of Conduct MPs are expected to “uphold the law”.

If any of the conditions are met, a petition would be opened in Ms Ferrier’s constituency.

If 10% of registered voters signed it within six weeks then a by-election would be called.

The process has been used three times since it was created.

Two MPs have been successfully recalled – former Labour MP Fiona Onasanya and former Tory MP Chris Davies. In the case of the DUP’s Ian Paisley Jnr, a petition was launched but the 10 per cent threshold was not met and he remains an MP.

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